Agency as Advocacy: Addressing the Needs of the Whole Child by First Empowering the Whole Teacher

Nov 13th, 2018 | Category: Early Childhood Education, Elementary/Middle School Education, Today's Lutheran Educator
By Andrea Dinero and Carolyn Theard-Griggs

Editor’s note: The following article first appeared in the 2016 Winter issue of the Journal Whole Child ( It is re-printed with kind permission of the IL ASCD.

To educate is, in short, to set out to create and sustain informed, hopeful and respectful environments where learning can flourish. It is concerned not just with knowing about things, but also with changing ourselves and the world we live in.

– Smith (2012)

Pre-service teachers enter their university programs with hope and optimism, and a commitment from their higher education institution to learn key elements of the profession of teaching: curriculum development, assessment, instructional strategies, classroom management, professionalism, planning, preparation, and reflection. However, are they taught about their agency or a necessary commitment to lead change? For pre-service and in-service teachers to understand their evolved role in an educational system as change agents, two things must happen: they must acknowledge their position of agency and enact their capacity for change. Thus, instruction in agency and “the knowledge base for changing the conditions that affect teaching” (Fullan, 1993, p. 11) are essential as components of supporting the ‘whole teacher’ as an advocate.

Position of Agency

Consider messages conveyed about “agency” through ones experiences, beliefs, and interactions. Learning to identify undeveloped agency (Stolz, 2010) and exercising agency are critical elements of fostering the whole child and the whole teacher. If teachers are not supported in becoming change agents, then it is possible that the opposite kind of sustainability may occur. Farber (1991) identified that as many teachers start in the field with believing that their “work is socially meaningful” and then that feeling can morph into frustrations and dejection towards the profession, causing them to “[reassess] the possibilities of the job and the investment one wants to make in it” (p. 36). Without a sense of agency in the school, teachers cannot maintain the optimism with which they began. Ultimately, teachers need support in developing agency as a form of advocacy; if teachers are not trusted by their students or validated by their administrators as they learn to exercise their agency and lead reform efforts, student success may be marginalized and teacher effectiveness diminished.

An example is modeled by an educator who teaches the concept of agency:

“I am powerful [Engaged]. I make choices that take my life in directions I want to go [Healthy]. I imagine the many possibilities [Challenged] and ways I can access the world around me [Supported]. Without my own individual agency, I wonder what unfortunate place I might be [Safe].” (Stolz, 2010, p. 187)

Stolz, an activist, educator, and disability studies scholar, points out the authentic feel of agency, the sense of having some say and some control. The Whole Child tenets, as applied to the example, show the potential for collective impact where the skills can be taught. Even if, and when, there are competing priorities, there is power in efficacy and agency for students and teachers to develop and thrive as advocates.

Enact their Capacity for Change

In addition to the agency of a teacher, interaction is the next step in enacting capacity for change. Advice from writer, advocate, and educator, Rusul Alrubail, places value in three areas: “Positivity, listening to understand rather than to reply, and respect are always important elements to consider  when  attempting to make a difference, big or small.” (Alrubail, R. in Making Connections, Peeple’s, 2016.) By applying Alrubails’ three areas, with an advocacy emphasis, ideas for effective teacher change agents can more readily impact many urgencies large or small and immediate or gradual:

• Recognize and address the needs of all students

• Advocate for supportive and appropriate services to do the work of teaching and learning

• Seek to transform schools and classrooms into learning institutions whose aim is to develop citizenship, character, and moral aptitude in students through interdisciplinary studies and rigorous curriculum

• Create safe communities of learning

• Lead the dialogue on meeting the needs of the whole child, not just
as student

• Serve as teacher leaders, mentors, and coaches.

In an effort to pursue necessary change that leads to effective school reform, addressing the needs of the whole child by first empowering the whole teacher presents as a priority. The larger educational context is responsible for advocating for the needs of the teacher as a professional, as a person, as a learner, and as an advocate.

Stakeholders must commit to the work of teacher agency so that necessary, critical, and sustainable student advocacy can be fully realized.

Grow Change as a Positive

“Role models play a crucial part in helping children answer questions about the way they want to be in the world. Kids need people to look up to and identify with, and they also need opportunities to think about what exactly it is they admire or question in heroes. Often, curriculum focuses on heroes on a large scale, outside of our own communities….Allow students to identify individuals in their own lives who embody heroism by being change agents.

