Every classroom operates on a spectrum between two extremes. On the one extreme, you have the classroom that is in perpetual chaos: students running around the room, paint on the walls (and it’s not even an art classroom!), screaming at each other, and no one knows what lesson is actually going on. On the other extreme, you have a classroom that is dead silent, students too terrified or too angry to step out of line. Everyone knows what the lesson is, but no one is asking questions or answering them, cutting into the learning opportunities the teacher is trying to create.
Both extremes lack two important things: authority and trust.
Without them, it doesn’t matter what teacher moves you try to implement or what fun activities you plan, your kids aren’t going to function in the way you need them to.
The goal of classroom management is to create an environment that maximizes learning. If the kids walk all over you or if they’re too terrified to explore, then you’ve lost the classroom management game.
Optimally, you need to build authority and trust from day one. If you haven’t and you’re reading this mid-year, don’t worry. You can still save the year. But you’ll also want to read my post on rebooting your classroom management at this link.
So first, a few definitions.
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What do we mean by authority?
When I talk about authority in the classroom, I mean that the kids see you as the person in charge. You are the leader who guides them through the class period. Your word is therefore the ultimate law. Therefore, the students know that if you issue a firm order, then they need to follow it.
Now, I am not defining authority as a teacher ruling with an iron fist. You can have empathy and compassion in your classroom without sacrificing authority. We’ll step more into how we achieve this balance further on.
You’re also an authority on content. You have a deep knowledge of the content that you’re teaching. You know your stuff, and the kids know that you know your stuff.
Now understand, you might be trying to get them to talk to each other and learn from each other as they explore the content, but they know at the end of the day, you will lead them where they need to go on their curiosity voyage (I watch Stranger Things too).
What do we mean by trust?
As well as the person in charge, you are also your students’ protector. You protect them from outside disruptions, disruptions from their classmates, and even from themselves. Your job is to protect the learning environment.
Trust in the classroom means that students see that you are there to help and protect them, even if they don’t like or outright disagree with something that you’re doing. They know you’re acting in their best interests.
Ok, so now to the practical part: actually building authority and trust in the classroom.
Get your procedures together
At the heart of successfully building authority and trust is your procedures. Students crave structure, even the older ones. They need to walk in feeling like they know what to do and what to expect.
Procedures signal two things: you, the teacher, have the authority to create the learning environment and you, the teacher, are going to protect it.
In the sense of building authority, procedures signal your expectations in your classroom. They also signal the amount of control you and your students exercise within a lesson.
In the sense of building trust, procedures signal what you’re willing to do to protect your learning environment.
Let’s look at an example with a bellwork procedure. The procedure for bellwork in my class is for students to enter, take out a sheet of paper and a writing utensil, and work the problem on the board quietly. Then, when their time is up, they share their work with their partner.
If students do not work on their bellwork quietly, I choose to move them to a different seat. If they don’t work on their bellwork at all, I choose to remove the distraction (whatever it is) from their vicinity.
With this procedure, I have built authority by creating expectations for their first movements in my classroom. I want them to focus on Science and recall what I taught them in the lesson before. I also want them to only consult their own knowledge and resources at first. They look to what I have created on the board to dictate what they need to do to accomplish this expectation.
I have also built trust in my classroom by following procedures to protect the bellwork time. Students who become a distraction are not allowed to distract others. Students who fall prey to other distractions (other homework or a cell phone, perhaps) see the distraction removed from them.
The list of procedures you need are too many to list here, but I do recommend having two sets of procedures: the ones for daily classroom tasks, and the ones for behavior management. I recommend The Classroom Management Book and Teaching With Love and Logic as good starting points.
There are a few other things you can do to foster authority and trust in your classroom:
3 Ways to Build Authority
Students develop their impression of you based on what they see. If they don’t see you in the classroom, or only see you at your desk, then they get the impression that you aren’t as involved in the learning process. If you aren’t involved, why should they be?
Build presence by greeting students at the door when they first walk in. They know right from the door whose classroom they are walking into, and who they should look to as the leader.
During the lesson, circulate around the room. Use a wireless controller for your computer to control your powerpoint lecture so that you can talk from different points around the room. This allows you to include the students at the back of the room who might feel invisible otherwise.
Circulate when students are working, either individually or in groups. Give pointed compliments to show that you are reading their work (ie “that’s a good example of metaphor in your essay”). If they are struggling, you can match them with students who can help or ask them probing questions to get them on the right track.
I feel like the teaching world doesn’t give enough advice about the nonverbal communication we project in our classrooms. Part of that is covered by having presence, but there’s another part to it as well: body language.
