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Teachers must be viewed as professionals, not workers

12th May 2021

Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart, Course Director for the blended online MA Educational Leadership in Practice at the University of Manchester

As the darkest clouds of the pandemic begin to lift, silver linings will appear scarce. However, in light of the skill, resilience and ingenuity they have shown in adjusting to school closures, one positive to come from the Covid-19 crisis could be the beginning of a conversation about liberating the teaching profession.

In the past 40 years, the role of the teacher has changed significantly. Steady but sure implementation of legislation by the state has wrestled power away from teachers and into the hands of policymakers. Where before teachers had the freedom to determine the best programme for their intellectual skills and the needs of their students, responsibility now sits with increasingly opaque layers of management.

This will be familiar to anyone in the education sector. In fact, it is a process that has been ongoing since the 1980s. Towards the end of the decade, the abolition of the last significant representative advisory bodies, and the establishment of a National Core Curriculum in 1988, removed the agency of teachers to define their own curriculum or syllabus, turning skilled professionals into conduits for approved information.

Not all of these changes were without their merits. Creating a system of education that could be standardised and reviewed with greater objectivity, while aiming to ensure a minimum standard of collective knowledge across all regions and socioeconomic backgrounds, is a vision few could credibly argue against. The implementation of these policies, however, has undoubtedly left teachers today with far too little freedom to deviate from the ratified body of information.

Returning control to the classroom

The closure of schools had far-reaching consequences, which extended well beyond the parameters of the education sector. Most notably, of course, student learning was heavily disrupted. Parents, communities, education leaders, and teachers also suffered under the strain.

The intuitive and creative response of teachers, seamlessly converting curricula to appropriate online formats and sustaining crucial emotional connections and engagement, particularly with young learners, highlighted just how fundamental they are to the quality of a programme of education. While one would hope this point was obvious, in truth it has been a welcome reminder for many that teachers are capable, highly-skilled professionals, with far more to offer than the education structure typically allows.

To this end, now must be the time for education leaders, and the sector as a whole, to engage in a serious debate about the changes made to the role of the teacher. In spite of increasingly didactic management and inflexible demands on their teaching methods, educators have demonstrated how they can flourish when afforded the opportunity to express their skills with greater freedom, even under the most trying of circumstances.

Returning agency to teachers

As challenging as the last 12 months have been, the temptation to fall straight back into the status quo must be resisted. The return of schools should not mean that teachers are stripped once more of their agency in the classroom simply because its use in the face of necessity has been served. Instead, we should engage in serious debate over the coming months about how our pandemic learnings can be used to implement progressive change for teachers.

There is a wealth of longstanding research findings underlining that educational leadership only moves the needle on student attainment when it is teacher-led. Structural systemic reforms must look to empower teachers to continue their evident and commendable creativity and judgement to lead classrooms, while allowing them the influence necessary to structure a pedagogy of their own.

Exemplary systems from other nations, such as those seen in Finland and Singapore, would be a good place to start. Both afford teachers the freedom to demonstrate their own expertise in the manner they feel is most appropriate, thereby maximising their utility and ability. Any reform will affect student outcomes one way or the other; so, the outcome of any debate must include careful consideration to avoiding further disruption.

The pandemic has made the skill and passion of teachers clear for all to see – so many have worked tirelessly to protect students’ welfare and educational outcomes. In return, it is time for society and the state to reconsider the role of the teacher, with a view to empowering them as professionals with far more scope to influence positive change.

 

Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggartAbout the author

Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart is a lecturer in Education in the Manchester Institute of Education and is the Programme Director for the blended online MA Educational Leadership in Practice. Focusing on international and globalising educational leadership and global citizenship education.

He’s interested in equity, distinction and power and approaches the generation of knowledge through a phenomenological close understanding of context, and a critical analysis.