Whilst teachers’ work is valued more and more by parents who have had to assist their children with home schooling, teachers in England are under attack. In the following piece, Sotiria Grek is discussing the reasons for that and raises the alarm against a public discourse which sees teachers and their unions as obstacles to learning.
At the time of writing this text, a lethal global pandemic is still unfolding, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Language is crucial for making sense of our rapidly changing circumstances: many new terms – ‘social distancing’, ‘hotspots’, ‘infection rates’, the infamous ‘R’, amongst so many others- have become commonplace not only in the media but also in everyday talk. Covid-19 is not only a pandemic disease; it has also ignited an epidemic of new terms and concepts.
Coupled with a renewed trust in science, this new language is also constructed on the basis of a moral discourse that glorifies the work of ‘key workers’: these are not only doctors and nurses, but also hospital cleaners, supermarket workers, bin men and women, delivery drivers, social care stuff and plenty more. In many countries around the globe, key workers have been described as ‘heroes’, on the efforts of whom we all rely, in order to support the pillars of a functioning society. We all stepped out of our front doors and in our balconies to thank them, by clapping and giving promises that we will not forget their contribution to the ‘nation’. Within a few weeks, ‘key workers’ became the embodied and symbolic representation of the belief that professionalism and a solid sense of service were the cornerstones of a well-functioning society that could shield its citizens from harm.
As the crisis has further engulfed the globe and showed its catastrophic potential, the war rhetoric culminated; this is a battle that we could only fight with the heroic efforts of those at the ‘frontline’. Nonetheless, teachers were perhaps the only group of professionals, still working either from home or in ‘hub schools’, that did not receive the same amount of praise or attention. At least in the UK, the case of which primarily informs this piece, there was little media mention of the key role of teachers in supporting parents with home schooling and looking after the children of key workers. Indeed, in England, when the first steps towards exiting the lockdown were being planned, the focus quickly turned to the need to re-open schools and for teachers to ‘return to work’, as if they were absent before. Re-opening schools, after all, is seen as the only possible route to re-start the economy.
After a disastrous handling of the pandemic in the UK, with the country mourning many tens of thousands of deaths, the teacher unions questioned the government’s claims that it would be safe for schools to re-open. Their doubts were soon to be backed by the governmental Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), who warned about the dangers for reopening schools both for staff and students, but also the population as whole. It is important to note that unsafe work environments have been one of the key UK public debates and criticisms of the government from the start of the pandemic; newspaper headlines and reports discuss daily the lack of personal protective equipment for medical staff and care workers. However, when teacher unions expressed their justified fears, they were immediately faced with a backlash of critical commentary, one that shocked even those of us aware of the systemic distrust of the English education system towards its teachers. Teachers became the anti-heroes, those that were ‘scaremongering’ about the dangers of re-opening schools, those that were not patriotic enough to ‘do their duty’, as other workers did. Even worse, the government rhetoric, with Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education at its helm, went further to attack teachers by almost pitching them against the general public in a blame-game; a letter addressed to Williamson by a teacher of a Secondary school is telling of the depth of feeling amongst teachers in England:
‘You are our voice, yet you did not speak for us. You spoke in divisive, hyperbolic rhetoric of how “we owe it to the children” and that the unions had a “duty” to get teachers back to school… It is unhelpful and unwarranted attacks on teachers like this that demonstrate both a lack of leadership and a lack of understanding from people running our country. We are still working, much like parliamentarians are: at a distance’.
None of the above would have been worrying if it weren’t for the specific national context within which they have happened; these sort of ‘rows’ between unions and the government are commonplace. Yet, there is an important undercurrent here that needs our attention. Teachers as professionals have been under continuous attack in England from the mid-1970s, when teachers were not trusted any more to operate with a degree of autonomy justified by their expertise. Conservative governments’ reforms of the ‘80s and ‘90s exacerbated the distrust in teachers by pushing for school improvement through the creation of ‘quasi-markets’. New Labour’s ‘third way’ further ‘de-professionalised’ teachers with an emphasis on ‘raising standards’ by increasing the datafication of education and its performance micro-management. These developments, coupled with the rise of international comparative assessments and large international organisations’ reports on the need to improve teachers’ ‘effectiveness’, have meant that teachers in the UK have for decades been represented in public discourse as the weak link and as the untrusted professionals in need of reform.
The global pandemic has not only been a major crisis of public health; it has already had a very large impact on education, the implications of which will unfold for a long time to come. One of the most discussed consequences is the tight grip of the global education industry which has seen the crisis as a major opportunity to push for new digital infrastructures of teaching and learning, through the development of learning management systems and online teaching applications. These new promises have – yet again – captured the attention of policy makers and politicians who always seem to long for new education re-imaginings, alongside, of course, their powerful non-state philanthropists and friends. Here is New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who ‘rocked the education world’ by questioning why school buildings exist:
“The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?”
Despite the dystopian dreams and market calculations of some education players, Covid-19 will almost certainly not negate the need for schools and teachers. However, it will lead to a major re-think of what we value and how we offer education, not only – or primarily – as the institution that looks after our children while we work, but crucially as the vital human right that education is. In a context of rapid change, when crises are seen as major market opportunities, we need to be alert to discourses that construct teachers as anti-heroes and as the obstacles to learning. Schools need to open and will do – for they are the places where cheerful laughter and hope for the new post-pandemic world will be born again. Teachers are our most precious professionals who will get us there.
An extended version of this commentary will be published in the book edited by Claire Wyatt-Smith, Bob Lingard and Elizabeth Heck, ‘Digital Disruption in Teaching and Testing; Assessments, Big Data and the Transformation of Schooling, Routledge.
Keywords: Covid-10, teachers, key workers, education, schools