Initiative: Giving Teachers Permission to Be Experts in the Classroom

Rethinking the factory model of management in the schools can help support the establishment of 21st century standards in classrooms. Traditionally, those working at the lower levels waited for upper management to tell them what do. This model is alive in many schools throughout the nation, but it steals away a teacher’s sense of responsibility to make crucial instructional decisions for learners.

A lackadaisical attitude tends to appear in teachers when management controls decision-making. Simply following directions negatively affects learners as well.

The importance of worker engagement

Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, explains in his book “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” that workers throughout the organization find empowerment and pride in helping to fix the problems within the movies they are making.

"Creativity Inc.: Overcoming Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration" by Ed Catmull
Published by Random House LLC.

He brings the reader back to the Japanese corporate models where workers not only have permission but also the responsibility to help fix anything along the line that they find is not working the way it should. This type of worker engagement helps to strengthen the entire organization.

Yet, when we turn back to examine many U.S. school systems, we find hierarchical organizations where teachers are not allowed to make crucial instructional decisions. In many cases, teachers are not even allowed to break the hierarchy by talking to those above direct supervisors about problems in the schools.

Catmull’s approach was different. He determined early on that there should be open communication, where anyone was allowed to speak with anyone else in the organization. For example, a group of fellow workers and managers gathered together as a “brain trust” to help identify problematic areas in the movie designs.  Their findings were given to directors and those working on the specific movie under review, but finding the solution to the problems was left up to those directly responsible for creating the movie.

The importance of teachers as instructional leaders

Likewise, teachers should be directly responsible for what takes place in their classrooms. In many states, teacher pay reflects the progress of student learning within their classrooms. But many teachers are still stuck under the control of outside managers and district personnel, who often dictate instructional strategies and unit designs.

Without the ability to help design instruction, teachers are left trying to figure out how to please principals and district managers on top of attempting to try to help students learn material. This places many conflicting expectations on classroom teachers. When most of the decisions for what is to occur throughout the school day take place in distant offices, it is no wonder that many educators lose their passion for teaching.

An example of teachers as instructional leaders

The International Baccalaureate Organization has three dynamic preK-12 educational programs that depend upon highly trained teachers, continual staff development, and empowerment of those who are directly involved in teaching young people.

  • Teachers gather in teams to design curriculum that is based upon standards. Teachers are encouraged to intertwine concepts from multiple disciplines with the specific interests of students.
  • Curriculum is constantly being updated and adjusted by teachers.
  • Purchased materials are used, but they fit within the overarching purposes and designs of teacher-created units of study.

Teachers are excited about learning, and this excitement transfers to students who are empowered to dig deeply into the content for themselves.

As teachers, we are the experts. We must regain our right to think together and to design activities that meet the needs of our students. Working in partnership with parents, teachers’ voices concerning curriculum need to be heard.  Upper management’s responsibility is to undergird teachers and support them as they strive to improve the professional learning taking place in classrooms across the nation.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards. 

Learn More: Click to view related resources.