Student Autonomy and the Vulnerable Teacher

I had to have a little chat with my eleventh graders last week. I decided to take the first 10 minutes of class and explain to them two core convictions of my teaching philosophy and how there is often a tension between them.

We had gotten to one of my favorite units, in which we read Lorraine Hansberry’s spectacular play A Raisin in the Sun. It is the only play we read in the American Lit. class and I firmly believe that drama is meant to be performed. So, first we read it as a class, having different students and myself reading the parts, and then we watch a film adaptation (the 1961 version with Hansberry’s screenplay and the amazing Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee).

Over the years, I’ve taught this unit numerous times and I recognize that there are many students who are reluctant to read out loud. Perhaps they don’t feel confident, or they are shy, or they had a bad experience with being required to read in a previous year. But I’ve always had enough students volunteer that we’ve had someone for each character. I tell students they’re not stuck reading that character the entire play and that we’ll switch it up between acts. I tell them that I hope everyone will read at list a little bit, but that no one will be forced to and that I will not be putting anyone on the spot.

This year, I didn’t get enough volunteers when we started Act 1, across both of my English 11 sections. In both, finally one student reluctantly raised their hand to take the final role. But I was already dreading the beginning of Act 2 when we would be reassigning roles and there would be more characters that needed reading.

So I explained to them why I did it this way, and how that is rooted in those two core convictions I hold about how my classroom should operate.

Firstly, I believe we learn best in community. Humans are communal creatures; we like being around each other (even those of us who are more introverted don’t do well in prolonged solitude), and we build on and feed off of each other. The classroom is a prime example of what that can look like and explains in part why online-learning was so difficult for many students and for myself. Each section I teach has a different feel, a unique atmosphere, and it’s because there are different people in the room. We contribute to that culture through our actions, our words, and the choices we make in each moment. I explained to my students that in many ways, they are in charge of the classroom atmosphere, and that the communal learning is beneficial to us all. Nothing encapsulates that quite like a dramatic performance which is an intricate blending of individual performances into a collective production. When we act with our neighbors, our community, our classroom in mind, rather than only looking to our own individual preferences, we can be far more than the sum of our parts.

Secondly, I believe in student autonomy. I hated being called on when I was a student, so I vowed not to be that teacher. Students must have choices, must be allowed to have a say in what and how they learn, and must be allowed to determine their level of investment. That’s how we get intrinsic motivation, rather than carrot/stick education. There are numerous assignments I’ve designed so students can choose how they want to meet the requirements, which topic they want to focus on, or whether they’d like to work individually or in a group (that last one is especially tricky to do well). There are minimum requirements I need from all students in my classroom, and if a student is not meeting them, I will push into their autonomy and obligate those minimum requirements. But beyond those, their level of investment, engagement, and motivation are up to them. And while some students skate through my class doing the bare minimum, others have discovered a love of literature and critical thinking and gone on to study literature in university. I’d say that’s more than worth the trade-off. Because that’s student autonomy.

But student autonomy can be very risky for the teacher, and is often a lot more work. I confessed to my students last week that I’m a person who has to be prepared, to have a plan (and then several backup plans and contingencies in place), and I don’t like like uncertain situations. And when I’m standing in front of a room full of students, asking for volunteers to read, that’s a very vulnerable position for me. There’s no plan B. I’m standing in the tension between the communal aspects of learning and student autonomy and it’s not a comfortable place. But I value them both so highly that I know I need to let go of the control and hand it over to my students, hoping and believing that they will choose to invest in the communal learning.

I think we as teachers foster disengagement, lack of motivation, and an apathy for learning when we hold on to the reins too tightly in our classrooms. Of course how tightly or loosely we hold them is determined quite a bit by the age of our students and the particular needs of each individual class. But many of us (particularly those of us that like to be in control of our surroundings and know what’s going to happen) need to learn how to give an appropriate amount of that control over to our students. Because only then can the learning be truly authentic and intrinsically motivated. We’re the adults in the room and so we should model that vulnerability, rather than being yet another authority in their lives that only ever tells them what to do and doesn’t let them grow into their burgeoning autonomy.

The students heard me. I got numerous volunteers after that, some from among my very quiet students. And I don’t think it was because they felt guilty or pitied me, but because they saw and valued why I had to lean into that awkward moment of waiting for volunteers. They want to be treated as individuals, as human beings with autonomy, and many are willing to overcome their own experiences and inhibitions when we give them the freedom to choose.

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