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October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2
Online Exclusive

If We Want Sustainable Schools, We’ve Got to Build Teacher Agency

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Teachers across the country feel a lack of “voice.” Let’s strengthen teacher agency to make schools better places for teachers.

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School CulturePolicy
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I left the traditional classroom in the Summer of 2020, and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I didn’t leave just because I was asked to go back into the classroom long before vaccines were ready; it was also because I saw how little agency I had in the matter. This lack of agency not only made me feel less than human, it made me feel as though I couldn’t trust those in power to put my—and my colleagues’—health and safety first.
Just months prior, a group of teachers at my school, including me, had been selected to develop a proposal, to be shared with the board of the school, for how our school, an independent school in Chicago, would operate in the Fall of 2020. I assumed this group would create various scenarios, weigh the pros and cons, and— together with a broader group not made up of teachers that was working on the issue—come to a collective decision on what seemed safest and most feasible. But I soon realized that our group was assembled not for the purpose of authentic decision-making grounded in consensus. It was created for the sake of appearance, to make it seem as though teachers were involved in the decision-making process, whereas our perspectives wouldn’t actually be taken into account.
It wasn’t long before several of us teachers figured this out. As a result, we expressed our discontent with not only the process by which we were making decisions, but also with the decisions being made by those with higher authority than our teacher group, such as our division director, the head of school, and the board. It was unclear to us how our century-old building would be properly ventilated and what measures would be put in place to keep us all safe. Our classrooms felt small before the pandemic, so the notion of socially distancing within those classrooms seemed impossible. We proposed alternate ideas, such as a hybrid model—but such ideas were immediately quieted by our division director without reason or explanation. As the date of the presentation to the board drew closer, it became clear our superiors were creating the proposal behind closed doors, without authentic voice from the group of us who had volunteered to collaborate. Other teachers caught wind of this flawed process, causing the tension between teachers and administrators to slowly crescendo.
This tension resulted in a group of teachers, myself included, writing our own letter to the board, requesting remote teaching unless specific criteria, such as the availability of a vaccine, were met. A supermajority of teachers signed the letter, despite the fact that many feared retaliation for their public dissent. As you might guess, the administration and board did little more than smile and nod at our requests, moving forward with the plan they’d created behind closed doors. I was irate. At that point, even if I’d willed myself into feeling safe enough to return to in-person learning in the Fall of 2020, I didn’t feel like I could trust our school’s administration and the board to support and protect the teachers. Clearly, our needs and our voices were valued less than the tuition dollars and desires of parents at our school.

One Assault of Many

This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced a lack of agency as a teacher. Early in my career, a lesson I cocreated about new LBGTQ+ marriage equality legislation was banned because a few homophobic parents complained to administrators, and those administrators were afraid of bad publicity. Similarly, I’ve watched teachers at progressive schools lose agency as school leaders’ fears of failing standardized assessments caused them to adopt boxed curriculum, limiting teacher voice in curriculum creation.
Teachers have experienced this lack of agency in their schools for quite some time, which contributes to school cultures where teachers feel voiceless and makes many schools unsustainable places to teach and work. Lack of agency is part of what causes many to consider leaving the profession entirely.
I confirmed this widespread need for agency when I began the #SustainableTeaching Project last summer. I surveyed over 300 teachers from all 50 states and conducted over 40 hours of interviews. One in five of those surveyed expressed a need for more agency and autonomy in their school. On the basis of these findings, it stands to reason that giving teachers more agency could change the narrative of low teacher morale and the uptick in teachers quitting the profession.

What Is Teacher Agency—and How to Foster It?

The word agency comes from the Latin agere, meaning “to set in motion.” This framing of teacher agency connects to the type of learning atmosphere we want: confident teachers who know they have freedom and trust to set learning in motion. But teacher agency doesn’t mean anything goes. When schools struggle with teacher agency, it’s likely in part because they fail to define and establish clear boundaries and expectations around what that concept means. Let’s look at how schools might define and foster teacher agency, particularly in terms of decision-making and professional learning.

Collective Decision-Making

Building agency through collective decision-making can be tricky. In my opening anecdote, clearly the way higher-ups were involving teachers in decision-making was purely performative, intended to create the perception that teachers’ voices mattered. This inauthenticity, naturally, diminished agency–and teachers’ willingness to contribute to decision-making–once all of us understood that our input didn’t actually matter in the decision.
It's also possible, however, to give teachers too much decision-making power, to the point where it adds confusion and unnecessary work. Administrators and coaches play valuable roles in providing frameworks in which teachers can operate, often making decisions on behalf of teachers in a helpful way, so teachers can focus on teaching. Productive solutions lie somewhere between total independence and soul-crushing restriction, with teachers, coaches, and administrators alike collaborating and in agreement on which decisions can be left to administrators or coaches–or to teachers.

Professional Learning

Learning Forward and the National Council on Teaching and America’s Future define teacher agency as “the capacity of teachers to act purposefully and constructively to direct their professional growth and contribute to the growth of their colleagues” (Calvert, 2016). Again, this definition doesn’t entail unbridled independence; it simply means teachers are part of an ongoing partnership around professional learning within schools. Too much choice in professional learning opportunities often results in professional learning that is neither related to school goals nor grounded in authentic needs. It can also create inconsistency in instruction; learners end up receiving different experiences –sometimes lower quality experiences–depending on their teacher.
On the other hand, when professional learning is top-down, when administrators make executive decisions about professional learning without examining multiple sources and consulting instructional leadership teams, teacher agency is diminished. Administrators sometimes provide the illusion of choice—but teachers usually pick up on the falseness of such “choice.” As with collective decision-making, finding a balance between the sometimes conflicting agendas of teachers and those of administrators takes time. The solution is often providing open-ended, workshop-driven professional learning that offers teachers authentic experiences and helps them set personal goals that also relate to the collective goals of the school.

