Autonomy, Egalitarianism and Deference to Authority

chiopunisnew[1]“Blaming school problems on children’s characteristics, lack of resources, politics, societal conditions, and myriad other issues simply incapacitates our efforts to achieve substantive transformation of schools” (McCabe & McCarthy, p. 206).

This quotation from chapter 20 of the Hilty reading really lays it out on the table; in order to effect lasting, measureable change in student achievement in the United States (and elsewhere) educators must change their mindset from dwelling on the obstacles to pursuing the possibilities. McCabe and McCarthy (2011) believe that in order to make this change in commitment we must reconstruct roles and relationships around issues of social justice and student achievement at the school level and in teacher preparation and leadership programs. This approach is decidedly democratic in nature, extending beyond the confines of the KG- 12 classroom. Under this model, school leadership programs would prepare teachers and administrators to “question the assumptions that drive school policies and practices to create more equitable schooling” (McCabe & McCarthy, 2011, p. 197).

How can teacher leadership support this change in focus from blaming towards transformative social justice? Johnson and Donaldson (2011) believe that second-stage teachers, those who have four to ten years teaching experience, are well poised and motivated to support the democratization of teaching and learning through the development of their own and others’ leadership skills. For these teachers, leadership offers an opportunity to share insight and competence with others, reduce isolation and allows a variance in responsibility and an expansion in their influence.

These are precisely the reasons that I began pursuing a M. Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction. I felt that I was at a point in my career where I had the experience, disposition and motivation to explore how I could expand my circle of influence from the four walls of my classroom into the school community. I am motivated less by ambition then out of a drive to identify goals and achieve them. As I have worked as an administrative intern this year (I am concurrently pursuing a Principal certification), I have encountered the same obstacles to leadership discussed by Johnson and Donaldson (2011):  “Teacher leaders’ efforts to share their expertise can also be undermined by the culture of teaching…the norms of autonomy, egalitarianism, and deference to seniority that have long characterized the work of teaching remain alive and well in schools” (p. 213). Though I refuse to be disheartened, I am still amazed at the resistance I encounter from some teachers that simply do not want to be bothered with what is happening outside of their own classroom, and sometimes, don’t want to be bothered by what is happening inside. I find that I have adopted some of the coping mechanisms mentioned by Johnson and Donaldson (2011);

  • Wait to be drafted
  • Work with the willing
  • Work side by side

Although I do not wait to be drafted in the sense that my job (though entirely voluntary this year) is still as part of the administration; I cannot be ignored for too long! However, I certainly am more likely to seek-out teachers that are open, willing and excited about working on projects together or by having me facilitate initiatives on their behalf. These teachers that are willing are who I would identify as teacher leaders in their own right, who are excited to collaborate, to take on additional tasks and go beyond their proscribed role as classroom teacher to positively impact student achievement. These are the teachers that, through their willingness to be leaders, are reconstructing roles and relationships around issues of social justice so valued by McCabe and McCarthy. It’s easy to blame the kids that come through the school door day after day, and year after year. But before a school or district or school of education can reform education, transformation has to occur within the teachers themselves, one at a time.  Teachers must be willing to let go of the norms of autonomy, egalitarianism, and deference to seniority that sabotages and undermines the professionalization of teaching. Until this happens, any change will be surface at best.


Johnson, S. J. & Donaldson, M. L. (2011). Overcoming the obstacles to leadership. In E. Hilty (Ed.)Teacher leadership: The “new” foundations of teacher education (pp. 265-282). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (p. 211- 217).

McCabe, N. C. & McCarthy, M. M. (2011). Educating school leaders for social justice. In E. Hilty (Ed.) Teacher leadership: The “new” foundations of teacher education (pp. 265-282). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (p. 195- 210).


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