What I Mean by Autonomy

Today at the PLC Conference, Richard DuFour mocked teacher autonomy. The audience chuckled along with him as he labeled the need for autonomy an excuse. It was telling when he chose the metaphor of a pilot who must listen to the Air Traffic Control tower rather than steering the plane in any specific direction. The thing is that I don’t fly planes. I teach kids. Enough of the world runs on auto-pilot. Is that really what we want for our schools?

William Glasser defined autonomy as one of the basic human drives. It is not an excuse when someone says, “What about autonomy?” The truth is that teachers are watching our professional autonomy slip away because of the work of corporate reformers and slick politicians. When we snarl at those who mock this need, it is not because we love snarling, but because we’ve lost too much already.

In many places, teachers are forced into scripted curriculum in a push toward test prep. They are forced to have word walls, grammar walls, lesson plans in a set format, a standardized gradebook, a specific set of curriculum that they cannot deviate from, a discipline matrix that they must adhere to (even if research doesn’t support the system of punishments and rewards), etc.

If a teacher asks, “What about teacher autonomy?” the solution (if it were to grow on a tree) might be to explain very clearly how a specific system will enhance teacher autonomy. If the “professional” means anything in the Professional Learning Community, spell it out for teachers.

The truth is that I became a better teacher when I was finally given autonomy. It’s not an excuse. It’s the impetus for innovation. When I have creative control and the freedom to experiment, some of the best lessons occur. Last year, I was able to use a tech-integrated framework, move away from traditional grades, go with a project-based and problem-based approach and teach thematic units. I also had some of the highest reading, writing and math scores in the district.

All of that required a hefty dose of teacher autonomy. Although we were a PLC, the principal was flexible enough to say, “Try this and compare the results with your team.” He never mocked my need for autonomy, but actually embraced it instead.

The Paradox

Tonight my son jumped over a larger ice chest. I wrestled with whether I should allow him to assert his will or if I should step in for his safety. I don’t pretent to have it figured out. Total autonomy is anarchy. Being involved in any social system (family, religion, work) requires a sacrifice of some of one’s rights for the protection of social cohesion.  

The school is a civic institution. I still believe it is vital for the success of a democracy. However, every  democracy requires a social contract. The will of the individual is protected by rights and also restricted by laws, rules and regulations. These are often held in tension out of the dual needs for safety and freedom.

In most Professional Learning Communities there is talk of the “loose” and “tights.” A good principal will respect teacher identity and allow for the freedom to teach within the confines of a few “tights” about what is best for students. It gets murky sometimes. I get that. Much of what passes for “teacher complaining” or even “school politics” is simply very different paradigms and philosophies about what students need.

However, ultimately that’s where autonomy matters. The will of the organization can be imposed upon the individual through coercion. However, meaningful change occurs only when the individual is able to make a paradigm shift. It takes more time to empower teachers, but at a cultural level, that is how schools change.

A Humble Answer

I readily admit that I attacked Solution Tree without remembering that there were people behind the organization. I called them the Tree Party and Delusion Tree. Clever, perhaps. Snarky, for sure. But also arrogant. My words were so extreme that dialogue wasn’t possible in the moment. I became the very thing that I was railing against.

However, teacher autonomy still matters. The anger I felt inside of me comes from the sense of being beat down, shamed and told to “shut up, because it’s for the kids.” Teachers are already under attack from so many different angles. If we seem skittish, it’s because we’ve been bludgeoned in the name of “what works.”

Instead of mocking teacher autonomy, a better solution might be the recognize it as a real human need, define it as “the freedom to do what’s best for students,” discuss the nuances and paradox of staff unity and individual autonomy and then get into why a PLC might actually allow for more teacher autonomy.

Click Me Click Me

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

22 responses

  1. John – I admit that I have been turned off at times by your rally cry for teacher autonomy when I've seen both sides of the spectrum personally: scripted curriculum and do-whatever-you-want-behind-close-doors-all-of-the-time. Your humble approach (and apology!) are refreshing and needed in my personal professional journey as I think more about this topic. Thank you for laying out your thoughts in 140+ characters.

  2. Great post. I personally teach in a school that has found a great balance between autonomy and accountability, so I take this for granted. Your post has given me pause to think about how that is cultivated and how that impacts what is happening in our school and what it might mean for my students if that were to change.

