How Teaching Turned Me Into an Authoritarian

It has been nearly a year since I walked out of the door of my classroom for the last time. When I started my new job, at ThoughtWorks, I knew that I’d have to make lots of adjustments to transition from working with children in an environment that I control, to working with adults in a collaborative environment.

Lots of these things were small adjustments. Things such as not making the sign of the cross before meetings (Catholic school…), not having to worry about how dated my music references are, and no longer needing an opinion on my favourite brand of instant coffee.

One unusual thing I have noticed is that there have been a few occasions where the sound of my own name has made me do a double take. Specifically, my first name. For two years the vast majority of people I interacted with called me “sir”, and I had grown used to it. Mr. Sarrionandia was also an option, but there really wasn’t ever time to enunciate the whole thing.

Good luck pronouncing this one.

It seems like a fairly inconsequential change, but when I compare that reflexive reaction to the way I thought about things before becoming a teacher, I can’t help but be a little alarmed. Before starting teaching I would consider myself fairly radical in my laissez-faire attitude. I entered the classroom on my first day with a visceral dislike of deference to authorities of just about any kind. I left expecting people with fewer qualifications than me to call me sir.

Everything in its proper place.

Teaching didn’t change my fundamental opinions on matters of hierarchy and authority, but after two years in the classroom I had trained myself, mostly as a survival mechanism, to instinctively believe in myself as an authority figure. I knew all of the things I hated about education systems where I had encountered them, I knew how authoritarian attitudes can kill curiosity and creativity, but I still did it.

As a trainee teacher, I was taught techniques that I was initially a little sceptical of. For example, I can remember being a few weeks into my training and being given this piece of advice:

“When you want a child to do something you should never say please. Instead, you should simply say ‘thank you’. It should be clear that you haven’t considered the possibility that they might choose not to follow your instructions.”

I hope that seems unusual and manipulative to non-teachers reading it, and I hope that teachers who were also given this advice might take a step back and consider how bizarre it sounds.

Here is another:

“When the children enter the classroom you should be standing in the doorway. As they walk through the door they should know that they are entering your space, where you are in control.”

Some people would even give the advice: “don’t smile before Christmas.” Some of those people were joking, and some were not.

The blue scissors are always stored on the left hand side of the box.

These, and a whole bunch of other techniques, were held up as good practice and recommended to me as feedback on my own teaching. After four hours of trying desperately to keep 25 students at a time under control, and wondering how you are ever going to make the progress in assessment scores that you are judged on, they begin to look very appealing.

I started introspecting and digging through my (copious) collection of feedback and reflective writing over the two years. The kind of persona I had adopted by the end of my second year is a million miles from the way I would ordinarily act. When you start to integrate the premise that it’s your authority that makes things happen, you need to stop all attempts, however small, to call that authority into question. Every challenge must be chased up and dealt with. To quote a colleague (who was very effective): “If you always win the small fights, they never start the important ones.” In this manner I spent extraordinary amounts of my own time winning battles over top buttons being undone and haircuts that don’t comply with uniform policy.

Be guided by reason and not by passion, but never fix your hair if you’re working during the holidays.

My transition from wacky idealist to barking lectures about what type of shoes are and are not acceptable at a room of students didn’t happen overnight, so it’s hard for me to point to any one thing that took me there. The combination of signals when you are working under intense pressure in an organisation that has authority as its guiding philosophy, hierarchy as its means of enforcement, and challenge as its cardinal sin just sort of nudged me there, so slowly that I didn’t even notice it happening.

I didn’t become a total bastard. I did retain my explicit dislike of authoritarianism, despite having automatised it emotionally. I would frequently apologise when I caught myself demanding things without an explanation, and I would try my best to explain my thoughts about the processes that I was supposed to follow to the students that I had the best relationships with.

If anything, I was probably unusually laissez-faire in my approach. You definitely wouldn’t call on me to break up a fight. It isn’t that I’m alarmed by my actions, but I am alarmed by the kind of instinct I felt to defend my authority against challenges of any sort, even while I knew explicitly that those challenges are good.

We pray at 2:55

One year on, I’m back to my freedom loving ways. I can’t help drawing parallels between schools and other institutions that revere authority: Prisons, the army, the police, etc. The institution I found myself in meant that my authoritarian attitude could only manifest itself in enforcing a bizarre code of conduct and sartorial compliance. I’m not even going to propose an alternative system. I have some views on what schools should look like, but they are incomplete and not really worth your time. Still, I feel like I can understand, just a little bit, how power can make people act terribly, and that’s scary.

Head of frontend engineering at Babylon Health. Formerly ThoughtWorks, Made Tech, school teacher.

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