Fiona Longmuir

The school just didn’t like the way I behaved

Caleb had trouble sitting still and was first suspended from his school in grade 4. From then on he was “suspended every week from that school and it just kept going from there.”

Michael recalled when he was placed in “what was called the naughty class”.

“They just grabbed all the troublemakers in school and then put them in one class. We had a different recess time and lunchtime to everyone else. So, we couldn’t actually associate with all the actual good kids. Yeah, so it was just a bunch of naughty kids, you know?”

Amber remembered that, “If I asked for help in class, they’d explain it but they didn’t really care. I’d put my hand up and ask for help and they just kind of like pointed at the board and explained again what was on the board.” Eventually the school counsellor told her that “mainstream school was not good for her”.

Microaggressions are social interactions that transmit messages of privilege and oppression in everyday spaces. They are experienced as brief and commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental slights and insults.Those who commit microaggressions are often unaware that their communications and actions are received as hostile and derogatory by those from marginalised groups. Three forms of microaggressions have been identified: 1) microassault – a hurtful verbal or non-verbal attack, for example name-calling, 2) microinsult – demeaning communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity, and 3) microinvalidation – communications and actions that exclude or negate the experiences and feelings of others.  

Mainstream schools are places where students are expected to comply with conventional educational practices, policies and relationships. When students do not easily fit educational norms, they can encounter microaggressions from teachers, school leaders and peers – being put in the ‘naughty’ class or having requests for help in class ignored. These send daily messages to students that they do not belong in this school. The impact of these microaggressions include limiting students’ ability to learn and creating feelings of isolation and invisibility.  

In a new study we outline the microaggressions imposed on a group of students who simply do not fit into mainstream schools, students who are often identified as exhibiting challenging behaviours. These behaviours stem from an array of social, economic, health, cultural and trauma-induced roots, and indicate complex needs. These students are, even from a young age treated as disposable and are often made to feel like they are responsible for their inability to comply with expectations., They endure microaggressions at school that devalue and demoralize them and, eventually – by force or choice or both – they leave mainstream settings and turn to alternative and/or flexible learning options. 

There are a range of alternative options.  Flexible and Inclusive Learning programs cater for tens of thousands of young people across the country. As the name suggests, these programs come in many formats and share an interest in providing for students in ways that meet their individual needs for re-engagement with learning.

We explored student experiences of two different Australian Flexible and Inclusive Learning programs. In these settings we found that the opposite occurs: educators use micro-resistance to insist all students are worthy, valued, and human.

Case One: Save the Children’s Out Teach Mobile Education program

Out Teach is an individualised educational initiative aimed at young people living in Tasmania, Australia, who have been involved with the criminal justice system. The classes are mobile, taking place in the back of a van, with the frequency of classes depending upon the needs of the young person. 20 young people were engaged in the program at the time of the research.

Case Two: Aspire College*

Co-located within a community centre that provides a range of vocational education and community services, Aspire College caters for up to 60 young people in outer Melbourne. Students participate in individualised and flexible programs that cater for their learning and wellbeing needs and are based on the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL). 

Student experiences of mainstream schooling 

Young people who participated in our research offered insights into how their interactions with mainstream schooling had damaged them. They explained that their diverse needs were not supported in busy, inflexible, mainstream classrooms. Caleb, a student in the Out Teach program, shared an example that might seem inconsequential but demonstrates the ‘micro’ level of marginalisation,

“They’d want me to sit there and do what I had to do… I always play with pens…I’m always doing something with my hands to keep me occupied and the school just didn’t like it” 

This is an important detail that Caleb recalls from his mainstream school experiences. To educators, asking a student to stop fidgeting would likely be inconsequential, but for Caleb, it contributed to him feeling out of place in the classroom, like he didn’t, or couldn’t, fit in like other students could. This led to regular suspensions and he eventually left his mainstream school.

Our participants also explained how they often felt less important than the rules that were in place. Complex organisations, such as large secondary schools, traditionally have many rules, both those that are explicit, and those that are hidden as social norms and expectations.. 

One example is uniform requirements. Some of our participants related that the requirement to be wearing, for example, the right socks, was made to seem more important than their own personal, often challenging, circumstances.

These examples illustrate how these students endured subtle but invasive microaggressions and microinvalidations that were couched within daily practices. These not only marginalised the students but also caused them to internalise responsibility for their inability to conform. 

Student experiences of alternative education 

In sharp contrast, in the alternative education settings, students felt there was uncomplicated acceptance. Sofia explained that you could talk with the teacher “and not have to worry that you were being judged by him or anything; you don’t have to talk to him in a certain way.” Students described feeling relaxed, comfortable and encouraged in their classrooms. The smaller classes, flexibility, and focus on strong relationships were important as students reconnected with learning that was meaningful.

Different from students’ portrayal of learning in mainstream schools, learning in the alternative setting was positioned as accessible. The students could make choices and tailor experiences to their needs.

And, importantly, learning was seen to be fun. Zali reflected that “We all just get along and have a laugh or whatever. I think that the attitude of everyone around here contributes to the success of it.” The joy of learning and joy in being a learner was often new for these young people.

Micro-resistance in alternative education 

Our study found that in these two cases, the invalidation, marginalisation and disenfranchisement that students had experienced in mainstream schooling were countered by the affirming micro-level, everyday practices in the alternative settings. The practices of educators and the arrangements in these settings re-humanised students. Small, regular acts countered the prior negative associations with schools. Such messages re-built the worth and value of the young people and powerfully contributed to their re-engagement with learning. Although we are confident that such humanising acts occur regularly in mainstream settings, the difference in these alternative settings is that micro-affirmations are intentional, prioritised and consistent. In this way, these practices constitute micro-resistance that works to question the accepted practices  which in mainstream contexts suggest that rules are valued above relationships and that performance is valued over compassion.  

Lessons for mainstream 

By listening to the experiences of these students, the pervasive nature of microaggression in busy, often impersonal, classrooms become more visible. We saw that he insidious institutional and interpersonal microaggressions lead to internalised microaggressions, where students started to believe that their own learning and social needs did not matter.

The small acts that young people identified as occurring in the alternative settings provided a counter-message: you are worthy. The small acts students flagged are noteworthy because in other environments, they would likely go unnoticed: the Out Teach teacher was always on time; the teachers at Aspire ate lunch with their students and played footy during breaks; the students were viewed and treated “like normal people”.

To those educators in mainstream schools who are concerned about the long-term effects of microaggressions on students such as those in our studies: keep on doing the ‘small things’. Every small act that convinces a student they are worthy reduces the level of dehumanisation that they experience. Be on time. Keep your promises. Build relationships with students by asking genuine questions. Check in to see if students are truly understanding. Introduce material through student interests. Connect learning to life. Provide space for choice and voice. See students as multi-dimensional humans.

As much as you can, in all educational practices, seek to facilitate students’ – and your own – full embodiment of being human.

*Aspire College is a pseudonym used to preserve anonymity.

This piece is drawn from a recently released chapter: Reimer, K., & Longmuir, F. (2021). Humanising students as a micro-resistance practice in Australian alternative education settings. In J. K. Corkett, C. L. Cho, & A. Steele (Eds.), Global Perspectives on Microaggressions in Schools: Understanding and combating covert violence. Routledge. 

Fiona Longmuir lectures in Educational Leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader. Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. She is working on projects investigating school leadership for social cohesion; leadership for unprecedented times; and student voice and agency in alternative educational settings. Find her on Twitter @LongmuirFiona and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/fionalongmuir/

Kristin E. Reimer lectures in education at Monash University and works to advance the idea of education as a humanising practice. Her main focus is Restorative Justice Education (RJE), where educators build strong relationships in schools and rigorous, healthy learning environments. Kristin’s research and practice reinforces education as a connective practice: alternative education for justice-involved youth; access to higher education for non-traditional students; experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking university students; and global citizenship education. She’s on Twitter: @ReimerKristin

New research shows we trust and appreciate our teachers – but overworked teachers aren’t feeling it

Teachers in Australia are struggling with workload and feeling underappreciated, and almost six in ten say they intend to leave the profession. These are just some of the many findings of the two large-scale parallel surveys we conducted in the second half of 2019. We asked a nationally representative sample of 1000 members of the public and almost 2500 Australian teachers to share their perceptions of teachers and teaching.

The teacher survey How do Australia’s teachers feel about their work?  became one of the largest to have been conducted in this country. It provided teacher participants the opportunity to reflect on their experiences of being a teacher in Australia.

The data we collected told many interesting stories with rich personal responses from teachers, demonstrating the diversity of their work and the depth of the challenges they face.

The key findings from the two surveys provide useful, and at times surprising, information to contribute to the important discussion of teacher attraction and retention in Australia.

  • Satisfaction with teaching

Just over half of the teachers surveyed expressed satisfaction with teaching (56 per cent) with a further ten per cent being extremely satisfied. However, a third of teachers (34 per cent) expressed dissatisfaction with their role as a teacher.

Satisfaction is associated with teacher retention, where teachers who report satisfaction with their work being more likely to stay in the profession. It is concerning both for teacher retention and for attracting future teachers, that over a third of teacher participants expressed dissatisfaction with their role.

  • Teacher appreciation and respect

This presented interesting and also concerning results. There was a contradiction across the two surveys with the 93 per cent of the public participants trusting teachers to do a good job, and 82 per cent believing that teachers were respected. However, concerningly, 71 per cent of teacher respondents did not feel appreciated by the Australian public.

