Teachers? Trainers? Schools? Who Is Responsible for Teacher Autonomy? (with Special Guest Jake Whiddon)

Every year schools spend millions of dollars developing curriculums, creating tests, training and observing teachers. But what are the side effects? 

If schools, managers and trainers don’t develop autonomy in teachers, how can we expect teachers to develop autonomy in their students? We look at the contradictions and challenges surrounding teacher autonomy.

Teachers, Trainers, Schools Who Is Responsible For Teacher Autonomy (Transcription)?


Tracy Yu:  Welcome to the TEFL Training Institute podcast, the bite‑sized TEFL podcast for teachers, trainers, and managers.

[background music]

Ross Thorburn:  Hi. Today we've got a special guest...

Both:  Jake Whiddon.

Tracy:  If you listened to our previous podcast, then you should know Jake.

Ross:  Last time Jake was on, we talked about...

Tracy:  Learner autonomy.

Ross:  And this time we're going to talk about...

Tracy:  Teacher autonomy. Why is it important to talk about teacher autonomy?

Ross:  There's a quote from John Little, who's written a lot on this subject, and he said, "Language teachers are much more likely to succeed in promoting learner autonomy if their own education has encouraged them to be autonomous."

Tracy:  Today, as usual, we're going to have three questions. Number one...

Ross:  What's teacher autonomy, and why is it important?

Tracy:  The second one, how can the teacher trainer or teacher educator encourage teachers to be autonomous?

Ross:  And how can teachers themselves become more autonomous?

Why is Teacher Autonomy Important?

Tracy:  If you still remember, last time we talked about learner autonomy. Why is it important for us to discuss teacher autonomy?

Jake Whiddon:  Teacher autonomy, it's not a term you hear thrown around in staff rooms and things. It's not something that we even have a discourse on. We don't even have anything to talk about it with. I don't think it's something that we have the language attached to it, to even discuss it.

Ross:  What are we going to do for the next 13 and a half minutes? [laughs]

Jake:  I know. It's this crazy idea. You know that I'm this passionate guy about learner autonomy, the idea of having freedom to do what you want to do. But I think that the real term is choice, man.

If teachers have choice to be able to do what they want to do, for themselves to develop or for their students to learn, then I believe that would be true teacher autonomy. But I don't think teachers have true choice.

Ross:  Why do you think they don't have that choice at the moment?

Jake:  Because they get paid. They have a job, and they're controlled by the curriculum or the...

Ross:  This is a key difference, is it? Learners are there of their own accord, but teachers, "Well, you're paid to here."

Jake:  I think you can define teacher autonomy as two things. One is the teacher's autonomy over their own learning, to be a better teacher, and then teacher's autonomy over what they can do in the classroom with their learners.

Ross:  Almost two separate...

Jake:  I do believe teachers have a little bit of autonomy over their own learning in many, many language schools, and I think teachers do have autonomy over their own learning.

Ross:  Their own professional development.

Jake:  Yeah. They're offered online courses, they're offered DipTESOL, CertTESOLs, outside courses sometimes. They are able to choose their own development, which would mean they're autonomous, but their autonomy over what they can do with their students is limited, I think, in all language schools, especially in public schools and universities.

Ross:  Why is it so limited? My dad's a teacher. One of the things he always thought was unusual about teaching was that, compared to other jobs, your boss is never watching you. As a teacher, how many hours is your managers sitting in the back of the room? 1 hour of 100? Once a month? Twice a year?

Jake:  That's true.

Ross:  In some ways, teachers have tons of autonomy, because no one's watching what you're doing.

Jake:  That's a fascinating point, but I don't that they think like that. I think they think that the outside forces are watching them. "Is my student going to do well on a test?" Or, "Am I feeling in my CRM every week? Or, "Am I doing...?

Ross:  What's CRM? Oh, Customer Relations Management. Right.

Jake:  Management system, whatever it is. "Am I keeping to this system that I have been controlled by?" Which brings back to that thing that we mentioned in a previous podcast, was on the idea of control and how much of your ability to do what you want to do is controlled by other forces. It doesn't have to be controlled by a boss. It's controlled by a system.

Ross:  "Get the kids to pass this test."

