Autonomy, Subversive Teaching, and Taking Positive Action in Tumultuous Times: My Response to Nancy Atwell

“If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching.” – Nancy Atwell

[Initially posted July 8, 2016, on my old blog before I moved the post here.]

Atwell’s assertion (which, to her credit, she did walk back to a large degree after receiving push-back) is exactly the kind of gloom and doom “helpful advice” that OSU education major Macy Gleason — and any prospective teacher — combats every day.

It will not likely come as a surprise that in my work in Oklahoma State University’s Professional Education Unit, we’ve seen our numbers, especially for those seeking initial teaching certification, decline a little in the last couple of years. It’s no wonder with such negative, demeaning input that those who do not understand teaching may offer.  But we simply cannot accept this kind of language from within our own ranks.  If we don’t elevate and celebrate our own work, certainly no one else will.

For those of us in education at any level, we’ll have to do a better job of sharing the work we’re doing to end such “helpful” advice and observations. There is nothing more intellectually challenging — and nothing more fulfilling if it’s the right fit for you — than the life of an educator.  And we’ve got to get that message across.  One way I hope to do that is by calling some attention to an often misused term:  autonomy.

Advocacy, Autonomy, and Bad Press

 “Autonomy” is one of the least agreed upon terms in education.  I was encouraged when I caught this teacher shortage article on Huffpost Education by AFT President Randi Weingarten “How the Teacher Shortage Could Turn Into a Crisis”; this piece has a refreshing focus on teacher retention and the respect and resources that would serve to support that end. But it does not go far enough. And a huge reason for that is the way autonomy is (mis)represented.

In this article, Weingarten notes Nancy Atwell’s recent declaration that she’d not advise young people to become teachers, bemoaning that, “Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the Common Core Standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them. It’s a movement that’s turned teachers into technicians, not reflective practitioners.” I’ve always admired Atwell, and I’ll continue to honor her contributions, but I’m offended by this characterization of the professional educators who work within (and, yes, sometimes around) external requirements to teach in meaningful ways to engage kids and teens in rich learning.

Whether in a Common Core state or not, concern over high stakes testing, whatever the standards are (Oklahoma Academic Standards in our case) is a common anthem.  Most standards documents, however, Oklahoma’s and Common Core included, do not dictate how one teaches but rather the objectives that should be met by year’s end.  The presence of standards does not mean, as Christine Sleeter (2005) reminds us, that curriculum must be standard-ized. We can still teach in ways that are creative, culturally relevant (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 2009), and developmentally and pedagogically appropriate.

When districts or states attempt to impose a particular way teachers should teach, there is great potential for oppression of educators and ultimately their students.  And in that case, it may be time to do one of two things that teachers have done for eons as we’ve worked to make teaching and learning better – 1.) we push back, working with colleagues and other school leadership to remake our own space for more positive opportunities, or 2.) we find a different space to teach well where that is valued.  We do not throw our hands up in their air and hope it changes—or, worse, declare that change is impossible.

What Autonomy Is –and Is Not

 Autonomy holds a special place in my heart and has a very positive connotation for me – a meaning I once believed was shared. However, I once learned of a passionate, well-meaning principal who became very upset with one of my teacher candidates who asked about autonomy in a job interview.  As the candidate recounted the story, I realized they’d been talking about two very different phenomena.

At the end of the interview:

Principal: Do you have any questions for me?

Candidate: Yes, I wondered about the level of autonomy teachers have in your building?

Principal: [Visibly upset] If you can’t play well with others, this is not the school for you.  In our building, we are a team.

Candidate: [Stammering, goes on to try to explain what she meant.]

I’m glad this happened when it did for two reasons.

  1. It was fortunately a mock interview, and through debriefing, I think both the candidate and principal were able to talk through what they’d each meant to clarify the miscommunication.
  2. It reminded me that, like so many terms, we assume we agree on the meaning of “autonomy.” How many times had I used this word meaning what I  do when someone else heard any number of other concepts akin to just “going it alone”?

With this miscommunication in mind, I have learned to overtly state what I mean when I say “autonomy”:

  • Autonomy is not being an outsider or loner, dying on the hill, sword brandished, over every tiny concern.
  • Autonomy is not a refusal to work with others.
  • Autonomy is not simply taking a stand.

Instead, “autonomy” means acknowledging the power each teacher has to make a difference.

  • Autonomous teachers, rather than picking every miniscule battle, are here to make a real difference. “Autonomous teachers know why they do what they do and can communicate that understanding to others” (Castle, 2006, p. 1096).
  • Autonomous teachers understand how useful collaboration can be in our professional growth and our advocacy. They learn from one another and support each other in doing good work with their students and in advocating to improve public education for all children.
  • Autonomous teachers do listen to their instincts rather than blindly accepting the taken-for-granted “best practice,” but they also support (or adapt/transform, depending on what they find) their work with inquiry and the research base.

