A new vision for education: Is there a place in our system for true teacher autonomy?

Recently, I was approached by the folks who have been organizing the Emergent Learning series of conferences here in Halifax to speak at their upcoming event at the World Trade and Convention Center in April.

For those of you not familiar with the event, the conference is designed to bring a wide variety of ideas together under one roof to “challenge the way we think about education…”. The word “organizers” is a bit of a misnomer, in that the event is what is known as an “un-conference” whereby the speakers and the sessions are chosen by the Emergent community itself. Anyone who has an interest in education can become part of a jury to decide upon speakers or even offer to present.  In its third year now, this event has hosted a number of high profile keynote speakers. This year, Henry Winkler, (yes, that Henry Winkler) is one of their key notes. Last year, they landed Sir Ken Robinson.

And this year, they have asked me.


Now, arguably, I can share an opinion, as anyone who has ever met me can attest. But when faced with this daunting invitation, I had to, unfortunately, come up with something to speak about. Historically, my role has been that of a critic, calling into question theories, practices and decisions made by others that I have felt made no sense whatsoever in the educational context I understood. But what would I say when asked what my view was on public education? How would I see the system change? My vision of what education should be seemed, in my mind at least, somewhat difficult  to pin down. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my true interest, the one issue that I continued to raise in both my writings and in conversations around the various tables at which I sit, was that of autonomy. Schools, I feel, do their best when teachers are left to do their jobs. Not the politicians, not the public, not the media: teachers.

I have come to believe this for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which has been personal experience. I, and many like me, can list a massive lineage of “educational shifts” that have been implemented over the years to improve schools. Some, like outcomes based education, have stayed, and some, like whole language and “the middle school model” have seemed to fade away. Not all the ideas that come from the top down have been inherently bad, but the implementation of these ideas have certainly caused many a headache for teachers.

This is not surprising, considering the levels of bureaucracy through which an idea must travel to reach the classroom.  The more degrees of separation there are between an idea and the classroom, the less chance there is of the idea taking hold. And, with each idea, there is an increase, intended or not, in teacher workload. Once an idea has been instituted, it is given to the teachers. There is then an expectation by department heads that the idea will be implemented by teachers. There is also an expectation by administration that there is an expectation by department heads that the idea will be implemented by teachers. As well, there is an expectation by administrative supervisors that there is an expectation by administrators that there is an expectation by department heads…

You get the picture.

This is why I feel that the best and most authentic forms of educational change have to happen, first and foremost, in the classroom, initiated by the teacher, in response to the needs of the students in front of them.

So with that as a starting point, I set off to do some research on educational autonomy and teachers.

And what I have found has been fascinating, to say the least.

Turns out that,  in the US , several areas have developed an approach to education where everything in the school is run by teachers. From curriculum, to educational policies,  from hiring to budgets, everything is decided by teachers. In some of these models, there are no principals, no vice-principals, no department heads. Simply teachers, running the whole show.

Now, before I get ahead of myself, I should mention that I found out almost immediately that many of these schools were charter schools, and some were part of the Teach for America program. Neither of these discoveries did much to encourage my research. Charter schools set up a multi-tiered education system that is inequitable and unfair, and I won’t even discuss Teach for America. But the idea got me thinking. What would our schools look like if they were run by the teachers and were without hierarchy? What if all decisions, from staffing to discipline to where to spend the budget was decided upon by the staff as a collective whole?

It wasn’t long before I came across another area of society that is looking to reduce middle management and create a level structure within organizations. Some businesses, it appears, are also looking at this model. The idea caught the media’s attention when, in December, the on-line clothing company Zappos announced that they were going to be removing all titles from employees and going to a “holacratic” model. No managers, no department heads, no team leaders. Everyone sharing responsibility by committee.

This idea has certainly had its detractors in the corporate world. Articles in Forbes and Business Insider have  a raised some good questions about  Zappos’ decision. But, in a recent CBC radio piece, a Canadian company, Precision Nutrition, was identified as operating in this manner and, it seems, is having a decent measure of success. There is even an organization called HolacracyOne whose website, holacracy.org, is basically dedicated to the promotion of the idea.

There is a part of me that has doubts about full blown holacracy in any educational organization, as it is, ultimately, a business model. I have often stated that I firmly believe education and business make poor bedfellows. Still, I felt many of the reasons cited as downfalls to the system in the corporate world might be avoided  in schools. Teachers are generally driven by a desire to see their students, not themselves, reach the top of the ladder. And there is a new book out that was published last year entitled Trusting Teachers with School Success; What happens When Teachers Call The Shots which explores this idea from an educational perspective.

Now, at the end of the day, I’m not sure this is a model that should be adopted here in Nova Scotia. I personally believe that we currently have an excellent system of public education in this province. But one of the most satisfying aspects of being an educational commentator is that you get to spend a great deal of time wrestling with the question of “What if?” And, seeing as how this year’s theme for the Emergent Conference is the discussion of controversial issues, I think I’m going to ask “What if teachers ran the system?” What if all the decisions about what was taught, and what was policy, what was discipline was handled by the teachers?

Sounds like a fun day to me.

(If, incidentally, you would like to sign up for the conference, please click on this link to register.)


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Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Public education, Quality education, Teacher autonomy

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