PJI JOURNAL Spring/Summer 2021: Teacher Agency Begins with the Heart

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

By Jenni Sanguiliano Lonski

Teachers have the unique opportunity to shape a generation, to instill knowledge and values, and impact the future. Education is often considered to be the great equalizer, where students are taught and assessed on the same curriculum and standards. But what happens when the standards are not enough, or leave out entire groups of people? How do teachers ensure that every student feels that they are valued and important? I began my journey into public education nine years ago as a middle school world history teacher. As a first-year teacher, I remember sticking to the state standards; after all, I had eight civilizations and 4,000 years of history to cover and the standards were the backbone of the district end of year test. After that year I started to wonder about the information that was not being included in the standards. What voices and histories were absent from the curriculum? How does this affect the students, and what was I, as a teacher, able to do?

After four years in the classroom, and four more years working as a graduate research assistant in gifted education equity research, I decided to devote my UCF Ph.D. dissertation to answering these questions.

I started with looking at previous research into missing voices in the curriculum. In a study of history standards in nine states in 2008, Journell found that only two of the states included Harriet Tubman, and three of the states listed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the only influence within the Civil Rights standards. One state completely neglected to recognize Dr. King in their US History curriculum. In Florida, Latinx, a person of Latin American origin or descent, individuals make up 26% of the state population, but are only represented in 68 of the 1,186 social science standards for K-12 education (.05% of the standards, Davis, 2018). In Texas there are only six references to Hispanic/Latinx Americans and no mention of Asian Americans or Native Americans as important historical figures in contemporary American History standards (Heilig, Brown, & Brown, 2012). The list went on, and included the absence of voices of people of color in language arts, math, science, and the arts. These standards not only failed to acknowledge the importance and achievements of individuals of color, but created an incomplete view of the diverse world.

After discovering the significant issue of missing voices in curriculum standards, I began to research how the state curriculum influenced the day to day classroom. Unfortunately, the state standards often translate directly to the daily lessons. Like my first year in the classroom, many teachers rely on the standards to determine what happens in the classroom. The Center for Education 2016 survey, for example, indicated that out of the more than 3,000 public school teachers studied, 78% of math teachers and 68% of English/Language Arts teachers reported receiving curriculum directly from their district that complied with state mandates. In Mississippi, a study of 107 teachers reported that 96% of them felt that student achievement of test scores had the greatest influence on their daily teaching (Volger, 2005). If the information is not on the test or in the standards, it is left out of the classroom.

While identifying issues with the curriculum and state standards is relatively easy, it is far more difficult to address the problem. Research has suggested that students who feel connected to the curriculum had a higher sense of achievement and academic potential, greater feelings of confidence and motivation, and an increase in school and civic engagement (Chun & Dickson, 2011, Hubert 2013, Kahne & Sporte, 2008). Changing the curriculum, however, is not enough. Teachers need to feel capable and empowered to teach such a curriculum and comfortable supplementing the inadequate state standards. When teachers have a high sense of agency, meaning that they feel that they can enact change in their classroom, they feel empowered to supplement the curriculum with information that meets the needs of their students. This suggests that if teacher education focused first on increasing feelings of teacher agency and then on developing an inclusive curriculum, classrooms could become more equitable for all.

Fortunately, there is a program in Central Florida that provides this form of professional development. The Peace and Justice Institute Teachers Academy develops inclusive and socially just pedagogical practices. This innovative professional development for educators, the PJI Teachers Academy, disrupts the traditional approach to teacher development by beginning with the heart of the teacher and an in-depth analysis of personal beliefs, biases, and privilege, before addressing curricular concerns, inclusive and social justice education, and trauma sensitive and restorative practices, including mindfulness.

The final step of my research included interviewing 13 Teachers Academy alumni about their experience with the Academy, their classrooms, and their professional practice. Nearly every teacher described feeling more confident in supplementing and reimagining their curriculum, rethinking classroom management, and transforming daily lessons to meet the needs of their students. Ms. Adria credited Teachers Academy with changing her classroom and her professional practice, “I know I am a better listener; I have more patience with the students and staff. I just feel like I can ‘deal’ with situations better…I have the tools to do it.”

The teachers also discussed changes to their curriculum. Ms. Stella explained, “I would start 11th grade American literature with John Smith and the settlers coming in, and then after going to Teachers Academy, I realized, no, I have to start with Native Americans. I have to get their voices heard first.” Others, like chorus teacher Ms. Bea, talked about the importance of incorporating student background into the course material:

We talked about some of the big ones that they need to know, Beethoven and Mozart, but especially as we moved into modern music, we talked a lot about those important Black, African American, and Latin American influencers in music so that they could see themselves in it.

Middle school science teacher Mrs. Iman, who spoke multiple languages, would engage her immigrant students in their home language. Dr. Turtle, a high school Spanish teacher, had a map on her wall that highlighted countries where her students were born. These techniques stem from the strategy Windows and Mirrors Style (1988) which is discussed during Teachers Academy sessions. The goal of Windows and Mirrors is to ensure that the curriculum provides a window into other cultures and reflects the experience of the students. This ensures that all students feel that their voices, and the voices of people who look and sound like them, matter. Ms. Supreme explained the impact of this strategy in her classroom:

The most impactful strategy for me was the ‘Windows and Mirrors’ because it helped me to see that even though my students are learning … Just making those connections with my students has made a complete difference between what I saw my students accomplish this year and what they were able to accomplish the previous year. Last year was my first year in world history, I literally felt like I was just talking at them. I was talking at them and they were writing down notes. But this year it felt like they were actually able to make some connections, and they were able to express themselves a lot more because they felt more connected to the content.

This changed the classroom dynamic as each teacher noted that their classrooms grew to resemble a family more than a group of disconnected students. Their students were more engaged, had higher rates of participation in class activities, and an overall improved relationship with their peers and teachers. Finally, the Academy reminded them why they were in the classroom and reignited their passion for teaching and working with students.

Jenni Sanguiliano Lonski is a former middle school teacher and has worked to combine her research with practical classroom experience. She has presented at multiple conferences, and has research interests in education equity, teacher professional development, gifted education, and social reproduction theory in education.


Center for Education Policy, 2016 National Teacher Survey. (2016). Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices Tables and Figures. Retrieved from: https://www.cep-dc.org/displayTopics.cfm?DocumentTopicID=30

Chun, H., & Dickson, G. (2011). A psychological model of academic performance among Hispanic adolescents. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 40, 1571-1594. doi: 10.1007/s10964-011-9640-z

Hellig, J., Brown, A., & Brown, K. (2012). The illusion of inclusion: A critical race theory textual analysis of race and standards. Harvard Educational Review, 82(3), 403-424. doi: 10.17763/haer.82.3.84p8228670j24650

Hubert, T. L. (2014). Learners of mathematics: High school students’ perspectives of culturally relevant mathematics pedagogy. Journal of African American Studies, 18, 324-336. doi:10.1007/s12111-013-9273-2

Journell, W. (2008). When oppression and liberation are the only choices: The representation of African Americans within state social studies standards. Journal of Social Studies Research, 32(1), 40-50.

Kahne, J., & Sporte, S. (2008). Developing citizens: The impact of civic learning opportunities on students’ commitment to civic participation. American Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 738-766. doi:10.3102/0002831208316951

Styles, E. (1996). Curriculum as Windows and Mirrors. Social Science Record. Retrieved from: https://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Curriculum_As_Window_and_Mirror.pdf

Vogler, K. (2005). Impact of a high school graduation examination on social studies teachers’ instructional practices. Journal of Social Studies Research, 29(2), 19-33.

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