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3 Tiered Methods for How Teacher Autonomy and Alignment Can Coexist, and Why They Must

It’s possible.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In a past era of teaching, principals would’ve likely handed teachers textbooks at the beginning of a year and told them to use them as they wish. That era is bygone, and schools are now inundated with high stakes accountability, increasing amounts of monitoring, and a dominant data culture that pushes the term “student performance”. Instructional specialists are now needed on campuses to assist teachers with requirements to be met. This is telling, given that teachers were once thought of as highly capable professionals able to plan a year of learning for students on their own (that is, essentially, their job).

With the rise of the blanket term, “alignment”, departments do have options for how to preserve teacher autonomy, thus preserving teacher sustainability, retention, and drive. Here are three approaches.

Approach #1 (High Teacher Autonomy): Align unit-wise, make units available to teachers as soon as possible, and leave student materials/texts for teachers to choose or create.

With this approach, if the units are committed to, teachers can easily dissect the unit standards themselves, create their own weekly breakdowns, and customize the progression of lessons for what they’d like to try. Teachers have a high amount of autonomy with this, and if departments store their materials digitally, teachers have a range of resources to pull from for how they’d like to approach content with their classes.


With only units aligned, teachers have the ability to exercise and strengthen their scope and sequence skills and big-picture thinking (a foundational skill for educators). Innovation is encouraged. They get to experiment with content routes and develop a firm grasp for themselves of how to tackle units. In this, teachers feel a great sense of management in their classes and have a strong sense of grounding in their work.

Approach #2 (Average Teacher Autonomy): Align weekly standards within units ahead of time, and make these units and weekly standard breakdowns available to teachers as soon as possible, leaving student materials/texts for teachers to choose or create.

Aligning weekly feels rigid, but if done productively and ahead of time, it can work. It basically means that instead of teachers handling their content per unit, they all norm on what standards to cover each week. With an aerial view of weekly standards ahead of time, and possibly a common weekly quiz/formative assessment provided, teachers can exercise some autonomy with materials they choose.


This is the direction departments have taken. In fact, departments already practice sharing student data with common assessments, without the explicit expectation of weekly student materials being identical. Teachers do lose opportunities to practice big-picture thinking with this approach, and really don’t operate using a scope-and-sequence outlook since it’s already done for them. Room for innovation is diminished for driven teachers. But if departments are having to move in a direction of material alignment among teachers, this is probably the most reasonable balance.

The key to this, in the name of teacher sustainability, is to have this mapped out before the academic year even begins. Teachers are likely to get behind when planning doesn’t start until the first week of school, especially when slammed with professional development sessions. It’s not outrageous to have at least a skeleton plan of the first three months, semester, or even the year, and to make this available to teachers in July, June, or even May. Planning can always be adjusted, but with the thick book of standards teachers have to unravel, a pre-planned yearly overview is key.

Approach #3 (Low Teacher Autonomy): If student materials must be identical, make them generic. In addition to this, make these student materials, weekly and unit-wise standard breakdowns available to teachers as soon as possible.

With expectations of alignment becoming more and more rigid, this approach isn’t a shock to most. In fact, it’s the direction many departments across the U.S. have taken. Teachers will have little autonomy in this, but if materials are generic, English teachers can still choose texts they want to use, and other content areas can also maintain choice in resources to teach the skills. As far as teacher agency, this is probably the most aligned a department could go before completely eliminating it.


With more monitoring comes higher stakes of accountability. This approach is likely to be considered in districts needing to perform better. When performance is low, the strategy is to make everyone do the same thing in order to pinpoint the issue. This can be demeaning for teachers, and some argue it’s actually the standards themselves that are problematic, but this is the work handed to schools. Regardless, these already-planned plans for teachers should also be made available as soon as possible to them.

Overall, departments must take a distinct approach to teacher alignment so teachers, despite their possible lack of autonomy, can prepare and manage accordingly. That being said, teachers must still trust their own instincts on what and how to teach their students. With a clear distinction of what needs to be aligned and what doesn’t, they can keep some grounding (what’s left of it).

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Amber Nunnery

Amber Nunnery

School things.

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