Primary teachers' professional agency in a context of internal, school-based reform.

Year: 2018

Author: Poulton, Phillip

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In response to the demands of the global knowledge economy, current school-based reforms draw on a range of top-down and bottom-up approaches to change. Devolving decision-making to the level of local schools may be one way to give teachers the opportunity to exercise professional agency. International literature exploring teachers’ professional agency largely centres on top-down approaches to reform based on national initiatives or frameworks and in reference to secondary school settings.  However, there is little understanding of how primary teachers in Australia perceive professional agency to make decisions and choices in relation to their work in school-based reform contexts. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore how primary teachers perceived their professional agency in school-based curriculum reform contexts and to consider what teachers reported were the enablers and constraints on professional agency in such a unique context.The study was designed as a single, embedded case study of a large metropolitan primary school in Queensland, Australia. The school-based reform of the school was supported by national and state initiatives like the National School Improvement Tool (ACER, 2012). The ecological conceptualisation of professional agency (Emirbayer and Mische (1998); Biesta and Tedder (2007) formed the basis of the theoretical framework for this study, enabling the research to explore how professional agency could be perceived and achieved by understanding how individual capacity, available resourcing and structural and contextual factors work together. Data collected included teacher interviews and teacher and school documents. A hybrid thematic analysis approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was used to examine teachers’ professional agency as they planned and taught an English unit developed through school-based curriculum development.
The analysis aimed to explore teachers’ reported perceptions of professional agency and determine the enablers and constraints of professional agency in a context of school-based curriculum reform. Three major themes were identified has having a significant impact on teachers’ perceptions of their own professional agency. The themes included the impacts of contexts of accountability and external assessment design, time, and teachers’ professional work environment. The study found that building teachers’ assessment literacy, devising shared agendas, collegiality and opportunities for professional dialogue enabled teachers’ professional agency. Constraints to professional agency included perceptions of mistrust, narrow timeframes and the use of externally designed assessments.
The findings of this study contribute an Australian perspective to the growing international literature surrounding professional agency and further conceptualises an ecological understanding of primary school teachers' professional agency.