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January 10, 2018

Educator Autonomy: Honoring Teacher Input Leads to Investment and Innovation

It’s a shame whenever an educator—especially one who has just learned an exciting, effective teaching technique they know their students will love and benefit from—suddenly pauses and thinks:

But I won’t be able to do that in my classroom because…

  • It doesn’t fit into my district’s instructional pacing plan
  • It will take time away from test prep
  • I don’t think my administrator will approve it
  • I don’t have the resources/technology to implement it properly
  • I’m not supposed to deviate from the textbook/mandated instructional program

Talk about having your teaching passion hamstrung! Situations like these are why educator autonomy is closely linked to a teacher’s ability to provide inspiring student engagement.

The Teacher-Powered School

According to Blake (2015), “A teacher-powered school, also sometimes called a teacher-led school, is just what it sounds like: teachers have the autonomy to make decisions usually reserved for principals or district administrators.”

These areas of teacher autonomy can include:

  • Hiring and mentoring colleagues
  • Selecting teaching methods and learning materials
  • Creating and facilitating professional development
  • Making student discipline policies and decisions
  • Setting budgets
  • Creating class schedules

Imagine how empowering working at such a school would be for a dedicated, creative teacher! Of course, with great freedom comes great responsibility. If teachers truly want an influential stake in what goes on in both their classroom and their school, they must be prepared to rise to the occasion and prove themselves worthy of such trust.

And so it is with your students. Cultivating a class of wonder and worth isn’t solely a teacher’s job. A classroom filled with active engagement requires the students themselves to also rise to the occasion as their learning environment moves from being teacher-centered to student-centered.

Still, this transformation from students being passive consumers of information to becoming active producers of ideas, insights, and opinions must be initiated and maintained by a teacher who has the freedom to create a classroom that is alive with learning.

Freedom Requires Responsibility

When we as educators speak of academic freedom and professional discretion, we are not selfishly demanding to do whatever the heck we want—standards be damned! We, based on our talent, education, experience, and integrity, are instead stepping up to dutifully assume responsibility for what we know works best for the kids we alone know better than anybody else. A respectful amount of self-governance should be returned to teachers, and this must no longer be viewed as a recipe for disaster.

A respectful amount of self-governance should be returned to teachers, and this must no longer be viewed as a recipe for disaster.

Today’s relentless push towards total educational standardization (as opposed to broad content standards which are inarguably a necessary and helpful common teaching objective) often leaves many students behind, especially when they find that one size does not in fact fit all—neither all students nor all teachers. Standardization also leaves teachers totally out of the picture.

Thinking Critically about Educator Autonomy

Here’s my four-step process for critically thinking about the next “latest and greatest” idea and for practicing informed educator autonomy:

1. Does it make sense?

If the program or pedagogy being pitched to you doesn’t seem sound and practical, no matter what the data may purport, respectfully voice your concerns.

2. Does it fit within my teaching style and philosophy?

Just because something makes sense, this doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every teacher. If the idea does not personally and profoundly resonate with you, let those who love it run with it while you stick to what stirs your teacher’s soul.

3. Is it a good fit for my students?

Just because something is right up your alley, doesn’t mean it suits your students’ needs and proclivities. Striking the appropriate balance between what the majority of your students need to move forward and what strikes their fancies is a delicate decision that requires a teacher to know their students thoroughly.

4. Are my students and I ready to try this now?

Here is where you must scrutinize how prepared your students are socially, emotionally, and academically for this new lesson or format. Similarly, you must frankly confront how adept you yourself are to develop your students’ self-control, self-confidence, and self-efficacy necessary to find success with this new method or material.

Practicing reason and restraint works well for those inside and outside of the classroom when considering major changes or additions to the current instructional program. Healthy debate, pilot programs, and teacher review ensure that we do not yet again throw the baby out with the bath water.

We rightly value student input, individuality, and autonomy. Shouldn’t we extend the same respect to our teachers?


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