How valuable is teacher autonomy? It seems like a no-brainer. But like with most interesting philosophical questions, nuance makes the answer more conflicted than first meets the eye. Whilst I’ve seen some discussions of teacher autonomy spiral into straw-man arguments and caricatures of robots … I hope this sparks a sensible debate. In this post I’ll discuss my thoughts on the value of teacher autonomy in the context of behaviour. Part II will explore teacher autonomy in teaching methods.
Suppose a teacher is given complete autonomy in his own classroom. What would it look like? The teacher would have his own rules, expectations and routines. He would decide his own teaching methods so his lessons could well look completely different to the other teachers in his department. If he is a strong teacher, and he makes good decisions about how to teach his pupils, he could thrive. But already, I’ve described two conditions that suggest complete autonomy might not suit all. Firstly, competence – being a strong teacher – is developed through experience, so complete autonomy might not be best suited to inexperienced teachers. Secondly, teaching methods vary in their efficacy, so a teacher making a series of poor pedagogical decisions wouldn’t necessarily thrive.
Behaviours are habits; habits require consistency
But there are further issues at hand here. In a school where teachers each have their own set of rules, expectations and routines, silence in one classroom might mean silence; in another it might be quietly whisper to your partner. In one classroom high expectations for all looks like a detention for any two disruptions. In the adjacent classroom detentions are given on the fourth disruption. In the classroom opposite, detentions may not be given at all. Autonomy necessarily yields inconsistency between classrooms. The question becomes: is that desirable?
Good habits are cultivated through consistency. At Michaela, we think, that for effective learning to take place and for pupils to be safe, every pupil must behave according to a defined, objective standard. Achieving that set standard means pupils need to be given constant feedback about when they succeed or fail to meet that standard, so that eventually, the pupils themselves know exactly what is expected of them. This requires every teacher to be clear about the expectations so that everyone can offer pupils the same feedback to meet the same standard. So, when it comes to behaviour, I’ll happily sacrifice the autonomy of setting my own standards. As a school, it’s important for teachers to row together in order to create the conditions for pupils to develop excellent habits.
At schools where every teacher sets their own expectations, pupils will behave differently for different teachers. And that means pupils will learn better in some classrooms compared to others. Surely this is far from ideal? Surely a better system is one where NQTs and teaching veterans alike can feel secure that pupils will behave in their lessons and get the most out of every minute?
At Michaela, we have robust behaviour systems that teachers follow consistently. Does this mean Michaela teachers are robots? An observer hearing all of us saying the same phrases in our classrooms might conclude so: ‘3-2-1 and SLANT’, ‘You’ve spilt your trust bucket’, ‘You are the master of your fate’, are, after all, common utterances in our classrooms. The observer may also notice that the ‘merits’ given in one classroom are given for the same reason as in another classroom. Consistency.
But us teachers are full of personality and character, just like our pupils. There is a wonderful, intangible quality that you will experience in every classroom that unambiguously conveys to you that every classroom is different. Whilst you may be able to accurately describe some of the idiosyncrasies in particular classrooms: the proud smile with which the one teacher issued the merit, and the playful, conceding look that says, ‘Your brilliant answer compels me to give you a merit’ in the other classroom, it is impossible to depict the uniqueness of each classroom without experiencing it. And it’s this blend of consistent application of the behaviour policy, delivered with a colourful mix of rich personalities that creates a fertile culture for pupils to shape habits that allow them to maximise the amount they learn and enjoy their lessons, feeling safe.
So yes, an observer would see consistency at Michaela, but they would also agree that each teacher has great relationships with their pupils forged through their own personalities. Using systems consistently is not the same as being robotic. Content and delivery are different things.
Finally, it is easy to overlook two aspects of autonomy that are integral to consistency: judgement and evaluation. Firstly, consistency does not mean a teacher never uses his or her judgement. In reality, interpreting behaviour is always subjective, so there will always be some element of decision-making on the part of the teacher. Secondly, it is vital that teachers regularly evaluate the behaviour policy. If something is not working, decisions need to be made instantly. When I joined Michaela, I was blown away at how we would spend a few minutes in a whole staff-meeting to discuss whether or not a particular rule was working, why and what we would do about it. Everyone would input, and a decision would be made that everyone could implement from the very next day. Surely this democratic way of modifying the behaviour policy with such speed is superior to an autonomous policy which is rarely discussed by the staff body?
Next time: Teacher Autonomy: Part II – Curriculum & Teaching
P.S. Michaela are hiring! Check out our vacancies here.