The Importance of Teacher Voice

Educators want to succeed. However, sometimes the settings they work in are not particularly conducive to them reaching their goals. When this happens teachers can feel discouraged and powerless. Teacher voice is an untapped resource. Only 59% of teachers surveyed are confident voicing their honest opinions and concerns. The British Educational Research Agency has argued that “we desperately need critically engaged teachers who can develop the curriculum in constructive ways leading to better students outcomes.”

It is challenging to teach in a climate of perpetual reform, with constant political rhetoric critical of teachers. Evidence, data, and scientific measurement are amplifying the surveillance of schools and under this sort of scrutiny, teaching must increasingly be airtight to extract any risk from the return on investment. However, teachers are not technocrats and the illusion of a secure relationship between practice and outcome doesn’t project a positive sense of teaching as a career that has status, identity, and agency.

Teacher voice is largely absent in policy formulation, on advisory boards, and on media panels. The media, in particular, often presents polarising perspectives of the teaching profession and so-called “experts” are regularly trundled out to speak for or about teachers. Teacher voices are rarely sought or valued. The rich experience and expertise of teachers mean that their opinions should be sought, listened to, and highly valued. However, the humanness of those in schools is often lost in the relentless call for data, evidence, and quantitative measures of learning and effectiveness.

While these are issues that much of the world is struggling with, there are some bright spots emerging around the globe.

Flipping the System

The Flip the System movement (very different to Flipped Classrooms) was born in the Netherlands in 2016 when Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber produced the original Flip the System book and Jelmer then followed this with a TEDx talk. The message was about trusting the teaching profession and promoting teacher agency and collaboration. The editors wrote:

“In the neoliberal perspective, the teacher is viewed as a trained monkey, and it is simply a question of finding the right stick to beat him with, or the right brand of peanuts, to make him do the desired dance in front of the audience. The teacher is no longer viewed as a professional, but as a laborer who simply has to follow evidence-based methods in order to secure externally determined goals.”

Flip the System UK was then released in 2017, focusing on elevating teacher professionalism and empowering teachers. Now Flip the System Australia is available. At its core Flip the System is a global movement about teacher agency – empowering teachers to shape their profession, democratizing education, supplementing top-down accountability with teacher-led reform, and elevating the voices of those working in schools. In Flip the System Australia, Deb argues, “Flipping the system is about amplifying, elevating, and valuing the voices of those actually working in schools. We believe that the power to transform education is within the profession, not outside it.”

As a global movement, flipping the system propels efforts for teachers to reclaim a place at the policymaking table and resists the mistrust of teachers. It is about building networks and flattening hierarchies so that teachers can collaborate and build consensus via coalition and networked knowledge sharing. This requires a commitment to overcome the political and ideological motivations that impede progress.

Varkey Teacher Ambassadors

The Varkey Foundation supports the Global Teacher Prize to recognize and celebrate the impact that teachers have around the world. This is a US $1 million dollar award, presented annually to a teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession. Since the creation of the Global Teacher Prize in 2014, the top 50 finalists of the Global Teacher Prize have become known as Varkey Teacher Ambassadors and they work to encourage the expertise and capacity of teachers worldwide, providing a voice to influence policy and practice. As well as having a voice at a policy level, the teachers work together on global projects, reaching an increasing number of teachers and children across the globe. There are now over 200 ambassadors from more than 60 countries. Six Varkey Teacher Ambassadors recently released a very interesting book, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, about empathy, trust, collaboration, global citizenship, diversity, using technology as a catalyst and teachers as networked activists.

Education International

Established in 1993, Education International is the largest and most powerful international trade union organization in history. It promotes the professional status of teachers through trade union rights, and the rights of teachers to participate in the formulation and implementation of educational policies. It also aims to build closer relationships among teachers globally by promoting the status of the teaching profession, countering de-professionalization trends, leading global conversations on the future of the teaching profession, and coordinating a global teacher and educator network in order to empower teachers.

Setting the agenda

An informed and engaged population starts with teachers. Protecting liberal democracy requires curriculum disobedience in the same manner that university professors protect their academic freedom, and upholding professional ethics, just as the medical profession adhere to the Hippocratic Oath. For too long educators have allowed others to set the agenda. The tacit knowledge of teachers is often devalued and teachers are voiceless in discussions about education policy. Education has yet to put in place a system that guarantees teacher’s a voice and makes it an accepted, integral part of the day-to-day operations of schools.

Ultimately, education is a political act. All teachers are activists and the call for teacher voice and agency is a call to resistance. The message is one of hope and empowerment.

For more, see:

NB. The author is an editor of Flip the System Australia, a Varkey Teacher Ambassador, and a member of Education International.  

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Cameron Paterson

Cameron Paterson is a Getting Smart Staff Writer, and is the Director of Learning at Wesley College.

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