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Teacher agency: The missing data

Rhianna Murphy, PhD Student at Cardiff University

There is a growing body of literature that reconceptualises teacher agency through an ecological lens, encapsulating the temporal, contextual and relational dimensions of agency (see for example Biesta & Tedder 2006; Priestley et al., 2015). This literature indicates the significance of teachers’ professional and personal experiences (past), their contexts and relationships (present), and their aspirations and goals (future) in shaping agency. Although there are theories (Priestley et al., 2015) that promote an ecological perspective on teacher agency, there appears to be limited research on teachers’ life histories, their backgrounds, motivations, beliefs and aspirations, and their achievement of agency: a gap that my PhD research aims to plug.


Under the reformed Curriculum for Wales, teachers are being positioned as agents-of-change. This is a global phenomenon that can be witnessed in neighbouring countries, such as Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, and further afield, such as The New Zealand Curriculum. While curricula policy is changing and providing teachers with increased agency, questions surrounding to what extent teachers’ practice reflects changes in policy and what enables teachers to achieve agency in their practice have been raised (Marsh & Willis, 2006; Deng, 2012; Priestley et al., 2015).

Reconceptualising agency

For decades, agency has been conceptualised as a human capacity, as something that agents possess (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998; Biesta & Tedder, 2006). The conceptualisation of agency as an individual capacity coincides with the structure-vs-agency debate dominating the sociological field of thought (Giddens, 1976; Bourdieu, 1977), where both structuralists (Durkheim, 1973) and interactionalists (Weber, 1946) focus on identifying determinants of social action and using agency as a factor to explain human behaviour. However, the way agency has been conceptualised is being questioned as researchers reconceptualise agency as something agents achieve within their temporal and relational environments.

Emirbayer and Mische et al. (1998, p. 963) define agency as:

‘a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternation possibilities) and “acted out” in the present (as a capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects with the contingencies of the moment).’

Emirbayer and Mische’s (1988) definition encompasses three dimensions which are relational, contextual and temporal: Iterational (past), Projective (future) and Practical-Evaluative (present). Using these three dimensions and Biesta and Tedder’s (2006) notion of agency-as-an-achievement, Priestley et al. (2015, p. 30) have developed an ecological model for conceptualising teacher agency (figure 1).

Figure 1: Diagram of Priestley et al.’s (2015) ecological model of teacher agency

This reconceptualisation of agency requires us to consider teachers’ past, including their personal life histories and professional experiences. Burkhauser and Lesaux (2017) identify how teachers’ beliefs about education can inform their curriculum decisions and links less experienced teachers to decreased levels of agency. This demonstrates the importance of analysing teachers’ professional and personal experiences, identifying the relationship between teachers’ backgrounds, including their upbringing, motivations, demographic and socioeconomic factors, and how these factors may shape teachers’ agency. Crucially, the shortage of research in this area in Wales could prevent us from building an understanding of teacher agency and how teachers can be supported to develop agency under the reformed curriculum.

Plugging this research gap

By positioning teachers as agents-of-change, it is important that we spend time understanding how teachers’ personal and professional experiences are shaping their agency. My PhD research analyses how teachers are implementing and experiencing the Curriculum for Wales through an ethnographic approach which will enable the collection of temporal, relational and contextual data on teachers’ personal and professional experiences. Although there is a focus on the iterational dimension of agency in my research study, it is notable that Priestley et al. (2015) consider that the practical-evaluative and projective dimensions of agency are also interrelated, and all three dimensions are present within concrete experiences. By analysing teacher agency through this perspective, connections can be made between which professional and personal experiences, personal characteristics, and beliefs could lead to greater achievements of agency in the classroom.


Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2006). How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. University of Exeter.

Burkhauser, M., & Lesaux, N. (2017) Exercising a bounded autonomy: Novice and experienced teachers’ adaptations to curriculum materials in an age of accountability. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 49(3), 291–312.

Deng, Z. (2012). School subjects and academic disciplines: The differences. In A. Luke, A. Woods, & K. Weir (Eds.), Curriculum, syllabus design and equity: A primer and model (pp. 40–53). Routledge.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.

Marsh, C. J., & Willis, G. (2006). Curriculum: Alternative approaches, ongoing issues. Merrill Publications.

Priestley, M., Priestley, M. R., Biesta, G., & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher agency: An ecological approach. Bloomsbury Publishing.