Schools staff members’ professional agency as a prerequisite for a change

Authors: Päivi Hökkä and Katja Vähäsantanen


Teachers and other school staff members have faced huge changes and requirements in their work like technology-enhanced learning and teaching, globalisation and multiculturalism, and most lately the challenges raised by the global pandemic. These recent and partly unexpected challenges have increased the demands and pressures for school staff members’ daily work even further than their initially demanding work.

Amid these rapidly changing work conditions and environments, teachers and other school staff members are positioned as agents of change. Indeed, the concept of agency has emerged as a crucial concept in understanding and studying the work of teachers and other professionals in educational fields. In general, agency refers to having a voice, being in charge of one’s own life and having power to make a change. Professional agency is used as a term to understand teachers’ and their work groups’ agentic actions (e.g. decision making, influencing, developing) in educational settings (Eteläpelto et al., 2013; Stevenson & Gilliland, 2015).

Professional agency as influencing at work and identity (re)negotiation

In teachers’ work, professional agency is practised in different professional surroundings and at different levels. First, teachers’ professional agency is exercised in their daily teaching practices including core pedagogical and instructional practices, making decisions on one’s ways of teaching, and developing one’s work. Further, agency is exercised when teachers feel in control of the choices they make within their work, and when these choices are based on their own professional goals and interests (Priestley et al., 2012; Vähäsantanen et al., 2008; 2009). Second, teachers’ practice of professional agency encompasses the influence exerted on the work community and the organisation. This kind of professional agency can be practised, for example, through influencing and negotiating the contents and conditions of one’s work at the community and organisational levels. This includes also influencing and participating in developing educational and organisational practices (Hökkä & Eteläpelto2014; Imants & Van der Wal, 2020; Pyhältö et al., 2012). Thus, teachers’ professional agency can act as a transformative power for teachers to act as designers of curricula and innovative pedagogues with the willingness to be open to changes in their environment and questioning taken-for-granted assumptions at their work (c.f. Sachs, 2016).

Another pivotal dimension of professional agency (in addition to developing and influencing one’s own work, work community and organisation) is professional identity. Professional identity is a work history-based constellation of teachers’ perceptions of themselves as professional actors – perceptions that encompass the teacher’s current professional ideals, goals, interests, and values, including their views on teaching and on the students’ learning, their ethical standards and commitments, and their own future prospects (Beijaard & Meijer, 2017;  Vähäsantanen et al., 2008). Professional identity also includes knowledge teachers need to possess and act on, including e.g. didactic, pedagogical and subject matter knowledge (e.g. van Veen & Sleegers, 2009). Professional agency in relation to professional identity can include various activities, such as strengthening one’s teaching philosophy, identifying new goals, transforming professional commitments, developing pedagogical skills or accepting new notions of pedagogy (Hökkä et al., 2017; Ruohotie-Lyhty & Moate, 2016).

All in all, professional agency can be approached through three lenses, namely influencing at work, developing work practices and negotiating professional identity (Vähäsantanen et al., 2019, 2021). In schooling contexts, it is important to highlight that professional agency is not only a pivotal condition for transforming teachers’ and other school staff members’ professional identity and work practices, but also for school development and for societal and educational change (Pantić & Florian, 2015). It is also important to note that teachers’ professional agency has proven to be closely connected to students’ learning (Toom et al., 2015). In a rapidly changing and hectic educational landscape, it is worth remembering that teacher agency resonates to their well-being, including their work engagement. If teachers experience restricted agency at work, their enthusiasm and immersion for work are challenged (Vähäsantanen et al, 2021).

Political, structural and sociocultural conditions affording professional agency

Professional agency is not practised in a vacuum but amid many layers of societal, organisational, and social structures, rules, and norms. These many layers are seen as resourcing and hindering the practice of professional agency in a dynamic interplay of everyday work practices. For example, national school policy and curriculum offers a normative basis for school practices and teachers’ and other school staff members’ work. Also, many organisational issues like management and leadership practices are intertwined with the practice of professional agency. These practices have an influence on how teachers experience their agency in terms of influencing and developing individual and collective practices in educational settings (Hökkä & Vähäsantanen, 2014).

The meaning of individual and social features for professional agency in working environments and their interplay is stressed in many ways in different approaches – some emphasising the meaning of social, others the individual. We see in elaborating professional agency it is pivotal to address both sociocultural conditions (e.g. policy issues, school culture, social relations) and professional backgrounds such as professional competencies, motives and interests (Eteläpelto et al., 2013). This approach also underlines behavioural aspects of agency and sees it foremost as something people do (e.g. influence and develop work or negotiate identities). In a similar way, a study by Oolbekkink-Marchand et al. (2017) conducted in various countries revealed that the support and trust of school management is an important factor in the achievement of agency, although the researchers also emphasised that it is impossible to ignore teachers’ individual backgrounds for agency.

School staff members’ professional agency in supporting migrant students

We see that professional agency is always practised within certain political, socio-cultural and structural circumstances, and as constrained and resourced by these circumstances. However, at the same time, individual resources, such as work experiences, knowledge, and identity, are also pivotal affordances for the practice of agency. Thus, it is crucial to focus on both individual and social resources and aspects when examining the practice of school staffs’ professional agency.

Overall, professional agency is a necessary precondition for school staffs’ professional attempts to develop and transform school practices plus their renegotiation of professional identities. Agency is needed in recognising, understanding and breaking the structural, cultural and behavioural practices and barriers that might hinder developing better practices and school culture.

In the TEAMS project, we are especially interested in teachers’ and other school staff members’ professional agency in supporting migrant students’ sense of belonging, integration and learning. This project offers a great opportunity to gain international comparative data for a deeper understanding of both individual and structural issues in supporting migrant students’ lives.



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Published 6 December 2021