Power Vs. Authority in the Classroom
There is a button in many schools in every classroom. It is for making a power play. At my school teachers know if it. The students know of it. It is white. It is inconspicuous. It is positioned on the wall and quietly waits for somebody to evoke its power. Once pushed, students know they have crossed an invisible line that they may (or may not) have meant to cross.
How Often Should Teachers Call for Back-up?
On the surface, it seems that this unassuming button is the end all to discipline problems. When pushed, it sends a message to the main office signaling that there is a problem. We call it “buzzing the office”. Teachers say “Don’t make me buzz the office”. Maybe your school doesn’t have physical buttons on the wall, but I bet there is some system in place to immediately contact somebody for additional assistance, thereby “pushing the button”. Upon initiating contact, troublesome students will be dealt with in some way, shape, or form. Usually, the immediate effect is the student(s) removal from the classroom and what would seem to be an obvious victory for the teacher who pushed the button.
Beneath the surface of this powerful force though, lays a danger often overlooked to those who consistently use the button. Typically, the button signals the end to a battle between a particular student and their educator. When the teacher pushes the button, it signals that they have raised the white flag of defeat. They have given up the battle for that day and are calling in reinforcements. The student will be removed and the winner will be determined in the minds of all the children left in the wake of its destruction.
But the unfortunate reality is that every time the power of the button is released, it simultaneously undermines the authority of the classroom teacher. Every time it is used, a little bit of the teachers authority is chipped away. The most alarming thing about the button’s power is that it is also very addictive. I’ve been there. I have to admit, sometimes it feels sooo good to push that button. It feels good to send a message. It feels good to have reinforcements swoop in and remove a knucklehead from your classroom. Just like any addiction though, it needs to be fed and it gets easier and easier to give in to the addiction. Unfortunately, like any addiction the effect wears off and becomes weaker with every use.
The Button in Use
For example, let’s say it is Friday. Teacher A has 25 students and Teacher B has the same 25 students a different period. Teacher A has not pushed the button for 5 weeks. Today, Teacher A gets to the point of no return, walks across the room, pushes the button. What happens next in this scenario?
First, the class is quiet… actually, they are silent. They cannot believe the teacher was so upset or that she pushed the button. Within very little time at least one administrator shows up (maybe two) because this teacher rarely ever pushes the button. An assumption has been made that something terrible has happened or a student is really out of control. When the administrator arrives, the teacher steps into the hall, tells how bad little Jimbo has been and the administrator removes Jimbo from class for being disruptive. Not much more is said, but the students get the message. They are on their best behavior the rest of the period.
Later the same day, those same 25 students go to Teacher B’s classroom. Teacher B has pushed the button at least 3 times a week for the past 5 weeks. The students have gotten to the point where they like to see Teacher B lose control, start yelling, (or crying) and request somebody come to their room. So the students go to work on Teacher B and within 15 minutes Teacher B gets upset and pushes the button... again.
What happens in this scenario? Administrators show up to the classroom. This time though, the teacher is not sure who to have removed or who to blame. They were all part of the problem. Teacher B quickly decides Billy, Sarah, and Levi are the culprits and they removed for being disruptive. In this scenario, the class is snickering and whispering when the teacher is discussing the situation with administration. Their behavior changes very little in the weeks to come.
The next time you reach summon reinforcements, take a moment to stop and think about what you are actually teaching your students. You are teaching them that administrative team and/or the office staff have the real power. Every time you request reinforcements you are handing over your authority in small increments. If you every want to be a Master teacher who is in control of your classroom, you must project the idea that the power resides in you. Students must see you as the final authority in the classroom. The few times that you do push the button, they should see it as an act of power on your part and not a gesture of defeat.