18 February 2012

Authority, Expertise, Responsibility, and Position

Respect my authoritah! (source)
I looked back through my archives here at Ye Olde Blog. The first time I talked about "all of the responsibility with none of the authority" was in October 2005. A long time to be wrestling with that phrase. I've revisited the idea a few times since then, mostly out of frustration with the eunuch, er, unique nature of the work I've been asked to do.

I've learned a few things over the last few years, too. As such, my personal definitions are changing.  

Authority should have something to do with experience. There is such a thing as being an authority on teaching first grade...or computer-assisted drafting...or gymnastics. That may not be how teachers view themselves, but perhaps they should. We are used to humbly acknowledging all of the things we don't know. It's true, we may not be experts at everything that happens in the classroom, but that doesn't mean there is not wisdom in our experience. We need to embrace that...not assume that authority and expertise are equivalent.

More importantly, position and authority are not the same---and this is one of most dangerous assumptions we make in education. Does a principal have the ability to hire a teacher or suspend a student because of his/her authority? Don't those (and other) tasks come with the position? I'm not saying that an administrator can't become an authority about their work---but we shouldn't presume that those are equal. Authority should be earned. For example, I know someone who was handed her position because she was already doing the work---why not assign the title to go along with it? Apart from the obvious problem that someone is now doing a job based on her own definition of qualifications, she's under the illusion that she has authority. Nope---just position. Authority is not something you are handed from above. It is a status given to you from those your position serves. And every time I see this person in queen bee mode, all I can think of is her lack of authority. She might get respect for her position, but I have yet to meet anyone who respects her authority.

And responsibility? I think this one has changed for me only in terms of what it includes. I'm responsible for doing the best quality work I can do. Every day. That work touches a lot more people than it used to, but the model is still the same.

"All the responsibility with none of the position" seems like such an imbalance to me now. Either there's too much responsibility or too low of a position. Responsibility may be acquired with expertise, but you can never make yourself an authority. I don't want to forecast what the future of these terms will be...how my next steps in life and career will influence the way I see them at play in the world. I know they will continue to evolve as I learn.

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