Jake:  Yeah. "I have to commit to this curriculum. This week I'm doing Unit One, Lesson Two."

Ross:  Something I heard recently from teachers on the CertTESOL, who are young learner teachers, and I said, "How much of this course have you been able to apply to your own classes?" They said, "Oh, hardly anything. Because where I work, my job is to get through book work, and if these pages in the book aren't completed, then I'm in trouble with my boss."

Jake:  Curriculum is probably one of the biggest control factors that takes away teacher autonomy. The other thing is, think about courses like the CELTA and the CertTESOL.

What are you told to do? You're told to come in, you're told to learn at this time. You don't get any autonomy over when you're going to do that. You get told you're going to teach this class at the end of the course, and you have to teach six classes. You probably are told what you're going to teach, and you're told who your learners are going to be.

Ross:  Let's take on this question. How can teacher trainers increase learner autonomy? Can we talk about that?

Jake:  Yeah.

Ross:  All right.

How can teacher trainers and educators encourage teacher autonomy?

Ross:  Can I play you...This is Phil Benson, that writes a lot about learner autonomy. This is him talking about teacher autonomy.

[recording begins]

Phil Benson:  I work in a teacher education institute, and I would put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of teacher education institutes, which tend to be the conservative sector of the whole education system.

I think really it starts there, and it involves teacher educators giving student experiences of autonomous learning, themselves. I can stand and give my students a lecture on how they should be more autonomous. But by doing that, they're just listening to me. I'm not encouraging them to be autonomous. There would be a lot of contradictions...

[recording fades]

Ross:  What do you think that teacher trainers and teacher educators and managers can do, then, to encourage more autonomy for teachers?

Actually, did you not have, a while ago, someone who applied to do the diploma and they'd done the CertTESOL with you two or three years before, and they got worse?

Tracy:  I do have one example. A teacher did not bad, doing the CertTESOL, and when I observed the teacher maybe one year later, he's getting worse.

Ross:  Which is amazing. It's almost like that same problem, sometimes, with students. They come to class and they get better, then they leave the class and get worse.

Jake:  In those courses, you're basically told what to do at all the times, and told kind of how to do it, and then you're assessed on if you're doing well at what we told you you should do, rather than you're given a framework and said, "Work within this framework and see what happens, and then we'll assess you on that framework."

I don't know. In a beginner course, should anyone be given that freedom to have their own autonomy?

Ross:  But does that happen to an extent? Say you're taking a course like the CertTESOL. You might go, "Oh, well. It's fairly constricted, what you do." But I wonder, does that course to an extent give you the skills for autonomous professional development?

During, for example, the CertTESOL, you observe experienced peers, you observe the course directors teaching, you observe your peers, you give them feedback, they observe you and give you feedback, you do a learner profile so you get to know your students and tailor things to them.

Actually the course input isn't a giant part of the course. I wonder, do those courses...To some extent they give you the tools, but maybe we're not explicit enough about that with the teachers.

Jake:  Yeah, and then you come back to the exact point I just mentioned at the beginning; we don't give people the language to be able to control their own teacher autonomy.

We tell them, "This is what you're going to do," and we believe it's autonomous. But if you don't tell the teacher, "By the way, by doing this, do you realize that you are in control of what you're going to do in your class?"

In the CertTESOL, you're given this chance to assess your learners and then develop materials based around those learners. Now, that's probably one of the most autonomous things you're allowed to do, is develop exactly what those students need for their course.

Ross:  You're not following a curriculum.

Jake:  But people don't tell them, "This is actually teacher autonomy in its purest essence."

Ross:  It's almost like the learner autonomy thing, and that maybe the trainers are giving the people those skills, but they've not used the language to increase their awareness. "This is what we're doing, and this is why we're doing it."

Jake:  Yeah. I think the big argument now is, you need to give people the language of the discourse that they're learning, to be able to make them part of that discourse. If they don't have it, then how are they going to be a part of it?

We need, on things like podcasts, even on the "ELT Upgraders" podcast, which has an excellent episode on learner autonomy, which you should all listen to. Check it out.


Jake:  Is giving people that language of learning so that they have the ability to be able to discuss it later. Then they can discuss it in staff rooms and things.

What environment creates autonomous teachers?

