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School ... Or Prison?

"Treat teachers as professionals."

Very often this phrase is mentioned in education.

Treating teachers as professionals means faculty are empowered to make their own decisions and are trusted to perform their job at a high level without being micromanaged.

Although they may claim to treat teachers as professionals, districts often implement practices contradicting this statement. Consider the following expectations schools have for employees:

Lunches are no longer than 27 minutes

Bathroom breaks are permitted at set times

Family visitation is discouraged

Cell phones are off-limits during the day

Going off-campus requires permission

I'm sorry, are we talking about schools? For a second there I thought we were describing prison.


One litmus test for determining how teachers are treated centers around medical appointments.

Say a teacher needs to leave work 30 minutes early to take her kid to the doctor. When bosses are given this request, they have two options: treat the teacher as a professional or strictly enforce work policy.

Bosses who treat teachers as professionals do what they can to assist teachers. These bosses understand appointments are difficult to reschedule and realize schools must be flexible. These leaders are focused on the well-being of the teacher as opposed to bureaucratic policy.

Contrast this with bosses whose primary focus is policy. These bosses assume employees are trying to cheat the system and find pleasure in telling people "no". These leaders are more concerned with upholding stringent guidelines than discussing trivial family matters.

Certainly, some readers will have issue with this scenario. Let's address those concerns from two perspectives:

Building Leaders: Building leaders often believe it is their job to enforce policy. They don't want to be viewed as "soft" by employees and are afraid they will lose control of their building if rules are not followed. However, effective building leaders understand leadership is not always black and white. They realize managing employees is a delicate balance between providing support and maintaining high expectations.

District Leaders: District leaders should inspect policies and ask: "Does this rule exist because we don't trust some of our people?" If your answer is yes, you're likely annoying a large percent of your staff to prevent a few employees from misbehaving. In general, 95 percent of school employees are trustworthy and respectful of rules. So why create policies to control the 5 percent? Unfortunately, schools, districts, and state departments are notorious for punishing all for the actions of a few.


One key idea connected to treating teachers as professionals is autonomy. Autonomy is the degree to which a job provides employees with the discretion and independence to determine how work is done. In autonomous school environments, teachers have freedom to make informed decisions without being micromanaged by administrators.

Fostering staff autonomy results in a host of positive outcomes, including improved staff well-being, greater job satisfaction, higher workplace motivation and productivity, and increased teacher retention. Such advantages have previously been discussed in the following blog entries: The Case for Remote Work and I'm So Excited.

Of course, creating a culture of autonomy does not mean leaders should completely remove themselves from all school operations. Administrators must strike the right balance of giving teachers latitude to make their own decisions while also providing appropriate support and advice. Rather than give teachers unlimited freedom, leaders must invest time to develop general principles to guide employee decisions made in isolation.


Saying, "We treat our teachers as professionals" is a great first step.

However, leaders must not just talk the talk. They must walk the walk.

Even if policies are written in a way that diminishes staff autonomy, realize you have the power to interpret those rules in your own setting.

Let's start treating teachers as professionals rather than prison inmates.



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