Confidence and authority in the classroom

I recently received an email from a teacher who we shall call, Sue. Sue asked the following:

Do you have any tips on presenting confidently as a Teacher and establishing authority in the classroom? I’m a very new teacher, and I find it hard to establish authority in the classroom, especially with adults and teens. Most of the adults who I teach are older than me, and a lot actually happen to be teachers themselves. I’m naturally quite a nervous person, and I feel intimidated by my adult classes. I have good rapport with the classes, but I also feel like the students aren’t always confident in my abilities. 

Edited email – spongeelt.wordpress.com

The first thing that needs to be said here is, ‘Great work’. Teaching is often viewed as a solitary profession and it’s quite normal to feel isolated. However, by speaking with peers and colleagues, and seeking out communities of practice, questions like this can easily be answered and support can be found. You are never alone!

Confidence in the classroom

Now, let’s look at Sue’s first question: presenting confidently in the classroom. This is something that every teacher wonders at the start of their career, be it within ELT or other subject areas. I wondered the same when I started and no doubt you did too. So, where do you start? I’ve broken it down into three areas: Energy, knowledge, and Planning/Preparation. Let’s have a look at these individually.

Energy: Confidence need not be mistaken for copious amounts of energy. On the contrary, sometimes too much energy can be distracting to learners and can often result in a large amount of teacher talk time (sometimes great for input, however learners need to engage with the language). I myself present very energetically, however it is ‘controlled energy’. That being said, I work with many teachers who do not teach in this manner and I would consider them to be some of the best and most professional teachers that I know.

Knowledge: In my opinion, confidence is largely helped by knowing your subject matter, i.e. what is being taught that lesson. If you are moving into teaching as a non-native teacher of English, you have the great advantage of having gone through the process of learning English as a foreign or second language – you have a very clear and explicit understanding of English grammar and vocabulary. However, if you are coming into ELT as a native speaker of English, there is a high chance that the first time you hear the present perfect will be on your initial training course. This means that when you first move into the classroom, there’s a high probability that your learners are going to know more grammar explicitly than you do. So, whether it’s the grammar that you need to study, or it’s the content in the coursebook that you need to be familiar with, use your planning time to cover it so that you are fully aware of what’s coming.

Planning/Preparation: This links in with my previous point, and perhaps it might sound a little obvious, however it is amazing the amount we teachers pay it off sometimes – planning and preparation. Planning is an essential part of teaching. I’ll say that again. Planning is an ESSENTIAL part of teaching. I’m not talking about the formal lesson plans that teachers associate with the word planning; rather, I’m referring to the process of thinking about what is coming/to be taught in the lesson and how you plan to deal with it. With this, there is also nothing wrong with a bit of rehearsal. Try to teach yourself a lesson in the mirror. Record your instructions on your phone and play them back to yourself – are they clear? All of these things will help your confidence levels in the classroom. It sounds like a lot, but the more you do these at the start of your career, the quicker you will form good teaching habits and routines that will benefit you hugely in the long run.

Authority in the classroom

Now, moving on to establishing authority in the classroom. I’m a very reflective teacher (if you haven’t noticed yet), so I’m always looking back on my own experiences as a teacher and trying to think about how I would do things differently or what I have learnt from my experience. Here are some of these points regarding establishing authority:

The Illusion of Control: One of the biggest things I would change from my first year of teaching if I could is my initial approach to establishing authority. My approach pretty much consisted of a fully teacher-led lesson with only teacher-learner interactions. In short, I was scared of releasing control as I thought that as soon as I did all hell would break loose. However, as I grew as a teacher, I realised the more control we try to impose on learners (especially with teens and adults), the less agreeable the learners are, generally. I call this the illusion of control. Now, what I try to aim for is controlled uncontrol, i.e I try to give my learners as much freedom and agency in the classroom as possible whilst also still being in control. And, because of this, I find that my classes run smoother, more learning opportunities are had and exploited, and both the learners and I are a lot happier.

Rapport-building activities: I think most teachers would not debate the statement that rapport helps with control. I certainly wouldn’t. And so why not spend a few lessons on building rapport with your learners. Further to that, why not spend a few lessons on ensuring that the rapport between the learners in the class is good as well? Rapport-building activities are generally not found in many syllabi, however I believe that they should be (especially with teen classes). With good rapport comes respect, and with respect, generally, comes authority (or at least a greater deal of authority).