  3. Dear Matt,
    I think you and I have a very large overlap regarding what we believe. I think the biggest differences involve what we tend to emphasize and what we fear regarding the profession.

    Dear Roderick,
    It's a gift to work in a place with that balance. It's been hit or miss for me, depending upon the administrators and the school culture. But really, the biggest threat to teacher autonomy here in AZ is the state government.

  4. John, I recently wrote a book (now at the publisher) exploring: What would teachers do if they had the autonomy not just to make classroom decisions, but to collectively—with their colleagues—make the decisions influencing whole school success? Decisions such as school curriculum, how to allocate the school budget, and who to hire and fire.

    Please understand this doesn't mean they do all the administrative work. Some even hire principals to take on a number of leadership tasks — but often the principals are accountable to the teachers who are responsible and accountable for school success, not vice versa. Teachers are accountable to the authority granting them autonomy (this authority varies — school district board, superintendent, charter authorizer, etc.).

    Autonomous teachers create the schools that many of us profess to want. They individualize learning. Their students are active learners who gain academic and life skills. The teachers make decisions associated with high performance. They accept accountability and innovate, and make efficient use of resources.

    We showed the book to a test group of teachers, most initially skeptical (but curious), who ended up saying they were so inspired by what the autonomous teachers do that they either want to embrace teacher autonomy or take the teachers' innovations and try them in their own, less autonomous, settings. That's saying something…

  5. I like this post. Thank you.

  6. I am at the PLC summit and got a different message from Rick DuFour. Never once have I heard him say that we need to use scripted teaching. In fact, it seems just the opposite, more like how your principal runs things. I got the impression that we'll need to be more and more innovative about our teaching, as long as we remain aligned with standards and common assessments it doesn't matter how you teach the skills. I completely agree that creativity needs to be a strong part of our teaching.

    The problem with metaphors and analogies is that people interpret them differently. It should have been explained a bit more clearly. I think it's hard when a huge group is hearing the same message, we all take back certain things. The things we are passionate about we instantly put our guard up. I can't imagine the DuFour pair discounting anything that provides high test scores and student success. When you can back it up with results and ensure students are learning, that seems like EXACTLY what they are talking about.

  7. Dear Kim,
    I'll have to check out the book. I love your comment that "they individualize learners."

    Dear planetsmith,
    I never suggested that PLC uses that approach. I'm actually a big fan of the PLC framework when it functions correctly. I've worked on teams where the "common assessments" were nothing more than test prep and the idea of professionalism was simply groupthink. PLCs only work when people work as professionals. I think you're onto something with metaphors. However, mocking autonomy and the "excuse" of autonomy is unfair and disingenuous.

  8. Thanks for posting this and fleshing out your thoughts! And for taking the time to chat yesterday on Twitter. I really do appreciate that.

    I've been thinking about this discussion, and I almost think that word choice is a big part of the disagreement/misunderstanding here. As I understand him, Rick is/was reacting to autonomy being used as an excuse for working in isolation. The word autonomy has different meanings in different contexts.

    Anyway, I found this blog post Rick wrote, addressing a similar criticism he's gotten, on ATPLC that might interest you:

  9. This was a great post. While I don't really have the context of what you're responding to, I do love what you're talking about. I was also thinking of possibly another reason why people get like to come down on the concept of "autonomy." Could it be that people who like to advocate for autonomy are perceived as anti-collaboration? You don't need to spend more than a few minutes on #edchat to know that many who tweet agree that we are in some sort of "age of collaboration," so if there is someone out there who prefers to do his own thing, he's seen as anti-innovative or a dinosaur.

    Personally, while I collaborate all the time and have no problem with it, there are times when I definitely want to do things my own way, or better yet want my students to do things individually rather than in teams, mainly because I see the creative value in autonomy as much as I see the creative value in collaboration.

    Just a thought, anyway.

