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Looking forward to true teacher agency

My last post on this blog was at the end of June. I remember apologising at the time for my lack of activity on the blog due to my attention being focused on the book I was writing at the time. Well, the book is finished, and has been sent off to the publishers. I have spent much of my time since my retirement as a headteacher in April, focused on getting on with the book. The date for submission of the manuscript to the publishers had been agreed as the end of July, and I had found it very difficult to make much headway whilst I was still focused on being a full-time headteacher. Therefore, most of the book has been written in the last four months, as book writing has dominated each day since then. At least I now had the time to focus.

The book is about Practitioner Enquiry, something I have been engaged with over the last eight years. It has a working title of 'Practitioner Enquiry: Professional development for impact' but don't be surprised if the title changes slightly before publication in January 2018. If you have never written a book, you may not appreciate the time, effort and angst that goes into writing and producing something that you hope people are going to find interesting and useful. I will let you judge yourself how successful I have been in this respect when the book comes out.

January promises to be a busy start to the year, because I have also contributed a chapter for another book for 'Flip The System UK' looking at teacher agency and accountability. This book is due out on 18 January and has contributions from many researchers, academics and practitioners, from the UK and farther afield, who explore ways that we might make our education system more fit for purpose and effective for all our learners. Teacher agency is something that I talk a lot about in my own book, as it has the power to improve so much of what we do in our schools and our systems. It is also the subject of this post.

In an article for the BERA Blog in September 2015, Mark Priestley wrote a piece, 'Teacher agency: what is it and why does it matter?' Mark considered the concept of teacher agency and how this plays out, or is obstructed, within the structures and systems in education systems and schools. His basic conclusion for Scotland was that teacher agency, 'often defined as the capacity to act' is a highly desirable disposition and stance to aim towards, but that often systems and structures found in schools and the system mitigate against what high-level policy and research tells us we are aiming to do..

There is no doubt that the development of teacher agency as an outcome of critically reflective and engaged practitioners is desired by researchers and system leaders across the educational world. So, the views of Mark is reflected in the work of Biesta, Timperley, Cochran-Smith, Darling-Hammond, Fullan, Hargreaves, Harris and many others. They all point to the power and impact of teachers having agency to reflect and shape school and professional development that is located in their own circumstances, practice and context, all as part of a collaborative and organic process and culture.

However,when school practices and structures are grounded in micro-management, the primacy of accountability and the desire to control, these all work against the development of teacher agency. If similar practices are exhibited at the 'middle level' of the system, this too works against what national policy and strategy purports to seek, and what research tell us works. In Scotland, we have had 'Teaching Scotland's Future' and the GTCS Professional Standards as well as various Government policy documents that seek to promote teacher agency, enquiring professionals and system leadership, in order to develop a self-improving system. However, this is not going to happen if we are so focused on trying to control and standardise everything that goes on in schools, that such agency is stifled at source.

In my book on practitioner enquiry I talk a lot about developing teachers with adaptive expertise and agency. As a school leader, my aim was to develop dispositions in teachers so that they became not only self-reflective and aware, but understood how they could improve their practice as a result of that reflection and awareness. Practitioner enquiry gave them a systematic way of looking at their practice, or more importantly their impact on learning, so that they were able to develop this themselves, all as part of a continuous process and disposition.  I have long argued that improvement cannot be mandated, but that it is through such a process of self-awareness that practitioners need come to recognise themselves how they can have greater impact, that we willcan begin to develop self-improving teachers. This is a first and necessary step if we are to achieve the aim of  developing self-improving schools and systems.

It is the responsibility of all in the system that we create the cultures, as well as put in place the policies and structures, to support the development of true teacher agency. Some in schools and systems will not be comfortable with such a step, because it challenges traditional orthodoxies and hierarchies. My suggestion to them is to change your attitude, or step aside. We owe it to the profession and our learners to always do what we know to be right, not what we are comfortable with.


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