Jake:  But, Ross, the big picture is, what type of environment do you think creates the most teacher autonomous teachers?

Ross:  I guess it depends on your definition of autonomy. Does it come down to this thing of, teachers have complete control, or teachers have complete responsibility, or they have the power to take some control...

Jake:  It's not about responsibility. It's more about that you have the choice to adapt, or you have control and choice over what you're going to do to adapt to offer the best learning opportunities to your students.

I don't believe at the moment in most education ‑‑ let's not just talk about PLSs and language teaching. It's in all education. We're so controlled by curriculum, by testing, and by policy, that the whole chance to be autonomous over our teaching is just gone. It doesn't exist.

The best story I have is, when I first came, and when I first started teaching, when I arrived in a staff room that basically had 18 teachers...

Ross:  [laughs] 25 flashcards.

Jake:  Yeah. It had some flashcards that the teachers had made. They had 300 flashcards, but not provided by the school. It had a rough textbook system that was kind of what you were meant to teach. There was no CRM so there was no course mapping.

He was a really, really nice guy and really tried to do training, but organizationally it didn't really exist in the school due to some of the management issues.

What happened was that the teachers were left in this truly autonomous environment where the only way they could become better teachers was by talking to each other, sharing ideas.

I would say, in my 13 years of teaching, that school provided the best education I've seen because those teachers were allowed to be in control of their own teaching. Out of that school, I can name seven of them, who are still in this industry, haven't faded away...

Ross:  Right. Regional managers...

Jake:  ...and they're now training on things, which is a fascinating aspect. If the institution has no control over its teachers, those teachers will end up controlling their own teaching.

Ross:  But there must be a flip side to that, where in an alternative reality that that didn't work, and everyone failed in the extreme. I wonder, is that situation unusual?

Jake:  I don't know. No. I think if people are given the opportunity to adapt, they will adapt to their environment and try to create the best opportunities. I don't think that it was some sort of lucky place where just this group of people came together. That's too egotistical to think that. It must happen time and time again.

Once you've got these control factors over learning...That's what they say about universities now. The Ivy League universities, the idea of free thought is disappearing because the university lecturers that are in control of the learning process there are so worried about keeping their tenure, which is a control factor, that they lose their autonomy over what they're really thinking.

Thought is disappearing because, if you have so much control that, "I want to keep my job and I'm so worried about if I keep my job at Harvard, I won't bother trying to do anything new or crazy or creative because I might challenge the powers that be."

That just eliminates teacher autonomy, which is exactly the same as what happens in schools in China. This is not just this little tiny thing in English teaching. This is something I think that's happening across education across the world.

[background music]

Ross:  Jake, to wrap up then, how do you think teacher autonomy is going to move forward in the future in the next few years?

Jake:  I think now the beauty is everyone wants to share their ideas because everyone is so narcissistic now that they just...it's the Facebook generation. Everyone's out there, they're trying to share their ideas.

People are negative about that, of people wanting to share their ideas, but it's beautiful because that's autonomy. What we need to do is open that up and say, "Well, why shouldn't I listen to your ideas?"

If people spend less time sharing their ideas and actually listening to other people's ideas, and then sharing back, and making that a collaborative relationship, I believe teacher autonomy would move forward much faster.

The YouTubes and the Facebooks, and the WeChats, and the LINEs, and whatsit, they're not controlled by curriculum. They're not controlled by government policy, and they're not controlled by testing. They controlled by you.

Autonomy is the ability to control what you're going to do. That's what it is, basically. It's control over your own learning, or control over your own ability to do what you're going to do. We have the tools to do it, so let's try and merge them together.

I think that we're at the point where we're going to have this huge break in what's happening in language teaching. We're going to break from curriculum, we're going to break from textbooks, and we're going to move into environments where students can just learn autonomously, and we will be the people who facilitate learning opportunities.

But the only way to do that is if people give us enough autonomy over our teaching to be able to do that. The only way to do that is to use the freedom of social media to keep moving forward. That's all I want to say. Have fun.

Ross:  Done. Good.

Jake:  Thank you very much, Ross Thorburn.

Ross:  Thanks, Jake Whiddon.

Jake:  Peace to everyone.

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Transcription by CastingWords