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The Atlantic published a piece about teacher autonomy and how Finnish teachers working in American schools find the job stifling, demeaning, and exhausting. The gist of the article is that the constant need to prove oneself through administrative observations and yearly testing is contrary to what they experienced when they worked in Finland.

Teachers experience various levels of autonomy based upon their district and principal. GOT has always been lucky to work for principals who recognize the expertise of teachers and allow them to get on with their teaching without too much interference.

I have never had to submit a week’s worth of lesson plans in advance. GOT has been told to write a week’s worth of lesson plans, but eventually that foolishness wore out as people realized the truth he expressed: every succeeding lesson is based upon the degree of success of the previous lesson. To plan beyond tomorrow is a waste of time because today will change the imperatives of what must be done.

GOT’s district and union agreed upon a lesson template that all would use. GOT is always amused by teachers who complain about the template because all they have to do is fill in the boxes as they want to frame the lesson that they are going to do.

Experienced teachers can knock them out in five to ten minutes. If you are going, “Hey, wait a minute. Doesn’t that mean the plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on?”

No, it means that plans are as individual as teachers. Some write extensive, detailed plans as the process of writing leads them through organizing the learning activities in a meaningful way, others jot a few notes to capture the thinking that went into the organizing, and a few can carry it in their head with no need to put it on paper. As for those who don’t plan at all, there is no need to look for a written paper on their desk. One step into the classroom is all it takes to realize that a teacher wasn’t ready for children that day.

In GOT’s current teaching assignment, after one year he realized that the district-provided curriculum was not getting the job done. He spent the spring developing his own scope and sequence for learning Geometry. He researched how others did it and realized there was a better way to organize the content. The following year, GOT followed his plan. Again, he was lucky to have a principal who did not get in the way but allowed him to do what he thought was best. Student comprehension dramatically improved.

The district wasn’t happy. Oh, GOT, who did you think you were?

The next year, the district rolled a new scope and sequence that matched what GOT had done.

Selecting textbooks is problematical. It isn’t even ideal to let every teacher pick the book they want to use. It takes a lot of time to evaluate textbooks; time that most teachers do not have.

No textbook is perfect. If GOT wrote his own textbook, he might think it perfect, but is also quite confident that many others would disagree.

What is important is the autonomy GOT has to use the textbook in ways that maximize his teaching style and the learning styles of the students. GOT is able to supplement the materials of the textbook where it is lacking or even deficient in having learning exercises for content that students must learn.

Good principals allow teachers to do this. That is why GOT has a level of satisfaction in teaching and the accountability that goes with it. There’s lots of frustration (always), but GOT has the authority to go with the responsibility of deciding how to deliver the content and create the learning environment.

It’s funny (not comical) when teachers do not have the autonomy to use their professional expertise. Almost always, it is due to an inexperienced and/or inconfident administrator more worried about test scores than student learning.

It is not only in education where leaders lacking confidence in their abilities fall into micromanagement of their subordinates.

True autonomy means collaboration and respect among educators regardless of their job title or role in the school. The Finnish teachers in the Atlantic article were not used to ongoing observation, but it has never bothered GOT. In fact, he rarely sees anyone visit his room even though he welcomes it.

Feedback is desirable. GOT is not so arrogant to think he cannot do better or that he knows everything taking place at any one time. He always welcomes the chance to sit down with another educator and talk about a lesson–because GOT always keeps the focus on how to help the students. It’s not about him and he will not allow an observer to make it about him. It’s about the students–always.

GOT knows many teachers have trouble with this. Meeting with the principal seems to send them back to their childhood when being sent to the principal’s office was seen as being bad as (OMG) having something placed on one’s permanent record. Cue the music from Jaws.

We need to take charge. It doesn’t take words, it doesn’t take attitude, and it doesn’t take hysterics. It takes a quiet confidence in oneself, a desire to keep learning the craft of teaching, and a focus on being better as well as a refusal to let anyone make us feel inferior or incompetent. Our knowledge and experience are as good as everyone else’s.

That means having the fortitude to dismiss the inauthentic ways teachers are evaluated. Stop obsessing about a VAM score, test scores, Marzano, and Danielson. Maybe the research was good, but it has been abused. No checklist will ever define good teaching.

Teachers do lack adequate planning time. That doesn’t mean they want someone to hand them a script to read. It means we need to provide adequate resources and competitive salaries to match the time commitment required.

In closing, your public school teacher is a professional, one whose time and work are not defined by orders, mandates, and required procedures. Teachers are professionals. They agree to work toward defined objectives for a defined compensation. To achieve those objectives, they use their knowledge, experience, and time as they deem best.

Anyone wanting the best for students will know what to do: Get out of their way.

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