Teacher Autonomy

By Kerry Graham

My first year of teaching (2011-2012), I wrote every lesson plan from scratch. The students in my tenth grade English class learned what I thought they should learn in the way(s) I thought they should learn it.

When we read A Lesson Before Dying, we discussed the history and present-day examples of systemic racism, including the controversial execution of Troy Davis. Their summative assessment was to write a letter to then-Governor O’Malley stating their opinions about Maryland’s then-legal death penalty.

Next, I taught a unit on food deserts, which included multiple visits to Real Food Farm, an urban farm on our school’s campus. For a later unit, we analyzed poetry and song lyrics that grapple with civil disobedience. All year, when people asked which subject I taught, I’d say, “High school English, but secretly, it’s a social justice class.”

Certainly, and especially as a first-year teacher, my lesson and unit plans had considerable room for improvement. They lacked cohesion and appropriate scaffolding; if I taught the same material now, I’d revise my pacing for sure. Looking back, I’m flabbergasted at the stamina that propelled me to not only survive as a first-year teacher (which, for me, included completing BCTR coursework), but also single-handedly created every unit, lesson plan, and resource for a year-long course.

But when I lost that autonomy the next year, as North Avenue began to implement required texts and assessments, I realized how fortunate I had been to make those types of decisions about my instruction. For the next several years, the amount of choices I could make regarding content, standards, and assignments have become smaller and smaller. While I appreciate having a structure to follow, and especially the provided materials, I resent my lack of freedom. Why are people who have never, or will never, teach my students mandating how I teach them?

For the most part, I’ve adjusted to this lack of autonomy, though it’s never stopped annoying me. I sneak in as much of my own teaching style as possible–weekly Socratic Seminars, 11:59 p.m. deadlines for electronic assignments, arts integration–to help me (and my students) stay engaged.

A few weeks ago, though, at the start of second semester, I went completely rogue. For a full week, I taught a mini-unit on a set of topics that were not only timely, but of interest and value to my students–and me. For five consecutive days, I was eager to teach. I introduced new content enthusiastically, and remained more patient than normal when students struggled or asked the same questions repeatedly. I looked forward to delivering these lessons, and ended each class feeling upbeat and grateful. Just as importantly, this energy rubbed off on my students; not only did I have high attendance that week, but high participation. Students were willing to complete tasks that were out of their comfort zones because they enjoyed the material.

While I reflect on that week, and am grateful for the breath of fresh air it provided me, it has also reminded me how stifling our current curricula are. I wish that, as a qualified and capable professional, I could be trusted to do what is best for my own classroom. For my students. For myself. 


Kerry Graham is an English teacher at Patterson High School and a BTU member. She has written for the Huffington Post and several other publications.