As Much Freedom As Possible

I’m not particularly nostalgic. Though I embrace vintage ideas, I am an idealist, fueled by possibilities and the thoughts of innovation. I don’t see the past with rose-colored glasses. I don’t get sentimental.

But there’s something powerful about putting on a shirt and tie. It instantly takes me back to childhood, staring at my larger-than-life dad, as he wiped away the shaving cream and worked on getting his half-windsor perfectly straight. It was a symbol of growing up; a daily ritual reminding me that being an adult meant taking pride in your work and in your ability to take care of your family.

So, when I began as a teacher, newly married and living in a cramped apartment, I experienced a flood of memories as I straightened my half-windsor and looked at the mirror. It was my ritual remind me that I was an adult.

Few of my colleagues wore a shirt and tie. We were a blue jean campus and I knew that my attire didn’t quite fit. But that didn’t matter. I valued this ritual and the shirt and the tie and the layers of meaning connected to it.

All of that changed in my third year of teaching when we adopted a stricter dress code. I’ve never believed that jeans were “unprofessional” or that students would show me less respect if I forgot to wear a tie. But suddenly, I had to wear slacks (does anyone under 70 still use that term?) and a dress shirt. It was a uniform.


The clothes of uniformity.

I began to resent the shirt and tie. I hated being told that I had to wear slacks. This deeply personal symbol became an external policy. The ritual lost its magic. I quit wearing the tie and began following the bare minimum requirements. I began to live for blue jean Fridays.

This last year I began my career as a college professor. Here I could wear jeans whenever I felt like it. So, I did. Every single day. I enjoyed the newfound freedom. However, one evening I found myself putting on a suit before going to class. Suddenly, it was back. The flood of memories. The smell of aftershave. The sense of pride in my work. The layers of meaning in such a simple ritual.

IMG_7068This is why I’ve decided to wear a suit to work everyday. Blue jeans just aren’t as powerful when I have the freedom to choose what I want to wear.

I understand that every workforce has a dress code. However, when I had the freedom to choose, the decision felt personal and internal. I was intrinsically motivated to wear a shirt and tie. I defined the purpose, not based upon an external definition of professionalism, but based upon my own beliefs about the value of work. Once it was no longer a choice, my mindset changed. It became external.

However, once it became optional again, I felt more engaged, more empowered, and more motivated to don the shirt and tie once again.

A Culture of Compliance

When I was a kid, I loved learning but I hated school. That’s not entirely true. I loved my teachers. I liked some of my classmates. I even enjoyed some of the assignments. However, I hated the non-stop sense of compliance. Things like:

  • Binder checks, notebook checks, and other external forms of organization
  • The proper way to put my name on the paper (and every teacher had a new way of putting the name, date, class period, etc.)
  • The “wrong” or “right” way to do research
  • Things like “pop corn” reading, where I wasn’t allowed read at my own pace
  • Treating math problems like recipes, where I have to follow exactly what my teacher is doing
  • Loving writing but almost never getting to choose what to write

These things were often done with the best intentions. Teachers wanted us to learn to be organized, so we did the binder checks. Teachers wanted to make sure we were “on the same page,” so we followed a rigid process. We learned recipe-styled math with the best intentions of helping us through seeing examples.

However, in each case, we lacked student choice and agency. We didn’t own the learning process. So, instead of empowering us and helping us grow, these activities actually got in the way. The scaffolding became a cage that kept us from the autonomy we needed in our learning. They were, at worst, motivation-killers and, at best, a major distraction.

As Much Freedom As Possible

When I first began teaching, I resisted student choice. I would offer the occasional options, but I was scared of student choice:

  • What if they don’t choose the right thing?
  • What if they check out and don’t care?
  • What happens if they make too many decisions? Will I be a weak teacher?
  • What will this look like for classroom management?
  • What will the principal think of too many people are doing things differently from each other?
  • Won’t students get lazy and selfish?
  • How will I even know what’s going on?

I was terrified of what would happen if my students had too much freedom. It would be anarchy. It would feel like Lord of the Flies. But that isn’t what happened. My students were more engaged and, as a result, more motivated to learn. They worked harder and took more ownership in the process. They were better behaved. They actually respected my leadership even more than before, because I trusted them.

I spent one summer analyzing every part of my classroom with a single, driving question:

What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves? 

After my third year of teaching, I revamped everything — my class rules, procedures, instructional strategies, lesson plans, projects, and assessments. Everything. It feels counterintuitive, but when students have more choice, they will actually work harder. They will take more creative risks. They will be more engaged. And that’s what happened. When I revamped my approach so that they had the freedom to learn, that’s exactly what they did.

Listen to the Podcast

Just click on the audio below to listen to this Creative Classroom podcast. You can also listen to it on the go by subscribing on iTunes (ideal for iPhone users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users)

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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.

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2 responses

  1. Hello John, This is a terrific analogy to explain the hazards of compliance. Earlier today, I was discussing compliance with my Principal. I shared my concern about our 1:1 implementation losing it’s luster because the iPads were becoming devices of compliance instead of instruments for relevant learning. The kinesthetic learner in me prefers t-shirts and gym shoes, but there are certainly times for a more professional look. Like you said, it’s good to have a choice.

    PS: What tools are you using to record and share your podcast? THX

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      I’m using GarageBand to record it and then I’m adding it to this blog post.

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