The title of Pernille Ripp’s recent blog post, Are we forcing students to be noncompliant?, peaked my interest. She asked us to consider the expectations we set forth in our classrooms and contemplate those times when students fail to meet our expectations, thus rendering their behaviors noncompliant. Through the recognition that every student has individual needs and requires specific supports in order to be successful, she posed the question, “Does every rule need to apply to every student?”
After sharing Pernille’s post on Twitter, I received this thoughtful tidbit from Alan Feirer:
I’ve written previously about my experiences in trying to provide my teachers with increased autonomy in their professional development and how they plan for student learning experiences. The results have been quite encouraging thus far. I am witnessing teachers taking risks, collaborating on new initiatives, reflecting upon their practices, and creating improved, more individualized learning opportunities for our children.
Every administrator and teacher recognizes the importance of establishing classroom expectations and guidelines to help streamline the effectiveness of learning operations within the classroom. Consider the outcomes if students, particularly those in elementary school, were given complete freedom to act throughout the school day….no procedures for movements within the class and around the building, for organizing materials and work spaces, for interacting with peers and adults…it might get a little nuts.
Similarly, think about if the only expectation we put in place for our teachers was to show up each day and “teach.” Teachers choose the content. They choose the delivery. They choose how (or if ) to assess. They choose which students to teach. Teachers decide how (or if) they prefer to be supervised and how their effectiveness is evaluated. It might get a little nuts.
So, we have guiding principles in place to help our teachers plan meaningful learning experiences for our children. Standards, curriculum guides, common materials and assessments… for many of us, “too much of a good thing” comes to mind knowing the extent to which some school boards and government organizations have put policies and procedures in place to dictate teaching and learning practices, but as administrators we have the opportunity to work within these structures and provide our teachers with as much freedom as possible in designing learning experiences for kids. (We could also just declare, “Our hands are tied, nothing we can do,” in our best disgruntled-administrator voice, but I don’t really recommend that.)
George Couros’s post “You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise” referenced Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk, “The real crisis? We stopped being wise.” which George related to the importance of recognizing the human element of our work with teachers and placing our trust in them to do the right thing rather than conform to a multitude of rigid guidelines. Another of Schwartz’s talks is very relevant to my thoughts on teacher autonomy.
Schwartz says, “The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.” Schwartz goes on to warn, however, that too many choices can ultimately lead to increased anxiety due to heightened expectations, yielding dissatisfaction with results, even when the results are good. He concludes that some choice is better than none, but “more choice is not always better” and relating our life to that of a fish: “You need a fishbowl. If you shatter the fishbowl so everything is possible, you don’t have freedom- you have paralysis.”
We need to provide our teachers and students with a fishbowl – a place where it’s safe to take creative risks and where guidelines and supports are in place to help aid learning. Within this fishbowl we need to infuse freedoms. Could you provide teachers (students) with the freedom over how to spend their time? With curriculum and planning? Over their own learning? Could you recognize that every teacher (student) deserves differentiated, passion-driven professional development (learning) opportunities?
Working with teachers to identify and strengthen their areas of need is one of my integral roles as principal, but these improvement areas rarely come to light due to a matter of compliance, or lack thereof. Teachers generally want to do their very best for students. On the occasion we do meet teacher resistance when we ask them to become involved in improvement efforts or to cooperate with new initiatives, it is often because a) we didn’t do an adequate job of explaining the need for improvement b) we didn’t do an adequate job helping the teacher see the relevance of the initiative and its impact on student learning c) we didn’t provide enough supports for teachers in this area and/or d) we are expecting all teachers to abide by the same guidelines, just because, when in reality they deserve to be treated as the individual professionals that they are.
So, yes, there is a certain level of compliance that is expected from a teacher (and principal), in that we have agreed to serve in this amazingly rewarding educational capacity, and with this profession in particular comes great responsibility. Legally, to protect us all, there are guidelines that must be followed. But if a teacher is truly noncompliant in terms of failing to work with administrators and colleagues in order to improve practice, we need to get to the root cause of the issue. (Is it them? Or is it us?) Student learning will be impacted when teacher effectiveness and collegial relations are strained, and there is rarely a barrier insurmountable in order to make ourselves the best we can be for our students.