Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Crafting Professional Autonomy for Teachers

For the four years I’ve been teaching, I have been a member of the Virginia Education Association, but I haven’t taken an active role despite my desire for leadership positions. I don’t see the VEA as a group of leaders, and I’m not sure that many outside of the organization do either. And why should they? Unlike doctors or lawyers, boards of teachers do not administer their own licensing exams or set professional expectations for their peers.

I think that sometimes teachers live down to the low expectations society seems to have of our profession. I have been irritated by the co-workers who leave right when four o’clock rolls around, but I also recognize that teachers cannot get very much of the personal business of living done during the day. It’s difficult to schedule doctor’s appointments, run an errand at a shop that closes at five, or pick up a sick kid without disrupting the instructional lives of at least twenty-five other people. Juggling these responsibilities are difficult for any working person, but having worked in and out of the classroom, I think that teachers have it worse than most other college-educated professionals who can work from home when they’re sick or take their lunch breaks at times that suits their doctors.

Can we expect leadership from an organization of people who lack professional autonomy? I think the answer is on display in teachers’ organizations' and unions' lack of leadership when it comes to assessments, accountability, and teacher training. In a logical world, these organizations would exist to define and administer these things just as organizations of doctors and lawyers set and advocate for best practices in their own professions. I think it is up to educational leaders to give teachers the power to oversee these domains. Expecting teachers’ organizations to lobby for this power, when teachers have been shut out of gaining power for so long, seems like setting these organizations up to fail.

I think that if groups of supervisors and legislators said “We trust teachers to make professional decisions for themselves,” these organizations would be empowered to create meaningful systems of training, induction, and accountability. We can’t expect the people who have been vilified as “rotten apples” (Time magazine) or “widgets” (Michelle Rhee). It’s up to educational leaders to give teachers their power back.  Until then, I will be looking for professional autonomy wherever I can get it. So, when another professional development day comes around, and it’s the same tired sessions centered around using Google and understanding how stress affects children, I’ll be in my classroom calling parents, crafting lessons, and doing what I think is right for the students in my care.

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