Thursday, July 21, 2011

Give Teachers the Autonomy to Be Great

It's funny how things work sometimes.  I was sitting in a math curriculum meeting yesterday where we were trying to develop an action plan for transitioning from Pennsylvania's current standards to the Common Core Curriculum which will become law in 2013.  A group of elementary teachers and administrators from our district were debating the problem of having to balance great pedagogical practices like concept development, project based learning, and talking about math in the classroom versus the need to practice skills and teach standardized test taking strategies.  Not one person in the room was arguing that skill practice and test prep were what's best for our students, but several expressed that not focusing in these areas would lead to a drop in test scores.  I found myself thinking, "What if we didn't need to have this absurd argument?  What if we as teachers were trusted enough as professionals to actually focus on best teaching practices to just teach effectively?"

It was almost at that exact moment that I got an e-mail pointing out that a quote of mine was used in a Washington Post article by Vicki Davis entitled The Greatest Teacher Incentive:  The Freedom to Teach.  (If you are unfamiliar with Vicki, her Cool Cat Teacher Blog is amazingly informative and insightful, and one you should consider checking out.)

The discussion at the meeting and Vicki's article got me thinking about how different, and how great our schools would be if we gave teachers the professional autonomy they deserved.  What if, instead of blocking all social networking sites and sending the message that teachers cannot be trusted, we opened those sites up and encouraged teachers to network with other professionals to improve their craft?  What if, instead of handing teachers a scripted textbook teachers' manual and demanding that they follow every lesson, we challenged teachers to collaborate to create lessons that were better than the textbook?  And what if we then encouraged them to share those lessons with others?  What if, instead of devising policies to punish "bad" teachers and ensure that all are mediocre, we identified ways to help all teachers continually improve their teaching and devised policies that allowed teachers to be great?

You cannot make a logical argument that our education system wouldn't be greatly improved if those, and other changes to give teachers more professional discretion were made.  Autonomy is a great motivator.

Lately, many states and politicians have tried to use money as a motivational tool in the form of merit based pay.  I've seen studies that show how this type of reward system doesn't work, but I think the following example is a better way to show how much more motivational a move towards trusting teachers would be.

Imagine you had two friends who needed your help with something in which you both had the expertise to help and truly enjoyed doing.

When you go to help the first friend, they refuse to listen to your advice, even though you are more knowledgeable about the subject than they are.  Throughout the task, they bark orders at you, treat you like you are incapable of completing the task, and refuse to let you have access to some of the tools in the toolbox that you know would make the job easier.  They demand that you do it their way, and promise to give you a few bucks when the job is completed, but only if it is done completely correctly.

At the second friend's house, you are greeted warmly and feel thoroughly appreciated.  You are given the freedom to complete the task any way that you wish, and your friend offers assist you in any way that they can.  Despite the fact that you sometimes run into difficulties, your friend encourages you by telling you that they trust your ability in this area, and they have confidence that you will overcome any challenges.  Your friend never offers you money for helping.

In which scenario would you be more motivated?  In which do you think you would do a better job?

Unfortunately, many public educators feel like they are stuck reliving the first scenario again and again.  There is a serious lack of morale among teachers, and it's having an effect on the next generation.  We want students to learn creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration to excel in the 21st Century workplace, but we punish teachers for being creative, enforce policies that discourage critical thinking, and block the tools that would allow teachers to collaborate.  How can we realistically expect teachers to teach their students these skills in that environment?  Is it really a shock that we are falling behind other countries?

It's time to start encouraging teachers to be more than "proficient."  It's time to start giving them the professional autonomy that they deserve.  If we do that, our students and communities will benefit.  If we do that, we could be great.


  1. Michael, I agree. In fact, I happen to be a lucky one who works in a system that treats us like professionals and provides us with the autonomy to make professional choices, where we don't have to discuss test-taking or other such things. I have seen how teachers respond to such an environment as you describe and, for the most part, it is very different from what I have read as of late in the blogs and articles in various places. It is sad to see how so many teachers are treated.

  2. kwhobbs,

    Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately, as you allude to, your experience is far too infrequent. It's my hope that systems like yours, where professionalism is valued, are soon seen as the example for the rest to follow. Please share your schools successes and show the benefits of such freedom to others so that the word spreads! -Mike

  3. I'm lucky; my parochial school has always treated me with unbelievable trust and support. We don't have the funds to use many of the tools that public schools have, so I've had to be creative and innovative to do as much and more. Colleagues and admins have been the cheerleaders I need while I tread unknown waters. We have achieved a standard of excellence throughout the school from this environment of trust and autonomy. It's priceless.

  4. lkjohnson,
    Unfortunately, public school teachers often don't get that same level of trust and support due to standardized test pressures. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I love hearing examples of how that freedom to be a professional leads to excellence. -Mike

  5. Mike,
    I totally agree with you. True teachers and educators, those who are called to the profession need to be allowed to be the professionals that they are and have the freedom in their classroom that you speak of.
    To be honest, the problem comes in with all of those in our profession who are not TRUE educators OR professionals. I have had many experiences, around the country where this is the case. Unfortunately, in order for this autonomy that is necessary to work, we need to be better, as a country, and especially in larger urban districts at training and vetting our professionals... Sad, but true..
    That being said, I DO believe that, when an educator demonstrates that they are a true professional and educator, they should be allowed to make certain decisions as to what goes on in their classroom.

  6. Mrs. D,

    I can't argue that there aren't some teachers out there that aren't as professional as they should be. You'll find that in every profession, and every walk of life. There are lousy doctors, corrupt police officers, etc.

    I believe that 15% of our teachers are innovators and excelling. 15% are probably hopeless, unfortunately. The problem lies in what we do with the remaining 70%. That's where our focus must be, because that 70% can go either way. That's where we can change education.

    Our current policies have them unmotivated and feeling battered, attacked, unappreciated, and powerless to help the students they love. If we gave teachers the freedom to teach effectively and spent our money on professional development rather than punitive oversight, those 70% would begin to feel motivated and inspired. Their teaching would improve as would that of all they collaborate with.

    If we do that, instead of the the 15% of the teachers who are hopeless being able to spread their negativity, they would be swimming upstream. - Mike

  7. Mike,
    I TOTALLY agree with you. I would love to see that 15% feeling left out and left behind!