This afternoon I spent 3 hours at two round table sessions at AERA in Washington DC, hearing about and talking about teacher leadership and agency. Then on the way home from drinks with Sarah Thomas, who I know through Twitter and Voxer, I stumbled across the #satchatOZ chat on Twitter which was talking about teacher leadership. So whilst I’m jetlagged and brain-exhausted from a day of conferencing, I want to get my raw thoughts down before they’re overrun with tomorrow’s thoughts (with some of my photos, because: DC).
Three terms that came up today in the two roundtable sessions I attended were: efficacy, agency and leadership. Self-efficacy is about how well someone thinks they can do something; a self-belief in their own capacity. Agency is the capacity to act as well as the acting itself; to be an agent is not just to have the internal capability to do, but to actually do the doing. I wonder, can someone be an active agent, capable of action and change, without the self-belief in their capacity to do so? Possibly. Can someone have a sense of self-efficacy, but without the agency to be effective? Probably.
Leadership, meanwhile, is a slippery word. People can be leaders by name or position, but this doesn’t guarantee that people are led by them. Leadership and agency are not just individual, but also collective. Can someone be a leader without a followership? A leader can be defined by their title, but more often they are defined by their influence on others, their organization or the system in which they operate. Teachers without official positions of responsibility can be, and are, leaders in their fields. They are active agents who effectively translate their beliefs and purpose into reality through deliberate and effective action.
In leadership and agency in schools, context is a key consideration. The holonomous* environment of a school is one in which the sum and the parts are inseparable. If schools want teachers to be reflective, growth-focused and agentic, they need to trust in their teachers and provide an environment in which risks and exposing one’s vulnerability are ok. In a culture of teacher-scoring and fear, teachers are less likely to be agents of positive growth and more likely to be compliant servants to a punitive system. Movements like #flipthesystem, which are explored in Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book, advocate for further teacher voice and action in education reform. Localised reforms like my school’s teacher growth model are practice-based examples of in-school teacher leadership in action.
In the introduction to Linda Darling-Hammond’s presidential AERA address this afternoon, she was described as identifying as a teacher, but having become a researcher so that she could be a strong voice listened to by policy makers and powers that be. She saw research as a way enact and propel change.
While I didn’t frame my PhD research through the lens of teacher leadership and agency, it could be seen through that lens. I explored teachers and school leaders’ perceptions of identity, learning and school change, within a particular context. That context was the coaching intervention I was leading at my school, a formative growth-based model of teacher growth and development.
What emerged from my study, when looked at in terms of teacher leadership and agency, was that teachers are deeply tied to their senses of self within their senses of their context. That is, teacher self-efficacy and agency develop when teachers feel an individual purpose, an alignment with context and that they are empowered with voice and influence in their own organization. In this case, the school empowered teachers to be active agents with a voice in school reform. Additionally, the formative aspect of the coaching model for growth was fiercely protected; teachers are not scored and judged, but are able to collect lesson data and participate in coaching conversations in order to grow themselves. This kind of trust requires some relinquishing of power from those at the traditional hierarchical apex.
As someone who connects with others on Twitter and writes on this blog, I think that technology and social media give us tools to develop our teacher voice and engage in conversations about education. I know of teachers who would be considered leaders both in their schools, and in the wider land of education, due to their public thinking, writing and advocacy. I also know those who are known more for their leadership in the social media or conference arenas, than in their own day-to-day school contexts.
As others have noted, Twitter flattens hierarchies and empowers users. Bonnie Stewart’s research into academic Twitter found that there are different spheres of, and criteria for, influence on Twitter than in higher education institutions. The same is true in other educational contexts. Government ministers are drawn into public conversation with teachers on the ground. Social media and blogging can be leveraged by teachers to allow them voice and agency, to advocate or agitate. As Greg Ashman and Rory Gribbell note in their recent blog posts, bloggers can and have been agents of political and educational change, a pluralistic chorus of voices to which people are listening.
Teachers can and should be advocates for their students and their schools. They can and should pursue research and opportunities to understand, revise and reimagine what is known in education. Those leading schools and systems in official roles can encourage teachers’ growth and leadership by questioning traditionally hierarchical power structures and considering more distributed and inclusive ones. In this way, teachers can be encouraged to lead within their contexts, instead of feeling as though they are fighting against the system or preserving their survival within it.
* Check out Costa & Garmston’s 2006 Cognitive Coaching text or my PhD dissertation for discussion of holonomy.
I enjoy reading your posts and it’s uncanny how they always relate to my life at the time I’m reading them. In the 2nd paragraph you pose the question, “Can someone have a sense of self-efficacy, but without the agency to be effective? Probably”. It made me think about the times I’ve experienced a belief in my ability to accomplish what I considered to be an important task, but was thwarted by either the principal or negative colleagues. Very few times have I felt empowered by administration, and the school climate has become one of low morale and insecurity. There is definitely an “us vs. them” dynamic. Our evaluations are tied to test scores so teachers often shut their classroom doors to do their job under the radar, and leave as soon as the duty day is over. I would like to find a way to turn the school into one such as yours where the teachers are empowered to actively work towards positive reform. My principal refuses to hear ideas or concerns surrounding teacher evaluations, reform or school morale in general. Maybe the solution is to be like Linda Darling-Hammond and become a voice which policy makers will listen to.