Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Mapping and Fostering Teachers’ Sense of Agency in Inclusive Education

How can we map and foster Dutch secondary teachers’ agency in inclusive education practices?

2021 - 2027
Nika Hendriksen


  • N. Hendriksen MSc - PhD candidate
  • prof.dr.ir. F.J.J.M. Janssen - supervisor
  • dr. A. Logtenberg - co-supervisor
  • dr. H. Westbroek - co-supervisor

Today’s increasingly diverse classrooms call for teachers to engage with their students’ sociocultural backgrounds in a way that supports the sense of belonging of all students. To do so, teachers require a sense of agency over inclusive education practices. In sum, there are three conditions for teachers to nurture this sense of agency:

  1. The ability to make sense of the concept of inclusive education;
  2. The ability to consolidate this with a personal notion of a just educational practice;
  3. The ability to identify opportunities to integrate inclusive ducation practices within your own unique teaching environment.

This project focusses on developing an approach that maps Dutch secondary teachers’ inclusive practices, but more importantly: that empowers teachers to enhance their sense of agency in inclusive education, enabling them in developing practices that respond to student diversity and elevating the overall sense of belonging in school.

Social relevance

Today’s classrooms grow increasingly diverse in terms of students’ sociocultural backgrounds. Larger systemic societal problems such as racism and discrimination also seep through in today’s educational system. Therefore, the Dutch government recently published a policy agenda entitled ‘Against Racism and Discrimination’ (Ministry of Education Culture and Science, 2022) which outlines three key aims:

  1. The development of inclusive study materials;
  2. Education and development without obstacles;
  3. The establishment of safe, accessible, and inclusive learning environments.

As the issue of feeling excluded has its roots in unbelonging, the aim of inclusive practices should be increasing students’ sense of belonging in school. Especially for those that have historically been excluded or non-present in formal education. This calls for teachers and schools to become agents in enacting inclusive educational practices, aiming at elevating students’ sense of belonging in school and the overall educational system.

For teachers, however, it is hard to make sense of what is considered an inclusive act. Whereas all actors seem to agree on more abstract, pluralist principles such as ‘student diversity is valuable’, what is implemented and considered important in concrete actions differs greatly among individual teachers, depending on their personal beliefs about educational diversity and their teaching contexts (Konings et al., 2023). Additionally, what is considered inclusive education differs at classroom, school, and national levels (Kozleski et al., 2014) and novice teachers feel insufficiently prepared to teach culturally diverse groups (Hollins & Guzman, 2005). This presents a challenging context for the promotion of inclusive teaching. It has been proved to be essential for teachers to have a clear understanding of what inclusive behavior is before they can establish a sense of agency over these practices (Pantić & Florian, 2015). Teachers could therefore benefit from normative teacher professionalization, that provides a clear lens to evaluate their inclusive practices and enables them in developing concrete practices that respond to student diversity. In this way, this project aims to contribute to the institutionalization of more profound inclusive practices within the overall educational system that elevates the sense of belonging of all students.

Scientific relevance

Acting Inclusively
As inclusive practices should aim to elevate the overall sense of belonging in school, we defined acting inclusively in education as practices that respond to the diversity in students’ socio-cultural backgrounds, aiming to increase student participation in the cultures, curricula, and communities of schools (Ainscow et al., 2018; Florian & Pantić, 2017). We used Banks’ framework of Multicultural Education (ME) as a clear lens that allows teachers to practically evaluate their inclusive teaching practice (Banks & McGee Banks, 2016).

Teacher agency
We adopted an ecological understanding of agency. Teacher agency neither implies complete teacher autonomy, nor complete determination by cultural and structural conditions, but a constant determination by actors within their environment (Priestley et al., 2015). This requires teachers to interpret the wider educational context and to identify the space they have available to act on their own personal goals, and to exploit this space by acting on identified options for new practices (De Boer et al., 2019; Oolbekkink-Marchand et al., 2017). A personal sense of agency over inclusive practices hinges on three agentic needs:

  1. The perceived meaningfulness;
  2. The perceived manageability based on the individual's capabilities and other teaching responsibilities,
  3. The perceived connectedness to other significant people within the educational environment.

