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Authority in the Classroom: 5 Tips for Striking the Right Balance

A strict teacher scolds her class

Studies show the success rate for scary schoolmarms is actually quite low.

I teach graduate-level education courses at a Boston College, and one of the worries my students have about teaching is how to manage the balance between friendliness and authority in the classroom. They want their students to like them, but they don't want to jeopardize their command of the classroom. I tell them that it's a very fine line, which I've walked myself.

Lessons from Ms. DiMasi

I did my student teaching at a high school close to home, and I was extremely fortunate to be paired with a legendary English teacher: Annette DiMasi. Ms. DiMasi had been teaching for more than 30 years and her wealth of knowledge was staggering. Ms. DiMasi was feisty and spirited. She was also one of those teachers who often talked about herself in the third person, which I loved. It warmed my heart when she'd say to students, "Don't worry, Ms. DiMasi is going to explain this to you so you will understand."

Ms. DiMasi was compassionate and caring, but she also made it crystal clear that she wouldn't take any crap from her students. She was the perfect cooperating teacher for me because I went into teaching thinking my students would become my friends. Very quickly, Ms. DiMasi demonstrated how it was much more important for my students to respect me. She said, "Nancy, you will get eaten alive the first week if you don't set clear and consistent boundaries with your students. They have to know YOU are in charge, and that there will be consequences if they misbehave or don't do their work."

Further reading: Classroom Management Tips That Seem Counterintuitive

She was right, and I'm not sure I would have become a successful teacher with Ms. DiMasi's wisdom and guidance. So when soothing my graduate students' fears, I pass on some of her helpful advice as well as tips from my own experience in the classroom.


Be Up-Front and Consistent about the Rules

When students know the academic and behavioral expectations of your class from day one, there will be little confusion. Students are hyper-aware of how they and their peers are treated. Any inconsistencies will be brought to your attention. For this reason, my rules apply across the board. If you're late in my classroom, you get a 20-minute after-school session, no matter who you are. Being fair is extremely important to students, and it will prevent them from becoming angry with you when you issue a consequence.

Make Sure the Personal Stories You Share Are Appropriate

I'm a huge proponent of sharing personal stories with students. I actually won the "Best Stories" teacher superlative for the class of 2017's yearbook—a title I carry proudly. I use stories from my life to illustrate a point related to what we're learning, ease tension, or help a student gain hope in the classroom. I once started the day by telling a bunch of sleepy students, in vivid detail, about the close call my dog and I had with a skunk that morning. My students were howling with laughter in just a few minutes. However, your students don't need to know about a fight with your spouse, your tattoos and piercings, or how much you partied on the weekend. There's a fairly strong line between what's appropriate and what's not, and I'm confident you know it.

Let Students Know You Can't Keep All Their Secrets

Students need to understand that there are certain boundaries in the classroom. I once had a student get very angry when I said I needed to report a situation he shared with me. If a student discloses disturbing information to you, report it immediately. I'll stop a student who says, "I want to tell you a secret" or "Promise you won't tell anyone?" I try to explain ahead of time that while they shouldn't be discouraged from confiding in me, if they share something that puts them or others in danger, I'm required by law to tell the appropriate administrator.

Remember to Listen

Listening to your students is one of the best things you can do to establish a strong relationship with them. There's a lot that they want their teachers to know about them, and many students have told me they don't feel heard or like their opinions are respected in school. Whenever I've had a difficult student or one who wasn't performing well, I schedule some "talk time" so I can nail down the problem. In most cases, the student and teacher can work together to overcome any issues.

Be Sure to Laugh

Laughter releases tension, diffuses stressful situations, and creates a friendly atmosphere. I'm not afraid to laugh at myself, sing or dance to make a point, or don zombie makeup in my The Walking Dead class. I've also played some pretty hilarious, harmless jokes on my classes. Having fun or being silly in the classroom helps build a sense of community, and it humanizes the teacher.
Further reading: Build Meaningful Relationships with Students

At the end of the day, what Ms. DiMasi taught me was that while you might want to be your students' friend, you need to earn their respect. If you follow these simple steps, you can be sure to maintain the right balance between friendliness and authority in the classroom.

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