The Death of a Teacher

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Is an evidence-based profession, a hidden policy for teachers to secure externally determined goals?

I’ve just started to read Flip the System: changing education from the ground up by Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber. It’s a brilliant read and I hope to blog my thoughts as I travel through the book.

Before I start on the topic which prompted the title for this post, ‘flip the system’ calls for a move away from an uneducational economic approach, to instead embrace all humane, more democratic approach to education. This approach as the authors state, is a “move that places teachers exactly where they need to be-at the steering educational systems worldwide”.

Something to note, both authors claim to each have a teaching bias. Kyneber the traditional and Evers progressive in a bid to claim teaching as a profession, rather than a split camp, seeing a slow introduction of teachers into all levels of policy decision-making.

Both authors agree that the need for a flipped system is urgent. Teachers – across the world – feel lost in terms of what they are working for. We need teachers to safeguard that which makes education educational. There was a time when nobody was telling teachers what to do. The authors write that “perhaps 40 or 50 years ago, education was not subject to furious political debate”. When I qualified in the 1990s, although I was a young and naive, although I recognise that I was entering into a profession that would sap my energies, I was very unaware of the political influences that would be unleashed into my day-to-day work.

The sense of crisis started to reach the shores of England when OECD started to publish its PISA survey in 2000 (OECD 2001). “Although the Pisa results are intended to be used for comparing systems in order to provide countries with system information, they have led, especially among politicians, a feeling of pressure and fear of falling behind”.

The perceived crisis used to push an agenda for ‘raising the bar’.

Neo-Liberal Reforms:

In many countries, governments turned to neoliberal reform, under the assumption that an education system that resembles a market will, push goals to achieve higher results. Pasi Salhberg has written extensively on the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM):

GERM has emerged since the 1980s and has increasingly become adopted as an educational reform orthodoxy within many education systems throughout the world, including in the U.S., England, Australia and some transition countries. Tellingly, GERM is often promoted through the interests of international development agencies and private enterprises through their interventions in national education reforms and policy formulation.

In his book, he explains the five key features of GERM. The first is standardisation of education. Outcomes-based education reform with detailed and often ambitious performance targets, frequent testing of students and teachers. Second, a focus on core subjects in school, in other words, on literacy and numeracy, and in same case science. This is happening on the expense of social studies, arts, music and physical education that re-diminishing in many school curricula.

The third characteristic is the search for low-risk ways to reach learning goals and a lower the degree of freedom in experimentation and risk-taking in classroom learning. The fourth is use of corporate management models as a main driver of improvement. This process where educational policies and ideas are lent and borrowed from business world which paralyses teachers’ and schools’ attempts to learn from the past and also to learn from each other.

The fifth global trend is adoption of test-based accountability policies for schools. In doing so school performance – especially raising student achievement – is closely tied to processes of accrediting, promoting, inspecting, and, ultimately, rewarding or punishing schools and teachers.


Gert Biesta has a “concern about a very particular development that has been going on in our educational institutions and our societies more generally, which is the disappearance of teaching and the concomitant disappearance of the teacher. And not the actual disappearance of teaching and the teacher, but the disappearance—or at least the erosion—of a certain understanding of teaching and the teacher, an understanding in which it can be acknowledged that teachers are there to teach.”

The paper is fascinating and worth a read.

Gert Biesta Disappearance of Teacher

Phenomenology and Practice, Volume 6 (2012)


It is fairly straightforward for teachers to see themselves as a commodity as more and more privitisation takes grip of our public services in England. Something not of the public, but a system delivered to the public. In Flip the System, “it is clear that the neoliberal shift inform has led, in a more post-modern sense, to the death of the teacher: the death of the very idea that the teacher has something to contribute, the very idea that the teacher has a meaningful voice in regard to his/her work, to walk he/she wants to achieve through his/her work and by which means he/she achieves it.”

It is well-cited, that the quality of teaching cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. But this belief as the authors state – and which you and I will agree – is no benefit to us as a teacher.

It is the following sentence however, that has made me question recent reforms in education, where I – as an individual teacher working with the profession – may have fallen foul of recent policy.

” … The teacher is no longer viewed as a professional, but as a labourer who simply has to follow evidence-based methods in order to secure externally determined goals. [Teachers] proceed as disposable: give someone a crash course in education, teach him/her number of evidence base methods and let him/her grinding the machine until he/she is either burnt out hope you get to work in a different field of work after two or three years”.

As the authors conclude in their introduction, the old days, where teachers decided on matters of curriculum and delivery without any kind of accountability, are well and truly over.

If we are to avoid the death of teachers, we must be collegiate – regardless of our own preferences – and become more aware of reform and its motives.


shutterstock_159270173 Tombstone and graves in an ancient church graveyard

Image: Shutterstock

9 thoughts on “The Death of a Teacher

  1. I appreciated this paper when it first came to light (in my case) when encouraged by my mentor to read the book “The Beautiful Risk of Teaching” (2104) by Gert Biesta ( see the review I first read at ). Why did I appreciate it? Because the book is challenging philosophically (for me anyway!) and deeply conceptual. But its a revelation in respect of the impact of neoliberalism in education over the last 40 years or so – my entire career!

