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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, No. 1, Sept./Oct. 2003

Professional autonomy

by Anita Chapman

Much of our job satisfaction in teaching comes from exercising our professional judgment in order to meet the diverse needs of our students. The professional autonomy of teachers to exercise their judgment and act on it is an important source of strength in a public education system, and as such, should be valued by the broader society as well as by members of the profession.

Changes to the College of Teachers’ legislation in Bill 51 are a serious threat to the professional autonomy of teachers, but it is not the first threat. Teachers are already experiencing many limitations and threats to their professional autonomy.

School Act and Regulations, Ministerial Orders, ministry policies
The School Act and Regulations, Ministerial Orders, and ministry policies put some parameters on teacher professional autonomy.

Teachers are required to teach the curriculum as defined by the learning outcomes and assess student performance in relation to the learning outcomes, but we have professional autonomy about how to do that, what instructional and assessment strategies to use.

Our collective-agreement language on professional autonomy generally recognizes restrictions with wording such as "within the bounds of prescribed curriculum."

School-board decisions, policies
School boards often pass motions that curtail teachers’ professional autonomy. Teachers may not be as vigilant as they might be about such board actions because the ramifications for professional autonomy of specific board motions are not always immediately obvious.

Many school boards have mandated local report cards that exceed the provincial requirements for report cards and therefore increase the workload of teachers.

Many principals have told teachers they have to do school-wide "writes" using B.C. Performance Standards in order to collect data for the school planning council or the district’s accountability contract. There is no provincial requirement to do things of this nature; in fact, the B.C. Performance Standards are voluntary resources. Usually, there is no local board requirement to do them either. If teachers do not question such directives and draw them to the attention of their local union, professional autonomy is further curtailed.

Classroom teachers are usually clear on what is being required of them (for example, with report cards) but they may be unclear whether it is required by a Ministerial Order, a local board policy, a principal’s preference, or colleagues’ decision. Teachers therefore do not always have the information they need to make a judgment about how much professional autonomy they have in a situation. That ambiguity tends to further curtail professional autonomy.

Most of the current incursions into teachers’ professional autonomy are in assessment and evaluation.

Principals’ decisions
Principals often tell teachers that certain things are required. Teachers generally assume these are provincial requirements or board policies. However, the requirements are sometimes simply decisions of the individual principal, based on his or her opinions about best practice. In addition, principals’ decisions are sometimes based on their own misconceptions about provincial requirements and board policies.

For example, many elementary principals tell teachers that they are required to include previews with their report cards. That is not, and has never been, a provincial requirement, nor is it generally in board policy.

Teachers often need help from their school union reps and local unions to determine if something is truly a requirement and by whom, or if teachers in the local have professional autonomy in the matter in question.

Colleagues’ decisions
School staffs and departments sometimes make decisions or develop "policy" that curtails the individual professional autonomy of teacher colleagues. For example, a staff may decide to implement EBS (Effective Behaviour Support) school-wide, or a department may decide to have a final exam in a course. There is no problem with such decisions if they are unanimous, but to protect professional autonomy, there should be some provision for dissenters, if any, to opt out. Teachers who exercise their professional autonomy in such situations are sometimes viewed as obstructionists by other staff members. Colleagues may be harshly critical, believing that the "majority rules." The majority does not rule on matters of professional autonomy; it is an individual right we have under the collective agreement.

There is a dynamic tension between individual professional autonomy and the fact that the most powerful locus of educational change is the group, school, or department, and not the individual teacher. This is a right-versus-right dilemma that does not have a clear answer, so it is important that the issue of professional autonomy be an integral part of staff development and staff decision making.

Public pressure
Public pressure can have an enormous impact on teachers’ professional autonomy, especially with respect to learning resources in English language arts, as we saw in the Surrey book-banning case. Public pressure from the dominant community can trample the rights of minority communities (e.g., objections to the inclusion of First Nations’ myths and ceremonies in the instructional program).

Most situations are resolved in ways that are satisfactory to the teaching profession. However, the level of conflict, the heated rhetoric, and the level of media attention have an overall dampening effect on teachers’ willingness to take professional risks. They also make publishers of educational resources extremely cautious, so learning resources have become highly sanitized.

The "lighthouse" syndrome
School boards and district and school administrators often feel considerable pressure to look good or do well in relation to current ministry initiatives or flavour-of-the-year educational trends. Sometimes the pressure is obvious (e.g., Fraser Institute rankings or a visit from the deputy minister). Other times, the pressure is subliminal but no less powerful.

Currently, the government emphasis on accountability for outputs, and the resultant data madness, is expanding the problem. It is common for schools and districts to claim increases in FSA results and provincial exam results that are not statistically significant, and teachers are under considerable pressure to have students do well on these tests.

Teachers no longer have professional autonomy about how best to teach the course; they have professional autonomy about how best to teach to the exam.

Hidden threats
Professions that have professional autonomy are characterized by the ability of members to make decisions about the work they do and by a work environment that encourages such decisions. Most of the current threats to teachers’ professional autonomy are not direct attacks on the ability of teachers to make decisions about the work they do, but rather erosions of the work environment that effectively limit and discourage the exercise of those decisions.

The Liberal government did not strip professional-autonomy clauses from teachers’ collective agreements the way it stripped class-size language. But larger class sizes and fewer resources have dramatically narrowed the range of teacher decision making. Teachers still have the right to exercise their professional judgment about which textbooks they use in their classrooms; however, teachers are often deciding between using an outdated text or none at all, between having students share a text or have no text, between using inadequate resources or buying resources out of their own pockets. Exercising professional autonomy under such conditions is demoralizing.

It is important for teachers to guard against all unnecessary restraints on our professional autonomy so that we can continue to work toward meeting the diverse needs of our students.

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



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