In this essay I discuss the nature of teaching and the circumstances of teachers' work and lives. It was written as a submission to the 2020 Inquiry Valuing the Teaching Profession, sponsored by the NSW Teachers' Federation. The essay builds on recent debates and writing about teachers, on my experience as a researcher concerned with school education, and on what I have learned as a teacher in the tertiary sector.
Teachers' cultural position
In graduation ceremonies for Education degrees, the invited speaker often includes a fanfare for the teaching profession, telling the graduands they are bearers of cultural traditions, mentors of the rising generation and gatekeepers to the future. These ideas sound like clichés, but they are not just boilerplate. Teachers do have a central role in the culture.
Ever since mass school systems became a reality, teachers have been the main agents for the growth of literacy, the formation of skilled and professional workforces, the broad dissemination of sciences and humanities, and a large part of young people's social learning. Teachers' work underpins our society's achievements in public health, economic and technological development, literature, music and art. In a society with many regional, ethnic and religious differences, teachers' work in schools is essential for social connection and cohesion. The role is so broad and so important that when social troubles emerge, politicians and journalists often blame teachers for causing the problems, or require teachers to fix them.
In social-science discussions, teaching is sometimes defined as the archetypal 'new profession'. School teachers are trained knowledge workers, now usually with university degrees. They are unionized, wage-earning rather than fee-earning, employees rather than self-employed, mainly working in the public sector, with high proportions of women and entrants from working-class backgrounds. All these points have to be qualified in detail, but they are broadly correct. Teachers as a group not only perform important tasks for society but have themselves been significant players in economic and social change.
Teaching is in one sense the best-known profession of all. In a society where almost every child goes to school, almost every adult has had a close-up view of teachers doing their daily work - or at least, part of it. Many adults hold great affection for particular teachers who were important in their lives. But other memories may be negative, even angry. Many people also imagine, from a limited knowledge, that teaching is an easy job with short hours and long holidays, something that anyone could do, only needing quick-and-dirty training. The public image of teachers is genuinely complicated.
Teaching as work
If you enter ‘teachers’ and ‘work’ together into the widely-used bibliographical database Google Scholar you will find over four million references in the English language alone. There are two hundred and eighty thousand references if you use the phrase ‘teachers' work’ as an exact search term. I would judge that at most a thousand items, perhaps less, form the core research-based literature. The larger figures illustrate how widely discussed teachers and their work are, and how frequently questions about teachers connect with other educational issues, from curriculum to public policy, assessment, and pedagogical method.
The sociology of work speaks of the 'labour process', which means not only which tasks the worker performs, but also, crucially, how these tasks are organized. Three features of the teaching labour process are crucial. Teaching is interpersonal, composite, and unbounded. Forgive the jargon, I'll explain.
(a) Teaching always involves connections between people: it consists of human encounters. These may be intense or formal, short or sustained, one-to-one or one-to-many, even some-to-many (in team-teaching). Whatever their form, the element of encounter is always there. Encounter is interactive. Pure top-down instruction is part, but only a minimal part, of actual teaching.
To play an effective role in someone else's learning, the teacher must learn what the pupil's current capacities and motivations are, and what the pupil needs to take the next step in learning. Then again, for the step after that; and so on. The teacher's capacity to learn about the pupils is a crucial element in teaching, perhaps the most important element of all in effective teaching. The more diverse the cohort of pupils, the greater the professional demand upon the teacher in sustaining the pupils' learning.
(b) Teaching is a composite labour process. Close-focus ethnographic research in schools has made this clear. Any teacher giving a detailed account of a working day could demonstrate it too! In day-to-day classroom time, teachers do multiple forms of work, often switching very fast between them and sometimes doing several tasks at once.
Classroom work includes the complex intellectual labour of understanding the pupils and transforming the curriculum into classroom practice; this is the most easily recognized part of the job. But the job also requires (as more recent studies emphasise) emotional labour: creating connection with class members through shared interest, encouragement, humour and sometimes anger; keeping focus in the classroom by managing pupils' boredom, excitement or distraction; dealing with conflict in the class and the effects of tension and trauma in the pupils' lives. As well as the intellectual and emotional labour, the teacher also has significant classroom administration: keeping records, managing equipment, providing materials, administering tests. It seems that the administrative labour has increased in the last few decades, with growing official requirements for testing and other forms of documentation. On top of all this are tasks outside the classroom. These are also varied, requiring a range of skills: preparation of classes, supervision in break times, organizing sports, arts and hobby groups, arranging and supervising events, speaking with parents, reading official circulars, participating in staff meetings, attending in-service programmes, and so on.
