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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

One to Grow On / The Autonomous Teacher

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Instructional Strategies
Professional Learning
To delineate everything teachers need would result in a list so long that it should be an embarrassment to our local and state governments and to any adult who proports to value education. To reduce that list to any one item seems almost pointless given the scope of the need. I think I'll take a chance, however, and make a nomination because sometimes, addressing one need can make a meaningful difference. Sometimes, changing one thing changes many things.
So I'll vote for professional autonomy for teachers as that one item.
Here's what autonomy doesn't mean. It doesn't mean anything goes. It doesn't mean license. It doesn't mean selfishness, every person for him or herself, or disregard for the feelings and needs of the people with whom we work.
What it does mean is the right of an individual to self-direct, the freedom to make informed, uncoerced decisions. It means that an employee is granted the latitude to make decisions about his or her own work, around a commonly agreed-on purpose or shared set of values.
Purpose is important: As Daniel Pink notes, people are motivated by a purpose if it seems as though it would make the world better. Experts in the field of leadership tell us that autonomy is also a great motivator. Pink points to research demonstrating that people function more productively and are more satisfied at work when they are more autonomous. Autonomy promotes mastery because autonomous individuals care enough to master the knowledge and skills that are likely to elevate the work they believe in.

What If They Had Autonomy?

I'm just guessing, but I'd wager that teachers who had the autonomy to come together to create a common purpose might not coalesce around the mission of raising standardized test scores. Instead, I think they'd band together around something like helping students build thoughtful, productive lives. I think they might jettison the "pacing guide" in favor of asking students how they'd like to learn about, say, animals, or about how history connects with their own lives.
With more professional discretion, I think teachers would find better ways to engage parents in understanding and supporting their children's growth than by just recording a specified number of grades in an online platform each week—whether or not calculating those grades supported actual learning. And I feel pretty sure many teachers—and students—would embrace mechanisms that let students demonstrate their diverse strengths and talents more fully than single-grade report cards do.
I'd conjecture that a good number of teachers, given the opportunity, would opt to develop expertise in a range of ways to teach reading to young learners, depending on the learners' needs, rather than teaching every student according to one mandated approach. And I'm confident that, in a culture of autonomy, teachers would invest more consistently and more deeply in studying their craft than they do in systems that require all teachers to attend the same "professional development" regardless of their growth stage. Most teachers would rather be propelled by a sense of personal responsibility than by a system of external accountability.
I believe that in a culture of autonomy, teachers would be better models of empathy and would offer their students more compelling examples of creativity in action. And I'm fully confident that both teachers' and students' stress levels would lessen, and that joy would once again take up residence in most classrooms.

Autonomy in Action

Last spring, I learned a lot from interacting with two high school biology teachers in Vermont whose work is thought-provoking and inspiring. These teachers collaborated throughout the year to design instruction that captured their students' imagination while ensuring that the students developed a robust understanding of science as a discipline and a way of life. The teachers' preparation was wide-ranging and their energy unflagging as they created multiple iterations of a new unit on body systems. Their sense of personal responsibility for this work was palpable.
As the school year was ending, these two teachers took a leap of faith; they set aside the more familiar progressions of teaching such a unit to guide their students in an open inquiry on vaping, an issue of immediate concern to adolescents. Students investigated and analyzed factors that lead to nicotine use, researching the issue through the lens of the teenage brain. Students' interests and questions served as rudders for the work, with the teachers providing scaffolding for students' learning activities. The work the students produced (which included claim-evidence-reasoning essays, personal reflections, and a revision of the school's juuling policy) and their feedback on this project revealed not only a solid understanding of the targeted content, but also strong skills in research and in drawing reasoned conclusions. Students took pride in their products. They gained life-changing insights.
It isn't surprising that these educators work in a public high school where leaders make it clear that teachers' ideas are central to instructional decision making, that teaching that ignites student thinking takes precedence over test-prep, that great teaching will result in deep learning, and that leaders will support teacher innovation. For me, these two teachers' creation and teaching of this innovative unit offered a mini-lesson on the power of teacher autonomy to transform teaching and learning—and teachers and learners.

Many Teachers' One Wish

I suspect many people don't realize how little autonomy most teachers have, and how little their perspectives are taken into account. Recently, a colleague of mine attended a discussion on education initiated by a local political candidate. The candidate asked the teachers in attendance, "What's the one thing you most wish policymakers would do to improve schools?" My friend responded, "Ask us for our opinions before you act." I appreciated the politician's question and my friend's answer, but I was jarred by the candidate's response to that answer. "You mean they don't do that?" she queried.
We have a long way to go in professionalizing teachers and giving them autonomy.
End Notes

1 Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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