Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

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As a public school teacher, I am often told what to do and how to do it.


Go teach this class.


Report to lunch duty at this time.


Monitor this student’s progress in this way, that student’s progress in another way, differentiate the following, document this medical condition, write up this behavior, check for that kind of hall pass, post and teach these academic standards, etc., etc., etc.


Some of these directives I agree with and others I do not. But that is treated as an irrelevance because the one thing I’m never told to do is to think for myself.  The one thing that seems to be expressly forbidden – is that I think for myself.




In fact, it’s such a glaring omission, I often wonder if it’s actually prohibited or so obviously necessary that it goes without saying.




Am I expected to think or just follow directions?




Does society want me to be a fully conscious co-conspirator of student curiosity or a mindless drone forcing kids to follow a predetermined path to work-a-day conformity?


Most days, it feels like the later.


Every last detail of my job is micromanaged and made “foolproof” to the degree that one wonders if the powers that be really consider teachers to be fools in need of proofing.


Teaching may be the only profession where you are required to get an advanced degree including a rigorous internship only to be treated like you have no idea what you’re doing.


And the pay is entirely uncompetitive considering how much you had to do to qualify for the position and how much you’re responsible for doing once you get hired.


It makes me wonder – why did I take all those courses on the history of education if I was never supposed to have the autonomy to apply them? Why did I have to learn about specific pedagogies if I was never to have the opportunity to create my own curriculum? Why was I instructed how to assess student learning if I was never meant to trust my own judgment and rely instead solely on prepackaged, canned standardized tests?


And now after 16 years in the classroom, I’m routinely told by my principal to use student testing data to drive my instruction. And, moreover, to document how I am doing so in writing.


But what if I don’t trust the student testing data in the first place?


What if – in my professional opinion – I don’t agree that the state should have purchased this standardized assessment from some corporate subsidiary? What if I don’t think it does a good job evaluating a child’s aptitude as a prediction of subsequent achievement on the next test? What if I don’t think the test provides valuable data for actual, authentic learning? What if I want to do more than just improve test scores from one standardized assessment to another? What if I want to actually teach something that will affect students’ whole lives? What if I want to empower them to think for themselves? What if my goals are higher for them than the expectations thrown on me as shackles on an educator’s waist, hands and feet?


Because it seems to me that there is a bit of a mixed message here.


On the one hand, teachers are given so many directives there’s no room for thought. On the other, teachers can’t do their jobs without it.


So what exactly do they want from me?


The principal can’t educate classes from his desk in the administrative office. The school board director can’t do it from his seat in council chambers. Lawmakers can’t do it from Washington, DC, or the state capital. Only the teacher can do it from her place in the classroom, itself.


You have to see, know and interact with your students to be able to tell what their needs are. No standardized test can tell you that – it requires human interaction, knowledge and – dare I say it – discernment.


You need to gauge student interest, background knowledge, life skills, special needs, psychology and motivation. And you need to design a curriculum that will work for these particular students at this particular time and place.


That can’t be done at a distance through any top-down directive. It must be accomplished in the moment using skill, empiricism and experience.


The fact that so many lawmakers, pundits, and administrators don’t know this, itself, has a devastating impact on the education kids actually receive.


Instead of helping teachers do their jobs, policymakers are accomplishing just the opposite. They are standing in the way and stopping us from getting things done.


We’re given impossible tasks and then impeded from doing them. At least get out of the way and leave us to it.


It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness.


So as many of these same bureaucrats complain about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” it is these very same complaints and the efforts taken in their name that result in ineffectiveness.


If we trusted teachers to do their jobs, they would be empowered to accomplish more. And I don’t mean blind trust. I don’t mean closing our eyes and letting teachers do whatever they want unimpeded, unadvised and unappraised. I mean letting teachers do the work in the full light of day with observation by trained professionals that know the same pedagogy, history and psychology we do – trained administrators who are or were recently teachers, themselves.


That would be both accountable and effective instead of the present situation, which is neither.


Moreover, it might incentivize policymakers to realize teachers can’t do everything themselves. Hold us accountable for what we do – not what you’d like us to do but over which we have no control.


After all, home life has a greater impact on students than anything that happens in class. And helping students to self-actualize into mature, productive members of society requires we equip them with the ability to work things out independently.


However, that does not seem to be the goal.


We don’t want free thinking students just as we don’t want free thinking teachers.


We don’t want a school system that produces independent thinkers. We want it to simply recreate the status quo. We want the lower classes to stay put. We want social mobility and new ideas to be tightly controlled and kept only within certain boundaries.


And that is why our school system keeps teachers so tightly constrained – because we want status quo students.


