A recurring theme in some of our classes for school administrators this summer has been reluctance to interfere with the “autonomy” of teachers by asking them to systematize practices and structures. In our own work we’ve learned that this systematization, which does not seem to impede creativity or content selection, works in the interest of better communication with students and families in an online learning situation. But at some schools administrators seem afraid to ask teachers to engage in consistent framing of expectations, work collection, and offering of feedback. But is dodging this work actually making things harder for teachers and setting them up for more stress?
Autonomy is often touted as the big reward in independent school teaching—no rigid state standards or testing, no iron hand of arbitrary coverage expectations. One might still teach to a test or to some other external standard, but it’s the school’s choice to let the teacher do that.
But autonomy comes with its unfortunate side, too. When pressed, many independent school teachers—including me—will confess that being left purposely alone in one’s early career was isolating and professionally unhelpful; some direction and some feedback might have served us and our students well. I’d even call this very common scenario neglectful. It can certainly be isolating, building cultural wall between teachers and their colleagues and too often between faculties and professional learning.
Isolation and neglect aren’t really much of a reward. If some teachers compensate by becoming professorial caricatures or petty tyrants, or by dismissing “professional development” or evolving school policies and practices as an imposition, it is understandable.
In the COVID Spring of 2020 teachers were sent home to figure out how to run their classes online. The preparatory training many received may have been dismissed or ignored in the name of autonomy; guidance offered in practice or tech tools may have fallen on unhearing ears. As problems in communication and presentation emerged, what happened to the confidence of these autonomous teachers?
And who was there to help them, beyond technical issues—much less with any issues of self-doubt and anxiety? Not leaders whose hands-off policies were born not so much of principle but of fear of meddling with cultures of autonomy.
The glue that holds independent schools together and the fuel that powers them are the same: relationships—being known, cared about, and supported. We talk about this all the time in the context of students and admission, and we like to throw it around when we’re hiring.
But what relationship exists to support the dispirited, exhausted autonomous teacher? Do your job and all will be well; we’ll not interfere with your work or inflict on you our perhaps well-meaning but (we understand) unwanted support and guidance; you’re autonomous!
Autonomous, like a Mars rover, millions of miles from home and connected to any chance of support and repair only by a tenuous radio link.
It’s time to scrap cultures of autonomy. If school leaders are timid about confronting this, start by going relational. Your autonomous teachers are probably still feeling pretty down after Spring 2020, and they need personal, emotional support. What can you offer? Not further isolation and neglect. Counseling? Mentoring?
You might start with a confession: “We inherited and sustained a culture of autonomy that didn’t support you in being your teacherly best in this global crisis. It’s gone on way longer than we could possibly have imagined, and we have to do more for you. We’re offering you tools that are designed to be helpful, but it’s even more important that we know and care for you better as people and professionals. We left you autonomous and alone when there was way too much alone-ness. That stops now. We’re in this together, and we need to support one another, as a unit and with the love and caring that characterizes this school.”
Alone in their Zoom spaces or plexiglass pods, will your autonomous teachers burst into virtual applause? Probably not. But you will have laid out your case for supporting them and for welding them into a team and not a display of miscellaneous tin soldiers on a shelf.
Have you the courage needed to make this plan stick? Only you know that.
Note: This September, One Schoolhouse is offering a course designed to guide academic leaders in developing and practicing strategies that build healthy and supportive trusting relationships with teachers. The result is a professional culture that mirrors the schools’ concern for and support of students. Find out more.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)