Friday, December 26, 2008


In my middle school English classes, I want to develop a sense of ‘authority’, in both my students and me. Here I’m not thinking of the most common definition of authority -- the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, and pass judgment – but of some less familiar meanings – the power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience, and the confidence derived from experience or practice. This is authority that’s natural, not contrived – authority that’s established gradually from inside a student or teacher, not abruptly and artificially from outside. It’s the kind of authentic and unpretentious authority that usually arises unhurriedly with the passage of time, like a tree that slowly but surely grows stronger from within. I have been awkwardly and hesitantly growing as a teacher for over 40 years, and I’m feeling a little more of this kind of genuine authority each year. I no longer do much enforcing of laws or demanding of obedience (as I did in earlier years) simply because it no longer seems necessary; the passing of these many years has somehow blessed me with the ability to influence my students in gentler and less stressful ways. Instead of raising my voice or parceling out stern looks, my simple presence before the students as a person who has been chastened by four decades of failures and triumphs in the classroom seems to speak loudly enough to the students. Instead of giving orders, I let the ordinary but weighty authority that life -- given enough time -- gradually bestows on all of us, administer the activities of the classroom. I hope, too, that my students increasingly feel this kind of authority within themselves. It doesn’t come from outside – from a high grade or a compliment from a teacher or an elected position – but from inside, from a slowly blossoming feeling of understanding and self-assurance. It’s the kind of authority a 9th grader sometimes acquires simply because she’s survived eight years of strenuous schooling with audacity and dignity. It’s the kind of authority a student feels within himself when he receives an essay assignment and knows, without a shred of doubt, that he will write a triumphant essay. I would like to see authority like that in my classroom – in a teacher grown old and longlasting like an oak, and in students capable of commanding attention not because of some external acclamation, but because there’s strength inside that simply won’t be denied.

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