Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education (Pts. I and II)

Part I

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall — Part 2,” Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I taught as an outsider — but for many of those years, I found solace in a colleague, Ed Welchel, who taught history.

Among students, parents, faculty, and administration, Ed and I were considered good, even very good teachers, but we also were viewed with skepticism, particularly the farther up the authority chain you went (parents and administrators, especially).

The high school where we taught, although a rural public school, felt in many ways like a strict private school — very harsh discipline and dress codes, palpable conservative values.

Ed and I were as unlike that environment as two people could be.

After a particularly brutal faculty meeting that stressed the need to control our students, Ed and I began a chant we would share quietly as we passed in the hall: “Beat ’em down, beat ’em down.”

After I completed my doctorate in 1998, Ed soon finished the same program, and then left for another high school before moving on to higher education before I did.

That was fifteen-plus years ago, but it stands as relevant today since many are beginning to fret in earnest about why so many K-12 teachers leave the field.

It’s pretty damn obvious, I hate to say, but many teachers leave the profession because formal schooling is incredibly dehumanizing for students and teachers; in short, in schools, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

Dark Sarcasms in the Classroom

Former career music educator and blogger at Education Week/Teacher, Nancy Flanagan asks: “Who is truly afraid of genuine leadership emerging from practitioners?”

Flanagan also confronts a key distinction about what “leadership” means by examining if teacher leaders are, as Audre Lourde would say, using the Master’s tools (implementing policy as required by administration as agents of accountability mandates) or being autonomous professionals.

More optimistically than I would conclude, Flanagan suggests, “Teachers may have lost a vision of reform led by authentic, unvarnished teacher thinking, instead of teacher compliance–but we haven’t relinquished the ideas of autonomy, mastery and self-determined purpose yet.

Educator and activist, Andre Perry turns a similar focus on how school climate impacts students, particularly marginalized populations of students. Perry stresses:

As researchers on positive school climate note, the “personality” of a school is an expression of how teachers, students, family members and community perceive the milieu.

In other words, a school doesn’t have to be mean to be good. Treating students with care and respect increases academic performance among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, higher than if a school placed a singular single focus on academics.

This rejects, for example, the racist undertones driving the popularity of “no excuses” ideology, notably among charter schools serving poor, black, and brown students. But Perry also speaks to the wider norm of formal schooling.

Historically and especially over the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, formal education is an Orwellian institution in which “critical thinking” is about completing a worksheet so you can score well on multiple-choice questions assessing critical thinking.

But don’t actually think or act critically if you are a student or a teacher.

Teacher Education and All that Is Wrong

Ed and I left K-12 education because of the harsh environment in schools toward students and because K-12 schools are no places for autonomous professionals.

I literally left after being docked pay for presenting at a professional conference.

However, much to our chagrin, teacher education in higher education is not oasis of professional autonomy, but the most embarrassing desert in higher education.

While colleagues in English often handed out 1–2 page syllabi, mine were 15–20 pages of standards, correlating assignments to those standards, and rubrics — despite my own published stance rejecting rubrics.

The professional life of a teacher educator is mostly about complying with accreditation and certification mandates in order to make sure teacher candidates comply with accreditation and certification mandates.

Again, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden!

For example, in the same foundations course I teach where we confront slut shaming and the inherent sexism of dress codes, within one week of my students being placed in a nearby elementary school to tutor, the principal asked me to remind the female students to dress appropriately.

As well, I always begin that course, and come back to this in most of my classes, with Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” — highlighting the dehumanizing norm of schooling that the story captures in the eleven-year-old Rachel’s lament: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

But my foundations students are left with observing that reality in their field placements while also being denied the autonomy to do anything to change it.

And while I will not bore you with more examples, the situation above is no outlier; that is what teacher education is — a perpetual state of compliance to bureaucracy that is devoid of opportunities for professional autonomy and critical thinking.

When our candidates do reach the field, they invariably come to use with these observations:

  • “I can’t do anything you taught us in methods.”
  • “This is why people leave the field.”
  • “The administration treats teachers like students.”

All aspects of the field of education, then, are about compliance to the “bureaucratizing of the mind” about which Paulo Freire warned.


Formal education remains a desert, and we — teachers and students — wander dutifully forward, toward the wavering mirage that somehow teaching and learning are powerful instruments for change.

Education as change remains just that, however — a mirage.

In the halls of schools at every level, student and teacher autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

Part II: “So what do I do?”

A comment posted on my recent blog, Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education, deserves a careful reply:


So what do I do? I want to teach practical skills and meaningful texts. I am instead faced with 50 year old texts in the book room, a list of goals and targets (fewer than 10% failures, increased graduation rates by more than 10%, 40 standards with subets) and the fear of retribution and firing if I stray too far from the mandated curriculum. I just want to teach students to trust the power of their voices when my own voice is silenced by bureaucracy and mandates, meetings and condescending professional development that adds another target (5 phone calls home per week). I read and believe your words, but what do I do? How do I change the world? One student at a time? Another 12 hour day?

Let me offer first some context.

Although I am a tenured full professor, I taught public high school English for 18 years in a right-to-work (non-union) state, and have witnessed the powerlessness of being a teacher in that state through my role in teacher education for these on-going past 15 years.

Yes, K-12 teachers nationally are de-professionalized more and more each day, and throughout the South, where non-union states dominate, teachers are even more silenced and powerless.

