Recall your first day of teaching as a graduate student. If this was your first time in the classroom—as it is for many of us—you may have been anxious about the entire ordeal. Personally, all I remember is the nausea and tossing and turning in bed the night before. Indeed, teaching for the first time is a nontrivial endeavor.
A potential concern is that we aren’t yet experts, and worse yet, our students might sniff that out. And some of us may be hardly older than our students. Establishing authority while balancing research and schoolwork can make teaching challenging. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In this post I’ll explore navigating the tensions inherent in establishing authority in the classroom along with the epistemological ramifications of doing so.
Teaching Beyond Our Experiences
Before we enter the classroom for the first time as teachers, we’ve spent no less than 16 years in desks. This might make us feel expert on what teaching commonly looks like. It’s no surprise, then, that our first inclination in teaching at the college level is to mimic this. Given that a large number of our experiences were likely traditional lecture followed by assessment, many of us may tend to do the same thing – a result of our previous “apprenticeship of observation” (Lortie, 1975). But we can’t just stand in front of a whiteboard – many of us may feel a need to project authority too. As young scholars attempting to demonstrate our command of disciplinary knowledge, it simply makes sense. This might manifest as dressing up more formally. Or refraining from asking students how they are doing, distancing ourselves as being potential friends with students.
But this is a dangerous trap to fall into. Such a style of teaching—wherein we position ourselves as a power above students—relays that knowledge is in our hands, that students are mere receptacles of what we have to say, and that learning is a one-way street.
But we know this is not the case. Instructors do not have all the knowledge. Students are not empty piggy-banks waiting for coins of knowledge (Freire, 1970). And you are learning alongside students. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (1970) argued that the “banking model” approaches to the classroom provide a disservice to students and limit the potentials of what we can do together.
Shifting and Sharing Power with Students: Five Starting Points
Now, given the low likelihood you subscribe to such views (if you do, check this out), this suggests that traditional ways of teaching in college are not suitable for your classroom. Does this mean you have to give up authority? That your students will disrespect you? Certainly not. The scary part is—and I know this firsthand—relinquishing part of your control to your students. This doesn’t mean that your students have to “discover” all of the disciplinary knowledge on their own; rather, they will become empowered to learn information without an instructor’s presence. This plays out in an especially unique fashion in classrooms taught by graduate student instructors, where students–at once–may both look to you for knowledge while also potentially questioning your authority. But this doesn’t have to be a tricky transition. Consider the starting points below for creating a classroom culture where students are agents of knowledge “creation” and are empowered to go further in whatever discipline they choose. This list comes from my experiences in classrooms at the middle-school and college level. I encourage you to share yours in the comments section!
- Establish “groundrules” for discussions and collaboration by asking students what they think respectful interactions look like. Fill in the gaps if they don’t cover all your bases. Does this mean you’ll act as Professor Umbridge, the infamous instructor from the world of Harry Potter? No, or at least I hope not. Rather, you’ll set the stage for what the community’s in-class participation should look like. It’s much better than the alternative of verbal chaos.
- Even in STEM disciplines, let students work in groups on open-ended questions. Yes, this means that you don’t know where the class will end up. This is ok.
- Makes mistakes (not too many, of course). If you feign as though you’re perfect, you give students an image that they themselves can never achieve. Neither the world nor your classroom will fall apart upon a mistake.
- Connect with your students. This doesn’t mean on Facebook (that’s the subject of another discussion), but before and after class. Remember their names and interests – they’ll respect you for it, yielding you authority when you need it.
- Related to the last point, don’t be afraid to tell students about your background. You do have “credentials,” and you probably have a research passion. Sharing this could inspire them in ways related to your discipline that you hadn’t anticipated.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University
Image credit: Day 55. Classroom./David Mulder/CC 2.0
Luke Tunstall is a graduate student in mathematics education and University Distinguished Fellow at Michigan State University. He has taught at multiple levels and is interested in curricula that promote quantitative literacy. In particular, he has an interest in post-secondary mathematics courses and the ways in which they can promote numeracy.