Many teachers struggle to figure out how to use their authority in the classroom—including me. I remember walking into the classroom on my first day with the naive conviction that my students would respect me simply because I’m an adult. Perhaps what tempts so many novice teachers to fall into this trap is that they are stuck in a modernistic conception of authority as a claim to power over others, rather than a call to offer oneself in service to their followers. But reality cracked through my poorly conceived schema when I found out that my students expected me to earn their respect before they would respect me. This is how God began to show me that there is power in attraction—he was inviting me to first be a witness to the Good, True, and Beautiful, One who never abuses or misuses his authority, but rather, uses it to love, serve, and protect. This is what my students needed most, or needed first, before they could see me as an authority figure they could respect.
In his book The Risk of Education, Msgr. Luigi Giussani writes that “we experience authority when we meet someone who possesses a full awareness of reality, who imposes on us a recognition and arouses surprise, novelty, and respect.” Reminding us that the Latin root of authority (auctoritas) indicates something that causes growth, Giussani says that the true authority figure points us to discover the truth of who we are and towards that to which we are called. The “full awareness” of the authority figure, who sees more than I see and, in a way, understands my own humanity better than I do, becomes a point of fascination and attraction. For Giussani, what makes a real adult is not one’s age but rather one’s level of maturity, wisdom, and intimacy with the Truth.
Jose, a particularly angsty student, used to make it his business to push my buttons. He often disregarded what I asked of him and sought attention from his peers by acting immaturely. An incident that was initiated by his inappropriate cell phone use in class brought me to face the question of my authority in a dramatic and pressing way. My policy is that you can only use your cell phone in class if you ask for permission first. Jose, being “his own man,” starting checking his Snapchat in the middle of my lesson. I calmly asked him to place his phone on my desk, but he refused, proclaiming defiantly that he didn’t have to follow my rules.
Taken aback, he didn’t know how to respond. “You’re an intelligent kid, and you have the potential to lead your fellow classmates. Look at how they all want to imitate you! But the way you act tells me that you don’t think much of yourself, and that you don’t want what’s best for you.” Needless to say, he was speechless and dumbfounded: Why wasn’t I yelling at him?
But there was something deeper going on inside him, too, I could tell. How is it that he had never recognized his own leadership abilities? How is it that no one had ever recognized those abilities in him? And of all people, it was his teacher, whom he had flagrantly disobeyed! That undeserved kindness caught him off guard.
In his stunned silence, I continued. “So what I want you to tell me is this: How do you plan to start being a real leader to your classmates, and what do you need from me in order for you to start doing so?”
And that’s when it clicked.
He finally realized that my job was not to make his life more difficult, but rather, to help him to live his life more fully and truthfully. In this encounter, pointing to the True, the Good, the Beautiful meant helping this young man to see the God-given beauty within himself. He, too, like me, had the potential to reflect, to witness to his Creator.
This “click moment” was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between me and Jose, who eventually asked me to write his college recommendation.
When I asked him why he wanted me to write it, he told me, “I have respect for you not because you demand it from me, but because I want to follow you, like, I want to see what you see. It’s as if you know me better than I know myself.”
It is indeed true that young people should respect the authority of adults. But it is also true that respect is not something that can be demanded categorically. Rather, respect is a response to something that truly draws one not just into true adulthood, but into authentic maturity in Christ.
That’s why I want to be the teacher whose authority is less of an imposing form of power and more a wisdom that fascinates and entices my kids to follow me. If I can use my authority to point my students to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—and in turn, help them to begin to see their own goodness clearly, then they will have learned the only real lesson I want them to learn.