Establishing Authority: Finding a Teaching Persona–some notes for new TAs

by Jeff Oaks

Hi all,

I haven’t blogged in a while because I’ve been working on a number of projects, including getting my life back after my wonderful time in Scotland, which, while truly wonderful, also screwed with my normal schedule for fall preparations. I still have some work to do on my syllabi but otherwise I’m pretty much caught up now. One of the things I’m doing this year is serving as a member of CEAT which is our acronym for the Committee for the Evaluation and Advancement of Teaching here at Pitt. We work with graduate students who will be teaching Seminar in Composition for the first time. We just had our orientation week, aimed at helping the graduate students get a sense of what they’ll be doing as they enter into the conversation about writing and teaching here, which is a serious and deep and complicated one.

One of the things we wanted to talk about to the teachers was establishing your authority in your classroom, and once I finished my notes, I thought I might use them as a blog post and so cover up the lack of a blog posts the last month. I know many people who are out there teaching, maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth time, and these would be helpful to the first or these might provide an occasion for the latter to add their own experiences and exercises and advice.

Good luck to everybody!


Notes of Establishing your Authority in the Classroom

In the largest sense, something to think about here is what authority might look like or sound like to you. Think about your best teachers. How did they establish their authority? why did you pay attention to them? Do they have methods can you borrow from? Make a list of things that you liked as a student.

In terms of practical ways, dress: Are you a three piece suit teacher? Are you a polo and khakis teacher? You don’t want to be either too casual or too uncomfortable. A light armor of business casual is good enough for me. I believe in basically having a uniform look every class so I fade away as a spectacle. Generally, choose a spectrum of comfort for yourself and play with it a little to see which one you might feel most comfortable in.

In terms of personality, I’d also urge staying cool and move toward warmer and take your time. There will be a terrible temptation to become warm very quickly and you might resist that for a little while, at least until you know everyone’s name without the attendance sheet, which I recommend doing as soon as you can. You may be the first professor to actually know their names this term. You may be the only one to know their names all year. That is a powerful thing, and will go a long way toward giving you some respect. Remember they want to feel as if they and the subject are being treated respectfully, not tyrannically or over-casually. If you can figure out that balance for yourself, you’ll go a long way toward finding your teaching persona.


Some related practical advice and warning about keeping your authority intact on Social Media as a Teacher: I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and I blog on WordPress. One of the great effects of social media is that it breaks down certain social walls and allows conversations between people who might not otherwise know or feel they are allowed to talk to each other. It has made me connections with other people that have really enriched my life.

BUT It is a leveling technology; it can create false intimacies that will undermine your authority. You don’t want to be social with your students. You also don’t want to be reachable all the time to the students; they get really nervous sometimes and will not necessarily have the inner restraints not to want to chat with you at all hours of the day. Don’t give them the chance to turn to you for every little question they might have. They get your email but not your phone number, too, by the way.

So, my social media rules: I don’t ever friend or accept friend requests from undergraduates. Never. Graduate students, because I don’t usually teach graduate students, are fine. It is in general inappropriate to friend anyone you will need to give a grade to or may be in a position to grade. It is also inappropriate to quote from student work at any time on social media, so never do that. Even if you think you’re praising them. General questions about teaching are okay to talk about with friends, of course, but be careful to keep questions as neutral as you can. Don’t call students (or your fellow colleagues) idiots or brats or sexist or racist or homophobes; they may very well be, but everyone here is learning and trying out ideas and discarding ideas and becoming new people, and although it can sometimes sound like it’s complaint we live on here, it is really hope and curiosity and possibility. In general, deal with your own questions on your own wall or account or blog but especially leave the students out of it.

It is hard sometimes; you will get exhausted and frustrated by teaching and you might despair or want to scream to somebody to get the frustration or panic off your chest. And there is always social media for us to turn to. Resist. Raise a firewall against it. This is a good time to pick up a journal and write it all out. NOTE: I will always have free journals in my office if you need one. This is a time to actually talk to real people, face-to-face, not to your social group who might not have any idea what you’re doing but will have all sorts of ideas about what you should do about it. Facebook cannot hug you or buy you a coffee or hand you a Kleenex the way a colleague who has gone through the same damned problem can.

Personally, because I’ve seen this happening more and more lately, I’d also suggest you resist turning to the hivemind of Facebook every time you have a question in your teaching, for answers or for “more suggestions for reading about how to deal with….whatever.” That is one of the great uses of social media but it is also a danger—that we stop thinking for ourselves, that we constantly ask others for suggestions and figure out how to address the questions that will come up for us in our own classrooms on our own. You’re going to face problems that are incredibly local and weird to your class and how you deal with them will form your authority to teach. That is exciting from where I stand, having done that for almost three decades, but I understand if it feel terrifying to those of you who might not have done it before. But, trust me, you will. You’ll be great.


You don’t expect yourself to have all the right or correct answers to everything.

