On having a seat at the table
The struggle for voice and advocacy in education
I’ve been struggling under the weight of Term Two lately in what seems like a year of Term Twos. It’s been difficult to write as often as I would like, but more concerning than this has been a mini ‘crisis of purpose’. While I’m ever grateful for my platform and audience, it sometimes feels like I’m preaching to the choir. A recent conversation left me in doubt about my impact, when I came up against the old “balanced literacy is balanced” chestnut. When confronted by this truthy but patently misleading view, coming from someone with many years more experience than me, I was silent. I lacked the courage to confront this outside the safety of my own network.
Teachers are often fighting for a seat at the table, and I suppose this newsletter was a way of building my own table and inviting all my friends to dinner. Often we are spoken at, to, and for. Take for example this event at CIS, a breakfast with Sarah Mitchell, NSW state minister for education. Note that this event is on the first day of the Trial HSC Examinations at a very teacher-unfriendly time. I foolishly asked on LinkedIn why this wasn’t held at a time when teachers could attend. After all, I wanted to ask her why the Department of Education was gaslighting teachers about the teacher shortage. I also wanted to ask her why she was focusing all her current energies on releasing teachers’ private details online for the ‘safety’ of students. It took a millisecond of imagination to realise why there was no seat for me at Sarah Mitchell’s breakfast table.
I attended a brilliant event at CIS last year, where legendary Indigenous activist Noel Pearson spoke passionately about the Science of Reading as the key to closing the gap for Indigenous students. I love the work of CIS and Glenn Fahey (and yes, I have been accused of being right-wing because of it), but I did note that there were a lot of old white men at that particular ‘table.’ I only knew three people there and most didn’t look like teachery sorts. I don’t have a problem with old white men per se. I’ve known a few lovely ones. But it did seem as though important discussions usually happen in the absence of teachers.
The field of critical theory in education is ostensibly about advancing the cause of education by challenging oppressive structures and unhelpful politics. It seems to me that The Conversation has sprung from a need to transpose educational Theory into something click-worthy, but I worry that those writing about education on these platforms tend to have little experience in schools. Compounding this, the rigour is stripped in favour of bite-sized methodology, so non-teaching audiences might be swayed by points of view that have little grounding (or usefulness) in the lived reality of teachers and students, like this vastly oversimplified view of mainstreaming students with a disability or this thinly veiled attack on suspensions as being harmful1. Again, teachers are being spoken for, with progressive mythologies being mainstreamed into the media, so it’s easy to see why the industry feels so disenfranchised.
But two things have happened this week to give me hope and purpose, one big, one small. First, the big thing. I suppose through building my own table, I have been invited to participate in a panel discussion and workshop at UNSW to “address contemporary issues of education in the context of ongoing social issues of equity, excellence, and inclusion.” The driving force, Scott Eacott of UNSW and the Gonski Institute, said to me that “I have certainly sought to make sure that those in schools and systems have equal (more actually) seats at the table.” This is huge, and so timely at a point where many teachers are feeling helpless. The aims of the event are high:
Establish an alternate framework for the design of equitable and
inclusive education that can withstand internal tensions and external
pressures towards consolidation of resources and cost efficiencies;
Develop new data points for the monitoring of the equitable, inclusive,
and quality of provision of schooling at scale; and
Provide recommendations for systems and government on changes in the
rules, structures and policies overseeing the provision of schooling.
This certainly holds promise. It seems like an event where researchers, teachers and leaders can work productively and pragmatically, and share expertise with a common outcome in mind. If this kind of event has happened before, then I was unaware. But I’m aware now, and feeling far more optimistic about my role and capabilities as an advocate.
The second thing that has buoyed me is a conversation with a colleague who is the most conscientious teacher I know, and also the busiest, with little time to wade through research. She said that this newsletter is short enough to engage with regularly and that it “makes (her) head hurt” for a minute. To me, this was the shot in the arm I needed to post this weekend. I have a seat at a table of my own making.