Teacher leadership: How about some autonomy?

By Kim Farris-Berg, Special  to VIVA Teachers
Let’s drop our assumptions about the nature of teaching jobs, and imagine something different

Sometimes we become so accustomed to the way things are, we cannot imagine a different way of doing things. In 1927 one of the Warner Brothers made a famously wrong prediction, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” When it comes to systems vital for our future, like K-12 public schools, this myopia can be disastrous.

Even some teachers who are working to imagine a better future for K-12 schools get stuck in the assumption that the ways in which they currently operate are “givens.” Many educators accept that the role of a teacher is to instruct, and that a teacher’s management domain is the classroom. They accept that teachers need a boss to guide their culture and activities, and that only administrators are qualified to conduct evaluations and judge a teacher’s quality. They accept that “achievement” is defined outside of schools, and believe that teachers lose their power without tenure.

These assumptions are not givens! These are just perceived as givens. Some teachers are tackling the job of school improvement without assuming any of them, keeping only the practices that they deem best for their schools. You could, too.

There are more than 50 groups of teachers across the United States with collective authority to make decisions influencing the success of their entire schools. Some of the schools they serve are district schools, and others are chartered schools. Some work as members of the union local, and others do not. The schools are in urban, rural and suburban settings, and serve students from preschool through age 21.

My colleagues and I studied 11 of these teacher groups in depth. They have a mix of full and partial autonomy to collectively make decisions in an average of 7.71 out of ten possible areas.

  • Selecting colleagues
  • Transferring and dismissing colleagues
  • Evaluating colleagues
  • Setting staff pattern (e.g., determining who is full-time and who is part-time, allowing teachers to take on teaching and administrative tasks, and choosing the ratio of aides to teachers)
  • Selecting leaders
  • Determining budget
  • Determining salaries
  • Determining the learning program
  • Setting the schedule (e.g., calendar year and daily schedules)
  • Setting school level policy (e.g., homework and discipline approaches)

These teachers use their authority to create different types of jobs for teachers and learning opportunities for students. Their management domain is the whole school. They individualize learning and use assessment tools to improve their practice. They put students in the position to be active (not passive) learners. They expect students to develop both academic and life skills.

Autonomous teachers also create school cultures that are similar to those in high-performing organizations. They accept accountability, innovate, and make efficient use of resources. They select leaders to handle aspects of management, but these leaders are accountable to them (not vice versa). Teacher quality is most often judged by peers, who are expected to coach and mentor one another.

Teachers with full budget autonomy even go so far as to reject the idea of tenure and automatic raises. Instead they choose one-year, at-will contracts because, in their view, they need budget flexibility and the ability to control the quality of the workers who affect their success as a team. These teachers see job protections as necessary when other people control their work, but not when teachers call the shots.

My colleagues and I described all of these choices in detail in Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.
Is calling the shots easy? No! Pioneering is intense and difficult work, especially in a K-12 education culture that values “sameness.” Also, these teacher groups are not interconnected. Many feel they are islands without a system of support. Still, pioneers are known for their willingness to take on hardships for the promise of something greater. And the support can be developed as more teachers secure autonomy and cultivate their craft.

As with anything new, there will need to be early adaptors willing to commit to the idea, face any challenges that arise, and give it a serious try. Ultimately, the success of collective teacher autonomy as a strategy for K-12 improvement is dependent on whether groups of teachers seek the opportunity, face its challenges, and use it to advance teaching and learning. Until a large number of success stories demonstrate, on balance, an improvement over the current situation with our K-12 schools, teacher autonomy will remain largely a theoretical idea.

So, if you are a teacher and find the idea attractive, consider rounding up a group of colleagues and asking for autonomy to run a school or group of schools. Learn all you can from those who have gone before you, especially about how they secured autonomy. The “right” autonomy arrangement for your group will depend on many factors including state and local politics as well as your school board or charter school authorizer and the teachers’ union’s tolerance for “trying things”. It will also depend on the personal preferences of teachers in your group.

If at first you don’t succeed in securing autonomy, look for another path. And once you have autonomy, take care not to limit yourselves to any perceived givens, including any best practices from conventional schooling. Think creatively. Innovate. Change your jobs. Improve learning.

Just like actors proved Mr. Warner wrong, teachers could prove wrong all of the people who advocate for controlling teachers to produce better public schools. Teachers could be the social entrepreneurs we need to improve K-12, public schools. But not necessarily in the confines of the jobs you have now.
Maybe it’s time to drop our assumptions about the nature of teaching and imagine something different.

Kim Farris-Berg is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. She lives in Orange County, California. She is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

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Comments (2)

  1. Mm, The answer is zero. The ideas I wrote about here are based on the work my colleagues and I did observing and listening to teachers who call the shots. They have hundreds of years of experience teaching students from preschool through age 21.

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