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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to professional autonomy

Teacher professional autonomy and public education: The practice of educating citizens, not consumers

By Diane McNally

Public school teachers in British Columbia agree that true professional development is much more than learning skills in a top-down manner of delivery. Though there may be occasions when teachers choose (and “choose” is the key word) to seek out skill development, most often teachers pursue professional development that holds intrinsic meaning for them and deep implications for their professionally considered practice.

However, the global trend to the rising power of neo-liberal market forces ideologies in the interest of corporate welfare and corporate hegemony has reframed education in business terms, and has reframed education as a marketable product while moving it away from consideration as a social good fundamental to a democratic society.

This larger context has implications for teachers professional autonomy and the professional development of teachers. In British Columbia, teachers have seen seemingly non-stop increases in government bills, data madness manifesting in terms of ever-proliferating demands for “accountability” to the detriment of teachers’ practice and student learning.

The narrow “accountability” mindset is directed to production of compliant and uncritical thinkers. BC teachers are resisting the top-down business model of education and teacher “skill development” because teachers are deeply committed to protecting their profession as one that fundamentally supports development of citizenship, not compliant consumers, by facilitating critical thinking, educationally sound curriculum choices, and social justice education.

Teachers in British Columbia have experienced the top-down control version of managed “professional development” when they are “expected” to attend presentations promoted by school-level management and are “expected” to teach in certain ways. Such external expectations that replace teacher choice in professional development and professional autonomy in practice are underpinned by the control mechanisms of judgments of individual teachers (now judgments of individual schools, but teacher level Fraser Institute rankings are only a matter of time, and attached to that, teacher merit pay), and ever more lofty targets developed annually in an endless striving that can never be good enough. In Greater Victoria, a school trustee was heard to say in a public meeting that all children could be above average in performance measures if teachers taught them properly. This fantasy is directly associated with support for the call for ever-increasing data submissions from schools to the District, all to the end of proving that teachers aren’t good enough, and that management can fix that through top-down control of teachers’ professional development and constant challenges to teachers’ professional autonomy.

The neoliberal glorification of promoting private delivery over public institutions, efficiency over diversity and respect for the individual and social justice, and promotion of competition for students by public schools, along with school-based financial agony (better known as school-based budgeting with the “flexibility” to decide what to do with not enough money) are presented by ideologues as increasing efficiency and effectiveness. Teachers are continually assaulted by the flavour-of-the-year skill fixes that emanate from the Ministry of Education’s “fix the teachers” department, based on seemingly no recognition that teaching is not an exact science and that any classroom contains unquantifiable variables.

Is “efficiency” what we have in mind for our classrooms? Is “efficiency” the objective of the dedicated teacher who enters a classroom filled with all the variables students bring? And what notion of “effectiveness” does a professional hold? Certainly not teaching to any test in order to demonstrate marketability for the school, while letting all the engaging opportunities that professional judgment would embrace, drift away in the stultifying climate of “data collection.”

Professionals are dangerous! Professionals resist and subvert the control agenda aims of education managers; so the professionalism of teachers is structurally attacked and undermined. Professionals resist the coercion of nominative “leaders” masquerading as consensus-building at the school level in regard to teachers’ professional development and autonomy in practice.

Among the qualities needed in a democratic society that teachers strive to develop in student citizens are considered use of individual freedom and personal liberties, personal choice in the context of society, and autonomous participation in personal and social life.

The current obsession with accountability and data collection violates these fundamentals of democracy. Democracy and autonomy aren’t theories—they are practices that professional teachers demonstrate in their own lives and choices, and that they transmit to students in authentic ways. The professional teacher creates an environment that allows individuals to follow paths that are individually fulfilling for them, above economic focus. Professional teachers expect to, and do make such choices for themselves as they make professionally fulfilling choices in regard to their practice and professional development.

Diane McNally, first vice-president, Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

Recommended reading: John West-Burnham, Education and Democracy, University of Manchester monograph.

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