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 this.
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 walls 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 how have the next couple of years, fraught with one disruptive crisis after another, played out in their lives?
And who has been 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.
Since that time we have heard and had many conversations about teachers and their stresses—and how to care for them and help them care for themselves. We have learned from experience the reality that the glue holding independent schools together and the fuel powering them are the same: relationships—being known, honestly cared about, and meaningfully supported. We have talked about this for years in the context of students and admission, and we have liked to throw it around when we’re hiring. Now we know that it’s realio trulio real and true, and we understand the need to live it, fully and authentically.
But what relationships exist to support the dispirited, exhausted teacher shielded by their self-imposed and school-sanctioned autonomy and its tired message? More or less, 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 are 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 rattled after the past few years, and they need personal, emotional support. What can you offer? Not further isolation and neglect. Not gift certificates or even cookies. 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 through this avalanche of world and national crises. 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 have 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 or their steel-doored classrooms, will your autonomous teachers burst into unheard 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.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)