Teachers also are affected by the ‘school choice’ policies dividing Australia

By Meghan Stacey

What is it like to be a teacher? Often when we hear talk about teachers, whether in popular culture, policy or research, it’s as though the experience of ‘being a teacher’ is always pretty much the same. And often the attitude is you’re either a good one, like Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series or a bad one like Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull.

In policy, teachers are lumped together in ill-defined discourses around, for example, ‘classroom readiness’and ‘teacher quality’. In research, a good example might be our understanding of the early career teacher, who is notoriously subject to stress and burnout.

But is being a teacher, or an early career teacher for that matter, really such a homogenized kind of experience? 

My PhD research suggests that no, it isn’t. In particular, I argue that teaching is affected by the market-oriented approach to schooling taken in NSW, in which students and parents – operating with different kinds of social, cultural and economic resources – can choose to attend different kinds of schools. This system has long been known to have detrimental effects on equity outcomes in relation to student achievement, as students with greater levels of advantage move into more ‘desirable’ schools, which can lead to concentrations of varied and particular need within local, often comprehensive school contexts (a process known as residualisation).

But these school choice effects also have particular consequences for teachers.

I designed my PhD research to include as wide a range of schools as would be possible in an in-depth qualitative project. This meant I ended up exploring cases of early career teachers’ work in nine different schools, including high-fee independent schools, lower-fee Catholic schools, and public schools that enrolled student bodies with varying levels of average advantage (as measured by the Index of Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA, available on the federal government’s My Schoolwebsite). 

I found some interesting things. 

Importantly a commonality was that all nine teachers in my study indicated having had relatively successful, and often fairly advantaged experiences as students themselves. However, given the wide range of school contexts these teachers were now working across, some teachers seemed to mesh well with their schools, while others found them particularly difficult and different to what they had known. It made me wonder whether this is the case for the teacher workforce at large; that perhaps on the whole we are people who have experienced advantage and success in the system as we know it. Indeed to some extent we must have, to have made it into teacher education courses. 

Teacher experiences in school with lower ICSEA

Teachers in my study who were working in schools with lower ICSEA values, which enrolled students experiencing significant educational disadvantage, described particular socio-cultural, creative and relational requirements in their work. These teachers described the experiences of students who were marginalized within wider society due to social and cultural differences, facing multiple and sustained challenges both within and beyond the school.

Teachers in these schools described their students as being on the “receiving end” of discrimination and seeming to see school as “not our thing”. These teachers identified a need for greater creativity in lesson planning, as well as more resilience regarding their abilities in planning for and working with their students.

As one teacher commented: “the better the school is, the better the teachers think they are” (the concept of ‘better’ schools here being a short-hand for student advantage, translated into results and rankings). 

Teacher experiences in school with average ICSEA

Indeed, for teachers working in schools with more average ICSEA values the picture looked a little different. Although these teachers were kept busy with various extra-curricular demands, they were also regularly rewarded with explicit and overt student and parent appreciation from cohorts who were described as feeling reasonably comfortable, and sometimes quite actively allied with, the systems and structures of formalized schooling.

One case teacher in a public school with an above average ICSEA described how one of the things she liked most about her job was “when the students say thank you”, something which occurred frequently and which made “a huge difference”. While this is not to say that students in schools with lower ICSEA never say ‘thank you’, in schools with average ICSEA, students more commonly seemed to bring pre-existing feelings of inclusion within schooling spaces that potentially reduced some pressures around creativity and resilience for their teachers.  

Teacher experiences in school with highest ICSEA

Finally, for teachers working in the schools with the highest ICSEA values, a similarly aligned relational dynamic between students and teachers was evident. Like in the average-ICSEA schools, teachers here described teaching “compliant” students.

Those in private sector schools, particularly, also described an abundance of material and human resources, such as “adults who don’t teach” – referring to administrative, specialist and other support staff. There was little awareness that there aren’t many “adults who don’t teach” in other kinds of school settings. Interestingly, however, the increased human and other resources evident in these private sector schools did not always seem to translate into reduced teacher workload. Instead, in all cases, the school-level management of staff emerged as significant in creating positive employment contexts.