  10. John
    Thank you again for this post. I have to admit that as an international school VP in HK I do not have much background about what is happening in the USA but it seems to go completely against what 'should' be happening…
    I know that 'Drive' has influenced many people – including myself… and the research that Dan Pink, as well as numerous others, has undertaken seems to go against what many are saying.
    Keep smiling -and enjoying being a educator and a dad, as well as all the other things 🙂

  11. John,

    I'm glad you wrote this. I've attended two Solution Tree institutes and at both Dr. DuFour set up a beautiful straw man of "autonomy = closed door isolation" then swiftly knocked it down to the snickers of the crowd. (Sarah has provided a link to a blog post where he does it once again.)

    That is not autonomy and autonomy is not something to be brushed off.

    I do think that autonomy must and does play a large role in PLCs, but I believe the tone of Dr. DuFour's message unfortunately does a disservice to that role.

    Keep writing and keep sharing.

  12. John. I am puzzled by your reaction. It seems to me that we agree that teachers should have a great deal of autonomy, and that this point was stressed throughout the PLC Summit. Both Becky in her keynote and Mike Mattos in the video used in the opening session specifically stated that that the PLC process does not support scripted lessons or lock-step pacing. We stressed that teachers MUST have autonomy regarding the instructional strategies they are to use because there is no one right way to teach. We emphasized that it is wrong for districts to dictate what teachers should teach and how students should be assessed. We specifically argued that teachers working collectively should be empowered to make decisions about the most essential curriculum, that they should create their own team assessments rather than relying on assessments created by others, and that they should be highly engaged in analyzing the evidence of student learning rather that having others do the analysis for them. I don't think a single speaker ever suggested that the purpose of the PLC process is to raise test scores. So we did in fact spell out that collectively teachers should be empowered to make decisions about what to teach, how to pace curriculum, and how to assess their students, and that individually they should have a great deal of autonomy regarding the instructional strategies and practices they use.

    What I did stress in my keynote is that professionals have an ethical obligation to seek out the practices that offer the best hope and greatest probability of meeting the needs of those they serve. I presented evidence that schools are more effective when educators work collaboratively rather than in isolation, when teachers themselves have a voice in establishing a guaranteed curriculum so that what students learn is not a function of the teacher to whom they have been assigned, when teams of teachers frequently gather and analyze evidence to improve their practice, and when schools have a coordinated and systematic process for providing students with additional time and support when they struggle. You don't address this in your blog, but if you disagree, I would be happy to consider any research-based evidence that you would care to offer.

    It was not my intent to mock teacher autonomy, nor do I feel I did so. I didn't restrict the analogy to pilots and your stretching the analogy to call for autopilot is exactly the opposite of what I said. I specifically gave five different example of professions where members are expected to collaborate with others as an absolute condition for participating in the profession. I also stressed that in these professions there will be many times when they work alone rather than collaboratively and utilize their individual professional judgement to address an immediate issue. I pointed out that if a school had organized teachers into collaborative teams, teachers would still spend over 90% of their time working alone and autonomously in their classrooms.

    The person in the video that I used in my keynote continued to assert he had the professional autonomy to "teach what I want, when I want," and to choose to work in isolation. I emphatically disagree with that point of view. I feel it was evident that the premise I was presenting in the keynote is that a professional's obligation to apply best practice trumps what you would call personal paradigms or philosophies and what I would call opinion. So if you feel that reminding teachers that autonomy in any profession is not defined as, "I can do what I damn well please," is mocking teacher autonomy, I respectfully suggest you used selective listening that filtered out our repeated calls for empowering teachers beyond what is currently being done in our schools. If you feel that you are somehow exempt from seeking and applying best practices for those you serve because, "I teach kids," I feel it is incumbent upon you to explain that position further.

  13. Rick DuFour wrote, "I pointed out that if a school had organized teachers into collaborative teams, teachers would still spend over 90% of their time working alone and autonomously in their classrooms."

    I think that depends on the structure by which you try to achieve collaboration. My colleagues and I found that what you predict above untrue, although the autonomy we looked at goes beyond giving teachers autonomy via PLCs. The PLC idea assumes that authority to make school management decisions ultimately remains with conventional administrators (with advice from teachers). When teachers collectively have school management authority that whole dynamic shifts. Responsible and accountable for whole school success, teachers told me they simply must collaborate with the whole school (not classroom) in mind. They also told me they are willing to collaborate because of the positive benefits to the school, for which they are truly accountable.

