What is Teacher Agency? In a nutshell, teacher agency is where teachers and educators feel empowered and able to take ownership of their teaching and learning experience. This relates both to educating students, and to their own professional development. Teachers can take ownership of the learning experience to teach their students effectively, and they can also grant agency to their students by giving them choice in how they learn. Having a sense of agency over learning and professional development means that you are able to choose development activities that motivate and interest you, and are valuable for your role. It also means having some control over the pace of learning, the learning structure and the learning environment.
It could also encompass choosing how to assess work, for example, in the form of an essay, an exam or a presentation, but gives teachers the autonomy to make choices depending on situational changes such as the ability and learning styles of their students. Agency is essential for any learner, including teachers!
Various factors can impact the level of agency a teacher has, including:
their own willingness to learn and develop
their motivations for professional development
the schools’ structures for professional development
the involvement teachers have in what, and how, they learn
Why is agency important for learning? It helps learners feel enthusiastic and engaged with the learning material. Agency can make it easier to absorb and retain information and apply it to future situations. It can also increase the motivation and commitment to learning. This is important for anyone who is learning, whether a student in school or university or a professional aiming to support their further development. This aspect of agency is important for teachers because continually learning and developing sets a positive example for their students. Having agency helps teachers be positive role models and act as leaders. It empowers them to make decisions about their learning.
The current position of Teacher Agency:
The reality in many countries, is that teachers are overworked and under pressure to maximise their focus on exam oriented outcomes - teaching to what many systems measure, i.e., exam results.
We hear countless examples of teachers who went into teaching to create future change-makers, only to see their passion drained by a system driven by assessment, professional reviews, league tables, government inspections and policy. It’s one profession where everyone has an opinion because the majority of people, at some stage, went to school!
“Research shows that the most effective educators are often those who leverage their own professional knowledge, understanding of students and context, and teaching autonomy in service of student learning. This means that the best teachers are active agents of instruction, not passive curriculum deliverers”.
(Brookings, October, 2023)
"UNICEF’s 2007 decision to include children’s self-reported well being alongside their existing practice of reporting on objective measures of children’s wellbeing is a poignant example of the importance of measurement devices and their value to political agendas. As a consequence of including children’s subjective wellbeing as a new unit of measure Greece moved from near the bottom of the ranking (25th out of 29 countries) to fifth place. It is important to note that nothing changed for the children of Greece, the move from near bottom of the list to near top was not the consequence of an intervention but the use of a new unit of measure and is a stark reminder of the impact of measurement discrepancies (Clarke, 2020)."
How does the future look?
Dystopia - The potential of the current trajectory - overworked, dissatisfied, assessment and league table driven.
Utopia - If we evolve to create space for creativity and individuality enabling autonomy and ownership, resulting in satisfaction of work.
In schools across the UK, and arguably the world, there appears to be a similar narrative of dissatisfied staff under pressure. So what do the statistics say?
This last year saw a record number of almost 40,000 teachers leave the teaching profession in the UK. That’s almost 9% of the sector! (Schools Week, November 2023)
1,694 Headteachers (in the UK) left the state sector for reasons other than retirement (7.7 per cent) – the highest on record!!
(Schools Week, November 2023)
Among newly-qualified teachers, 12.8 per cent are now leaving a year after qualifying. The percentage leaving after two years grew from 17.3 to 19.9 per cent.
(Schools Week, November 2023)
Jack Worth, school workforce lead at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), described the figures as “hugely concerning”.
“Addressing teacher retention should be at the heart of dealing with the teacher supply challenge, with further policy action needed to reduce teacher workload and increase the competitiveness of teacher pay.”
(Jack Worth, National Foundation for Educational research)
‘Two things stand out about the leaders of improving systems. Firstly, their longevity: the median tenure of the new strategic leaders is six years and that of the new political leaders is seven years. This is in stark contrast to a norm: for example, the average tenure for superintendents of urban school districts in the US is just three years; the average tenure of education secretaries in England just two years; similarly, that of education ministers in France is two years’.
(McKensey & Company, 2010)
There are some key issues that education needs to address in order to promote teacher agency effectively.
As outlined in the OECD Learning Compass, ‘parents, peers, teachers and the wider community influence a student’s sense of agency, and that student influences the sense of agency of his or her teachers, peers and parents - a virtuous circle that positively affects children’s development and well-being' (Salmela-Aro, 2009). Thus, “co-agency” often referred to as “collaborative agency”, implies the influence of a person’s environment on his or her sense of agency.
