coaching general leadership teaching and learning

Out of Control.

On Starbucks, why #autonomy is important, and the day I had my “Wonko the Sane” moment. #teaching #edutwitter

Teaching is hard. But not for the obvious reasons, those that are well-known to novices and non-teachers like long hours, excessive planning and marking, dealing with behaviour that detract from its many joys such as seeing young people grow, develop, experience “lightbulb moments” of realisation.

Teaching’s hard because we always have a nagging feeling there is something more important we should be doing, and usually there is, but we can’t get to it because of all the planning, marking and behaviour management. We know there is higher-value work, and work that would be more enjoyable or fulfilling such as really thinking deeply about curriculum or planning a bespoke lesson based on serious analysis of some assessed work. Making those positive calls home you always promised you would do, or properly watching some training videos that improve your pedagogy, observing other teachers or being coached and putting into practice everything you learned.

But we rarely get time for any of this. As teachers we are constantly living a fiction: that we will eventually get time for the good stuff. Every single week, we fool ourselves that “next week will be less busy”…

Sadly this nagging feeling of rummaging around in the weeds and finding occasional sparkly gems, but wishing you could rise above it all and live in the sunlight is what eventually causes burnout: unmanageable stress, anxiety or other mental health issues, and then good people leave the profession.

Studies show that autonomy is important in job satisfaction:

Teachers’ perceived influence over their professional development goal setting is the area most associated with higher job satisfaction and a greater intention to stay in teaching. The average teacher reports a lower level of autonomy compared to similar professionals.

NFER Research, link

Last year the UK’s social research app TeacherTapp reported that only 1 in 3 Primary teachers reported having enough autonomy. And the TES reported in 2020, pre-pandemic, that teachers rank second-lowest (just above healthcare professionals) out of 11 professions for autonomy.

Which is a round-about way of saying: I understand why a colleague left this note on my laptop last September, why I am not bitter about it, and why it made me reflect so deeply on my own autonomy.

A yellow post-it note sits on a laptop keyboard with the words "There is a pencil missing" and a sad face emoji written on in pencil.

I had been covering a lesson in his classroom, and realised I was on playground duty immediately afterwards, so I collected in the pencils, tidied up as best I could in 30 seconds and ran out to do my duty. Just 25 minutes later I returned to gather my things to find this accusing note. Of course I was cross at first: I’d not stopped all day at this point, lost a “free” to a difficult cover and not yet had my lunch, and I thought it was a bit unnecessary: could he not be a bit more understanding? Nobody really wants to cover lessons but we know it’s part of the job and we do our best to look after our colleagues’ classrooms, but nobody’s perfect (don’t get me started on the mess my Computing classroom has been left in previously).

But then I remembered the importance of autonomy, and how lacking in it most teachers are. I remembered this scene about autonomy from “You’ve Got Mail” (which is worth watching just for the banging Cranberries track “Dreams” playing as Joe enters the coffee shop…)

The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.

Nora Ephron’s script for “You’ve Got Mail”, Starbucks scene, Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox speaking.

My pencil-counting colleague was “doing a Starbucks”. In a job severely lacking in autonomy, one thing he can control (most days) is the equipment in his classroom. He can count out the pencils and count them back in. I’m sure there are many other aspects of his job he has control over, but just maybe, returning to find a box of pencils with a gap where an HB should be was the last straw that day. I forgave him but the incident sparked reflection.

Possibly the pencil-missing-post-it cover lesson acted as my toothpick instructions moment. Douglas Adams’ marine biologist character “Wonko the Sane” retired to a house in California he called “Outside the Asylum” upon reading instructions on a pack of toothpicks…

‘It seemed to me,’ said Wonko the Sane, ‘that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.’

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

It’s certainly true that I handed my notice in four weeks later. What my post-it-author colleague felt that day I’ll never know, I simply dropped off a couple of similar pencils on his vacant desk at the end of the day and we never spoke about it. (Sure, I wrote and deleted several emails, but never sent them, which I was glad about soon after).

So if you’re in a position of power in school, and you wish to improve well-being, maybe stop doing “surface-level” things like cake in the staffroom or yoga sessions (and do not make any “well-being” sessions mandatory). Deliver on autonomy, which in turn means cutting things out of the calendar to make room for middle-leaders to do high-value stuff. Stop mandating lesson structures and slide layouts (but do share good practice around this that others can learn from). Ask your staff what they think, they are all graduate professionals after all, let them bring themselves into the job.

And just maybe, with more autonomy, teachers won’t feel the need to write passive-aggressive notes to colleagues, or feel the need to leave, and go live Outside the Asylum. 😎

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By mraharrisoncs

Freelance consultant, teacher and author, professional development lead for the NCCE, CAS Master Teacher, Computer Science lecturer.

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