Saturday, May 15, 2010


Shawn had an interesting post he titled Can O'Worm: Eat It, Salary Schedule. I disagree with nearly everything he posted (scroll down to the comments), but I appreciate his willingness to go out on a limb and say something that might not be entirely popular.

In that spirit, here's my can o' worms:

Teacher autonomy is vastly overrated.

Before you go crazy, I will say that we should have more autonomy in many areas. Our schedule, our textbooks, our budget, our ability to choose between equally good methods of teaching something.1

Here are three areas where we should NOT have autonomy.
1. Grades. You knew this was coming, seeing as how I'm assessment obsessed. It is 100% unequivocally NOT alright for an A in my class to mean something different than the teacher next door. Creating a clear definition of what a grade truly means is the essence of standards-based grading.

2. Pacing. Every same subject teacher should be teaching the same things at the same time. I'm not saying every day is exactly the same in every class, but on a topic/unit level, we should all be on the same pace. From a pedagogical standpoint, it makes collaboration and data analysis nearly impossible if I'm teaching about ancient Egypt while my neighbor is teaching about Greece. More importantly, there's a culture issue. Significant learning occurs...wait for it...outside of our classrooms. Maybe, just maybe, my students learn more in the hallways than at their desks. Having the same pacing creates a shared culture. Our kids should be able to talk about what they're learning, even incidentally. Even if it's to complain how bad Mr. Buell is at teaching.

Here's a not-entirely-imagined conversation:
Student 1: Mr. Buell SUX at teaching. I don't know get anything in his class. He just stood there and kept talking and talking about protons. WTF is a proton?
Student 2: Ms. W is kinda cool. A proton is that positive thingie in the nucleus......

There are strong teachers and there are weak teachers. Sometimes, our kids need to learn from someone else. Even if your school is entirely populated with master teachers, your style of teaching isn't going to be the perfect fit for every kid.

At our school, we have AVID and various remedial support classes. From everything those teachers tell me, it makes a HUGE difference when all the teachers of a subject are on the same track. Those of you who teach those classes, I'm sure you've run into the juggling act that is trying to help four different sets of kids learn four different things because their teachers can't agree on what to teach first.

3. Discipline. I'm known as a soft teacher. I break a lot of rules and let a lot of rules slide. My basic rule is that if you're learning and not hurting someone else's learning, pretty much anything goes. I've always been a "I should decide what is acceptable in my class" kind of teacher. You know what? I'm wrong. If I'm a hormonal 14-year old boy, I shouldn't have to learn 6 different sets of rules. I shouldn't have to learn that in my first period a raised hand means I just need to be quiet while in second period it means it means I need to turn and face the teacher and put my hands on my desk. My third period teacher marks us tardy if we're not in class while my fourth period requires that I have a paper and pencil out on my desk by the time the bell rings. It's ridiculous. If your school (like mine) has a lot of discipline problems, take a look at the varying levels of classroom norms a student has to negotiate throughout the day. Like with pacing, shared discipline creates a shared culture.

For me, number 3 is the hardest but I think most teachers generally have a problem with 1 and 2. I hate our rules. I feel like I'm fighting a flawed system by flouting the rules. I'm also undermining my fellow teachers and setting up my students to fail.2

If you're an English teacher and you're looking for a theme here, it's the idea of building a shared culture. If what I'm doing violates that shared culture, I shouldn't be allowed to do it. On the other hand, I should be allowed a whole bunch of autonomy within those confines.

As always, let me know what I'm wrong about and let me know what I forgot.

1: Notice the qualifier "equally good." If there's a better way and then there's my way, I don't get to choose my way.
2: That doesn't mean I won't work to change the rules. But until I do, we should all be following them.


  1. I love this post and the thought that you've placed in it. I don't think you've forgotten anything, but I would be tempted to add a couple of thoughts regarding teacher autonomy.

    I recently participated in a professional learning session in which we studied the concept of defined autonomy. In a nutshell, those master teachers you speak of would have a great deal more autonomy than their weaker counterparts. Many teachers (and schools) who are getting results don't require "support" and interventions from administration and instructional coaches, and gain greater autonomy accordingly. That autonomy has been earned.

    I'm also a strong supporter of a school having an "instructional framework" from which everyone works. The strategy is to have some basic commonalities that students will see daily in each of their classes. Beyond that non-negotiable framework, teachers work according to their instructional strengths and pedagogical preferences.

    Again, I enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more of your thoughts and reflections on teaching and learning.

  2. I completely get what you're saying about the value of a shared culture within a school. What I wonder about is how to decide on what that culture should be. The way I see it you either have administrators handing down rules that all the teachers have to follow or you have the teachers reaching a consensus. The problem with administrator generated culture is that teachers (most people really) are unlikely to follow rules that if they don't see the reason behind them. On the other hand, creating consensus from a diverse group of teachers is going to be a difficult and time consuming process. I just don't see how you're going to get to a shared culture in an existing school without creating a lot of resentment.

