By Cheryl Sandora
IFL English language arts fellow
Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future conducted interviews with teachers and school administrators to understand the disconnect between professional learning that teachers need and want and what they actually experience. One idea that surfaced from the interviews was teacher agency. (Learning Forward) Many districts recognize the important role agency plays in the classroom, both for teachers and students, but are unsure of how to make it happen or how it would play out in the classroom.
Ferguson, Phillips, Rowley, and Friedlander define agency as “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness.” (p. 1) Three years ago, Chartiers Valley School District’s decision to improve both teacher and student agency has resulted in a more challenging and engaging curriculum and allowed students to have a greater stake in their learning. Kelly Natale, ELA curriculum leader and literacy coach for Grades K–5, shares her thoughts on the process and the changes in the learning environment as a result of their decision.
After 22 years as an educator, Kelly echoes the findings from the interviews mentioned above. She commented that in talking to her colleagues from other districts and other educators, in general, the disconnect is that teachers are “given” professional development that may be grounded in research but has little influence on their own classrooms. “I hear teachers saying, ‘How does this connect to my classroom? How is this practical? Is this what I need at this moment for the students I am instructing?’” Too often, the decision comes down to what district administrators feel is needed rather than what teachers know is needed. These decisions are frequently based on the needs seen in assessments rather than the instructional needs of the classroom which directly impact assessment.
Kelly sees Chartiers Valley as a district whose goal was to move away from the top-down model where administrators make decisions on professional development toward a model that allows for more teacher agency. Kelly felt it was important to talk with teachers to determine their needs. She met regularly with teachers and talked about what they felt they needed as teachers to best impact student growth. This allowed teachers to avoid the helpless feeling described by Ferguson. This type of discourse is meaningful and respectful and enables teachers to see the immediate impact. According to Kelly, the process almost became cyclical, as the district collaborated with the Institute for Learning (IFL) to provide the professional development they needed, and the district saw an immediate impact. Since teachers were advocating for themselves, they were able to fill those needs, and with the successes they were having, they were more responsive to expressing their needs, learning more, and engaging in additional professional development.
Kelly emphasized that one of the aspects of the district’s collaboration with the IFL that allowed teachers to express agency were the Bridge to Practice pieces. Teachers attended sessions and shared artifacts from the implementation of the instructional approaches. Sharing these artifacts allowed teachers to see the immediate impact of those practices and to make decisions on which lessons and tasks should be added to their toolbox. In addition, they were less reluctant to join in a professional learning community where they received feedback from their colleagues. This way, they didn’t feel as if they were on their own; rather, they felt they were working together as a community to impact student learning and recognized that their actions and ideas played an important role in making that happen. According to Kelly, the process “actually promoted advocacy for the teachers and they asked for more opportunities for professional development and more opportunities to meet around Bridges to Practice. It allowed them to advocate for what they needed.”
Kelly mentioned that as the teachers became more empowered and confident in their instructional practices, they felt comfortable with the meaningful tasks they were asking students to do. Students became engaged in thought-provoking and engaging tasks that were no longer about the teacher doing all of the thinking, but rather, students were being asked to do the thinking and analysis. From there, students were able to self-advocate and identify what they didn’t know and what they needed in order to be successful. Since the teachers developed quality reading and writing experiences, now students were breaking down the classroom doors, wanting to engage in challenging and meaningful lessons, and felt the classroom was worthy of their time. Students now felt comfortable taking their own initiative to ask questions and debate about the learning. Students knew that old-school worksheets did not allow them to develop agency, and they recognized that meaningful, complex texts with well thought-out questions provided them with the opportunity to develop agency.
Kelly concluded our conversation by stating, “I can’t emphasize enough the impact our collaboration with IFL has had on our district, especially in terms of teacher and student agency. Looking toward the future, we want to continue to provide opportunities for students to develop agency and provide opportunities for teachers to become more involved in professional learning communities that meet their changing needs.”
Ferguson, R. F., Phillips, S. F., Rowley, J. F. S, & Friedlander, J. W. (October 2015). The Influence of teaching: Beyond standardized test scores: Engagement, mindsets, and agency. Retrieved from http://www.agi.harvard.edu/projects/TeachingandAgency.pdf