My 2020 Vision is to successfully launch Speak Up Speak Out: The Ethics matter Podcast, in April.
This year I will be 60 years old. While this makes me eligible to start taking my teacher’s pension, I do not intend to retire. I have three grandchildren. I care passionately about my continuing responsibility to help shape the world they are growing up in for the better. I will continue living by and championing the values of social justice, inclusion and celebration of diversity. This April I will launch Speak Up Speak Out: The Ethics Matter Podcast. It is my way of bringing this vision to life.
Why this, why now?
Speak Up Speak out: The Ethics Matter Podcast has emerged out of the strong desire to contribute to social change in the field of education through the power of coaching. The social context of coaching matters and the context is what makes the ethics of the coach matter.
The common explanation for the huge numbers of teachers deserting the profession is stress caused by unmanageable workload. I know from 29 years of personal experience that this cannot be the main cause. Why? Because teaching has always been stressful. Especially for those of us who cared about the young people we taught and saw education as a social good, part of process of improving life chances and developing talent .
Exam results were always important because they improve the life chances of the children who were often disadvantaged in so many other ways. But we knew our young people would need more than that to participate in society as autonomous, thinking human beings. It is a sad reality that teachers with these values can no longer take it for granted that they will be welcomed in the education system today. Our system has come to be driven by the values of the market, not by the values of social justice. Many researchers have defined this dominant force behind how our education system is run as neoliberalism.
What is neoliberalism?
In his book, Global Education Inc. New Policy Networks and the Neo-liberal Imaginary, Stephan Ball, describes it as the ‘economisation’ of social life and social relations and the creation of new forms of profit. It has established itself as a dominant ideology through the gradual re-engineering of our sense of self and by eroding our sense of social being, replacing it with individualism as the new standard of perfection. I would not be coaching ethically, in line with my values if I were to ignore this context. Looking around I can see the social consequences of this individualistic philosophy.
Performativity as a form of oppression
Performativity has come to be used to describe the high stakes accountability and audit culture that has developed across the education system since the 1988 Education Reform Act. The culture change initiated by this legislation was capture vividly in landmark research by Professor Stephan Ball in ‘The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity’. The same has happened right across the public sector.
Why ‘terror’, this is a strong word? Because there is a largely invisible struggle taking place between the reasons why teachers join the profession and the day to day role they are asked to play. Children have been reduced to units that produce other units of value i.e exam results or rates of progress. Teachers are measured against their ability to secure the required units of value using prescribed processes. The ‘outstanding’ teacher, which they are sold as the holy grail of professionalism, is who they are required to become. In this version of the self, “value replaces values”. In this world the “ethics of competition and performance are very different from the older ethics of professional judgement and co-operation” (Ball 2003) and being judged good or outstanding within this framework becomes an incentive to perform, it brings rewards.
‘Re-Professionalising’ the self in this way is, however, too much for those whose personal values refuses to accept this arid, destructive view of what it means to be a teacher. Some remain in the profession but are unhappy; others burnout, are forced out or leave. The terror comes from the fear of being judged inadequate for doing what you feel is right rather than doing what is required. It comes from having to perform a role you do not believe in and being punished for failing. There are some who are happy with this new world, of course, who stay and thrive. But even for those the constant churn and instability is a constant threat.
One example of how this sense of threat is generated should is enough to illustrate this. Almost annually the Ofsted framework changes, sometimes the tweaks are minor, at others, there are fundamental shifts. One such fundamental shift took place in 2019. Ofsted justified the changes it made by citing the workload issue outlined in its own research which pointed to the meaningless emphasis being put on data, rather than on learning. Research shows that it is not the quantity of work that drives teachers to despair but the sheer quantity of time they are required to do data driven tasks which have no connection to teaching and learning. Even worse, this also created a culture that is damaging not only to their well-being but also to the well-being of children. This is not ethical for those of us who are compassionate and humane.
