Teacher autonomy is a subject I’ve spoken at great length about. I feel incredibly fortunate to work in a district that values our professionalism so highly, and places such confidence in its teachers to make instructional decisions. While at times it’s very demanding and can be a lot of work, I would rather have this type of support than the alternative.
Our language arts curriculum is currently under review. We’ve spent the year writing our curriculum maps, reviewing our standards and student-friendly learning targets, and putting together a folder of resources and assessments. It’s been hard work, exhausting at times, but work that when all put together, is such a beautiful thing.
A part of this discussion has led us to curricular tools and resources that we would be interested in purchasing. We currently subscribe to a particular “all in one” tool, and since I’ve begun teaching language arts, I’ve used it once. Not one year, literally one time. It never seemed to fit within the learning targets I was teaching, and it certainly didn’t inspire or encourage my students in their learning. This year, we’ve attended meetings where other curricular tools have been pitched to us. I’ve heard the product advertisements, and I’ve even gotten to see them firsthand through a trial. While many of them have redeeming qualities and useful sections, I can say with complete confidence that absolutely no ready-made, all-in-one, easy-to-use tool is going to cut it.
This might be an unpopular opinion. What I’m suggesting, the creation and use of our own, personally crafted curriculum with its very own, thoughtfully designed tools and assessments, would require a hefty amount of work by the teachers involved. It will require additional time thought and study on our part. It will necessitate our spending our own valuable time, possibly even outside of school hours, to develop a meaningful learning experience for our students.
But I’ve got to be honest. It’s completely worth that effort.
Our students are not one-size-fits-most. They are not numbers punched into our rosters. They are humans. Each of them unique, thoughtful, and malleable. The kids we serve deserve a learning experience, one that moves them and motivates them to realize their potential and do some real growing in the 9 months we get to have them. A ready-made curriculum just isn’t going to do that.
And to be quite honest, I wouldn’t want it. I am a professional. I obtained two degrees in the field of education, and have attended countless hours of professional development (both “official” and otherwise). I value my expertise in my knowledge of content and pedagogy, and I want others to do the same. Developing curricula, learning experiences, and assessments that keep in mind the diverse needs of my students is a part of my professional duty. As it well should be. By shirking that responsibility over to a ready-made curriculum for the sake of time, I would be sacrificing my own autonomy and ability to be a creator in my classroom.
Teaching is an art form. It requires a deep, full understanding of not only our students, but our content areas and of learning experiences. Our instructional methods should be tailored to our kids, but also to our individual styles. When we remove the ability of educators to have autonomy, we revert back towards a mechanized system that requires all teachers to be on the same page of the same textbook on the same day at the same time. I’ve spoken to educators operating within these systems—I can tell you that the vast majority of them despise it. They are often frustrated, burnt out, and looking for a way to get somewhere that they will be trusted to make their own instructional choices. In my mind, the freedom and autonomy I have is absolutely worth that additional effort I put in.
The common argument against a teacher-created, student-centered curricula is often regarding new teachers. I would refute that by focusing on mentoring. It is common knowledge that new teachers need a kind veteran teacher to guide them through the survival phase we call the first year of teaching (even in a new district). Even if a ready-made, completely structured curriculum is provided, that teacher will without a doubt be drowning if a mentor teacher is not in place for them. While mentoring itself is a huge task, it’s made more authentic when you are focusing on developing learning experiences. It allows for deeper, more focused conversations, the ability to discuss instructional best practices and strategies, and find an appreciation for the content area you share. It also demonstrates to new teachers that they are trusted, valued professionals whose ideas and teaching styles are welcomed and supported. That, and that alone, is enough to convince any new teacher that this job is worth doing—even on the days when you feel like you’re drowning.
At the end of the day, my thought is this: It will absolutely be more work. It will absolutely take time, effort, collaboration, and professional expertise in a content area. But, truthfully, I can’t think of a single job that doesn’t require those things. And most careers out there don’t have a day to day, ready-made structure that everyone follows uniformly, and with fidelity. If they did, we’d see far fewer people using their creativity and skill to impact the world.