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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to Professional Autonomy

Name it, frame it, and claim it

By Ron Sherman

Over the last several years, teachers have increasingly been heard to speak of “professional autonomy” and a certain set of rights and freedoms necessary to perform the tasks they are responsible for. It has caused me to wonder; is there something fundamental in the concept of autonomy that teachers are seeking to defend? Or, is this current manifestation simply a reactionary tactic in the face of the accountability agenda, and thus a thin platitude of no enduring value? Are there universally understood tenets of autonomy we need to defend?

Autonomy, to my understanding, is a matter of degree and extent, not absolutes. It is an issue of choice and control. When we discuss the concept, we invite all kinds of qualifiers; are we talking about autonomy over curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, professional development, student discipline, and classroom environment? And if we are, how much, when, and where?

In a nutshell, I think most teachers would argue that they want to work with some degree of freedom in a system that provides structure through such things as timetables, protocols, rules, and procedures that simplify the mundane everyday parts. We want to be able to question and change some of the details of this system, but would be silly to throw these off and operate in a laissez-faire manner that simply invites chaos; what we seek is some say, sometimes, in how these structures function. We would also like some say in the bigger questions, such as the use of FSA testing that some see as a tool to destabilize the entire public school system and demoralize those who work in it.

I see this very clearly in my work with student teachers. These novices enter the classroom with the basic goal of delivering a lesson, often unaware of the routines, procedures, and habits that the sponsor teacher has set up to make the class function effectively. These routines are a silent but crucial underlying structure in our classes, not unlike the other layers at the school, district, and provincial level which likewise assist with structuring our experience. We may not, in some cases, even know they exist, but they are the legacy of educators before us as they built a system to support their work.

In my career, I have been able to operate fairly autonomously, but certainly there have been times I’ve felt constrained in my ability to operate as I’ve wished. This is no different I think from most professionals; we have a Code of Ethics; we have obligations as employees; and there are expectations on us as teachers to act and behave in the public eye in a proper manner. We can debate the details, but the macro structure is a much longer discussion should we want to change that one. Generally, I’ve found most administrators amenable to discussions around how I perform my task. I’ve tried my best to build the relationships in good times such that when difficult discussions are needed the trust is there.

If there were to be a threat to autonomy, I believe it would be the dangerous trend of speaking of autonomy in the reflexive manner we often use. What typically happens is a reference to autonomy when freedom has been threatened, a kneejerk reaction that is too passive and reactionary. Such a strategy takes away our strength as a knowledgeable voice, which can articulate positive, proactive measures that strengthen a fully funded public education system as an integral part of a democratic society.

To preserve the autonomous nature of our profession, what we need to do is claim more of the landscape and dictate the way it will be discussed and described. In the words of Ted Koppel, “those who name it and frame it, claim it.” It behooves us as professionals to continue creating a powerful, forward-thinking vision of ourselves and the task we do, at zone meetings, RAs, AGMs, and in our own staffrooms. This work is not easy, and will come from the work of all teachers in meaningful dialogue with one another about this important topic.

Ron Sherman is a member of the BCTF Program for Quality Teaching and Teacher Inquiry Committee and teaches at Adam Robertson Elementary School, Creston Valley.

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