The ruler and the ruled : complicating a theory of teaching autonomy

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Lepine, Sherry Ann, 1961-

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This study was designed to compare teachers' perceptions of teaching autonomy at two economically diverse elementary school campuses to determine factors that influence teachers' perceptions of their ability and authority to make important decisions regarding their classrooms and students. Using a quantitative measure developed by Pearson & Hall (1993), the Teaching Autonomy Scale (TAS), fifty teachers, twenty-five from each campus, rated their teaching autonomy. The TAS served as a sorting and selecting tool to place teachers in two cohorts: low and high teaching autonomy. From these cohorts, ten teachers were selected to participate in an interview and discussed factors that influence their individual authority in making important classroom decisions. Teachers also discussed actions of resistance and conformity to mandates, reform initiatives and policies, which influence their ability to exercise teaching autonomy. Previous research has defined teaching autonomy as a measurable and quantifiable construct (Pearson & Hall; Pearson & Moomaw, 2005), as well as a professionally conferred characteristic awarded the teaching professional upon completion of the degree and meeting the licensing requirements for public school educator. Findings of this study point to teaching autonomy as a state of being that is best understood through a theoretical framework of symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1966; Mead, 1934) and role-identity theory (McCall & Simons, 1966). The findings indicated a need for a different conceptualization of teaching autonomy. An original grounded theory is proposed that describes teaching autonomy as a series of identities, which are by nature transitory and shifting, rather than as a fixed score on a set of indicators. Further complicating this theory are the varying governance structures in schools that contribute to teachers taking both active and passive roles when exercising authority over the decisions important to the classroom. Schools that operate democratically, as learning organizations, cultivate teaching autonomy and value the professional input of teachers concerning decisions that impact the classroom and student achievement. Schools that operate bureaucratically do not necessarily value a teacher's input into decision-making. Additionally, teachers in the study acted autocratically regarding their teaching autonomy and made decisions in isolation, even in a tightly coupled policy environment. Governance structures influenced the teachers' selection of two roles, ruler or ruled and eight identities were described by teachers in the study they used when exerting or deferring individual authority over the top-down decisions imposed by external authorities. The role identity theory presented by the author offers a better explanation of how teachers enacted and described the phenomenon of teaching autonomy at their campuses than does previous research. Implications for future research, for school leaders and for policy are based on the conclusion that teaching autonomy is state of being that must be understood from an interactionist perspective alongside the characteristics of the teachers' workplace.