As this suggests, co-agency influences all those in such a collaborative environment. Yes, we want to ensure students have a feeling of agency and the positive impact this has on their confidence, self efficacy and well being, but this also extends to teachers.
Teachers can positively or negatively impact the future of every student they teach. We talk about the tongue having the same influence as the rudder on a ship, equally, an unhappy teacher who lacks agency and a sense of positive well-being and value in the workplace, can have a negative impact on those they teach.
A valid argument could be that teacher agency should be addressed first, in order to create a successful environment to improve student agency and co-agency within the education environment.
“An effective learning environment is built on ‘co-agency’, i.e., where students, teachers, parents and the community work together (Leadbeater, 2017)
One aspect we are working on at globalbridge, as an EdTech business, is around creating a digital community where not only students, but teachers, parents and community leaders can support the process of developing learner pathways.
How do we support teachers? Often, teachers went from their own school experience, to university and then back to school. This lack of experience outside the classroom causes issues in providing broad knowledge and experience of the wider world for our students. Again, the influence of a teacher, can have a huge impact on the learning environment. How do we teach about apprenticeships, if we have no experience? How do we teach the need to be innovative and entrepreneurial, if the curriculum doesn’t give us the time to expand or experience this for ourselves as teachers? Teachers teach what they know and have learned - if this is all from the syllabus, this is all they will pass on.
Co-agency with the community and industry sectors in a teacher's chosen subject should be developed as part of continued professional development programmes. A friend of mine who is now an executive headteacher told me that in his first teaching job, they had staff work experience, as well as student work experience. The whole purpose was so that staff would learn more about their subject, experience alternative working environments and then hopefully come back more informed and connected to the real life application of their subject.
At globalbridge (www.myglobalbridge.com) we have built a digital ecosystem between teacher, student, parent and employer in order to give all parties the network they need to develop a supportive environment. All partners can access and develop knowledge, opportunities and networks to build bridges across the community. This network is as much for teachers to develop their agency as it is for students.
Schools, and education in general, needs to reflect on how it develops teacher agency and as a result, student agency. Unlike businesses with big HR functions which address and support staff well being, education does not often have this comprehensive network as the focus is exam and curriculum related. Many education systems are looking at skills based or project based curriculums to replace 'outdated' exam focused programmes. England, for example, has had the same Advanced-Level exam system since 1951, however, we are seeing some schools begin to break away. Schools such as Laytmer school in London have scrapped the traditional GCSE exams for a project based programme. In Scotland, Daydream Believers have developed the first accredited project based qualifications in creative thinking being piloted across 35 schools in Scotland.
Project based curriculums allow for more creativity from teachers in the way they teach. They allow for innovation in how the work is presented and give freedom to staff and students in the way they teach and learn. This environment creates freedom and therefore agency, over narrow packed syllabuses which don’t allow time for agency on either side of the classroom.
Innovation across education should be as much around teacher well being and job satisfaction as it is about curriculum redesign. More freedom in the curriculum creates an environment to do both. Unfortunately, education is a sector that is not known for its innovation, but often it’s reluctance to change. This approach will only hold back the advance of education systems and therefore the agency for those within them.
It also shows that systems cannot continue to improve by simply doing more of what brought them past success.
(McKinsey & Company, 2010)
“many teachers alter or resist new training to fit their preexisting practices”.
(Brookings, October, 2023)
At globalbridge, we believe we have the technology to develop co-agency across all parties by digitally connecting the education community of teachers, students, parents, leaders and the community around them. globalbridge is an interconnected system to evidence student outcomes creates co-agency by the nature of its existence. The common goal of ensuring a bright future for our young people should drive innovative thinking in how we can ‘do things better’. To achieve this, we must empower those across the system by developing agency for all stakeholders.
“authentically including teachers in the development, implementation, and scaling of education innovations—while messy, time-consuming, and humbling—pays long-term dividends by simultaneously developing innovations in more useful ways, harnessing the power of teachers to improve uptake and sustainability of scaling, and increasing teacher development in the process”.
(Brookings, October, 2023)
‘The implicit and subliminal messages conveyed through school practices and culture, are at least as influential in shaping learning as the content of the school curriculum’.
Mark Pristley, University of Stirling, Scotland
Founder & CEO, globalbridge
Brookings, October 2023:
Clarke, T. (2020). Children’s wellbeing and their academic achievement: The dangerous discourse of ‘trade-offs’ in education. Theory and Research in Education, 18(3), 263-294.
McKinsey & Company, November 2010:
M.Priestley, Dundee Headteachers Conference, 2023