Jun 5, 2012

The Reluctant Authority Figure

Me, in full Authority Mode, with the symbol of my power, the Clipboard (now slowly being replaced by the ipad/smart phone).  In this photo I'm probably making notes to myself regarding some student's progress or recording an on-the-spot grade, but I could just as easily be writing down a student's name for misbehavior or adding/subtracting points to their daily points tally.  I hate what I know I look like when I am making brisk marks of reprimand for some infraction on my clipboard.  But, I know it has to be done.

At the end of my life-changing, incredibly rewarding year as volunteer teacher on the island of Chuuk, as I mournfully prepared to return to the "Real World", I knew one thing for certain.

I never wanted to become a teacher.

 I loved the kids and the idea of working with kids was certainly appealing.  But I didn't like the grading and lesson planning and classroom decorating.  The field of education didn't much interest me.  And I especially didn't like being the Authority Figure.

"I want to be that cool volunteer person that comes in that all the kids love because I'm way cooler than their boring old teacher," I told my friend J, who was already on track to finish his degree in education.

But as God would have it, I ended up a teacher anyway.  And I've come to appreciate the profession and recognize that perhaps this really is what I'm meant to do with my life.  But I find I still have trouble with being the Authority Figure.

I don't mind being in charge.  Leadership comes easily to me.  Telling other people what to do?  Not a problem.  But all that is different from being an Authority Figure.  The Authority Figure is a representative of the Institution, the System, the Man.  The Authority Figure is the enforcer of rules, the Policy Police.  In today's culture, to be an Authority Figure is to be out step with society.  If you must hold a traditionally authoritative title, such as teacher, parent, or police officer than you need to be as un-authoritative as possible.  You want to be that teacher that sits on the edge of his desk, sleeves rolled up, and tie loosened.  You want to be that "cool parent" that is your kids best friend. You want to be that undercover cop who wears plain clothes and skirts the law to catch the bad guys.  They generally don't make movies about the officers who write traffic tickets or teachers who bust kids for chewing gum.

It's not that I have problem with authority myself.  I am pretty good rule-follower (sneaking candy into the theater is a pretty big deal for me).  Even as a kid when I got into trouble it wasn't due to chafing against the rules or feeling a need to defy authority.   My rule-breaking was not the point, but an unfortunate byproduct of the mischief, and if or when I got caught, I took my consequences more or less without resentment or complaint.

My reluctance at being the Authority Figure probably has more to do with way it conflicts with my more bohemian vision of myself.  I see myself a creative type, an artist of sorts, and cracking down on kids for being out of uniform or not walking in line doesn't fit with the way I like to think of myself.  When I encounter  the occasional student with the moxie to flat out refuse to go along to get along,  I wouldn't say I admire him or her. But I am occasionally envious.

But the truth is, our cultural obsession with doing things "my way" and derision for authority is actually immature at best and destructive at worst.  Our glorification of rebellion creates a world as bad in its own way as an authoritarian one.  Ever notice that rebels often aren't very nice people, and that insisting on doing what I want often deprives those around me of what they want?   A strong will can be a powerful force for good when used to stand up for what is right, but it can be disastrous when it is used to indulge selfishness and insistence on getting ones own way.

As asinine as rules for rules sake may be, breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules is equally senseless.  For those of us here in America--a land of unprecedented freedom with little in the way of institutionalized oppression, our rebellious instincts generally are not principled or even mindful.

Likewise, my reluctance towards being an Authority Figure is selfish at heart--more concerned with my self-image than what my students need.  That is something I dare not indulge in as a teacher or as a parent.

 Do I still want to be that cool guy that comes into the classroom to the approving cheers of the students?  Sure.  But being what my kids need--including the Authority Figure--is more important than what I want.

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