Seeking Allies, Not Abdicating Responsibility – The Case for Ethical Practice

Leave the door open if you feel you’ll live to teach another day with it open.  Close your door if you must (but take the extra step to let others looking for solidarity know what you’re doing and how).  But the one “best practice” on which we can all agree across contexts is ethical practice.  If you know something is bad for your students, do something better. We need fewer stories on the way out and more of teachers who are finding ways to subvert what’s broken and build on what’s working together:  teachers and other school leaders making “good trouble” as US Rep. John Lewis would say. We know many of you are out there too–tell us what “good trouble” you’re making for and with your students.  Through this work, teachers are making kids’ and teens’ learning and lives better!

There is absolutely a concerted effort toward teachers being viewed as less than professional, but I cannot be de-professionalized, and neither can you.  That can only happen if we let it.

For those who have tired of grappled with the legitimate challenges of the “school reform” era or been frustrated by the LONG overdue pay raise for teachers in OK to the degree you left the state or profession, keep us in mind and keep fighting with us whatever you’re doing now.  Do tell your important stories; we need to hear them.

But we also MUST hear the stories of those of you still doing the work, both your joys and your challenges.  Only then can we band together to solve the latter.  Reach out and speak up.  Absolutely, let’s address concerns, but don’t forget to tell your stories of the impact you have on students and the impact they have on you.  If you are teaching, no matter where it is in the US, it’s not likely for the cash.  There’s a reason this post about a Kindergarten teacher and one of her students, now all grown up, went viral:

This is AMAZING work, and every one of you who cares enough to be reading this advocacy post when you should be enjoying some down time between making plans for next year and doing professional development in your mandatory unpaid time “off” (unpaid time is not how vacation is defined in professional jobs) has lots and lots of stories like that.  Let’s hear those stories too.

Many of us are listening — including that prospective teacher who is considering this as his/her profession — or that colleague who’s having a hard week.  In order for prospective teachers to go for it (or a colleague on the fence about staying to be inspired to keep fighting the good fight), we first have to consistently make clear to the world that we ARE professionals.

When teachers do articulate their understandings and actions proactively, sharing respectfully and openly, very few principals say, “No, don’t meet your students’ needs, ‘best practice’ as I see it matters more.” In fact, in Oklahoma, we’ve had a healthy wave of administrators who’re themselves boldly pushing back against inauthentic pedagogies, unfair mandates, and the inequitable status quo such phenomena create.  One need look no further than Rob Miller’s View from the Edge or Rick Cobb’s Oklahoma Education Truths, begun in large part to combat the misinformation spilling from the lips of the former State Superintendent of Education and continuing as an excellent source of news and advocacy in education for Oklahoma.  Cobb’s work achieved such fame in its era of anonymity that it made The Tulsa World when he finally revealed his identity on Twitter.  There are too many such advocates to list, frankly – I tried and kept remembering more and more “must-be-sure-to-mention” leaders (some of whom are likely to be holding elected office soon) to the point that this piece went from “that’s a little long for a blog entry” to “nobody’s ever going to read that!”  But if you don’t know who these folks are, you may still need to check out the “Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education” Facebook group or join a Sunday night #OklaEd chat on Twitter; these are a couple of the many spaces to get to know some of these voices and share your own ideas.

The bottom line is this. Despite frustrations, educators (administrators included) are not lying down, and we will not. We cannot be complicit in our own destruction through inaction. Across levels and kinds of positions, and yes, across party lines, educators must work together to make things better.  It’s worthy of mention that local, state, and federal governments all have very different roles to play as they serve their constituents — the state being largely responsible for our schools and the funding they need to function.  Thus, straight party voting at any level, but especially across all three of those levels, may well be undercutting many voters’ personal priorities if each of us is not carefully researching candidates’ plans—and existing voting records for incumbents.  It’s not about supporting any political party; it’s about the well-being of our state and its children.

Undermining Educators’ Professionalism – How Not to Advocate

 Nancy Atwell, to be fair, isn’t alone in her troubling concept of autonomy. You may have seen this Diane Ravitch quote floating around, quite likely posted by teachers and teacher educators.  

“Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves?” – Diane Ravitch

Uh, yes, yes we can – because teachers ARE professionals. Because the way one is treated is not a direct correlation to what one capable of and who they are.  And you can guarantee that all over the country teachers are doing just that—teaching kids to think for themselves – by being models of the same.  I love my job so much because I get to see that, both through the candidates OSU sends out and first hand when I have the privilege of visiting schools.

