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By Daniel Shiu (he/him), BCTF staff, Professional and Social Issues Division

During our teaching careers, we have most likely heard or even have used the phrase, “professional autonomy.” We feel protected by it and use it to defend or justify our decisions as professionals. According to Pitt and Phelan, autonomy refers to “thinking for oneself in uncertain and complex situations in which judgment is more important than routine.”1 It is relational, socially constructed, and essential in creating, developing, and being a professional. Paradoxically, “the autonomy of a profession depends upon the autonomy of each of its members,” and therefore “professionals have to become autonomous before there can be autonomy.”2 So, what does professional autonomy really mean for teachers? What autonomy do teachers really have in the classroom? The short answer: it depends on your local collective agreement. But here is a longer answer.

Of the 60 collective agreements in the province, 2 do not include professional autonomy language provisions. The rest mainly guarantee teachers’ professional autonomy in terms of planning, presentation (i.e., methods of instruction), and evaluation of course materials. One district specifically states that teachers’ instructional methodology shall not be mandated. However, within this freedom, teachers are limited by legislation (i.e., Ministry of Education), regulation (i.e., BC Teachers’ Council), as well as policies and procedures (i.e., boards of education and administrative officers). As all teachers are to abide by the BC Teachers’ Council’s nine professional standards, the School Act, and ministerial orders, virtually all the collective agreements restrict individual professional autonomy within the bounds of the approved provincial or local curricula and practices consistent with “effective” or “generally accepted” educational methodology. This common stipulation, however, may fuel practical and interpretive ambiguity: what is considered “effective” or “generally accepted” educational methodology? Who determines this? How is it measured? What are the potential consequences if these criteria are not satisfactorily met?

Educational change is fundamentally part of the profession, whether it is curricula, pedagogy, resource, assessment, or even technology, and therefore, educational values, philosophies, and practices are not static. Teachers only have to open an outdated textbook and corresponding teacher’s resource book, a syllabus from a methodology course from their teacher education program, or an integrated resource package and its prescribed learning outcomes to see vast changes over time. Even resources used in the recent past have come into question. Understanding now that content or trigger warnings may be insufficient, teachers are taking greater caution in evaluating and presenting resources they once used, continue to use, or will use in the classroom in order to avoid the optics of misevaluating, misrepresenting, or misusing them. Although teachers have the autonomy to select the materials for their classes, school districts ultimately have the authority to approve or remove teaching materials from their learning resource services.

Despite this commonality in the collective agreements, not all of them contain the same restrictions. In one district, teachers must uphold the tenets of that city’s Code of Professional Relationships; while in another, teachers’ personal, political, racial, and religious biases must be excluded from any learning activities. Yet, in another collective agreement, teachers are permitted to express ideas and use materials if they do not conflict with the course of study, district policy, or district program. One can see the potential for grievances on both sides in interpreting, implementing, and enforcing these terms. Even though teachers strive to be “objective” with their opinions and views in the classroom, the art of teaching and the field of education are subjective. Teachers are passionate about teaching and, in turn, are impassioned by what they teach. They have the professional autonomy in deciding how to deliver the core and curricular competencies and corresponding content to students. However, these particular provisions permit school boards and administrators the right to challenge teachers’ pedagogical decisions and practices if they do not align with the collective agreement language.

Regarding assessment, eight districts explicitly provide professional autonomy language, where teachers have the right to determine student evaluation, grading practices, and techniques, including pass/fail provisions for each student. With the recent elimination of the high- and medium-stakes provincial exams, teachers feel greater flexibility and freedom with the curriculum and with their assessment practices, as they no longer have to “teach to the test.” Yet, there are limits. In a commonly cited decision, arbitrator Dorsey (2009) clarified the limitations of teacher professional autonomy within the public education system when a Grade 3 teacher was disciplined for refusing to administer the district reading assessment. In his ruling, Dorsey states that “teachers do not have unfettered discretion to comply with or refuse to comply with employer policies or directions on all matters that relate to teachers’ duties and responsibilities.”3 Here, school board and administrative directives do not infringe on teachers’ individual professional autonomy. However, with the proposed new reporting order, professional autonomy provisions in collective agreements protecting evaluation or assessment of students may be challenged, re-interpreted, or potentially overridden.

Where does this leave us and where do we go from here? The BCTF fully supports professional autonomy, not just pertaining to course materials, pedagogy, assessment, and professional development. One of its policy goals is to ensure “through the development of democratic processes, professional autonomy for teachers and protection from capricious or malicious action, unjust regulations and the abuse of authority.”4 It also considers the professional autonomy of teachers in the implementation of educational change, whether it is related to policy, practice, or curriculum. Furthermore, in its educational policy on assessment, evaluation, and reporting, the BCTF “supports the professional autonomy of the member in assessing, evaluating and reporting the progress of students.”5 Strengthening and protecting local teacher autonomy language in collective agreements is perhaps needed. Defining teacher professional autonomy appears easy on the surface; a closer look at the varying collective agreements and possible interpretations suggests otherwise. It also raises more questions than answers. At this time, professional autonomy is a provincial issue, and therefore can only be bar-gained provincially. The Professional Issues Advisory Committee of the BCTF is working toward a document to provide guidelines based on the values, practices, responsibilities, and conditions needed for professional autonomy. For teachers, professional autonomy is critically fundamental to the service of their profession, which is and will always be guided by the best interests of their students.

1 Alice Pitt and Anne Phelan, “Paradoxes of Autonomy in Professional Life: A Research Problem,” Changing English, Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2008, p. 189–190.

2 Ibid., p.190.

3 British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association, Arbitration Award: Professional Autonomy, 2009: www.bcpsea.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/documents/20101228_112513947_ai2009-35.pdf

4 British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, Members’ Guide to the BCTF 2021–2022, p. 70: bctf.ca/docs/default-source/publications/print-publications/2021-22-members-guide.pdf

5 Ibid., p. 42.

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