Authority in Teaching and Parenting

By Wendy Jackson

As a parent, I can accept on a certain level the idea that I have authority
over my child and the corresponding responsibility for the welfare of my
child. Unless given up or taken away legally, this idea of parent as the
first kind of authority is a widely accepted fact, although this occurs in
the context of a varied and complex society. On an individual level, am I
the authority for my child? Do I give commands, enforce obedience, take
actions and make final decisions? Many parents do. If one considers
mealtime, a parent makes the decisions about what is being served and at
what time, tells the child to come to the table for dinner, helps the
process along in some fashion if the child doesn’t come (enforces obedience
and takes action). How this happens could look different at different stages
of development, but more or less, many parents I know act as the authority
in their home when it comes to mealtime.

Now consider a situation in which a parent handles the matter of mealtime
differently. A parent may ask a child if he is hungry and ready to eat or
leave the matter entirely up to the child. In this case, the child makes the
decision about what they will eat for dinner, what time they are ready to
eat, whether or not to eat dinner at all. I can imagine teenagers being
capable of managing mealtime themselves but not a three year old. The stage
of development is a factor in how much we assume the role of the authority
for our child.

If we ask these questions about many aspects of our young children’s lives,
we can see that in many ways, we do assume the role of authority in our
children’s lives. We have the right to do this because we have the
responsibility for our young. Being the authority for our child is practical
in this light, because we have more information and experience regarding
matters like nutrition and health, safety, amount of sleep needed at
different ages. Our life experience and actively seeking out information can
help us to be authorities in terms of expertise, as well. Finally, we often
care more about nutrition, health, safety and sleep. Our children
necessarily are focused on their primary and immediate need to grow and
become through play and learning.

As an educator, I accept a position of authority in the classroom and school
by agreeing to be a teacher. As a teacher, I give commands, enforce
obedience, take action, and make final decisions. I am in charge of the
children, and I have the responsibility to educate both the class and the
individual children. I desire to be an authority (defined as an expert
having a lot of knowledge) in educating the children in my care and do
certain things to become more of an authority in this respect. Put in
another way, each school day, I have the joy of helping children learn about
the world so they can take their place in it. While my primary task is to
bring the Waldorf curriculum to the children in a lively way that stimulates
a true love for work and learning, I am well aware that a key part of my
work is to create an environment that invites learning.

In order to learn, children need a space that is predictable, calm and
orderly enough that they can focus on the work at hand. Of equal importance
to learning is the room to move freely and vigorously, and to speak, laugh
and sing. There has to be quiet and calm, balanced with freedom for
energetic expression.

In the grade school, a teacher brings about this balance of control and
freedom in part by observing what particular subject needs to find
expression in the children, as well as how the environmental needs of a
particular activity can and should shift as the child develops. Being
properly situated in a chair, at a desk, is supremely important for the
careful work required to write beautifully. When the focus shifts to include
composition of one’s own writing, a bit more freedom is needed. By the time
the children are composing their own sentences about a story they’ve heard,
they have enough skill with the act of writing that that they need less
cuing from the teacher about position, and more guidance in terms of edits
and encouragement. Painting, with its water, paints, brushes, sponges,
cloths, paper and boards, needs a quiet space at first (especially for the
teacher!). Then, as cleaning up begins, a need for communication arises.
“Could you help me empty the basin?”, “I’ll hang up the towels today; you
did it last week,” “Watch it—you have to be careful with that painting
board!” By the third grade, the logistics of painting have been established
and the children need to discover how to work effectively together to
coordinate the cleaning up. Space for them to communicate and get along with
each other is necessary and I discovered it very quickly this year when I
tried to have a quiet cleaning up time of painting.

As the teacher having the role of authority, how do I handle classroom
activities like writing and painting? I establish routines and rhythms
appropriate to the child’s development. I teach the routines and rhythms
right away and then adapt them as the children reach different developmental
stages. Thus I find support for my goal and responsibility to educate
children. My role as the authority is helped by these routines and rhythms
that are well known, greatly lessening the need to actually give any command
or enforce obedience. The children know that at 11:30 am each Wednesday, we
paint. They know how and who sets it up. They do all that is required for
painting out of habit. In essence, the authority during painting is the
habits established the first time we painted in the first grade.

Routines and habits of the classroom vary greatly depending on the activity,
time of day, and developmental stage of the children. Breathing in and out,
the day progresses from more quiet focused times, to more active and outward
times.

Mealtimes at school have a routine taught on the first day of school in the
first grade. This routine has changed with developmental changes in the
children. In the third grade, we still wait for everyone before we say the
blessing and, much to some of the children’s dismay, we still use place
mats. However, because the children have new social needs in the third
grade, mealtime reflects this. They are more free to sit where they want to
sit. At this time, the children have a certain mastery of the logistics of
eating together and are extremely social. They will discuss a topic for
longer and in more depth. They really know each other in deeper ways and
their interactions reflect this. Some of them are now looking at me as their
teacher in a new way, checking in subtle ways to verify that I’m aware that
they are changing and growing. My focus shifts from creating the container
of manners and habits to watching the deepening social nature of the class.
The children at this stage of development are looking out into the world
more and as the teacher, I must be aware of shifts that happen with this new
orientation to the world, and adapt the routine and my expectations to
reflect the new reality. How do I support this social nature without getting
in the way of their healthy social development? One way is to use my
position of authority to teach them to disagree respectfully while at the
same time allowing them to see that they don’t need me to help them resolve
their conflicts in the same way they did before.

A picture emerges that a large part of creating the breathing environment
conducive to learning can and should come from the rhythm of the day and the
particular activity, as well as from the children’s  developmental stage.
The role of the teacher and adult as the authority figure responsible for
establishing this environment in the classroom becomes evident in
considering how too little preparation of routines can lead to disorder and
confusion, and too much can cause the children to become stagnant or
inflexible because of a rhythm or routine that is too constrictive or too
tightly held by a teacher.

In order to effectively establish a place of learning, the teacher steps
into the role of authority, much as the parent naturally does when they
receive a child into their lives. Like the parents at home, the teacher is
constantly presented with the opportunity to “author” the habits and
routines with careful consideration of the children’s developmental stage.

This environment in which our children learn and grow is significant
regardless of the degree that it’s consciously prepared. This can come as an
unpleasant surprise when in my role as a teacher or parent, I realize that
my child acting out or a bumpy painting time at school is tied to the work
I’ve done in preparing and maintaining rhythms and routines. Interestingly,
the solution to this difficulty of realizing our part in the misbehavior of
children is clear seeing. With careful observation of the children and
ourselves in the challenging situation, we can begin to sense what they
really need from us at each stage of development.

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