What I Mean by Autonomy

Today at the PLC Conference, Richard DuFour mocked teacher autonomy. The audience chuckled along with him as he labeled the need for autonomy an excuse. It was telling when he chose the metaphor of a pilot who must listen to the Air Traffic Control tower rather than steering the plane in any specific direction. The thing is that I don't fly planes. I teach kids. Enough of the world runs on auto-pilot. Is that really what we want for our schools?

William Glasser defined autonomy as one of the basic human drives. It is not an excuse when someone says, "What about autonomy?" The truth is that teachers are watching our professional autonomy slip away because of the work of corporate reformers and slick politicians. When we snarl at those who mock this need, it is not because we love snarling, but because we've lost too much already.

In many places, teachers are forced into scripted curriculum in a push toward test prep. They are forced to have word walls, grammar walls, lesson plans in a set format, a standardized gradebook, a specific set of curriculum that they cannot deviate from, a discipline matrix that they must adhere to (even if research doesn't support the system of punishments and rewards), etc.

If a teacher asks, "What about teacher autonomy?" the solution (if it were to grow on a tree) might be to explain very clearly how a specific system will enhance teacher autonomy. If the "professional" means anything in the Professional Learning Community, spell it out for teachers.

The truth is that I became a better teacher when I was finally given autonomy. It's not an excuse. It's the impetus for innovation. When I have creative control and the freedom to experiment, some of the best lessons occur. Last year, I was able to use a tech-integrated framework, move away from traditional grades, go with a project-based and problem-based approach and teach thematic units. I also had some of the highest reading, writing and math scores in the district.

All of that required a hefty dose of teacher autonomy. Although we were a PLC, the principal was flexible enough to say, "Try this and compare the results with your team." He never mocked my need for autonomy, but actually embraced it instead.

The Paradox
Tonight my son jumped over a larger ice chest. I wrestled with whether I should allow him to assert his will or if I should step in for his safety. I don't pretent to have it figured out. Total autonomy is anarchy. Being involved in any social system (family, religion, work) requires a sacrifice of some of one's rights for the protection of social cohesion.  

The school is a civic institution. I still believe it is vital for the success of a democracy. However, every  democracy requires a social contract. The will of the individual is protected by rights and also restricted by laws, rules and regulations. These are often held in tension out of the dual needs for safety and freedom.

In most Professional Learning Communities there is talk of the "loose" and "tights." A good principal will respect teacher identity and allow for the freedom to teach within the confines of a few "tights" about what is best for students. It gets murky sometimes. I get that. Much of what passes for "teacher complaining" or even "school politics" is simply very different paradigms and philosophies about what students need.

However, ultimately that's where autonomy matters. The will of the organization can be imposed upon the individual through coercion. However, meaningful change occurs only when the individual is able to make a paradigm shift. It takes more time to empower teachers, but at a cultural level, that is how schools change.

A Humble Answer

I readily admit that I attacked Solution Tree without remembering that there were people behind the organization. I called them the Tree Party and Delusion Tree. Clever, perhaps. Snarky, for sure. But also arrogant. My words were so extreme that dialogue wasn't possible in the moment. I became the very thing that I was railing against.

However, teacher autonomy still matters. The anger I felt inside of me comes from the sense of being beat down, shamed and told to "shut up, because it's for the kids." Teachers are already under attack from so many different angles. If we seem skittish, it's because we've been bludgeoned in the name of "what works."

Instead of mocking teacher autonomy, a better solution might be the recognize it as a real human need, define it as "the freedom to do what's best for students," discuss the nuances and paradox of staff unity and individual autonomy and then get into why a PLC might actually allow for more teacher autonomy.

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John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
My goal is simple. I want to make something every day. Some days I make things. Other days I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com

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