You should know when there are real answers to things. Like your attendance expectations. Students may ask you how you grade and how will you answer? Be transparent as you can about what is important to you. Students will be appreciative. Know why you’re asking them to write this particular assignment, what the goals are, that there isn’t a single way to get there but what the important things to work on are if things become unclear. The difficulty with being clear about your expectations and then sticking to them is that the first part can be easy because you’ll have a list of things to read to them the first day and you can refer to that if any questions come up, but, when a student comes to you after missing a number of classes that put her over the absence limit, and she begins to cry or plead or call you and your rules unfair, it can be hard to stick by your rules. Similarly in class, if you’re going to ask people to comment on things in class but then you don’t let them talk, your authority can suffer. Students do not like to be let down, but they do want to be surprised that writing can be interesting.

Most of them have read and love reading, but they come in skeptical of this class, of us, of the purpose of having to write in an academic context. They are right to feel all of that, I think. It’s our job to help them see the possibilities. Because, ideally, we love to write, we think writing and reading are great, we know how much fantastic thinking and feeling and life-changing work is out there, we will embody our enthusiasm about writing and reading and thinking. They want to see adults who believe such craziness, which is why they’ve come to college in the first place. I hope you believe in those things for all our sakes.


When I was beginning, I was very much the nervous introvert, and I wanted to be liked too much. I think I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself to control everything, which is what I thought I had to be, forgetting of course that almost none of my favorite teachers were like that. I thought I needed to map out every second and therefore I left no time for actual discussion. Some people can get away with that, and can do beautiful jobs. But when I did that and asked a student a question and got an answer I wasn’t expecting, I didn’t know what to do. I went completely blank, like an actor forgetting his lines.  It turned out that the improvisation I had to do after that was actually what my students needed. They needed conversation, which is after all mostly improvisation. Conversations don’t happen in a too tightly controlled classroom.  Leave yourself some room.

Keep in mind that a certain amount of vulnerability can be helpful. You can say you don’t know something if you don’t know something. It’s a good model to be truthful. If your students know that you’re a writer too, that you work on poems, stories, essays, reviews, a dissertation, and if you can occasionally bring your shared sense of the difficulty of writing well into the classroom, you can encourage quite a lot of fellow sympathy and empathy among the members of the class. Don’t talk about your work very much. I will say that if I’m giving a reading that term, I often invite the students so they can get a sense of what I do.

So think about where your strengths as a person are. I’m interested in people, I’m a good listener, and I’m genuinely curious about what other people make of a shared text. I’m also genuinely interested in the work of writing, of the process of it, and I have quite a lot of information about how different writers have gone about the work. What I learned to do is to blend that basic self with a kind of self who can also shepherd that basic self’s bad habits. For example, I wander off topic easily and joyfully. I still get stunned sometimes and lose my train of thought if a student comes up with a reading that seems to come out of left field.

Questions for your journals: Five minutes: Make a list of what your strengths are, what you’re already good at—talking to groups, working with individuals, whatever you already know or feel pretty confident about.

Then make a similar list of things where you do not feel like an authority (or would have trouble presenting yourself as an authority, with any authority). Or sources of anxiety for you. These are things to talk to other people about.

Time Management:

You may at first want to put a lot of time into teaching, especially if you haven’t done it before. It takes a little while for some people to get the rhythm of teaching into your nervous system. It can be frustrating but by doing it more and more, you’ll get it. I’ll speak here a bit as a writer: Be gentle on yourself as you go through this process. I recommend setting aside some time during the week that is regular where you can write and read as you need. You will need that to keep your sanity and yourself grounded. It’s the reason you’re here, and it won’t help you at all if you spend all your time on your student writing and none at all on your own. Be prepared to find your own writing changing, sometimes radically, because of what you’re teaching. Follow the impulses out. Teaching can be immensely enriching to your writing life! But you have to do both of them in order for them to enrich each other.

You may want to simply give yourself some small deadlines-X pages a week, one story a month. Generally your workshops should give you those deadlines. Keep a journal if you don’t think you’re able to create anything directly. Maybe you can only make a paragraph of description or dialogue or make a list of writers you want to read. Maybe you can only manage to write a poem by your favorite poet into your journal. Do that then. Don’t think you have to get all your papers done immediately—you can decide to grade 4 or 5 papers a day (Brenda) or to only do two a day. I do most of my grading on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in a coffeehouse. I grade for a couple of hours, write for a couple of hours, and then go home, walk the dog, read, watch tv, listen to my husband talk about crazy things that have happened to him at work. I also try to write when I can, usually the mornings I’m not teaching. That has made a very good schedule for me.

The important thing for me is this: be gentle on yourself and do what you can. If you feel overwhelmed, come to my office or one of the faculty’s office, and we will give you a writing prompt.

Think about your time management abilities: Are you someone who tends to wait to do all your work in one huge chunk in one or two days or someone who can work over smaller chunks over a week? Where in your current schedule can you find a little time, even if it’s only twenty minutes, to write in a journal, outline a paper idea, describe a character?

You’ll be fine. Remember to breathe.  The mantra is something like this: Be generous and breathe; all the rest is commentary.