Secondary school students are granted few opportunities to change their world, yet they are expected to engage fully as citizens the moment they leave school. This issue is growing starker with multiple global crises contributing to mental health concerns. This situation stimulated a practical education for sustainability project designed to promote student agency by supporting small, student-led, community-based projects, planned and supported within the secondary school context. This research ran alongside the project in order to investigate (a) the impact of implementing these projects on the students involved and (b) the implications of this for their teachers. The research approach was based on Cultural-historical Activity Theory, which explores the learning generated through multi-layered interactions within a given activity system. In stimulating student agency, it was clear that the project had challenged existing practice. Students sensed a shift in power relations, remarking on how teachers respected and listened to their opinions. Those teachers who appeared more authoritarian appeared to experience the greatest transformation although ceding power did not come naturally, particularly where this challenged notions around teacher responsibility. In this way, teachers’ professionalism threatened to become the means by which they withheld power from their students. Implications of this for schools and policy are considered.
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