    A conventional teacher and administrator wrote in our book that although she felt she had a "collaborative community" at her schools, autonomous teachers give a whole new meaning to this term.

    So, to further discuss Tom Panarese's point (which is totally understandable in the context of conventional management), collective autonomy to make the decisions affecting school success (not just classroom success) may in fact be the means to collaboration.

  14. Is this the right time and place to bring up the way Arizona State DOE put an end to an Hispanic studies course that was very successful? They threatened to take away millions of dollars, under the guise that the course was racist? WT? Why shouldn't the LEA have autonomy to define its own curricula that has demonstrated success (in scores and graduation rates, while closing the achievement gap)for 10 years?

  15. Dear Sarah,
    It was fun to engage in the spirited discussion on Twitter. Sorry for the snark, by the way.

    Dear Tom,
    You seem like a great teacher and yet with the wrong admin, you would easily fall into the camp of being a trouble-maker. Your honesty is always refreshing and your drive for autonomy is part of what makes you great.

    Dear Neil,
    I was a fan of "Drive." It reaffirmed what educators have experienced (and known) for years: that a job must be meaningful, creative and allow for autonomy. Incidentally, these are the same three listed in a C.S. Lewis essay in "God in the Dock." I think it comes down to trust. If a teacher feels trusted, he or she can often be trusted to do the right thing.

    Dear Russ,
    I'm glad I wasn't the only one who felt that autonomy became a straw man or punching bag. I believe in the structures and the philosophy of PLC, but it only works when the culture is right and when the trust is there. If there isn't a sense of shared leadership, then the Vision and Mission are hollow and the common assessments are simply test prep work. A true PLC has to embrace the human elements of humility, trust and respect.

    Dear Rick,
    I am honestly surprised and honored that you responded on this blog. I think it might help to see why I have such a visceral reaction to it: I've been in a broken PLC. It wasn't pretty. People would say things like, "It's PLC to . . . " and then justify bad practices as a result. They slammed autonomy by saying, "data says" without ever explaining the data. A few times, they openly mocked the need for autonomy. So, when I react strongly to what felt like a mockery of autonomy, that's where I'm coming from.

    Again, I believe that a PLC can work. My last principal, Mr. Hagen, was phenomenal at shared leadership, a common vision and an embrace of authentic learning. PLC wasn't simply a word, but a way of doing things. If it were my presentation (and I'm by no means an expert here) I would begin with the question of autonomy or innovation and then show why PLC encourages this. I would begin with the notion that teachers are tired and beat down and if we practice shared inquiry, transparency and trust, we can bring back the sense of professionalism that teachers don't feel.

    One thing that I'd like to point out is that I don't think PLC has ever been about raising scores. I know that you were critical of NCLB from the start. That wasn't the point in either my tweets or in this post. Instead, it was the sense of defining autonomy and helping people see that PLC should (and sometimes does) respect teacher autonomy.

    In terms of the "what I want, when I want" piece, I have mixed feelings. If the team organizes things poorly in curriculum maps or chooses strategies that go against what is best for students, it is absolutely necessary for a teacher to choose the "what I want, when I want" route. I've been on dysfunctional teams where they refused to group standards and instead went with a "one P.O. per day" mentality. The culture was so broken that I simply couldn't steer the group in the right direction.

    The post was not a slam on PLC. It wasn't meant to suggest that collaboration is a bad thing or that a shared curriculum doesn't work. The catalyst for this post was the suggestion by someone that I define what exactly I mean by teacher autonomy.

    Dear Kim,
    That's a very interesting concept. I'd love to see how it works out in real-time.

    Dear Anonymous,
    So true!

  16. John,

    Kudos to you and the work you do in our field. This was an exceptional post and recommended reading for any educational leader. My favorite quote that connects with your post is:

    “It is important for school improvement efforts to strike the right balance between telling teachers what to do and respecting teachers' intelligence, professionalism, and ability to create their own solutions for improving student performance. This means giving teachers enough guidance to make changes in their classrooms and providing them with opportunities to create their own demand for learning.”

    It is that balance that I seek to attain in our school's collaborative culture (I seldom use the term "PLC").

    Keep up the great work!

