Autonomy in all the right places

It’s half term, but I’ve been writing and rewriting chunks of this blog for a while as I’ve tried to make sense of autonomy in teaching. As it became more mangled than I would like, Jack Worth appeared in rather a timely manner with the NFER report around teacher autonomy, and helped me make some sense of my thoughts. After listening to Jack’s discussion around this on Phil Naylor’s podcast, and with talk of future research on the horizon, I have come back to this bundle of thoughts and attempted to narrow my ideas to outline where I believe autonomy should and does (in places) exist in teaching.

Teacher purpose is a construct that I keep returning to again and again. In fact, the more I read and the more teachers I listen to, the more it feels as though wellbeing is a facade for workload, and perhaps workload isn’t actually the crux of things after all. When we talk about the job being too much, we mistaken that as a simple calculation of time, when the equation doesn’t quite get to the heart of the issue. The time spent is not where we lose morale in cases, but the way in which the time is spent. I feel that the argument of time is one best left for another time, but one branch of that argument is the freedom or lack of that is permitted to teachers in schools, and beyond this, where we have got it wrong. In fact, I would argue that we have confused the concepts of autonomy and consistency as features of a spectrum when actually, they have entirely different placement for teachers. One does not come at a loss to the other: we need both to feature if we seek to provide a ‘best bets’ education to children. We don’t always want or require autonomy, and actually in schools where teachers are given autonomy in abundance, this can have quite a detrimental effect.

We need to teach the same thing at the same time

We do, kind of. Consistency is essential when we are discussing the matter of curriculum menu, and to deny that is nothing short of shoddy. All children should walk from their experience in EYFS, Y8, Y13 with to some degree, a foundation of knowledge that we were insistent that they take with them to their next part of the journey. We’re not so fussy as to how that knowledge was imparted; done well, of course, and done repeatedly, with a persistence that meant we returned to this foundation as a grounding for everything else we touched upon, but the boundaries are not set so firm as others might attempt. We do not teach the same thing on the same day; we need to be responsive in addressing misconceptions and with that, there must be a loosening or the reins; a way of not only identification of what I call ‘the not-knowers’ but the conviction to do something about it. It is fighting the fear and choosing to revisit, reteach, requestion, instead of ploughing on through content with a recklessness fuelled by fear of being last in the race. By instead starting with a blueprint of what we need to teach (a knowledge organiser that outlines essential vocabulary, components of learning, subject- specific process), we all reach the same end point, with slightly different optional extras, but a solid basis of knowledge ensures that the threads that tie our curriculum together from one week, month, year to the next are well and truly still in tact.

How to fight the ‘lesson one, two, three’ panic? I would argue that we need to teach less, better. Careful selection of what we teach in the first place has a monumental impact on ensuring that there is consistency of knowledge, but not to the detriment of the classroom-cloning effect. Autonomy is essential for delivery, and we know all too well how timing or limiting teacher talk left us feeling a little muzzled to be able to do what we do best: teach. Consistency of knowledge is at the heart of effective curriculum delivery and whilst this can be misconstrued as ‘same lesson, same page,’ actually, trying to fit a cohort through the constraints of such an approach never ends well. Trying to fit less content, better content into the time that we have allows teachers to have time to do it properly.

We need to work towards the same goals

I am more and more excited as I think that blanket approach, mass CPD is becoming a thing of the past, and that when we provide whole-school CPD, we do it because it is rooted in our ‘best bets’ approach to what it means to teach. Anything other than that is a little patronising: by delivering whole- school CPD, if it isn’t of the highest calibre, are we presuming that the NQT has equally the same to gain as the fifteen-years in Lead Practitioner to their left? That perhaps this is a complete misconception, and the Lead Practitioner actually needs support with an aspect of quality first teaching, whereas the NQT received fantastic support with this only last year when training? Or, that anyone in their right mind needs half a day being taught how to create role cards or opportunities for gamification in their teaching that will inevitably just end up in even more time wasted?