Learner interviews: Most of the time, the class, be it with four or thirty learners, is viewed as a single entity, so lesson aims and course objectives are designed for the group. We often forget, however, that each learner is different and has their own needs and wants. One way that I have found that helps both rapport and authority in the classroom is having regular learner interviews. In these interviews, we discuss how the learners are progressing, what they like and don’t like about the course, and what they would like help on. It sounds very simple (it is), however something so simple can pay dividends in the long-run – the learners know that you are interested in their learning, not just the group’s.

Learner wants: Regarding teens, there are loads of ideas on the net on how to establish authority from well-known speakers and teachers. One of my favourites is Chris Roland, with whom I had the pleasure of seeing at a conference I attended/presented at recently. I secretly call Chris the teen whisperer, and for good reason. Chris gave a webinar talk on teaching teens and one of the things he said really stuck in my mind:

[…]Do my teenagers do what I want them to do? […] the answer is, most of the time [no]. But maybe we can change the persepctive a little bit.[…] We’re looking at a group of teens and are they doing what we want? Maybe not. But, are they doing what they want? And I think most of the time that answer would be definitely not.

I think the point that Chris raises here is extremely pertinent: if you were asked to do something you had no interest in, you most likely would become rowdy or unagreeable as well. This comes down to looking at both the needs and the wants of the group and really considering if the materials you are working with or the tasks you are planning to give are in line with the needs and wants of the learners. Now, I can already hear you saying, ‘But, Jim, we have a syllabus and we need to cover this content!’. Fair enough, however exploiting materials and making them more interesting/catered for your learners is something every teacher can/should do. I know it takes time and thought, however it is well worth it. On a side note, Chris also has a book out called Understanding Teenagers in the ELT Classroom, which is full of fantastic ideas and insights. Well worth the read!

Closing thoughts

After reading what I wrote, I got to thinking about the word authority. I feel that there may be some misunderstanding regarding the meaning of authority that I am trying to convey and that which many teachers have in mind. I’d like to make clear that by authority I mean being able to effectively manage a class and to be seen and respect as a professional teacher. This is something that involves many factors including those spoken about here, learner motivations and teaching/learning contexts. With this in mind, I hope that these ideas help you in some way. But let’s not let the discussion finish here – I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think? How do you establish authority and build up your teaching confidence? Feel free to comment with your ideas!

5 Comments

  1. Hi Jim, thanks for this great post. I got a lot out of it. I really like your discussion on the ‘illusion of control’. Relinquishing control in favour of a learner-centred lesson was something that was really emphasised when I did the CELTA, and I’m so glad because it has made me aware of this from the very beginning. You also mention the importance of rapport-building activities – are there any in particular that you really recommend from experience?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lisa – thanks for commenting!

      Certainly. There are a few that I have used that worked really well in class (and also with the teachers in the academy).
      1) Spaghetti tower – learners have about 10 minutes to build the tallest spaghetti tower using only spaghetti, tape and marshmallows (there needs to be a marshmallow on the top of the tower).
      2) Ask me anything – Learners are able to ask you or other learners anything anonymously. Get a large box and some paper, and then get learners (and yourself) to write questions to people on the paper. These pieces of paper go into the box and are then drawn out.
      3) Musical lip reading – Lip reading is fun. It’s even more fun when you put headphones and music on one person and then have them try and guess what another person is saying. Try getting one learner to say: I love eating cheese and chocolate on Saturdays. Some crazy things will come out!

      These are but a few and I am sure you can find loads more online. The important point here is that you’re trying to build a sense of community in the classroom. This sense of community will massively aid in building respect, authority, confidence in not only yourself but your learners as well.

      If you try any of the ideas out, let me know how they go 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jim,
    Thanks for writing this post – it’s an area that I haven’t seen much about, but it’s one our teachers often ask us about at the beginning of their careers at our school. On CELTA course I’ve seen the authority you’re describing called ‘teacher presence’, and I think that conveys a lot in it – the idea that you need to have some form of presence so that learners will listen to and respect you, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be strict, which sometimes the term authority can imply.
    With rapport, I’d recommend the book Classroom Dynamics by Jill Hadfield, and generally doing a range of getting to know you activities, including ones where the students can learn about the teacher. As you said, it’s important that students feel comfortable with each other as a class, and not just with the teacher – so often forgotten!
    This bonus ELT Playbook task is about the related issue (I think) of self-talk and teacher confidence: https://eltplaybook.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/bonus-task-self-talk-and-teacher-confidence-elt-playbook-1/ Some of your readers may find it useful.
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Sandy! I will be sure to have a read of Hadfield’s book, and check out the reflection task.

      Best of luck at the upcoming IH Facebook live event!

      Like

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