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Freedom to teach: Why it is time to properly empower educators - Jackie Rossa

24 August 2023

By Jackie Rossa, Education Consultant

Carl Rogers’ book “Freedom to Learn” emphasises the role of learners’ autonomy, along with their personal experiences and feelings in creating an effective and fulfilling educational experience. But we can only develop autonomous learners through autonomous teachers. We simply cannot say we want happy, healthy, resilient, independent, confident, creative learners if we don’t enable those same characteristics in educators.

There is a significant body of research suggesting that when teachers have autonomy in their work, they are more committed motivated, engaged and innovative. Not only that, they enjoy better job satisfaction, and are more likely to stay in their jobs – a important factor when considering the current recruitment/retention issues that the sector is facing.

Of course, it can be said that autonomy is something teachers already have. After all, they work alone, and are free to make their own decisions about what they do in learning sessions. However, it is not quite as simple as that. Things that leaders do and say influence the way that teachers work, and can lead to them feeling that they need to teach in a certain way to meet expectations.

One striking example of this was in a college where managers noticed many teachers were using a significant amount of time in lessons replying to emails and carrying out administrative tasks. Attendance was low and declining, as was the morale and motivation of many staff.

Managers were genuinely perplexed, as this behaviour was completely at odds with their vision and values. They expected teachers to be enthusiastic and positive about their work, creating interesting, purposeful lessons that learners wanted to attend. They knew these teachers were skilled practitioners and could not understand what was happening.

After some digging, it became clear that, although managers said that their top priority was teaching and learning, this was not the message that teachers were receiving. Processes such as observations, learning walks, meetings, one-to-ones and CPD were heavily weighted towards compliance, systems and administration. As a result, many teachers perceived bureaucracy to be the top priority – not teaching and learning.

Trying to control what teachers do through administrative processes is usually a well-intentioned attempt to improve student outcomes, but it is rarely works. Teachers who are expected to carry out additional administrative tasks often do so at the expense of time spent planning lessons, marking, or, as we saw in the example above, teaching itself.

It is also useful to recognise that the methods used to evaluate teacher performance have a profound impact on teachers’ development and autonomy. Jennifer Moon (1999) states that “learning that is subject to assessment is characterised by the nature of that assessment”.

This statement applied to teacher development is both worrying and liberating. Worrying because reducing the messy, complex, emotionally intricate business of teaching to a set of quantifiable indicators for “quality” purposes, sends a clear (if erroneous) message to teachers about what is important. It is liberating because it shines a light on how things could be.

In a system that values teacher autonomy, teachers feel trusted to do what is best for learners. They have a shared vision of excellence that they feel ownership of and truly embrace. If all involved have an absolutely clear and transparent picture of what success looks like, educators can then be set free to use their skills, knowledge and expertise to achieve it.

Not only that, but they must be the ones who reflect on, evaluate adjust and improve their own practice. I am not suggesting that they do this alone, or without guidance and support, but that support needs to recognise the bio-individuality of each teacher within their own educational ecosystem.

One of the challenges with developing teacher autonomy will like in striking the right balance between providing educators with the freedom to make decisions in their work, and ensuring that organisational objectives are met, but if leaders act in ways that align with their vision and values, then the right things can be measured in the right way.

Freedom to teach refers to the level of autonomy, independence and authority that educators have in making decisions about their practice and using their professional judgement and expertise to adapt and adjust their practice to suit learners’ needs.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all educators felt truly free to do teach? If they could feel joy in their practice? Ultimately, teacher autonomy encourages ownership and commitment. It leads to better job satisfaction and professional growth. Nurturing teacher autonomy not only benefits teachers and learners, it enriches the overall quality of education for all involved. Time, perhaps, to set teachers free.