Learning from lockdown – a catalyst for teacher agency

What have you and your colleagues learned from the experience of remote teaching and learning during lockdown, and has that had an impact on how you do things now? The Knox School in Victoria has used its existing relationship with Monash University to research what teachers would like to take forward (and leave behind). The data reveal three key areas of change: teacher agency; community collaboration; and, teacher wellbeing.

The new way of working during Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions created opportunities for leaders and teachers at the K-12 independent school in the city’s eastern suburbs. This article, the first of three, explores how teacher agency began to shape the work of Richard Black and Brenden Morris, two middle leaders at the school.

Teacher agency

Two key areas of teacher agency emerged from the research, which involved 50 primary and secondary level staff from the school and academics from the university’s Faculty of Education. The first is teachers finding and enacting ways to think and work differently, and the second is teachers socially constructing professional knowledge.

Data revealed educators at The Knox School believed strongly in learner and teacher agency. When familiar classroom routines no longer applied during remote learning, teachers began to think and work differently. They valued being recognised by school leadership as the professionals who were best placed to determine how to enhance student learning. Teachers appreciated the permission and encouragement to explore alternative approaches and learn from productive failures.

Middle leaders supporting teacher agility

Middle leaders such as Brenden and Richard recognised the capacity of teachers to collectively navigate the transition to online learning. They used school-based professional learning to support teachers in developing approaches aligned with The Knox School’s vision for personalised student learning. They encouraged teachers to focus on what was vital and frame asynchronous teaching where appropriate.

As Richard describes here, attending to teacher agency during this time relied on the consideration of potential challenges and opportunities:

‘When our school implemented online learning in March, our teaching staff were still in “CovidShock” and they were particularly wary of “edu-babble”. Two words touched that nerve – synchronous and asynchronous.

‘We had an issue. Our staff have long believed in learner agency and pursue it with passion. There was no such passion for the word asynchronous. However, we continued using these terms in our PD approaches and, in time, staff found themselves living the ideas.

‘Synchronous PD sessions became a chance to meet (virtually) with colleagues to share. Asynchronous sessions became synonymous with professionalism, trust, and teacher agency. Our staff did what students were doing – they pivoted, adjusted, embraced technology, and took control of their learning.

‘Consequently, staff and students now crave opportunities to work asynchronously. They embrace the main premise of the Spiderman franchise that “with great power comes great responsibility”.’

Middle leaders supporting teacher collaboration

Teacher agency and collective trust became critical for teacher learning. Brenden encouraged teachers to share stories of success and failure within a supportive learning environment. This approach personalised teacher learning.

‘As I started the meeting, I was expecting to hear teachers talk of what they hoped to achieve or were wanting to achieve, rather than what they had achieved. Instead, every teacher talked of something they had implemented in the classroom; something that was a work in progress. Much more than just an idea,’ Brenden recalls.

‘As I finished the meeting, I almost said that I was surprised at how much progress had been made. But, I quickly reflected on this and instead said I felt affirmed – affirmed not in my own leadership, but rather affirmed in the strength of the professional learning program we had developed and the enthusiasm of teachers to use their professional expertise.

‘Teachers embraced the opportunity to work at a time and pace that suited them. They also had freedom to collaborate and explore in a supportive environment. The crucial part was that teachers were able to mirror their personal learning approach to what we hoped to develop in our students.’

Moving forward with teacher agency

While online teaching was intellectually and emotionally challenging, trust and agency enabled teachers to socially construct professional knowledge. Monash researchers gave voice to this change and middle leaders used these insights to determine what this meant for their practice. For both Brenden and Richard, this experience provided clarity about leadership.

‘There needs to be more opportunities for teachers to experience the best of what we provide for our students: an approach to professional learning that respects the individual and their own professionalism,’ Brenden says.

‘I understand that, as middle leaders, we are the co-curators of teacher learning opportunities and we bear the responsibility for carefully crafting experiences,’ Richard adds. ‘In 2021, we will shorten timescales to build momentum and generate a sense of energy and curiosity surrounding short PD sprints. We will continue to learn by sharing elements of our students’ experience of asynchrony.’

The journey is not over. Richard identifies keeping this learning alive is now critical. ‘Middle leaders at The Knox School recognise we haven’t crossed some mythical finish line (synchronously nor asynchronously), but we now understand that there is power in these terms … and that power can be harnessed to great effect.’

Stay tuned: The second part of this series looks at how real time communication introduced during remote learning redefined the nature of community collaboration at The Knox School.

Teacher would also love to hear what’s happened in other schools. If you’d like to share your story with readers, get in touch with the team via teachereditorial@acer.org

As a school leader, have you gathered feedback from staff about their experience of teaching and learning during the COVID-19 restrictions? How has this informed your plans for the next 12 months?

Thinking about your own experience, what would you like to take forward into your teaching or leadership practice during 2021? What would you like to leave behind?