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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The dynamics of individual teacher autonomy : a case study of teachers’ work in a Queensland secondary school Nicoll, Carol Patricia


The emphasis on collegiality and collaboration in the literature on teachers' work and school reform has tended to underplay the significance of teacher autonomy. This thesis explores the dynamics of teachers' understandings and experiences of individual teacher autonomy (as contrasted with collective autonomy) in an independent school in Queensland which promoted itself as a 'teachers' school' with a strong commitment to individual teacher autonomy. The research was a case study which drew on methodological signposts from critical, feminist and traditional ethnography. Intensive fieldwork in the school over five months incorporated the ethnographic techniques of observation, interviews and document analysis. Teachers at Thornton College understood their experience of individual autonomy at three interrelated levels - in terms of their work in the classroom, their working life in the school, and their voice in the decision-making processes of the school. They felt that they experienced a great deal of individual autonomy at each of these three levels. These understandings and experiences of autonomy were encumbered or enabled by a range of internal and external stakeholder groups. There were also a number of structural influences (community perceptions, market forces, school size, time and bureaucracy) emerging from the economic, social and political structures in Australian society which influenced the experience of autonomy by teachers. The experience of individual teacher autonomy was constantly shifting, but there were some emergent patterns. Consensus on educational goals and vision, and strong expressions of trust and respect between teachers and stakeholders in the school, characterised the contexts in which teachers felt they experienced high levels of autonomy in their work. The demand for accountability and desire for relatedness motivated stakeholders and structural forces to influence teacher autonomy. Some significant gaps emerged between the rhetoric of a commitment to individual teacher autonomy and decision-making practices in the school, that gave ultimate power to the co-principals. Despite the rhetoric and promotion of non-hierarchical structures and collaborative decision-making processes, many teachers perceived that their experience of individual autonomy remained subject to the exercise of'partial democracy' by school leaders.

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