Increasing Teacher Agency Leads to Better Decisions & Happier Teachers
As students across the county prepare for the start of a new school year, conversations about how to address our national teacher shortage are becoming more frequent and urgent. Many educators are calling for this conversation to be rebranded as a “teacher walkout” to highlight that teachers are leaving the field as a way to protest a system not built to empower them as decision-makers and innovators. This shift in language – from “teacher shortage” to “teacher walkout” – illuminates a key design element that districts can leverage proactively to respond to retention challenges: teacher agency.
Through our work with hundreds of districts, we have identified that the leaders who are most successful at retaining their teachers, engage their teachers. They empower their teachers to be decision makers by setting guardrails and trusting in their professional decisions. They give teachers feedback. They connect teachers with other teachers. They ask teachers for feedback. They bring teachers into the decision making process and are transparent about how and why decisions are made.
One district making meaningful change by activating teacher and leader agency, is Washington County Schools in eastern Tennessee.
Last year, Washington County Schools partnered with Education Elements in its quest to implement systems for sharing and making data-informed decisions that increase alignment and collaboration within schools and across the district. After conducting focus groups with over 50 teachers at each of the district’s 14 schools about the culture of collaboration and data, the district leadership convened design and planning teams composed of 28 administrators, teachers, and instructional support staff to co-design and test solutions based on what they heard.
Utilizing two sprint cycles over the course of the spring semester, these two teams worked together to develop and gather feedback about three prototypes:
- A responsive data system representing the resources currently used to determine what is effective and ineffective for improving student outcomes.
- A collaborative panel to inform ESSER-funded purchases for researched-based programs and professional development aligned with school improvement plans and the district strategic plan.
- Common language + norms to have effective learning communities and intentional collaboration so that all students will reach mastery.
After conducting user testing in which they a) asked over 20 additional teachers, administrators, coaches, and community members for feedback and b) observed the prototypes being piloted, Washington County’s design and planning teams decided through consensus to recommend to district leadership that Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) be implemented as a district-wide system. Once this decision was approved, the work did not stop there: district leadership continued to elevate their teachers and leaders to set guardrails around how PLCs would be implemented in the first year and to help design and facilitate a series of beginning of year trainings so that all teachers across the district were invested in the shared vision and plan.
“In the past year, we have learned exactly what teachers need most from us, and we have worked together with the EE team to develop a clear implementation plan to support them.”
When you prioritize teacher agency as a guiding principle for making decisions, you center the practitioners most proximate to the problems you seek to solve, which brings you closer to the insight and innovation you need to address them. How leaders make decisions is an important indicator of how power is shared in an organization – to build school systems that are truly community-driven where teachers and students thrive, Washington County School’s work offers us three lessons:
- Move Beyond Buy-in: When you dedicate time to engage and co-create with your teachers, you save yourself time from needing to get them on board after the decisions that most affect them have already been made.
- Prototype and Pilot: When designing solutions to address the challenges your teachers face, explore multiple options and see them in action in small pockets before making decisions on a large scale.
- It’s An Ongoing Process, Not An Event: When you approach decision-making as an iterative cycle of listening, analyzing, and acting, you treat agency as something teachers do rather than have.
As Washington County returns to school, they are already seeing how their approach to shared-decision making is resulting in “happier, more productive teachers.”
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