Balancing Teacher Autonomy and Collaboration

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Good teachers are growing practitioners. They know their students, their content, and their standards—but they are not satisfied with the status quo. Like all successful professionals, good teachers strive to grow their knowledge and adapt to changes in the landscape of their work. Good teachers know their own expertise is critical in the classroom; they also know the input of colleagues strengthens that expertise. While it can be difficult to find the right balance between personal skill and combined efforts in the classroom, it is worth the effort.

Working together is becoming more of a norm across our profession. At its best, collaboration among teachers encourages creativity, professionalism, and student achievement. Teachers around the world are collaborating with peers in local and even global contexts to take charge of their own personal development, exchange lesson ideas as part of professional development, and mentor new teachers.

When I attended school in the 1990s, the textbook was the main resource in most classrooms. Teachers often planned their school year around the chapters in the book. But when I started my teaching career in 2013, it was in a school and district where teacher collaboration was highly valued—other teachers were the main resource, not a set of textbooks. Many of my worries as a new teacher were eased because I knew I could count on my coworkers for advice, lesson ideas, or even copies of lesson plans they used. I reciprocated by sharing my own lessons and ideas. We wrote tests and quizzes and planned or updated our pacing guides together in our professional learning community (PLC).

Collaboration Overkill: The "Stepford" Teachers

There is another side to collaboration that is often ignored. When administrators become overzealous and mandate "collaboration overkill," teachers have little time for reflection and lose their autonomy.

Teachers stuck in over-planned, micromanaged workplaces remind me of the women in The Stepford Wives. Administrators’ efforts to produce "perfect," predictable results across classrooms make teachers robotic in their actions. In these situations, teachers are expected to use the same lessons, quizzes, assignments, projects, and tests on a day-to-day basis. Their professional discretion over how to approach a new skill, standard, or curriculum can be virtually nonexistent.

Sometimes administrators cite teacher input in a scripted curriculum as evidence of the "collaborative" nature of this approach. But when teachers are expected to adhere to restrictive guidelines, they will inevitably suffer the burnout of bureaucracy. Educators who are subjected to this bureaucracy can become exhausted while trying to implement tools, scripts, and lessons that they don’t necessarily agree with or understand. This loss of autonomy signifies a lack of respect for teachers. Unreasonable mandates, coupled with this disrespect, are common factors in teachers’ decisions to leave the profession.

How Teachers Can Find Their Balance

As experts of our own profession, teachers must take an active role in balancing the need to make choices based on our own expertise with the positive effects of collaboration. For teachers who feel isolated in their schools, one way to find balance is to identify a collaboration buddy. Sharing your workload with even one trusted colleague can spark creativity and help ward off burnout. Veteran teachers can serve as an invaluable resource for newbie teachers looking to fine-tune a new idea, while novice teachers can spark excitement for the learning process in veteran teachers. Help could be just down the hall—but you have to seek it out. If you’re having a hard time finding a buddy in your own department, expand your search. Technology makes connecting with like-minded individuals in other departments, or even other schools and districts, possible.

If you work in a place that doesn't seem to support teacher autonomy, ask to speak to your principal, dean, or the assistant principal in charge of instruction. Voice the pros of your point of view and address the administration’s concerns. Then bring the conversation back to how your suggestions will benefit your students. In the past, I've started the conversation by mentioning how and why a specific lesson or approach to a learning standard would specifically benefit my students more than the suggested methods.

You can use an extended professional learning network to find and field new ideas. Seek out Twitter chats hosted by trusted educator groups such as Student Achievement Partners, Teacher to Teacher, and the Center for Teaching Quality, and subject-specific groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

How Administrators Can Find Their Own Balance

I am a strong believer in proposing solutions, rather than focusing on complaints. With that in mind, here are my ideas for administrators who are striving to ensure a quality education for all students while also honoring teachers’ professional autonomy:

1. Set minimum guidelines. These parameters should be your non-negotiable policies for what teachers are expected to do, or not do, in each course.

2. Focus on the big picture. Our most important priority is to provide a quality education for all students. Supporting and leveraging the talents of caring teachers with strong content knowledge is the best way to ensure that all students will receive a quality education.

3. Seek feedback. It is evident that you respect and trust teachers when you allow or encourage them to offer feedback on new curriculum or resources. Another way to show respect is to ask for reasoning or research when a teacher wants to approach learning standards in a different way than their colleagues. Other PLC members, department chairs, content experts, or even professional articles can give you insight and peace of mind.

Educators who work in a collaborative setting are able to share the workload and enjoy the benefits of receiving feedback and support from other professionals in the classroom. A passionate teacher with a strong understanding of her students and content guidelines has the power to excite students about learning. For teachers to keep the joy of teaching and pass on the joy of learning, finding a balance between autonomy and collaboration is a necessary step—and it benefits our No. 1 concern: our students.

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