Why AFT members fight for the ‘freedom to teach’

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Freedom to Teach—the AFT’s campaign to respect educators’ professional training and experience and allow them to teach as they see fit—comes to life among the applications AFT members submitted to the Freedom to Teach awards this week. Thirty-five members applied for the awards, and nine won $1,000 each in credit on DonorsChoose.org, a website that helps teachers purchase what they need to serve their students and their schools.

a panel of women of various races smile at the camera

Winners saw Freedom to Teach through a range of lenses:

Emily Griswold describes the self-care and peer support teachers need so they don’t burn out too quickly and end up leaving the profession. Her program, Time for Teachers, gives teachers a weekly space to unwind and participate in activities that are meaningful to them, such as dance, boot-camp classes and art therapy, and that let them connect with one another rather than close their doors to work in isolation.

Mariah Watts embraces the freedom to bring her own life experience into the classroom, connecting with children who, like she did, are growing up in low-income families, taking buses across town to better schools and missing out on extracurricular activities because their families can’t pay for them.

For Maryclare Flores, freedom means the ability to reject the status quo, which favors the white and privileged, and instead to try new ways to reach a broader swath of students. When teachers do engage in more thoughtful education, she wrote in her entry, “they should not be punished, but encouraged and supported.”

Terri Kennedy, who works with nonverbal students who have a variety of learning capabilities, said she needs flexibility to choose the differentiated instruction every child needs. “Freedom to teach is not only important, it is essential,” she says.

Dana Swanson talks about choosing books that appeal to her reluctant readers, instead of restricting their selections to an approved reading list. Her careful choices help students find joy in learning, rather than killing their curiosity and turning them off to school.

Marjorie Pita wants freedom from responsibilities outside actual teaching—she doesn’t want to worry about whether the drinking water at the school is clean, or whether the locks on her doors work in case there’s a lockdown. And she wants the freedom to reach out to her Spanish-speaking students and their families with culturally appropriate content and materials.

The freedom to teach is closely linked to teacher respect, says Jennifer Surmeian, a Pawtucket (R.I.) Teachers’ Alliance member. She wants to “bring honor back” to the profession she has loved since she was a small girl, so that her knowledge and expertise are valued rather than questioned more and more throughout the years. 

Stefanie Gunderson, from Education Minnesota, understands the connection between respect and freedom: For her, freedom means “having the autonomy and support to do what's best for my kindergarteners based on the training and day-to-day experiences I have collected throughout my profession and teacher preparation.” It allows her to use the research-based play approaches she says our students and country are deprived of.

Caitlin Pekuri agrees with Gunderson and takes her thoughts a step further: She not only wants to adopt new ideas and explore research-based practices, she wants the support of parents, administrators, community members, and the AFT’s legal and mentor resources if she encounters resistance to innovations that do not directly increase student test scores.

Freedom to Teach contest winners listed a variety of ways they’ll be spending their $1,000 prize credits, including a peer support program, computer carts, cleaning supplies, more appealing books with characters of different races and ethnicities, materials like dress-up clothes to encourage social-emotional learning, and specialized sensory rugs and furniture for special needs students. 

[Virginia Myers/photo by Michael Campbell]