Administration & Leadership

Helping New Teachers Develop a Sense of Agency

Administrators can help teachers adapt to their role using the concept of psychological ownership to bolster their feeling of belonging.

November 22, 2023
Roy Scott / Ikon Images

K–12 education is facing a version of what has been dubbed the Great Resignation: Since the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers are leaving the profession in droves, leaving an extraordinary number of classrooms vacant. The attrition rate is most acute among teachers of color, in schools serving minority students, and in rural districts. That is, demographic groups and regions with the most difficulty hiring teachers are also the least successful keeping them on the job.

Besides the impact on schools, consider the tragic effect on neophyte teachers. After devoting years (and a lot of money) preparing for and dreaming of a career in education, they find their hopes dashed all too soon. How can educational leaders create conditions needed to retain promising new teachers? One way is to create a sense of psychological ownership. 

What is Psychological Ownership?

In addition to support systems, such as onboarding and mentor programs, the concept of psychological ownership suggests that employees experiencing a palpable sense of identity with and belonging to their workplace are motivated to stay on the job. Perhaps you’ve felt the difference between a job that recalls the familiar expression “That’s why they call it work” and a position that inspires another adage, “It isn’t work if you love it.”

The distinction doesn’t necessarily arise from external factors—for example, working conditions and the level of compensation. In the most difficult teaching assignments, it might be psychological ownership that keeps teachers on the job. 

To the extent that employees perceive they exercise control over their work environment, feel a strong affiliation with their workplace, and consider themselves integral members of a community, they own their jobs. As Jon Pierce and his colleagues explain, employees “feel as though the workplace is ‘theirs.’” Studies have correlated psychological ownership with greater job satisfaction, resilience, and an openness to school reform. With psychological ownership, teachers feel invested in the workplace, actively participate in organizational life, and have an efficacious conviction that they are, or will be, able to impact outcomes.

Psychological ownership differs from the popular notion of buy-in. Buy-in is a top-down process in which an employee ultimately accepts institutional doctrine, whereas psychological ownership is inside out, resulting in employees acting on a desire to place their own mark on the institution. Psychological ownership may be individual or collective, such as when a group of teachers possess a shared identity, purpose, and belief in the group’s ability to affect results. 

How School Leaders Promote Psychological Ownership

How can school leaders use principles of psychological ownership to cultivate a teacher’s sense of connection with the school? The answer lies in a three-pronged approach: instilling a sense of agency, identity, and belonging.

Agency: New teachers face daily challenges unprecedented for them: first parent conference, first time submitting grades, etc. To promote agency when so many tasks are novel requires school leaders and mentors to problem-solve shoulder to shoulder with the teacher. Professional development must be relevant—for example, role-playing the upcoming parent meeting—and asset-based, building on the teacher’s capabilities. Nothing dampens the growth of agency more than overwhelming new teachers with the hardest class assignments and a seemingly ceaseless torrent of demands.   

In schools exhibiting high levels of teacher self-efficacy, teachers’ voices matter. They are empowered to make decisions and assume shared leadership, space and time are provided for collaboration, and teachers are recognized as experts leading school-based professional development.

Research on psychological ownership advocates professional development that is personalized, enabling teachers to exercise control over their own learning. A prime example is Action Research, which empowers teachers to choose their own research question and discover the answer for themselves.

Identity: A teacher’s professional self-identity evolves with psychological ownership. “What character traits and skills do I have to contribute to the school community?” is the essential question leading to ownership. To nurture self-identity, school leaders and mentors must instill a sense of autonomy by offering teachers choice in setting their own meaningful goals, planning lessons that express their teaching style, inviting administrators into the classroom to observe a practice they’re proud of, and identifying roles in which the teacher is likely to feel successful and fulfilled—for example, serving as assistant volleyball coach, mentoring a homeless student, or sharing expertise with colleagues. 

We also suggest that new teachers maintain a journal for reflection and engage in occasional reflection with mentors and school leaders. The purpose of these moments is to track their journey along the road from novice to veteran, with a focus on recognizing the progress they have made and allowing them to project the next steps they can initiate to reach mastery. In the previous section, we cautioned against overwhelming new teachers with excessive demands. On the other hand, psychological ownership requires a substantial investment of time and energy, encouraged by administrators and mentors. The old maxim applies: “You get out what you put in.” 

Belonging: Identity is about individual presence; belonging emphasizes group membership and affiliation with the institution. New teachers establish a sense of place in a group when they engage deeply in the school culture and embrace their work with colleagues. How is belongingness nurtured? Professional learning networks deepen group norms while offering opportunities to collaborate and make meaningful decisions. School is a social as well as academic organization: Encouraging new teachers to attend the TGIF breakfast and the holiday party, or to dress in school colors on Spirit Friday, builds belonging and the collective sense that “together, we have this.” 

Perhaps the most critical element in cementing professional—and social—connections that fortify psychological ownership is time. Devoting time to honing aspects of their craft and establishing their presence in their schools enables new teachers to build the sense of competence essential for full participation in the life of the school community while also allowing them to share their expertise and insights and collaborate with colleagues. School leaders can facilitate this dynamic by reducing nonteaching responsibilities to the greatest extent possible, celebrating new teacher accomplishments, and strategically involving new teachers in school initiatives that align with their own professional interests. 

When we consider the message that educational leaders must convey to motivate and retain new teachers, we’re reminded of the Good Witch Glinda’s advice to Dorothy in the penultimate scene of The Wizard of Oz. Magic wand in hand, she sagely declares, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” Every new teacher contemplates, “Why am I here?” as they begin to shape and then own their personal and collective identity as a teacher. It’s up to school leaders to help them affirm, “This is my school. I play an integral part. And I make a difference”—then they really own the job. It’s up to school leaders to help teachers reach this empowering realization.

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