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The Five Forms of Teacher Power


One mostly implicit element of the classroom reality is the way that power is manifested in any class. Feeling some degree of power is a basic human need. As we will discuss in more detail in chapter 9, if the students’ individual or collective need for power is not met, they will exercise it in one form or another. The teacher too has a basic need for power as a human being, and they are no less inclined to react if they are not experiencing healthy means to feeling control over their destiny.


However, due to the fact that the teacher is in the role of the manager of the class they require power in another form, the power to influence student behavior. This could be termed “teacher power.” Teacher power is, in a sense, “the right to ask others to do something.” As teachers we need to ask students to do many things in a day, and we need to make our requests out of some basis of power.   Without it, we would have little efficacy. French and Raven (1959 & 1974), as they examined classroom interactions, identified five basic forms of teacher power. Each needs to operate to some degree, but some will be emphasized and utilized more than others for most of us.  These 5 types of power are Attractive/Referent, Expert, Reward, Coercive and Position/Legitimate.


Attractive (Referent) Power

When the teacher relies on their personability, relationship building, or the fact that they share common interests with students, they could be said to be using attractive power. Attractive power can be developed through getting to know and emotionally investing in students. In a sense, when the teacher makes deposits in what Covey (1995) calls the “emotional bank account” of the students, they can use their withdrawals as opportunities to influence behavior. Attractive power can also come as a result of the teacher having a personality that is perceived by the students as pleasing, such as being likeable, funny or charming. It is natural, as well as strongly encouraged by our media-driven culture, for students to want to follow and respect those that have qualities that are judged to be “cool.” We could imply that teachers to varying degrees have the ability to cash in these qualities that could be termed “personality capital.”


The use of attractive power to influence student behavior can be both effective as well as healthy. It is difficult to be effective without some degree of it. As the saying goes “students do not care how much you know, until the know how much you care.” Students work harder for teachers they like and perceive as caring. However, pandering for student approval, and letting the need to be liked drive one’s teaching choices, will lead to many problems. If the teacher confuses relationship building for an implicit bargain with the students that, “I will be nice to you, if you are nice to me,” then this can be a slippery slop that leads to giving away one’s power and being taken advantage of.


Expert Power

When the teacher is perceived as being knowledgeable in the subject, well prepared, and intelligent, they posses what could be called expert power. We have all had teachers who did very little to invest in the affective quality of the class, yet were well respected and able to manage the class to a great degree due to the fact that students felt there was a great deal of value in what these teachers had to say. Expert power is driven by the students desire to know. Some of this form of power comes from a natural human deference for those who are perceived as wise, or posses what could be called “intellectual capital.”


The use of expert power to lead can be effective. It can translate into respect, if the teacher is not arrogant or entirely imperceptive of the needs of his or her students. Humor can be a great asset for the teacher who chooses to rely heavily on this form of power.  But to exclusively trust expert power as being sufficient has been the downfall of a countless number of teachers. Many teachers enter the profession with a passion for their subject, and leave one year later, when their passion is met by a disappointingly high degree of disinterest and disrespect.


Reward Power

Teachers have the ability to reward their students in many forms. Those rewards are usually employed to influence student behavior. This form of influence could be termed reward power. In chapter 9, various forms of what could be considered “rewards” are discussed. They include grades, recognition, prizes, praise, privileges and anything else that could be assumed that students desire that could be given to them externally by the teacher.  The notion of rewarding student behavior is for the most part a good idea. But as we will discuss in chapters 8 and 9, there are vastly different effects from different kinds of rewards. Moreover, the power of any form of reward will be directly related to how desirable it is to any particular student.


Earlier in the chapter we discussed the need for the teacher to maintain the social frame relationship between student success and the corresponding teacher reward. This implicit relationship is important to assure that students feel valued and competent. But over time it may be desirable for the teacher to help foster intrinsic sources of motivation within the student, rather than developing an expectation that the only way that the student will know if they are successful is if the teacher provides an extrinsic source of reward. In its most healthy form, reward power is experienced as a deep affirmation and a willingness on the part of the teacher to recognize student effort. In its least healthy form, it is a tangible or emotional token economy (see chapter 9 discussion related to extrinsic rewards and the use of praise). In this application student behavior is conditioned by a systematic use of extrinsic rewards, and/or the giving of love. It does have the effect of modifying behavior, yet essentially creates reward and praise addicts whose work is primarily undertaken to obtain the reward rather than for the sake of learning or growth.


Coercive Power

The teacher has in their power the right to use disincentives, say “No,” withhold privileges, and give consequences or punishments to students. When they do this we could say that they are exercising their coercive power. Coercive power implies that if a line is crossed something will happen that will be less desirable for the student than if they choose not to cross the line. No matter how much of the other forms of power a teacher possesses, without coercive power, some students will take advantage of their freedom to cross lines without concern for penalties.


Used constructively, this form of power is important to draw lines and boundaries. It helps promote a sense of security in the class for those students who are not inclined to cross lines, and count on the teacher to discipline those who are so inclined. Used zealously (and in its traditional form) it can bring a hostile energy to the class. In chapter 6 related to the 4-style manager, we will discuss the term pain-based logic. In essence, exercising a pain-based logic is intended to produce power by coercion. Shame, punishments, guilt, humiliation, personal attacks, withdrawal of affection are all forms of pain giving. As you examine the 4-style or “dominator” management orientation, you will better understand why the misuse of coercive has so much potential for damage on so many levels.


Position (Legitimate) Power

By virtue of the fact that the teacher is in the position of “the teacher,” they have power. The governance of the school places each teacher in a position of responsibility for the management of the students in the class. So, in one sense, it is not so much earned as, it just is. Likewise the role of teacher assumes that they have power. There is no other person in the classroom that can fulfill the duties of the teacher. We could use the term “in loco parentis” (i.e., in the role of the parent) to describe this type of power. The teacher, in addition to their role as educator, is the sanctioned authority in the room.


One the one hand, unlike the other forms of teacher power, position power is not so much earned or cultivated, it exists by default. On the other hand, we can do a better or worse job of projecting that we deserve this role. This is especially true of new and substitute teachers. Those who expect to be given respect, usually are. Position power may come essentially from a contract, but it is also projected in an air of legitimacy and confidence. Those who project an affect characterized by illegitimacy or a doubt that they belong in the position, will suffer from a limited amount of position power, and the problems that come with it.



To be effective one must incorporate at least some amount of each of these five types of power, however, each teacher must thoughtfully consider the use of each of them within their goals and personality. Each form will produce different effects on the socially constructed classroom reality and lead to different sorts of results with students. For the most part, they are not mutually exclusive. One could utilize a higher or lower degree of any or all of them simultaneously. But as noted in our discussion of each form, it may be more the case that effectiveness will be less related to which forms or power are employed than the manner in which each is employed.