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Achieving Teacher Agency Within the Circle of Control

circle of control

“If I could just close my classroom door and work with kids, this job would be perfect.”

Anyone who has ever heard or expressed that thought is probably a classroom teacher. No matter how much educators might agree that teaching and learning should be the highest priority in any classroom, working in a school is not just about instruction. Good intentions aside, too many factors exist that get in the way of a teacher’s control over daily life, from endless paperwork to initiatives that always seem to arise with undue urgency. When teachers are granted limited autonomy for matters ranging anywhere from operational to instructional, finding ways to preserve agency is of paramount importance for maintaining the momentum that results in career effectiveness and longevity. To do that, teachers must first learn to differentiate where it is possible to exert more control, and what sits outside their power of influence.

The Circle of Control

From being “voluntold” to take on an extra duty like covering an absent colleague’s class to managing interruptions both scheduled and unannounced, a teacher’s workday can easily spiral out of control. The result is a feeling of total frustration, not to mention the sense that any agency over how work gets done is slipping away in the name of logistical priorities that overshadow teaching and learning. Be that as it may, succumbing to learned helplessness is not a viable option for any teacher who wishes to remain effective, nor is admiring the problem without developing some practical solutions. To that end, working within the framework of three circles of concern, influence and control that Steven Covey popularized in self-help bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is key to making any productive shift.

Teachers who sit in what is known as the circle of concern are signing up for unmitigated discontent. We all worry about so many things, but so many of our concerns, like school or district mandates, are often well beyond any one teacher’s power to address. With the circle of influence, we get one step closer to having a potential impact on the world around us. Therefore, the change any one person can enact within the circle of influence depends on how open those around them are to change.

Where teachers can make a difference and discover more agency rests within the circle of control. For example, a science teacher might not be able to select the biology curriculum vendor that her district uses, and she may be frustrated about some of the standardized benchmarks for student success that are laid out. The teacher might be able to work within her circle of influence to volunteer to participate in district wide curriculum committees, but if she wants to be sure of her impact and increase her sense of agency, the circle of control rests within her classroom. Even if she has doubts about the curriculum and its priorities, this teacher can still use her instructional capacity and her repertoire of engagement strategies to make learning meaningful for students. 

Not What, But How

If teachers believe that they can make a difference within their circle of classroom control, there is still a certain degree of pushback at the idea that mandated curriculum pathways do not stymie teacher agency. I teach a graduate course in skillful teaching, and one sticking point tends to come up when we discuss the freedom that teachers are given to make instructional decisions in relation to the curriculum. How, teachers want to know, can they make any choices about their teaching when many of the materials or messaging they are given seems to idealize a lock-step adherence to a specific learning progression? They also express the concern that when student performance does not yet reflect achievement of a content standard, pacing requirements force them to move on despite what is best for the individuals in the classroom.

Going back to our circles of control, it makes more sense to consider not what we teach, but how we teach it. The intent of a curriculum is to provide pathways for learning that are centered on prioritized skills and knowledge, but no product should dictate teacher style or method. Suppose that a unit task requires students to read a specific text and write an analysis that examines the author’s use of language. While it is true that students will need to complete the indicated task, teachers have more agency to show students how to look at language, or how to read the text. With their own individual flair, teachers can have the freedom to use their creativity and ingenuity to meet overall goals for student progress. There will always be limits outside anyone’s circle of classroom control, but placing focus on where we can be most agile within an instructional period leads to added autonomy.

Modeling Agency

The desire to have agency is universal, transcending age and stage. Teachers who want more leeway and less micromanagement from their supervisors may wish to consider practicing as they preach, which involves prioritizing a student-centered classroom space. When kids have more voice in learning, the result is an understanding of the larger learning purpose beyond just day-to-day minutiae. Teachers who design classrooms that share the responsibility for creating opportunities for learning with students see a stronger connection between giving kids a bigger role in the classroom and finding opportunities for flexibility in their own professional lives. 

According to education and equity expert Tanji Reed Marshall, “Allowing students to make a choice about how they will demonstrate knowledge and understanding signals a degree of trust in the student's knowledge of their content and their ability to make wise choices regarding how they want to show their knowledge.” Just as teachers want to have options about how to implement instruction around content standards, students also wish to be given some autonomy in how they learn. When shared responsibility for teaching and learning is evident in a classroom space, everyone benefits.

Having agency represents an attainable desired result, but there is work that goes into planning for the kind of instructional and operational freedom that teachers covet, as well as an awareness of how to work within the circle of control. It can be all too easy to admire the problems that result from having no say over large scale initiatives, but remaining in that place of discontent rather than developing more tenable solutions can only result in eventual burnout. Instead, making incremental changes that lie within a teacher’s distinct purview results in meaningful shifts that validate not just students, but also ourselves.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS