Safety in Numbers? Teacher Collegiality in the Riskconscious School-

Year: 2003

Author: McWilliam, Erica, Singh, Parlo

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Teacher collegiality comes with the friendliest of epithets. This is the case despite the widely disseminated concerns of Andy Hargreaves (1994) about the pernicious effects of what he calls "contrived collegiality", and the warnings of Milbury McLaughlin (1993) that more apparent collegiality does not automatically translate into more effective teaching practice. The driving logic of contemporary discussions of teacher culture, in general, still appears to be that teacher collegiality is an essential ingredient of any school that claims to be an "emotionally healthy workplace" (Jarzabkowski, 2001: 4). It is, ipso facto, a good thing. In this paper, we cautiously attempt to write against the grain of this prevailing moral-ethical tale about teacher collegiality, at the same time working to undo the binary formulation of 'positive' as distinct from 'negative'collegiality, of the sort that Andy Hargreaves finds useful.

Our thesis is that, for better and worse, risk consciousness is an organisational rationality that produces in individual teachers the desire not to be physically isolated from other teachers. Put another way, teachers want and need to be physically near to each other in order to minimize risk for themselves both individually and collectively. At a time when there is unprecedented anxiety around the vulnerability of the child, what Joanne Wallace calls “child panic” (Wallace, 1997), one effect on teachers has been a heightened sense of their own vulnerability to allegations of impropriety, and this is particularly true for male teachers of young children. Put bluntly, one teacher alone with one child is just not on. The ‘collegiality’ of ‘safety-in-numbers’ produced by the imperative to minimize risk is, we argue, a phenomenon that cuts across the binary logic of a ‘contrived-or-genuine’ set of social conditions for enacting teacher work. It is a pervasive logic for self-management and sense-making that resists neat separation into top-down (negative) or bottom-up (positive) categorization.

In fleshing out this argument, we undertake three tasks. The first is to elaborate risk-consciousness as an organisational imperative, and its implications for the school as a workplace in which duty of care for minors is a key responsibility. The second task is to analyse research we have conducted into the ways is which risk management is impacting on teacher work and identity in Australian primary schools. The third and final task is to indicate how our analysis of these research data both challenges and augments current literature about nature and purpose of teacher collegiality and/or collaboration.