As a teacher, it can be hard to maintain your autonomy.
The district, principals, other teachers, and parents—all may want to have a say in how you do things in your classroom. This tug-of-war between politicians, teachers, and parents can leave teachers frazzled and exhausted. This is my advice for teachers to take back some of their autonomy and love their jobs.
- Focus on what you can control. Realize that you can’t control state or district initiatives and roll with the punches. Treat each new initiative as a new episode you get to watch. Take out a cold, fizzy drink and enjoy the spectacle. Laugh out loud if you’re witnessing a comedy!
- Sort the required initiatives from the desired initiatives. Every so often, at a staff PD or district event, teachers are presented with a new idea, methodology, or buzzword hot off the press. “Twenty-first century learning,” “student-centred learning,” “whole language,” or “Finnish education,” anyone? No? After consuming a variety of the district’s dishes de jour, teachers need to develop a discerning eye. Figure out what your district requires you to do from what it desires or wishes you would do. If no one is banging on your classroom door checking to see if “daily learning objectives” aren’t written on your board, don’t sweat it.
- Check the facts. Teachers, especially newer teachers, are like shipwrecked boat passengers desperately scanning the choppy waters for a piece of driftwood. Once they lock their eyes on a floating wooden object, they swim hastily towards it, digging their fingernails into the wood for dear life. For this reason, new teachers are easily excited by educational buzzwords, irrespective if the buzzwords are founded in solid research or not. A more mature teacher in the same choppy waters stays afloat by paddling until he or she finds good quality driftwood. Only with this quality stuff will a seasoned teacher build him or herself a quality raft to stand the test of time. In other words, build your autonomy—your teaching raft—by basing your teaching on research rather than prevailing opinion or fashion.
- Develop your own teaching philosophy or code. It’s important to have a code, or a personal set of ethics as a teacher. Without a code, you and your raft can easily be capsized by waves—by other people. Know why you do what you do—from methodology to discipline—and stick to it. As my readers know, I believe in authoritative teaching. Whether or not people, students, or their parents like it, I know it’s important to have good classroom control. And I stand by it. That’s my right as an autonomous teacher. And it feels good to act with integrity.
- Develop your own fashion style. You may not have any say about which PD you attend or which district you are required to adopt, but nobody tells you how to dress, so long as you don’t dress like a barmaid. So, show your personality through what you wear. I like to dress professionally, but I show my personality through the patterns of my cardigans and my stockings. Dressing up brings “me” to the classroom.
- Develop traditions in your classroom. There are certain traditions in my classroom that students, once they have graduated, remember. I time students when they enter my classroom, and we aim to have everyone ready to learn within one minute and thirty seconds of the bell. I have a word wall. I incorporated Dave Stuart Jr.’s brilliant skull & crossbones list into my grammar and writing instruction. When my students write a major project, I collect a dollar from each one of them and get them milk and cookies and we call it “writer’s cafe.” When we play competition games, I play the Jeopardy theme songs. All these things make the classroom mine.
Teachers, the next time you’re sitting in a PD or staff meeting gritting your teeth about the lack of power and autonomy you have, I suggest you straighten your shirt, drink a fizzy drink, reflect on your teacher code, and plan your outfit for tomorrow.
Yes, there’s a lot outside of our control. But we control ourselves. And, despite all outside efforts, we still control our classrooms.
To your teaching success & work-life balance,