Autonomy for Teachers Improves education

So frequently we hear a person asks for four quarters for one dollar and never stop to think four quarters make a whole, of anything, not just a dollar. People cannot live on whole numbers alone, so when the student has spent time working with whole numbers he is taken to fractions; like a quarter. He is able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide with whole numbers, so he now goes one step up to fractions. Along with decimals and percentages his numerical world will be expanded quite a bit. Two major concerns to the teacher when working through the syllabus are when to move from one topic to the other and the time spent on a topic.

Geek suggested in his book ‘The Brain in School’ that a teacher should move to decimals before completing fractions in entirety, then next go on to percentages from which she can return to the complex part of fractions. He refers to this as cycling; this seems like excellent advice for in doing decimals the student meets fractions again and hence reinforcement takes place. The move to decimals allows for the student to mature and provides reinforcement, since the student continues to meet fractions. The reinforcement continues when the teacher moves onto percentages since percentages are a type of fractions; she can then return to fractions, complete it and be assured that the student’s foundation in fractions is laid for the future.

The math teacher understands that the fractional form will become an integral part of the person’s life and he or he or she needs facility with them. Whether in trigonometry, algebra, statistics, the physical sciences or engineering, fractions will continually show up. She wishes to make sure that the foundation for further work in mathematics, as well as the other math dependent subjects, is solidly laid.

In making decisions as to how long she will spend on a topic, the main consideration is or should be, whether the students have learned the subject being taught. We mention this since some school districts have a pacing guide which sets out how long teachers are allowed to spend on topics. This means of course that the decision as to when to move on is completely and entirely taken away from the teacher. Whether or not students have grasped the subject being taught they have to go to another subject in accordance with the pacing guide. This, I think, can and does affect many students adversely. Let us imagine a student beginning to experience difficulties with mathematics in seventh grade. He speaks to his teacher who tries to help but eventually, dictated by the pacing guide, the teacher has to move on to another topic. His situation gets worse over time; he tries to speak with his parents but they are equally afraid of mathematics, considering it a difficult subject which is for the good ones. His math classes become a hellish nightmare to which he has to return everyday; the help his teacher can give is limited and his parents have bought into a belief system which causes them to accept his problems as a part of the natural order. He is suffering; in order to avoid his pain he tunes out and starts thinking that mathematics is not a nice subject. He starts saying mathematics is a subject he does not like; who can though, forced through humiliation and discouragement every day. He now has turned against mathematics and wants nothing to do with the torture machine.

The issue of time and the teacher’s capacity to decide when to leave a subject is a vital one. After each lesson the teacher has to determine if the lesson has been learned, and this is by a quiz or test. Homework allows the student to practice in mathematics and to gain skill. In addition to the general skill level there are certain procedures which have to be learned at the automatic level. It’s kind of like using the steering wheel of a car; we call it automaticity and the teacher knows its importance; she will try to sequence practice and correction periods in order to allow her students to achieve automaticity in the needed areas. So a student should be able to add seven and eight without thinking, and be able to perform multiplication in algebra with signs without thinking. And while some activities are done without expending mental effort, the teacher has to weave in with them the activities which require and develop true thinking. The necessary practice for all this takes time but the teacher knows it importance and when a pacing guide forces her to move on she knows that the subject was not done adequately. All work, homework and classwork, require the teacher to decide whether some students need to be spoken to or whether the topic need to be done over. By doing this the teacher is able help students understand and thus avoid them getting discouraged due to failing. If the pacing guide dictates a speed which is too fast then students are left behind; and the teacher, who is painfully aware, feels helpless and even sorrowful when confronting this.

Ms. English who spent some time in Finland, in reflecting on her experience there had this to say: ’The Finnish education system moves slowly because teachers know that that developing young minds takes time and rushing that development is counter-productive. I asked teacher after teacher in Finland how they know when to proceed to the next topic and I was looked at with curiosity and told, “When the students have learned what they need to learn,” as if to say, “How can it be any any other way? That wouldn’t make sense.”’[1] Ms. English goes further and says ‘but imagine what *all students *could achieve if America slowed down the pace of instruction.’ [2] This could be easily achieved if teachers were allowed to make decisions about pacing and time, and also if some topics were left out of the curriculum.

The question of autonomy is a vital one, for there is no one more able to decide the student’s state and who can, by slowing down or spreading out topics, allow for assimilation and proper grasp of the subject. Autonomy might indeed contribute to the professional well being of the teacher, giving her an additional sense of purpose, but its power is that it allows for the best learning experience for the student. Its importance in certain situations is vital and the lack of it in some districts leads to many student problems. The worst case is when the teacher is aware that some students do not understand the work yet still has to move on because the pacing guide dictates it. And guess what, the teacher gets blamed.

Teachers do not need standardized test to tell them how their students are doing; they are fully aware of that. They need to be able to speak with people who will listen sympathetically to their needs and try to see what they can get for them. Forcing teachers to teach to the test cannot improve academics; it can improve passes, but in time the student will discover that he did not get what he needed, the opportunity to learn his work adequately because his teachers had to follow a rigid pace and teach tests taking. It is time that teachers’ concerns be given much greater consideration.

Our main point here is that the teacher should not be stuck with one way of navigating the curriculum or school; and that changes which include much greater teacher participation in schools is sorely needed.

[1] OECD insights. US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 1. September 23 2013

[2] OECD insights. US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2. September 24 2013

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