A ‘Battered’ Profession

14 / 02 / 2013

For some time, teaching – a female-dominated profession – has been underpaid, undervalued, and criticised from all quarters. Teachers Catherine Scott and Stephen Dinham respond to the critics, and suggest ways for other teachers to respond.


According to pop psychology, people are doomed to repeat the patterns that govern their lives, even when these patterns make them miserable and put them at risk. Children of alcoholics will find drunks to marry; battered spouses will stay with their abuser or – if that relationship breaks up – find another to misuse them. It’s all due to poor self-esteem, we are told.


“Battered spouse” means for most “battered wife/woman”, as physical violence towards partners is more often something men do to women rather than the reverse (although this too occurs). The treatment meted out to individual women in turn reflects the continuing existence of a deep and abiding misogyny. Events in 2012 – from brutal rapes in India to a series of astonishing statements about women, their competence, and even the workings of their bodies by conservative politicians and commentators during the American presidential election campaign – confirmed that misogyny is alive and well, despite feminism’s notable successes.


Of all the derogatory, wrong-minded and/or misinformed things said publicly about women, one of the most shocking was conservative commentator Charlotte Allen’s response to the latest school shootings in the USA. According to Allen, blame for the terrible events at Sandy Hook, in which 20 children and six adults were gunned down, lies in the feminisation of teaching.[i] Allen said that women were unable to defend themselves and others and thus their presence in any numbers makes them and those around them “sitting ducks”. This does not explain either the bravery of the (female) teachers who saved many pupils at Sandy Hook, or other mass gun murders in the USAin which at least equal numbers of men were present. The comment also calls to mind comedian W. C. Field’s observation that “a woman’s place is in the wrong”.


Teaching is indeed a highly feminised profession and is becoming more so. This makes the profession open to the sort of contemptuous attitudes that characterise misogyny generally, as Allen’s comments attest. The profession immediately falls prey to suspicions that the work is low level and probably not being performed well. The fact that entry into teaching requires a university education does not prove that practitioners are competent. Even Federal Shadow Minister for Education Christopher Pyne has publicly described a teaching degree as an “easy option”.


With its increasing feminisation, education can be seen as the “battered profession”. On a daily basis we hear damning statements, denigration, and misinformed criticism about the dire state of education. Usually these statements are made not by educators but by politicians, education bureaucrats, the media, members of the corporate sector and other self-appointed experts. The standard of those entering and practising teaching is narrowed to only include those with low ENTER scores and the continued criticism is extended to any group associated with schooling. Thus, the argument goes that university faculties of education are staffed by out-of-touch ideologues who produce graduates unfit for teaching.  Teacher unions are nothing more than self-serving rabbles and schools are war zones. Our school students are fit for neither society nor work and they face a bleak feature.[ii]


Such views, if spouted often enough, enter popular consciousness and become accepted as “truth”.  It is too easy to get airplay simply by making generalised and unsupported statements about the parlous state of Australian schools (and by implication the people who staff them).


There are some real concerns and educators encounter these on a daily basis.  However, addressing these real concerns is made more difficult by the prevailing climate of criticism and the apparent difficulty of crediting a profession dominated by women. And what is most shocking is the extent to which we teachers tolerate or even embrace our ‘abusers’.


Critics of education routinely make simplistic pronouncements that are ignorant of decades of research and the many great things achieved by our teachers and schools.  Our accumulated expertise and wisdom in education is totally disregarded, yet international colleagues frequently express admiration for what we have achieved in education.[iii]  These people look to Australia for leadership, research and guidance, while the uninformed urge us to copy Shanghai and the like. Our home grown critics argue that education is “broken” and must be “fixed”. Simplistic solutions are offered such as paying teachers by “results”, punishing poorly performing schools, sacking the “bottom 5%” of under-performing teachers[iv], appointing non-trained principals and other half-baked schemes to “drive up teacher quality”.


