Why do teachers feel alienated?

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return…

from Mirror in February by Thomas Kinsella

The right word to use for the relationship between teachers and the world they try daily to change one student at a time is alienation.
Teachers feel they are the victims of forces beyond their control: economic forces, political and social forces, the force of negative public discourse. None of this is new, it has been the case for years that education and those who deliver it have been frustrated by the way their professional opinions have been excluded from the process of decision making. They have felt for a generation that they have no real say in shaping their work lives or determining how best to use education as anything more than a clinical data gathering exercise.
Many teachers may not have come to understand this yet, many may not have articulated it or even had time to think about it, but they feel it. This alienation expresses itself in the shortness of many teaching careers, the ‘muddling through’ cuts to education, the unwillingness to enter into conversations about public service with neighbours friend or family, the inability to recommend teaching as a profession to young graduates. If we have become insensitive to the damage all this does to our profession, if we are fooled into thinking that our alienation is normal and a sign of how we are meant to react to constant criticism from political ‘leaders’ and media ‘commentators’, then we will never recover.
We are encouraged to turn on each other: retired teachers, younger teachers, or unions leaders are ‘the problem’. But education shouldn’t be part of the rat race, teachers shouldn’t be scrambling around, afraid to raise their heads or hands above the ramparts to reject this alienation and reject the pressure of society that would have you teach for any other reason than to educate children. Education is for growth not exams, for questions and answers, not for pat solutions or the easy way out. We have become addicted to silence in the face of a storm of negative commentary, the dignity and pride we should feel are stripped away and that alienated feeling is all that’s left.
Schools are places where the insidious pressures of society that seek out those who are to to blame should not hold sway. Those pressures force us to be silent in the face of injustice in case it damages our chance of fitting in to the rat race. Teachers, those forces strip away your dignity, your sense of justice, your instinct for fairness.
When they reduce education to economic arguments for making profit they reduce it to nothingness. There is no price too high for the emancipation an individual can achieve through education. It becomes, or course, a matter of control, not of freedom, and the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. When educators and those to be educated are excluded from decision making, democracy is replaced by profit and loss and you create a society where success is judged by the extent of your economic success, and teachers/students/citizens are reduced to units of production.
And that’s where the alienation comes in: somewhere someone makes the decision that education is measurable, that you either measure up or you are nothing; that’s what alienates teachers: they refuse to write people off. Considering what is human is not what the bean counters do. To measure educational attainment in terms of money spent denies us the opportunity to enrich the lives of all our citizens, we need to place education at the centre of our society, not marginalise it.
Give teachers credit, they equip people for life, not to be economic units, but to be social contributors.
Teachers: don’t give in to this pressure, don’t feel alienated from the world around you, keep on keeping on, they won’t realise it now but your work matters, and education shouldn’t be subject to financial straightjacketing.



16 thoughts on “Why do teachers feel alienated?

  1. I’ve thought a lot about teacher isolationism – the tendency to close the classroom door and not work with other teachers except in formalised meetings.

    I hadn’t before considered the connection between isolation and alienation. Perhaps teacher isolate themselves because they fear they will be the one blamed for all those things teachers are blamed for.

    Good food for thought…

    1. Thanks Janet: I wanted to differentiate between closing the door of the classroom from the outside world and how the profession seems to suffer from an out of proportion negativity in public discourse. That was part of the plan anyway…

      1. It worked. 🙂 Truthfully, the negativity is one of the reasons I wanted to teach overseas. I’ll be interested to see if the negativity exists as prevalently in Australia. Teachers got a whole lot more respect in Asian schools.

        Teaching is hard enough without always feeling you are under watch.

      2. The outside pressure here in Ireland seems to centre around the belief that anyone can teach and do a better job than the people trained and experienced in education.

      3. In Portland (1990s), a radio celebrity bagged on teachers. One teacher called in and invited the radio celebrity to work in her classroom for one week. He took up the challenge.

        …and never again criticised teachers.

  2. It’s amazing what the Establishment can achieve when it uses the word ‘reform’ when forcing through changes that are ill-thought out, counter everything cognitive science tells us about learning, and packaged to garner parents support in a them-and-us way.
    In every revolution, the first people against the wall was always the teachers and intellectuals. Not all revolutions involve actually shooting people.

    1. It’s also been pointed out to me Peter that some of these ‘reforms’ have been floating around for a generation and that austerity has provided an opportunity to dust them down and drive them through, regardless of their failure in other education systems.

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