On Autonomy, Scalability, and other nonsense words of the graduate student life

Hardly one education policy class goes by without hearing the words "autonomy" and "scalability." The two usually appear in fantasy sentences such as "teachers need more autonomy in their classrooms" or "I think we should consider the scalability of that model before we adopt it." I try not to roll my eyes when it comes out—because it always does, I really do try to be helpful in the discussion. But, there's always that one student—no "one" in particular but "one" all the same—that, trying super hard to sound very smart, interjects with one of the above choice words and then settles back into his or her seat smugly as the rest of the room considers the ridiculous proposal as though it was said by Dewey himself.

Here's what gets me:

Autonomy sounds great… but pursued to its fullness… means probably the very opposite of the point the student is trying to make. (I use "trying" lightly.) When a statement such as the one above is made, "teachers need more autonomy in their classrooms," what I hear the student trying to say is that teachers feel powerless and out of control in a sphere that was designed especially for them. That on their very throne, teachers feel/are-made-to-feel that they aren't worthy of the title they have been given to wear. Teacher as educator. Teacher as instructor. Teacher as leader. Teacher. I empathize with those feelings. I've felt/been-made-to-feel the same humiliation. But I don't think that the tag word "autonomy" is what teachers are really after. "Autonomy" is simply the new "it" word for academics discussing education or graduate students trying to sound insightful. Instead, what I think captures that desire to be appreciated are words like "respect," "contributor," "decision-maker," or "support." Of course, those words don't fit as easily into the same sentence. Any of those words requires that the sentences be restructured to actually mean something or to actually contribute a solution to the discussion. It would be vocalizing that "teachers need to be treated as co-equal decision-makers about how to structure the learning in their classrooms" or "teachers need to be respected when they offer evaluations of students' needs" or "teachers need to be consulted on school policies regarding instructional practices and viewed as policy contributors in best ways to structure curriculum" or "teachers need more instructional support to increase the efficiency of classroom procedures." Any of those will do. But "autonomy" alone is insufficient for me for some reason. What I want to instinctively ask is "autonomy over what?" but then I become the dissenting thorn.

In fact, I would argue that teachers do not want complete autonomy! Most teachers, I would argue, want to know that when they push the little intercom button, someone will be at the other end to address what the teacher needs and (gasp) provide it for them. Most teachers, I would argue, want to know that if they are having "difficulty" with an individual student, they will have a chain of command that will "assist" by diffusing the situation, providing extra monitoring or momentary relief, removing the student, or giving quick professional coaching on how to handle the "situation." Most teachers, I would argue, do not want to have to provide all the supplies in their room (though they often do) or be the only one responsible for restocking the pile when items run low. Most teachers do not want to clean up the "accident" on the floor, the "boo-boo" on the skinned knee, or the pools of water from the roof when it rains. I could go on with my lists, but I think you see my point. It is simply to say that "autonomy" means many things: self-governing, directing oneself, and freedom are among those things. But, I highly doubt that teachers truly want to be left alone in their classrooms to fend for themselves or to make their own ways. Teachers want control over their spheres—just as most professionals enjoy—without the controlling mechanisms that employees and servants are subjected to. Teachers are employees of the school system… not of their administration. The frustration is real, but so is the distinction. So, to use "autonomous" as a word a student is encouraged to throw out into a graduate level conversation without some background statement or context does a disservice to the conversation, to the student and the class, and to my eyeballs until I learn better to control them.


We're here for solutions people! How can we get them if we continue to say nothing….?


Next on the chopping block?: "Scalability" and how its paternalism and indefiniteness make me unable to take it seriously…

1 comment:

Schumes said...

Erica, nice meeting you in a virtual, professional networking sort of way. I enjoyed your post, and you clearly have a lot to say on this. Having gone through TFA and still having a lot of interest and implication in education, I read understanding how you get where you got. However, I'm not sure I'm fully with you! I took a year off of teaching but will be back in this fall. The reason I left my current situation was that I really did, in fact, want autonomy as a teacher! And I will continue to seek out teaching situations in which I have it for the future. Sure, school cultures matter, and policies do, too (to a lesser degree). But the best teacher I've come across--Rafe Esquith--does it from a pretty autonomous position, and I would venture to say the great teachers always will. I'm not there yet, but hopefully some day!