Existing studies on teacher agency in the context of inclusive education offer valuable insights into how a sense of agency is established in relation to inclusive practices, but still offer relatively few concrete methods for capturing teachers’ inclusive actions and the personal values that drive them within the context of their teaching practice. Consequently, there are few concrete and practical leads for teachers to develop a sense of agency over inclusive practices. To gain more insight into how teachers actually understand the concept of inclusion within their teaching practice and how they can be empowered to compromise this with their personal teaching environment, an ecological approach is crucial.

Research questions

1. What are the characteristics of an ecologic approach that allows for the mapping and fostering of teacher agency?
A multiple case study (3 teacher cases) exploring a proposed novel approach to map and foster teacher agency in the context of educational innovation. The approach, named Teacher Agency Personal Projects Analysis (TA PPA), combined nomothetic methods (questionnaires) with idiographic methods (narrative explorations of teacher experiences), aiming to grasp the ecological nature of human agency. TA PPA uses teachers’ projects as unit of analysis and explores teachers’ perceived meaningfulness, manageability and connectedness over these projects.

2.  To what extent do Dutch secondary school teachers experience agency over their inclusive projects?
A mixed-method study with 12 Dutch secondary education teachers exploring their agency in inclusive education projects through TA PPA and semi-structured interviews. Banks’ Model of Multicultural education was used as a theoretical lens to create teachers’ inclusive project-profiles, which were combined with teachers’ levels of experienced agency over these projects. Patterns for a restrained or fostered sense of agency were explored through the data.

3. How do personal belief systems concerning a just educational practice relate to teachers’ agency in inclusive education?
A mixed-method study with 7 Dutch secondary education teachers exploring their agency in inclusive education projects through TA PPA and semi-structured interviews. The analysis involved iterative coding of teachers’ justifications of their inclusive projects. The study explored how personal belief systems regarding educational justice relate to teachers’ agency in inclusive practices.

4. How does teacher positionality relate to the sense of agency in teachers’ inclusive practices?
A mixed-method study with 12 Dutch secondary education teachers exploring their agency in inclusive education projects through TA PPA and semi-structured interviews. In study 2, teacher positionality emerged as an important theme in teachers’ motives for initiating or taking part in inclusive teaching projects. This papers’ aim is to further explore the theme of teacher positionality in relation to inclusive education practices through inductive thematic analysis.

5. How can we map and foster teachers’ agency in inclusive education practices through the collaborative context of a Professional Learning Community?
A mixed-method study closely following a Professional Learning Community concerning the development of practices that aim to elevate students’ sense of belonging by responding to student variety in sociocultural backgrounds. Participants are +/- 15 teachers from one specific secondary school with a socioculturally diverse student population. Methods include simulated recall, observations and TA PPA.

Results and conclusions

Study 1
TA PPA provides a methodological answer for future research related to ecological agency experiences regarding a specific theme. The theme can be formulated in concrete projects. A project can be understood as a personally salient pursuit that reflects an individual’s actions within their context, and can be used as a nomothetic and idiosyncratic unit of analysis.

Study 2
Teachers’ agency in their attempts to respond to students’ diversity in sociocultural backgrounds could mainly be attributed to their ability to identify when an inclusive approach is needed and their perseverance and flexibility in implementing it. However, teachers experienced challenges related to the manageability and connectedness of their inclusive projects. Furthermore, teacher positionality emerged as an important theme in navigating teachers’ agency. Important misconceptions which are barriers to developing agency over inclusive practices are uncovered. This underscores the need for a dedicated space for teachers to engage in discussions about what is considered a just way of responding to the diverse sociocultural backgrounds of their students.

Study 3-5: to be announced

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