    My story. As a headteacher of a PRU being tasked with maintaining a “Good” judgement in our wonderful school, I queried why the inspection focus had shifted from behaviour and safeguarding (circa 2009), to engagement and attendance (2012), and finally to the same measuring stick (with which to beat?) mainstream schools – who, through no fault of their own in many cases, had already failed our children. It seemed bizarre to assume with all the traumas, dysfunctional lives, mental health issues, parenting and LA parenting (CLA) and a plethora of other issues, that our children could ever be measured by the same expected outcomes. Missed days in schools we already know equate to deficits in subject knowledge, skills and certainly, in most of our young peoples cases, motivation. Not only that, but disaffection and mental health are serious obstacles in addressing the task of removing barriers to learning! We always felt our goal was to re-engage, nurture and teach the children how to begin to love learning again …. and themselves.

    Nevertheless, we plodded on trying to bridge the massive data gap created by receiving trees worth of poor behaviour narratives from mainstream partners but no attainment/achievement analysis – why would you provide this information? It’s not why the kids have been “permed” (a bit like ‘google’ has become a verb when you search the web, ‘permed’ has now become the verb to remove the unease of saying PERMANENTLY EXCLUDED). To cut a long story short, suddenly PRU’s were being expected to provide the rich data sets mainstream schools had been developing over years of sophisticated training and development. Indeed, I remember sympathising with senior colleagues in mainstream at their horrendous challenge in satisfying the “data gods” – the smile was rapidly wiped off my face at the last Ofsted goal post moving excercise. We had no chance, of course, but our brilliant partner schools did their damnedest to help and I will never forget that support.

    My point however is this. Why should schools spend so much time focussed on data and how best to manipulate it (let’s be honest, that’s what we are doing) in order to put children’s terminal performance results in their best light? What impact does this charade have, in terms of our focus, in comparison to the time and energy devoted to improving teaching and learning? Teaching, once you have managed to get through the walking in treacle period, is an art not an empirical process. That’s not to say empiricism and evidence do not have a place either but it should be on our terms as teachers not some externally imposed and poorly assembled league table. Of course we must quality assure our practice, but in this crude way? I have never ‘got it’ and, having read Gert Biesta’s book and articles, I never will. Do yourselves a big favour and do the same.

    I live in hope that the College of Teaching will move the profession forward and, while understanding the concerns expressed by so many, provide us with a unified voice of influence at long last. The rate of teachers leaving is a scandal that will destroy the most valuable profession if we do not address the issue as one.

    Oh, that feels better!

  2. The teacher is no longer viewed as a professional, but as a labourer who simply has the following evidence-based methods in order to secure externally determined goals.

    Like doctors, engineers and architects. Frankly, if many teachers object to either evidence or working towards the goals of the people who pay them, they should hardly expect to be trusted.

  3. Unfortunately – this post continues the misrepresentation of the nature of evidence-based practice. The late David Sackett, who pioneered the development of evidence-based medicine said

    Good doctors use both individual clinical expertise and the best available external evidence, and neither alone is enough. Without clinical expertise, practice risks becoming tyrannised by evidence, for even excellent external evidence may be inapplicableto or inappropriate for an individual patient. Without current best evidence, practice risks becoming rapidly out of date, to the detriment of patients.

    I thin you could quite easily do a find and replace – replacing doctors with teachers, and patients with pupils – and there would be little to disagree with

    I recommend that you have a look at the original article from which this quote comes from

    1. Hi Gary – really useful feedback. The book and this blog which quotes much from the book itself and prompted much discussion.
      You are right – neither alone is enough. The challenge for doctors and teachers as always, is how can they access research within their busy schedules?

      1. The key is not to focus on research evidence – little of which is definitive – but look to the evidence in your setting, plus what stakeholders think and articulating you own theories of action. In part, we need to make interrogating evidence – part of the DNA of day to day work –

  4. This blog is really interesting, and useful as I’m currently creating a blog in University. if you have any information which can help me with blogging I would appreciate that. Will definitely be visiting this site again.

  5. I agree with Gary Jones (no relation by the way) that evidence based practice has a great deal to offer those wanting to bolster the weakened professionalism of teaching. Evidence tends to tell the practitioner what works with the average student, hopefully using evidence drawn from large scale research. But each practitioner is located in a particular context; the culture of the school, their own personal strengths and weaknesses, the unique characteristics of the class, and the individuals within it. These circumstances change hour by hour, who did the class have before you, who have they got next. The professional makes choices about how to tackle the teaching challenges based on all these variables as well as understanding of what evidence says.

    But you are right that there is a counter narrative that says research evidence tells us what makes for effective teaching so we just need to train teachers in those dozen approaches and we have an effective classroom teacher. All those who care about education need to work hard that this latter (emasculated) version of evidence based practice isn’t the dominant paradigm.

  6. I’m currently working on a piece for the UK edition of Flip the System. I think this is one of the most important books about teaching that I’ve read since starting to study leadership and management ten years ago. I too will be blogging about this over the next few weeks.

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