Predominantly, we know what we need to learn, and which aspect of our craft needs our attention to not only help us to improve, but to motivate us to do so. We should be masters of this journey, as whilst others can provide their own insight, experience and advice, who better to identify areas of improvement than the individual teacher? Coaching programmes, subject-specific CPD and handing over the task of development to the teacher ensures true autonomy as a result of complete ownership for the teacher, as they are invested because they have created the pathway. Furthermore, by reducing the areas of focus for teachers when they draw out a plan for professional development, it means that we are more likely to experience mastery, simply by moving away from a scatter gun effect. The teacher is completing only CPD that links directly to their personal target, and responding to that target with what they think they need.

Acknowledging how vital autonomy is for professional development has more impact that we could imagine, because we are bringing the matter of trust to the table: nothing says,‘I trust you’ like a self- governed CPD journey. Beyond this, we are empowering teachers to develop reflection and the ability to be self- critical, something I’m still not sure we can truly teach, but a feature that presents itself in the vast majority of really effective teachers.

However, there is a requirement in school for CPD to take some form of collective purpose: how are we working towards the same overarching aim? Why is that important? More importantly, we should also think about the knock-on impact of a member of staff undertaking a particular focus for their development for the year, and how might other staff be able learn from that, and how we provide a platform to bring these individual journeys together? If we align individual professional development to the underpinning core values of our school’s journey, this can then result in something of a ripple effect of the most positive kind, because the message becomes about collaboratively striving towards a key aim or process that is all about a sense of continual, incremental improvement.

We have to be on the same page for behaviour

Autonomy of behaviour management is rather the paradox, as only successful when experienced within the constraints of a consistent, relentlessly demanding whole- school approach, and when I say demanding, I mean of the student and not the teacher. We can only know a true sense of liberation as teachers when we are working with the backing and support of strong process and policy that removes all barriers for our ability to teach. Both exposing and refreshing, the feeling of autonomy comes from being able to teach because nothing is standing in your way; you are working within the parameters of a policy that explicitly indicates to students that your time and expertise is of great value, and there is no time to waste. By removing the administration and time that can be sucked from teachers training to home the line on behaviour, it not only works in minute-by-minute saving to the teacher, but the reassurance of support. Autonomy to teach is the result and if you speak to any classroom teacher, a lack of consistency around behaviour is incredibly damaging. Not only do those teachers have to invest time and effort into educating stakeholders- students and parents/carers- as to what acceptable behaviour looks like, and what it does not- but it becomes a fire fighting exercise, where the teachers not trying to hold the line are rewarded, because they don’t lose the hours and hours calling home and communicating the same messages, day in, day out, whilst the most conscientious teachers are those that suffer. T

Teachers crave consistency through a robust approach to behaviour, and very few want the unwieldy task of navigating through a bespoke, undefinable approach. They want to teach, and so by providing a system that enables them to do so is providing autonomy because it hands back the control to them by outlining to students: this is how we do things here. This is what we expect of you. This is what we do to so we can teach you. To hand over the task of behaviour to individual teachers is nothing short of irresponsible.

We need to think the same thing about teaching

Finally, I feel it is important to consider the autonomy that comes from being able to be honest, and how actually, if we want to truly develop teams, and possible future leaders, then we need to be creating a culture of honesty. Why? Because when everyone agrees, we fester, and we don’t grow or modify ourselves to improve. A Syed states in Rebel Ideas, information bubbles and echo chambers stagnate. We start to create our own real- life algorithms as we actively seek to agree with others because it’s self-affirming, and comfortable.

If we want to seek a place of complete autonomy in the right places, we have to be able to be honest and open in our opinions and views, which in turn helps us to achieve a sense of utter consistency. Another complete paradox, I know, but by having conversations with truth and candour, the dialogue becomes fixed upon improving the work and not improving the person, and that is incredibly powerful. The shift in mindset means that we reject the bravado and showboat of idea ownership and instead focus on the work, and how the work works now, and how the work could work better. Instead, we collectively work to refine, tailor and improve processes because the processes are the work of everyone. Furthermore, by actively encouraging difference of ideas, of breathing a community where ideas are done with and not done to people, autonomy is achieved through a consistency of intention towards finding the best way of working. And that’s really quite something to see in action.

Further reading

A few starting points that might be of interest if you are considering where autonomy features in your school:

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