(guest blogger: Matt Kammarath, April 2022)
Whenever I reflect on the concept of autonomy, I find myself drawn to the word “choice.” Unfortunately, in most academic settings, the vast majority of choices related to student growth are often made by adults “in the student’s best interest.” I would argue, allowing students the autonomy to make choices should be one of the most important developmental skills we provide in order to prepare them for adulthood in an uncertain world.
I was fortunate early in my teaching career to visit The St. Mark’s School of Dallas to observe their character education program under the leadership of Martin Stegemoeller. By chance, I happened upon a minor disciplinary situation in the courtyard during a lower school recess. Rather than send the boy to the principal’s office, the teacher pulled him aside and calmly said, “Let’s talk about that choice you just made and perhaps a better choice you can make next time.” They had a brief 2-minute conversation, followed by a high-five, and the boy ran off to continue playing. The “discipline” focused on the choice he made, and future choices, rather than looking to punish. It was a remarkable concept to witness and way ahead of its time as we think about the rise of restorative justice practices in today’s schools.
One of the unintended consequences of witnessing this interaction at St. Mark’s was the influence it had on my own parenting style years later. As educators, we know that using threat of punishment as the sole motivator rarely leads to a change in a student’s intrinsic decision-making. However, providing choice and explaining the consequences of each path before a child makes a decision helps foster autonomy at a young age. Why? Because freedom is one part of autonomy; an equally important part is that the freedom allows us to pursue goals that we value. The freedom allows our self-determination. “You can choose to clean up your toys and play outside or choose to not clean up and stay in your room.” While most parents have been in this situation, the subtle difference of adding freedom to the decision allows the adult to address the choice and subsequence consequences in a way that does not shame the child. “You are not a bad kid because you didn’t clean up your toys, but let’s talk about the results of making that choice.” Two very different approaches to the same situation, but one teaches the child that they have (limited) control of their choices and subsequent outcomes—the goals they really want to accomplish— as a result.
I also think about how little choice students have within a classroom. Many teachers feel the need to follow set curriculum and control every aspect of their student’s education (down to the type of writing utensil used on assignments). However, in my experience, providing small amounts of choice has led to better relationships with students and a feeling of fairness in my classes. Have you ever asked students if they would prefer an end-of-unit test or final project, and then granted their choice? Have you ever consulted students regarding a due date for an assessment to see if they have other major work due the same day? Or even something as simple as assigning 12 problems and allowing them to choose any 10 to complete? None of these strategies creates a significant burden on the teacher, but students will feel a sense of autonomy within your classroom. A true sense that you are walking beside them on this educational journey, rather than shouting down orders from a lectern.
Teachers, administrators, and even parents continue to wrestle with the balance of autonomy. I like to remind others that a big part of our job as educators is to prepare these students for a time when we are no longer around to help them. To paraphrase the poet Philip Levine, “education is the fastening of wings and encouraging flight. Its success is judged by the student’s journey after they’ve left the nest.”
Matt Kammrath is the Director of the Norton Center for the Common Good at the Loomis Chaffee school in Windsor, CT. A teacher, coach, and administrator for the last 19 years, Matt has developed a passion for leadership education and a focus on teaching students how to lead lives of significance. He resides in CT with his wife, Brooke, and two children.