Using the structure of the writing process, students will profile someone who, in their eyes, has made a difference. Students will also think about what other roles people play in conflicts and why people might choose not to stand up for principles they believe in.” (Framework para. 1. Retrieved from change-agents-our-own-lives)

The Teaching Tolerance lesson framework described above, “Change Agents in Our Own Lives” (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016), identifies a key aspect of change agents—the current and tangible individuals in our daily lives that make change a reality.

Fullan and Quinn (2015) discuss change this way, “Effective change processes shape and reshape good ideas as they build capacity and ownership among participants. There are two components: the quality of the idea and the quality of the process.” Teachers committed to this process satisfy the need for children to have models that are enthusiastic about change and growth. Therefore, ideas need to grow, thus administrators and other colleagues can work towards an openness to change ideas, and a quality process of collaboration to seek, foster, and shape those ideas. As hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once affirmed, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

Throughout our careers as K-12 teachers, administrators, and college professors, we (the authors) have celebrated the change agents that did not miss an opportunity. We have directly observed exemplars of teachers driving change forward: designing accessible grade level text on a school-wide systems level (Supported); transforming behavioral supports at an Alternative School by implementing PBIS (Engaged); Middle school teachers recognizing the need to include students in the conversation on how to address bullying and promote restorative justice practices from the perspective of the adolescent (Challenged); Teachers serving in informal roles as advocates for students in an outside of the classroom through home visits, attending student events, and having an active voice in the community (Safe); and Administration including personal growth and development in the strategic plan for the district (Healthy).

For more ideas see Free Resources to Free Your Inner Change Agent (p. 92) in Educational Leadership’s Summer 2016 issue.

Next Steps: Self-Assess for Action and Sustainability

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a veteran educator and author of The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age (2012) recommends Questions for the Change Agent in You:

• Do you see opportunities for positive change that others at your school do not see?

• Do you have new ideas about where to look for new ideas?

• Are you the most anything?

• If your ideas or mission didn’t come forth, who would miss you and why?

• Have you figured out how your school’s history can help to shape its future?

• Are you getting the best contributions from the most people?

• Are you consistent in your commitment to change?

• Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

When used as a guide, these questions can help frame a growth journey that culminates in effective and empowered teacher agency as a form of advocacy to ‘change ourselves and the world we live in.’ Let’s ask our learning community, in what ways are we already taking action and where are we at risk for that other kind of sustainability? LEJ


Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). (2013). Whole child initiative tenet indicators. Retrieved from

www. assets/content/mx-resources/wholechildindicators-all.pdf

Farber, B. (1991). Crisis in education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fullan, M. (1993). Why teachers need to be change agents. Educational Leadership. 50(6), 12-17. Retrieved from educational-leadership/mar93/vol50/num06/Why-Teachers-Must- Become-Change-Agents.aspx

Fullan, M. and Quinn, J. (2015), Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Nussbaum-Beach, S., & Hall, L.R. (2012). The connected educator: Learning and leading in a digital age. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, IN.

Peeples, S. (June 2016). How to be a change agent. Educational Leadership Online June 2016. 73, 10-14. Retrieved from educational-leadership/jun16/ vol73/num09/Dare-to-Go-First.aspx

Smith, M. K. (2012). What is pedagogy? The encyclopaedia of informal education. Retrieved from mobi/what-is-pedagogy

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2016). Teaching Tolerance lesson: Change agents in our own lives. Retrieved from agents-our-own-lives

Stolz, S. M. (2010). Disability trajectories: Disabled youths’ identity development, negotiation of experience and expectation, and sense of agency during transition (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of California San Diego, CA.

Author Information

Andrea Dinaro is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the College of Graduate Studies and is the principal program leader for special education M.A. and doctoral programs. She is the co-sponsor or the CUC student group Council for Exceptional Children-Student Chapter. Before coming to CUC she was a special education teacher, curriculum and professional development coordiantor, and department supervisor of behavior specialists and assistive technology.

Carolyn Theard-Griggs, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor at Concordia University Chicago and Chair of the Department of Teaching, Learning, & Diversity. As department chair, she is responsible for and provides oversight of the following programs: ESL, TESOL, Special Education, Curriculum and Instruction, Differentiated Instruction, and Teaching and Learning. For 10 years she taught kindergarten through grade three.  Her research interests include parental involvement in elementary schools, culturally responsive teaching, second language acquisition, instructional coaching, teacher leadership, differentiated instruction and curriculum development.