professional autonomy

The Four Plus One Rules of Teaching

What makes a decent teacher?

People do their PhDs— hell, their careers— on this topic. But since you are a busy teacher and you are just dying to get home and grab a drin— er, a stack of papers to mark— we’ll provide a short ‘n’ sweet four point one part answer, three parts of which were told to me by a guy who started his career as a substitute teacher and ended it as a Deputy Minister of Education.

Life isn’t fair, neither is work, there are no guarantees, bla bla bla…but here— beyond knowing your subject and the basics of how to teach it— here is what you must do if you want a chance.

  1. ACYA: Always Cover Your Ass.
  2. Steal anything worthwhile.
  3. Get to appropriately know your students.
  4. Do what it takes.

1. Always cover your ass. Worried there’s too many kids to safely supervise on the fieldtrip? Email your admins stating your concerns. Want to show a risqué film? Send a permission letter home first and cc the admin. Photocopying something you need but don’t have the $$ for? Notify your department head. Johnny failing French? Email his adults and lay out the facts and consequences before report cards. If push ever comes to shove, you need to have the receipts. The bottom line sadly needs to be, my boss(es) were notified about this.

2. If you see something, steal something 😉. If the basketball coach does something that works in your Spanish class, you do that. Find a great ____ in the photocopy/staff room, on Facebook/Insta etc? GRAB IT. Do not reinvent the wheel, acknowledge authorship, and definitely prize your non-teaching life.

3. Any psychologist will tell you something like the following: nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. This goes doubly for kids. You must get to appropriately know your kids, starting with their names properly pronounced, their pronouns, and progressing to basic facts about them, if you expect them to open up and to respect you. I recall reading somewhere that knowing name + two facts about someone = “trust baseline.”

For the language teacher, part of this is personalisation, which means making the subject matter reflect students’ interests. If people feel like they have input into ____, they are much more likely to care about it.

4. Any successful teacher will do what it takes to get kids to succeed, given who their students are, what the school & community are like, and where the students are in their learning.

This means some or all of the following:

  • ignoring stupid school/District/State mandates re: planning, texts, textbooks, activities, tests. One size almost never fits all, and if a publisher makes it, it serves an agenda which probably has very little to do with kids.
  • closing the door and focusing on what works even if your Defartment Head who has been teaching the same class as you for 30 years disagrees.
  • customising instruction for your students. If you have eg Black kids, you may want to avoid To Kill A Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though white liberals looooove these. Language teachers will personalise input. As Blaine Ray says, any good teacher will “figure out what they don’t know, and start there.”

It is really important to note that we know very little about how learning actually works, as David Bowles notes. If I could summarise 22 years of teaching and observing kids, I would say that students want to feel like they learned something from a class, and that this learning leads to both freedom and community.

And finally, Peg Richel’s Ultimate Teacher Survival Dictum: You are not responsible for students’ learning. You are responsible for providing the optimum-possible learning environment (which includes materials, lessons and feedback etc). Students— and society, and the political system— make the rest of the choices.


Professional Autonomy in the B.C. Language Classroom

I got another good question from Kristin A. recently:

Q: “What sort of freedom do we have in terms of choosing the program that we will teach in our districts/in our classrooms? It seems to me that I read in the IRP that we technically are supposed to be using a government approved (or perhaps district approved) program.”

A: In British Columbia, teachers have professional autonomy regarding how they deliver the curriculum.

The curriculum is determined by the Province’s Ministry of Education. Districts and school departments are free to decide which resources– texts, videos, etc– they use to deliver that curriculum. Districts have a list of learning resources from which teachers and schools choose their materials. Many Districts colaborate on assessment/approval of resources. E.g. E.R.A.C. looks at novels etc for English and Humanaties classes.

Regarding modern languages in B.C., a teacher has total control over what s/he does in her/his classroom. Your job– as an autonomous professional, and clearly defined in the School Act– is to deliver the Provincial curriculum. You decide instructional strategies, assessment and evaluation, materials, student activities, etc. You do not have to follow District or departmental policies regarding curriculum, assessment, materials, etc. (If you are a B.C. teacher and your department head, admin etc is telling you how to run your class, please contact your local Union office for advice.)

Here is some language from the B.C Core French I.R.P.

“Evaluation, reporting, and student placement with respect to these outcomes depend on the professional judgment of teachers, guided by provincial policy.”

Read that? Professional judgement of teachers, and not of administrators, department Headz, textbook companies, etc.

Here’s more:

“Teachers are free to adapt the suggested instructional strategies or substitute others that will enable their students to achieve the prescribed learning outcomes.”

Again, teachers decide how languages should be taught. If you don’t like communicative teaching– or TPRS– but your department or department head does, that’s fine. You decide what happens in your class.

If your Department decides that, say, Tests A, B, and C are going to be delivered on, say, Nov 1, Feb 1 and May 1, you do not have to admnister these tests. If your department has a policy that ________ verbs and ____ nouns are taught in Level ___ French/Spanish/Punjabi/Chinese etc, that’s nice– you do not have to teach ___ and ___ at the time, to that grade.

If your Language department says “well we always teach the present tense in first year and we do the imparfait in 4th year,” you can either say “I do that” or “I don’t do that.”

B.C. comprehensible-input teachers are in a good position regarding languages teaching. We know that many administrators don’t know the research behind language acquisition. Even some department heads have no idea what the current research is (or, worse, know the research and know about C.I. but can’t be bothered to update their legacy-method practice). We know most textbooks teach boring stuff–and present it in the wrong way, out of the natural order of acquisition. So, fortunately, we can say “well, we know that grammar drills, output, low-frequency vocab, metacognition, portfolios, meaning ambiguity etc don’t work” and we can’t be forced to do unproductive work in the language classroom.

People who want to improve their practice are free: we need not be tied to others, or outmoded, ways of doing things.