Real authority needs to be earned

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with teachers in schools as far apart and as different as Hong Kong and New York.

In Hong Kong, the people who organised my sessions insisted on calling me a professor, although I was equally insistent I was not. It was only when I got to know how things work there that I realised I had to be a professor to be credible, despite risking ridicule from my colleagues back home.

In the sessions I ran, teachers were extremely respectful right from the start, to the point where it was very difficult to get them to speak at all, let alone ask difficult questions or challenge me. I was later told that, if someone's head of department was present, it was likely a teacher would not speak before they had spoken.

I had to work hard at it but, eventually, people were willing to engage in open discussion and ask me challenging questions about what they really wanted help with - which was to encourage their pupils to speak up in the classroom and think for themselves. In the end, my cover was blown. One of the teachers, when giving feedback to one of the organisers, asked: "Is Professor Smith really a professor? He is far too practical for that."

In the Bronx, it couldn't have been more different. I knew it was going to be challenging, and the last thing I could do was pretend to know anything about the Bronx. I was working with maths teachers - all 32 of them in a school which has 3,000 students.

The topic was motivation and the teachers had the same issues as teachers have in many schools in Scotland. I asked them to list them before I went. Here they are: pupils do not study for exams, do no homework, put their heads down as soon as they come in, never ask for help, do not go to tutoring or go to tutoring and say nothing, refuse to move their seat, take messy notes, have lots of apathy and show no desire or motivation to do well.

Working with the teachers in the Bronx was as different from Hong Kong as it could be. They were a very lively bunch and happy to say exactly what they thought, to interrupt their principal teacher, to challenge me and each other and to ask difficult questions. Class control wasn't easy to begin with, but I gradually seemed to win them round.

The comment from the feedback that sticks in my mind was: "At the beginning, we were saying to ourselves, 'We like the accent but what does this guy from Scotland know about the Bronx?' At the end, that didn't matter, because we were saying, 'He knows about teaching.'"

This comment, along with the comment of the teacher in Hong Kong, I treasure. They illustrate so powerfully that real authority has to be earned. It doesn't come automatically with the job or the title. And that is how it should be.

John Holt in Freedom and Beyond, written in 1972, identified three kinds of discipline. The discipline of power or superior force ("you do it because I am the teacher and I am in charge"), the discipline of culture or community ("you do it because this is the way we have agreed things are done around here") and the discipline of competence ("you do it because I am an expert in what is to be learnt and good at helping you to learn it"). He pointed out that you earn your authority as a teacher by minimising your use of the discipline of power (not doing without it altogether), and maximising your use of the discipline of community and competence.

It's a message over 30 years old but absolutely valid today, if we are to help teachers tackle the kind of motivation problems they face everywhere on the planet.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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