The plight of the classroom teacher in a bureaucratising world

This week I spent a few days with fellow secondary school teaching colleagues partaking in professional development sessions, and over this time I got to know them like never before. I’d previously heard their whingeing and gripes in the staff room, but in these few days I had extended discussions with them, and boy did they unload.

Picture two male teachers: around 60 years old, well-meaning, hard-working, but fairly average Joes. They’ve worked their whole careers in state schools and seen the transformation of the kids and the system before their eyes. Their frustrations are many and varied. They strike me as people who would vote for a Trump-like figure because of the changing nature of their society and the system in which they work. It is not the ideology that they care about, it is someone who respects the impact of the elites on the mainstream. For it is management, bureaucrats and politicians, in well-meaning or self-interested career progression actions, that impede, disrupt and frustrate the everyday working lives of the ordinary teacher. These ideas, management practices and procedures lack common sense and respect for the people who implement them, and stink of political correctness, and underneath the PC undercurrent that so influences the school is a weakness to stand up and fight for what needs to be done to make the school run effectively.  I hear from these, and other men just like them, the phrase: “why weren’t we consulted?” “Who made that decision, and on what information?” They feel like they are being managed by people who do not bear the costs of their decisions, who do not have to implement them, and who do not care about their impact on the worker or the student. It is not a shift to Democrat or Republican, Labor or Liberal, that will satisfy these men. It is a move to something different, something not based around the status quo. Because both sides of politics have picked up and run with the status quo, and it is this that these men are fighting against. They are just trying to do their job, and managers and elites make their life much more difficult than it needs to be. It is the legalistic nature of compliance work, the lack of courage in standing up to parents, the overly soft approach to students, the shift to making classroom teachers increasingly responsible for disorganised school students. There is not enough time in the day, and this is not the work they signed up for. Where is the time for teaching great lessons in all of this bureaucracy? And cui bono – who benefits?

I understand their frustration and see the system as reflecting a belief that no harm should be done to anyone, anywhere, at any time. That we should try to mitigate everything. That we should excessively manage risk. Again, it is a symptom of weakness, a lack of character, vision and values in our society. Nassim Taleb sums this up beautifully: the Soviet Harvard fragilitas. They run a society devoid of a guiding philosophy except for harm minimisation, increasing comfort, to be seen to be ‘doing something’. Combine that ideology with a system of distant and central control, weak accountability mechanisms, and inefficient transfer and use of relevant knowledge. In other words, combine the progressive ideology with a bureaucratic, centrally-controlled system and you get the current system with the current gripes. This type of issue is probably applicable across different sectors in the economy.

***

These men I write about are old school, and boy is it refreshing. They don’t get on board fads. They are focused on their work and what actually helps the student. They are not ‘song and dance’ people – they don’t care about appearing to be a certain way. They just get the job done, and unfortunately, it’s these men that the elites can exploit for their own gain. Like students in classrooms, these men perform everyday acts of resistance. In the case of students and workers, it is the system forcing it’s values and processes on them, and they naturally fight back, in rational ways.

Unfortunately, things will not change, because elites have not learnt the recent lessons that are so palpably on display. They are in a bubble, and it won’t be until we see a crisis or they are put in a system where they are more accountable for their decisions that we will see change. And that is a long way off.

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