Let’s not diminish P-12 teachers in the process of our “advocacy.” That’s not real advocacy.

And autonomy is not antagonism toward one another or a lack of willingness to collaborate. However, it’s also not a gift-wrapped artifact that comes in our (sometimes non-existent) supplies along with the key to the classroom.  Informed, authentic autonomy is the mark of a professional, and teachers will not give it up.

We Cannot Be “Neutral” About Politics Anymore

 “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”          – Desmond Tutu

 We all know it’s not an easy time to be an educator anywhere, particularly in the U.S. as we continue to grapple with the fallout of NCLB, now tweaked to ESSA, and its influence. Then again, when has that ever been so?  But those hardships come mainly from outside the classroom: increased mandates amid cuts to resources and funding and attempts to dismantle public schools with an eye toward privatization.

Our state’s educators have pulled together to make things work, so the vast majority of our kids are still getting a great education. Certainly educators (teachers, counselors, library media specialists, administrators, all educators) are tired, understandably, of carrying the increasing load with less and less support from outside the district to meet those needs.  Oklahoma teachers and administrators, in particular, are tired of being number one in cuts to education funding all while serving a growing number of students. This Oklahoma Policy Institute graphic on school funding shifts nation-wide should be posted for every citizen to see, and it should make us angry, knowing how critical education is to the long-term well-being of the state as well as for the kids in school right now.  That anger and frustration should catalyze our willingness to take the risk of speaking up (though a far smaller risk than many fear and certainly a fraction of the risk of staying silent) and to do our best to enlist the support of as many allies as we can.


Educators, parents, and school personnel should not have to “make do,” with such limited resources, however well they’re doing so. We’ve got to band together to make public education in our state thrive.  We have immense capacity – I work with mentor educators and send out recent grads, and I’m blown away by the smarts, skills, creativity, and commitment of our teachers.

Are We Too Readily Hitting “Share”?

Before I make this next plea, please know that my goal is not to lay blame on teachers who left the profession or left OK to teach.  Maybe, just maybe, one day soon we can even bring some of them back who felt compelled to leave because of pay or policy.  We’ve had some victories of late in Oklahoma toward limiting standardized testing, eliminating the quantitative requirement for teacher evaluation, and defeating the voucher bill during this last attempt.

We also have work to do, high on the list being teacher pay, alongside being watchful for voucher bills and other legislative nonsense. No, teachers aren’t here for the money, but we should continue to be unapologetic about seeking higher teacher pay in our state.  Most importantly, Oklahoma should pay our teachers better because it’s critical and complex work that deserves a salary that reflects that reality.  However, we should also demand a higher teacher salary because it will make our teacher recruitment and retention efforts far more viable.  It isn’t the main reason people teach, but we can’t pretend salary isn’t a factor for any profession.

But I beg of teachers, parents, and any friend to education, please to stop re-posting the growing multitude of “mic-drop” style “farewell to teaching” letters that have increasingly gone viral all over the country.  My discomfort with most of these letters is three fold:

  1. They are typically declarations that the person is leaving education altogether, and in a sense I fear that as a society we’ve begun to glorify the “proclaim concerns and exit,” model — that romanticized “tell off the boss and slam the door as the hero storms out” cliché. That may work well in Hollywood plots for dramatic effect, but what isn’t usually highlighted in box office films is the fact that nothing within the company (or school in our field’s case) is changed by the person’s parting (save there being one less qualified teacher in this case).
  2. They too readily accept top down leadership structures – the notion that there is one “boss” who runs all things in a school is absurd – even policies can be interpreted in creative ways, if needed. There are leaders, sure, but that can and must include teachers – and good principals and district level administrators already know this.
  3. These exit rants usually espouse the underlying assumption that whatever problem/s exist are either A.) wholly intractable, or that B.) teachers, least of all, have any power to generatively act upon problems within the profession in any meaningful way.

Educators’ circumstances will not get better if we accept that our professionalism, our claim to autonomy, depends upon the decisions of others. Echoes of Ravitch and Atwell and too many others whose goal is to advocate abound.

But teachers are not the proverbial person tied to the train tracks, passively waiting for a hero to come to the rescue. We have to be truly autonomous, doing our best by our students even if that means pushing the boundaries somewhat—we have to be heroes for our students and one another.  We have to be vocal in seeking what our students need.  Jill Voorhies Martin’s (2010) research reminds us that “every day in the classroom presents an experiment, an opportunity, a possibility to do [teachers’] important work within, between, and beyond the borders of their profession (p. 246).”