However, I do believe there are many ways teachers can claim and expand their professionalism.

Broadly, teachers must resist at all costs fatalism, a call by Paulo Freire I believe is foundational to claiming educators’ professionalism.

Now, then, let me address “So what do I do?”:

  • Take stock of how much of your professional and personal energy is being spent on being a professional and how much is drained by being a martyr — and then stop being a martyr. Especially for K-12 teachers, I advocate the Henry David Thoreau dictum about ours is to do something of value, but never to do everything. Too often, teachers are compelled to martyrdom, which erases all of our energy and is a cancer on our professionalism. Every teacher must take stock of her/his professional practices, and eliminate those that are time and energy draining with little to no positive instructional outcomes. For example, marking extensively on student work, and then not requiring students to respond in some substantive way to those comments is an act of martyrdom — a waste of professional time that produces an artifact of your spending time, but doesn’t benefit either you or your students.
  • Identify and evaluate a very detailed and specific list of those obligations over which you have no control and those aspects of your teaching over which you do have control. This is a useful exercise for individual teachers, but it is even more powerful if conducted as a department or grade-level team. For example, in a graduate course once, when I rejected teachers giving spelling tests, a teacher challenged my stance because, as she explained, “I have to give a spelling grade on the report card!” I asked if any mandates existed for how she determined that grade, exposing that she did have autonomy over the how, and thus, we discussed pulling spelling grades from original student writing. To often, I fear, due to understandable feelings of fatalism, we teachers think we are powerless when we in fact have options. A detailed inventory is an effective way to make these distinctions real.
  • Forefront in your day and planning those aspects over which you have power, and then determine professional strategies for advocating change in those obligations over which you have no current power. Daily, make as your first priority your empowering work as a teacher; do that over which you have control first and give your professional self that positive daily inoculation. Designate brief blocks of time for your compliance to mandates, and stick to that schedule. And then, waste no time fretting about those things over which you have no control.
  • Brainstorm with colleagues more authentic ways to comply with inauthentic mandates. Teachers, I believe, can attack those things about which we have no control — such as standards and high-stakes testing — through stepping back from the mandates and asking if there are alternatives to how to comply. One excellent example is resisting making test-based writing the entire writing curriculum, and instead, making prompt-writing one of the ways in which we teach writing; in other words, embedding prompted, test-based writing late in a more authentic writing program so that we do prepare students for the tests, but also remain true to authentic writing and student voice/autonomy. Also, when mandates are unpacked by a department or grade level team, re-imagined by the department/grade level, and then implemented in ways endorsed by the practitioners, these mandates become tools of professionals instead of de-professionalizing teachers.
  • Cultivate communities of empowerment and advocacy for expanding your professional autonomy. Teachers have historically and are currently often victims of the divide-and-conquer approach to management. The antidote to that is community — and for teachers, even more important is professional community. Start close and move outward: department/grade level professional communities; local, state, and national professional organizations. Now, let me emphasize here that cultivating communities of empowerment must not become an act of martyrdom (see above); I am not suggesting adding on to your professional commitment, but am arguing for re-evaluating your professional time so that you commit segments of time to more professionalism but less overall time to your work day.
  • Create advocacy roles for yourself that suit your own strengths and comfort with advocacy. Many years ago while I was a co-leader for a local chapter of the National Writing Project, I mentored a beginning teacher who struggled with her administration over implementing best practice in teaching writing to her elementary students. These were tense times since the young teacher feared for her job, but believed the school mandates were ineffective and even harmful to her students’ learning. She regularly shared with her principal and colleagues the wealth of professional literature on the practices she chose over the mandates and gradually built a case for what she was doing with her students — even though parents also challenged her practice. No one model works for every teacher, and certainly some aspects of being political pose real dangers for K-12 teachers. Yet, change necessary for greater teacher professionalism and autonomy can result only from teachers who are advocates and political. From blogging and Twitter to participating in professional organizations to implementing practices in your classroom to use as models for change in your school — advocacy and being political are necessary for teacher professionalism.
  • Expand your role as teacher beyond the classroom to parents, the community, and the public. We are teachers, but our power as teachers is not restricted to the classroom. One of the best avenues for helping change our profession is through building greater understanding and support among the parents of our students, the community we serve, and the wider public. Daily conversations outside school; regular newsletters to parents about best practice; letters to the editor or Op-Eds in local, state, and national forums; blogging and other social media dedicated to our work as professional teachers — these are ways in which we can teach beyond the walls of our classrooms.
  • Check your practice and refuse to scapegoat anyone else for your practices. Ultimately, as educators, we must behave professionally, even as we are not treated as or allowed to be professional. Any practice we do is our decision to do. It is neither healthy nor professional to argue that others make us do anything. If any mandate is harmful to children, we cannot comply. Period. If we do comply, we are implying we, in fact, admit it does no harm. While there is no requirement that teachers are perfect, we must adopt the professionalism we want guaranteed us.

Daily teaching and working toward greater teacher autonomy and professionalism are all very hard work — exhausting and stressful.

The path to greater teacher professionalism is build by teachers dedicated to teaching as a professional endeavor. The suggestions above, I believe, are some powerful ways to make this happen while also not sacrificing any teacher along the way.

And so I return to Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” with my small edit: “A [teacher] has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong.”

In my fourth decade as a teacher, I believe the suggestions above help all teachers achieve these wise words.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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