The teachers in this study came from more privileged backgrounds. If teachers do tend to come from relatively privileged and successful backgrounds, not all of their students will. While some research has looked at this issue particularly in relation to contexts of ‘disadvantage’ (see here and here for some examples), this study has been one of the first to question what this might mean within the context of the large and complex NSW system as a whole. 

I believe that specificities of context, exacerbated by a market-based policy approach which has driven greater levels of differentiation between schools, have particular consequences for teachers, both in the nature and scale of work that is required of them.

Dr Meghan Stacey is a lecturer in the sociology of education and education policy in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales. Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. Meghan completed her PhD with the University of Sydney in 2018.Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey

You can read more about my work in my recently published article summarising some of these findings, and in my forthcoming book due out later this year (The Business of Teaching: Becoming a Teacher in a Market of Schools, Palgrave Macmillan). 

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

8 thoughts on “Teachers also are affected by the ‘school choice’ policies dividing Australia

  1. Steve McKenzie says:

    An interesting read, thank you for publishing a thoughtful article.

  2. Dorothy Hoddinott AO FRSN FACE says:

    This article made interesting reading in the context of the increasing social differentiation of our schools in Australia, particularly in secondary education. It calls to mind the research done by the American educator, Carole Urzua , in the 1980s, where she looked at the way teacher language changed according to the SES of the students. She found that in high SES schools, teachers allowed for much more open-ended discussion and dialogue with the students. Teacher talk was encouraging of students’ efforts and achievement acknowledged and celebrated. The further you went down the social scale, however, the less this happened, and in low SES schools, teacher talk was mainly instructions and commands. I wonder if much the same happens here: those low Year 9 classes, where everyone seems disengaged, may be a case in point. Teachers respond to their environments just as students do. A difficult teaching environment in a residualised school may have a huge impact on how teachers teach.

  3. Meghan Stacey says:

    Thanks for the engagement Dorothy! ‘Teachers respond to their environments just as students do’ – indeed.

  4. Dorothy Hoddinott says:

    One of the immediate challenges I had as a principal was shifting the expectations both of teachers and students. Essentially, there were no expectations, so there was no effort to do much more than control the students until they left. The school, which had a lower proportion of non-English speaking background students when I first went there, was sending less than 25% of its HSC class on to tertiary education. By the time I left, despite the increase in the proportion of NESB and low SES students, we were averaging about 60% of the HSC class receiving 1st round university offers. It can be done, as a number of low SES schools have demonstrated in recent times. I have come to realise the key role school leadership plays in genuinely transformative education, and the role of teacher belief in their students’ capabilities. I saw an important part of my role as removing the obstacles to success for both students and teachers.

  5. Meghan says:

    Thanks Dorothy. Yes, leadership came out as important in my study too – as did the presence of deficit discourses among teachers in relation to students and families. I’ll have an article coming out on the latter issue soon. Such an important area.

  6. Kieran says:

    Great to read your piece, Meghan. I am currently undertaking a PhD which is looking at how the context of a school influences the practices employed by a principal. Interestingly, the two case studies I have completed thus far, are of principals returning to schools of similar context to the ones they experienced as a school student. Their intimate understanding of these low educational advantage settings has certainly supported the school improvement journey each have undertaken,
    Do you think it is an advantage for teachers to return to schools of the same advantage they experienced? What benefit do you suppose it brings?
    Would love to hear your thoughts.

  7. Dorothy Hoddinott says:

    Kieran, I mainly worked in schools which were completely unlike the high school I attended: I went to a selective girls’ high school in a middle to upper middle class part of Sydney. I don’t think it is essential that you have experienced a low educational advantage setting yourself to be effective as a principal in that sort of setting. Indeed, I think that the difference between my own experience as a child and that of the children I taught played an important part in raising expectations and achievement in those schools. Strategic use of my networks was also useful. I would be happy to explore some of these ideas with you, if you liked.

  8. Meghan says:

    Hi Kieran. Thanks so much for the read. I think teachers (and principals) who have experienced contexts of disadvantage are so important to the system, and that we need to work on further diversifying the profession to help us connect with all students. That said, in my study, when teachers who had experienced privileged settings went back to what they ‘knew’, this did seem to be a bit limiting in terms of understanding the system as a whole and issues of in/equity across it. So there are a few things to consider! Good luck with the PhD!

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