What is it like to be a teacher? Often when we hear talk about teachers, whether in popular culture, policy or research, it’s as though the experience of ‘being a teacher’ is always pretty much the same. And often the attitude is you’re either a good one, like Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series or a bad one like Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull.
In policy, teachers are lumped together in ill-defined discourses around, for example, ‘classroom readiness’and ‘teacher quality’. In research, a good example might be our understanding of the early career teacher, who is notoriously subject to stress and burnout.
But is being a teacher, or an early career teacher for that matter, really such a homogenized kind of experience?
My PhD research suggests that no, it isn’t. In particular, I argue that teaching is affected by the market-oriented approach to schooling taken in NSW, in which students and parents – operating with different kinds of social, cultural and economic resources – can choose to attend different kinds of schools. This system has long been known to have detrimental effects on equity outcomes in relation to student achievement, as students with greater levels of advantage move into more ‘desirable’ schools, which can lead to concentrations of varied and particular need within local, often comprehensive school contexts (a process known as residualisation).
But these school choice effects also have particular consequences for teachers.
I designed my PhD research to include as wide a range of schools as would be possible in an in-depth qualitative project. This meant I ended up exploring cases of early career teachers’ work in nine different schools, including high-fee independent schools, lower-fee Catholic schools, and public schools that enrolled student bodies with varying levels of average advantage (as measured by the Index of Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA, available on the federal government’s My Schoolwebsite).
I found some interesting things.
Importantly a commonality was that all nine teachers in my study indicated having had relatively successful, and often fairly advantaged experiences as students themselves. However, given the wide range of school contexts these teachers were now working across, some teachers seemed to mesh well with their schools, while others found them particularly difficult and different to what they had known. It made me wonder whether this is the case for the teacher workforce at large; that perhaps on the whole we are people who have experienced advantage and success in the system as we know it. Indeed to some extent we must have, to have made it into teacher education courses.
Teacher experiences in school with lower ICSEA
Teachers in my study who were working in schools with lower ICSEA values, which enrolled students experiencing significant educational disadvantage, described particular socio-cultural, creative and relational requirements in their work. These teachers described the experiences of students who were marginalized within wider society due to social and cultural differences, facing multiple and sustained challenges both within and beyond the school.
Teachers in these schools described their students as being on the “receiving end” of discrimination and seeming to see school as “not our thing”. These teachers identified a need for greater creativity in lesson planning, as well as more resilience regarding their abilities in planning for and working with their students.
As one teacher commented: “the better the school is, the better the teachers think they are” (the concept of ‘better’ schools here being a short-hand for student advantage, translated into results and rankings).
Teacher experiences in school with average ICSEA
Indeed, for teachers working in schools with more average ICSEA values the picture looked a little different. Although these teachers were kept busy with various extra-curricular demands, they were also regularly rewarded with explicit and overt student and parent appreciation from cohorts who were described as feeling reasonably comfortable, and sometimes quite actively allied with, the systems and structures of formalized schooling.
One case teacher in a public school with an above average ICSEA described how one of the things she liked most about her job was “when the students say thank you”, something which occurred frequently and which made “a huge difference”. While this is not to say that students in schools with lower ICSEA never say ‘thank you’, in schools with average ICSEA, students more commonly seemed to bring pre-existing feelings of inclusion within schooling spaces that potentially reduced some pressures around creativity and resilience for their teachers.
Teacher experiences in school with highest ICSEA
Finally, for teachers working in the schools with the highest ICSEA values, a similarly aligned relational dynamic between students and teachers was evident. Like in the average-ICSEA schools, teachers here described teaching “compliant” students.
Those in private sector schools, particularly, also described an abundance of material and human resources, such as “adults who don’t teach” – referring to administrative, specialist and other support staff. There was little awareness that there aren’t many “adults who don’t teach” in other kinds of school settings. Interestingly, however, the increased human and other resources evident in these private sector schools did not always seem to translate into reduced teacher workload. Instead, in all cases, the school-level management of staff emerged as significant in creating positive employment contexts.
The teachers in this study came from more privileged backgrounds. If teachers do tend to come from relatively privileged and successful backgrounds, not all of their students will. While some research has looked at this issue particularly in relation to contexts of ‘disadvantage’ (see here and here for some examples), this study has been one of the first to question what this might mean within the context of the large and complex NSW system as a whole.
I believe that specificities of context, exacerbated by a market-based policy approach which has driven greater levels of differentiation between schools, have particular consequences for teachers, both in the nature and scale of work that is required of them.
Dr Meghan Stacey is a lecturer in the sociology of education and education policy in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales. Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. Meghan completed her PhD with the University of Sydney in 2018.Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey
You can read more about my work in my recently published article summarising some of these findings, and in my forthcoming book due out later this year (The Business of Teaching: Becoming a Teacher in a Market of Schools, Palgrave Macmillan).