Presented at the ACU Blackfriars Lecture July 30, 2019
Part 1: The State of Play
Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed.
One day, two swindlers came to town.
We’re weavers, they said. We can weave the most magnificent fabrics you can imagine. They said that not only were their colours and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for their office, or who was unusually stupid.
The Emperor paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once, eager to discover which of those at his court were unfit for their posts.
The swindlers set up two looms and pretended to weave.The Emperor sent his most honest old minister to see how things were going. The minister watched them working at their empty looms.
"Heaven help me," he thought as his eyes flew wide open, "I can't see anything at all! Could it be that I’m a fool? Am I unfit to be the minister?". But he did not let on that he couldn’t see the cloth. He left the swindlers to tell the Emperor of the fine colours and beautiful patterns.
Now, you know the rest of the story, don’t you?
The swindlers do what they do best. And the emperor begins his procession through the streets of the city with the noblemen who carry his train, stooping low to reach for the floor, as if they are picking up his mantle. They pretend to lift it and hold it high, not daring to admit they have nothing to hold.
It is easy to think that we are being bombarded with criticism, research and initiatives more than at any other time in Australian education history, but teachers have been recipients of admonition and ‘guidance’ from the media, parents, well-meaning academics, our system leaders, and those trying to further their own education agenda since the early 1800s.
I’ve had conversations with many teachers who feel pushed and pulled by these currents. They feel overwhelmed by change fatigue, and feel that they've lost their voice, or have chosen to not use it anymore. I know teachers who want to question what's being asked of them, or who want to defend their philosophy and approaches, but are a little frightened to pop their head over the parapet.
I'd like to explore these tensions, and put forward some ideas for how we teachers can be brave, critical consumers of all of the information, discourse and rhetoric, swirling around us. And I want to offer some reassurance to Early Career Teachers that there are powerful, sanity-saving ways to address the swindlers and the emperors that old hands like me, have successfully used since….well…. 1804!
So, let me begin by describing the state of play…
If I were to ask the teachers who are reading this about their values with regard to education, I think they'd nominate self-direction, universalism and altruism - educating students with literacy, numeracy and analytical skills to be curious, creative, self-respecting individuals; who fight for social justice, peace and the environment; and who understand the benefits of a spiritual life, of forgiveness, honesty, loyalty and responsibility.
The current focus and practice for teachers, however, places an emphasis on outcomes, assessment and student achievement.
As a result our system’s educational discourse is now peppered with managerial phrases like teacher impact, value add, data, effect size, analytics and standards. Am I wrong? All of this really brings to mind efficient, effective workers meeting standardised criteria to satisfy the needs of ‘clients’. These extrinsic values are strengthened through encouraging competition between systems and schools, where success is measured through achievement or growth in narrow curriculum areas. The initiatives that are then brought into being by our education system, reinforce these values, with detrimental effects on teacher attitudes and behaviour and practice.
Then we have the media, who would tell teachers that society values conformity, tradition, security - students who have basic standards of literacy and numeracy, who have self-discipline, who honour their elders, who are polite and obedient, who respect tradition and the social order. The public, through the media, perceives that the performance of Australian school students is declining and wants teachers who can - among other things - teach the basics, keep order in the classroom, promote healthy lifestyles, and prevent bullying, etc etc etc.
The promotion of values of achievement, reward and tradition by our education system and the media undermines a teachers’ feeling of professional security, drives feelings of stress and anxiety, encourages higher levels of consumption of teacher-proof materials as teachers’ self-efficacy wanes, and unintentionally sanctions less sustainable work practices by cultivating self- or school-enhancing aspirations to achieve the un-achievable.
As these tensions manifest in the day-to-day work of our teachers, they are co-erced into embracing assumptions that harm them, pedagogically, and emotionally.
In the next post, I'll explain a little about these assumptions, and about how critical reflection is a necessity in teachers’ lives, by teasing out a few examples for you.