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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Types of Teacher Authority: Which One(s) Work for You

As a teacher, have you ever expected students to listen to you just because you’re the teacher? They’re supposed to listen to the teacher, you think. Or maybe you expect them to pay attention because you know your content so well. You have a master’s degree in math or science instruction. You might have noticed that certain students listen and behave better for you after you began to know them better. You invited them to lunch, praised them in class then they responded more favorably to classroom expectations.

What is going on here? What are the dynamics behind the student’s behaviors and attitude towards you?

In this blog, I will provide a framework that might help you make sense of all this, and consequently, assist you in better influencing student behavior. In their book, Levin and Nolan (2014) reference work done by French and Raven (1960), where they outlined four types of authority bases for teachers. I will briefly summarize the four types, presenting them in a hierarchical fashion based on what types might better influence students to control their own behavior moving to types that promote increasing teacher control.

Referent Authority

With this type of authority, students behave according to the teacher’s wishes because they have a positive relationship with that teacher. The students, as Levin and Nolan (2014) point out, perceive the teacher as a decent person, who cares about them, their learning, and has the students’ best interest in mind. Through communication (i.e., positive non-verbal gestures, verbal and written comments, extra time and attention), the teacher has communicated that he or she cares and likes the students. Levin and Nolan (2014) warn that this authority type should not be confused with becoming the student’s friend.

Expert Authority

Under this authority type, students behave because they see the teacher as a knowledgeable instructor who can help them learn. For this to happen, students must see the teacher as having the necessary specialized knowledge and teaching skills. Second, they must value learning what the teacher is teaching. The teacher displays this authority through mastery of the content, effective teaching techniques, clear instruction, and preparation (Levin & Nolan, 2014).

Legitimate Authority

With this kind of authority, the teacher expects students to behave because he or she has formal and legal authority. As Levin and Nolan (2014) say, the students behave because the teacher is the teacher. This authority base requires that teachers accept the role and status of being a teacher—however, for this to work, students must also perceive the teacher as fitting the stereotypical image in terms of dress, speech, and mannerisms.

Reward/Coercive 

Finally, with reward/coercive authority, the teacher uses punishments and rewards to influence student behavior. This might come in the form of having students move up or down on a color chart, good reports (or bad) to parents, praise, gold stars, or no recess. This approach requires that teachers are consistent in giving out rewards and consequences. It also requires that students perceive the rewards and punishments as such (Levin and Nolan, 2014).

In reality, teachers likely use a combination of these authority bases. They may also use particular authority bases with certain students under certain circumstances. What’s important is once you understand the four types of authority bases, you should try to be aware of when you are using particular ones and the impact they have on the classroom. This allows you to adjust your approach. For instance, a teaching intern, who attends a classroom management course I teach at the local university, explained that after an elementary student misbehaved, her mentor teacher had the student move her clip down on the chart (a classic reward/coercive move). The student rolled on the ground and began to cry uncontrollably. Obviously this approach was not effective at the time, at least not with that student. We discussed other approaches based on the authority bases. For example, what if the teacher practiced referent authority influence by taking the student aside and talking to her. The teacher might take a few minutes to ask the student why she was misbehaving. This would demonstrate caring and perhaps the student might perceive the teacher as someone who genuinely cared. After the chat, assuming the student began behaving appropriately, the teacher might come by and praise her. “I’m so proud of you for staying on task and turning around your behavior.”

If you teach younger children, for instance, in an elementary school, you might also want to reconsider how much weight your expert authority carries. In my experience, most students did not seem to care what degree I had or how much I knew about the content. Rather, what worked for me was taking time to connect with these students, making them feel good about themselves. For instance, one of my most powerful strategies (a combination of referent and reward/coercive authority) was scheduling time to have lunch with students. This gave me time to build a relationship with them. I could also use it as a reward for those behaving and working hard in class. Now, of course, if you teach at a high school or college, expert authority could provide more influence. College students, for instance, expect the professor to be an expert.

Levin and Nolan (2014) also warn against overusing extrinsic rewards since it can decrease intrinsic motivation. Rather, whenever possible, lean towards using encouragement and intrinsic motivation. Fostering self-directed, student-learners is a worthy goal. Being cognizant of these authority bases allows you to better influence your students in ways that you believe are beneficial.

References

French, J.R.P., & Raven, B. (1960). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander (Eds.), Group dynamics: Research and theory (pp. 607-623). Evanston, IL: Row-Peterson.

Levin, J., & Nolan, J. F. (2014). Principles of classroom management: A professional decision-making model (7th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.