Admittedly, establishing authority in my classroom was never something on the forefront of my mind until this current semester. I had good days and bad days while teaching 1020, and every time I had a bad day, I would try that much harder the next class time to have a good day. But as long as I had my lesson plan locked in and had some interesting things up my sleeve to spark an in-class discussion, things usually went pretty smoothly. However, while spending every waking moment preparing for my exam in October, I dedicated significantly less time to class prep (as long as I had enough to not completely crash and burn most days, that was good enough) and saw how much a lack of authority could impact the attentiveness and attitude of my students.
This lack of authority stemmed most directly from the lack of preparation. When lectures were thrown together at the last minute, with little effort put toward a purpose or clear-cut goals, and the schedule was (putting it lightly) a hot mess, my students didn’t have much cause or reason to respect my authority as an instructor. The only thing I had going for me was my personal policy of honesty—I always make sure to be as honest and up front with my students as is appropriate. I let them all know well in advance that I was facing this huge exam and that I might be a little distracted/distractible until it was over, but I would do my very best. After the exam was over, and I sat down to try desperately to salvage what was left of the semester, it was time to take stock of what really had been going wrong and how (if at all) I could reestablish authority.
The immediate lessons were, of course, those mentioned above. No matter how authoritative you try to be in the classroom, if you’re not prepared and your schedule is inconsistent, there is not much of a chance that you will command anything but groans, giggles, and/or snide comments about you behind your back (or in some cases right to your face). But preparation aside, I began to think about what it was that worked for me in the past, during the classes in which I never had a concern for establishing authority. It dawned on me that what I had been using was an old “method acting” technique called the G.O.T.E. (pronounced “goat”). This technique is designed to set up the persona of the actor that develops prior to the events of the play, in other words, the back story. When entering the classroom, I always made sure to develop a specific back story for each class period, which inherently develops the sense of purpose that necessarily accompanies the lesson plan. If you have something specific that you want from your audience, and you have a specific plan of action to get that, then the audience is much more likely to respect you and be with you the whole way. You can see this technique in the work of really good actors—the ones where you watch a film or play and are totally taken in by what they are doing.
The G.O.T.E. stands for Goals, Other, Tactics, and Expectations.
Goal = What do you want?
Other = From whom do you want it?
Tactics = How do you intent to get it?
Expectations = Why do you want it? What do you want to get from it?
In the rehearsal process, the answers to these questions are usually specifically answered and written down on the actor’s G.O.T.E. Sheet. This is included in the script and gone over multiple times during the process. However, for the classroom, writing it down isn’t necessary, but thinking through these steps can help in making sure that you have clear intentions for each class and that those intentions are easily identified by your students. Think of each class as a performance and think about what you really want to get (or want your students to get) from each lesson plan. What are your goals? What tactics/methods are suitable for reaching those goals? And, importantly, why do you want your students to reach those goals? And just like we tell our students, the more specific and important the answers to these questions are, the better off you’ll be. When the intentions, goals, and expectations are clear, authority (although never guaranteed) will be much easier to come by.
And my parents said I’d never be able to use my theater training for anything useful …
Conor-Shaw Draves is a GTA and PhD candidate who research interests in rhetorics of technology and new media. He is currently teaching ENG 3050 and has previously taught ENG 1020 and also served as the Writing Center GSA dedicated to graduate student tutoring.