Teacher Autonomy Matters. Here’s Why.

Amber Nunnery
May 3 · 6 min read

The manner in which schools approach teacher collaboration has evolved over the years as curriculum alignment continues to drive increasing amounts of decision-making. Teachers know the drill. Professional development sessions dedicated to dissecting learning standards, academic jargon like “rigor”, “content enhancement”, “data-driven instruction”, and “formative assessments”, and a plethora of acronyms that guide teachers through better planning systems are just some of the yearly prescriptions they’re used to. Consequently, as teachers continue to norm on increasingly more specific criteria and practices, teacher independence and authenticity is becoming less considered.

Alignment is critical, and there for a reason. Without it, students’ daily routines feel unsynchronized and harder to feel confident in. Learning standards help quantify a year’s work. Professional development can greatly improve a teacher’s methods, and those acronyms do offer beneficial structure to teacher practices. But does alignment mean that teachers lose their sense of independence with approaches to lesson planning? Reading material? Class structure? Does administered collaboration actually counteract with the heart of teaching? Is there a line? If so, where does it belong? These are questions all leaders in education should heavily consider in order to preserve what all teachers deserve.

Reason #1: Autonomy is, essentially, the art of teaching.

At its core, teaching is a craft. The Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning¹ defines the art of teaching as “the marriage of a teacher’s ability to lovingly orchestrate the subtle strings of classroom dynamics and student expectations into learning with the truth that each class session is a unique, unrepeatable incarnation of shared presence”. That being said, teachers should be offered tools (“instruments’’) to orchestrate the product (student learning and experience), instead of handed a mostly finished product to simply implement or present. This “instructional implementation” commonly happens among content-area teams of teachers when the campus expectation is for them to teach each learning standard with the same materials. When coursework design is expected to be identical, creative teachers often become drained and alienated in their work. They’re merely implementers, not teachers, which undermines the craft that should be expected of them, and given to them. This results in a loss of respect, dignity, and fulfillment within a teacher’s work. Over time, this can also weaken teachers’ abilities and stunt their growth, leading to lower quality work.

Reason #2: Autonomy makes teachers stronger.

We say it all the time: learning is doing. It’s a philosophy that teachers are encouraged to use in the classroom, and a credible one. This learning structure is desperately needed not just by students, but teachers, too. The learning curve for teachers is steeper with repetitive opportunities to try their own ideas in the classroom. This especially applies to curriculum choice-making and reading selections. Teachers, especially those newer to the practice, must be given opportunities to choose, plan, execute, and reflect. This simply means teachers should be given the freedom to choose what materials they want to use and how they want to use it, regardless of what their peers have chosen. When something fails, teachers get real-time opportunities to independently problem-solve and internalize what to do better next time as competent, growing individuals. As with any craft, trial and error develops muscle memory within that of a teacher’s. And yes, students are just fine when error happens. In fact, this can open real-time opportunities for teacher-logic to kick in, or even critical thinking from students to steer the lesson in a more productive direction. Or, it may fall apart, and that’s also okay sometimes.

Reason #3: Autonomy should raise the standard for teachers, which should improve the quality of teachers.

With granting teachers autonomy should come higher expectations. For creative and passionate teachers, having a healthy amount of freedom should pose the challenge of mastery in one’s craft. When teachers are overly normed in their work, their opportunities to create and innovate become limited, and their motivation can suffer due to the constant implementation vs. instruction dynamic. This awareness is important for content teams within schools, and explicit boundaries should be set in terms of where freedom of choice lies. This is where expectations with reading selections, the traditional gradebook system, and basic lesson agendas can make or break healthy alignment. Collaboration and norming on certain practices is essential, but for teachers who value the potential of unique, authentic, quality work, being told what materials or texts to use, and what to “take” as a grade, and exactly what students should do in the first five minutes for their warm up can lead to absolute lethargy in one’s work. Eager teachers value making these decisions for themselves and their students. When they’re not able to, the jadedness in their practice causes them to not perform to their highest abilities since their raw abilities no longer have a place. This is also likely to weaken the morale of a campus. No two teachers are the same, hence their need for freedom of choice in materials to use for given student learning standards. This freedom of choice, if teachers are eager to master their craft, should raise the standard for teachers since they are responsible for showcasing their innovative skills, not someone else’s.

Reason #4: Teachers are different humans, and therefore, have different needs.

Despite the belief in the modern Professional Learning Community (“PLC”) approach within instructional departments, teachers need plenty of space for independent innovation within their craft. With careful consideration and respect for teachers, a healthy, balanced approach to PLC work can foster this. Collaboration on systemic norms should be necessary (unit breakdown, standard scheduling, assessment dates). Collaboration for lesson planning should be a resource (sharing ideas, and possibly aligning on identical materials, but not having to). Collaboration for the sake of accountability should not exist, because it demeans teachers, and again, leads to professional lethargy, and thus, to lower-quality teaching. In fact, mandatory collaboration could be a culprit of lower quality teaching, in turn leading to the need for more accountability, which leads to jadedness, acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as we ensure equity for students, approach to collaboration matters in schools because teachers have different needs, too. Some teachers thrive with heavy collaboration and partner work, and some accomplish more independently. The question isn’t whether or not teachers should collaborate, it’s when and what teachers should be required to collaborate on, and what should or shouldn’t be necessary to align. When schools expect increasingly specific aspects of teaching to heavily align among teachers, they actually undermine teachers’ abilities. To treat teachers professionally is to acknowledge that they aren’t all the same, and may not want to do the same things in the classroom, because teaching is, once again, a craft. Crafts have proven best practices, but quality products are deliberately composed by individuals who use them at their own will.

Reason #5: Teacher autonomy can better serve students.

Students feel when a teacher doesn’t love what they do, and that dynamic digs deep in the classroom. Teacher autonomy is, undeniably, a major factor in teacher sustainability. When a teacher feels ownership in what they do, they are more motivated, at peace, and overall driven in their practice throughout the school year. This means students get what they deserve each day: a teacher who has thoughtfully planned a unique, quality classroom experience, and is eager to follow through with it. When teachers are given lessons without freedom of choice, simply to internalize and implement, education becomes a system of compliance for both teachers and students. This is arguably the most damaging classroom dynamic for students. Classrooms should be a place of discovery for both teachers and students, with teachers leading students in critical thought, and students trusting that teachers are there to foster that. With a healthy amount of teacher autonomy, students are more likely to feel like their teachers are there to teach, not implement or comply. Therefore, students are more likely to consider ideas, not rehearse answers.

Ultimately, teacher autonomy fuels the notion that teachers are professional, competent individuals with valuable knowledge, skills and ability to create quality instruction with their own means and discovery. Our education system owes students, teachers and administrators the freedom to occupy this autonomous space in schools. In doing this, room is provided for stronger, more specialized and authentically experienced teachers, which most would argue is more enriching for students than anything a prescribed lesson plan can offer.

References

  1. “The Art of Teaching: Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.” The Art of Teaching | Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, poorvucenter.yale.edu/ArtofTeaching.

Originally published at https://www.ambernunnery.com.

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