Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Professional agency of beginning teachers

To what extent do beginning teachers use, create and claim agency at their school?

2014 - 2017

Within two special programs of Dutch teacher education, Eerst de Klas and Onderwijstraineeship (similar to Teach First), excellent academics are challenged to be a teacher at a secondary school, a student at the teacher training institute, and an innovator in the school organization.

Both programs explicitly aim at positioning teachers as change agents in their own classes, schools and even beyond.  They are expected to use their professional agency in order to bring change in schools. However, it is unknown to what extent they experience, create, claim agency at their school. And how do the school management and their colleagues support them?

Social and scientific relevance

Today, it is widely accepted that the role of the teacher is of great influence when it comes to the quality of student learning and school improvement (Priestley, Biesta, Phillippou & Robinson, 2015; OECD, 2005). Consequently, teachers' professional agency regained increased interest among policy makers, educational organizations and researchers (Hökkä & Etelapelto, 2014; Vähäsantanen, 2015).

Policy makers state that professional agency provides teachers with (1) the power to influence and give direction to school organizations; (2) improve the professional dialogue between teachers and school leaders about educational development and implementation, and (3) increase the level of control in practice, which influences the quality and the achievements in education in a positive way.

However, teacher agency "remains an inexact and poorly conceptualised construct in much of the literature" (Priestly et al. 2015, p1). Especially when related to professional development, existing models tend to ignore or misrepresent the role of agency in educational innovation, and to our knowledge, only a few studies focus on teacher professional agency from a theoretical perspective (e.g. Vähäsantanen, 2015; Hökkä & Paloniemi, 2013; Priestly et al. 2015; Ketelaar, Beijaard, Boshuizen & den Brok, 2012).

Topic and research questions

Teachers within the Eerstdeklas and Onderwijstraineeship program are provided with the opportunity to bring expertise from external sources into the school or bring their own expertise to share with others in contexts outside the school. These, and other characteristics of the programs appear to be promising with respect to achieving professional agency and expanding the teachers’ span of control and influence in their own classes, schools and even beyond.

Until now, empirical evidence is lacking on how agency is manifested through teachers’ work. In this study we aim to deepen our understanding by studying how, when and under which conditions teachers are able to achieve agency.

Our main research question is: To what extent do teachers within Eerst de Klas and onderwijstraineeship program use, create and claim agency at their school?

Material and methods

An in-depth qualitative approach was chosen to obtain insight into how, when and under which conditions participating teachers were able to achieve agency in their daily practice. Teachers are followed for two years using semi-structured interviews at the end of each school year. In addition, school leaders / a representative of the school management is interviewed on his/her perception of the agency of the specific teacher (respondent) participating in this study.

Foto: John Lund/Sam Diephuis / Blend / Learning Pictures / Universal Images Group

  • Paulien Meijer (Radboud University)
  • Harmen Schaap (Radboud University)
  • Helma Oolbekkink (Radboud University)
  • Han Leeferink (Radboud University)
  • Rosanne Zwart (Utrecht University)
  • Anthea Aerts (Utrecht University)

This project is part of a larger project called ‘Teacher Agency’. It consists of three other partial projects which focus on teacher agency in the following specific contexts: professional learning communities (Radboud University), teachers with a scholarship to do a PhD (Radboud University). In addition, one project focusses on the perspective of school leaders and their view on agency (Utrecht University). 

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