On Autonomy

Something dawned on me yesterday. I’m not sure where the thought came from, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the first one to say it, but it was an epiphany of sorts for me.

Independent school teachers are famously protective of their classroom autonomy, because for many of us, it’s a big part of why we chose the independent school classroom over the increasingly-standardized public school classroom. The longer I teach, though, the more I realize that there is such a thing as too much autonomy. In fact, as much as I loathe what standardized education has become, I also recognize that an over-emphasis on autonomy may be one of the weaknesses of independent schools.

That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t have control over what happens in their classrooms. Curricular decisions should most certainly be made at the school level (and below), but educators should strive to create common and transparent school cultures that guide the work of both students and teachers.

Instead of continued calls for a vaguely defined “autonomy in the classroom,” I suggest that we teachers advocate for a greater say in the curricular decision-making process. I have come to realize that it’s not necessarily the ability to “do whatever I want” in the classroom that I value, but the opportunity to affect the policies that govern my teaching. I could accept a number of “threats” to my autonomy, provided that a) I had a voice in their creation, and b) they served to create a school environment conducive to better, more lasting learning.


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