(c) Partly because of the interactive and composite nature of the labour process, teaching is difficult to keep within bounds. Some of the job goes home in the briefcase at the end of the day: reports to write, assignments to mark, lessons to prepare. Some of the job goes home in one's head: the knots and tangles of classroom life, the pupils who are slipping behind for no apparent reason, the thrills and successes in the teaching process.
All this is hard to limit, since teachers know that what they do affects their pupils' lives, just as the Graduation Day speech said. The legendary ‘first year out’ (which may take more than one year) is a baptism of fire for many young teachers because of the workload and the emotional demands. Later on, even highly engaged and successful teachers may find they burn out. There is a cumulative effect of the complexity and pressure. To survive in the long run, teachers have to find a balance between over-commitment and self-protection. Support from colleagues is important in finding this balance.
Workforce and situation
Though mass media images of teachers emphasise colourful individuals, good or bad (the movie Dead Poets Society has both), no teacher really works alone. As with many other forms of labour, in teaching most effects are produced by the workforce as a whole. Any teacher in her classroom is building on the work of all the teachers who have worked with those pupils before. What happens in the classroom is shaped by what happens in the next-door classroom and by the routines of the whole school, the discussion and planning that happens in staff meetings, the engagement of school principals and senior teachers, the daily work of office and maintenance staff, the constant informal discussions and exchange of information that happens in staffrooms and around the school office. Researchers recognize this when they speak of schools as organizations and try to characterise school culture, climate or atmosphere.
Beyond each particular school is all the work of other schools, as well as system administrators, curriculum developers, specialist support staff, assessment authorities, teacher organizations, and teacher educators. The work of all these groups frames what happens in any individual classroom. Education on a mass scale, in a large public school system, can only happen because the work is done by this whole workforce - the ‘collective worker’ in the jargon of industrial sociology. Each person's labour is dependent on, and supported by, the labour of many others.
It is not surprising that attempts to measure teacher effectiveness on an individual basis run into trouble. The German sociologist Claus Offe showed half a century ago the fundamental flaw in attempts to measure individual or even occupational-group productivity as a basis for wage determination in large-scale modern organizations, and this applies to education systems.
Across a large school system, teachers must deal with varied groups of pupils. One school is located in a quiet, mostly White suburb with a high proportion of professionals and managers, while another is in a crowded, multi-ethnic city area with a high proportion of recent migrants. Another is in a depressed rural area with high youth unemployment and very few resident professionals; and so on. Some of the students will be academically engaged, others in conflict with the school. In any age group there will be students with disabilities, behaviour problems and complex wellbeing needs.
I won't dwell on what everyone knows about inequality in Australia, but I do think it is important to recognize that social inequalities are educational issues. Poverty and wealth, remoteness, urban conditions, ethnic and religious difference, indigenous or settler background, physical difference and disability - all these confront teachers with different conditions and combinations of tasks in different schools. Private schools are able to choose how much diversity they care to accommodate. But it is the nature of a public education system that all groups of students must be included and supported. The demands on teachers' professionalism and learning capacities are greater.
We have long known that in education, formal equality of provision does not mean equality of outcomes. In Australia we have an unfortunate history of segregated public and private school systems. The cynical political strategy of diverting public funds to support private schooling for the more privileged makes our educational problems worse. One of the damaging things it does is to divide the teaching workforce, creating separate career paths which limit rather than enrich professional experience.
Teachers and their work have long been subject to controls of various kinds: religious, political, managerial and professional. Not far back in history, teachers were expected to show rigid conservatism in dress, manners and attitudes, in private life as well as working hours. Some of this has changed, as teachers asserted their citizen rights. But teachers can still be targeted in moral panics, as the right-wing campaign against the Safe Schools programme in Australia showed. Contemporary concerns about sexual abuse of children have required teachers to observe more restrictive rules about physical contact with pupils in everyday school life.
In the last few decades new means of regulation of teachers' work have developed, generally involving control at a distance. This is euphemistically called ‘accountability’. On-line templates and information systems, heavier and more detailed reporting requirements, standardized testing on a huge scale, quantitative targets and incentives, are now familiar in the education sector. Individual schools and teachers are supposed to have easily-measured goals and are made individually responsible for achieving them, as if schools were Dickensian firms counting up their cash. School league tables are now familiar, such as those constructed from the appalling MySchool website (‘supports national transparency and accountability’ according to its front page, giving the game away). This system constantly confronts teachers with tension between government demands for competitive standardized testing, and the need of the students for assessment tailored to their actual learning situations and patterns of growth.
