Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Double-edged Sword of Teacher Autonomy

 It is safe to say that I work in an environment with a very high degree of teacher autonomy.  When I was first hired, the then-principal told me that we followed the School District of Philadelphia curriculum, but as an accelerated alternative school we were charged with pulling the “meat” from the curriculum and focusing on that.  “Awesome” I said with a huge, happy to have a job smile on my face.  I figured that at some point someone would come and explain what that meant in terms of what I ought to be teaching. 

After four years, I’m still waiting for that someone to explain what I’m supposed to be teaching. 

I quickly realized that I am the English department. 
 I developed the curriculum, selected the texts, created the assessments, and carry out the instruction for four different English courses (five if you include summer school).  I have great colleagues and an amazing principal, all of whom are more than willing to collaborate, but all of whom are also creating their own courses and managing their own workloads. As a small alternative school, we are, in many ways, on a super-autonomous island in the sea of highly regimented School District curricula.

And I love it.

In fact, I’ve become so used to this level of autonomy that I often worry how I would adjust to a more regimented or even collaborative environment.  Now don’t get me wrong, I utilize the SDP scope and sequence to an extent and my curriculum aligns to CCSS (perhaps better than the SDP mandated curriculum I might say).  It’s not like I’m off brain-washing my students with whatever brand of rhetoric I choose as many of the neo-liberal reformers would have you believe.  Nor am I kicking back while my students watch movies everyday as the corporate reformers would claim. 

I have worked very hard to develop a curriculum that is responsive to my students’ needs and interests.  With that said, my content is constantly changing.  I have the freedom to try out a wide variety of texts to accomplish my curricular goals.  Today alone my English 1 class was reading Matheson’s “I am Legend” and making stylistic connections between modern and classical horror, while English 3 was exploring bias in autobiography through the film “The Hurricane”.  English 2 was listening to some classic hip-hop to practice supporting themes with text (or lyrics) and English 4 was doing some collaborative close reading of Act 1 of Othello.   

These texts, learning activities, and assessments are not on any mandated curriculum that I was handed; instead they were developed with my students’ interests and needs in mind. And I will happily show any parent, colleague, or district administrator the standards alignment and my rational for making these curricular decisions. 

The crux of the matter is that I feel both empowered and challenged by the level of autonomy that I am fortunate enough to have.  However, this is not the case for everyone. 

At my own school, I’ve seen the darker side of such autonomy.  With such little oversight, it’s easy to become complacent. Over the last four years, we’ve had a few teachers who took this high level of autonomy for granted, relying heavily on worksheets and movies that did little to accomplish any curricular goals.  I’m sure part of this was to do being overwhelmed, but in large part I think it was complacency. 

It is because of those rare situations, however, that teachers are often stripped of autonomy. 

On the other hand, in order to gain a degree of autonomy, some teachers are required to give in to certain “accountability measures”.  Reformers will cede a degree of curricular autonomy, if teachers agree to have their evaluations linked to student performance.  Of course, it’s easy to see right through this ploy.  Since teachers are not able to make the assessments, but are held accountable for the students’ scores, the “autonomy” is merely symbolic. 

As such, autonomy represents a sort of double-edged sword.  It allows teachers to be creative and responsive to their students' needs, but too much can be overwhelming and be a detriment to learning (especially if teachers are new or inexperienced).  Strip teachers of autonomy and you remove professionalism and expertise from curriculum.  Even worse than this is using autonomy as a bargaining chip to manipulate educational reform. 

My solution:
In my utopian “wonder-school”, teachers would exist in autonomous groups. Perhaps based on subject and level, perhaps not.  The curricular goals would be developed by the teachers guided by groups like NCTE or NCTM and even CCSS.  Based on these curricular goals, teachers could then design their units and lessons as they saw fit.  They would be free to choose texts, readings, and other material that were of interest and relevance to students.  Further, this would give teachers the freedom to innovate within their courses and even develop new courses to better serve the needs of students.  

After all, innovation is consistently pegged as a 21st century skill that students will be expected to have, so why not afford it to those guiding their academic journey. 

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