Teacher Agency Matters More Than Ever: What Can We Practically Do About It?

To help education systems recover from pandemic-related school closures, we need to ensure that teachers are central to the development of wider improvement efforts and engaged in their implementation.


Image of John McIntosh

John McIntosh

STiR Education

Image of Camila Pereira

Camila Pereira

Lemann Foundation

This is a guest blog from members of RISE's Community of Practice.


COVID-19 has devastated education systems globally and there is an urgent need to address the damage. Prolonged school closures have exacerbated already unacceptable learning inequalities. The data is starting to confirm this: a survey of nearly 20,000 children in the Indian state of Karnataka by Pratham suggested that literacy and numeracy skills had plummeted compared to the same groups in 2018. We’ve also observed hugely negative effects on children’s social and emotional development. In a national survey in Brazil, between 40-44 percent of parents reported negative effects of time away from school on their children’s mental health. After 15 months kids children were sadder (44 percent), quieter (41 percent) and more nervous (40 percent).

Where different education systems put their emphasis on recovery will necessarily vary according to their particular needs and circumstances - but there is no doubt that the efforts required to meet these challenges are huge. It’s therefore critical that discussion on action is not just ‘what’ to do, but also ‘how’ to do it.

In a recent article, the World Bank, UNICEF and UNESCO have stated that there will be no recovery without empowered, motivated and effective teachers. We couldn’t agree more. We need to unleash teacher agency, now more than ever.

In our organisations—the Lemann Foundation and STiR Education—we have long been working to promote education change at scale in countries like Brazil, India and Uganda. And we have learnt that if programmes aiming to improve educational outcomes are to do so in practice at scale, they also need to be aligned with the goals of those who will ultimately implement these changes. With teachers being the most numerous and impactful of these agents, it is critical that they are both at the heart of wider improvement efforts and excited and engaged for their implementation.

The disconnect between well-meaning policy formulation and the experience of those on the ground is clear from the failure of countless well-designed education programmes to succeed at scale. This misalignment is not just between policy-makers and teachers, but between policy-makers and implementing NGOs and funders.

But how can we effectively change that? As our contribution to this important debate, here we share examples of how we have put teachers at the centre of our practice and their subsequent impact. 

Engage teachers in policy-making

In 2013, a diverse group of Brazilian education stakeholders, including public officials, academics and non- profit organizations, decided to create a national coalition to advocate for Brazil’s 1st National Learning Standards. At that time, the lack of a national consensus on what students should learn left this crucial decision to be made by each of the 5,500 municipalities. In an unequal country like Brazil, with huge regional disparities (including in technical capacity at the local level), this created serious inequities. The Lemann Foundation, together with other local partners, enabled this civil mobilization, creating Movimento pela Base (“Mobilization for the Standards”). Among the five principles the group defended, one was that the Standards were built with broad social participation, especially engaging educators nationwide.

When in 2015 the Ministry of Education embraced the agenda and published a first draft of the document, the Mobilization was vocal, for example in demanding public consultations. An online platform was created by the Ministry to gather contributions, with feedback shared by 207,000 individual teachers and 45,000 schools. We also supported national seminars in all 27 states, where 9,000 teachers, principals and education experts got together, in person, to provide feedback on the second draft. Contributions were then systematized and presented to the leading writers.

Over the course of two years, members of the Mobilization travelled every week to different regions of the country to talk to educators on the ground, sharing information, clarifying doubts and raising engagement. This resulted in a document that was approved in 2017 and has high rates of approval and usage among teachers. In two recent national surveys, 90% of Brazilian teachers reported they used the Standards as a reference to prioritize what to teach during the pandemic and 79% said that the Standards have had a positive impact on their professional practice.

Build genuine partnerships with governments

If we are to address goal misalignment between civil society and government, there must be open and trusting relationships between the respective parties. On the part of the former, this means investing significant time in building deep understanding of and listening to government priorities. This creates space for a reciprocal approach and honest conversation on how well government policy is meeting on-the-ground need. This does not happen overnight. It can take years of investment and proving that as an organisation you will ‘stay the course’, but the impact of such investment is significant and can allow teacher-focused organisations to influence policy and practice.

STiR Education has committed to this approach in its partnerships with governments, creating symbiotic learning partnerships in which we can both influence local priorities and also learn from our government counterparts. For example, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Sports in Uganda, STiR developed a programme of radio-delivered professional development for teachers during school closures and collected user feedback on its effectiveness; we then worked with the government to ensure that both user feedback and national priorities were considered in subsequent iterations. This played a significant role in ensuring that the programme was both useful for teachers and supported by government.

Leverage the power of networks

Participation in effective learning networks does not only support teachers’ improvement in the classroom, but can also galvanise them to participate in wider educational debates. To embrace opportunities like this, the Lemann Foundation has been fostering teacher networks across Brazil, facilitating connections and empowering teachers to have impact beyond their school walls.

For example, since 2015 Conectando Saberes has brought together teachers from all 27 Brazilian states. These teachers share a commitment to improve public education, “focused on the solution and not the problems” - a slogan they created for the group. Today, more than 900 teachers are connected through Conectando Saberes.

The Foundation plays a supporting/enabling role for this teacher-run initiative. In recent years, we supported frequent meetings for them to get together (in person and online), helped them occupy spaces in public hearings in Congress, connected them to education journalists and even funded/facilitated their participation in global seminars/awards. These efforts have been effective in increasing participation in the public arena: teachers from Conectando Saberes have been invited to serve as board members in important education organizations, have participated in key legislative debates, had extensive media coverage to their schools and practices in mainstream TV channels and newspapers, stepped up in national and global stages in education seminars and, recently, 5 of them were nominated Secretaries of Education in their districts.

Teachers are at the heart of the recovery

It cannot be overemphasised that both teachers’ technical abilities and motivation to implement them will be crucial to ‘building back better’ education systems. It is critical that the wider education support architecture is united in identifying, sharing and enabling practical ways of supporting both elements. Both our experience and wider evidence on change has taught us that the three approaches for which we advocate can be powerful, but hope they are seen as a contribution to a wider dialogue of practice sharing across the sector.

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.