Teachers have an undying thirst for time, clear communication, resources, professional freedom, and higher salary. Amidst these desires, there is often a feeling of, “If I could just be left alone to do this the way I feel it should be done, everything would be better.” But, teaching is an extremely difficult job. Individual students have individual learning needs and styles, which then demand individual teaching accommodations. Those accommodations also vary by subject. So, teachers must make endless decisions on delivery and preparation in every hour of the teaching day to compensate for the differentiated environment they work in. This requires an intelligent, flexible, and highly skilled individual.
Unfortunately, with the myriad of subjects to teach, and a vast array of curricular tools, teachers are often presented with a room full of children at the start of the school year with only basic directions pertaining to “how” and “what” to teach (http://prospect.org/article/teacher-autonomy-paradox). While some teachers thrive in the “ultimately malleable” gray area, other teachers carve out a unique path that may not align with their co-teachers or the following year’s instructional plan.
So, while there are certainly identifiable pieces in the core subjects that are necessary for completing a grade, in systems with unchecked autonomy, how subjects are taught can vary greatly from teacher to teacher. When this is the case, the actual student learning is in danger of becoming too random. Compounding that idea is the idea of autonomy in assessment. Freedom to assess, or freedom to choose what needs assessed is a great liberty for a teacher, but a great curse on a student body if left too subjective.
So, how does a teacher maintain autonomy and a sense of creativity, while still allowing for a cohesive standards-driven educational system? This paradoxical question can cripple the effectiveness of a school if not answered in a way that the entire teaching staff can comprehend. First off, the school should have a curriculum map tied to standards, that clearly outline the specific content areas to be taught, length of time for each content area, and calendared schedule for each area of content. This helps establish boundaries around the “what and when” in a classroom. Additionally, grade level teams should be lesson planning in tandem. This allows teachers within a grade level to share ideas and coordinate plans so that their classroom instruction is relative across their grade level.
But, how do we ensure that teachers will assess in a way that measures true student mastery or conceptual fluency of the instruction? The answer to this question involves backwards design (Wiggins & McTighe (1998). Understanding by Design.). With backwards design, the goal of the instruction and assessment always comes before the lesson plan. In this fashion it is important for teachers to understand the state standard that their content supports. If the standard is “Math: Numerical Operations”, then the content should represent the standard, AND the classroom assessment should measure capacity against the requirement of that standard. In order for this to work, the teacher must work backwards by starting with the standard, understanding the assessment, determining the appropriate content, and finally, getting creative with writing the lesson (http://www.carla.umn.edu/assessment/vac/CreateUnit/p_1.html).
Too often, the “cool classroom idea” is the driving force behind a lesson or unit. In these cases, the state standards needing taught, or qualities of assessment to measure capacity or growth can become afterthoughts in the educational process. And, when standards and assessments are afterthoughts in your educational program, so is your overall school performance! In other words, autonomy will represent a problem if standards and assessments are allowed to become a low priority.
To sum up, teachers crave autonomy, but ground rules must be set to ensure that both curriculum mapping and skillful standards-based lesson planning are happening within the creative autonomous environment. Administrators and lead teachers must ensure that these processes are in check by regularly reviewing detailed lesson plans and cross checking curriculum maps against day-to-day classroom instruction. And, while the term “micromanaging” gets abused as a negative verb in education, it is a necessary component when ensuring that your school systems are setup in a way that allows for creativity and autonomy. In other words, one must micromanage in order maintain autonomy.
But, the micromanagement is in the setup and maintenance of a creative, high-functioning, autonomous system.
When managing your class during instruction, there will often be times when you are faced with the dilemma of either discontinuing instruction because student behavior has begun to break down, or fighting through the storm to ensure content coverage. The trouble is discerning when it’s the appropriate time for each path.
If this were an easy problem, we’d all be doing it perfectly. But, in education, the solution changes with the ability and capacity of the class, and is only brought into focus through the personality and wisdom of the educator.
So, here are two steps and four simple focusing questions to ask in these moments:
STEP ONE: Non-verbal Intervention
1) Have I tried non-verbal redirects, including (but not limited to) proximity, change of volume, lights, readers, touch, pointing, hand signs, etc.?
If the answer is yes to the first question – move on to step two:
STEP TWO: Assess the environment
2) Is the class engaged?
3) Can I be heard clearly?
4) Can I continue “my” flow with the lesson?
If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, it may be time to rethink the “power through it” strategy. If the answer is "no", the teaching is no longer effective and learning is in jeopardy. From here, the teacher has only three options: lose control, try a quick redirect, or discipline the problem. Assuming most of us want to avoid losing control of the class, you have now reached the point of redirect (minor discipline or structured warning) or full-on discipline.
I like to say it this way, “When teaching stops, discipline starts.” A good teacher should be able to manage with non-verbals and quick redirects through the majority of the day. But, if a student or students have broken down the lesson and teaching cannot continue, it is no longer time for a string of warnings or reminders, it’s time to discipline the source and protect the academic needs of the room.
The other side to the same quote ("When teaching stops, discipline starts") is engagement. If your teaching (and planning) is not engaging, students will tune it out. When teaching has been tuned out, teaching has stopped and discipline will undoubtedly begin.