Reclaiming social justice in neoliberal times: The hidden practices of teachers as a form of resistance.

Year: 2012

Author: Deerness, Stuart

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



Recent educational and social reforms have brought about major changes to the way education is managed and implemented in New Zealand, just as they have globally. These reforms have placed an emphasis on market ideologies, promoting 'consumer choice' while measuring and monitoring quality and effectiveness. The result has seen the normalization of a managerial focus on accountability in state schools. At the same time, in response to growing concerns about the unequal educational outcomes of particular groups of students, the State imposed requirements for improving outcomes for all sectors of society. Consequently, in New Zealand schools there is a contradiction between accountability measures on the one hand, and equity expectations on the other.


This study set out to investigate teacher's understandings, experiences and practices as they related to the tensions between education policies and issues of social justice. I used critical ethnography to attend to the production of educative spaces and possibilities; spaces where teachers' agency was situated and responded to the discourses of schooling. To do so, I spent one year gathering locally contextualised data in one Auckland school.


The teachers in this study simultaneously embodied two conflicting approaches in their work: an approach concerned with issues of equity, diversity and advocacy, and an approach that responded to the neoliberal priorities of accountability, best-practice, and individualism. In the face of authority, the participants 'complied' with institutional demands, yet in more private spaces they retained their personal notions of social justice. For instance, classrooms and common rooms served as spaces that the participants filled with localized and personal meanings, practices and hope. In their creation of 'hidden practices', the participants honoured their desire to teach for social justice while acknowledging the culture of neoliberalism.


The participants' hidden practices represent a certain agency that enabled them to interrogate and expose issues of power in their school, to make independent choices, to engage in autonomous actions and to exercise judgement in the interests of others. In simultaneously embodying conflicting approaches, the participants can be seen alternatively as socialized beings as well as agents of change whose choices and actions variably reflect the implementation, interpretation, adaptation, alteration, substitution, subversion and creation of the curriculum contexts in which they work.