Are Teachers Under Increasing Surveillance?


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If you are a teacher, who is watching your performance in and out of the classroom?

In a paper written by Professor Damian Page, Conspicuous practice: self-surveillance and commodification in education (2017) unpicks ‘surveillance’ for teachers from a traditional and contemporary perspective.

Traditional in the sense, “collecting performance data” and contemporary surveillance from “watching the self, with teachers voluntarily participating in their own surveillance.”

Surveillance and Consumerism…

Page writes that this “…‘conspicuous practice’ represents a convergence of surveillance and consumerism, with teachers being recreated as commodities, becoming both the ‘merchandise and the marketing agent’…” to brand and marketise themselves.

I have written about micro-celebrity status for teachers who are active on social media. Teachers can be very popular within their community, profit from this, and sustain this external identity to their employment.

Page offers some familiar anecdotes of a teacher’s experiences in school. Collating documents for a “personal development file”, gathering evidence of “feedback from parents” and a “list of CPD courses” to describe the surveillance a teacher must engage with for appraisal.

Today, some teachers now engage with a conscious self-surveillance, using “a range of individual technologies that provide an increasingly comprehensive means of collecting data.” For example, blog posts, tweets, or videos captured by other teachers (of a presentation they may have shared at an event) outside of working hours.

Page labels this as “post-panoptic surveillance“; a more fluid and mobile surveillance of (perhaps) what a teacher also does outside of their contracted hours. The danger is this self-surveillance “becomes a marketing exercise.”

This is something all teachers active on social media will recognise.

Neoliberal connotations…

This new epoch of surveillance has some neoliberal connotations. The Twitterati-teacher who always speaks at teacher-training events; the books, blogs and podcasts being shared across the internet are widely shared across the teaching population (I write with some irony).

There is much to take away from this paper.

In essence, this new self-surveillance “of teachers is professional sorting, weeding out those who pose most risk to inspections, exam results and child welfare” enables prospective employers to scour social media channels to gather an online portfolio of evidence to determine whether or not to select for an interview – or evidence for capability procedures.

Three types of “surveillant assemblage” are offered.

  1. Vertical surveillance in the form of “classroom observations and outcomes data analysis” and “more recently by means of learning walks, CCTV and organizational designs such as schools-within-schools.” This also includes surveillance by pupils in the “recording of teachers by students on their mobile phones, uploading videos of teacher misbehaviour to YouTube.”
  2. Horizontal surveillance is “a collegial means of driving up quality on one hand, on the other hand holding the potential to undermine professional autonomy; unofficial peer observation outside of the classroom… open plan offices and… the effectiveness of… teachers through parental networks.”
  3. Finally, intrapersonal, self-surveillance “within reflective practice, omnipresent within teacher training and professional development, enshrined within notions of educator professionalism. Frequently positioned as ‘an intrinsically worthwhile activity’ (Bleakly, 1999, p320)… with contemporary leadership increasingly relying on “Management Information Systems to monitor the performance of its students and its teachers.”

The Diderot Effect

My interest in the paper origination from the perspective of the commodification of the teacher.

Something I have also researched for my doctoral studies: I’m A Celebrity, Keep Me In Here… The “means of exercising competition; a product to be compared against others products, a matter of consumer choice: parents consume qualifications and results for their children, schools are brands to be advertised.”

Page writes about Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and offers a lovely analogy of Diderot’s ‘old dressing gown’; how the new disrupts the old harmony “and caused a ripple effect of dissatisfaction that led to continual replacement.”

He highlights how teachers acting as surveillants of themselves and of each other may “can be defined as a force that encourages the individual to maintain a cultural consistency in his/her complement of consumer goods” – or the Diderot effect. No better anecdote is offered than the teaching professions’ desire to be ‘Outstanding’.

The Diderot effect can be seen in the rebranding of Ofsted frameworks, lesson observations and new curriculum policy – and just about anything and everything else we see across the English teaching profession.

This is neatly summed up in the following quote from Page:

“Frustrated desire then re-engages the entrepreneurial teacher-self to become better, to become fulfilled, to become more employable, to replace all those practices that – compared to the new addition – now look old and outdated.”

Conclusions

“Teachers have always been watched… where the desire to be competent and fulfilled is continuously frustrated by changes in policy.” Just look to Twitter and see how teachers are “visible, to advertise their differentiation from their competitors, all seeking the same rewards, promotions, pay rises, key projects” writes Page.

Teachers who engage with the commodification of education risk amplifying the neoliberal workplace. Alongside the rise of social media, I fear this ambition for all teachers to resist this commodification in exchange for professional autonomy will be hard, but thankfully, does exist within individual schools “to reassert control over the work that is done and how it is done.”

In terms of neoliberal forces and educational policy influencing, as I always say, once the classroom door is closed the teacher is in charge. We all have a choice. The challenge for all teachers, is finding their professional autonomy within their context and accountability framework, and supprorting others to find their agency too…

I have only touched the surface of Page’s paper which resonates with some of the thinking in my research. As ever, please download Professor Damien Page’s paper for the full context.


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