Teachers can comfortably tell you the ways they see societal inequalities. Depending on the school, teachers can see students who borrow pens and rarely bring more than one book through to those who walk in daily with laptops and receive regular tutoring outside of school. Raewyn Connell’s panel responses explored the complexity of the teacher’s job at the coalface of Australian inequity. As a student at Sydney University I regularly encountered her seminal works as a sociologist with a lengthy career of research in equality, education and Australian society. Below I’ve done my best to summarise her responses as part of this series on the independent inquiry into Valuing the Teaching Profession. Three major themes emerged: the complexity of the teaching profession, schools and teaching as an equity mechanism and issues of gender within education. At the bottom of this piece I’ve also listed her recommendations moving forward.
The Complexity of Teaching against Inequality
Connell’s opening discussion highlighted the degree of complexity in the day-to-day of teacher’s work. She was quick to point out that teachers are “often doing 2 or 3 things at once. People would be quite impressed with the complexity of the job of teachers.” As a teacher this isn’t surprising. I’m sure most people who know teachers would be well aware of the emotional toll the work puts on individuals. I often described needing to be almost schizophrenic in the classroom space to friends. One second your tone shifts from being stern and disciplinarian to soft and supportive as you manage student behaviour.
Part of the complexity stems from what Connell noted was the recent historical development of teaching. The identity of teachers is dualistic with the expectations of the ‘professions’ – such as law and medicine. The professions have an obligation to the body of knowledge and your experience in education. On the other hand, teachers awkwardly sit between this profession role and being an employee to their clients. Teachers have increasingly become accountable to the government and their students as employees to these ‘clients’. This has created conflict where the managerial expectations have restricted teachers whose judgement of their experience can be at odds with what they feel is best for their students. These competing voices – from academics and associations to directors and managers to parents and students – makes for an overwhelming battle of opinions mentally. The schizophrenic analogy seems even more appropriate in this environment.
Connell went on to note the research of the OECD in past decades has increasingly focused on the impact of teachers on students learning. This has led to ignoring other ways to use policy for improving learning and instead emphasise the lives and profession of teachers. Teachers know their job is inherently research-based as they daily test strategies, reflect and adjust their methods to suit their students. However, policy has become less trusting of teachers with increasing accountability, surveillance, testing and management of teachers. Connell expanded on this complexity in discussing the role and influence of social inequality in the lives of teachers…
Teaching at the coalface of Social Inequality
Connell pointed out that this approach to policy has fundamentally led to societal division and inequality. This is exacerbated by the division between public, private and religious schools as the resourcing of schools and the preparedness of students to succeed in the system is felt by teachers. Fitzgerald’s responses emphasised this as social capital is unequal across the system and increasingly widens the gap. The old cliché that “school isn’t for everyone” has had increasingly more devastating consequences on social cohesion, the health and wealth of students across social groups post-school. This ostracises vulnerable groups who need greater resources to participate. Connell noted recent research and trends may be showing the consequences of this as mainstream social institutions – such as government and experts – lose the trust of these groups. Australia is not the only country to see this happen in recent years.
Gender Inequality and Stereotypes Reinforced
Connell’s expertise and interest in gender inequality and stereotypes has been long-standing. As such, she raised the way this plays out in schools and has been an issue also due to the pandemic. The stereotypes of men and women’s strengths and roles are still apparent in the make up of the gender split between teachers. Despite no real basis in psychology, stereotypes of women being better at personal, relational education and men at maths remain influential in the subjects each gender teaches. This leads to reinforcement of these stereotypes as students are exposed to these environments – what we often term the ‘hidden curriculum’. Instead of breaking these stereotypes, girls and boys aspirations can be further influenced by these experiences. Additionally, the work/life balance of teachers widened the gap between men and women even in the teaching profession during the pandemic. Connell noted the expectations of women in the home remained unequal despite some men taking on more responsibility, emphasising the need for men to come to the table more on the issue.
Sign up for Free as an Educator!
Connell's Recommendations for the Issues
- Teacher education needs to do more to teach teachers about the nature, career and life of the teacher.
- Effective teaching relies on the teachers ability to learn and respond to their students. Understanding them and then responding accordingly is a constant process and at the core effective training. Embedding this culture and attitude is critical for teacher training.
- The engagement of formal research processes with publishable research is an area that could be improved and encouraged in the teaching profession.