Teacher Ownership – It’s All About Autonomy

Brian FaulknerBlog, Innovate Better, Lead Better

In This Post:

  • Welcoming new staff members with positivity and genuine support.
  • Cultivating an environment that promotes teacher autonomy.
  • The value of teachers taking risks!

I remember the first time I attended a Project CRISS (Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies) training as a teacher. I was on board and couldn’t wait for my students to take ownership of their learning. Eventually, I became a District Certified Project CRISS trainer and have spoken about metacognition for years.  

This background is important to who I am as an administrator.  I believe teachers should have ownership and autonomy when it comes to their teaching.

At the beginning of each year, we hold new teacher orientation training. I am an “overwhelmer” on these days.  I always grapple with how to not overwhelm teachers, especially new ones.

A few years ago, I asked myself, “What is the one thing I want our new teachers to take away from these two days?” 

This answer came to me quickly: I CARE ABOUT YOU AND YOUR SUCCESS!

It was really that simple because in the end, that’s really what I want. I want teachers to find who they are as an educator, and I want them to have the autonomy to do so. 

As an administrator, if we don’t allow our staff to become the educator they’ve always dreamed of becoming, we need to take a deep look at why we are in the position we hold. Click To Tweet

Here’s the message I send during those two days of training:

We hired you because you possess something special that came out during the interview process that we couldn’t pass up.  We don’t only believe that you will fit in nicely at Harter, we firmly believe that you will help our school become even better than what it already is.  You are going to make a difference in our learning community and I can’t wait to watch you grow into something special. I want each and every one of you to find who you are as a teacher and simply BE YOU. 

In your mind, you have a picture of what an awesome teacher looks like. The one you’ve always dreamed of becoming. I want you to take that picture in your head and make it a reality. You got this! Be you! Be everything you’ve always wanted to be as a teacher.

Here’s my message to you: I believe in you! I am here for you! I will support you! Welcome to the Harter family! We are lucky to have you! We are elated that you are a Knight!  

I then provide them with our “I Messed Up” certificate, sign it, and encourage them to sign and hang it somewhere in their classroom.  I totally stole this from Justin Tarte on Twitter and made a few changes. Thanks, Justin.  


Supporting & Promoting Teacher Autonomy

As an administrator, if we don’t allow our staff to become the educator they’ve always dreamed of becoming, we need to take a deep look at why we are in the position we hold. 

There are two things I remind myself everyday when I get to school:

  1. Check your ego at the door.
  2. “It’s not about you, it’s about everyone else, Brian.”

I’m human, and I’d be lying if I sat here and told you I’ve never had my ego bruised or I never swallowed my pride. But it’s imperative that administrators do this. 

I’ve always believed that if a teacher is going to be great, we need to provide the environment that allows them to be great. We can’t dictate their greatness. Their growth needs to be authentic, homegrown, and full of autonomy to take risks, be innovative, and learn from mistakes to continuously better their craft.

There is no prouder moment than when a teacher asks me to pop into a classroom because they are trying something new and creative.  Even if it doesn’t go well, I give a high five and praise the teacher for being awesome and going for it.

Honestly, risk taking can be tricky. However, it usually goes well if teachers feel comfortable to take those risks and know they won’t be scrutinized if something doesn’t go well.

It’s simple. Allow autonomy by providing an environment where risk taking and innovation is the norm, and great things start to happen.  

Teacher Autonomy in Action    

A story I love to tell about autonomy (I have so many, though) is about a teacher in our building that once had a student (let’s call him Johnny) inform the teacher in the hallway that he created a Google slide presentation on the topic they were studying in class. 

Johnny wasn’t asked to do this. He was simply motivated to put something together because he was inspired by the class, and he knew the teacher challenges his students to show what they know in their own way.

Traditional tests aren’t the norm in this class. The best part of this story is that when Johnny got to class, the teacher dropped everything and asked Johnny to present what he put together. Johnny proudly projected his presentation and shared it with the class and knocked it out of the park.

How awesome is this?! That teacher knew he had the autonomy to be himself, and his gut told him to have Johnny present to the class. What a great story!

Without autonomy though, this story is never told. Because it would never happen.

Sure, this took away from what was planned, but this learning opportunity was too powerful to pass up. The teacher made the decision to “teach students and not a lesson plan.” I love autonomy stories!  

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To all of the teachers and educators that work in a school, thank you!  I hope you have the autonomy to be yourself and you are able to pursue greatness in your own unique way. Keep being awesome!    


Brian Faulkner is the principal at Heineman Middle School in Huntley School District 158. My focus has been simple from the very start of my career; give students what they need in order to be successful. I fully embrace teacher leadership and a shared leadership philosophy and look for creative ways our staff can collaborate, share, observe one another, and continuously improve their craft. Saying I love what I do is an understatement. I’m on a mission to make a difference in the lives of each member of our learning community. #team158