Teachers as agents of change in responsive schools

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Education can be considered one of the key processes in society, as it impacts on the personal lives of citizens and the social coherence of national societies, as well as the economic performance of Europe as a whole. Due to this crucial role, expectations from education are high: to improve educational outcomes; to deal with migration and segregation; to reduce early school leaving; to create continuity in learner pathways; and so on.

For all these societal and political expectations, the answer ultimately lies on the shoulders of teachers, as they have to integrate all these aims into their daily practice.

Many teachers feel this challenge in their daily work. They want to be agents of change for their pupils, helping them to find their place in life and to prepare them for an ever-changing future. This ambition – to influence the life of their pupils – demands continuous and critical reflection on the strategies they use and on the effectiveness of their intervention towards pupils. Such teachers are focused on constant improvement of their teaching strategies and, as such, are agents of change for themselves and for their colleagues. They constantly try to develop their practice, using their expertise and networks to find out-of-the-box solutions.

However, these teachers face a complex paradox:

In many countries, governments see it as their responsibility to translate societal and political aspirations into national action plans. This leads to prescribed national innovation plans, strict curriculum guidelines and detailed quality control through inspection regimes, leaving little freedom for teachers to design their curricula. At the same time, many politicians realise that their high expectations of teachers require a highly educated and professional teacher force, leading, for example, to an increasing need to raise the qualification level of all teachers to Master’s level. 

Highly qualified professionals do not fit well into bureaucracies that are focused on imposed formats and control. Strict curriculum guidelines do not work for these teachers. They want to be trusted in the things they do and develop. However, trust is based on two key qualities: competence and intention. Teachers who want governments to trust them need to be open and transparent in two key ways: 1) in their commitment to developing their own professional and educational competencies; and 2) in their commitment to the well-being of pupils and to preparing these young people for their role in society.

Therefore, creating education that impacts on personal lives and contributes to coherent societies and flourishing economies is a challenge both for teachers and governments.

Teachers need to develop not only their pedagogical and didactical competencies, but also competencies regarding educational change, including critical analysis, curriculum design and implementation. 

Governments need to stimulate and support teachers in developing these competencies throughout their teaching career – competencies which in fact are often not, or only in a limited way, included in the curriculum for Initial Teacher Education. And governments need to recognize these competencies and the dedication of teachers by giving them autonomy and trust to use their expertise to develop – collaboratively – curricula that meet the needs of pupils and society. 

That trust is justified, as teachers who are competent to act as agents of change are an important condition for schools that are adaptive and responsive. Such schools will not need detailed guidelines on curriculum innovations, but are able to identify challenges themselves and respond to them in the best way possible. 

Marco Snoek is Professor of Teacher Development and School Innovation at the Centre of Applied Research in Education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He also represents the Netherlands as a member of the European Commission’s ET2020 Working Group Schools.