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Teacher Agency: Educators Moving from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset

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It is a myth that we operate under a set of oppressive bureaucratic constraints. In reality, teachers have a great deal of autonomy in the work they chose to do in their classrooms. In most cases it is our culture that provides the constraints. For individual teachers, trying out new practices and pedagogy is risky business and both our culture, and our reliance on hierarchy, provide the ideal barriers for change not to occur. As Pogo pointed out long ago, “we have met the enemy and it is us.”

Educational psychology has focused on the concepts of learned helplessness and more currently growth-fixed mindsets as a way to explain how and why students give up in the classroom setting.  These ideas can also be applied to educators in this day of forced standardization, testing, scripted curriculum, and school initiatives.

Many educators feel forced into a paradigm of teaching where they feel subjected to teaching practices outside of their control. Then when they are asked to engage in a process of continued growth and development, many profess: “I don’t have enough time.”, “I don’t have enough resources.”, “I need more training.”, “I need to teach using the textbook.” ,”I need to teach to the test.”, “I might lose control of the class.”, “I have always successful taught this way.”


But these are external obstacles whereby the educator places blame for resisting change or engaging in a growth mindset outside of one’s own responsibility. The result is a fixed mindset of learned helplessness, “I cannot change because the system won’t let me change.”  Sometimes educators are creating some obstacles for themselves that in reality don’t exist.


A mental shift occurs when a fixed mindset which often leads to learned helplessness is changed to a growth and positive mindset, believing that there are options; that one can grow, change, and be significant.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.

It becomes focusing on what can work rather than what is not working.  This is not to devalue the obstacles that teachers face. It becomes about noting where change is possible and making some small changes in teaching.  Small changes often result in larger, more systemic change.


Teacher Agency

The deeper issue related to a fixed versus a growth mindset in education is one of teacher agency.

Teacher agency is typically viewed as a quality within educators, a matter of personal capacity to act (Priestly et al., 2012) usually in response to stimuli within their pedagogical environment. It describes an educator who has both the ability and opportunity to act upon a set of circumstances that presents itself within that individual’s leadership, curricular or instructional roles. The educator described would then draw from acquired knowledge and experience to intercede appropriately and effectively. Agency is increasingly rare in the educational world of prescriptive improvement, and the term is too “often utilized as a slogan to support school-based reform” (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2012, p. 3). Teacher Agency in America and Finland By Roger Wilson, GVSU Faculty

But most educators would probably agree that out of all of the professions, they feel that their voices have the least amount of power; are the ones least heard of any profession when voicing desires, needs, innovative ideas.  Samuel A. Culbert, a professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted in the New York Times opinion piece: How to Raise the Status of Teachers: Allow More Autonomy:

The way to make stars out of teachers is to let teachers be stars, to let them be as innovative as they can be, to let them find the path that works best for them and their students. If they are allowed to search for the best answers, they’ll find them.  Instead, we’re doing the opposite: we’re telling them that if they want to keep their jobs, they have to do what people who know so much less than they do about education tell them to do. They have to dance to some constantly changing, politically created tune that is guaranteed to leave them demoralized and their students floundering.

The bottom line, is that teachers need to reclaim their perceived and real teacher agency, voice, and empowerment. They need to develop a growth mindset that they can and do have agency in their profession.

With all that is happening in the education profession today, it is important to remember that teacher’s have power to change the system. This power for change can be called “Agency” which is defined as the capacity of teachers to shape critically their responses to educational processes and practices (Biesta and Teddler, 2006).  With all the external push from various sectors, ultimately teachers are the ones that can cut through all of the cross-purposed mandates and transform their own process and practices to ensure the best educational experiences for their students.  Teacher Agency and Today’s Teachers

Some concrete strategies educators can do for gaining and increasing their agency include:

  • Revisit and/or develop a strong teaching mission and vision.  Use it to inform your teaching practices, broadcast it to students, students’ parents, and colleagues.  See How Do I Write a Teacher Mission Statement?
  • Create time and space to develop a classroom you wished you had as a child; would want for your own children.  Be fearless and unapologetic about creating this type of classroom.
  • Find and use your own voice in the teachers’ lounge, teachers’ meetings, via blogging or social media.  Publicize your successes and accomplishments via social media.  See my post, Every Educator Has a Story . . . Just Tell It.
  • Develop and participate in strong Professional Learning Communities.
  • Get involved in local politics – attend and use your voice at school board meetings, local political meetings.

In conclusion, teacher voice, empowerment, and agency is needed for the educational reform that so many desire . . .

More than ever we — teachers — must be a vital part of this national conversation. As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students and communities to share our collective wisdom in an effort to facilitate quality reform. To get this reform effort right, teachers must be seated at the table demanding the type of change that will be in the best interest of our children, our fellow teachers, and our country.

Reforming our great profession is a necessary step in the development of our nation in general. We have a unique opportunity to share our stories, the good and the bad, in an effort to equip our colleagues to more adequately prepare their students for the future that awaits us all.  Teacher Voices Must Be Heard

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

November 6, 2013 at 9:59 pm

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