Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Finding the Sweet Spot for Teacher Autonomy

How much autonomy should a classroom teacher have?

On the one hand, a teacher with no autonomy, who simply reads from the book or the canned script is not an actual teacher at all. If you're not bringing something to the classroom as a professional, educated adult, then why are you there? Some autonomy is absolutely necessary for real teaching.

On the other hand, there are limits. I always believed that I worked for the taxpayers, that I had been hired (and paid) by them to teach their children with the best of my professional, educational judgment. My standard response to student requests for a movie day or a free day was, "That's not what the taxpayers hired me to do."

Teaching is such a consuming job, a job that you put yourself into, and so it can be easy to let the line blur between your professional judgment and your personal crusade. The Libs of Tik Tok twitter account dragged into "woke"-shaming prominence a teacher who announced her intention to undermine ideologies with which she disagrees in her classroom. I disagree with most of those same ideologies, but when Robert Pondiscio charged that "what she’s really drunk on is power—albeit a power she does not have," I can't defend her. 

Teachers from all over the ideological map make this mistake. I think of my Jewish student's story of the elementary school teacher who tried to convince her that she was all wrong about Jesus. There are plenty of teachers across the country who are certain that their personal mission to bring souls to Christ should be part of their pedagogical practice. They are wrong, too. The guy in Texas who was fired after explaining to his Black students his belief that his race was superior? Also wrong.

But when I hear all the indoctrination panic, I also think of Lois Anthony, my tenth grade social studies teacher. She was new, and it was 1972, and she really wanted us to understand that George McGovern was a better choice for President and that he would get us out of Vietnam, which was the only right thing to do. She preached it--she even brought in a local liberal newspaper guy to sell the message. But anybody who thinks that any of this would indoctrinate high school sophomores has never met a high school sophomore. All she managed to indoctrinate into us was the knowledge of which buttons to push in order to get her riled up and off track. 

Teacher autonomy is a critical part of serving students, or capturing teachable moments and adjusting the class to meet the needs that students present. At the same time, teachers who write their own complete curriculum from scratch created trouble for the school as a whole. But the argument out there currently isn't really about curriculum--it's about personal stuff.

The best teachers are real people, and they bring their real people stuff into the classroom. Not all of it, and not all the time, but students do not respond particularly well to robot teachers. And teachers' real people stuff includes their beliefs and their values. We're hired to teach students to the best of our professional ability, and it's impossible to draw a hard, clear line between personal and professional beliefs.

So how do we decide how much autonomy is too much? How do we decide that too much of the personal has slid over into the professional?

I don't have a hard and fast answer (because I don't believe that one exists), but I have some thoughts about the guidelines.

Most importantly, the personal can't interfere with the work. Drawing on what we know about human relationships to add to a discussion of relationships in a novel? Probably okay. Talking to students about relationship problems instead of covering the day's lesson? Probably not okay. Letting details of your home life slip through now and then, like photos on a desk? Probably okay. Starting each class with a five-minute update on what your family members are up to? Probably not okay. Letting your personal biases affect how you treat particular students? Not okay. Refusing to consider what those personal biases might be? Also not okay.

When you teach and live in a small community, it's impossible to hide your own story. You can't pretend you don't believe things, haven't been through things, don't worship at a particular church (or no church). 

But what you can do is make sure that your students believe--really, truly believe--that your personal beliefs will have nothing to do with how you treat them, teach them, and evaluate them in your class. That for me is absolutely key. Particularly in a class about communication, you cannot send the message "I want you to express yourselves, but only certain expressions and ideas will be accepted." 

This is not easy. It really isn't. I've known a non-zero number of teachers who have sincerely said, "I don't want to teach students what to think--I just want them to think." But unfortunately, the unspoken--often unacknowledged second part of this was "And I will know they have really thought about this if they reach what I believe is the correct conclusion." (And a great number of folks outside of education operate on the same premise.)

The most basic thing that student suss out in September (if they don't already know via reputation) is whether the teacher wants them come up with ideas of their own, or if students are supposed to come up with the teachers' ideas. Once they've decided that their job is to mimic and regurgitate the teachers' thoughts, any kind of deeper or richer education becomes less likely. And the teacher becomes doubly ineffective if students learn that they need to have a different identity to pass the class. 

Everyone needs to feel safe in that classroom, including safe to freely express whatever it is they have to express. That does not mean they can be free to express hostility and disrespect to other students in that classroom (and in my experience students don't push back against that rule as long as they believe that it applies to everyone). 

It requires restraint and reflection from the teacher. In my case it meant not assigning essays about topics on which my feelings were so strong that I was concerned my biases would leak through. It also requires a certain kind of optimism. I realize that's not on brand here, but I have long believed that if one is open, thoughtful, curious, and willing to move forward, one will move toward better understanding.

Or to take it from another angle--fear and anger are obstacles to understanding and truth, so it's a teacher's job to get fear and anger out of their classroom.

Look, I promised that I wouldn't have a simple answer for this, and I don't. Teacher autonomy is one more string on the educational instrument, and like any string, it only makes music when it's being pulled in opposite directions. Too little autonomy and teachers can't do the work. Too much autonomy and teachers get in their own way of doing the work. Don't trust anyone who says they have a simple answer. 


  1. To me most of what you talk about has nothing to do with autonomy. To me, the teacher having autonomy means that they make the decisions on what curriculum they use and how they run their classes. It has nothing to do with anything personal. I mostly agree with what you say about the personal. The key is in being professional. If you're professional, you don't let your personal life interfere with what you're doing. It doesn't mean you're a robot. And it doesn't mean you can't have opinions. Students learn to have critical thinking if they're exposed to a lot of different opinions. Of course it doesn't mean you try to impose your opinion on others. Of course it takes restraint and reflection. But you don't need somebody looking over your shoulder. If teacher training programs make sure teacher candidates get in-depth knowledge of subject matter, cognitive learning psychology, and lots of psychology and sociology classes, and if you have time during the day to consult with other professionals if you want to, then you can give teachers autonomy and trust they're going to do a good job.

  2. I taught math. Not one bit of what you are talking about EVER came up.