Teacher expertise, voice and action

On Monday night I participated in my first ever TeachMeet, held online and hosted by Steven Kolber. I used my 8 minute speaking slot to explore something I’m wondering about: to what extent is the COVID-19 pandemic strengthening or diminishing the teaching profession?

The video is here on YouTube, and I speak at the 1.33 mark. Below, I explore this wondering and its tangents.

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Governments have tightened their control over citizens and over teachers and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have been acted upon by new rules and a barrage of offers by technology companies for increased tracking, monitoring and surveillance.

The catch cry ‘We’re all in this together’ has been ubiquitous during this pandemic, but we are all experiencing the current reality in different ways. Those who are disadvantaged are more disadvantaged and at greater health, economic and educational risk during this time.

I am a teacher of over 20 years and a school leader, researcher, editor and author. The ripples of COVID-19 have brought into sharp focus just how important the work of teachers, school leaders and schools is, to individuals and to a functioning society.

I’ve never been prouder of my profession than this year when we have locally, nationally and globally addressed challenges unlike those I’ve seen during my career. It has been messy and uncomfortable at times, shining a spotlight on existing inequities and gaps, but teachers and school leaders around the world have worked tirelessly to do their best for their students and communities in constantly evolving circumstances and amid a swirling maelstrom of human complexities.

Expertise

Teachers are credible, professional experts. Teachers know what and how to teach. They are specialists in curriculum, in pedagogy and in their own students. During distance learning they may have been operating without the usual non-verbal cues they get in classrooms, and having to learn and experiment with new modalities, technologies and tools. During this period of upheaval and transformation, they remained experts in how to teach, generate evidence of student learning and provide constructive, often individualised, feedback.

There was a brief moment during the pandemic when teacher expertise was heralded and recognised  by the masses. Teachers were—momentarily—hailed as heroes and front line workers. The #teachersrock hashtag did the rounds on social media. The celebration of teachers was short lived, however, and we were soon back to hearing the tropes of schools failing students, teachers and parents at odds with one another, and teachers failing to live up to the expectations or the media and society at large.

In Australia, our Prime Minister said that the distance learning being provided by teachers was ‘child minding not teaching’. The Federal Minister for Education ordered all independent schools to ensure that they returned to face to face teaching. In my state, the Western Australian Premier said at a press conference that private school parents should ask for a reduction in fees if schools remained on distance learning plans when the state government had said that returning to schools was safe. A Western Australian principal was stood down after urging parents to keep children home because she was worried that the school would not be able to ensure hygiene and distancing requirements. She has been reinstated but it was reported that she had been ‘reminded of the limits of her authority’.

For the teaching profession, this public erosion of respect for teacher expertise is especially frustrating.

Voice

As I have written, particularly in Flip the System Australia, there is an absence of teacher voice in much formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Experts often speak for or about teachers. Sometimes, teachers are consulted, but rarely are teachers invited to the decision making or policy making table. Increasingly, teachers are invited onto media panels.

Teachers and school leaders operate in an environment of performance, constantly judged against—as co-presenter Ruth Smith said during the TeachMeet—by what can be measured rather than against what we might value. During this COVID-19 pandemic, the educational environment of performativity within which teachers and school leaders operate has shifted to alternate indicators of performance.

Parents and teachers continue to be pitted against each other, as adversaries rather than allies. Schools are judged on their social media posts about online learning, hygiene measures, virtual community events or wellbeing initiatives, rather than on standardised test scores. During periods of distance learning teachers were performing their work in front of parents and families, via screens that projected teaching into homes. Our normal measures of performance may have been disrupted, but education has remained a space of performance to be judged and commented on by others.

Voice is about value. Being heard. Having a say. Being an efficacious agent able to act and influence.

There are challenges to any call for teacher voice. There is the busy reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Time, vulnerability (risk to self) and ethics (risk to students) are all obstacles to teacher voice. We are representatives of our schools and have limitations to the extent to which we can be the public voice of our profession. We work with children and their families, entrusted to our care. Their stories are not ours to tell and our first mandate is to keep children safe. Our service is first and foremost to the students in our schools.

Action

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased teacher collaboration within schools and between schools, systems and countries. Teachers and school leaders have become more agentic decision makers in their own contexts, tasked more than ever with finding productive solutions to the challenges in their own schools. Grassroots teacher professional collaboration, job-embedded learning-as-we-go and anywhere-anytime professional resources have emerged as silver linings to the COVID crisis.

In schools, teachers can be consulted on decisions. Meaningful and honest feedback from all stakeholders can be used to inform decision making. Even better is ground-up change in which teachers collaborate around strategic and improvement goals.

Beyond schools, teachers can be offered seats on panels, advisory committees and at policy tables. Teachers can share their voices on social media, blogs, podcasts, and in books and research studies.

As Adam Brooks said at our Flip the System Australia Perth launch, as teachers and school leaders, ‘We are the system’. And as Reni Eddo-Lodge says, quoting Terry Pratchett in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, ‘There’s no justice. Just us.’ Teachers and school leaders are the system, it’s ‘us’ that can change that system from the inside. We need to be the change we want to see.

We can ask ourselves:

  • When are we choosing to speak?
  • Whose voices are we amplifying, elevating and seeking out?
  • What productive, positive action could we take?

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