At conferences and professional development days, educators – members of that ‘battered profession’ – are routinely subjected to keynote speakers from “outside”, who project their utter ignorance of educational practice, research and theory onto the audience. Some naive pronouncements we have heard recently at principals’ conferences include “it’s time for teachers to start a conversation about good teaching”, and “teachers should work together like they do in Shanghai” – as if the profession was a wasteland with no knowledge or skill base to lay claim to.  The assembled, experienced educators sit passively and take the ‘lashings’ dealt out to them.  It is hardly surprising that educators have lost self-confidence after years of such treatment.


It is difficult to imagine that the most sought-after speakers at medical conferences would be people with no medical training at all and who, worse still, delivered speeches in which they insulted doctors’ competence and claimed that the medical profession knows little about successfully treating patients. The medical profession and others like it are, however, male-dominated and thus assumed to be knowledgeable and competent.


What keeps a battered partner with her abuser is the “being nice because of remorse” that occurs after a battering, something recognised as “traumatic bonding”.  The feelings of guilt, powerlessness and of having “nowhere else to go” are also important.  Our ‘abused’ profession keeps coming back for more because the ‘abusers’ seem sympathetic to our dearly held values –  concern for young people and our belief in the value of education for improving lives, for example.  We bond with our critics and take their utterances seriously, discounting our own knowledge in the process.[v] Only a profession whose self-esteem had been harmed by years of ‘abuse’ and resultant low status would allow itself to be denigrated and patronised in this fashion and, worse still, pay handsome fees to its ‘abusers’ for the privilege of hearing its competence ignored, derided or dismissed.


To counter this situation, those involved with all aspects of education need to find their voice in order to reject the misinformed, persistent, harmful rhetoric and indeed bullying that is presently going unchallenged in the public arena and – worse still – informing education policy. In doing so, it is imperative that evidence-based reasoning is employed rather than defensive, apologetic excuses.  Unfortunately, obtaining that evidence is increasingly difficult. The Australian Research Council recently announced the latest round of Discovery research grants. There were 732 successful applications from across Australia for projects to be funded in 2013. Only 15 of these grants went to education – a disappointing outcome despite education’s undeniable importance and the fact that it is now one of Australia’s largest and fastest growing industries.


Professionalism is essential in engaging with the wider community and stakeholders to promote the cause of education.  We need to work with the media and key bodies to ensure that the evidence and good news gets out there to counter the fixation with the one per cent of students, teachers and schools that are so easy and tempting to sensationalise. We need to think globally yet act locally to raise awareness of the many great things schools achieve on a daily basis.


Taking on and talking back to bullies is not easy but at least some realise it’s an important strategy to end the ‘abuse’. After enduring an evening with a group of real estate agents and financial advisers who greeted her revelation of her profession with “sympathetic shakes of their heads and a few patronising quips”, American high school English teacher Julie Conlon made a New Year’s resolution to “brag more”[vi]. It’s a resolution worth adopting for all teachers.


If we don’t talk back and learn to challenge ill-informed blanket criticism of education and educators, then we can expect the bullying to continue as our ‘abusers’ become further emboldened through our failure to challenge and stand up to them. They will continue to see, in other words, a profession dominated by women as “sitting ducks”.

[i] [i]National Review Online NRO Symposium ‘Newtown Answers’  19 December 2012 http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/335996/newtown-answers-nro-symposium


[iii] Dinham, S.  (2011).  ‘Improving the Quality of Teaching in Australia’, Education Canada, 51(1), pp. 34-38.  Available at: http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/improving-quality-teaching-australia

[iv] Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.  (2012). New directions for school leadership and teaching profession.  Available at: http://www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/public/commrel/about/teachingprofession.pdf

[v] de Fabrique, N.; Romano, S. J.; Vecchi, G.M.; van Hasselt, V.B. (July 2007). “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome”. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (Law Enforcement Communication Unit) 76 (7): 10–15.

[vi] Conlon, Julie. ‘A New Year’s resolution: Brag more.’ Education Week Teacher 2nd Jan 2013. http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2013/01/02/fp_conlon.html?tkn=RMVFkmd9gJdoyhAVw6qPno%2Bx7KepwSIZog44&cmp=ENL-TU-NEWS1