Imagine your principal has commissioned another teacher to "fix" your classroom by rearranging the furniture and taking down students' work to make more room for posting school rules.
Imagine you are a teacher in an inner-city elementary school. You are dedicated to providing your students with a rigorous academic education, and to creating a caring and stable environment. Today you arrive early, as usual, to review student work and prepare the day’s lessons. As you walk into your classroom, you find it totally rearranged: All of your students’ work has been taken down from the walls, the desks are rearranged, and new, ready-made posters have been put up to replace the student work. This is not a case of vandalism, you discover. The principal has commissioned another teacher to “fix” your classroom by putting the furniture in proper order and making more room for posting school rules and motivational slogans.
After hearing this story from a public school teacher in the nation’s capital, I began to think about my own experience and how professional autonomy affects not only the quality of my work, but also of my life. Since I work with teachers, I’ve been tuned in to the decidedly unprofessional way they are often treated. Only recently, however, have I started thinking more critically about what the differences are between my professional life as a researcher at a nonprofit organization and that of a public school teacher.
Every day, I arrive at work with specific tasks I need to accomplish. But how I accomplish them is up to me. I decide when and how I will get my work done, making the needed phone calls or visiting colleagues at times of the day that best meet my workload. I also have the opportunity to experiment with new ways of approaching problems. Sometimes this means learning that the first plan didn’t work and trying something new. While I’m held accountable, I am not penalized for preliminary failure, so long as I meet the goal in the long term. My supervisors trust that I will produce high- quality work in a timely manner, yet the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute details of how I get there are up to me. This kind of autonomy makes the work environment tolerable—and makes me love and excel at my job.
In my professional life, I'm held accountable, but I am not penalized for preliminary failure, so long as I meet the goal in the long term.
My experiences stand in stark contrast to those of the teachers I know. In my many conversations with them, I hear their stories of success and struggle; but always, the underlying theme is a lack of professional autonomy.
The story above, of a teacher whose principal placed so little value on her professionalism that he felt it was all right to trash not only her concept of what a classroom looks like, but also her students’ work, is but one of the tales of abuse. Another teacher I know works in a school where obedience is prized over ability to teach and interact well with children. One morning on her way to a hall-duty post, this teacher stopped a wandering student to remind him he needed to get to class. She took a little extra time with this boy. They discussed why his being in class—and not in the halls—was so important. She even walked him to his room. But when she arrived at her post, the principal was waiting—with demerits to dispense for being late. It wasn’t her place to help a student, he said, unless she was specifically assigned to do so.
This lack of professional autonomy extends to what is taught and how. A good friend of mine teaches 3rd grade in a school that has adopted a scripted, prepackaged reading and language arts curriculum. She says she spends an hour and a half every day drilling her students on phonetic sounds and letter combinations, guiding them in stories that have more to do with sound recognition than interesting content, and using elaborate reward schemes to keep students interested. Because of this new schoolwide curriculum, which is based on a philosophy she does not agree with, my friend no longer has time to read aloud to her students or to give them a chance to use the class library or choose books that interest them. Her students complain every day about reading time, she says, once even suggesting that jumping out of the second-story window would be a more attractive option than sitting still for 90 minutes and repeating vowel and consonant sounds.
My friend, however, feels her hands are tied. If she strays from the script to try to engage her students in material that may interest them, she is reprimanded by her supervisor for not following the plan. So she follows the prescribed lesson, all the while knowing that her students are losing interest and beginning to hate reading.
One teacher in a school that has adopted a scripted, prepackaged reading and language arts curriculum follows the prescribed lesson, all the while knowing that her students are beginning to hate reading.
These stories are not isolated exceptions. Many teachers, especially those in underserved communities, experience daily attacks on their dignity and authority in the name of improving the school or raising the standards. Given few resources and little support, they are expected to make gold out of straw. Yet they are also the first to be blamed when schools don’t perform. Someone far removed from their daily struggle—someone “downtown"—dictates to them how classrooms should look, what should be taught, how they should teach. The teachers may have the most intimate knowledge of what their students need, but they have almost no voice in providing it.
Even lacking a policy voice, however, teachers are under tremendous pressure from the school administration, parents, politicians, and the public to produce drastic and immediate improvements in student achievement. They are often threatened with demotion or reassignment if they don’t produce results. Given the atmosphere of fear that permeates many schools, the safest route for some may be the one of least resistance. Their logic becomes: If I fail (that is, if my children do not perform well on the tests), I can’t be blamed because I have done it the way they told me to. Thus, teachers are immobilized—constantly looking over their shoulders, worrying that they may make a wrong move and be blamed for the failure of their class, if not the whole school.
What is this immobilization doing in the classroom? One local teacher describes her job as being held in a “straitjacket of outcomes.” We have taken standards and the idea of rigorous education and turned them into a rigid, formulaic recipe of what “good” teaching looks like. Unfortunately, the recipe often has nothing to do with how children actually learn best. The shackles of outcomes have forced some schools to forgo recess and field trips, devote hours each week to “practice tests,” and limit or eliminate student-enrichment activities not directly related to improving test scores.
The teachers may have the most intimate knowledge of what their students need, but they have almost no voice in providing it.
Yet effective teachers are creative problem-solvers, analytical thinkers, strong communicators—people capable of nurturing those same qualities in their students. Children learn differently, and effective teachers are able to adjust their techniques to meet the needs of each and every student. When we do not allow teachers the opportunity to think and innovate, we deny them the chance to feel satisfaction when they succeed. More important, we relieve them of responsibility when they fail.
The rhetoric of raising standards and making schools accountable, primarily through increased testing, is not in itself going to make the deep, systemic changes our schools need. The problems schools face are complicated, but the solution is attainable. Additional resources and more competitive salaries will help, but they do not go far enough. The solution must also involve high-quality professional development for teachers, more in-school planning time, collaboration among teachers, and additional teacher supports, such as meaningful and sustained mentoring for new and veteran teachers. In these ways, we will begin to treat teachers as professionals.
To do that is to take an important first step toward making meaningful changes in our schools. Only when teachers are allowed—and expected— to innovate and think in their classrooms will all students have a chance of reaching their full potential.
Kelly Arey is a research specialist at the Center for Artistry in Teaching in Washington.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2002 edition of Education Week as When Standardization Replaces Innovation