I may have become a teacher by sheer accident, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to vigorously stand up for my profession or for my colleagues in the trenches. By the way, many of these colleagues do incredibly important work under tremendous duress.
In “Teacher Autonomy Declined over Past Decline, New Data Shows,” Tim Walker writes that “classroom autonomy is a major factor in determining level of job satisfaction [among teachers]” because “it speaks to whether educators are treated as professionals.” In other words, taking away teachers’ freedom of self-determination sends a very powerful message to those who are on the losing end of the stick. It says we no longer trust you to make important decisions about how you do your work. We think you are incapable of acting responsibly on your own or thinking for yourself. We are worried that you’re going to do and say the wrong things. So, to keep this from happening, we will provide you with a script and ask you to do nothing more than read from it. Memorize your lines, and for heaven’s sake, don’t improvise.
Is it any wonder that so many teachers are feeling so demoralized?
Listen. Teachers are not stupid people. They have been educated in fine universities and deserve the sort of respect given to those with similar credentials who work in other fields. This whole push to turn educators into functionaries (or automatons or script readers or whatever term you want to use) tells them everything they need to know about how their bosses view them. If their “superiors” really thought they were entirely capable, then scripts and such wouldn’t be needed. After all, a script is a kind of crutch that is given only to those who are deemed incapable of walking on their own. Am I right?
This loss of autonomy isn’t just happening at public schools. In fact, it happened at my last two university gigs—at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and at The American University in Cairo, in Cairo, Egypt—places where I was hired to teach credit-bearing writing, research, critical reading and thinking courses to first and second-year students. Though both cases were bad, the most grievous took place in Egypt.
When I was first hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, instructors were allowed to design they own courses as long as they helped students meet a broad set of learning objectives. These educational goals included helping pupils become better thinkers as a result of developing their critical reading, writing, and research skills. Everything was fine during my first two or three years in the department. About the fourth year I was there, though, something began to change. Someone (or some group)—decision-making was kept pretty opaque so none of us had any real idea who was pulling the strings—decided there was too much variety in the kinds of classes being offered. (No evidence was provided to demonstrate that this variety was having any sort of detrimental effect on students or their abilities to function within the university.) Anyway, eventually this decision led the department to create a very prescriptive course template that was handed out to all. Teachers could still apply to design classes provided that their proposals met a very set narrow set of parameters, many of which made no sense to most of the faculty, especially to those with many years of teaching and course development experience.
I decided to play along and turned in a proposal only to have it rejected. This came as a shock to me since I had been a successful course designer for more than twenty-five years. Over these decades my creations had been looked at my many dozens of sets of eyes and had passed all sorts of scrutiny. Additionally, many of my classes had been deemed so well put together and successful that they had been offered as models to other instructors, even to those in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, the very place that was now telling me my newest proposal was a failure.
So, for the first time in my professional life I was not allowed to create a course and ended up teaching from a syllabus that was simply handed to me. Needless to say, I never really believed in the class—I’m a veteran who has trouble teaching unless I feel that I have “ownership” of the thing being taught. I’m sure this lack of passion manifested itself in many visible ways, which meant students could feel, from day one, that my heart wasn’t fully involved in the project.
Two semesters later, I handed in a letter of resignation and shortly thereafter said goodbye to the school after seven years. I was certainly not alone in my decision to leave. As a matter of fact, the department lost twenty-five percent of its instructors the term I departed. This, by the way, was an unprecedented loss and should have sent a strong message to those in charge.