It used to be a bit of a family joke that on my way home from school on a Friday evening, I would stop in the newsagent's to buy Tes; and before I even got home I would have read something to disrupt what should be the happiest time of the week. My husband and children would run for cover as I typed a letter to Tes, only emerging after I'd pressed the send button.
Sadly, this caricature has more than a hint of truth in it. And now that Tes has gone online, this can happen any day of the week.
To be fair, there are also so many uplifting pieces to provide much-needed balance. Surviving in teaching is about taking pleasure in the inspirational, as well as challenging the assumptions that subvert what I believe teaching to be about.
Once in a while I see something so diametrically opposed to my reading of where teaching is that I have to probe more deeply. Such was the case with the recently published report from the Institute of Education (IoE) comparing the wellbeing of teachers with that of “'like' employees in other workplaces". The study was reported in Tes by Hélène Mulholland under the astonishing sub-headline “Teachers and teaching assistants are no more stressed than workers in different jobs”. I had to take a closer look: there might be something to be gained from a report that could move schools on to be happier places.
With that in mind, I took a closer look at the statistics and working methods of the IoE report, but most of all at the contentious – even alienating – assumptions behind its judgements.
What stands out is the way in which the authors have decontextualised teaching into an “occupation” rather than a profession, and have assumed that it bears enough resemblance to other “jobs” to make a comparison realistic and productive. Such an assumption overrides the feature most significant in keeping teachers in the classroom: their professional identity. The complex interweaving of vocation, academic knowledge, performance and managerial practice exercised routinely by teachers is thus denuded of its emotional import.
At best, teachers are subsumed into the researchers’ context of “job quality, managerial style or workplace management practices”. In other words, the focus is on how teachers are deployed and incentivised rather than how they operate as individual agents of change. And, as is so often the case when the language of management and economics is applied to teaching, the researchers miss the point.
There is something rather inappropriate about analysing teacher wellbeing and commitment by just considering the managerial practices that the report writers think need to be exercised to keep teachers in the classroom – or, translated into economic managerial discourse, to keep these particular workers in their place of occupation.
The report does, however, contain findings that point to what might be useful theories to consider. One finding was that teachers have less job satisfaction than their managers and less than teaching assistants. Teachers work in close proximity to children, more so than headteachers, who were seen as happier. In earlier research (by Cary Cooper and others) on work‐related stress across occupations, “emotional labour” was identified as one of the key stressors – and classroom teachers engage in much more of such labour than their "managers".
Interestingly, though, teaching assistants were also happier than teachers. It may be that teachers have higher expectations of independence and suffer increased stress (and reduced job satisfaction) when their desire for autonomy is frustrated.
Assumptions of incentivisation
Perhaps what is most alienating about this report is the assertion that although workers’ wellbeing is important, “it is only of direct importance to employers if workers’ job attitudes and wellbeing influence their productive behaviours and that of the organisation”.
Having myself studied personnel management in the early 1990s, at the point when it was becoming “human resources management” (HRM), I was fully aware of the manipulative form that HRM strategies take. Their intention is to direct all efforts towards the performance of the organisation, including target-setting, and the use of rewards and benefits packages to direct employee efforts. The assumption behind HRM is very much that employees need to be incentivised and directed, that they cannot act as self-directing autonomous professionals.
This seems to have been very much the government line when instituting educational reform. Performance-related pay, the aspect of HRM most disliked by teachers, has been forced on heads by government ministers, most notably Michael Gove, who have no idea how morally, economically and professionally repugnant such a measure is. It is repugnant because it overlooks entirely the vocationally inspired “emotional labour” that goes on in schools, particularly those in the most challenging of circumstances, day after day.
The report's most serious weakness is its dependence on statistics from 2004 and 2011. This data is well past its sell-by date. The Workload Challenge of 2014, when nearly 44,000 teachers wanted to tell the government what was wrong with education and why teacher-retention rates were so poor, more than trumped the 5,000 workers consulted in the IoE study – with their bosses’ agreement!
Fortunately, by the time they have reached the conclusion, the report writers realise that incentivising pay arrangements don’t work. But their recommendation that “…investments in employees’ organisational commitment may give rise to improvements in school financial performance, labour productivity and quality of service, as well as reducing voluntary quit rates…” will leave teachers cold. If education leaders and thinktanks indulge in such mechanistic rationalisation, then it’s hardly surprising that their way of “investing in employees’ organisational commitment” is simply to provide a few yoga classes.
HRM proponents cannot conceive of the obvious solution of a return to teacher autonomy and professionalism; the two are not compatible.
Teachers still in the job are more productive in terms of hours spent and paperwork produced – but are they effective? I would argue that HRM – with its targets, its emphasis on outcomes, its manipulative, individualised pay arrangements and its endless micromanagement – has scored an own goal. It may be possible to micromanage employees, but that doesn’t encourage independent-minded professionals to stay.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England. She is a member of the post-16 committee of NATE, which is holding its 55th annual national and international conference – So Many Voices, So Many Worlds – in Birmingham on 22-24 June