With good reason, much is made of learner agency but the concept of teacher agency is important too. If we hope to build a profession in which we are all self-navigating life-long learners, we must acknowledge the role that teacher agency plays.
Being a teacher is baked into our identity. It becomes a significant part of how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others. Sir Ken Robinson has done well from his tale of the dinner guest who is seated next to a teacher.
"What do you do?" and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They're like, "Oh my God," you know, "Why me?" "My one night out all week.”
The story works because we all know that teacher who never stops being a teacher. My grandmother was a teacher. She went on to be a member of the Retired Teacher’s Association. As a child visits to her house were a little like an extension of the school day defined by sound but caring discipline and always bringing your best manners to the table. Meals were served on time and cleaned away at precisely the right moment. She had stopped working in schools long before she stopped being a teacher, it was in her blood. She has continued to contribute to the teaching profession through the contributions of her children and her grandchildren who have followed in her footsteps and taken up lives in the classroom.
Our choice of career is at least in part shaped by our understanding of what the role involves. This imagining of what it is like to be a teacher, a scientist, a policeman etc, is a construct of our experience. This brings particular challenges where we wish to change the norms within a profession. Efforts to encourage more girls to pursue STEM pathways are hindered by the scarcity of visible female role models. It is difficult to imagine yourself in a career if you do not see people like yourself in it. For teachers, exposure to the profession, both real and fictional, is abundant and those who choose to enter the profession have much content on which to form their imagining of what the profession will involve.
We have all been to school. We have all had good and not so good teachers. We have watched ‘Dead Poets Society’ ‘Stand and Deliver’ ‘Dangerous Minds’ and ‘To Sir with Love’, and wanted to be ‘that’ teacher. We enter the profession with a belief that we can make a difference in the lives of the children we teach, that we will be the teacher we needed. We imagine that our classroom will be our domain and our stage and in it we will create the ideal learning environment.
We enter the profession full of agentic ideal. A belief that we have the ability to make choices and direct activity based on our own resourcefulness and enterprise. We see the world not as something that unfolds separate and apart from us but as a field of action that we can potentially direct and influence.
And then we are consumed by the vast organisational structures that are modern day education systems. From curriculums, standardised assessments and teaching standards communicated down to us by governments to school wide policies and platforms we see ourselves dissolving from the situation. We feel that our ability to make decisions for our learners is eroded along with our sense of agency.
Change in schools is particularly challenging to identity and, when it is imposed externally, agency. Where the intended change alters the nature of our pedagogy and fundamentally shifts the relationships between teachers and students, and between teachers and knowledge resistance is more likely. Smollan and Sayers indicate the importance of understanding the socially constructed nature of identity and the potentially negative impact that change can have on this for individuals, 'that change ‘dislodges’ identity and leads to anxiety and grieving’ (Smollan & Sayers. 2009 p439) and that this can result in resistance to change.
How then do we manage these competing pressures? How do we embrace change, accept organisational imperatives and find space for teacher agency?
There are great benefits to the students which arise from a well-designed learning platform. The great things which are the norm in one class become the great things which they experience in every class. The cumulative effects become significant for the learner when they are able to readily transfer their learning skills and dispositions from one context to the next and from one year to the next. Elements of a common vocabulary combined with familiar routines for thinking and learning create a school where transfer and continuity of learning become friction free. The start of year dip is minimised in such a culture. A great example of the benefits of this can be seen in the video below. In it you hear the Year 13 students of Landau Forte College describing their learning journeys. What is clearly shown in this are the benefits the students have arrived from a consistent approach to teaching and learning. The students have from this experience become powerful learners who are able to describe how their school has met their long term needs.
A well-designed learning environment should evolve and become enacted as a result of every voice within it. Confronted by ever increasing levels of complexity and rapid change schools cannot rely on a single visionary leader. The best solutions will be those developed through the cognitive work of many, each acting with personal agency and with commitment to the development of ideal solutions at an organisational level. Absent from such a model is the solo hero teacher but teacher agency does not have to disappear. Our schools are places where we can have a positive impact but this will occur through our collaborative efforts, our contribution to the collective voce of the profession.
Schools which give their teachers a voice throughout the planning, implementation and continuous evaluation phases of change and growth, schools which embrace diversity and celebrate the unique perspectives which every member of the learning community contributes should be well placed then need to rely on teacher support of the plans which evolve thusly.
By Nigel Coutts
Smollan, R & Sayers, J. (2009) Organizational Culture, Change and Emotions: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Change Management, 9:4, 435-457