Of all the nonsense today’s educators must endure, perhaps the most galling is the mixed messages we regularly receive about how to perform our jobs. Teachers, once upon a time, were essentially independent practitioners, trusted to choose their own topics of study, craft their own lessons, design their own tests (or not give any at all), enforce their own grading policies, and shepherd their students through whatever year they happened to have them in the manner they best saw fit.
In such a system, it made sense for teachers to always be learning. They needed lesson plans. They had to know why they were teaching what they were teaching. They were always on the lookout for more interesting ways to reach students. The success or failure of their lessons rested on their shoulders.
The legacy of such a model of teaching still exists, even though the reality is far different. Many school leaders act as though teachers are making decisions because teachers used to make decisions. As a result, these leaders still expect teachers to behave as though they are working in a system that simply no longer exists in many places.
When we started striving for “guaranteed and viable curriculums,” we began the process of standardizing classrooms. The adoption of common standards across many states accelerated this movement because it allowed publishing companies to sell to most of the nation. That resulted in the same programs being taught in thousands of schools. Finally, district leaders’ demands that such programs be implemented with “fidelity” drove the final nail in the coffin of autonomous teaching.
In many schools today, teachers are no longer expected to make curricular decisions. They’re told what to teach and often how to teach it. They merely deliver the content someone else created. It’s a bad model that’s led to disillusionment and ineffective instruction, but what makes it worse is that reformers and school leaders want to have it both ways: They want to treat teachers as if they’re still the chefs they used to be instead of the delivery drivers they more often are.Reformers and school leaders want to have it both ways: They want to treat teachers as if they're still the chefs they used to be instead of the delivery drivers they more often are. Click To Tweet
As I wrote in At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?, reformers occupy an enviable position where they get to greatly influence how teachers do their jobs but accept no responsibility for the failure of their ideas. In spite of disappearing autonomy, it is often the teacher who is blamed when other people’s ideas, programs, or “research-based” practices fall short in the real world.
My school is doing a book study on this:
It took nine pages to realize the authors were operating under the assumption that teachers have a level of autonomy they simply no longer have. I was ready to throw the book across the room when I read this sentence:
“The most effective teaching and most meaningful student learning happen when teachers design the right learning target for today’s lesson and use it along with their students to aim for and assess understanding.”
First, duh. Second, such a sentence, and indeed the entire first chapter (and the remaining eight chapters that follow) rests on the authors’ beliefs that it is the teachers who are still designing learning targets and lessons. How quaint.
Of course, this is just one of many examples. If you work in a district that expects you to be little more than a loyal soldier who does as she’s told, then it’s contradictory for those same district leaders to also expect you to take on the responsibilities of a general. The education world has moved on, and the generals are no longer in the classroom. That reality means there are things that teachers who labor in low-autonomy environments should no longer be expected to do. Here are five:
Determine Learning Goals
All of the hubbub about knowing (and posting) student learning goals for each lesson assumes that teachers have the authority to make decisions about what their students should learn. If you work in a state that has adopted standards (that’s all of them), and if you work for a district that has adopted programs that are supposed to address those standards (a lot of them), and if district leaders have told you that you should be teaching said programs with fidelity (way too many of them), then your learning goals for every lesson are already decided. They’re probably printed at the top of each student workbook lesson. You don’t need to know them.
And if district leaders tell you, “Well, no program is perfect. You still need to look at the lessons and determine what’s most important,” then it’s reasonable to ask them why in the hell they’ve put all their eggs in the program’s basket and point out that monkeying with imperfect lessons is the opposite of “fidelity.” They might have saved a lot of hassle by empowering you to make curricular decisions in the first place.
Write Detailed Lesson Plans
If you’re being handed a curriculum and told to teach it, then your lesson plans need to consist of nothing more than “Pages 131 – 135,” or “Lesson 4.1.” Everything else can be seen in your teacher’s guide or online portal. If you have a principal who demands you teach a program as it’s written but is still requiring lesson plans, then he’s just giving you busywork. Teachers in compliance-driven schools should never have to write down lesson plans; at most, they should simply be asked to photocopy the pages out of their district-mandated curriculum. But of course, if the principal is such a believer in whatever curriculum he’s mandating, he should already know the thing like the back of his hand and shouldn’t require any lesson plans at all.
Know the Standards
The state adopts a set of standards for each subject. The district chooses a curriculum for teachers to use to teach those standards. If it’s chosen well, then the teacher needs only to teach the lessons in the program and students will have been taught the standards. That is, theoretically, how it’s supposed to work. That is, in fact, the very reason districts adopt programs. Why, then, do teachers need to know the standards at all? If the expectation is that the board-adopted curriculum is better than anything teachers will decide to do on their own, then teachers need only to follow directions and students will learn what they’re supposed to.
Supplement the Curriculum
You have your standards. You have your curriculum. You’re teaching it the way it’s designed. But it’s not working for some kids. It’s at this point that leaders, coaches, colleagues, and your own brain might tell you that it’s time to try something else. So you ask other teachers what works for them. You Google. You head over to TeachersPayTeachers. If you’re lucky, you bail out the program you weren’t supposed to deviate from, the kids learn something, and nobody finds out. If not, get ready for a slap on the wrist, you incorrigible rebel.
If district leaders trust the programs they adopt so much more than they trust the decision-making of their teachers, then they should have to live with the consequences. One of those consequences is that the program won’t always work. When that happens, it shouldn’t be teachers who are on the hook, but those who chose the programs.
Consider a pizza joint. If it’s my pizza joint, it’s in my business’s best interest that I continually educate myself about toppings, cooking techniques, ovens, and whatever else people who own pizza joints must concern themselves. I want to serve the best pizza possible so that my business succeeds.
But if I’m a delivery driver who has nothing to do with the product being served, I don’t need to know about any of the stuff the owner does. I just have to know how to drive my car and follow my GPS.
This is the problem with asking teachers to do little more than deliver other people’s products. Where’s the motivation to learn and grow? If all I’m going to do for the next 20 years is open up a teacher’s guide and read scripted lessons, why do I need to know how to engage students, or identify learning targets, or design rigorous assignments?
Why do I need to behave like a professional when no one expects me to do the work of a professional?
All of the above, of course, is a terrible way to teach. Much of the disillusionment teachers feel doesn’t come from where many assume it comes. While pay could be improved, especially in some areas and especially for younger teachers, pay raises alone won’t restore meaning to teachers’ work. Better discipline and more supportive administrators would help. Mentoring is proven to help keep young teachers in the classroom.
But when districts strip away the agency of teachers, they destroy teachers’ motivation to do their jobs well. This is what teachers are talking about when they say they’re not listened to, not respected, and not trusted. If teachers can’t be trusted to decide what, or at least how, to teach, then what can they be trusted with?
Teachers who create lessons are more invested in those lessons. They will, therefore, be more invested in their students’ learning. Teachers who are asked to be nothing more than deliverers of others’ work will rightly question why they need to be any good at all. Schools that take away every reason for teachers to be motivated should not be surprised when they have unmotivated teachers.
Let’s allow teachers to pursue the meaning that their jobs inherently have. We can start by allowing them to make more decisions about what goes on in their classrooms.
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I write books for overworked teachers. My latest, The Teacher’s Guide to Saying NO, is now available on Amazon.