School Leadership: Professional Autonomy vs Prescription

The nature of teaching has evolved considerably over the 20+ years I’ve been in the profession. When I began teaching, it was a private gig. Each of us, in our classrooms,  with doors closed. Our responsibility was to teach the curriculum, as effectively as we could – but our methods were our own. It was up to each of us to make informed, professional judgements regarding pedagogy.  So long as we could show through our programs that we were covering the outcomes, and through our students that standards were being met, we were able to teach however we liked. It was 100% professional autonomy.

Since then,  the expectations of us as professionals have increased. We have higher qualifications (back when I trained we only needed a diploma). We  have to maintain accreditation against professional teaching standards, there is an expectation that we will engage in ongoing professional learning. We have far greater accountability and I think we rightly, regard ourselves as far more professional than we did back then.

Yet while teacher professionalism has increased, there seems to be a decline in professional autonomy. Part of this is due to the changing expectations of teachers, the curriculum, and of the goals of education itself, and it occurs in the most progressive of schools.

A simple example: if as  a school, we agree that our students need to learn collaborative skills, then there is an obligation on every teacher to provide opportunities for students to learn those skills. Opportunities for group work MUST be incorporated – it is no longer up to the individual teacher to decide if group work should be a part of their pedagogy. The work of teaching is not only about the core academic curriculum, but the not-so-hidden curriculum of skills for 21st Century learners.

As a school leader, I find this challenging. I want the teachers I work with to have space to make their own decisions about how to teach, to trust and use their professional judgment, just as I could when I began teaching all those years ago. However, at the same time, there are practices that we’ve found we need to mandate, and others we’ve had to insist be abandoned.

I’ve had to intrude more than I’d like into some of the teaching decisions of my colleagues.  We’ve insisted that certain practices occur around assessment, the teaching of reading, spelling and mathematics and homework. We’ve also insisted that some practices no longer occur, most recently disallowing textbooks in our school for mathematics. And of course, while most teachers buy in and support these policies, there are always those who disagree and no doubt feel frustrated and restricted.

It’s quite a balancing act to provide room for professional autonomy while at the time, mandating practices.  Some schools and systems go to the  extreme end of the continuum,  trying to guarantee quality by being highly prescriptive, to the point of scripting lessons and even dictating what the wall displays should include. Others go to the other extreme, letting every teacher do their own thing, with the learning experience for students, and perhaps their outcomes  looking very different in every room,

I suppose if I was to map where we are on a continuum, I’d place us here:

Professional Autonomy (1)

So how do we strike the right balance?

I believe it’s about having a set of agreed principles that teachers must adhere to, but allowing teachers the freedom to decide HOW to apply them. (There is a whole process involved in developing those agreed principals with staff, which deserves a post of its own).

I observed a great example of this type of leadership when I visited Mount Pritchard East Public School in late 2014. Under the wonderful leadership of Natalie Mansour and Rebecca Urry, the school had spent two years developing practices around formative assessment.

Their model included some non-negotiables:

  • No hands up
  • Learning Intentions and Success Criteria (LISC)
  • Feedback that is regular, related to student goals and moves students forward
  • Learning goals for students which the children could articulate and know when they’d been achieved.

These practices had to be visible in every classroom.

Putting it to the test, I toured each room of the school. As I visited each one,  I was able to see learning intentions and success criteria for the current lessons clearly displayed on the board. I could also see each student’s learning goals:  what each student  had achieved and what they were working towards. The students themselves were my tour guides and were able to tell me all about their learning.

However, while this was clearly evident in every classroom, the way each teacher chose to implement those non-negotiables was different. No two classrooms were the same. No two practices were the same. It was an excellent model of professional autonomy being able to bloom, while still adhering to common principles.

It called to mind what I learned at the NoTosh Masterclass I attended in during the  EduTech 2014 National Congress and Expo. Creativity requires design constraints. It’s no use putting a group of architects together and asking them to design something wonderful. We need to add constraints, like design a wonderful school, or home, or treehouse. The design has to suit its purpose, and the purpose is what inspires vision and creativity.

In schools, the curriculum, the agreed values, principals and directions become our design constraints. Within these, good teaching and professional autonomy can flourish.


3 thoughts on “School Leadership: Professional Autonomy vs Prescription

  1. Great post Corinne. Just wondering about the creative analogy. Are you applying that like many of the great composers etc … we are always constrained by somebody else? I agree with ‘constraints’ and really like how you have put that. I mused about the choices or constraints relating to curriculum lately ( However, why does it always need to be someone else’s constraints. Can the artist be a part of that discussion as well or are they always dictated too? I just wonder, if everyone is a leader, can everyone have an opinion about what the constraints are? Should they? Or is this the job of the visionaries, those instilled with the charge to drive the school forward? Hope that makes sense, sorry.

  2. Hi Aaron, gosh – tough question. I probably need to think about this more, but my initial response is, no, it doesn’t always need to be entirely someone else’s constraints, but like it or not, there will always be constraints in teaching imposed by others – the curriculum itself for example, while we can participate in consultation and provide feedback, ultimately is prepared by ACARA not us.

    I certainly want all teachers to be part of the discussion and dictating is not something I’m ever keen on doing. Firstly, I don’t think its ethical. Teachers are major stakeholders. They will be impacted by and will implement any changes. They are working directly with the students, and thus bring irreplaceable expertise and knowledge to any discussion around implementation. Dictating i’s not an effective way to move any change forward and robs us of the opportunity to draw upon the insights and expertise of so many.

    Any changes I have led have involved extensive consultation, with the teachers and other stakeholders developing the principles which guide us and in some cases become our non-negotiables.

    However, I find its rare to have total consensus on anything, that’s the nature of community. There will always be some who disagree, who want to hold on to how things were and don’t want to buy in to any change. Depending on the importance of change, it does at times become necessary to mandate things. While those mandates are developed with staff, there will be some who feel that they have been dictated to, and feel that they haven’t been heard.

    I believe everyone is entitled to have an opinion about the constraints, and to question and challenge them. However, I draw the line at ignoring them. When that happens, it undermines the work of everyone else.

    In my opinion, if, after a proper consultation process, people don’t agree with them, feel they can’t work within them, and have no hope of changing them, then its time for those people to move on to another workplace which is more aligned with their philosophy. I know I would.

    Hope this answers your questions to some extent.

    By the way, thank you for linking to your post about constraints – really really interesting and a lot to think about there.

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