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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to professional autonomy

Professional autonomy: Key to student success

By Lise Tétrault 

When I first began my teacher training in the mid-1970s, I do not recall exploring the concept of “professional autonomy.” Perhaps this is just a lapse in memory given my age! What I do recall is being taught that, as a teacher, I would be responsible for making decisions about how my students should learn the curriculum content required by the Ministry of Education. I also remember the many hours spent learning about how students learn and how I, as a professional teacher, could apply this knowledge to my teaching in order to ensure that all my students would become successful learners. It is only within the last six years that I have actually been working as a teacher in the public school system. Now I recognize that professional autonomy is all of the above and more.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I was hired to do educational work for community organizations. I worked as a facilitator/trainer/ counselor in settings where I was responsible for a variety of educational programs within the community. In all of these settings my employers not only encouraged me to make decisions about the learning needs of the people I was serving, they expected me to make decisions that would facilitate the learning for all the people we were serving. My effectiveness as a professional educator was directly dependent upon being given the time and the resources to develop programs that enabled people to become successful learners. For 20 years, I worked outside the public education system and came to believe in myself as a professional teacher.

For the past six years, I have worked as a middle-school teacher within the BC public education system. I find myself in a setting where I need to make decisions on a daily basis about the learning needs of my students, and plan how I am to meet those needs. My work as a teacher is far more demanding than the educational work I did during the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to becoming a middle-school teacher I assumed that schools would be places where teachers would be given the time and the resources needed to meet the learning needs of students. Imagine my surprise as I find myself in a situation where: my professionalism is being curtailed and prescribed by an administrative system that seeks to cut back my already limited preparation time to half of what most middle-school teachers in BC are receiving; the system would mandate the assessment tools I should use to measure student progress; and, further, would prescribe the nature of my discussions with colleagues as I assess and plan for the learning needs of my students. How can such a coercive and prescriptive system promote and support the professionalism needed to meet the diverse learning needs of students?

Middle-school research has clearly demonstrated that professional autonomy is vital to the success of middle-school learners. The research further demonstrates that schools that provide insufficient planning time or seek to control teachers’ planning time, limit the learning success of their students. Teachers in these schools report that the consequences of not being treated as professionals include reductions in time available for communication with parents, for reflection upon the day’s lessons in order to plan the most appropriate next step, for consultation with colleagues to learn from one-another’s best practices, and collaboration with colleagues who teach the same students to ensure a consistent approach with students who may be struggling.

Becoming a reflective practitioner and exercising my professional rights generates benefits. I have learned that when I stand firm in doing what I believe is right for my students, they become more successful learners. The teaching profession expands the body of knowledge that informs individual teachers. Parent/teacher partnerships are strengthened. The community benefits from having more engaged citizens. Encouraging and supporting teachers in exercising their professional autonomy benefits us all.

Lise Tétrault teaches French immersion at Shoreline Community School, Victoria.

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