Exploring the Limits of the Teacher Subject as a way to imagine a new school

In this post we would like to highlight the presentation done on 20 January 2017 at UCLU Chilean Society by Felipe Acuña (Social Anthropologist, MA in Educational Psychology by Universidad de Chile, and PhD student at the Institute of Education – UCL). The title of his presentation was “Exploring the Limits of the Teacher Subject as a way to imagine a new school. A Qualitative Study into the Subjectivity of Dissident and Organized Teachers in Chile”.

In this presentation, Felipe problematized two contradictory educational movements and their relation with the teacher subject. One movement has a global scope and the other is rooted in my home country, Chile. Following Sahlberg (2011), we can call the first one a Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM); a movement characterized by finance driven reforms and competitiveness-driven changes to the education systems around the world. One of the main focus of GERM is the governance of teachers as a specific and however highly relevant actor wherein these processes of reform can be enacted (Ball, 2003; Robertson, 2016).

The governance of teachers is produced in part by deploying a paradoxical discourse of both blame and derision and of centrality of teachers (Larsen, 2010) by which they are delineated as the main problem and ‘the most significant resource in schools’ (OECD, 2005); they are portrayed as the ‘front-line workers’ (OECD, 2014) ‘to ensure better education results’ (The World Bank, 2012). GERM is heavily influenced by a set of international actors such as OECD, the World Bank or some global educational firms. However, as Ong (2007) emphasizes, whatever is traveling through this global movement it is always interacting with situated political regimes and, therefore, producing an openness to unexpected outcomes.

The context of Chile is an interesting case where this interaction can be explored. After widespread student demonstrations in 2006 and 2011 –who railed against market-oriented structures and in favour of reinstating the view of education as a social right (Bellei & Cabalin, 2013)–, the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018) won the elections with the promise of a major educational reform. Thus, another kind of movement –a social one– produced an opportunity to enact a different kind of educational reform process. One of the four fundamental changes proposed was improving teachers’ professionalism by means of a new Teaching Career Policy (TCP). However, a spontaneous movement of teacher that started to be called ‘the dissidents’ railed and strike against the new TCP in 2014/15. One of the leaders of these demonstrations argued that this was not their Career because it responds to a “business and productivity” logic.

The new TCP, despite having being triggered from a social movement critical towards the neoliberal rationale, is a new and subtle system of distribution and classification of teachers in five levels of performance. A system, as the sub-secretary of Education said, based on an OECD report that the Chilean Government request. The rationale of the new TCP, can be argued, is strongly consistent with GERM and that is one of the main criticisms that ‘dissident’ teachers have.

Different questions can be addressed from this problematisation. I am interested in the sustainability of the GERM rationale, even when the reform process is surrounded by an aura and a rhetoric of change and social rights. In particular, Felipe is conceptualising the new TCP as a policy based on systems of data-driven, direction-given assessment and accountability that operates mainly by acting upon the existing or possible actions of teachers in what Foucault (1982) calls a subjugation struggle. A struggle that takes place in the site of subjectivity (Ball, 2015) producing a bonsai subject (Rivas, 2005), this is a subject whose possible actions have been reduced to the minimal. Using the notion of limit-attitude (Foucault, 1997), I ask about the possibilities of dissident and organized teachers in Chile to struggle in the site of subjectivity by deploying an experimental and imaginative attitude towards their own limits. In other words, how does a teacher subject relates their dissident and organized self with their everyday school self?

With a focus on subjectivity and language, this is a form of qualitative research. The approach leading the methodological strategy is based on narratives (Phoenix, 2008; Day Sclater, 2003) and Felipe will conduct interviews with two groups of teachers: first, the founders, leaders, speakers or main intellectuals of six different dissident teachers’ organization as a way to contextualize their organizations. Second, the main group, with whom Felipe will research more carefully their limit-attitude. These teachers will have three characteristics: i) be currently working in a school, ii) be a member of a dissident teacher organization and iii) not be the founder, leader or main intellectual of the organization.  Felipe will analyse the data paying special attention to metaphors (Hass and Lakoff, 2009).

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