Thinking about equality, diversity and teacher professionalism

Last week I attended a seminar on ‘Teaching Cultures’ – part of a larger ESRC-funded seminar series on ‘New Perspectives in Education and Culture’ which I run with Professor Jocey Quinn (University of Plymouth), Sumi Hollingworth and Jayne Osgood (IPSE, London Metropolitan University), Uvanney Maylor and Marie-Pierre Moreau (University of Bedfordshire) and Anthea Rose (Oasis College).  The seminar, organised and chaired by Uvanney and Marie-Pierre, explored how teaching cultures and professional identities vary across different contexts, and how discourses of teacher professionalism are gendered and raced.  Many of the issues discussed are pertinent to the work of ESRI – both in its broader engagement with notions of professionalism and critical practice in education; and more specifically the interests of members of the Difference, Diversity, and Social Justice research group.

Meg Maguire (King’s College) presented from her ESRC-funded study (with Stephen Ball and Annette Braun) on ‘Policy enactments in the secondary school: Theory and Practice’, drawing on interview data from teachers and other ‘policy actors’. Drawing on du Gay’s (1996) theorising of the relationship between work and our sense of self, where people are ‘made up’ at work, Meg located schools as sites in which teacher identities are (re)constructed, exploring the place of education policies within this. Meg traced the ways that education policies construct dominant versions of ‘the teacher’, producing particular kinds of teacher and pupil subjects. Meg revealed how some teachers have a tight alignment with specific policies as a means for career advancement. Meanwhile, for NQTs their accounts were suffused with feelings of frustration and anxiety where interviewees described being ‘hammered by policy’ (in their project they found 134 different policies in one school!) and with limited space for manoeuvre. Indeed, Meg illustrated how teacher’s freedom to reinterpret, critique and respond creatively to policy is constrained by competing pressures and imperatives. Their data spoke to the impossibility of negotiating the pressures of league tables and target setting and providing a caring, compassionate space that values every child – a point conveyed in Helen’s recent ESRI blog post. As one teacher said:

 …everything about the system encourages schools to pour every penny they’ve got into the C/D borderline students…and then we’re meant to go Every Child Matters. It’s a farce because clearly every child doesn’t matter to the school in the same way…because what matters to the school is, can we meet our target and everyone’s life will be made a misery by constantly having to do more and more administration and conform more to a robotic sense of what’s good teaching until whoever’s investigating us thinks that they’re satisfied with it.

In their research, critique of policy was manifest in quiet murmurings of discontent in the staffroom, rather than collective political critique. However, even these small, quiet murmurings are significant. Indeed, Meg reminded us that while teachers can ‘put a spin on’ policies and the dominant discourses of professionalism these contain. As critics of policy, teachers are central to keeping counter discourses alive, disrupting taken for granted, dominant constructions of ‘the teacher’ in ways that make official interpretations less credible. As Foucault reminds us ‘to do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy’ (1981).

Other presentations came from Christine Callender (Institute of Education) and Vini Lander (University of Chichester). Christine’s research with BAME male teachers illuminated the ways in which teachers’ identities are constructed through racialised and gendered discourses. Their accounts spoke to the prevalence of dominant racialised stereotypes of the ‘angry black man’ that informed how they were positioned by other staff members when, for example, they were critical of a school policy; and being (wrongly) categorized as ‘the PE teacher’, reminding us of how black subjects have historically been understood as ‘more body than mind’ (Hall, 1981). Vini discussed the disparity between race equality legislation and lack of awareness of race within initial teacher training (ITT). Drawing on Critical Whiteness Studies, Vini exposed how whiteness presents itself in everyday interactions through discourses of ‘colour blindness’ among teacher educators and trainee teachers – manifest in claims that ‘race and ethnicity do not matter’. Vini argued that these discourses represent a ‘destructive denial of racial and ethnic identity’ which can justify inaction, deny past and present injustices, and reaffirm whiteness as the norm.

The work presented at the seminar has significance for all of us in education. In my own work, I have sought to challenge the all-pervasive discourses of ‘diversity’ circulating across HE – seemingly evidenced in university mission statements and diversity schemes, and embodied in institutional brochures showing a ‘diverse’ student body. I show how claims to diversity mask the presence of profound inequalities in HE as lived by those who inhabit it. As Ahmed writes, claiming diversity is a way of producing a good image for the university, and this ‘politics of feeling good’ (2006) powerfully blocks action. Pervasive and seductive, discourses of diversity can make inequalities unspeakable or at least make speaking out difficult and risky. Indeed, in last week’s seminar I was reminded of Puwar’s work ‘Space Invaders’ (2004) about women and ethnic minorities in elite professional spaces not traditionally reserved for them. As Puwar shows, disrupting the norm, breaking ranks and speaking out can be a taboo, a renegade act – especially for those who are already in marginalised positions. What might this mean then for teachers as they negotiate dominant constructions of professionalism that do not reflect their own identities, lived experiences and relationships with pupils, parents and colleagues? As Gove attacks the teaching unions as ‘holding children back’, as schools become threatened with ‘forced academisation’, and where teachers face the prospect of performance related pay, should we be concerned that spaces for teachers to ‘fight back’ are shrinking – even in the form of quiet and mundane ‘murmurings’? If so, what does this mean for teaching practice and for issues of equality in the profession? I welcome your thoughts.

Kim Allen

2 thoughts on “Thinking about equality, diversity and teacher professionalism

  1. Thanks for this Kim – sounds like an interesting seminar. Your comment about spaces for ‘quiet and mundane murmurings’ made me think of some staff rooms I have been in in secondary schools. In our school ethos research I generally found staffrooms a great place to observe. However, in the secondary schools in which I worked I often found that teachers and other permanent members of staff did not spend time in the staffroom at all. I tried hard to find the places where staff did spend time together during the school day but most told me that they were generally in their own teaching rooms or sometimes with departmental colleagues only. It would seem that in these schools it might be much harder for teachers, in thier silos or as individuals, to ‘disrupt’ and challenge taken for granted assumptions.

  2. Your report raised some interesting questions Kim, and took me back to an ESRC project in the mid-late 1980s, Teachers’ Jobs and Lives ( We were interested in how teachers were coping during another time of Tory-driven systemic change – new pay & conditions imposed after 1985 strikes, innovations such as GCSE (ah, the irony) and TVEI, the 1988 Education Reform Act that introduced local management of schools, grant maintained schools, and national curriculum and assessment. As now, teachers were under attack by policy makers and the media (‘woolly liberals’ was a popular label). Like Meg’s research with Stephen and Annette, we looked at how teachers were responding to the policy onslaught and the implications for their personal and professional lives. We too found that lots of teachers were experiencing a crisis of identity – feeling that their value systems were under attack, experiencing intolerable pressures at work, and extremely negative effects on their home lives, health and families. Some were still enjoying the job and thriving, or at least getting on OK, while others seemed to be surviving by distancing themselves from their teacher identity and investing their emotional energies elsewhere – in hobbies, family, activist work etc.

    Our ‘take’ on this at the time was to think of identity as a kind of ongoing argument – a way of making sense of oneself in relation to other people and to changing contexts (there is an article about itt here:

    I guess one question is: is it even more difficult now than it clearly was in the late 80s for teachers to construct a viable identity that enables them to lead a liveable life? Is there even less psychic space available for ‘murmuring’ and manoeuvring?

    … And I’m also thinking again about the more general question that I struggled with in a previous post (September 5th)- ie how to comprehend educational change.

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