Teacher Autonomy and the NFER report – a few thoughts…

Regular readers of our blog will know that we are keen proponents of Ryan and Deci (2000) and their model of Self Determination Theory, which suggests that our basic psychological needs are autonomy, competence and relatedness (see blog for more!), and how they need to be met so that we can flourish and thrive at work. So, we were delighted to hear that the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) had released their study on teacher autonomy – click here. With teacher wellbeing and stress, it’s easy to get sucked into a multitude of factors – there are so many variables and stages, and it can lose tangibility in many articles and reports. But, focusing on autonomy is a breath of fresh air; we believe that autonomy is the main pillar of teacher wellbeing. The report by the NFER is timely, focused, and doesn’t attempt to preach to teachers or leaders, but rather presents findings with clarity and simplicity. And the data speaks for itself.

Dr Kulvarn Atwal, Headteacher and author of The Thinking School (see our blog!) said to us in his office ‘without autonomy, you don’t bring your brain to work’. It’s a catchy thought, but also steeped in common sense. When we lack control over our role and tasks, our motivation inevitably drops, and job satisfaction decreases. And that is echoed in the report, whose main findings we’ll briefly summarise:

  • Teachers are 16% less likely than similar professions to have ‘a lot of influence’ over how they do their job.
  • Teachers have an acceptable amount of autonomy over their classroom management and teaching methods, but much less over curriculum, assessment, data use, and professional development.
  • Teacher autonomy is strongly associated with improved job satisfaction, and greater intention to stay in teaching.
  • Teacher autonomy ranks at the bottom of most professions, along with healthcare professionals and public service professionals.
  • Teachers, regardless of autonomy level, worked over 50 hours per week on average.

(NFER 2020 – Teacher Autonomy: how does it relate to job satisfaction and retention?)

The report leaves quite an open conclusion, and stresses the need for more research to be done into a variety of areas of autonomy.

Here are our conclusions and thoughts going forward. For now, these are brief summaries of our thoughts, but we’ll continue to blog on each in more detail.

  1. We need to rethink professional development, aka CPD.

Many schools seem to be stuck in the rut of the traditional CPD model of whole-staff meetings looking at a variety of Teaching and Learning strategies. These are often one-size fits all, and tend to skip from one topic to another; they may well be research focused and high in quality, but perhaps not always personalised or long term.

Is professional development too often ‘done to’ teachers, rather than with them? Do schools have a long-term programme for its teachers and their development on an individual level, allowing them to have some autonomy over their development each year, with specific goals in mind?

Schools should ask their teachers and leaders more about how they want to develop, and then help facilitate that with tailored sessions, research projects, and collaboration within and between schools. Teachers will thrive if they can have more autonomy over how they improve and learn as a professional.

2. Workload is still an issue, but it’s not about ‘amount’ of work

Teachers know that high work load is part of the territory, and we are usually willing to put in extra time for the children in our care. But the research in this report suggests that if we have perceived control over our work, the hours mean little to us.

Autonomy breeds motivation, even with a high workload. So let’s rephrase the workload agenda and focus on what we can do to give teachers more autonomy over what they do outside of the classroom.

3. Autonomy and job satisfaction = improved retention.

The report says that teachers who felt increased job satisfaction based on their high levels of autonomy, also foresaw themselves being teachers for longer than those with lower autonomy.

Surely, we must take this and run with it. Teachers staying in the profession longer means experienced, passionate practitioners remaining in post to teach our children and train up new generations of teachers. It takes the pressure off waning recruitment numbers. And, finally, if we see improved autonomy on a national level, surely this will become associated with being a teacher, and recruitment will pick up again?

4. Does there need to be a wider consultation about autonomy in a range of public sector roles?

It was interesting for us to see that teachers’ autonomy languished at the bottom of the table along with healthcare professionals and public services professionals. We attended a roundtable event at WhatWorksWellbeing last week along with social workers and police officers. The discussions were energetic; we were in a room of passionate professionals who gave everything for the vulnerable people in their care. But none of us identified our roles as having much control or autonomy, and burnout seemed rife in these professions. Do we need to review how a range of public sector jobs are structured and supported to help a range of professionals with their autonomy?

5. Conducting primary research to pursue these ideas further

Our research project is determined to address psychological needs, focusing on: autonomy, relatedness and competence. We are currently looking for some funding to roll out a survey which focuses on these needs among teachers, so that we can get a credible sample size to crunch the numbers and see how teachers are feeling based on the Self Determination Theory model. Hopefully we can help contribute to the discussion and partner up with fantastic organisations like the NFER in the future.

Thank you for reading

Sam and Rachel

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