You need to look and act with the confidence of someone who is a leader. If you don’t have that confidence at first, fake it. When you greet your students at the door, use a firm handshake. Stand straight and make eye contact with your students as you speak to them.
Timing is also important. When students have questions, you need to have quick, confident answers. For content related questions you develop speed and confidence by rehearsing lessons and stepping through any misconceptions ahead of time. For other questions like “Can I go to the nurse?” the procedures you have put in place will help you.
Why is body language and timing so important to building authority? People are drawn to those who know what they’re doing. They want someone to lead them that will make them succeed. By acting like you know what you’re doing (whether you do or not), you get your students to, consciously or not, designate you as the leader of the classroom.
Create Smooth Lessons
Smooth lessons also help project confidence and leadership in your classroom. If you look like a deer in the headlights at every hiccup that happens, your students will sense that you don’t, in fact, know what you’re doing.
Further into the year, once that authority and trust have been built and something truly unexpected happens, your students would likely give you grace if you have a deer in the headlights moment. For the first few weeks, however, you don’t want to project that lack of organization.
If you’re new to the teaching game, I suggest you physically practice your lessons before you teach them until you get a good feel for what you’re doing. Run through all the things that could possibly go wrong and find ways to work around them. Be prepared for interruptions that might occur as you’re teaching, like a phone call from the front office or a student suddenly getting sick.
If you’re not new to the teaching game, you can probably get by with thinking your lessons through in your head. You also have the advantage of years past to think over: what has gone wrong in the past that you can smooth over now? This is your time to smooth out anything that is likely to cause disruption in these critical few weeks.
(I also have a great tool you can use throughout the year to reflect on your lessons. Check it out here!)
3 Ways to Build Trust
Generally you spend the first few days of school teaching procedures and introducing your students to the content they’ll be learning in your class. You also teach your behavior expectations and what will likely happen in the event that those expectations aren’t met.
Now you have to back yourself up.
If you let things slide in the first few weeks of school (or the first few weeks after a reboot, if you’re going that route), you effectively taught your students that you don’t do what you say you’re going to do. You’ve lied to them. And lies don’t build trust, they shatter it.
You have to have an iron will when it comes to the expectations you have in your classroom. Yes, we have to teach certain standards in a given amount of time and administration has already gummed up the works with endless assemblies, but if you don’t take the time now you will pay for it the rest of the year.
So even if the class is about to rush through the door the minute the bell rings and leave behind a bunch of trash just this one time, you stand in the doorway and insist that they sit down and pick up after themselves. Even if the kid who took his phone out was texting his mother, you follow the procedure for phones in your classroom.
Remember, you are the protector of the classroom environment. Take it very seriously, especially the first few weeks of class. You may think you can’t hold back a classroom of hungry students with the sound of your voice, but you can (project confidence, remember!). They will appreciate you for it later.
Build Positive Relationships
The way you get them to appreciate you is by building relationships. You can’t be a cold hearted dictator in your classroom and expect to win friends and influence people. You have to show your compassionate side as well.
I’ve already mentioned it, but in case it hasn’t sunk in yet, greet your students at the door. Ask them how their day is going. Ask what they did over the weekend. Start their class experience with a positive interaction, and they won’t mind as much if you ask them to put their phone away later.
Once you get to know your students better, build connections to their interests into your lessons. If you’re teaching the solar system and a student in your class is into photography, for example, show the picture of Earth from the perspective of Saturn’s rings.
Entire books have been written on how to build relationships with students, so I’m only going to give the above to get you started. But understand that you have to build relationships with students in order to gain their trust. People trust those who show an interest in them, because it’s easy to believe those people have their best interests at heart.
I have more helpful tips about building positive student relationships in this blog post here.
Be honest with your students
This works hand in hand with consistency, but it bears repeating: you need to do what you say you’re going to do. That’s honesty with your actions.
You also need to be honest with your words. Don’t tell them that you’re going to grade a 20 page packet on accuracy if you are only going to grade on completion. Don’t put them through the stress of a “very important test” that actually doesn’t count.
If there’s a situation going on that’s causing you to change your procedures for a day (or forever), be honest about it. Maybe you can’t release all the details because of privacy or an ongoing investigation, but you can tell your kids that a situation has come up that means your procedures must change.
Don’t lie to your kids. They know when you do it. And then they wonder what else you’re lying to them about.
Hopefully this gives you a starting point as you start (or reboot) your classroom this year! What have you found helps build authority and trust? Let me know in the comments below!