Fostering Respect, Trust & Autonomy in Students

Fostering Respect, Trust & Autonomy in Students
Eric Schildge

Fostering Respect, Trust & Autonomy in Students

by Eric Schildge, Upper School Teacher

From the moment I arrived at Sparhawk last July, I knew there was something special about this place. The building was mostly empty, but as Yvonne showed me around, I saw the tell-tale signs of a student-centered learning environment. Every humanities classroom had chairs arranged so students could see, speak, and listen to one another, and the walls were adorned with student creations. Yvonne pointed to various items produced by students like a homemade ecosystem tucked into a corner of the hallway behind the science room. A casual observer might not think much of it, but having studied progressive education for eight years, I saw that this school cared about process over product and collaboration and student-centered instruction over strict adherence to standards and compliance. How does Sparhawk enable teachers to facilitate experiences in which students can be inquisitive and take intellectual risks? My seven months at Sparhawk have given me many answers to these questions, foremost among them is the idea that teachers who are respected, trusted, and autonomous, are better able to respect, trust, and foster autonomy in their students.

As our mission says, students possess an “inherent enthusiasm for learning.” Anyone who has met a Sparhawk student has encountered this thirst for knowledge and meaning. Questions of motivation are at the heart of progressive pedagogy, with the ultimate goal being the maximization of intrinsic motivation through student-led engagement with powerful ideas. Educational psychologists have developed a theory of human motivation known as self-determination theory (SDT). The theory, backed by considerable experimental evidence, indicates that in order to develop a student’s interest in learning, a valuing of education, and a confidence in their own abilities and attributes, students must experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Deci and Ryan, 2000).

Put briefly, autonomy is the feeling that we are in control of our own behavior, competence is the ability to master the tasks that matter most to us, and relatedness is the sense of belonging and connectedness that we feel with others (Deci and Ryan, 2008). Research indicates that it is unlikely that a school will foster self-determination in its students without first developing it in their faculty. For example, researchers in Quebec discovered that the less capacity these teachers felt for self-determination, the more likely they were to exert coercive control over their students (Pelletier, et al., 2002). Meanwhile, research indicates that the inverse is true. When teachers are working in an environment that contributes to higher levels of teacher autonomy, relatedness, and competence, they are more likely to foster classroom environments that promote self-determination for their students (Leroy et al., 2007).

Sparhawk offers an excellent example of how encouraging teachers to be self-determined enables students to develop and experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Here at Sparhawk, teachers are given the autonomy to develop curriculum that connects with their passions and expertise. Teachers and staff build connections by cooking and eating together, and faculty are constantly collaborating with one another to seek knowledge and techniques to become more competent educators. Studies show that students are aware of their teachers efforts to support their autonomy and intrinsic motivation for learning. Researchers have found a positive correlation between teachers’ perception of their autonomy in their work and both students’ perceptions of their teachers attitude and students’ own intrinsic and autonomous motivations in the classroom (Roth et al., 2007).

There is a clear link between intrinsic motivation, what Sparhawk calls a student’s “inherent enthusiasm for learning,” and learning environments that support autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Bosso, 2014). For the past forty years, most American schools have chosen to pursue a narrow path of standardized testing and top-down accountability measures, inhibiting teachers’ self-determination and leading in turn to the decrease in their ability to support the development of autonomy, relatedness, and competence in their students. Meanwhile, we at Sparhawk have charted a different course. Respecting the autonomy of teachers, and creating the space for them to foster a lifelong love of learning in their students.


Bosso, David.  (May 2014). Teacher Motivation, Morale, Professional Identity (Doctoral dissertation)/p>

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-Determination Theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49, 182-185. doi:10.1037/a0012801

Leroy, N., Bressoux, P., Sarrazin, P., & Trouilloud, D. (2007). Impact of teachers' implicit theories and perceived pressures on the establishment of an autonomy supportive climate. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(4), 529-545.

Pelletier, L. G., Séguin-Lévesque, C., & Legault, L. (2002). Pressure from above and pressure from below as determinants of teachers' motivation and teaching behaviors. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 186-196.

Roth, G., Assor, A., Kanat-Maymon, Y., & Kaplan, H. (2007). Autonomous motivation for teaching: How self-determined teaching may lead to self-determined learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(4), 761-774.

Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp.54-67.