  3. I see where you are coming from and I agree with 1 and 2, but I don't agree with 3. Homework policies, late work policies, hallway expectations...those can all be school wide, but discipline procedures are not one size fits all. I teach 6th grade, and the 5th grade teachers have hallways monitors and some sort of points system for their classes. Last year I had to use a system like that with my class, but this year's class is totally different. I don't have a "3 strikes and you're out policy," because this group of kids behaves differently and are motivated differently.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Sorry for the delay. I typed a lengthy response only to have blogger eat it. Got depressed and went to sleep. Here we go again.

    @Chuck Going back to Shawn's original post on merit pay, perhaps increased autonomy is more of a motivator than increased pay. If you're a Dan Pink kinda person, you would probably think so.

    As for instructional framework, I'm going to go to charter schools here. I think schools like KIPP and the Lemov schools do a lot of...questionable..things. However, one thing they're slam bang excellent about is those instructional frameworks you mention. All those teachers get intense PD so that each student can expect to see certain consistencies. That's definitely one of their strengths.

    @KateE I certainly would advocate a bottoms up approach. Admin should focus on two things 1. Creating the environment that would allow a shared culture to flourish (collab time, teams, focused PD) 2. Enforce the heck out of it.

    Yes, it would take a long time. I've had a post in the queue that I just haven't gotten right yet about two schools I visited. They had the most amazing environment and I've had a hard time organizing my thoughts on it. What I will say though is that it took them ten years to get to where they are. Crazy right? Can I wait that long? OTOH, it's now self-perpetuating (that flywheel thing Jim Collins writes about). Now, when they interview a teacher it's like, "Here's what we've built. This is what we do. You can be a part of it and continue to move us forward, or you can politely decline and go teach somewhere else." LOVE IT.

    @Becky I was thinking through a middle or secondary lens where students have to negotiate 6 or 7 different classroom norms throughout the day. The system itself (strikes, red/green/yellow cards, point system) isn't as important if they're in a self contained class. However, here's what I think does need to happen. Assuming you're a K-6 school, backwards plan your behavior/responsibility expectations. So when they leave your elementary school, how do you want your sixth graders to act and what do you want them to take responsibility for? Horizontally it should all be aligned. It's not ok for a student to be sent to the office for getting out of his seat in one class and not the other. It make these habits we teach seem arbitrary and up to the whim of the teacher (and some certainly are). Vertically you approach it just like with content. If I want my students to be able to do X by the time they leave, then in 5th grade they should do X-1, and in 4th grade X-2. These things can grown naturally at each level.

    The book Educating Hearts and Minds is about the Japanese school system. Other than the awesomeness that is lesson study, one of the things that really stuck out to me was how they approach behavior. A teacher would get together with a student's furture teachers and create a multi-year plan.

    Slightly off-topic, but it also amazed me how much more freedom Japanese kids got. From reading about Finland it seems they also approach early childhood ed in a similar way.

  5. That book sounds like a good one. I will have to check it out. I agree that you want certain behavior outcomes by the time a student gets to grade X, and there are multiple ways to get there, just like there are multiple ways to get students to a certain place in reading or math. For me, each year it just depends on the class. We set up class expectations together with my guidance and after that, I see if adjustments need to be made in reinforcing those expectations.

  6. I'm glad you're willing to wait for shared culture to develop from the teachers. I would hope that you would encourage parental and student input as well. But even in a bottom-up method, there is a risk of eliminating minority viewpoints. How does the one conservative history teacher in a liberal school get a voice in discussion of what to include in the curriculum? How does a school with mostly white teachers and mostly black students make sure that their school culture isn't conflicting with their students home culture in ways that make students feel like they have to choose between one and the other? Certainly, the issue of including minority viewpoints can be addressed, and an administration that is aware of the issue can do that by insisting that concerns be addressed no matter how few or how powerless the people who raise them.

    I also worry that a school culture enforced too rigidly could destroy learning opportunities. Punishing a teacher who is a couple days behind on pacing because they went on relevant tangents from student questions, discourages teachers from taking advantage of student curiosity to teach something. Similarly, if a teacher making an exception to a discipline rule for a student causes an improvement in student behavior (and not a detriment to other students' behavior), I don't see why the teacher should be punished for it. An example of this would be a teacher saying to student who considers promises binding, "I won't report you for this, if you promise never to do it again."

    Both of those examples may just mean that I'm not comfortable teaching in a place where school culture is, not just shared, but also rigid. There are some school cultures I really wouldn't want to teach in, and this is probably the case for everyone. This isn't inherently a problem, but when pay is tied so strongly to how long you've worked in a school, if the school starts enforcing a culture you don't agree with you might be stuck. Maybe that's a risk worth taking, but allowing greater mobility of teachers will likely make creating shared culture in a school an easier proposition. This same line of reasoning also applies to students.

