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Teacher Autonomy Matters. Here’s Why.

How aligned is too aligned?

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 aimed at dissecting learning standards, academic jargon like “content enhancement”, “data-driven instruction”, “formative assessment”, 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 do 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? 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. That being said, teachers should be offered tools (resources) to create a product (student learning and experience), rather than being 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 implementers, not teachers, which undermines the skill that should be expected of 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. Learning curves for teachers are steeper with repetitive opportunities to try their own ideas in the classroom. This especially applies to curriculum choice-making and reading selections. Teachers, specifically 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 errors happen. 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. Expectations for reading selections, grading criteria, 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 authenticity, being told what materials or texts to use, and what to record in the gradebook, and exactly what warm up will be used for the first five minutes of class 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 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 succeeding with their own innovative skills, not someone else’s.

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

The modern Professional Learning Community (“PLC”) approach within instructional departments is often critiqued for its lack of independent teacher work time. With careful consideration, a healthy, balanced approach to PLC work can foster a thriving environment for teachers. Collaboration on systemic norms is necessary (unit breakdown, standard scheduling, assessment types and 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 is problematic, because it discredits teacher abilities and is likely to lead to professional lethargy. In fact, mandatory collaboration could be a culprit of lower quality teaching, in turn, leading to the need for more accountability, then to jadedness, and so on. Just as we ensure equity for students, approach to collaboration matters in schools because teachers, too, have different needs. Some teachers excel 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. Teachers’ abilities are undermined as increasingly specific aspects of the classroom are expected to heavily align. 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. Teacher autonomy is, undeniably, a major factor in teacher sustainability. When a teacher feels ownership in what they do, they’re 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 classroom experience, and is eager to follow through with it. When teachers are given lessons without freedom of choice, to internalize and implement, education, as a whole, 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 facilitating 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, they’re 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.

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