Valuing Critical Thinking in Teachers: Advocating for Educator Voice and Choice

One of modern education’s top goals has been to imbue our students with critical thinking skills. We do not want to be merely educating sheep.

Yet heaven forbid teachers themselves think critically about the curriculum and pedagogies that are foisted upon them!

According to Ruenzel (2014) writing in Education Week, “…too much of the discussion about the common core has focused on what students are going to have to do—and not enough on the fact that the standards can succeed only if teachers become the critical thinkers we now expect students to become. There is no other way. Teachers cannot push students to think more deeply unless they do so themselves.”

A teacher only seeks cooperative behavior in their students in order to free them to be creative and to express their opinions and ideas in a constructive, courteous manner. Paradoxically, those same teachers are too often expected to be blindly obedient to their “superiors”—and without any of the teacher’s own autonomy and reasoned input being respected.

Sometimes, it’s the teachers who are expected to be the sheep.

Too many teachers have been laden with massive binders and webpages filled with the latest edicts and editorials on what, when, and how to teach. They have spent too many precious instructional days in swank hotels or dank conference rooms away from their students so they could be in-serviced and indoctrinated—all of which is promptly ignored as soon as many teachers get back to school and shut their classroom doors.

In addition, some people who were once good teachers have become the bane of their colleagues by taking on “coaching” positions that amount to little more than being part of the curriculum police.

Why has compliance been valued more than creativity and quality in teachers? Would we ever want to treat our students in such a way? 


Teaching as an Art Form

Teaching is an art form, and a fascinating facilitator does not paint by the numbers. We are teachers, not technicians. Educators do not copy; they create.

Collaboration between teachers is a wonderful and useful thing, but it’s only part of who we are because each teacher brings their unique perspective and passion to their instruction. Textbooks and prepackaged curricula may sometimes be perfectly fine, but a fascinating facilitator regards them as mere crutches for those teachers with little imagination, insight, enthusiasm, or artistry.

The passionate teacher’s bottom line is: I cannot be fascinating if you will not let me be free; and without respect for my professional judgment, my students will never be fully engaged or invested.

Why are teachers being shoved into boxes that only constrict the talents of the proficient and curb the potential of the novice? Neither of which allows teachers to make the choices that allow them to do their best.

Where is the creativity and innovation in instruction going to come from, if all teachers are teaching the same thing, in same way, on the same day? Haven’t we already accepted that all kids can learn—but not necessarily the same thing on the same day in the same way?


Force is Unnecessary!

The reality is that forcing teacher fidelity to mandated programs and pacing plans is utterly laughable given the fact that when truly effective strategies are presented to teachers, they always fall all over themselves to incorporate those sound and practical ideas into their own classrooms. Teachers will “steal” each other blind when they spot any great idea.

No one has ever needed to force a teacher into using a brilliant technique. Just try to tell a teacher not to use a sensible strategy they’ve just learned! Why can’t any new ideas and strategies simply be presented to teachers? Then if the new way is really so wonderful, teachers will beg to use it.

The moment teachers are truly respected and valued is the moment they become even more open to listening to new ideas, methods, and curricula. Conversely, the more teachers are restricted and disrespected, the more resistant, cynical, and non-compliant they actually become.

And the very same is true of our students. The more that a teacher uses dry, repetitious instruction paired with tedious assignments that have no relevance to students’ lives and dreams, the more students tune out and turn off. Engagement, meaning, voice, and choice are crucial for both teacher and student.


Teacher Trust

This all comes down to a matter of trust, and two simple questions to those in power will suffice:

1.) Do you trust me to make excellent curricular and pedagogical decisions for my students?

Beware of the “Yes, but…” answer because this is actually a vote of no confidence or a sure sign of compromised commitment toward teachers.

2.) Do you consider me a part of the solution or part of the problem?

Either you have faith in me and value my abilities and discretion, or you do not. Either you want a true professional, or you want a robot.

If school boards and administrators do not trust their teachers implicitly and thoroughly, then they have nothing. And no canned curriculum or mandated program is going to save any student.

A respectful amount of self-governance must be returned to teachers, and this must no longer be viewed as a recipe for disaster. A true professional is someone who cares about their workplace performance even more than their employer. Teaching has never been just a job or a paycheck to any teacher of integrity. It can and will become just a job and just a (paltry) paycheck, however, if teachers continue to be demonized, discredited, and directed to death.

Teachers, as well as students, must have a large degree of freedom to choose for themselves what is important, what has meaning and purpose, or else the result is rote, passionless output: uninspired instruction and mechanical learning resulting in a numb and apathetic school.

The question “But what’s in it for me?” is not a selfish one; it’s an elemental and vital question for both teachers and students to continually ask. For without it, invariably the answer is, “Nothing. There is nothing in it for me.”

And if no one finds any meaning, who is going to put out any more than minimal effort, if that?


This article is a companion to Educator Autonomy: Honoring Teacher Input Leads to Investment and Innovation.

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For practical strategies on attending to the whole child and how teachers and parents can be allies in education, read the this book by Robert Ward, Talented Teachers, Empowered Parents, Successful Students.


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.

6 thoughts on “Valuing Critical Thinking in Teachers: Advocating for Educator Voice and Choice

  1. As Scottish education goes down the league tables one might say that a major reason has been the increase in union and teacher power (it has seen off much political moderation of late – ask John Swinney Scottish Education Minister) and parent obliging too. Of course there have been other reasons: Local Authority underfunding for one, lack of Digital skills all round, too much focus on nationalist fads such that we have adults on TV saying we should ignore WWII as it may upset some.

    From my armchair and odd bit of volunteering it seems on a micro-scale all might be considered going in the right general direction. However the politicians howls of doom make us generally depressed by the thought that our kids survive despite the system not because of it.


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