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Independent Schools, Independent Teachers: Freedom and Responsibility

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The other day a thread appeared on the National Association of Independent Schools online communities speculating on aspects of the great freedom that independent school teachers have to create curriculum and assessments suited to their strengths and to the particular needs and interests of their students and their schools. This got me to thinking.

This freedom has long been a classic double-edged sword. The virtues of "teacher autonomy" in independent schools were extolled to me even before I entered the field back in the Nixon era. As another veteran of that era commented in response to an earlier post here, the idea long prevailed in many schools (and perhaps still does in some) that a teacher would be taken to the door to the classroom, handed a textbook (a.k.a. the "curriculum"), and assured that paychecks would clear until June, short of some act that would rate firing for cause. What happened in the classroom would, by some sort of gentleman's agreement, stay in the classroom, and the teacher would seldom be inconvenienced by, say, a rigorous evaluation process.

I know that this was once true, because I experienced it. In retrospect it makes me angrier every time I think about it, angrier that I had a couple of years (at least) when no one other than my students offered me feedback that might have made me a better teacher. Except for casual bull sessions with colleagues and occasional soul-baring to my spouse, I missed out on informed discussions on how I might have created a richer classroom culture, designed a more engaging curriculum, come up with better ways of measuring student performance, or been an even more engaged monitor and mentor to my students. I muddled through, believing I was improving, and I probably was--but still. Steve Clem, of the Association of Independent Schools of New England and a passionate exponent of teacher feedback, shares a similar story, and similar vexation, as part of his workshops of classroom observation and feedback.

Things are generally better now. Each new iteration of school accreditation standards has raised the bar for what constitutes effective and comprehensive supervision and evaluation in independent schools, and better still, conversations about teaching and learning are becoming more widespread in the professional cultures at many, if not most, independent schools. "Professional development," once a suspect term, has become A Good Thing, generally, and the majority of teachers have seen in the changing landscape of pedagogy and curriculum design both opportunities and responsibilities to improve their craft. Catching up with our public school counterparts, lots of independent schools talk about creating professional cultures, even professional learning communities or "communities of practice." It's about damn time, and mercifully little talk of "value-added" models.

Some years ago I became involved in the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG), a consortium of schools wanting to engage in conversations about school-based, teacher-created curriculum and to support the idea that teaching to someone else's test isn't necessary the most effective use of the skills and energy of an able, creative faculty. The ICG, with a handful of public and charter schools among its members, has been facilitating these conversations now for a few years and is working on ways to rev up its work. Rather than being about "autonomy," the ICG is about the responsibility that schools and teachers have to design work based on student needs and institutional values and aims and that elicits from students both real engagement and authentic, challenging learning.

So when I think of freedom, independent school-style, I think not of total "liberation in your classroom" but rather of the serious, lifelong obligation all teachers have to keep improving their work in the service of the kids in their classrooms. Freedom we have, but like any kind of freedom, it comes with serious responsibility that teachers and schools must embrace.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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