There's No "I" in Teacher Autonomy: It's Time to Advance a Collective Approach

Lack of professional autonomy is one of the top reasons why people choose to leave teaching--or not to enter the career in the first place. It's a major contributor to America's perennial teacher shortage.

When the topic of autonomy comes up, I've often heard teachers talk about freedom to make instructional choices in their own classrooms. And that's important.

But what if we took the concept of teacher autonomy one step further? Pressing for collective autonomy--where groups of teachers work collaboratively to make school-level decisions about a variety of factors--has even greater potential to benefit students. And to make teaching a more attractive career path. Given my own experiences as a mother of three and a teacher leadership advocate, I fear that autonomy for individual teachers won't empower them enough to bring forth the school cultures we need for all students to learn.

No classroom should be an island

Like 70% of the American public, I trust my children's teachers in their classrooms. I trust them to keep my children safe and to foster educational attainment. I trust them to individualize my children's education as best they can (despite the pressure to teach to the middle and to the test). I trust them to work with me as a partner. By my own measures (and no doubt many others'), my children's teachers are top-notch.

But there's been one thing that's sorely lacking: these teachers haven't been able to overcome the limitations imposed by a system that isolates them from one another.

That's a big problem because students aren't confined to one classroom. Nearly all interact with many teachers and other adults in the course of a day, week, and year. Even elementary schoolers go to physical education or music class with specialty teachers. They work with aides. They go to the lunchroom where they interact cafeteria workers. They go to the front office. And eventually, they go into a new grade level and yet another teacher's classroom. But there are very few connections between these adults for the benefit of my children.

Even the best teacher's autonomy in her classroom doesn't mean much when the supervisor on the playground doesn't know my daughter's name, or when her choir teacher isn't aware she is learning to master her social anxiety. Beyond grades and test score, no record of my children's strengths and areas for development is passed from one grade-level teacher to the next (especially in the social realm), or to the principal who makes the final decisions about class placement. That job is left to me, as their parent.

And these are only the problems of my (privileged) young kids. Many students come to school hungry, lack heat at home, or don't dream of college because they don't believe they will live long enough to attend.

Excellent teachers in most schools work to know and serve all students well. But even these teachers lack time and opportunities to share information about challenges (not to mention insights on how best to address them!). The system doesn't incent and support school employees to collaborate as a team in order to build a supportive culture around students' needs.

With collective autonomy, teachers can build bridges

But what could happen if--instead of focusing on their individual autonomy in the classroom--teachers embraced and advocated for collective autonomy? What if teachers asked policymakers, district school boards, charter authorizers, and their unions to create laws and practices that encourage teams of teachers to collaboratively design and run schools?

Some have already secured collective autonomy through teacher-powered schools, now located in 15 states across the nation. More than 80 teacher teams are collaboratively making the decisions influencing school and student success--and in turn, they accept accountability for high performance.

The outcomes? Teachers in these schools choose to create student-centered learning programs, and design school policy and practice around the idea that each student must be known and supported across the community.

You can see the difference in how students experience these schools--and in the meetings where teachers determine their collective strategy for improving teaching and learning. You can hear it too. Teachers on these teams don't talk about "my classroom." They talk about "our school" and "our students" and "changing our profession." They make a point to communicate about students' individual needs and to implement solutions together. The work of teaching isn't contained to their individual classrooms but extends across the learning experience.

Teachers describe high levels of satisfaction that come from having the time to collaborate effectively in this way, and a real capacity to do something about the issues holding students back.

Communities are responding favorably to teacher-powered schools, welcoming the changes for students and families. And a 2013 national survey showed that 85% of the American public think it's a good idea. After all, like me, the public has been trusting teachers to navigate (and work around) the system on behalf of students for years.

Teachers should present the alternative

This movement toward collective autonomy could have reverberations beyond individual schools. Based on what teacher-powered teams are accomplishing policymakers should be willing to explore how "collective autonomy" for teachers could help resolve many of the current major issues in education policy (and in the process, help stem the tide of teacher attrition). Today, teachers' collective energy often is defensive--fighting against being held accountable for the results of systems they do not design and run.

But teachers shouldn't wait on policymakers to grant permission. Instead, they should lead the way, and present the alternative. First order of business: publicly embracing "collective autonomy" (not just "autonomy in my classroom") as a means to improved student learning as well as an attractive and robust teaching profession.

Teachers like my children's have the knowledge, skills, and definitely the will to make decisions that will improve student learning. But in isolation--empowered only to make choices about their own classrooms, if that--teachers in most American schools will still have to fight the system in order to do just a sliver of what they have the capacity to do. What we, as communities, want them to do. What their students so desperately need them to do.

Reframing how they envision and pursue autonomy, teachers could show everyone a way to change that.