The Cost of Agency
Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Last week’s blog asked the question “Where did the joy of teaching go?”. From the amount of Facebook commentary this post elicited, it would seem I am not alone in asking and thinking about this question. The general consensus was that teaching lost its joy at about the same rate as teachers lost their agency.
But what is agency?
Put simply agency is “the ability to direct one’s actions and to be responsible for them”.
Imagine that? No more people telling you what to do, being free to operate in the way you think best. But wait, before you get too excited, remember that agency is a two edged sword. One one hand it is the ability to direct one’s actions, while on the other it is to take full responsibility for any actions which you take.
So what might being fully responsible for our actions look like? Firstly it would be regularly checking that the beliefs and assumptions that we make about things are in actual fact valid. This is not always easy because we usually interpret things the way we want to see them, which may be different from the reality in which they exist.
One of the things I do when introducing people to the ‘gaining empathy’ part of Design Thinking is to get them to go and observe the people with whom they work. If I am working with teachers then this means going into classrooms and quietly observing a child, watching their actions and thinking deeply about why they do what they do, and what this might mean. I usually accompany groups when they do this and I never fail to be challenged by what I observe.
One day I was observing a girl who would have been around 10 years old. Her classroom was a vibrant environment, full of students engaged in self-directed learning. She was deeply immersed in the work she was doing on her chromebook.
When the bell rang for lunch she pulled a face that, in the words of the teacher I was observing with, ‘looked like she sucked on a lemon’. I commented “wow, she is so engrossed in her learning that she doesn’t want to go out to lunch”. The next hour would severely test this assumption.
We watched her to go to her cubby and pull out a thick book.
We watched her find her lunch and sit and eat it alone.
We watched her sit down and open her book.
We watched her, watching people come and go.
We watched her quickly divert her eyes to the book on her knee, anytime someone looked
like they were about to make eye contact with her.
We watched her and watched her and never once did she turn a page in her book.
As lunchtime came to the end we had to concede that the book was a prop she used to disguise the fact that she was alone in a sea of humanity, and the face she had pulled when the bell rang had nothing to do with being engrossed in her learning and everything to do with the coming hour of loneliness.I was left dumbfounded that the teacher-side of me had gotten it so wrong.
We all lead busy lives, but it is really important to take the time to check in with our assumptions and to validate that our version of reality really does reflect the truth.
We can only walk in true agency if we are also prepared to walk in true transparency with regard to what we is actually happening around us. Take time in the coming week to pause and gain deep empathy with those with whom we work. True agency begins when we are prepared to put aside our own beliefs and assumptions and take responsibility to ensure we see things as they really are.
Till next time,
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