However, rather than feeling empowered to take the opportunity to relax sufficiently, to focus less on data and more of what matters, there was another flurry of panic measures. Schools are busy reviewing and rewriting curriculum. Drilling teachers and subject leaders in the language of ‘deep dives’ and ‘curriculum intent’. I know from talking to practitioners that this has generated many flawed decisions in order to tick Ofsted inspection boxes. It has also created big business for advisors, consultants and suppliers (including some MATs) of curricula frameworks and resources. Ofsted may not even have consciously prompted any of this activity.
It has become a learned, self-activated response by those leaders, managers and teachers fearful of falling prey to a poor Ofsted judgement. Due to the well-known and devastating consequences that flow from such judgements. This is both part of how the system subtly exerts control as well as how it incentivises harmful behaviours. Behaviours such as hot housing pupils, excluding or isolating hard (and more expensive) to teach pupils, imposing coercive ‘no tolerance’ behaviour systems.
Ethical stress is caused by the tension between wanting to meet the standards of ‘excellence’ called for from this system an the feeling that the system does not serve the best interests of those it is meant to serve.drives teachers and school leaders into distress. The concept was developed by Jane Fenton, from her research into similar conflicts faced by over stretched social workers. She used this term to describe what they experience ethical when their working practices prevent them doing what they feel will be of most benefit to them, (medical professionals working in the NHS also describe very similar feelings to those of education and social work professionals).
Fenton characterises ethical stress in ‘Four’s a crowd’? Making Sense of neo-liberalism, Ethical Stress, Moral Courage and Resilience (2019), as a positive response to an unreasonable tension between doing good and doing what is expected. Teachers, like social workers, are no longer allowed to take into account the social and economic factors that might be having an effect on behaviour or outcomes. Individual clients or pupils are either just indigent or of poor character. Lacking grit or the resilience required to succeed. They are either there to be fixed using prescribed methods (parenting classes or isolation booths) or punished (deprived of benefits or permanently excluded).
In her article she talks about the fact that those who experience ethical stress have values that conflict with ‘neo-liberal/managerial’ values. Those who feel no ethical stress are either unaware that they have internalised this system of values, or they actively subscribe to them. In a clarifying conclusion she states, “Essentially, the experience of ethical stress demonstrates that the social worker can see beyond the individualisation of social problems and understands that contextual factors, such as poverty, matter.” Seeing beyond it means you can challenge it, chose to act differently, champion an alternative approach, choosing to do good rather than to comply with what does harm against your better judgement. Those who feel unable to exercise this choice are prone to suffering moral injury.
How can coaching help?
Through coaching I have helped scores of professionals bring their ethical stress related emotions and thoughts to the surface. This did not initially happen by design. When I started my work, I had no language to understand that I too was experiencing my own version of ethical stress. The choice I exercised deeply changed the way I worked. My coaching training up to the point where I began coaching teachers was focused on improving performance. In education professionals I found myself facing levels of distress that performance focused coaching risked making worse. I began to focus on well-being instead.
For some the coaching gave them the moral courage to leave the system before they became too ill to continue. Others stayed finding ways to adapt and reach for fulfilment. Yet others went on to act out their resistance to ‘the ways things are done around here’ in productive ways, influencing change. My ethical stress came from my perception that performance focused coaching could do harm. That it offered no help to challenge or resist the causes of the client’s stress. They were the ones who had to change. Not the system. I did not feel comfortable with that; my personal sense of what felt right was being challenged.
Ethics and Well-being
Neo-liberal individualism and a disregard for the consequences of an unbridled drive to increase productivity and maximise profit are in the air that we all breath. It leads to ethical tensions for all of us. When we are unable to act in line with our values and instead feel we are doing harm, quite literally, makes us ill from stress or burnout.
Being able to give voice to the frustrations we feel when unable to exercise our urge to act ethically in service of the common good is very important to maintain well-being. My podcast is one contribution to giving space and time for these conversations.
Subscribe to Speak Up Speak Out: The Ethics Matter Podcast
The ethics matter podcast is for those who experience ethical stress in their professional lives and who have found or are looking for meaningful ways of using it to create change it.
The ethics matter podcast provides a space where we can have fearless conversations, challenge injustice and work for change.
Podcast Launch Date: April 2020
Sign up in advance to our subscribers list ahead of the launch: www.lifeflowbalance.co.uk/speak-up-speak-out-podcast/