10 Oct How much teacher autonomy is healthy?
I’m sure you all see a bit of yourself in John Keating, striding across the desktops inspiring the pants off your eager students day in, day out; fighting the straight-jacket of conformity; punks in the world of prog rockers; mavericks defying the powers that be….. We all want to do our own thing right? To be free to express ourselves; to teach how we want to teach; to teach what we want to teach… and above all, to be left alone.
Or do we?
Isn’t it all a bit exhausting? And what happened to ‘there’s no I in Team’? Personally, I can think of hundreds of ways I’m happy to sacrifice my autonomy for a bit of sanity, clarity, collegiality and, most importantly, some quality. I’m quite happy to accept that there is greater wisdom in the community of maths and science teachers around me and in the organisations that manage my subjects at a national level. There are things that other people know a lot more about than me and, it saves me time, energy and worry, if I don’t have to make it all up for myself. This might include:
- designing good questions and good assessments
- designing a good hierarchy of questions within a topic
- specifying the curriculum content in detail; the things I must teach in a modern, changing subject
- plotting a workable route through the curriculum content to ensure effective scaffolding and spiralling of the concepts
- suggesting good experiments for demos or class practicals using the equipment we’ve got
- producing or sourcing high quality materials – (my own Powerpoints and worksheets are rubbish).
Of course, I might want to contribute to discussions about these things;I should pull my weight where I can – but I’m happy to follow the plan. In fact, I really want there to be a plan to follow – even if I deviate mischievously from time to time. I want to choose the resources; not make them. I want to teach so students can do well on the tests; I don’t want to have to write all the tests myself.
And then there’s the question of collective responsibility. It’s easier for students and for me if we can all agree on some common experiences. Is it right if the number of achievement points a student receives is more a function of who teaches them than how hard they work? Is it sensible in a big, complicated school for students to have different rules in every class, different sanctions and different expectations about basics like uniform, equipment and putting hands up to answer questions? I’ll gladly sacrifice my autonomy to support the idea that some common ground, some consistency between us is a good thing. If developing oracy skills is a whole-school priority, I’m going to play my part – why would I want to opt out? Who gains if I secretly abstain or contribute to the inertia?
No, I’m not going to put the objectives on the board, or do a three part lesson or use a specific colour pen for marking; no, I’m not going to feel bad for doing a lot of explaining from the front and being a bit of a Luddite in regards to the IWB gizmoscope. But I only want a bit of autonomy. Not too much. Please, don’t give me too much…. I want to be part of a team where the planning is shared, where the resources are good and available to me, where I don’t have to make curriculum planning decisions as if they’ve never been thought through by anyone else before. This was especially true when I was just starting out; it’s also true now I’m teaching new things in a new context.
There’s a fine line between being given autonomy and being left to sink or swim – or to being given the option to close the door to better ideas or to drift into mediocrity. I’d happily sacrifice some autonomy to stay on the right side of that line – for the benefit of my professional development, my workload and for the good of my students.