Part 6: Issues of Autonomy and Discretion

Note: The following is an excerpt from The Beginning Teacher’s Survival Guide: Win-Win Strategies for Success, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” Although this book also elaborates on why teachers stay in the profession (in my case, since 1973), I believe it is important to also address some of the issues that were tripping up many of the teachers I encountered in the survey responses and interviews I did for this book. This chapter includes six challenges facing people entering the teaching profession. All six are included on this site.

One of the things that drew me to teaching was the creative outlet it offered. I loved being able to find different ways to teach different concepts, create instructional materials, and rearrange the schedule or student placements to better accommodate different students’ academic needs and learning style preferences. I happened to start teaching in the early 1970s, and although at the time there certainly existed grade-level and content-area curricula—and the expectations, mandates, and standardized tests to go along with them—there was also a certain degree of flexibility and discretion that, for many teachers, has all but disappeared.

To some extent, teachers do have a certain degree of autonomy when they shut the door, although this can vary from one setting to another and will depend on factors ranging from the political climate in the district to the type of leadership in the school. Snyderman cited this factor as one of the reasons for going into teaching: “Your classroom is essentially your own domain. You can set it up how you wish, you can manage the students how you wish, you can basically be your own boss.”

But as many teachers face an increasingly scripted and politicized educational landscape, with rigid directives governing what, when, and how to present the content they are to teach, [47] they also see their professional and intuitive teaching skills [48] discounted and dismissed. Education professor Richard Biffle observed, “Linear, one-dimensional, myopic kinds of thinking is the product of the system that operates as a linear, one-dimensional, myopic organization.” And long-time principal Marcella Jones said that where she used to look for “risk takers with new ideas” when she was interviewing prospective hires, “the standards movement has required everyone to rethink the job.”

Glori Chaika reports that increases in the amount of curricula teachers are expected to cover along with a growing emphasis on standardized test scores results in less time for teachers to plan, create, and grow. “They have become technicians, implementing fragmented curriculum in a time frame that’s frequently inadequate for the material required.” [49] Many of the teachers I’ve met who left, or who thought about leaving, were frankly chafing under too many restrictions and a lack of respect for their professional instincts. One professional development project coordinator bluntly advised, “Find another profession. Until teachers are recognized for their ability, skills, and knowledge, they should go into another [field] where they will be respected.”

Retired high school teacher, and longtime friend and colleague, Lynn Collins wrote, “I loved teaching and I loved the kids. I loved what went on in my classroom once I shut the door. But I hated the bureaucracy and limitations, which seem inherent in the system. I started working part time in adult settings outside the public schools and really liked the freedom and creativity that were available there.” After fourteen years in the classroom, Collins decided, “I wanted to do more things my way and be able to adjust more readily and more deeply to the needs and expectations of the people I was teaching.”

One fourth grade teacher had gotten in the habit of developing lessons and activities according to needs she observed and documented for students who were years behind grade level and not being served by the materials she’d been given to teach them. “When my principal told me to simply follow the scripts in the teacher’s manual and to leave my creativity and initiative at home, I didn’t see any point in my being there,” she said. Stifled and frustrated, she left the district at the end of the year. (Like Collins, this educator eventually found much more freedom and flexibility in working with adults in an instructional capacity.)

Fernandez acknowledges that “so many decisions are made for the convenience of adults, rather than to support the needs of children.” At times, our priorities do seem pretty twisted. In the frantic days after 9/11, I called a friend, a history teacher in a high school about two hours north of New York City. After talking a bit about how she and her family were faring, I observed that this would have to be an amazing time to be a history teacher, with so much unfolding right on her students’ doorsteps, so incredibly relevant and real to their world. “You’re kidding, right?” she responded. “We have to get through Ancient Egypt for the [state standardized tests] this week.”

“This is the most managed and bureaucratic system that I’ve ever experienced,” Biffle noted. “It is, at times, an overwhelming series of managerial tasks, forms, and controls that paralyze creative and innovative thinking.” Fernandez, a 23-year veteran, shared a similar view. “I wouldn’t go into teaching if I knew then what I know now,” she claims. “When I began, I saw teaching as a creative endeavor, one focused on guiding students on their own personally meaningful paths to adulthood. Increasingly… teaching is all about one very limited path defined by standardized tests…” And many of the teachers I meet complained about feeling set up to fail when pressured to follow the curriculum instead of “following the student,” frustratingly distracted from responding to the academic and instructional needs of their charges.

But there is hope. In a recent conversation, high school department chair Don Garrett related, “I tell my teachers I don’t care how they teach, as long as the students learn,” and I have also known several administrators who encourage their staff to shut their doors and go about the business of teaching and connecting with kids, doing what they came to the profession to do. I have also witnessed courageous teachers who managed to challenge their students with cognitively and developmentally appropriate content, even within the constraints of a heavily managed and scripted environment.

I’ve seen counterproductive policies and rules overturned, replaced by more brain-friendly, kid-friendly, and teacher-friendly alternatives. I believe that schools will eventually catch up with what we’re learning about how people learn, the importance of classroom climate, and the needs of our 21st-century economy. And in the meantime, I believe that there are ways to not only avoid some of the win-lose obstacles currently built into the system, but that there are simple, practical ways to create elements of a win-win classroom environment—even in a win-lose system.

Go to part 1 to see the beginning of this chapter. (List of chapters below.)

[47] Mandates in some settings also apply to the items teachers can bring in, arrange, or use in their classrooms. In the past year, I visited a number of kindergarten classrooms in several schools in which all the play centers (sand tables, costumes, store, kitchen, etc.) had been removed in favor of one “literacy center” after another. Despite incompatibilities with brain research regarding early developmental needs, there was no time allotted for any of the play and interactive activities you’d expect in a kindergarten, and teachers were given no discretion to vary their schedules or activities.

[48] Particularly that inner antenna that picks up information about what’s going on in the classroom and what a student needs, a teacher version of a “sixth sense,” if you will, that many of us bring to the profession, or develop with classroom experience.

[49] Chaika.

Excerpt from The Beginning Teacher’s Survival Guide: Win-Win Strategies for Success, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” This material was taken directly from the original final manuscript submitted and may be slightly different from the actual text of the book. See the full bibliography for this book listing all of the the resources used in this book (and details on the references listed above).

© 2010, 2021, Dr. Jane Bluestein

This chapter includes six challenges facing people entering the teaching profession:

Part 1: Financial Realities
Part 2: It’s Harder than it Looks
Part 3: Lack of Support
Part 4: Difficult Students, Difficult Parents
Part 5: Value and Status
Part 6: Issues of Autonomy and Discretion

Also check out:

Book: Managing 21st Century ClassroomsHow to avoid ineffective classroom management practices!
Article: “Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers
Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
Presentation: “Great Beginnings: Special workshop for beginning teachers, returning teachers, and preservice teachers

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