Essential Solutions 2-MIN. READ

Teacher Engagement Lays the Foundation for Student Agency

By: Kim Brownell 06/11/2024
Learn how to increase student agency and engagement with students. 
Students take a picture with their teacher; some are holding bows and arrows.

What is one memory from middle or high school that stands out when you felt excited about learning? Mine is from seventh grade. Our team of innovative teachers took our entire class to a local camp for an outdoor education week of experiential learning. All the activities we participated in were rooted in core concepts of science, math, English language arts (ELA), social studies, physical education, and art. I learned about collaboration, teamwork, leadership, perseverance, and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.

This experience not only increased student agency but also shaped the type of educator I am today. It was an unforgettable time in my academic journey, and this hands-on middle school learning program has been running for 44 years!

Today, when I think of student agency, I think of empowering learners to be more engaged in their own education. I have seen students thrive when we consider the whole student and reflect on our role in shaping them.

Consider Quantitative and Qualitative Data

As educators, we are challenged and required to create data-driven curricula and resources to increase our students' academic achievement. However, what data are we reviewing? Are we solely looking at quantitative data—the numerical data analyzed by statistical methods? This provides us with objective measurements that help identify patterns, trends, and correlations in student performance, such as in standardized tests (I know, everyone’s favorite thing ever). 

However, it’s equally important to consider qualitative data. This data focuses on the thoughts, concepts, and experiences of students. Qualitative data is often collected in narrative form and provides an opportunity for students to feel heard and valued (e.g., interviews, focus groups, and student surveys). It’s vital to take time to listen to our students and reflect on our instructional practice in a way that meets current student needs and passions. To increase student agency and engagement for our students, we need to be in a continuous loop of examining our own instructional practice. How are our educational leaders giving value to the data we collect from students? How can you be reflective in your practice and innovative with your lessons and activities if you don't have the time to collaborate with your colleagues and the resources to meet the needs of all your learners?

Are We Engaged as Educators?

As we reflect on how to enhance our curriculum to create learning opportunities that connect with our students on a personal level, it’s crucial for us to check in with ourselves as well. Gallup reports that just 31 percent of teachers in the US are engaged in their work, leaving 69 percent who are not. Are you one of those who is not enthusiastic about your craft? If so, I know there may be several factors impacting your engagement—stressors with family, increased needs of students, and lack of parental support, to name a few. I, too, have struggled to overcome these barriers.

I taught in the classroom for 13 years before earning my administrative degrees as a school building and district leader. I entered administration as a middle high school principal in 2021 (yes, the year we fully opened after COVID—great idea, right?!) for Grades 6–12. School morale and teacher engagement were at an all-time low. As a leader, it was important for me to support teachers in remembering their “why” but also help them reconnect to their own passion—what lit them up within their craft. I asked teachers how they could infuse what they love about their craft into their lessons and activities in a more tangible and consistent way. And, I asked myself what I could do differently as a leader to give teachers the freedom and flexibility within their content area to excite them and equip our students with agency over their learning. 

After the devastating, sudden, and tragic loss of two family members, I decided to step back into the classroom this year to give myself more time at home and reconnect with the craft I love. I shifted my focus to inquiry learning by creating deep, sustained projects that focus on the culture of learning instead of the culture of teaching. This new perspective has given me a breath of fresh air and reignited my passion and engagement as an educator. 

The Inquiry Tool Kit

One of the hardest parts of creating inquiry learning experiences is that there is no roadmap for success. However, I have utilized a toolkit from my friends at the Education Resources Consortium that has guided me in implementing this valuable instructional practice. 


  • Form good questions (disciplined inquiry). 
  • Reflect on student work and habits.
  • Give specific and balanced feedback to peers.
  • Apply simple, helpful research frameworks (disciplined inquiry).
  • Encourage students to organize their own learning and set goals.
  • Provide opportunities for students to work collaboratively with each other.

How can you weave the Inquiry Tool Kit into the core concepts and skills of your content area? How can you create educational opportunities that light up not only your students but you as well? When our students see us excited about our craft, it encourages their curiosity and intrinsic motivation. When we pursue professional growth, our engagement and focus on improving our craft increases. It’s a winwin for both!

As we wind down to the end of the school year, seize the opportunity to boost student agency and engagement by utilizing the Inquiry Tool Kit to enhance one of your lessons in a new way, both for your students and for yourself.

Want to hear more from Kim? Tune in to her episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.