“Treat teachers as professionals.”
Very often, this phrase is used 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 claim to treat teachers as professionals, districts often implement practices contradicting this statement. Consider the following expectations schools have for employees:
Lunch breaks are 30 minutes
Bathroom use occurs at set times
Family visitation is discouraged
Cell phones are off-limits
Daily attire is regulated
Leaving requires permission
I’m sorry, are we talking about schools … or prison?
It may seem counterintuitive, but giving employees choice on workplace attire creates a culture of professionalism.
One litmus test for teacher treatment centers on medical appointments.
Say a teacher needs to leave work an hour early to take their child to the doctor. When given this request, administrators generally respond one of two ways.
Some leaders assume negative intent. These leaders mistrust their staff and believe employees have a hidden agenda. These leaders belittle staff, making it clear that it’s not okay to miss work. Finally, these leaders view requests through a bureaucratic lens, worrying more about policy than the person.
Others leaders assume positive intent. These leaders trust their staff and believe employees have no hidden agenda. These leaders empower staff, making it clear that it’s okay to miss work. Finally, these leaders view requests through an empathetic lens, worrying more about the person than policy.
The key idea here is autonomy. Autonomy is the degree to which a job provides employees with the discretion and independence to go about their work. In autonomous work environments, employees have the freedom to make self-directed decisions without being micromanaged by administrators.
Studies show fostering autonomy in staff results in positive outcomes, including improved staff well-being, greater job satisfaction, higher workplace productivity, and increased employee retention.
Of course, creating an autonomous culture does not mean administrators completely remove themselves from school operations. Leaders must strike a balance between giving employees latitude while also providing support. Rather than give employees unlimited freedom, leaders should develop general principles to guide employee decisions made in isolation.
What are some general principles to follow to create an atmosphere of professionalism in your setting? Here are seven ideas to consider:
Policy Overhaul: Leaders should look at their policies ask, “Does this rule exist because we don’t trust some of our people?” If the answer is yes, you’re likely annoying a large percent of staff to prevent a few employees from misbehaving. Effective leaders always look for opportunities to eliminate policies that restrict teacher autonomy.
90 Percent: My experience is that 90 percent of teachers are competent. So why do so many leaders worry about their "bottom" 10 percent when making decisions? Leaders must always base decisions on their best employees ... while having the courage to privately address their worst employees.
Gray is Okay: Some leaders worry if they don’t enforce rules, they will be viewed as “soft” by staff. While there is a fine line between being understanding and being a pushover, successful leaders in the modern workplace understand that each situation must be approached with empathy and an open mind.
Golden Opportunity: Given that 90 percent of their day is spent working with children, most teachers have little flexibility in their schedule. To compensate, leaders should give teachers freedom during "non-student" times such as before school and after school ... as well as during professional learning and other contracted work days.
Work from Home: Speaking of being flexible, school staff should be allowed to work from home whenever possible. While remote work may not be feasible for all employees, effective leaders recognize that as long as work gets done at a high level, the methods (and location) for getting work done should not matter.
Patterns: Some leaders believe it is their duty to investigate leave requests and question employee abscences. Not only does this take time and energy, this practice kills workplace morale. Rather than worry about each individual absence, leaders should focus on attendance patterns and behaviors over extended periods of time.
Communicate: School staff are so conditioned to take orders, that when they hear a boss say “I trust you with this decision,” employees assume there is a catch. To combat these misperceptions, leaders must take advantage of every opportunity to communicate their confidence in employees to make decisions without having to ask for permission.
When meeting with district office staff, I always reinforce a culture of autonomy and trust.
Consider the building or district you currently work in.
Are teachers being treated as professionals?
Or, are teachers being treated like prisoners?
Teachers have been micromanaged for far too long.
Let’s stop telling teachers how to behave … and start letting them make their own decisions.
If you liked this article, you'll love my books Learning Curve and Turning Points.