Education and Authority

Respect in the Marketplace

I had taught in private schools for years, but I hesitated before entering the classroom to teach my first lesson in the state sector.  I stopped a colleague in the corridor and asked him for advice.  Should I expect the children to fall silent and stand behind their desks when I walked in?  Thinking I was joking, he laughed.  A few seconds later, I realized why.

I had been used to teaching in places where authority was sometimes challenged but always acknowledged; I had entered a world where it had to be fought for, and defended if won.  No, the children did not stand up—or shut up, or even look up when I entered the room.  Not until I had made a noise as loud as a pistol shot by banging a book on my desk did they even notice I was there.  It was a long, hard struggle to win their respect, and I had to do it from a standing start.  In English inner-city schools like that, teachers are not able to exercise authority by virtue of their office.  They stand or fall—or, in most cases, stumble along—according to their personal ability alone.

I quickly discovered how little authority is enjoyed by the contemporary English state schoolteacher.  On my second day, a 14-year-old girl was reading a glamour magazine under her desk during my class.  I told her to put it away; she pretended to do so, but, when I looked a moment later, she was reading it again. ...

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