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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 24, Number 2, October 2011  

Professional autonomy in teaching

Keynote address to PD chairs, Summer Conference 2011

By Joanna Larson  

Public Education is a sacred trust. As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nurtures their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action. – Charter for Public Education 

It is not often enough as teachers, we take the time to really reflect on our purpose in our classrooms, and the purpose of public education in society. It’s even less often, that we examine the issue of professional autonomy through this lens.

Professional autonomy in teaching goes far beyond the ability to maintain a defined set of professional freedoms such as choosing our own resource materials, methods of instruction and assessing student progress.

It goes far beyond self-directed professional development:

“Thinking for oneself in uncertain and complex situations in which judgment is more important than routine.” – Anne Phelan and Alice Pitt

This definition not only defines what it means to be autonomous as a teacher, but also what it means to be an autonomous learner.

More than anything else we do, our constant striving to prepare our students to use their judgment is what sets us apart from other professions. And thus, has different consequences when our professional autonomy is eroded. You cannot erode a teacher’s autonomy without eroding that of the students.

We strive to empower our students with the knowledge they need to make good decisions, the confidence they need to make responsible decisions, and the open mindedness to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.

Essentially we are trying to create a safe place in schools for students to practice decision making, and gain confidence using their judgment. What sets teachers apart from other professions is our profound commitment to promoting our students autonomy, both as learners, and responsible citizens of a fair and just democratic society.

Teacher autonomy and learner autonomy are implicitly linked with one another by the nature and purpose of what we believe public education to serve.

If we want autonomous learners, we have to have autonomous teachers.

Phelan and Pitt make the case that the autonomy of a profession depends on the autonomy of each of its members. Autonomous participants must create and account for the singularity of the profession as a collective vision of autonomy. Therefore, professional members have to become autonomous before there can be autonomy.

When Bills 27 and 28 were enacted, over 3,000 teaching positions disappeared. Many teachers ended up struggling in contract work or living below the poverty line as TTOC’s.

When you are worried about paying your rent, and putting food on the table for your children, how much autonomy do you really have?

If we want teachers focused on being innovative, imaginative, and inspired in our classrooms, then they can’t be worried about making it to their second job on time, and they can’t be willing to compromise what they know is right and just in order to please those who control if, when, and how much they work.

Bills 27 and 28 left teachers in classrooms watching class sizes grow, the number of students with special needs increase, at the same time specialist and support programs decreased. These teachers saw their workload increase exponentially and they too started to drift into survival mode. Shutting their doors and often relying on “canned” programming just to make it through the end of the day.

This undermined their confidence. Teachers began to see themselves as failures, and broken spirits have a hard time exercising good judgment. They are more likely to prefer to follow routine.

In the current round of collective bargaining, the biggest problem we face, is that BCPSEA is proposing contract strips, and less than nothing in terms of compensation. Gutting teacher evaluation language, stripping seniority from post-and-fill language all have an incredulous amount of influence over a teacher’s confidence in exerting their autonomy.

Teachers become less willing to be creative, inventive, and push the envelope in methods that will engage students. We become obedient and compliant. We are more likely to follow bad advice from superiors in order to please them, than to challenge bad ideas.

“Personalized Learning”—an initiative that in my opinion is an insult to our profession, and a dis-service to our students. This is not an initiative reminiscent of creating equal opportunity for all, and it is not an initiative designed to meet the individual needs of our students.

It is using digital evangelism to put millions of dollars in the hands of private business and strip collective agreements.

The vision of personalized learning that predominantly exists, diminishes the art of teaching and reduces the role of teachers to facilitators. It imposes the dominant or sole method of instruction through technology, and essentially removes teachers from classrooms potentially creating a dehumanized mode of instruction. Keeping in mind the purpose of public education, how will this vision help us achieve the goals of encouraging our students to become persons of character, strength, and integrity?

Personalized learning is a means of indoctrinating our children to exist in an urban consumerist society and no other. It disconnects us from our environment, and narrows our potential to the use of corporate technology.

Unfortunately, the erosion of public confidence in education seems to have left us in a position where “reform” is the only answer. Even in our professional conversations we are struggling to find the positives in the personalized learning movement, trying to find ways to shape it into what we want.

Teachers are on a constant quest, a continual process of inquiry into how their practice can best promote autonomous learning for our students. And this often makes us weak to the seductive language used around education reform— 21st Century Learning, Learner Focused, Flexibility.

We often underestimate the true intentions of the reformers, believing they too share our aspirations of autonomous, self-sufficient life-long learners. In reality, their intentions can be very different from ours.

Historically, public education evolved as a means of educating a class of people to serve the elite members of society.

“A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another, and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government…it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.” – John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty”

In the words of the Ministry of Education:

  • “We want the right teachers placed in the right positions. Qualified and suitable teachers—in best ‘fit’ placements.”
  • “We want to align professional development with teacher performance evaluations and school district policy requirements.”

These recent statements from the Ministry of Education expose the truth about what they really want out of education reform. Abject control. Not autonomous learners.

Phelan and Pitt explain the differences between autonomy and heteronomy:

“An autonomous society makes laws and knows it is the author of its laws.

“A heteronomous society lives by laws that came from elsewhere and are inviolable even if cruel, misconstrued, or out of touch.”

The summative result of the loss of autonomy for the profession of teaching, is the loss of autonomy for our learners as well. That can only lead to a shift away from an autonomous society into a more heteronomous one, and a loss of democracy for us all. 

Joanna Larson, president, Prince Rupert District Teachers’ Union and member-at-large, BCTF Executive Committee.  


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