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 actually use that great strategy in my classroom because…

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

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, and
  • 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.

Teacher agency is just as important as student agency.


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.

Today’s relentless push toward 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.


Teacher Distrust

Prescriptive, restrictive, and often completely scripted programs and pacing plans are specifically designed to be “teacher proof.” These programs are most often not created, not vetted, and certainly not refined and revised by current classroom teachers. They’re also usually expensive, quickly discarded, and capriciously replaced: a complete waste of time and money.

In a desperate attempt to raise test scores, those who are out of the classroom too often seek to purchase the next prescriptive program; which really are programs so purposely constrictive it’s hoped that even the most inept of teachers cannot possibly screw them up.

Then, the teachers who are actually in the classroom are forced to implement those programs; which, in actuality, are insulting scripts and inferior systems that often only screw up the teacher’s already effective and engaging instruction and, in the process. screw up the students’ learning and emotional investment.

The gulf between those who are inside and those who are outside of the classroom is now vast. Is it any wonder that veteran teachers shut down each time some “new and improved” program, which is just a rehashing of what was already imposed, cost a fortune, failed miserably, and abandoned five or ten years ago, is shoved down their throats?


Thinking Critically

Here’s my four-step process for critically thinking about the next “latest and greatest” idea and for practicing informed teacher 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 to your colleagues and administrators.

If your arguments and opinions continually fall upon deaf ears, abandon your fight. I learned long ago that trying to reason with an unreasonable person is fruitless and that some administrators value compliance over critical thinking. If that’s who you are dealing with, keep your mouth shut. Such silence is all the administrator wanted in the first place, and they will likely leave you alone as long as you don’t make waves.

I’ve learned the hard way: Pick your battles, play the game, preserve your sanity, and protect your career. This has nothing to do with being selfish. In fact, if in many ways teachers don’t put themselves first, it will be their students who suffer the most. No child can learn from a burnt out, embittered teacher. By contrast, students learn the most from an enthusiastic, creative, and fulfilled educator, whose teaching joy is infectious and inspiring.

Until the onerous program in question is eventually discontinued (and it will be), stall, play dumb, and do only enough to put on a good dog and pony show should someone actually come to check up on you.

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

Just because an instructional strategy makes sense, this doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every teacher. If the idea doesn’t personally and profoundly resonate with you, let those who love it run with it, while you stick with 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’s 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 in terms of developing the student self-control, self-confidence, and self-efficacy necessary to find success with this new method or material.

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

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


Read the next article in this series, Valuing Critical Thinking in Teachers.


Read more about the importance of teacher and student voice and choice in Robert Ward’s inspiring and empowering book, Teaching the Benefit Mindset: Moving Empathy, Inclusion, and Altruism to the Forefront of Education.


This article first appeared on the Advancement Courses blog. I’ve written several courses for them, including Benefit Mindset and Altruism. I highly recommend Advancement Courses for all your professional development needs.



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