Does authority support or threaten students’ freedom?

I grew up with a strict mom. Her authority was not arbitrary – I could always request a rationale for her rules – but it was absolute. When I was nine, my negligence led a bottle of blue nail polish to be spilled on white carpet. The repairs came to over $200, which I was to repay through additional chores at the rate of $8 per hour. Not once did my mom round up my hours worked.

My mom’s philosophy on child rearing is that kids need boundaries, rules, and discipline to feel safe, and that this safety helps them develop the self-control and interpersonal skills necessary to live a fulfilling life. Fancying myself a responsible adult, I usually agree with this philosophy, at least insofar as parenting is concerned. 

In schools, the question of adult authority is more complex since it often operates outside the bounds of personal relationships. It manifests in many forms: there is the personal authority or charisma of school staff, the institutional authority conferred on them by the school, the authority of administration over students and teachers, and the authority of school policies. Each type of authority informs the others. A teacher with great personal authority may rarely find cause to summon their institutional authority. A school policy may be designed to increase or limit the institutional authority of administrators or teachers.

In my experience (which has taken place within urban schools, most of whose students are black), authority is the most contentious subject within classrooms, schools, and school districts, far more divisive than any issue of pedagogy. Remarks like “she can’t control her classroom,” “he always sends those boys to the office,” and “teachers aren’t allowed to have a building key,” all manifest the contestation of authority within school settings.

In an effort to revise the role of authority inside their walls, I have seen educators and schools shy away from any explicit acknowledgement of authority. This summer, when I was training new Teach for America teachers in Philly, the biggest challenge was getting them to recognize that they needed to exercise authority in their classrooms if they hoped to gain their students’ respect. Generally, though not exclusively, this issue was most pronounced among white teachers who are often socialized to see explicit exercise of authority as oppressive (Cooper). Hesitant to use a stern tone, deliver a consequence, or insist that students follow their directions, many of these same teachers would eventually grow frustrated with repeat ‘problem students’ and send them out of the class or ignore them when they went to sleep, thereby allowing students to reap the much graver consequence of not learning. 

The tendency to avoid demonstrations of explicit authority isn’t confined to new teachers, and I find it especially troubling when it’s done in the name of ‘progressive’ education. In Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit states, “for many who consider themselves members of liberal or radical camps, acknowledging personal power and admitting participation in the culture of power is distinctly uncomfortable. On the other hand, those who are less powerful in any situation are most likely to recognize the power variable most acutely” (Delpit). Delpit goes on to name ways in which white, progressive educators fail to teach children of color by refusing to acknowledge the reality of power. For example, many white teachers (and teachers who have been socialized within mainstream, white society) phrase directions as questions, “would you like to sit down?” instead of “sit down now.” These veiled directives can lead to severe disciplinary consequences for students who misunderstand or decide that the teacher is not a legitimate authority. Likewise, classrooms where the teacher is the locus of order but fails to establish their authority quickly become spaces where little learning takes place. 

By contrast, some ‘high-performing’ charter school networks like KIPP and Uncommon Schools impose strict “no excuses” regulations on their students that mimic prisons and zero tolerance policing. While some charters, like the Mastery school at which I worked this summer, are moving away from these policies, these schools continue to emphasize discipline and control as avenues to student achievement. Extrinsic reward systems, strict consequences, and a commitment to “sweat the small stuff” like an untucked uniform shirt form the basis of discipline.

To my mind, neither of these poles offers an attractive answer to the role of adult authority in educational settings. The former pretends that authority and power don’t exist. This sets kids up to founder on the rocks of reality – the reality that in our society, institutions can exercise arbitrary authority and wealth is distributed according to class, race, and educational attainment.  As one of my colleagues once put it, “if you teach my child that they don’t have to follow directions in school, whose fault is it when they get shot by a cop for doing the same?” This is a sobering reminder that power exists, that it can be wielded unjustly, and that we adults have a duty to prepare children to survive and thrive within our reality. On the other hand, highly regulated, disciplined school environments also fail to prepare students for life after high school, when extrinsic rewards will be far between and no adult will hold them accountable for attaining their goals. These ‘no excuses’ environments take a deeply pessimistic view of students, suggesting that kids must be coerced into learning the skills that will allow them to cope in our society. By prioritizing college acceptance and access to institutions that confer wealth and power, these charters fail to articulate hope for a world that could be, where children can pursue a diversity of passions without competing for scarce resources.

Myles Horton and Paulo Freire problematize the relationship between liberation and authority in their book-length dialogue We Make the Road by Walking. In discussing the role of parental authority, Friere links the parent or teacher’s authority to the child’s capacity for freedom: “Without the limits, it’s impossible for freedom to become freedom and also it’s impossible for authority to accomplish its duty, which is precisely to structure limits” (Horton and Freire). Horton pushes back, extrapolating from the authority that exists between a parent and child to that between a person and their society: “There’s another side to this limit business. The limits quite often have the opposite effect. They inhibit growth and development… you’ve got to think of how people accept limits that don’t even exist.” A possible resolution is to say that children are fundamentally different from adults, that they need structure established by adult authorities but that, as they grow older, they internalize self discipline and no longer require an adult to rule them. This would probably be my mom’s answer, and she could back it up by reference to two children who seem (mostly) well-adjusted.

That resolution isn’t entirely satisfying to me. In the past year I’ve begun reflecting on the rules I’ve placed on myself. I internalized most of these from my mom, and they enable me to build a stable and fulfilling life. I make my bed, share my food when I notice a friend’s longing glance, and back up my passions (e.g. this blog) with the discipline it takes to be consistent in any project, even one you love. Yet there are other rules I’ve internalized, about the proper balance between work and leisure, how to work with others, and how clean a bathroom must be, that probably don’t serve me. In Horton’s words, I’ve accepted limits that don’t even exist. Children may need adult structure to develop into self-actualized adults, but these structures aren’t temporary. The way we learn follows us into adulthood, and that includes the rules that we internalize. In other words, my conscience sounds remarkably like my mother.

As I travel between radical education projects, I’ll be looking closely at how authority is structured and discussed within each community. At the Philly Free School, where I’ll start working in a couple of weeks, no member of the school community has institutional authority over any other, but the School Meeting (the body of all students and staff) has developed a lengthy rule book. Failure to adhere to those rules can trigger a hearing in the school’s Judicial Committee, where students and staff determine a consequence for the violation. This is a radically different way to structure authority and power within a school, and it holds promise. During the day I spent at the Philly Free School, the system seemed to work well; students and staff usually cohabitated peacefully, and students broadly respected the judicial system. Equally important, the system pushes kids to think critically about what kind of community they want to build and how rules and authority contribute to that goal. And only one student was tossed out a window.

Just kidding. 😉


Cooper, Patricia M. “Effective White Teachers of Black Children: Teaching within a Community.” Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 54, no. 5, Nov. 2003, pp. 413–27. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0022487103257395.

Debs, Mira, and Joanne Golann. “The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? – Education Week.” Education Week, June 2019. Education Week,

Delpit, Lisa D. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2006.

Disare, Monica. “‘No Excuses’ No More? Charter Schools Rethink Discipline after Focus on Tough Consequences.” Chalkbeat, 7 Mar. 2016,

Horton, Myles, and Paulo Freire. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Edited by Brenda Bell et al., Temple University Press, 1990.JC at The Philly Free School., Accessed 24 Aug. 2019.

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