And I believe there’s a good reason we see many “I’m leaving,” but hardly any “I got fired for teaching well,” letters—the latter very rarely happens for good teachers.  Districts, by and large, and certainly the kids and communities they serve, immensely appreciate their creative, bright, energetic, passionate teachers.  And if this were to happen in Oklahoma, where we’re in the midst of a teacher shortage, it wouldn’t likely be a long drive to another teaching opportunity.

Still, the discourse about the work matters.  It holds power and can shape others’ perceptions and even chip at the way we view ourselves if we repeat it enough times.  Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate concerns.  But if you’re in a position to walk away, just teach amazingly and see what happens.

Better yet, though, enlist help and push back against those systemic issues in addition to doing great work with your students. And some will find that the kind of difference they want to make is better served through a different role in education.  No matter what you do or where you are, we can ALL make a difference.

We are not robots or easily coerced simpletons, so as we address the real challenges in education, let’s not imply that we are helpless.

No more, “I couldn’t…”  Or “They wouldn’t let me…”

No more, “They made me…”

No more.

I acknowledge that there are acceptable reasons to leave education; this work isn’t for every person at every point in their lives. Helplessness, however, is not one of those reasons.  I politely decline any advocacy efforts that imply that educators are pitifully passive.  That’s not what I see.

Teaching to Subvert the Status Quo  

It’s been a long time since Postman and Weingarten (1969) began talking about teaching as a subversive act. This subversion is not a blind rebuke of authority, but rather collaborating with others (typically including district and building level leadership) to subvert the inequities inherent in a system that relies too heavily on a certain kind of test, to subvert what Ladson-Billings dubs “permission to fail” — those lowered expectations some have for kids labeled “at risk.” Instead of throwing hands in the air when things get tough, teachers across Oklahoma are “enlarging the space of the possible” (Leland & Harste, 2000) with their students.  And we have to celebrate this and purposely carve out space for more of it.

In his 2009 reflection in Lisa Delpit’s work Other People’s Children, Kohl states that, “it is a fine and honorable thing to be subversive in an oppressive system” (p. 187).  Autonomy is essential in subverting the status quo that we all want to improve.  Of course we’ll never “finish” making our nation’s or state’s public education system better, but we can certainly make significant gains.  And we can shape the way teachers are viewed and even the way we educators view ourselves.  A positive space for teachers makes for a better space for kids.

“Drop the Mic” Doing the Work

 What I’m calling for, then, is a different kind of mic drop. Don’t wait to proclaim your concerns on your way out the door of the education community.  Drop the mic by killing it every day in your P-12 classroom (or university classroom or principal’s office or Library Media Center or….) with your students.  Don’t be quiet until, one day, you’ve had enough.  Drop the mic by being just. that. awesome.   Drop the mic with the joy of a job well-done — boldly and with lots of colleagues, principals, superintendents, teacher educators, school community members, and friends at your side – all the time, every day.

Those who want to frame educators as less than professional are going to keep spewing their rhetoric. But Oklahoma’s districts, students, families, and communities know better.  And we’ll remind anyone who’s forgotten.  Too much is at stake to remain silent.  When used together, our voices are much bigger than those who’d like to see teachers de-professionalized.  Educators’ ethical practice and advocacy in and out of the classroom can and must prevail – in our classrooms, our communities, and in the voting booth.

If you’re a smart, creative (young, or not-so-young) person, this IS the time to be in education.  Come join us in Oklahoma to do amazing things for our state.  The time is right for positive change, already underway, and we need YOU.

Reference (if not directly linked)*

Castle, K. (2006). Autonomy through pedagogical research. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22(8), 1094-1103. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from ScienceDirect database.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kohl, H. (2009). Reflections on Other People’s Children. In Delpit, L. Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom, pp. 185-187. New York: New Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dream-keepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Leland, C.H. & Harste, J.C. (2000). Critical literacy: Enlarging the space of the possible.  Primary Voices K-6, 9(2), 3-7.

Martin, J.V. (2010). Voices of border crossing: Life histories of women elementary school teachers negotiating identity and self. Ph.D. dissertation, Oklahoma State University. Retrieved February 1, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses @ Oklahoma State University – Stillwater (Publication No. AAT 3427310).

Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive act. New York: Delta.

Sleeter, C.E. (2005). Un-standardizing curriculum: Multicultural teaching in the standards-based classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

My views are not necessarily the views of Oklahoma State University or its affiliates.-

One thought on “Autonomy, Subversive Teaching, and Taking Positive Action in Tumultuous Times: My Response to Nancy Atwell

  1. Pingback: Why I Hate the Little Mermaid: Ariel as a Cautionary Tale for Teachers | Teach4Oklahoma

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