Balancing Academic Freedom and All-School Vision

Balancing Academic Freedom and All-School Vision

What is the balance between academic freedom for teachers to choose their own pathways in their own classrooms, and ensuring a strong collective all-school vision? How does the effective leader find this balance?

Many (most?) teachers are extremely protective of how they choose to carry out their role in the classroom.  In both public and private schools, teachers want as much freedom as allowable by education codes, state standards, or a broad set of learning objectives and outcomes.  In theory, the school benefits by the exercise of this freedom, as teachers allowed to teach what and how they want are, like of all us, more engaged in their daily work than if they were forced or coerced onto another path.

Yet increasingly, and certainly amongst schools that recognize the need to break out of the basic industrial age model of learning, or in schools that are facing increasingly strong market challenges from a growing array of learning options, there are times and circumstances that demand that everyone at the school “pull on the same oar”.  This cohesion clarifies in the minds of our customer families why, in fact, they should continue to choose our school over all of those other options. It also means that, in some cases, or sometimes in ALL cases, teacher autonomy must be reigned in.

How might we find this balance in ways that build, rather than limit, teacher knowledge and creativity?  How might we increase teacher engagement, even if in some cases we have to prune or trim a pet tradition, program, or pathway?

Effective school leaders are finding that this process is a key element of “building a capacity and comfort for change”.  Some of the schools I have visited or worked with have effectively turned what can be an area of contention and dissension into one of truly passionate teamwork, engagement, and new levels of tangible, palpable excitement at the school.

Based on work that I, and others, are doing with school teams, here are some thoughts on what works well:

  • Be inclusive and expansive when creating and validating an all-school vision. Those who participate are much more likely to enthusiastically support the outcomes in their daily work.
  • Leaders who REALLY trust their teachers are willing to deeply distribute decision-making authority for implementing the school vision…and are willing to tolerate risks and failure that may be uncomfortable to them and the boards of trustees.
  • Create opportunities for, and EXPECT, faculty and staff to build their respective programs in ways that are aligned to the lodestar of an all-school vision.
  • Embed FREQUENT opportunities for faculty and staff to revisit and realign to the vision; this is not work that is effective once a year or once every five years.
  • Create vehicles for faculty and staff to build the academic program together, to see this as “our” responsibility, not “their” responsibility.
  • The design thinking model of collaborative, generative thinking and synthesis is particularly effective in building long-term, sustainable capacity for change, as it can take advantage of faculty and staff working as a collaborative team, not separate groups with different self interests.

There are more…but what strikes you as the key to balancing academic freedom with the need to align to a collective all-school vision? Share some ideas for how to promote passionate support for the all-school vision in most, or all, classrooms.

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