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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to Professional Autonomy

A beginning teacher speaks about professional autonomy after spending a year teaching in England

By Debra Swain

A conversation in the staffroom of my school with beginning teacher Caitlin Kyle, clarified for me why teachers in BC are so adamant about protecting and enhancing their professional autonomy. Kyle spent last year teaching in London, England as a teacher teaching on call. There were many striking differences between her experiences as a pre-service teacher in British Columbia and her year teaching in London schools. She agreed to work with me to write about some of her experiences.

The UK National Curriculum is heavily prescriptive. Teachers are expected to follow strict guidelines and to submit detailed lesson plans to their administrators for every subject. While the lesson plans describe step-by-step procedures for delivering the curriculum, Kyle found them limiting and frustrating to deliver. Lessons would usually include a 5-minute introduction, a 15-minute lesson on a concept delivered by the teacher, and 15 to 20 minutes of independent seat work, often from a worksheet provided by the national curriculum. Math lessons followed the same format for every concept. Kyle had been taught to integrate the learning outcomes to meet students’ needs and interests. There was little opportunity for her to exercise this kind of judgment in the UK system.

Fortunately, Kyle was contracted for a period of time at a progressive primary school. She described her first-hand experiences with one class where she was able to use her skills in hands-on learning and integrating curriculum as follows:

“Retaining professional autonomy is something that I feel very strongly about, particularly because I have taught in a system where it is not as highly valued or respected. My experiences teaching in London, England, for a year, and arriving back to Canada amidst heavy discussion about the disadvantages of FSA testing and how teachers in BC must hold on to their professional autonomy have only strengthened my position on these issues. I have realized how lucky we are in BC to have a curriculum that is left open for some interpretation, and teachers are allowed to teach as they see fit, integrating subjects and topics that interest students and planning for more creative instruction. In many classrooms that I visited while teaching on call in London, the majority of student work was very worksheet-based, heavy on seatwork, and giving students little opportunity for creative thought or hands-on instruction.

During my experiences, I had a moment of clarity when teaching a Year 2 science lesson (equivalent to Grade 1 in BC). The class had been learning about electricity, and the task for that day’s science lesson was to create a simple circuit with a battery, two wires, and a light bulb. I feel passionately about hands-on instruction and allowing students to learn by doing, so that day I decided I would take a risk. Rather than going to the normal method of instruction I had observed in many schools where the teacher demonstrates and students copy, I decided to give students the materials and let them figure it out for themselves. I placed students in pairs, handed out equipment, and explained that they needed to figure out how to light up the light bulb.

Student reaction was overwhelmingly positive. My class was transformed. I watched as every single student was extremely engaged in the task at hand, and suddenly there were little to no classroom management problems and I was free to circulate the room and observe the students working. Rather than passively receiving information or copying a teacher demonstrating, my students were learning by discovering things for themselves. No one became frustrated because they couldn’t figure it out. All students stuck to their task and allowed natural curiosity to take over.

This was an incredible first-hand experience of how professional autonomy, allowing for more creative instruction, can be a tremendous factor in student success. However, I was lucky because the school I was teaching in at the time was one where creative planning and instruction were not only valued by the teachers, but also appreciated by administration.

I also implemented these strategies while teaching a unit on Canada that my class presented at an assembly. This allowed me to not only teach a subject I was comfortable with and passionate about, but also allowed my students to learn about a topic that they wouldn’t otherwise. By integrating subjects, I found a place for it in the curriculum, and creatively planned a successful unit. While my experience at this particular school was very positive, I have also seen the tremendously negative affects of professional autonomy being taken away from teachers. It was frustrating to teach in a system where curriculum was forced upon teachers and where students become less engaged with resulting lower achievement. I sincerely hope that in BC we never get that far.”

Kyle and I spoke of many other differences between the BC and UK education systems. We both believe that the BC education system is superior in many ways and that there is much to protect. The BCTF works to defend teachers’ professional autonomy so that we can continue to teach to our students interests and needs, while meeting the prescribed learning outcomes. As a profession, we need to work together to ensure our views are heard on the issues of prescriptive curriculum and high-stakes testing. Our students deserve an education system that is responsive to their needs and interests, and that will prepare them for what ever future lies ahead.

Debra Swain is a member of the BCTF Program for Quality Teaching and Teacher Inquiry Committee and a learning support teacher at Sundance Elementary, Victoria. Caitlin Kyle is a teacher teaching on call, Victoria.

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