The Standards have been lauded as a framework which, at long last, define what a teacher should know and be able to do to earn the right to be considered a professional.
Are the Standards the key to an improvement in teacher quality, a claim government reports and peak bodies often make? What do teachers think about them? What difference do they, or will they, make to teachers’ lives?
These are the kind of questions that interested me as I embarked upon doctoral research on the Standards, now completed. My study took as its case a high performing school system, from which were drawn 71 classroom teachers across a diverse range of seven secondary schools.
A high performing school system, which can provide the support, positive pressure and capacity building that enable schools to respond to a rapidly changing education agenda, was selected as the case because it is most likely to present the extent and limit of what is possible with the Standards. Teacher participants were engaged in a total of 50 hours of semi structured interviews, which produced 500,000 transcript words, which sought to elicit teachers’ conceptions of the Standards, how the Standards had already impacted on them as teachers, and how the Standards may impact on them in the future.
In general, my research found that teachers remained unconvinced of the rhetoric that the Standards, as an accreditation system, “will position the profession to improve student outcomes and also result in teachers being more highly valued in the community” (BOSTES, 2015).
It was not that teachers argued that Standards did not present a definitive statement of what a teacher should know and be able to do, but rather that the most important stuff (to them) — the human that the teacher presents to the world — was missing from and therefore apparently unimportant to the Standards.
To put it more technically, the Standards are clear about the epistemological dimensions of teachers’ work (what a teacher must know and be able to do), but they have little to say in the ontological domain, that is, the human the teacher is always in the process of becoming. A research participant put it simply and beautifully, albeit in an inchoate statement when she said:
The only thing that I think is missing (I think it’s missing but you can’t put it in a standard) is the whole ‘can you actually teach?’
Indeed, the search for absences and silences in the data produced perhaps the most interesting of all the data that I collected. Even though the specific question ‘what’s missing in the AITSL Standards?’ was only one of 25 distinct questions in the interview guide, it produced just over 10% of all interview data references that I coded. Teachers emphasised that the most important element of being a teacher is the free expression of what I have termed teacher dispositions. Teachers placed high value on the importance of relationality in teaching and did not feel that it found full expression in the Standards.
The Standards, therefore, while they may measure knowledge and skills of the teacher — things that matter — they do not measure everything that matters: “There is so much that’s not on these pages” said one teacher. Yet another participant in the research was critical of some pre new scheme teachers’ resistance to change, but admired the elusive exemplary teacher quality of their dispositions in the classroom:
“I have sat in their classes and I have watched them and I have worked with them, I have team taught with them and they just have this vast array; just the way they challenge the students and their interactions with them and all those things, even when they are not that charismatic in the classroom, I find that they just have this—they understand. They just see it and they understand it, they are so switched on.”
When asked what is missing in the Standards the participant noted:
“I don’t know if they could put it in writing, could they? The natural, organic stuff that happens in the classroom? You couldn’t, you just can’t; what teachers do in the classroom, whether you are new scheme or not, I just don’t think you could put that into words.”
This last quote emphasises the difficulty in capturing the dispositions that teachers felt were the most important parts of being a teacher. Various research in the last 10 years or so has sought to categorise the special qualities of the expert teacher in the epistemological domain; what is particular to the argument in my research is that these special qualities that were felt to separate the exemplary from the non exemplary teacher should be conceptualised as belonging in the ignored ontological, not the epistemological domain — what Dall’Alba and Sandberg (2006) call “embodied understanding of practice” and Gorodetsky and Barak (2016) call “becomings”. Understanding teacher dispositions as elements of the ontological domain conveys much more strongly the concept that they are quintessential to the personhood of the teacher. “Teachers are indeed people. Who you are is how you teach” (McCulla, 2012).
Professional standards for teachers may well be necessary, but they are not sufficient. On their own, they offer a portrait of the exemplary teacher which leaves out the dimension of being a teacher which practitioners believe to be the most important part of the profession-teacher dispositions. Over time, the danger is that the normalisation of professional standards as portraying the image of the ideal teacher will diminish rather than enhance teacher quality.
An ethical narrative would valorise teacher dispositions, highlighting their importance. The way forward is to augment or complement professional standards within an ongoing ethical narrative developed by teachers, for teachers. It is not just about establishing something like an independent college of teachers, and then writing an ethical statement (although this may be an important first step). Professional ethics cannot end with an ethical statement because any codified statement, of itself, will not engage teachers in the ongoing ethical conversation that is necessary to encourage an audacious and independent reflective thinking that will inspire them.