Article: Why Teacher Autonomy Is Central to Coaching?

October 27, 2020
Written by
Geoff Knight

Article: Why Teacher Autonomy Is Central to Coaching?

July 19, 2023
October 27, 2020
Written by
Geoff Knight

After studying coaching for more than 20 years, Jim Knight has concluded that recognizing and honoring teacher autonomy is an essential and fundamental part of effective coaching.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2000) synthesized their decades of research on motivation into what they referred to as Self-Determination Theory. They proposed that people have three innate human needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness—that will increase motivation when met, and decrease motivation when they are not met. That is, people will feel motivated when they (a) are competent at what they do, (b) have a large measure of control over their lives, and (c) are engaged in positive relationships. The opposite is also true: When people are controlled and told what to do, aren’t in situations where they can increase their competence, and aren’t experiencing positive relationships, their motivation will decrease, and they will be “crushed” (p. 68). Research in education has shown unequivocally that this dynamic applies to teachers (Sparks & Malkus, 2015).

Despite evidence of the importance of autonomy, research suggests that autonomy is decreasing in schools. This is often because school leaders and coaches are so concerned about students’ needs that they just can’t feel at ease giving up control. Unfortunately, a rigid emphasis on accountability and control ultimately hampers teacher development.

Coaches must work to change this dynamic. If we want engaged and motivated teachers, we need to ensure that they have significant choices about what they do, including having the right to say no to particular proposals.

Responsible Accountability

When educators are responsibly accountable, their professional learning is driven by what they have determined will have an impact on their students’ learning. In this way, they are accountable to the improvement process—and to students, parents, other stakeholders, and the profession of teaching. Responsible accountability entails a genuine individual commitment to learning and growth.

Instructional coaching, done well, should foster responsible accountability. During coaching, teachers should have a great deal of autonomy even though they are learning with a coach. Coach and teacher usually have a coaching conversation to identify a goal that the teacher really cares about and that will have an unmistakably positive impact on student learning or wellbeing. During the Learn Stage, coach and teacher collaborate to prepare the teacher to implement the new strategy effectively.  Finally, during the Improve Stage, the teacher in partnership with the coach makes adaptations until the goal is met.

The Complexity of Teaching

Teaching is very complex work. In a groundbreaking study published in 2002, researchers Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman broke down the complexity levels of different work tasks. They identified three different types of tasks: simple, complicated, and complex. Teaching, like raising a child, is a complex task as there is no formula or simple set of steps to follow to a predictable outcome, plus, every day (and every child) is different.

Leadership experts Alexander Grashow, Ronald Heifetz, and Marty Linsky (2009) describe challenges as being adaptive challenges or technical challenges, where complex tasks present adaptive challenges, and that, “The most common failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems” (p. 19).

Much of teaching requires adaptability, meaning that discretion and personal discovery are essential to success and that one-size-fits-all solutions or external dictates will only hamstring progress.

Feedback as Dialogue

For many of us, feedback “is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better.” But, as Buckingham and Goodall explain, “the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”

First, the lesson (again) is that honoring the autonomy of teachers in coaching is essential if feedback is to lead to improved practice. Rather than telling teachers what they like and dislike about a lesson, coaches should structure conversations with teachers as dialogues between two equal partners, where both members of the conversation are heard and where both parties’ opinions count.

Second, as education authors like Bill Sommers, Parker Palmer, and Robert Garmston have pointed out, effective dialogue is often enabled through a third point for conversation that takes the focus off the coach and teacher and directs it toward whatever the two are exploring together. This increases the teacher’s role in the feedback process. Two powerful “third points” are student work and video recordings of teachers’ lessons. 


Another argument given for the top-down approach in coaching is to ensure teachers have fidelity to an evidence-based approach to a teaching strategy. A fidelity approach embodies the idea that solutions to instructional challenges are technical—when, in reality, they must be adaptive.

Real Choices

External mandates and top-down coaching typically fail--because ultimately they are disempowering and dehumanizing, and because they fail to address the complexity of the classroom. A better option is to infuse coaching with autonomy. When teachers have real choices, when they are engaged in coaching that is responsibly accountable, then real student growth is possible.


Read the full article, Why Teacher Autonomy is Central to Coaching Success, written by Jim Knight and featured in Educational Leadership's November 2019 edition, A Culture of Coaching.

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