The Pawn Teacher

Experiment: Synthesize a few different pieces of literature

In current systems of accountability and appraisal, teachers are usually the focus. We ensure that standards are clear for teachers, that curriculum is aligned, and that expectations are high. These accountability measures come from state agencies or legislation which assume a sort of “inputs” and “outputs” model. Legislation is passed to create an input, often a new system of evaluation or curriculum, and excellent students should come out the other side!

Unfortunately, even if the goals are lofty or thoughtful, these “inputs” are frequently resisted by schools. Outside pressures on a school are perceived as threats. Olsen and Sexton (2009) studied the effects of the No Child Left Behind reforms in the US and “found that from the school administration and teaching staff came rigid defensiveness, coupled with a psychological myopia that sabotaged the reform attempts and created a hostile work environment for the teachers (p. 12). The very premise of “something needs to change” ended up creating a system where nothing changed for the better. Teachers were pressed to improve schools and ended up creating a culture that may have made improvement impossible.

In the cases when significant change was immediate with little room for resistance, teachers reacted by being driven into a “survival” mode. Biesta, Priestley and Robinson (2015) found that when teachers in Scotland were expected to implement the new Curriculum for Excellence they became engrossed with short term goals and targets at the expense of considering the long term purposes of education. Their study found that “many teachers struggle to locate their work within deep consideration of the purposes of education. Teachers are driven by goals in their work, but such goals often seem to be short-term in nature, focusing on process rather than longer-term significance and impact. Where long-term effects are considered, they tend to be fairly narrowly conceived” (Biesta, Priestly, and Robinson, 2015, p. 636). Teachers felt that they had little agency and control and reacted with a focus on what they did have control over. If this sort of reaction continues into the future, this would have the effect of requiring external agencies to set the agenda for the purpose of school because teachers no longer create the overarching goals of education.

In both of these examples, teachers were imposed with changes in legislation that assumed they were pawns and the teachers reacted in ways that solidified their position as such. There is a causal loop. The way that teachers reacted by resisting and focusing on short-term goals created a situation where external forces seemed necessary. It may be impossible to figure out the direction of the relationship.

So, how can this system be disrupted? I would argue that legislation about teachers must be created solely by teachers, in the same way that the American Medical Association sets guidelines for medical practice or the American Bar Association for law. When teachers are treated like pawns or act like pawns, no one wins. I’ll leave it to Dewey to explain:

“It is, indeed, advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action” (McLellan & Dewey, 1985, pp. 14-15).

Biesta, G., Priestley, M., & Robinson, S. (2015). The role of beliefs in teacher agency. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and practices, 21(6), 2015. doi:10.1080/13540602.2015.1044325

McLellan, J. A. and Dewey, J. (1895). The psychology of number: and its applications to methods of teaching arithmetic. New York: D. Appleton and Co.

Olsen, B., & Sexton, D. (2009). Threat Rigidity, School Reform, and How Teachers View Their Work Inside Current Education Policy Contexts. American Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 9-44. doi:10.3102/0002831208320573

One thought on “The Pawn Teacher

  1. Pingback: Distortion – Chapter 5 | winchip

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