Recruitment & Retention

Teacher Autonomy Isn’t Dead. Here’s How to Achieve It

By Elizabeth Heubeck — September 20, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a teacher using a pencil and writing to post-it notes with goals noted attached to a bullseye.
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When it comes to why teachers stay in or leave jobs, measurable factors like pay and health benefits tend to get a lot of attention. More subjective issues tend to fly under the radar, despite their potential to heavily influence job satisfaction as well as the decision to remain in or resign from a position. Autonomy, defined as “a teacher’s perception about the degree to which they can make decisions related to their work,” is one such factor.

Consider this example: Following the 2022-23 school year, 38 teachers, or about 10 percent of all employees in Virginia’s Prince Edward County school district, resigned. They were asked to complete an exit interview explaining why. Twenty-five percent of respondents blamed “a lack of autonomy in instructional decisions and/or classroom management,” while 28 percent pointed to salary. This recent example correlates to research by the Learning Policy Institute, which found that teachers with greater levels of perceived classroom autonomy were more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction. The opposite is also true: A perceived lack of autonomy reduces teachers’ job satisfaction.

Today’s teachers confront several realities that challenge their professional autonomy. Prescribed lesson-plan expectations, standardized tests, and data collection oftentimes drive instructional decisions. Further, teachers increasingly find themselves caught in the crossfire of political and cultural conflicts, frequently leaving them uncertain or even fearful of how to address topics deemed controversial, like race and gender.

Despite these forces outside their control, teachers can continue to harness autonomy in the classroom successfully, say education experts.

Following are three pieces of advice from award-winning teachers and experienced mentors on how to build and sustain teacher autonomy.

1. Look beyond the ‘what’ to the ‘how’

Michael Ida, the 2023 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year and a math/computer science teacher at Kalani High School in East Honolulu, acknowledges that achieving autonomy in the classroom can seem challenging, especially when teaching certain “high-stakes” academic subjects that are central to district and state assessments. “Math teachers are never going to be entirely free of the scrutiny and mandates from above that take away some of our autonomy,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve autonomy.”

“While it may sometimes feel as if individual classroom teachers are on a very short leash and don’t have much room to exercise their own professional prerogative, there is actually much that we can do to innovate and be creative,” he said. “We control the passion with which we deliver our lessons. We control the ways we establish relationships with students and how we nurture our classroom cultures. We control the questions that we ask, the ways that we structure collaboration and discourse, and the ways that we choose to honor or ignore the student voice.”

Heather Puhl, a mentor to new teachers in the Caldwell County schools in Hudson, N.C., also recognizes that student assessments drive, to an extent, what teachers are required to teach. But teachers remain free to choose how they teach requirements to meet the individual needs of the students in their classrooms, she explains.

“Before teaching a lesson, we encourage our beginning teachers to think about who is in their classroom, what their needs are, and how the lesson can be implemented to meet those needs,” Puhl said. “That way, the content standards are taught but in a meaningful way that contributes to a higher rate of student learning.”

We control the passion with which we deliver our lessons. We control the ways we establish relationships with students and how we nurture our classroom cultures. We control the questions that we ask, the ways that we structure collaboration and discourse, and the ways that we choose to honor or ignore the student voice.

2. Earn trust to build a gateway to autonomy

Teachers aren’t guaranteed autonomy. But they’re far more likely to acquire it if they first develop mutually trusting relationships with colleagues, supervisors, and other key stakeholders.

“Stopping by, listening, talking to us about instruction, asking for feedback—that really builds a collegial relationship where we can trust one another,” said Christina Andrade Melly, the 2023 Missouri Teacher of the Year and a high school English teacher in the Ritenour School District. “I think autonomy boils down to trust.”

Ida agrees. And he’s got some specific thoughts on how teachers can earn that trust.

“In my experience, the key to maintaining the trust that underlies teacher autonomy is proactive and consistent communication,” said Ida.

There are certain times when that communication becomes even more critical, believes Ida. “Particularly if you’re going to try something especially different from the norm, being clear with students, parents, counselors, administrators, and any other stakeholders about what to expect and why is crucial,” he said.

This “early onset” transparency, while building trust—and, ideally, subsequent autonomy—also prevents potentially negative fallout that tends to occur when members of a school community feel uninformed, Ida emphasizes. “If students know what to expect, then they will be less likely to complain to their parents. If parents know what to expect, then they will be less likely to share their concerns back to the school. And if counselors and administrators know what to expect, then they will not be blindsided by concerned parents and will instead be able to respond supportively.”

3. Give teachers a voice at the proverbial ‘table’

Teachers sometimes have an opportunity to exert their professional autonomy in a broader and impactful setting.

“At the state level, there’s a push to be responsive to classroom teachers,” said Andrade Melly, the Missouri teacher. “Some states are doing a really good job at bringing teachers to the table.” She counts Missouri among them.

Andrade Melly explained that, at the state policy level, Missouri is bringing educator voices into relevant conversations by inviting teachers to [policy level] work groups studying standards, making recommendations for working conditions, and sharing regular updates with the state’s Commissioner of Education on pressing classroom-related issues.

“Having teachers around the table can help keep the practical, immediate impact of policy decisions centered on our students,” said Andrade Melly. “We have classroom knowledge that can inform the best decisions for our kids.”

“Representation is a tremendous way to show respect to teachers,” Andrade Melly said. “It’s the best way to honor teachers: by listening to them and by working alongside them to provide a great public education for all of our students.”

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