Cogs in a machine: the language of teacher professional standards

Patrick Mackie [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The words and metaphors we hear create pictures in our minds which can either expand or limit what we perceive and therefore experience. “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” [Sapir 1929 The Status Of Linguistics As A Science p. 69]. I’ve tried before to use this idea to understand better some of the confusion around the relationship between theory and experience.

Last week I read an article which outlined the ways in which the concept of teacher professional standards is both shaped and limited by the language employed in official documents. One consequence of this, the authors argue, is to marginalize the kind of professional reflection which theorists like Schon and Britzman advocate, and which we (like most education faculties) teach and practise.

The article, published last month online, is by Mary Ryan and Terri Bourke, and is called “The teacher as reflexive professional: making visible the excluded discourse in teacher standards.”

Teachers are discursively repositioned [in official UK and Australian documents analysed by the authors] as non-experts, the last in the line of a management hierarchy with central office at the top, descending to regional offices and then to school principals. Educational decisions are made elsewhere and it is up to the teacher to work effectively and efficiently in a standardised accountable environment (Leaton Gray & Whitty, 2010). Managerialism sees teachers as unquestioning supporters and implementers of a competency-based, outcome-oriented pedagogy related to the world of work. [2]

[Teachers] are expected to ‘Use the National Professional Standards for Teachers…to identify and plan professional learning needs’ (p. 18). Reflection in this document is represented as a controlled activity, with ambiguous definitions and purposes. None of the standards suggest that reflexivity or deep reflection are priorities, nor do they identify strategies to support teachers to reflect in deep and transformative ways to develop satisfying and sustainable practices for both their students and themselves. [8]

… governments in Australia and the UK are carefully attempting to shape teachers and the teaching profession through behavioural-heavy standards, with little regard for the attitudinal, emotional and intellectual dimensions of the trustworthy professional [11]

Last week I met with seven first year out teachers to talk together about their experiences. They described many things: the isolation they experienced, the tiredness, the breakthroughs, their battles to keep hold of ideals in the face of bureaucratic pressures, the students who challenged and sustained them, their love of their disciplines, the restorative pleasure they got from meeting together like this.

One of them – a beginning teacher already making a mark in her school for her disciplinary passion and fierce commitment to both standards and students – talked about how oppressive she found the bureaucratically-imposed teacher standards, which required her to tick boxes which paid no regard to the actual teaching she was doing with real students. She despaired, she told us, when she saw colleagues attending to the box-ticking at the expense of their classes.

Ryan and Bourke are suggesting that a part of this teacher’s despair is the attitude towards teachers implicit in policy documents on teacher standards.

 [T]hese documents metaphorically represent teachers as cogs in the bureaucratic machine, who need to be told what to do, what to know and how to be a ‘good’ teacher, with little acknowledgement of the complex subjective and objective influences on teachers’ work. [10]


Ryan, M. and T. Bourke (2012). “The teacher as reflexive professional: making visible the excluded discourse in teacher standards.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI:10.1080/01596306.2012.717193.

1 thought on “Cogs in a machine: the language of teacher professional standards

  1. This post has come at such a key time for me. I’ve had the most frustrating time trying to finalise my documentation in line with the set of standards that I must comply with. This combined with some box-tickers like those your other student has identified have rendered me so frustrated that I am almost speechless. I’m truly at my wits end with the whole thing. Fortunately I have some wonderful colleagues who have shown me great personal and professional support, and as always I am sustained by these interactions. I am left thinking two things: 1) how wonderful it is to work in a profession that has human interest at its core, so that the majority of people you encounter are genuine in their desire to support and assist you and 2) How thoroughly disappointing it is that there are parts of the profession that have lost their way that it becomes necessary to regard this general level of kindness and support as in some way extraordinary.

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