    I believe do believe having shared values and systems for doing things makes an organization work smoother and more effectively. I just want to make you aware of the pitfalls I see on the path to a shared culture.

  7. @Kate E - Thanks for the feedback and concerns. I'll try to address them individually. If I miss any, just let me know.

    Note:I'm not actually advocating waiting for it to develop. I'd advocate forcing us to develop it. But that's a separate issue.

    Minority viewpoints - I think this is more of a problem with how the shared norms are developed rather than having them at all.

    The converse of that is what exactly do you do with the one teacher who's lone wolfing the history curriculum? The hard part is that it's easy for me to take their side if they're teaching something I agree with while I'm all shock and outrage when it's something I don't. If the idea has merit, it's up to the lone wolf to create the culture change. Admins have a duty to create shared time and a safe environment so that a culture change can occur. What we have is isolated people doing isolated things. There are many examples of lone teachers creating islands of greatness at their school but there are just as many poor teachers creating sink holes. If someone is doing something great, it should spread to other teachers. The bad stuff needs to be nipped in the bud.

    Am I advocating conformity? I think if I were to collaborate more than I do now with my other science teachers, our classrooms would start to look very similar. We'd steal all of each other's best ideas. We'd also tweak those ideas and share that. We'd still have the space to experiment and share with each other and trouble shoot. I struggle with my averageness on a daily basis. I would LOVE it if I could just outsource all my weak spots to other teachers. I'd help them with assessment. They'd help me with writing strategies. So there would be intense autonomy within very specific boundaries. The voicethread recently with DuFour, Bill Ferriter, Matt Townsley, and others had some catchy term for this that I can't remember now.

  8. Reply was too long so had to break it up:

    Rigid enforcement - To this day, Kate Nowak's rubber band ball lesson is the best lesson I've ever read on the internet. I'd consider that a relevant tangent. Here's the rub: Whenever you deviate from the curriculum, it means you have to delete something later on. So that means the tangent better be worthwhile. If the tangent allows my students to deepen their knowledge of the standards that are expected in my class, hooray! But if we're taking a side track into some other place, there's a problem. My class doesn't exist in a vacuum. The other content areas at my school expect my kids to be learning about certain things. The high school my kids go to expect them to have learned certain things. I've got to guarantee that as much as possible. That means I do have to sacrifice the really fun stuff that deviates too far from the path. I can't spend two weeks teaching about special relativity because that's two less weeks my kids would be losing out on something they're expected to know in high school. As much as I'd love to spend a month on electricity and circuits, they're not in my standards so I don't get to teach them.

    At the same time, as long as pacing is developed by teachers, not textbooks or admin, you can get a good amount of flexibility in there. Teachers know every class is different so you need some time to deal with your own unique issues. My book says it should take me 3 days to teach kids to calculate the speed of an object. We use 3 weeks. As a department, we also schedule in a week for remediation/enrichment every 4-6 weeks.

    Again, that doesn't mean I need to be on lesson 4.2 the same day as my other science teachers. But what it does mean is we should be teaching the same units at the same time and we should be able to agree on a date to give a common assessment so we can look at data and create a plan to move forward.

    Greater mobility - Yes. This is a big one. If I had an answer to that I'd be in Washington right now knocking on Duncan's door. I definitely agree that our pay system ties us down. But again look at where we are now. Some absurd amount (50%?) of us leave within the first five years. If you look at teacher surveys, the biggest reason is usually a lack of support. I remember being new and needing to invent everything from scratch. From classroom management to curriculum. It was hard. Not only that, but being new, I sucked at it. Imagine instead that I come in and most of those structures already exist and I just need to concentrate on a few key areas. I don't need to worry about what to teach, just how to teach it. Since we’re all on the same pace, I can go into another teacher’s class and see how they’re teaching the exact same thing. I can then adjust it to my personal style. I don't need to create rules, I just enforce existing ones (that the students have in 6 other classes). And pacing? I had no idea how long it would take me to teach anything. Now I've got a target and I can backward plan my way through my lessons.

    So yes, a shared culture might alienate a few teachers. And yes, I might be the one being forced out in twenty years because I won't buy in. But on the whole, its benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

  9. I agree with the first two, but strongly disagree on the third. My discipline system is based almost entirely on preventative methods. We have no punishments. We use no rewards. If a kid screws up badly, it's a one-on-one conversation.

    I'm known to the kids as being strict but fair. I'm known for having a tightly run classroom with a considerable amount of student autonomy. Classroom leadership is a strong area for me (as opposed to something like paperwork, where I do horribly or differentiated instruction, where I am still far behind)

    Discipline is fundamentally relational. It involves human interaction. I want my students to realize that they have to interact with people from all walks of life with all kinds of expectations. Furthermore, I need the freedom to be who I am as a lead my students.