  17. John, Again I think we are on the same page here. I appreciate your suggestion, and I will try to be more emphatic that teachers NEED autonomy in their approach to instruction. I will continue to stress that as professionals, if one teacher is consistently getting irrefutably better results on assessments that the team has agreed represent a valid way of gathering information on student learning, other members should be willing to examine those practices as Bill suggests. The most creative teachers I have ever seen were those I worked with in an amazing PLC, and the collaborative process fostered their creativity rather discouraged it.

    I also agree that we have an innate drive for autonomy as Pink writes in Drive, but he also points out, "Autonomy is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice—which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others." That is exactly the goal of high-performing PLCs – linking individual autonomy with a team structure that promotes interdependence and mutual accountability.
    Pink argues that the 3 big motivators are the desire for autonomy, mastery ("getting better and better at something that matters"), and purpose ("it connects the quest for excellence to a larger purpose").He also writes that we help people fulfill these drives by "give people meaningful information about their work" (think common formative assessments created by the team). We began the PLC process in our school 10 years before there were state assessments. We stressed the moral purpose of providing each student with the best education possible because we believed in the power of education to transform their lives.

    Finally, Pink writes, "encouraging autonomy doesn’t mean discouraging accountability. Whatever operating system is in place, people must be accountable for their work." So when teachers work together interdependently in an ongoing effort to master the art and science of teaching so they can be more effective in having a positive impact on the lives of students, AND they are empowered to be creative and autonomous in their classrooms in terms of strategies for achieving the team goals for which they are mutually accountable, I would argue that we are promoting the specific motivators Pink is talking about.

    I recognize that even the most powerful and positive of ideas (democracy, religion, etc) can be applied badly, and I hope that your school will re-think its approach to PLCs so that it can become what is intended to be – a process to help students learn at higher levels by empowering teachers to work in a culture that is simultaneously loose ("be creative, innovate, try it your way") and tight (all students are entitled to have access to a guaranteed curriculum, have their learning monitored on an ongoing basis, have systematic interventions, and to work in a school where adults are committed to work interdependently to meet their needs).

  18. Really thought provoking dialogue goes to heart of how PLCs badly implemented as latest new fad fail to engage teachers in collective search for improved learning and practice. Colleague and former supt Joe Peel coined term "collective autonomy" to contrast shared determination of directions for improved learning and practice from guild-like insistence that each practitioner alone determine what was effective. Seems to me takes a lot of trust, commitment to adult as well as student learning, openness to research and new ideas from outside the school, and action research to achieve the potential that a community of learners has to offer improved practice and results.

  19. Really thought provoking dialogue goes to heart of how PLCs badly implemented as latest new fad fail to engage teachers in collective search for improved learning and practice. Colleague and former supt Joe Peel coined term "collective autonomy" to contrast shared determination of directions for improved learning and practice from guild-like insistence that each practitioner alone determine what was effective. Seems to me takes a lot of trust, commitment to adult as well as student learning, openness to research and new ideas from outside the school, and action research to achieve the potential that a community of learners has to offer improved practice and results.

  20. What a great post! I think that the key to great education is getting highly skilled, passionate, intelligent teachers in the room, providing them with resources (not requirements) and mentorship (not supervision), and then giving them the freedom to do their job well.

  21. My problem with PLC as the latest educational trend is just what Mack mentioned. District leaders interested in looking progressive buy in to the DuFour plan and instead of providing the proper time and resources it becomes an additional hurdle. Teams forced to develop common assessments that look just like the state standardized tests in order to identify the students who are close enough to deserve extra attention and those too far away to be bothered with is not effective.

    Also, mandating PLC work without mandating common planning or time in the day to engage in a professional community doesn't lead to effective work.

    I've seen the DuFours as well. I would like to see them more willing to call out district leaders who take "half-measures" to implement a culture of PLC without going all the way.

  22. I have worked in PLC’s for eight years and it has been nothing short of a nightmare. I see these as administration’s attempt to push the responsibility of fixing poor teachers onto effective teachers. It is not my responsibility to fix bad teachers! DuFour has made my life miserable as a teacher. I have consistently had the highest test scores (by at least 10%) of any teacher on my PLC. I do my job and do it well. I honestly collaborated more with other teachers before I was forced into this rubbish. This is a fad that will not die fast enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *