media representation of teachers

Is COVID-19 heralding a new way of the media representing teachers?

The sport and politics of teacher bashing, and in particular teacher union bashing, has a long and inglorious history in the Australian media. Whether this is connected to an anti-intellectual bias in Australian society, the glorification of sport and the physical as opposed to the intellect, is unclear. However research suggests that mainstream media plays a critical role in creating dominant representations of particular groups in society and these representations directly impact individuals and the groups involved.

During April 2020 when schools were rapidly moving to and from remote teaching we collected and analysed a range of media articles focussing on schooling issues. What we found makes us believe the COVID-19 pandemic might yet be an opportunity to reset the often-antagonistic relationship between the teaching profession in Australia and the Australian press.

In this post we want to tell you more about our research and why we think it could be an opportunity to herald change in the way the media connects with our teaching profession.

Major disconnect of perceptions before the COVID-19 pandemic

Two pre-COVID-19 surveys of Australian teachers and public perceptions of teaching revealed a major disconnect between the public perception of teachers as respected and trusted, and teachers own views of their reputation. In the nationwide survey conducted in 2019 with both public and non-government systems, teachers were asked to indicate their agreement with the statement, I feel that the Australian public appreciates teachers.  71% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. In contrast, a second survey of the general public conducted simultaneously reported that 82% of respondents felt teachers were well respected or moderately respected. In addition, 93% of respondents in the public survey felt that teachers were trusted or moderately trusted.

This disconnect between teachers’ perceptions of respect and trust and the public perception has serious direct consequences for the education of our children and young people, particularly in terms of teachers’ well-being, the retention of teachers in the profession and even educational outcomes. The survey reports that in order for teachers to remain motivated and committed to their profession, public recognition by politicians, communities and society of the importance of teaching is critical. They further report on international research which has “found a correlation between teacher status and student achievement”.

Why media concentration in Australia, and media discourse, matters

It has been regularly noted that the concentration of media in Australia is one of the highest in the world. And although levels of public engagement in traditional media outlets such as newspapers and television have declined rapidly, their ability to shape public opinion and political policy remains high.

Of the 58% of teacher respondents in the 2019 survey noted above who indicated they wished to leave the profession, 10% cited a lack of appreciation as the main reason for their departure. One respondent’s unsolicited comment typified these responses:

I feel under-appreciated and disrespected in community, public and media”.

Recent studies of principals shows that negative representations of teachers in the press deleteriously impact on the health and wellbeing of principals who are expected to manage the media, particularly in time of crisis. As a society we all pay the price and are poorer for it.

The COVID-19 outbreak and media representations

Health workers are rightly valorised by politicians and the media for the front-line role they are playing in the pandemic. However, teachers have been shamed in the media, for example by the Prime Minister, for raising the issue of risks associated with keeping schools open, but also sometimes praised for being on the frontline by continuing to teach.

Nevertheless at the beginning of this pandemic we were hearing more about parents doing schooling from home (not home schooling) rather than recognition of the work of teachers teaching online and face-to-face, often at the same time. 

Our research project

As part of a large scale Australian Research Council Discovery Grant examining school autonomy and social justice, we collected a range of media articles which discuss the particular issues facing schools and systems as they tackle the move from face-to-face schooling to remote learning, and back again.

We analysed 18 articles collected from a range of state jurisdictions and from a cross-section of the traditional media, as well as one article drawn from social media, written by Lyndsay Connors, a highly respected senior education adviser for the New South Wales and federal governments. These included the more right-wing News Corporation (or “Murdoch press”), the more traditionally centrist newspapers owned by Nine Entertainment (formerly the Fairfax press) and the Saturday Paper, an independently funded, left-leaning newspaper. The articles range from ‘hard news’ pieces, opinion pieces and letters to the editor.

They were collected across April 2020, a month which spanned the shift from the closure of schools across Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic to their gradual reopening as restrictions gradually eased. As states gradually lifted their lockdown measures, there was increasing pressure from the federal government for schools to reopen across the nation so that workers could return to employment and fuel an economic recovery.

However, given that Australia is a federation and funding and governance of public school systems is a state responsibility, there were differences in opinion between the various state governments and the federal government as to the wisdom of reopening schools. This is where teachers and their portrayal within the media becomes revealing.

Prior to the debate about reopening schools, there was a brief time when the Prime Minister and Federal Government more broadly appeared to be in consensus with the media that teachers were front-line workers and required respect and trust. Lyndsay Connors reflected in her opinion piece on 15 April 2020 that

The shock of dealing with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic has forced our prime minister to realise that schools are fundamental to our democracy and that teachers are on the front line of society and should be valued accordingly (Connors, 2020).

This statement appeared to be borne out by a range of commentary both in the Murdoch press as well as in the former Fairfax media. For example, in a wide-ranging opinion piece, Teachers earn belated respect (paywalled) published in News Corps’ Herald Sun and Courier Mail,  David Penberthy argued that  “one of the most derided  professions in this country has historically been teaching” but that hopefully this perception was changing, forcing a “national rethink when it comes to the perception of teachers”.

The article was a welcomed and nuanced discussion of the competing medical advice and messages that were being faced by state governments in regard to whether it was safe for teachers and students to resume face-to-face teaching. The article finished with two keywords, “thank you”, which the journalist noted were too often lacking in the Australian public’s attitude towards teaching and teachers.

Welcome though this opinion piece was, it appeared on pages 47 of the Herald-Sun and 56 of the Courier-Mail on a Sunday, not the most newsworthy day of the week or a prominent position in the papers.

The following week in a highly critical opinion piece, Not a very class act from teachers’ unions (paywalled) published in the Sunday-Telegraph, a Sydney News Corps paper, Bella d’Abrera, the Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute Public Affairs, castigated teacher unions across Australia for “being reckless when they ignore the science and fight to keep students out of classrooms”. This was in response to news reports, for example, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled) where the Prime Minister was quoted as taking a “swipe at teacher unions, saying that workers… were showing up each day at work despite the risk”, the implication being that teachers should take that risk also.

In keeping with the more centrist approach of the former Fairfax media, a range of articles appeared that were broadly sympathetic in their representations of teachers and the dilemmas facing teachers as workers. These included letters to the editor in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “Teachers can be heroes but only with proper resources”.

Media matters

Media discourses form a crucial part of a broader discursive framework of how teaching is perceived and enacted. They can also inform policy which is often used symbolically as a means to solve a ‘problem’. These discourses also shape the professional identity of teachers in ways that have profound and ultimately negative impacts on their work, their ability to commit long term to the profession and their motivation to continue in a vocation for which many have felt a deep calling. This is the cost of a constant negative media barrage about teaching.

The opportunity presented by COVID-19 media coverage

We believe COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to reflect, reconsider and set aside the poisonous politics of the media and society’s teacher blame game. Are we ready and willing as a society to grasp the potential it offers us and our children?

Jane Wilkinson is Professor in Educational Leadership, Faculty of Education at Monash University. Jane is Lead Editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the Australian Council of Educational Leadership, Victorian executive. Jane’s research interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice, with a particular focus on issues of gender and ethnicity; and theorising educational leadership as practice/praxis. She is a lead developer of the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis, Wilkinson, Edwards-Groves, Hardy, Grootenboer, & Bristol, 2014). She also draws on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work and the philosopher, Ted Schatzki. Jane has published widely in the areas of women and leadership, refugee students and theorising leadership as practice/praxis. Jane is on Twitter @JaneWillkin1994

Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, educational research history, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina is a former anthropologist, archaeologist and primary and secondary teacher in Victoria, Australia. She tweets at @drfreersumenjin

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), Associate Professor Scott Eacott (UNSW and Associate Professor Richard Niesche (UNSW).

The myth of teacher as superhero (and other bad messages) peddled by hit TV series

It makes good cinema to put six bright and passionate teacher recruits into some of the most underserved schools and communities in Australia and follow them around. When the filming is by Screentime (think Underbelly crime drama series, Outback Coroner, Outback ER) it is no wonder the result is highly entertaining and heart-touching.

But we believe the messages about teaching and disadvantaged communities that the recent series on SBS, Testing Teachers, sold to all of its viewers are so bad we have to call them out and unpack them. 

The bad messages

The superhero myth

One of the worst messages this series perpetuates is the teacher as a Hollywood superhero. The Western teacher superhero rescues a lucky few students who live and learn in some of the most remote and poorest regions in Australia. New teachers are positioned as self-less “saviours” whose creativity and perseverance are sufficient to bring about change in apparently “hopeless” conditions.

The program focuses on the first year of 6 ‘cherrypicked’ (narrator’s language) Teach for Australia recruits who are all altruistic high achievers with self-admittedly privileged educational backgrounds. The heroic abilities of these eminently likeable protagonists are demonstrated through the supporting characters of the disruptive, apathetic, traumatised, and bullied students they are able to rescue and turnaround.

The eventual success of these teachers with their students is implied through carefully selected test scores and anecdotal notes. This selective use of quantifiable evaluation methods is a trademark of the brand along with its steadfast refusal to explain the lack of rigour in the evaluation studies.

The documentary does not tell us about the high physical and emotional cost paid by these recruits to maintain this intensity of work in a climate that constantly demands measurable improvements in student performance.

And significantly, what is unsaid but implied is that current teachers and school leaders are clueless or incompetent or unaccountable, that only a few mercenaries dropped in can salvage a system in perpetual chaos and crisis.

Perpetuating stereotypes

The show perpetuates enduring stereotypes about students from poor, Aboriginal and culturally diverse backgrounds. In each episode it selectively engages with uncited research about disadvantaged schools that reinforce deficit narratives about Aboriginal and low-income communities. For example there are descriptions of poor, working-class, disengaged parents and oft-repeated statistics on low attendance of Aboriginal students, as well as alcohol abuse by Aboriginal adults.

These communities are presented to us through a single lens, with no mention of efforts by everyday teachers, schools and communities to overcome systemic neglect and inspire children with a love for learning.

Indeed, with the exception of the student at Tennant Creek, there is little positive recognition for the parents, teachers, and other community members who positively shape the lives of these students.

Normalising the growing gap

These stereotypical representations work to normalise the growing gap in educational and economic opportunity in an increasingly unequal society. In doing so, Testing Teachers renders itself indistinguishable from three decades of ‘Hollywoodised’ documentaries and films about public education which have deflected attention from the structural forces that exacerbate educational disadvantage and inequity.

The program effectively diverts an informed public debate about how to recruit, prepare, employ, and retain the best new teachers.

For our society as a whole, the message is that it is perfectly acceptable for low SES and Aboriginal children and parents to settle for poorly prepared low-cost, fly-in/fly-out teachers from privileged backgrounds. Would you accept untrained educators on short-term contracts, however gifted and talented, to teach your children?

Students just need motivation

For students and their parents in disadvantaged communities, the message is that they should be motivated to learn and achieve, regardless of their learning conditions.

Teaching qualifications and experience are not very important

To the teaching profession at large the message is that only those who were good at ‘doing school’ can teach. Clearly, graduates can teach well without prior preparation in pedagogy, curriculum, or respect and understanding of community, history and people in a school community. Worse still, it is okay to test out whether you want to teach by using the most disadvantaged children.

Selling the Teach for Australia brand as a ‘silver bullet’

Of course Teach for Australia has plenty of money to get the ‘good stories’ out about its program. So it is no surprise that this SBS program fails to present the public with a complete picture about Teach for Australia.

It is an entrepreneurial organisation that provides high-achieving but inexperienced teacher recruits to schools in disadvantaged communities on short-term two-year contracts. While Teach for Australia is relatively new in Australia, it is essentially a clone of a deeply controversial 25-year-old, US organisation Teach for America. The latter has become an elite status symbol in the USA by offering recruits a combined opportunity for paid community service, immediate employability, and resume building. A majority of recruits move on after 2 years into top graduate schools and thereafter into high paid careers in education leadership and policy including within TFA’s own lobbying organisation – Leadership for Excellence and Equity.

The Teach for America model is now in 39 countries around the world and at the forefront of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) which seeks to casualise teachers deprofessionalise the teaching profession and thus, advance the privatisation of public education.

The rise of Teacher for America, et al ignores the increasing body of literature that indicates that young people in Teach for America classrooms actually are more likely to do worse in the long run on academic performance than those in classrooms with properly prepared teachers. In addition, the short-term nature of Teach for Australia, Teach for America, etc. commodifies the teaching profession by providing cheap short-term labour rather than addressing profound social equity issues including racism and health, housing, transportation and adult educational issues that are all part of the issues faced in the schools profiled.

Despite contested claims of effectiveness, its wealthy backers, and a media strategy with seemingly limitless resources, have facilitated the rapid global expansion of the “TFA” brand. Building on the US model, TFA is financed by a powerful global network of corporate players (including Google, Rolls Royce ), venture philanthropists (Gates, Walton, Robertson, and Bezos Foundations), international financial institutions (including Visa and the World Bank) as well as public monies from national/federal and local governments.

What has also helped the brand is a disturbing trend of uncritical media coverage from corporate news media outlets which has been documented by numerous education researchers. In Australia too, Testing Teachers has received favourable coverage from leading Australian news outlets across the ideological spectrum. To begin with, reviewers for SBS, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald reviewers all failed to notice that TFA is not new in any sense of the word. A little more homework would have also revealed the striking resemblance between TT and other equally well-financed, recent documentaries showcasing the TFA approach e.g. Tough Young Teachers (BBC3 – UK, 2014) and multiple documentaries by US filmmaker Davis Guggenheim .

While the use of language and cultural symbols is contextualised to the viewing audience, the plot or storyline and take-away messages do not vary. The setting is always a disadvantaged/needy/challenging school and within these schools, we are only shown the classrooms with students who are unregulated/disruptive/tricky characters and of course, the superhero teachers.

Missing from this silver bullet solution is the historical context of a profession that is being systematically casualised under the rhetoric of austerity and efficiency. The argument should be that these bright new teachers are able to quickly gain traction in difficult situations and show results better than the ill qualified person who may have been casualised. They do not substitute for a traditionally prepared teacher.

The issue remains why our best new teachers are not seeking jobs in diverse schools throughout the country and why incentives have not been implemented to ensure every child has a highly qualified new teacher.

Media messages matter

Images about teaching and communities matter. This series was indeed entertaining. It may well inspire graduates to join TFA for a short-term teaching stint but will it inspire the kind of long-term commitment needed to provide equal educational opportunity for every Australian child? Undoubtedly, this promotional documentary will help more money to pour in to the TFA coffers (the results TFA is paying for). However the damage the bad messages do to the teaching profession and to Australia’s disadvantaged students and communities is immeasurable.

As educators and educational researchers, we believe we need to call out those bad media messages when we see them.

Nisha Thapliyal is Lecturer, Comparative and International Education at the University of Newcastle. Nisha’s research focuses on education equity, community-based activism and the democratisation of education policymaking. Nisha can be reached at nisha.thapliyal@newcastle.edu.au or on twitter @NishaT4edu

John Fischetti is Professor and Head of School/Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school reform and learner-focussed teaching. John can be reached at john.fischetti@newcastle.edu.au or on twitter @fischettij