Reducing Workload: The Question of Teacher Autonomy

A few years ago at school, the use and abuse of mobile phones in lessons was absolutely rife. In my NQT year, I remember rarely being able to teach a whole lesson without being disrupted by the sight, or sound, of a student squeakily tapping out a message on their prized Blackberry. Even in year 7 lessons, with students who ought to still be a little bit scared of ‘big school’, mobile phone usage was ubiquitous.

That’s not to say that mobile phones were allowed. Oh no. Students were constantly being told that mobile phones should not be seen in lessons as they disrupt learning. The implementation of this rule, however, was largely down to individual teachers.

And I tried to manage this. I really tried. With a smaller year 11 class I collected in all their phones at the start of the lesson, praying that I wouldn’t somehow be left with them all after the bell. I dished out detentions, which I ran at lunch or after school, to repeat offenders. I tried a ‘if I see it I confiscate it’ rule, often leaving me with four or five phones in my desk at the end of each lesson. I even tried to use phones in lessons with some snazzy combinations of QR codes and web links – lessons which took me hours to plan.

And so, I exercised my autonomy, trialling a variety of ways to keep my classes on-track and phone free. It’s just that whatever method I tried seemed to lead to more headaches. Running my own detentions took valuable time – time I couldn’t afford when struggling as an NQT. Taking in phones wasted lesson time. Not to mention the fact that I could do without being responsible for their property. Planning lessons which included phones took hours, and the quality of learning was poor. Enforcing my own rules was a nightmare, especially when the rules might have been different down the corridor, causing confrontation with indignant students.

Then one day, my school introduced one simple rule and one simple action for teachers. Phones and all electronic devices were to be subject to a whole site ban and teachers were asked to confiscate phones on site. Now, if I see a phone, I simply ask for it and confiscate it. I take the phone to reception, fill out a very short form, and the phone remains there until a parent or guardian collects it. There are no choices. There are no decisions to make. There are no detentions to run. There is just the policy.

Whether you agree with this rule or not, I hope it’s clear how much stress, anxiety and time the introduction of this rule removed. Without the need for me to exercise my autonomy, my experience at school was improved. I wonder if this type of experience can be replicated across other areas of school life. Could having less freedom of how to run tutor times reduce my workload? What about less freedom of how certain elements of my lessons are conducted? What about less freedom with how often I choose to mark?

It was with this in mind that I sent the following poll out a few weeks ago. It may not have been particularly well written and it certainly doesn’t accurately describe the nuances of the feedback policy I work with. The question I was trying to explore was this:

Should I be able to choose to do more marking than my feedback policy expects of me? Does my autonomy as a teacher trump my duty to adhere to department policy?

Firstly, I was grateful to everyone who retweeted and responded to this poll, and those who replied to me personally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a vast array of responses. Some people were adamant that every two weeks was not enough marking. Some, on the other hand, felt it was too much. Some claimed that misconceptions must be spotted immediately after lessons and two weeks was too long to wait. Some raised the point that marking according to frequency of lessons was not the best way to write a policy. And of course, some primary teachers made me feel very bad about how little I mark!

Comments aside, the results of the poll seem pretty clear cut. 76% of 1056 people, without wishing to add any caveat, believe that I should be allowed to mark in excess of what the policy recommends. Whilst no poll is perfect, I think this is good evidence of how much we value teaching autonomy, even if it increases our already burgeoning workload.

In my next post, I will try to explain why I think this is problematic. Focussing on the issue of marking and feedback, I will try to argue that willingness to sacrifice a little bit of autonomy might help address the issue of teacher workload.


3 thoughts on “Reducing Workload: The Question of Teacher Autonomy

  1. Like the direction that you’re taking this – sounds interesting and provocative – you may well be onto something! Could you let me know when the second part is coming @thinklish? Thanks for the ideas here…

  2. Pingback: Reducing Workload Part 2: Policy vs. Autonomy | mrbunkeredu

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