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BCTF Advantage

Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to Professional Autonomy

Professional autonomy

By Eric Bonfield

Teachers enjoy teaching in an environment where we feel independent, self-directing, and able to exercise our judgment to meet the diverse needs of our students. As professionals, we feel oppressed when a single view of what it means to be a good teacher is imposed on us and we fear the loss of the rich variety of ways to educate individual students in our care. A dynamic and inherent tension between the public ethos that constrains our practice with standards, statutes, codes, and discipline exist on one hand as constraints. On the other hand, our creative and responsible risk-taking motivates and inspires us to meaningfully respond to the relational context that defines our practice.

This tension or contradiction between constraint and creativity is amplified when teachers as professionals become reflective practitioners. Teachers who reflect-in-action, question the definition of the task, the theories that they bring to it, and the measures of performance by which they are controlled. Teachers question these things because they can often include unsubstantiated public pressure, and school board, principal, or colleague decisions. Teachers challenge how these decisions become embedded expectations of their teaching practice as exemplified in the Surrey book-banning case. This form of critical thinking about teaching practice includes being critical of school- or district- wide patterns of selective inattention to the neediest students.

The idea of reflective practice can help to demystify the tension and contradictions that we feel as teaching professionals. As professionals, we claim specialized knowledge of teaching that is value-laden and evaluative in its orientation and as such is potentially coercive. The scope of our professional judgment is limited by uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict. When research doesn’t apply or sustain our practice needs, then the teacher can’t legitimately claim to be an expert, but only prepared to reflect-in-action.

Teachers regard their teaching environments as unique and the application of standard theories or techniques are sometimes not useful. In the minutes that a teacher problem-solves with a student, they construct an understanding of the situation as they find it and therefore reframing it is essential. It is this act of reframing the problem and its solution as a reflective activity that transforms and buttresses our professional autonomy. The emerging picture of the professional teacher is one who balances the tension between the constraints, values, and principles of society, with the autonomy necessary to foster responsible and relational risk-taking as reflective- practitioners.

A useful tool appropriate to resolving the tension between freedom and responsibility, as autonomous professionals, is the establishment of appropriate forms of ethical interface. While significant aspects of professional practice should be guided by teachers reframing problems through reflective practice, a professional community is useful for creating, maintaining, and developing methods, standards, and norms for its ethical interface. Professional conversations are important to the process of interpreting and understanding the unique and particular of practice over the universal claims of theory.

While it is important for teachers to guard against arbitrary restraints on their professional autonomy, it is equally important that teachers tolerate the statutory and ethical constraints imposed upon them as professionals. We are responsible to our profession and to ourselves as individuals, to encourage and nurture a dialogic understanding of our practice that recognizes the work that we do as theoretically guided and idiosyncratically inspired. Authentic professional conversations help us to support our interdependence as creators and guides to our independent practice as teachers. Our professional autonomy is built upon the language that we speak together that redescribes what we do as teachers and validates our self-conception and public persona as a distinct vocation worthy of professional status.

Eric Bonfield, second vice-president, Surrey Teachers’ Association.

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