Cultivating Teacher Agency: How Teachers Persist in the Face of School Mandates

By Hartman, Shana, V | English Journal, November 2016 | Go to article overview

Cultivating Teacher Agency: How Teachers Persist in the Face of School Mandates


Hartman, Shana, V, English Journal


The Story of the Planning Calendar Audit

It's lunchtime, and I'm sitting with Abigail, who is the English department chair, and several other teachers in her department during a heated discussion about the latest school mandate: a planning calendar audit. At East High School, a diverse high school on the outskirts of a large metropolitan city in the southeastern United States, I've been getting to know Abigail and her colleagues in an effort to research how veteran English teachers persist in the face of daily challenges from administration (such as the planning calendar audit). In getting to know Abigail, I've learned how she and her fellow department members have found collegiality as a key means for persisting as teachers. In their minds, they "rule the school," so to speak. They are a highly experienced, confident, and collaborative group that generally, as Abigail explained, get "left alone" by administrators to "do what they want." However, at lunch today Abigail informs me that all teachers now are required by the district to submit planning calendars to the assistant principal of instruction (API) at their school. This is for the "calendar audit" that the school district has decided to begin the following month. I begin asking questions like, "What is a calendar audit?" and "Why are they asking you to do this?" Abigail tells me that their API sent an email to all the teachers explaining how they needed to create planning calendars, where on each day of each month in the school year the teachers must write the objective and activity for the day. The objective must come from the state's standard course of study for each subject and grade level they teach. She also tells me, in an isn't-this-ridiculous-tone, how the teachers must use a standard Microsoft Outlooksized calendar, writing the objective and activity for the day (ex. RL.9-10.2, Analyze central ideas in Chapter 3 of Night) in each one-inch by one-inch square. "Yes, that is ridiculous," I confirm to the group during lunch. The ridiculousness is the idea that any teacher would yet know the exact standard and activity appropriate for a lesson plan months from now combined with the mandate's instructions to write any part of such a lesson plan in such a small space.

Abigail is not the first department chair confronted with a well-intentioned but poorly executed mandate from administration. In this article, I explore how teachers, like Abigail and her colleagues, learn to persist in their jobs among such mandates, mandates that most teachers do not find valuable to their position as teachers. Specifically, I present the language of Abigail during this informal, lunchtime department meeting to analyze and illustrate how teachers simultaneously subvert and comply with school mandates by closing their classroom door and doing "what we want" in an effort to persist, as teachers, and continue to teach in the ways they find meaningful. Abigail's story presents a familiar one that I hope to shed new light on in an effort to encourage and support us, as teachers, to open our doors and assert our agency when faced with such mandates.

A Veteran Teacher's Plan: We're Going to "Fake it"

Abigail is a 42-year-old, Caucasian female who has been teaching English at the high school level for 20 years. She obtained her master's degree in English at a large university in the southeastern United States, attended that same university's National Writing Project Summer Institute, and became National Board Certified all within six years of beginning her teaching career. Abigail continued to develop as a teaching professional, earning Advanced Placement (AP) certification, serving as a member of the 10th Grade English Curriculum Development Team, and working as a writing trainer for her district. In 2000, at the first high school where she taught, Abigail was named Teacher of the Year. With experience as English department chair, she also is a mentor for new English teachers at her school. …

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