Hierarchy of Agency
Personalization of Learning Teaching and Learning

Guest Blog Post: A Teacher’s Changing Mindset on Student Agency

April 23, 2019

By Emily Mackie, 5th grade teacher

As mentioned in my Exploring Agency and Personalization blog on December 15th, I’ve been working with teachers to to better understand the principles of agency and personalization. As these are key elements of our district’s vision and mission, it is important to be able to articulate what those principles are, how they manifest in an elementary school classroom, and what impact they have on student learning. When I asked teachers to reflect on their growth, one teacher took the time to write an eloquent response. With her permission, I am sharing it here.


I used to believe that all good teachers foster agency in their classroom. It is something that just naturally starts to happen for most kids, and something that might happen very slowly, or in a limited capacity for others. After all, the reality is that some kids just have more buy-in to their own learning than others. Our students come to us with different personalities, hopes, dreams, family values, and beliefs about their schooling. Our students come to us with a vast spectrum of experiences, fostered from within and outside of our school district. Changing or growing their pre-existing belief system is no easy task. But now I believe that supporting every student in the ways they approach their own learning is quite possibly our most important task as educators.

@MrsMackieD3 Tweet: Sharing Learning@Home with our classmates = engaged learners

After working closely with my team and the other hub participants, my thinking on student agency has really changed into a belief that supporting student growth in agency is slow and steady, and is fostered most effectively over time. When we can support students in building these habits of mind, they build a foundation for success in life that will extend beyond their school experience. Agency is grown through hard work and understanding. Building grit and academic tenacity takes focus, attention, and buy-in, from students and teachers alike. Growing agency for students is about goal setting and asking the tough questions about the WHYs of their learning experiences. Questions and considerations about learning that I have been asking my students to become aware of are: Why are you doing this? Why does it matter? Who are you doing this FOR? Is this for you, me, your parents? What you do, make, say, accomplish each day matters – for YOU. Otherwise, what is the point? Providing learning experiences and opportunities for students to grow this mindset should be the point…for all of us. Spending time, scaffolding opportunities for students to make decisions about their learning behaviors with intention is hard work. But it is important work. Helping students build an awareness about their own contributions and responsibilities toward their learning outcomes is one of the most important contributions we can make to them as lifelong learners. This is the work, the learning, the growing, that is most certainly worth doing.

Emily Mackie has been teaching elementary students for 13 years. She strives to make the classroom a student-centered space which fosters curiosity, exploration, creativity, and FUN so that all children feel safe, valued, and loved. You can find her on Twitter at @MrsMackieD3

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  1. “Building grit and academic tenacity takes focus, attention, and buy-in, from students and teachers alike.”
    “Spending time, scaffolding opportunities for students to make decisions about their learning behaviors with intention is hard work.”

    These two statements stood out to me in this awesome post around Agency, Mindsets, and Instruction. I think a student wants to know that their teacher is in the same boat (sinking or floating or even taking on water). I also think there is an element of TRUST that a student must have for their teacher and their classroom environment (includes classmates) and vice versus. Buy-in is a win/win for sure yet I wonder as a child when does that concept mean something or becomes a reality.
    I remember as a child being a wall flower in all my learning moments at school up until college. And it wasn’t because of the topic, learning experience, or style of instruction. I didn’t trust my classmates and at times I did not trust my teacher to not strike at me for a mistake, goof up, or even attempt at participating. All I wanted to do was blend and get through. I am not sure if the concept of “agency” even registered on my radar (even it was a different word back then).
    Anyway, not sure if this comment makes much sense or connection however it is what got me thinking after reading this wonderful post. Thank you for putting words down on paper and putting it into the “arena” h/t Brene Brown

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to offer feedback, @SciTechyEdu. It is much appreciated. Your insights make total sense, and I agree with you – many students that come in to our classrooms want to blend in and do what is asked of them because it feels safe. One of the most basic and essential needs for all of our kiddos is to feel safe, and to feel a true sense of belonging – the importance of this cannot be underestimated. Moving out of one’s comfort zone, at any age, feels uncomfortable/unsafe, but is often where the true learning and growing happens. So, I completely agree, the term “buy-in” feels as if it is a choice in which some choose to buy-in to their own agency, while others choose not to. This oversimplifies the idea that many students are fearful to buy-in because it is scary/unsafe. It feels much safer to be told what to do. I was exactly the same in school (still am in many ways…hence, Laura’s welcome push to get my ideas into the arena! Brene’s words were ringing in my ears when I said yes). Still others may not buy-in because they truly don’t have the self-awareness yet. I now know that all of this is okay. I am learning that scaffolding students in their own growth toward agency must be differentiated, just as in any other subject area. Meeting them where they are, and supporting them in growing their own sense of belonging/safety & self-awareness are key. Again, thank you for the feedback and words of support!

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