There are two messages to be taken from this. The first is that trust and respect felt by the public are not always translating into the experiences that teachers have when they interact with the public, whether it is with their local school communities or more broadly with policy and media. Comments from teachers demonstrated that a feeling of being underappreciated was a result of negative personal interactions with parents, media portrayals of teaching and the increasing demands of oversight and accountability that monitor their everyday work. This comment from a teacher illustrates these perceptions,

I feel as though there is very little trust in teachers- this comes from parents, leadership within the school, government, general public and older students. I feel constantly criticised and as though I need to prove myself worthy over and over again. It is absolutely shattering when you’re working hard and with passion, following best practice, constantly building skills to ensure you are continually improving and caring deeply for the individual outcomes of the young people in your care, to be treated as though you are substandard.

The other message from this key finding is that feeling underappreciated contributes to further concern for the retention of teachers and the attraction of teaching as a profession. Ten per cent of teachers who felt underappreciated suggested that this contributed to their desire to leave the profession.

  • Teacher workloads

A large majority (76 per cent) of teachers surveyed responded that their workloads were unmanageable. They described excessive workload that impacted on their physical and mental health and their families, and it distracted them from their core focus of teaching and learning. These comments from participants capture the intensity of workload that is being experienced by so many teachers.

I am currently finding a distinct lack of balance between my work and family life. I take work home to mark every day, I plan, prepare and organise each afternoon for the following day and am exhausted after each day falling into bed. I work hours every weekend and during the holidays. There’s little switch off time.

The long hours, workload and the emotionally taxing nature of the job. It’s 24/7 work and my brain is constantly thinking about school or is at school. I don’t think I can do it for more than ten years as a classroom teacher.

The teaching workload and necessary hours to manage it are extraordinarily unreasonable. The impact of this on those teachers with families or caring for elderly parents is detrimental to their health and well-being.

The perceptions that the workload associated with teaching is a challenge was also noted in the survey of the public, with excessive workload demands identified as a main reason that participants would not recommend teaching as a profession to young people in their lives.

Challenges with managing workload were also reported as contributing to reasons that many teacher participants were considering leaving the profession. This is consistent with recent findings of other Australian research that found that Australian teachers work more hours than most other OECD countries and that high workloads contribute to stress, burnout and ultimately attrition.

  • Feeling safe at work

Most teachers (80 per cent) reported that they did feel safe at work.  However, significantly, one in five (491 participants) did not feel safe and described concerns about physical and psychological risks coming from parents, students and colleagues. Of those who did not feel safe, 54 per cent specifically mentioned violence, aggression or physical assault. Many also described the cumulative impact of regular emotional challenges, stress and unsustainable work/life balance as impacting their physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. These concerns were felt across all career stages. Comments provided showed that these impacts were specifically connected to considerations of leaving the profession.

[Teaching is] too stressful, impact on body health and work life balance. I love my job but it’s not worth the toll it takes on my mind and body

I don’t feel like I can last any longer than this. My job is having a negative impact on my health

Concerns for our teachers and the future of teaching

Our findings suggest there are many teachers in Australian schools who are struggling with their work. Issues of workload, safety and lack of appreciation are contributing to teacher dissatisfaction. Australian teachers go into the profession often because they care about making a difference in the lives of children and young people. But the realities and stressors of the role undermine this sense of purpose and ultimately contribute to attrition, and more broadly to public perceptions of the work that make teaching a less career attractive choice.

Concerns about shortages in the teaching workforce in Australia have been linked to issues of an ageing workforce and high rates of early career teacher attrition. There are many schools, often in rural and remote or other hard-to-staff schools where shortages are already having an impact. Our study adds evidence of what is contributing to attrition rates and the growing lack of interest in teaching as a career. These are issues we need to face to ensure we have a strong Australian schooling system into the future.

Dr Fiona Longmuir is a lecturer in educational leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Her research focuses on intersections of educational leadership, educational change and social justice with current interests in student voice and agency, social cohesion and alternative approaches. Fiona teaches in the Master of Educational Leadership and principal preparation programs. Fiona can be contacted at Fiona.longmuir@monash.edu.au and is on Twitter @LongmuirFiona

Dr Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Amanda’s key research interests include educational leadership, social justice, and policy enactment. Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. Amanda can be contacted at Amanda.Heffernan@monash.edu and found on Twitter @chalkhands

Dr David Bright is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne. His research interests include critical approaches to English as a second/foreign language, Indigenous education, teacher and student identity, international schooling, and post-qualitative research methods. David teaches in a number of pre-service and postgraduate education programs. He can be contacted at David.Bright@monash.edu and found on Twitter @d_a_bright

Read the full report of our study : Perceptions of teachers and teaching in Australia