In the current climate in Scottish education, where there is considerable teacher frustration with the perception of continual changing of the ‘goal posts’, can teacher agency be a means of empowering and supporting teachers to be more autonomous in managing their workload, to help them to continue to support all children and young people to be the best they can be?
There are many teachers across Scotland who feel that they are not empowered, indeed they feel powerless within their school environment, where structure, policies and the lack of time seem to limit their autonomy. As their autonomy is eroded and can lead to a negative strategic compliance stance of - ‘just tell me what to do’.
Learning communities offer an opportunity for teacher empowerment by teachers leading, being involved, included and responsible for their own and others learning. However, most when set up, neglect the underlying structures and social dynamics that are required of learning communities. The teambuilding work isn’t done before the teacher learning community is asked to produce the desired change, result, policy, whatever the focus is. This is usually due to time pressure, if you only have six meetings throughout the session, spending the first couple team building, may not seem a good use of time. There is also the inherent assumption that collegiate working is a ‘good thing’ but there is no clear evidence or even critical questions being asked whether it actually has a positive effect.
So, if teachers are not empowered through teacher learning communities how can they be empowered? The concept of teacher agency defined by Biesta, Priestley, Robinson (2105) in their book “Teacher Agency – An Ecological Approach” may go some way to an answer.
I have been slowly developing an understanding of this model of teacher agency, to be honest it has taken me a while to step back and consider all the elements which the authors believe are encompassed in this model. For me, I held a psychological empowerment model of teacher agency, which could be defined as a process of enhancing feelings of self-efficacy i.e. having high impact and competence and feeling that what I did was meaningful. I was a strong advocate of teacher agency through ‘individual effort’, through self-determination of learning and perhaps paid less attention to the other elements which Biesta, Priestley & Robinson discuss as essential for teacher agency i.e. resources, structure, and context. These other elements were only presented to me as barriers to overcome or navigate as I had never experienced them as enablers. So, my view of teacher agency and an individual effort was formed from cynical observations of ‘empowerment’ where ‘development opportunities’ were merely delegation and became unfair expectations in a crowded workload. However, having taken time to consider this I am fully on-board with the notion that agency is not something some “people can have or possess” but is in fact something that people “do or achieve” (Biesta & Pedder, 2006).
The much-used quote from the OECD’s, Schleicher “the quality of a nation’s education system cannot outstrip the quality of its teachers” highlight the quality of the system that supports and promotes teacher agency. Therefore, leadership is essential. Leadership should create the culture and provide the structures and resources to support teacher agency. It also needs to be trusting, inclusive and supportive and enhance the collaborative aspects of professional learning.
Policy statements effect leadership and the enactment of leadership. Policy can hinder teacher agency by restricting and trying to control teachers work through regulation, inspection and the curriculum. This can create a ‘what works’ approach to education where the learning becomes a ‘learner knows, understands and is able to do’ but does not touch on the wider aspects of learning and raises a philosophical question of “whether it is ethical in a democracy to predefine what people should learn, and how they should be” (p155). Policy can also miss the moral imperative of education through a performativity culture and bureaucratic approaches to assessment. With a strong focus on attainment, we appear to have lost the achievement dimension which gives a more child centred approach to education.
There is a balance to be achieved by leadership teams both at a local authority level and school level. Leadership teams should not be the only source of policy engagement for teachers, as their interpretations of policy can reduce teacher professionalism as it diminishes teachers’ capacity to make professional judgements. This has to be balanced with teachers lack the efficacy to engage with, and decode the language of policy into meaningful practice. This can be resolved to some extent if teachers engage in research and professional reading, to broaden and deepen their educational perspectives.
Teacher agency gives a model for a more rounded education system where the connections between levels, the macro, meso and micro, are all pointing in the same direction. It has the power to support teachers to be more autonomous within their workload but as ever, it is not as simple as that. The model of teacher agency described by Biesta, Priestley & Robinson moves beyond teachers ‘possessing agency’ to a more expansive model of teachers ‘achieving agency’ through their own efforts, but also the culture of their work environment and the structures and resources that support their efforts. Within this model, leadership is key and the support from all levels of the education system is a must. Policy needs to liberate teachers from a narrow view of education, local authorities need to support teachers and be ‘less inspectorial’ and school leaders need to create conditions for all teachers to thrive. If we can move towards this model, then teacher agency can empower teachers and enhance their professionalism.
Biesta, G. Priestley, M. Robinson, S (2015) Teacher Agency – An ecological Approach: Bloomsbury Publishing, London