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What is teacher agency, and how can it improve education around the world?

April 3, 2024


  • Teacher agency and how teachers are supported within education policy decisions affect whether or not education improvements take hold and how reforms scale throughout education systems.
  • Programs, innovations, and leaders that support teachers as agentive professionals are more likely to see improvements in teacher retention, scaling success, and student learning.
Shutterstock/PeopleImages.com-Yuri A.

Teacher agency” is popular again. It seems that roughly every 20 years the concept of individual agency returns to the forefront of education reform. But the concept of teacher agency in education is often left undefined or misused. We therefore use this commentary to clarify this idea and consider how it can advance contemporary education practice and policy around the world.

What is agency?

The term is typically defined as “the capacity to act,” and is meant to refer to an individual’s ability to do something, to somehow alter their situation toward an intended goal. It’s not unfettered freewill but rather the ability to engage one’s own judgment, decisions, and actions in a given context.

There are two sets of forces influencing one’s agency. The first set is individual and includes phenomena such as self-efficacy and internal motivation. In order to feel agentive, we need to believe that our actions will somehow result in our intended goal. For example, a child will struggle to believe in her ability to successfully solve a math problem without some confidence or prior success. The second is structural. These are the enablers and barriers imposed by the external environment in pursuit of our identified goal. A prisoner who wishes to escape will find even his strongest sense of agency curtailed by external barriers that make meaningful action toward that goal impossible.

Agency is thus best conceptualized by considering how we and our environments act upon each other.

This leads to useful questions for considering agency in the context of teaching. What conditions unleash or constrain teacher agency for which types of teachers? What teacher competencies must be in place for teacher agency to be effective? To what extent does teacher agency correlate with improved student outcomes?

Agency is thus best conceptualized by considering how we and our environments act upon each other.

What is teacher agency?

If agency is understood as resulting from the interplay between individuals and their conditions, we can conceptualize the types of conditions that affect teacher agency along a continuum:

At the extreme left lies a strict determinism in which rigid policies, curricula, and accountability mandates treat teachers as mere classroom managers delivering prescribed curricula, pedagogies, and assessments in lock-step. At the far right is an unfettered space in which free-acting teachers—presumed to have the right knowledge, commitment, training, and skills—engage with students however they see fit.

We believe that education leaders, policy makers, and other stakeholders must consider where their efforts fall. Whether acknowledged or not, teachers actively affect their work. The very nature of the work requires that teachers make hundreds of complex decisions each day with minimal support or oversight. This means that individual teacher decisionmaking significantly impacts the implementation and intended outcomes of any education reform. The nature of this impact is thus determined not only by skill, but also will. Depending on the context and teacher profile, efforts that sit toward the far left of the continuum can sometimes neglect or misunderstand this reality, stymying attempts to productively change teacher practices in classrooms. Equally, efforts toward the far right may be well-intentioned but inappropriate for a teacher’s level of confidence or expertise.

A supportive context matters

Recognizing the importance of teacher skill and will illuminates why certain education improvement approaches are effective. Research finds that school environments that support teachers as agentive professionals retain good teachers longer and increase school and student success. Previously identified characteristics of supportive conditions for teachers include safe and sanitary schools, collegial networks, competent and caring leadership, viable policies and coherent implementation, and accountability systems that motivate teachers toward continual growth.

Teacher agency also has implications for guided approaches to both teaching and teacher development. Popular tools such as structured pedagogies and digital learning applications must fit teachers’ abilities, students’ characteristics, and schools’ learning goals. Such approaches should not only develop pedagogical skills, but seek teacher buy-in for meaningful use, too.

This is where the teacher agency continuum is useful. People who shape the conditions in which teachers work should ask themselves where their decisions are located along the continuum and why they think these approaches will support the teachers they serve. Highly structured environments may be useful for certain teachers in certain contexts: for example, pre-service or early-career teachers. For more experienced teachers, however, greater autonomy will be more appropriate. Decontextualized learning programs risk disregarding the benefit of teachers who know their students and communities. Regardless of career stage or needs, we should ensure that teachers play an active role in setting the conditions in which they work and are viewed as active partners in reform implementation. Whether there is high structure or high freedom, we should be asking teachers: “Do these conditions support you to achieve your goals?”

Regardless of career stage or needs, we should ensure that teachers play an active role in setting the conditions in which they work and are viewed as active partners in reform implementation.

Some bright spots for supporting teacher agency

We note here a few global organizations or initiatives that centralize teacher agency in thoughtful ways in their work to advance teacher quality and support. There are more, but space limitations preclude a fuller list.

STiR Education partners with governments to design and deliver teacher professional development at scale, using national level co-design groups as the mechanism for doing so. These groups include teachers themselves to ensure that teachers have meaningful influence over the support they receive.

Schools 2030 currently operates in 1000 schools in ten countries supporting teachers to leverage their professional commitment and familiarity with their students and contexts in order to develop new pedagogical approaches, experiment and refine them in practice, and share their successes and lessons learned broadly.

The Teacher-led Learning Circles for Formative Assessment project offers tools and support for teachers in seven countries for the teachers to identify and establish effective their own teacher-led formative assessment practices that can be disseminated within and across education systems.

What’s next?

We believe that teacher development specialists, researchers, funders, and other education providers must increase their attention to—and build shared understandings of—what teacher agency is (and is not) and how best to operationalize it in practice and policy. Along with our peers and colleagues, we will continue to prioritize teacher agency for education systems change around the world. We do not want to wait another 20 years for it to become popular again.

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