“Teachers’ perceived autonomy over what they do in their jobs and how they do it is strongly associated with greater job satisfaction and intention to stay in the profession.” (NFER, 29/1/2020*)
I imagine myself being stretched like blu-tac: pulled from above by demands for evidence and data; pulled from below by my pupils’ needs for attention, nurture, experiences of joy and of taking responsibility. In the middle, I get thinner and thinner until holes start appearing. What is left is not a multi-faceted human being but an automaton, leading lines of robotic infants into practised processes…
If we wait for autonomy to land on our laps, we might be waiting a while. And yet research shows* that a feeling of autonomy, the sense of having a degree of ‘self-rule’, is vital to finding job satisfaction in the teaching profession. What follows are three ideas to boost your sense of autonomy, based on ideas that I have personally found successful.
1. Choose your own success criteria each day
Each morning, I decide what success will look like for me that day. Invisible to all other eyes, reaching for this version of success protects me from being a slave to the unattainable expectations that leave me with a constant sense of failure. On my worst days, my success criteria might look like this:
- Arrive at school
- Take the register
- Write a learning objective
Sometimes that is all that I imagine I can do. More often, though, I make small and specific goals that are based on my reflections the evening before, regarding how the day went.
- Address the misconception from yesterday about place value
- See if Johnny would like to sharpen pencils with me at break time
- Mark 10 English books
At the end of the day, I remember my success criteria and see if I have met them. I then mentally list all the other small successes of the day. This process gives me autonomy over the definition of success, while also tackling the ‘never enough’ mentality that can so easily drain my energy and sap my motivation.
2. Choose your own working hours
When full-time, I cap my work at 50 hours per week, which I aim to complete between 8am and 6pm at school. This is not always easy, and frequently involves leaving work unmarked or not being as prepared as I should be. Yet I have learnt that this is the maximum I can do without resenting the job. At 50 hours, I still love the children. Beyond that, I complain more, become snappier and become less flexible. What the children lose in frequency of marking, they gain in creativity and emotional energy. Of course occasionally, I make exceptions: report writing time, for example. But I choose to do so rarely and it is not the norm.
We always have choice. Sometimes the choice is hard and the cost is high. For instance, in limiting my time to 50 hours a week, I gain a sense of well-being, at the cost of the satisfaction I would get from having everything completed. This is a cost I choose to pay. In some cases, the only alternative to working too many hours will be to move school, change role or change profession; counting the cost of each option is important, while acknowledging that these valid alternatives do exist ensures that my working hours are always my own active choice.
3. Practise autonomy in the areas within your control
There are many areas of school life in which expectations are clearly set out, and the role of the teacher is simply to follow the policy. But there are also many areas in which we, as teachers, have active choice – probably more than we initially imagine. In these spaces, we are free to bring our authentic selves, expressing our passions and preferences creatively in a way that can benefit not only our classes but the whole school community.
The exact nature of these areas will be different in every setting, but here are some ideas to get you started:
- The moments between lessons: experiences you share; in-jokes you facilitate; systems you create e.g. rewards, monitors; quick songs you sing; interesting knick-knacks you pass round; competitions you start…
- The physical classroom environment: displays, pictures you put up – or don’t; reading corners, table layouts, plants, decorations…
- The wider school environment e.g. planters outside, displays in the hall, flowers in the staff room, hand cream in the toilets, school animals, a pond – think outside the box! What would make your school a lovely place to spend time in?
- Your own learning: teams you might join/lead; CPD you want; research you might read – get really into an area of school life and own it!
These ideas may sound reckless, promising to take time that you don’t have, but they can serve the important function of keeping a healthy ratio of things you want to do to things you have to do. This ratio is the key to having a sense of autonomy, which in turn means that you are more likely to stay in the profession. However tempting it may be, don’t put off the ‘above and beyond’ until you finish the basics or they will never get done. It is these things that will determine your path onwards.
In a balloon, the internal force has to be equal to the external force for it to be stable. If the external force is greater, say if it is being squeezed, the balloon bursts. On the other hand, if the internal force is greater, say if it is being inflated, it grows. In the same way, if the pressure exerted on you by external forces is too great, it will crush you. But when you respond by exerting your own internal force – your agency – then you are more likely to continue with not only greater stability, but also greater satisfaction. Care for your sense of autonomy; it’s about playing the long game.