Educators have always been the enemy of standardization, privatization and conformity. We are on the side of liberty, emancipation and release.


Which side are you on?



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31 thoughts on “Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

  1. The more the Dominiest and/or neo-liberal, neo-conservative and libertarian billionaires buy control of the political system, the more these totally corrupted and evil monsters demand that teachers become programmed drones.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I commend Steve Singer for writing about this issue under this most appropriate title. I think is evident that in the last fifteen years public school teachers have endured an increasingly restricted environment. IMO, this change in working conditions has a root cause: neoliberalism applied to public affairs.
    In particular in public education, since NCLB was enacted around 2003, without discussion let alone debate, teachers were demoted from trusted professionals to technical labor. Deprived from social respect by imposing continuous evaluations in a rigged system, teachers saw themselves more and more frustrated and vulnerable to the arbitrary punishments that corporate reformers came up with.
    Corporate reformers managed to shift the public’s civic image of public education into a free-market perspective. By piling up layers of neoliberal policies during Bush’s and Obama’s presidencies, teachers were arbitrarily and unfairly accused and blamed for what corporate reformers presented as a failure. By unraveling a phenomenal ideological media anti-public schools campaign, unsuspecting teachers endured year after year the “public scrutiny” that free-market ideologues demanded as a condition to improve public education. A direct outcome of this chronic judgement, teachers have been conditioned to adapt to being directed in almost every aspect of their job.
    Disturbingly, since the teachers associations’ leaders during all these years have not questioned nor challenged the toxic neoliberal perspective, teachers have had no other option than to obey, comply, and conform to the imposed free-market mandates. I agree with Steven Singer in that both teachers and principals would be better at their jobs if they were free from the micromanaging environment.
    Until teachers reclaim their professional status and the respect the corporate reformers stole from them, they will continue debasing the profession, privatizing public education, and worsening the conditions of the job itself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well said! No one noticed or seems to remember the anti-public schools PR campaign that was used to promote NCLB. Teacher bashing was implanted in the minds of John Q. Public and countless parents, not to mention children who are now parents themselves.


  3. I agree with the article and the comments (so far). Let’s be clear: neoliberalism is the return to pre-soviet, 19th century dog eat dog capitalism. Traditionally, compulsory public education for working class kids was about teaching them to suppress their desires and free thinking so as to comply with the demands of the bosses; in other words, social control. This form of direct domination began to be challenged by the rise of powerful labor unions and social movements, beginning in the 1930s, led by radicals and reds, and subsequently in the 1960s with the civil rights and anti-war movements where a new generation defied the top-down conservative political regime, including inside the unions. During this brief period, more free thinkers entered the teaching profession, and less restrictive curriculum and non-authoritarian pedagogy began popping up here and there in the US
    However the conservatives re-established their domination of the political system in the US and began dismantling the gains of the New Deal. They had purged the reds and radicals from the union offices right after WWII, so there has been little organized resistance to the neoliberal regime, except for unsustainable protest demonstrations against the latest outrage. The national teachers’ unions have been useless in defending teachers’ rights and autonomy because the leadership is both conservative and afraid of the bosses.
    That teachers in conservative states sidestepped their sellout union bureaucrats and rose up to win some concessions in large strikes shows signs of hope. The task for teachers across the US is to organize inside the union to throw out the sellouts behind a program of fighting for more resources for education and for an end of the high stakes accountability regime. Both the NEA and AFT are less democratic than the Teamsters. This must be ended by an upsurge from below


    • Agree with the problem but not with the solution. The union is corrupt because that is the nature of institutions given so much power (aka money). We must domocritize the idea of the union through the use of the internet – disparate collective action, so that we with built in checks an balances (like block chain, but without the use of it). We need to get rid of the union negotiating our contracts for us and it should be come more of a nonpartisan professional organization like the AICPA, the APA, the BAR association. The unions messed everything up, the last thing I would do is look to them for a solution.


      • Labor unions are not the enemy. They are democratic organizations which makes them only as good as we are. When we’re active and participate, our unions represent our will. When we let them speak for us and not through us, that’s when we lose power. On balance, we need more unions, more collective bargaining rights and more people power. I’m sticking with my union now and forever.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I retired early from a highly successful 25-yr high school teaching career last year because I was told to do these things by supt, with threat of discipline if I didn’t: 1. never again define “feminism as gender equality” 2. never again publicly state that I’m an atheist and 3. offer extra credit for students to attend a right-to-life march. When I asked union reps how this could happen, I was told that “we can be handed a script and face discipline if we veer from it” b/c MI legislature has erased academic freedom for K-12.

    At being required to lie and violate my ethics as an educator, I had to leave.


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