Teacher Agency: My journey from trained ‘technician’ to professional ‘designer’

Reading, reading, reading… this is the consuming pre-occupation of the PhD candidate. It consists of strategic choices, then inadvertently (or deliberately) taking rabbit holes that leads you away, before burrowing back on track again. One of these was the OECD project Future of Education and Skills 2030 that appeared in my Twitter feed. A suite of design principles for change are listed, including teacher agency, which resonated with my more strategic reading:

Teachers should be empowered to use their professional knowledge, skills and expertise to deliver the curriculum effectively.  

I have been immersed in critical social theory. The word ‘critical’ refers to the idea of ‘critiquing’ the present, as Giroux (1986) puts it, “so there is a capacity to imagine an alternative reality and a hope for education and society”. In this context I have been reflecting on my own journey as an educator.

From as long as I can recall I had always answered the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ with ‘A teacher’, however, I was not the best student in school. I wasn’t without capacity, I immersed myself in the adventure of primary school, but high school failed to spark any imagination, so through a more circuitous route I managed to get into ‘teacher training’. Yes, ‘training’, that’s what it was called. When I qualified in 1981, I received a diploma and set off into the world of school education.

In the libraryThe idea of ‘training’ implies a discreet set of skills and knowledge required to fulfil a task. My training to become a teacher included knowledge and skills within a narrow band, as no one had really questioned the input and output of school education for decades, this was just how we did school.

Behaviour management was based on command and control, we were critiqued on how we delivered content, we made colourful teaching resources on cardboard (you should have seen my digestive system poster) and we were even assessed on our ability to write with chalk on a blackboard. Once we started teaching the textbooks told us what to teach, anyway. These were simpler times. But they were quickly changing times, as well.

The idea of teacher agency and professional knowledge, skills and expertise to deliver the curriculum effectively requires a greater depth of knowledge and understanding than ‘training’ can provide. Since then, in parallel with the society’s expectations and along with many of my peers, I progressively updated my qualifications – bachelor, masters and now undertaking a PhD. As a professional community we use our judgement, drawing from a broader base, we are required to critique the context, in order to make decisions.

How is teaching a genuinely professional activity? The main text I am reading at the moment is Becoming Critical, and Kemmis and Carr (1986) suggest three elements are necessary for teachers as professionals:

  1. Attitudes and practices of teachers must be more firmly grounded in educational theory and research.
  2. The professional autonomy of teachers must be extended to include the opportunity to participate in the decisions that are made about the broader educational context in which they operate; that is, professional autonomy must be regarded as a collective, as well as an individual matter.
  3. Professional responsibilities of the teacher must be extended so as to include professional obligations to interested parties in the communities at large. (p.9)

Key points: Teacher professionalism is grounded in research, teacher autonomy as a collective and individual endeavour, and accountability near and far.

The irony is not lost, that Kemmis and Carr wrote this in 1985, when I was a few short years into my teaching career. At the time I had just completed my undergraduate degree (while working full-time and having our first child). The winds of change were picking up and the profession of teaching was undergoing substantial transformation. We began to question the industrial, technical and mechanical nature of the work of the teacher and started to throw away the textbooks. But, we had yet to fully understand the impact of technology.

We now see teachers as professionals, no longer as technicians delivering curriculum, but designers of curriculum, embracing the mindset of a designer. I sincerely hope that as I continue my journey, that this study can equip teachers further, those winds aren’t stopping any time soon!



Carr, W; Kemmis, S. Becoming critical : education, knowledge and action research.  Deakin University : distributed by Deakin University Press, 1986

Giroux, H. (1896) Critical Theory and the Politics of Culture and Voice: Rethinking the Discourse of Educational Research. Journal of Thought 21(5), pp.84-105







2 thoughts on “Teacher Agency: My journey from trained ‘technician’ to professional ‘designer’

  1. Hi Anne- your blogs are often the ‘Protein fix’ of my monthly reflections about this weird and wonderful profession.
    *Weird because seems that everyone in the social media world has a story of a bad teacher.One who told them they would not amount to much. I have yet to meet one of those mean nasty teachers who said that to a student. Weird because at times I get lost in whether or not the profession is being criticized or critiqued.
    *Wonderful because there are so many successful outcomes in spite of some days being the sophisticated and resourceful baby sitter. Wonderful because on a Thankful Thursday, a veneer of confusion slipped off a particular student in my class when replying to my question about how to actually achieve successful outcomes in personal writing. “you have to just say what you’re thinking on paper. And the more you write the more you have a chance to express yourself correctly when its time to edit your work!” I knighted him as the class professor of the week!
    So thank you Anne, I too remember blackboard as a semester course- that was the 80’s for me. Ideation, growth mind-set, course designer but still just a teacher who learns from the students growing in my class. Your comments really do get me thinking in all directions.


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