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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 15, Number 5, April 2003

Professional autonomy in the life of a teacher

by Anita Chapman

Most collective agreements contain professional-autonomy clauses. They say something like:

"Teachers shall, within the bounds of prescribed curriculum, and consistent with effective educational practice, have individual professional autonomy in determining the methods of instruction, and the planning and presentation of course materials in the classes of pupils to which they are assigned." (Grand Forks)

Teachers had professional autonomy long before it was in collective agreements. Teachers have traditionally exercised professional autonomy, and there has been a long-standing societal understanding and expectation that teachers would exercise some degree of professional autonomy. There is something called the Socratic method because Socrates used an instructional approach different from other teachers of his era. More recently, teachers have exercised professional autonomy to develop and implement whole language, co-operative learning, and portfolio assessment. In fact, all the innovations in educational practice grow out of teachers’ professional autonomy.

Sometimes, perhaps because of this long history, we take our professional autonomy for granted. This is unfortunate because professional autonomy is fundamental to both the quality of our working lives as teachers and our ability to be effective teachers.

The things we find most rewarding about teaching are things that you make professional choices about, choices that help a student learn, choices that make a difficult concept attainable, choices that make course work interesting and engaging for students.

The right we have as teachers to make professional choices enables us to meet the diverse and changing needs of our students.

The world is changing rapidly. We could make a long list of changes—changes in demographics, changes in the global marketplace, changes in technology—and we despair of being able to predict the world our students will live in. We are on the brink of nanotechnology. There is a word for what is happening to human thought these days: complexification.

There is something exciting about all this complexification, but there is also something scary. And when people are scared, they want to simplify things—teach the basics, the three Rs, the core competencies, have provincial exams, national standards. They want to go back to simpler times, to a version of the 1950s that never existed. We have a word for what we see when people are afraid of change, appropriately it’s a simpler word than complexification, its backlash. We are living through a lot of change, so we should expect to see backlashes. Expect calls for simplicity, demands for rules; expect to hear some confused reasoning. My favourite in this regard is the reasoning of the business community, who are calling on schools to meet the needs of the economy by training workers at the same time that major corporations are getting rid of thousands and thousands of workers, most of whom did quite well in school–who are calling for more high-tech training at the same time they are creating more low-skilled, part-time, and poorly paid positions.

Our professional autonomy represents diversity and complexity, so we should expect some of the backlash to be aimed at it. Expect calls from parents, school-district management, the business community, maybe even some of our colleagues for us all to teach the same way. And expect to hear anger, because scared often looks like angry. Angry parents are sometimes just scared parents. But all the spelling tests and school uniforms will not stop change, will not guarantee that kids will be okay in a world of social upheaval, high unemployment, and AIDS.

Our professional autonomy makes it difficult for employers to impose things on us. At the bargaining table, the employer reps invariably referred to our professional autonomy as "unfettered." Well, they are wrong; our professional autonomy is "fettered"—there are constraints on professional autonomy. The clause language identifies two:

  1. legislation, i.e., the School Act, Reg., and Minister’s Orders, that prescribe curriculum, define reporting formats, and so on, and

  2. effective educational practice.

Legislation takes precedence over collective agreements. We must teach to the prescribed learning outcomes in the curriculum, we must assess and evaluate student performance in relation to those, we must do three formal reports using written comments and/or letter grades and/or percentages, depending on the grade level we teach, and so on. But there is no legislation about how to teach to those outcomes or what assessment methodologies to use or what learning resources use. Teachers make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions about such things every day they teach. You teach Pascal’s triangle because it is in the prescribed curriculum, but you tell your students that it was discovered by the Chinese 300 years before Pascal was born because you are sensitive to the cultural mix in your class or because you feel you should correct the Eurocentrism in the text or both. That’s professional autonomy.

Despite some of the pressures from parents, the business community, etc., the ministry has so far avoided mandating methodology. You will notice that columns 2 and 3 in the IRPs say "suggested instructional strategies" and "suggested assessment strategies," reference sets are not mandated resources, etc. Learning resources are no longer prescribed; they are only recommended. School boards regularly mandate things that the ministry has only recommended, suggested, mentioned in passing, or is thinking about.

Legislation is reasonably clear. Less so, the other constraint: effective educational practice. I envision an arbitration where the lawyers for both sides arrive with dozens of Phi Delta Kappan journals under their arms. The range of what is considered effective educational practice is very broad. This is good, as it gives individual teachers the room to exercise their unique personal styles and to meet the diverse needs of their students. But very broad doesn’t mean infinitely broad; there is, I believe, some agreement within our profession about what constitutes effective educational practice, such as:

  • addressing the needs of each student
  • tasks that are relevant, interesting, engaging, hands on
  • positive interactions, respect, caring.

Professional autonomy isn’t ever a defence for ineffective teaching practice.

If a student, parent, colleague, or principal asks you why you made the choice you did in your teaching, never say "Because I have professional autonomy." Say instead, "I thought it was best for the student because..." Professional autonomy is why you had choice, not why you made the choice you did.

Most of the difference between one teacher’s effective practice and another teacher’s effective practice is in style, not substance. There are innumerable ways to show respect and caring. Effective practice is, above all, resourceful.

There is no defence of professional autonomy more effective, more powerful, than its thoughtful use day in and day out by 43,000 teachers.

Anita Chapman is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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