With Agency for All

November 6, 2019

Feeling powerless is frustrating and stressful, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson write in their book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. I’ve been reading different versions of this sentiment all over the place lately (and wrote a related blog this summer); the various authors are typically trying to explain why young people may be feeling more sad, anxious, and unsure of themselves than was common in previous generations. One recurring theory is that when adults do all the organizing, managing, directing, and deciding, young people have a much harder time developing a sense of themselves as competent and capable. As for Stixrud and Johnson, they go on to say that “agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being."

 

As children and adults alike can claim human status, it should come as no surprise that adults also thrive when they feel a sense of power over their work and lives. Turns out, it’s equally difficult for adults to thrive when other adults do all the organizing, managing, directing, and deciding. For many adults, that sense of agency is as elusive as it is for many children. A recent report in the New York Times - How Unpredictable Work Hours Turn Families Upside Down – detailed the challenges millions of hourly workers face with erratic schedules that wreak havoc with budgets, childcare, and routines (again no surprise: people of color and women fare worst). Lack of agency is not confined to hourly workers. A 2016 report from the Center on Education policy found that only 53% of teachers believed that they had meaningful impact on decision-making in their schools. This finding was not surprisingly linked to teacher satisfaction.

 

When we visit schools, we are careful to pay attention to the student culture as well as the adult culture. The student culture includes adult-student as well as student-student interactions. Among other topics, we like to talk to students about how they feel their voices are heard and whether they feel they have power to effect change if they have a good idea or a problem with something. The adult culture comprises relationships among all the adults in the building or system. We like to ask about the structures in place that allow teachers to collaborate and support one another, and we also like to ask about if and how decision-making (that is to say, power) is shared or not shared.

 

In some schools we have visited, we have discovered what we are calling Radically Reimagined Relationships; in those buildings, there are always clear signs of agency, that crucial ingredient to well-being and happiness, among both students and staff.

 

Recently, I had a chance to visit a school that takes agency to another level. The Avalon School in St. Paul,

Minnesota is a teacher-powered school, with no principal and a democratic decision-making structure. Avalon is small, with about 240 students in grades 6-12, and 40 staff members. Staff members make decisions as a group with each voice counted equally. A first-year teacher, I was told, has no less voice than the twenty-year veteran. They use fist-to-five for voting (a protocol many teachers are familiar with). Five and four indicate strong support; Three means I'm not overly enthusiastic but I will accept and embrace the decision (no bad-mouthing it later); Two means I'm not there but I’m willing to keep talking; One means no way. A key to the process is time. The staff meets every Thursday morning before school (possible thanks to a 9 a.m. start for students), when the group feels it can be most effective. If anyone is holding up one finger, that issue is tabled.

 

 

The results are striking. Teacher turnover at Avalon is very low and job satisfaction is very high. Students (who also have a great deal of agency) notice. One student named Henry explained to me that when he or another student has an issue or concern, they know they can bring it to any teacher and that teacher will have some power to respond. A teacher is not going to shrug and say, “Sorry, nothing I can do.” Henry continued, "It's really nice that all the teachers feel they are in charge." A teacher at the school, who is in her seventies, can’t bring herself to retire. She told me that at the end of every year she asks herself if she is still energized and excited to be here, and she is.

 

Since visiting Avalon, I’ve been perusing the Teacher-Powered School website and the Teacher Powered Guide for Site Administrators. There are quite a lot of different versions of teacher-powered. For example, it’s a myth that all teacher-powered schools are without a principal; in fact, most have one. The difference is that in the teacher-powered model, the school leader is accountable to the staff.  Teachers have agency and power is shared. In the Guide for Site Administrators, Buffy Cushman-Patz writes, “Leaders in teacher-powered schools use the same practices in leadership that good teachers use in student-centered classrooms: they incorporate all voices, they share the air, they act as a guide-on-the-side rather than a sage-on-the-stage.”

 

Another myth is that to be teacher-powered every decision must be made by consensus. Just imagine the inordinate quantities of hair that would be pulled from the inordinate numbers of heads as those grueling meetings dragged on. Happily, the Guide reports:

 

 “The reality is that there are hundreds of decisions that get made daily at each site and, even for very small schools, group decision-making isn’t feasible for every decision. Shared decision-making is about creating a set of guiding principles and values for your team and then distributing decision making responsibility among your colleagues. Teacher-powered teams have created processes and structures that allow them to know what decisions need to be made as a whole team, which ones are made by committee or small group, and which ones individuals are trusted to make. Being transparent and clear about these processes and practices leads to effective and efficient collaborative leadership.”

 

As I write this blog, I have occasionally toggled to Twitter (it’s a bad habit, I know) where my feed is displaying copious tweets and retweets of striking Chicago Public Schools teachers, just the latest large school system to experience such upheaval. Like their colleagues in Chicago, teachers in districts all over the country report feeling buffeted by initiatives and policies into which they had no input.  If Stixrud and Johnson’s assertion that “agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being" is true – and it rings true – then one of the most important reforms and innovations that needs to be undertaken involves re-thinking our traditional hierarchical structures in schools so that agency and accountability are shared by all the humans in the building.

 

If your school has found ways to better share decision-making, even if you are at the beginning of the journey, we would love to talk to you.

 

 

 

Images courtesy of Wix and Kristin Blais

 

 

 

 

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