Education systems have been subjected to requirements imported from other industries, with little attention to their educational effects. Competition, privatisation, accountability, managerial prerogative and market choice are now the common sense of corporate managers and form the dominant language of public policy, in Australia as overseas. They have been powerfully reinforced by the globalization agenda of the World Bank and the rich countries' economic think tank the OECD (which now administers the PISA global testing system for schools - how did Education Ministers let that happen?).
There is growing evidence about the impact of new technology on teachers' work. These changes are often hyped as modernization flowing from technological innovation. this is of course the view of the tech companies. Computers and the internet do offer many possibilities for enrichment of teaching and learning of new skills. Whether these possibilities are realized is another matter. ICT in education must also be seen in the context of changing management practices and the rise of corporations that sell textbooks, curriculum materials, tests, journals and management templates. There is formidable pressure here to standardize teaching practices, discourage the messiness of experimentation and local engagement, and re-shape teaching as a measurable technical performance rather than a complex human encounter. A few decades ago, we laughed at the insulting idea of a 'teacher-proof curriculum'. We should laugh no more, as current ICT and corporate strategies make it more feasible to reduce the skills of teachers, while still maintaining a facade of performance.
Careers and lives
In education, situations and responses change over time, sometimes quite dramatically. This is brought out in histories of school systems, biographies of educators, and research on teaching careers. Research about careers often suggests that teachers move through definite stages. They are supposed to pass from initial career choice, through initial training, to the first year out, adjusting to the real world of teaching, developing technique and acquiring experience, specializing, gaining advancement and promotion, and eventual retirement. These things do happen, of course! But the closer the focus, the more complex the changes appear, and the less fixed the stages. It would be unrealistic to tie teacher's salaries and conditions to a rigid model of stages in career development. We should be glad that there can be changes of direction, false starts, experiments and unorthodox pathways in the teaching workforce.
One reason for the complexity of careers is teachers' lives outside school. Work/life balance can be very problematic for beginning teachers, given the pressures of the first year out. Forming families and households may come at the same time as starting professional life. In Australian society work/life balance is constructed mainly as a dilemma for women, given the long-standing gender inequalities in the load of housework and child- and elder-care (little changed even in the COVID-19 lockdowns). We should be alert to the way apparently 'family-friendly' policies may actually reinforce these inequalities.
Teaching as an occupation does not escape gender divisions. Women predominate in early childhood and primary teaching, secondary teaching is more balanced, men predominate at the upper levels of university teaching and in senior management. In sectors where teaching is organized by subject areas, men predominate in physical sciences and engineering-related fields, women in humanities, social sciences and performing arts. These gender divisions become an equity issue within the profession if the teaching of younger children is seen as less skilled work than the teaching of older students - for which I can see no warrant at all - or if government concerns to boost STEM studies turn into wage/promotion incentives.
Fifty years ago we could have said that entry to the teaching profession in Australia was overwhelmingly from White Anglophone backgrounds, but also that it provided upward mobility for a significant group of working-class entrants. More students from both Aboriginal communities and non-Anglophone migrant communities have now come through teacher education and into the profession, the public sector probably changing faster than the private sector. But with the end of teaching scholarships and the rise of university fees and student debt, the sources of recruitment may become more restricted in social-class terms. If we value communication and sharing of experience across a diverse population, then having a socially representative teaching workforce seems an important goal.
Teachers as a group, rather than individually, have a formative role in social and economic processes. The central purpose of their labour is to help the rising generation develop their intellectual, social, practical and creative capacities, a task that is simultaneously vital, elusive and fantastically complex. Teachers have to deploy a wide range of their own capacities - intellectual and emotional, manual, creative and practical - to do the job. Though pupils encounter teachers as individuals, the work is in fact strongly collective and powerfully shaped by the institutional system. It is no wonder that teachers' public image is contradictory and that governments often reach for showy short-term solutions to tough long-term educational problems.
Teachers today have to deal with changing technologies as well as shifting policies and management practices. In their daily work they face the consequences of declining support for human services, as they deal with diverse and changing school populations, the effects of migration, economic inequality and social trauma, and the needs in pupils' lives produced by colonization, racism, family violence, disabilities and community conflicts. It is an impressive sign of teacher professionalism that so much good teaching actually happens in our public schools.