Agency Supports Sustainability

For teachers to play a role in sustaining our schools, they need to have the intrinsic motivation to push through challenges, knowing they are supported and that their efforts matter. Daniel Pink (2009), an expert on motivation, theorizes that autonomy, mastery, and purpose contribute to motivation. Autonomy refers to the ability to make decisions within boundaries; mastery involves helping teachers connect their efforts to tangible progress with learners; and instilling a sense of purpose requires teachers to understand how schoolwide initiatives and decisions are best for learners. If teachers don’t feel motivated, progress on school improvement efforts will be incremental or ephemeral, ultimately requiring an immense amount of effort for administrators to maintain.
But if teachers are both invested in schoolwide decisions and motivated to engage with professional learning, teachers, coaches, and administrators will all benefit. And because teachers are exercising their agency, administrators no longer have to expend as much energy completing fidelity audits or monitoring compliance. Teachers can contribute to the growth of initiatives through the decisions and changes they make in their classrooms.

Where to Start in Building Teacher Agency

The first place to start is by defining teacher agency as a faculty. Everyone involved needs to know “agency” isn’t synonymous with total independence; it’s a way for all stakeholders to collectively, and through a trusting relationship, reach certain goals. School leaders might consider trying these practices for building teacher agency:
Conduct “agency interviews.” Before determining how to build teacher agency, it’s important to collect some data. Administrators, coaches, or even teachers at the school can take the lead on conducting agency interviews, then synthesize their findings to identify commonalities about what teachers in your school think is most needed to strengthen teacher agency. Such information can guide you on where it’s best to start with building teacher agency.
In my agency interviews, I generally ask three questions:
● Where is our school succeeding with teacher agency?
● Where do our challenges lie with teacher agency?
● What should our next steps be for building teacher agency?
Interviews can be conducted one-on-one, or you can encourage team leads to discuss these questions and report their findings to the group guiding this effort. Depending on your time and resource constraints, it could be wise to interview a focus group. That said, to help all teachers exercise their voices, it’s best for all teachers to have an opportunity to have their voices heard.
Establish clear roles and responsibilities for decision-making. It’s entirely possible that ideas for decision-making structures will surface in your agency interviews. Teachers don’t always need involvement in decision making—they have enough on their plates. But many may want more transparency about how decisions are made and who to talk to when they have feedback about decisions. Transparency and fidelity are essential when establishing these roles for decision making. First, share a document with staff that outlines the decision-making process, perhaps even including a decision-making matrix. Solicit feedback from staff on the process outlined. Finally, ratify the document through consensus in a staff meeting. The most important part of all this will be executing the decision-making process with fidelity. If teachers see that the process is not followed as agreed upon, trust will erode, and some teachers may feel a loss of agency.
Establish structures for accountable autonomy. Operate from the assumption that teacher agency is not only good for sustainability and teacher retention but will also positively impact students’ learning. Fortunately, there are now fewer policies in schools that make student achievement public in ways that encourage teachers to compete with one another. Competitive practices aren’t grounded in what we know about intrinsic motivation—or authentic assessment. Instead, let’s find ways to generate evidence of professional learning that help teachers evaluate their progress on personalized goals. This could include a “learning lab” process for teachers to collectively reflect on their progress. Or teachers might collaboratively look at student work using protocols from the professional learning community process (DuFour et.al, 2010). This allows evidence of student learning to drive teacher goal setting.
To humanize any assessment, the assessment itself must tell a story. Structured self-reflections or artifacts of teacher learning can tell the story of professional learning over the course of the year. Instead of using faculty meetings for compliance-related processes, consider doing “learning celebrations,” where teachers share strengths, challenges, and next steps related to their goals and show artifacts telling the “story” of their growth. This builds a sense of camaraderie around professional learning as well as transparency around what’s happening in everyone’s classrooms.
Let teachers make mistakes! This may be the most important “action” of all. Cultures of fear are palpable in schools. Teachers are already afraid to make mistakes, because of high-stakes testing and pressure from parents who expect teachers to get it right 100 percent of the time. Teachers must know that mistakes aren’t only inevitable, but also valuable in building institutional knowledge.
Administrators and coaches should openly praise the courageous, vulnerable journeys teachers are on every day when they step foot in their classrooms. This practice starts by operating from the viewpoint that every—and yes, I mean every teacher—has gifts to offer the school. Our job as coaches and administrators is to center those gifts and build on them.

The Time Is Now

I can’t be sure, but I think I would still be in the classroom if I wasn’t pushed to my limits by a lack of agency. An uncomfortable number of teachers are currently in the same boat, on the edge of resigning or perhaps even changing careers because of how disempowered, disrespected, and dehumanized they feel. While higher salaries and more resources can contribute to sustainability in schools, these factors are sometimes outside a principal’s or coach’s control. Teacher agency is something you can start cultivating tomorrow. Don’t wait another moment to start talking about teacher agency. We don’t have any more time—or teachers—to lose.
References

Calvert, L. (2016). Moving from compliance to agency: What teachers need to make professional learning work. Learning Forward and NCTAF.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R. & Many, T. (2010). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Communities at Work.  Solution Tree.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Books.

Paul Emerich France is a National Board Certified Teacher, keynote speaker, and education consultant. He is the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning (Corwin, 2019) and other books. He currently runs his own teaching practice, teaching elementary school students in-person and virtually.

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