That Godfather of motivation theory, Frederick Herzberg, has a powerful quote about employee (and I’d argue it applies to our children and families too) engagement, ‘If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.’ Agency is fundamental to this. Autonomy is defined as the ability to take action or to choose what action to take. With agency comes the potential for greater ownership, growth and self-efficacy. It is here that developing authentic staff well-being lies.
Low autonomy and Covid
Whilst Herzberg’s quote demonstrates the key role agency plays in engagement. The impact of the level of agency in our school community has other effects too.
Low agency can lead to dependency for staff. It can also create greater workload for leaders as they feel they can’t delegate, and can be a symptom of ‘command and control’ leadership.
Of course, while there will be times when command and control is required, I’ve observed that the school communities who have thrived during the Covid era have been those where there was greater agency across the school community.
Some examples have included:
- All school staff demonstrating leadership, through communicating effectively and building high trust with worried families and their children and young people
- Teachers and TAs developing new and innovative effective teaching approaches in their virtual classrooms
- Families having the knowledge, attitudes and skills to effectively support their children and young people with home learning
- Children and young people having the independent learning skills to take greater ownership of their learning from home.
As one leader reflected, ‘We’ve relied on the agency of our teachers to develop effective teaching approaches, as none of our leadership team have ever taught during a pandemic or via Google Classroom before.’
These schools have demonstrated the ‘anti-fragility’ that Nassem Nicholas Taleb refers to in his book Anti-Fragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Taleb argues that anti-fragility has a key advantage over resilience. Anti-fragility provides the capacity to grow and evolve in the face of change, rather than just withstand it.
Where agency in schools has been less developed, I’ve observed school communities far more fragile in the face of the challenges that Covid has posed. Not only that, but leaders in these schools have found themselves more exhausted as they try and manage all aspects of their school operations.
- To what extent have different parts of your school community demonstrated effective agency over the last year?
- What was the impact of the answer above on your school’s ability to be anti-fragile?
- Which area would developing greater agency most help your team/school?
Agency & Effective Process
However building agency alone is not enough to ensure we fully satisfy Herzberg’s definition of a ‘good job’.
Agency for teachers needs to be combined with effective shared teaching processes. If not, creating greater agency can actually lead to more divergent and inconsistent experiences in our schools (the top left quadrant in the model below). Indeed, I went to school in the 70s and 80s. An era where teachers and schools had far greater agency than they do today, but without an effective shared process. Consequently, whilst I did experience some great teaching, I also was on the receiving end of ineffective teaching too. The gap between the best and least effective teaching was, reflecting back, enormous.
The key is for schools to focus on developing greater agency within effective shared processes. Focussing on reaching the top right hand quadrant of the model. A quadrant where you’d see and hear the following in our teams:
– Teachers adapting their individual approaches based upon needs of learners/subject in their own classrooms
– Leaders focussing energies on coaching staff to develop knowledge and skills, rather than quality control.
– Deep dialogue and reflection amongst staff on refining the teaching process over time based upon feedback
– A relentless focus on process rather than fixating with the data ‘target’. This avoids the consequences of Goodhart’s Law, which states that when the measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure.
Building Effective Processes
Whilst the application of the model above, clearly links with teaching in your team/school, I’m hoping that it can be seen that this model also applies to any process in your school.
Some potentially fertile areas to reflect upon include:
- Independent learning of children/young people
- Quality Assurance of teaching
- CPD/Professional Learning
- Feedback between adults
- Performance management
- Communication with parents
- Governance (if you are based in England)
- Break and lunchtime organisation
- Families support to help children/young people thrive
Focus on Process
Focussing on developing effective processes not only gives the potential for building effective agency, it also reduces the quantity of problem work that arises each day.
Problem work is the work that results when specific processes are ineffective. This is work required to fix the outcomes of ineffective processes. For example, the problem work from ineffective meetings is likely to include:
- Lower levels of focussed thinking in future meetings
- Lack of shared clarity
- Staff not feeling listened to
- Processing overload for those attending
- The need for further meetings to resolve issues caused by this meeting!
The time needed to deal with problem work, can create greater processing load for leaders, teachers and others. Indeed, in some schools I’ve worked with, the amount of problem work has the been the single major barrier to growth. Particularly, if the causes of problem work are attributed to individuals, rather than the ineffective processes they are following. As a result, leaders can often misdiagnose and put their efforts into increasing quality control measures of the (ineffective) process, rather than fixing the process itself.
Process Stress Testing
Working with several groups of leaders over the last few months, I’ve facilitated sessions of really productive dialogue as they have reflected on the processes in their schools and analysed on the effectiveness of them.
To aid this, they’ve used the following strategies:
- Stop, Look and Listen. Watch/listen to the way our team/school operates. Are the processes being followed, creating outcomes that inspire us all?
- Ask for evidence. Where is the evidence that underpins the teaching strategies etc that we use?
- Ask ‘why?’ five times about any process in our schools. This technique was originally developed by Toyota to refine their processes to be as effective as possible. It’s a really powerful interrogative tool that smokes out weak justification for the status quo such as, ‘we’ve always done it this way’, or ‘because we saw this in another school six years ago’.
- Examine the process through others’ eyes. Does the process generate ideal outcomes for them. This can be aided by seeking feedback or walking in that stakeholders shoes for a day. One school I work with survey their staff each year, and one of the killer questions is, ‘would you recommend your line manager to others?’.
- Compare desired outcome with reality. For example – reflecting on developing learner autonomy – when children and young people leave our setting, are they equipped to thrive at the next stage of learning?
- Work backwards from the desired outcome. Start by pinpointing the outputs from the process that would inspire all stakeholders in your school. Then focus on adapting the process so that generates these outcomes. This approach ensures you have the most effective and efficient process in place.
- To what extent do the processes in our school create outcomes that meet the needs of our families, children/young people, as well as school staff?
- To what extent, as leaders, do we stress test processes in our school using the strategies above?
- How big a problem is problem work in our school/team?
Whilst you may not have the bandwidth to embark upon wholesale change now, given the busy-ness of our schools, now is a great time to reflect on your school going forward.
- Do we want to just go back to the way our schools were pre-Covid?
- Or do we want to build back better, helping our school community to develop greater agency over time?
- What might be the ‘plus one’ from this blog to take away and ponder further?
Would love to hear your own ‘plus one’ reflections…