Teacher Agency to Change Education

Pascale Mompoint-Gaillard

What do policy makers talk about? Standards, accountability… What do teachers talk about? Work conditions, meaning, social recognition… How could these voices both influence policy?

More and more, in the course of my professional experience in the past 10 years, I have observed the education wagon being led almost exclusively by policy-makers, further and further removed from the people who really know what it is about: teachers and students! Funds for teacher learning and development get scarcer and top-down approaches become starker. Although dismayed by this growing trend, I continue to hope that the teaching profession will be able to counter the harmful orthodoxies pushed by policy, the ‘false common sense’, the unquestioned understanding of what education and school should be about.

As neo-liberal inclinations take a stronger hold in the western world, I observe that despite the repeated failures of policies to address inequalities and promote equity, we become more reluctant to accept complexity and uncertainty. Policy makers seem to jump on ‘what works… and is simple’, ‘what’s easy… and inexpensive’, ‘what is measurable… and accountable’.

But, as teachers, we know that education is all but simple; just like any endeavor engaging humans in reflection, especially in democratic contexts, teachers know it’s a messy business.

Why do teachers let themselves be cornered in the role of ‘delivery’ of policies, curriculum, assessment, and what can they do to change this situation?

  • I propose that teachers have political power if they act collaboratively and collectively. It is time for this power to be harnessed for change.
  • I propose that teachers, when ready to consider their beliefs, attitudes and values and how these values are lived – or not – in their practice, can muster up their political courage to push back against the ‘everything should be standardized’.
  • I propose that such nurturing of teacher identities, complex, shaped and reshaped over time and experience, is the bricks and mortar of the possibility to build teachers personal, professional and political strength and agency.

So, what is missing and what do we need for teachers to come into their power?

A collective and collaborative stance is difficult to reach in education. Teachers spend most of their time alone with their students in classrooms. Little time is devoted to working with fellow teachers, skills of collaboration are sometimes underdeveloped… and peer-pressure can build up. For example, I have seen teachers trying to implement innovations in their approaches in teaching to then be faced with pressure from different stakeholders: the school authorities, local government, parents, etc. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, one of the directions which pressure comes from are other teachers and colleagues. Trainee-teachers I work with discuss how they are often baffled by peer-pressure among teachers. We observe a variety of types of this phenomenon:

  •  Teacher forming cliques
  •  Spreading rumours on teachers who are unconventional
  •  Old generation confronting the young generation of teachers or vice versa
  •  Competition between factions pushing for different principles

Finding the way to cope with this pressure can be tricky. Faced with such pressure teachers can lose their sense of self-efficacy and agency. They sometimes have to accept to become outcasts in their schools, with colleagues criticising them. They might then react by thinking ‘I don’t need confirmation from teachers but from my students”. They become lonely fighters who cannot change the system so they change themselves. They tend to:

  • Disappear, watching their steps (as on a minefield)
  • Keep a distance from peers (‘let’s not engage’)
  • Revert to sarcasm (‘oh these fossilized teachers…’)
  • Move to a different school
  • Try to compromise and lose momentum.

All of these positions are hard to hold emotionally, and the strategies employed are mostly lonely and exclusive.

We no longer do ‘window teaching’ now and we actually have stopped all teacher training and peer training in our school, because our efforts produced resistance, fear and envy among many of our colleagues.

C.B. Teacher in Germany

It is worth thinking about and finding the way to involve other teachers around us in changes, to motivate them to cooperate while  respecting our  differences. Once teachers are together they can start thinking about how to influence the institutions. Collectively, educators, students, parents need to consider that institutions belong to ‘us’, and not to some far away elites.

This means to compel an inclusive approach with students, teachers, admins and policy makers.  Of course, it demands courage and determination on the part of teachers… but good things are not easy to get.

Values are the basis of change and the creation of the emancipated teacher. Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead write about action research and teachers as living contradictions: it’s when a teacher holds values but engages everyday in practices that contradict these values. For example, I can hold dear the value of equality but, through assessment of other practices I actually discriminate and encourage competition instead of cooperation among students. Autonomous teachers are willing to tackle such painful self-awareness. But they do so quietly…

Quite often, teachers who want to uphold their values must do it discretely, even secretly. It’s a fact of emancipation not revolution. Where the system is hard to change, it is the individual teacher that can bring about change.. But, this teacher knows she is not ‘following the rules’ of her institution, so doing it secretly is the only way to do it. Changes in practice are done in little steps: you try something new, you see the result; you try another little thing and so on… Having a ‘teacher friend’ to do it with helps a lot.

Three people sitting together and willing to work together are a dream team and they can build a dream school. Don’t think of bricks and walls. You don’t want your students to be just another brick in the wall. Think of beliefs, values and attitudes…

J. K.C., Teacher in Croatia

Caring about ‘our’ teacher identities to build personal, professional and political strength and agency is the crux of the matter. Teachers who invest in their professional identity,  and build professional capital, can prevent burnout, and put  meaning back into the center of their life and practice. Such actions build personal as well as professional strength. It creates a bridge between ‘what I do as an individual’ and ‘what we can do collectively’.

When teachers know who they are, they can meet others who know who they are. They may join or even create communities of teachers who cherish their identity as a force, self-efficacy, autonomy and action. They become ‘unwieldy’. They stop being set to ‘deliver’ what they are told, even if it makes no sense, and start creating meaningful learning. Schools can then become learning communities where teachers as well as students are learners.

This is why caring for our teacher identity is one of the strongest political tools we have at our disposition to effectively change not only what happens in the classroom but most importantly what happens in our societies.

Are you an emancipated teacher?
Do you know your power?
Can you influence and persuade others?
Do you and are you able to  care?
Will you make a difference?

Close your eyes and imagine.  Share your ideas. Discuss.

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Further Reading

Besson, B., Huber, J., Mompoint-Gaillard, P., Rohmann S., (2014), Manifesto: Education for change – change for education, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, available at http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/pestalozzi/Source/Documentation/T21/FinalManifesto_En.pdf,

Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, A. (2016). Bringing the profession back in: Call to action. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward. Learning Forward, 2016.

McNiff, J. (2013). Action research: principles and practice, Routledge, London.

McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2010). You and your action research project, Routledge, London.

Mockler, N. (2011) Beyond ‘what works’: understanding teacher identity as a practical and political tool, Teachers and Teaching, 17:5, 517-528.

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2017-07-23T10:54:25+00:00