Subdued By The System: Neoliberalism and The Beginning Teacher

Jul. 01, 2014

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Vol. 41, (July, 2014), p. 13-21
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study examined, through the lens of narrative inquiry, the lived experience of a beginning teacher during her first two years in a neoliberal school system.
It focused on the following research questions:
1. What are the challenges faced by a beginning teacher in a neoliberal school culture?
2. To what extent do neoliberal educational practices, such as performance appraisal, work intensification and high-stakes standardised testing, contribute to or detract from a beginning teacher’s professional autonomy?

The participant, Natalie Ho, was a 28-year-old young woman.
She applied to join the teaching force in 2006, after working as a finance executive for three years.
She was recruited by the MOE as a contract teacher in Franjipani Primary School to get some initial teaching experience before her teacher education commenced.
Although she did not have a pleasant working experience there, she finished the contract and embarked on a one-year Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) programme.


This narrative inquiry has revealed how an idealistic beginning teacher, enamoured with a constructivist pedagogy and eager to teach and inspire, was engulfed by a neoliberal school culture and taught in a way antithetical to what she had believed.
In her teacher education programme, Natalie was initiated into, and believed in, constructivist pedagogical practices focused on creating a learning space for children through engaging and meaningful activities.
Such practices were, however, fundamentally different from those prevalent in her school. Natalie was confronted with a reality that disparaged and negated her constructivist ideas about teaching.
The neoliberal discourse compelled her to teach in a way that conformed to the officially sanctioned approach and coerced her complicity in neoliberal pedagogical practices.
However, she did not give up her beliefs without resistance.
She resisted by expressing her doubts at departmental meetings but was taken to task for “questioning authority”.
Moreover, she had to face the need to perform, which was communicated loud and clear by the annual appraisal.
Over time, she was subdued and chose to comply with the school norms silently.
Now she adopted, on her own initiative, the worksheet pedagogy she had detested so much. By adopting the dominant neoliberal discourse and practices, beginning teachers like Natalie can gain recognition as accountable, effective, and competitive teachers.


The authors conclude that this story illustrates how neoliberal thinking and practice have impacted the lived experiences of an ordinary beginning teacher and helps to illuminate potential causes of tension and conflict that novice teachers in Singapore are likely to encounter in their induction into the profession and their adoption of alternative pedagogies to teach against the grain of educational neoliberalism that has taken a stranglehold on Singapore’s school system.
As Natalie’s story has revealed, a neoliberal school like Franjipani normalises teachers’ pedagogical practices to those that are time-tested and proven to be both efficient and effective in delivering the outcomes that are necessary for market competition and branding.

The authors propose several strategies for countering a neoliberal school culture and helping novice teachers like Natalie that can be taken up by different parties.
To begin with, educational authorities and schools should strictly enforce the policy of a significantly reduced teaching load for beginning teachers in their first year on the job.
This policy can go a long way towards helping them transition successfully from teacher preparation to actual classroom teaching and overcome the proverbial praxis shock by allowing them time to make lesson observations, learn from experienced teachers, and engage in guided reflection.

Second, teacher education institutions need to foster neoliberal literacy in their programmes and provide extended induction support for beginning teachers.
To this end, teacher educations need to raise student teachers’ awareness of neoliberal thinking and practice, and developing their ability to implement alternative pedagogies strategically in contexts akin to what Natalie encountered.
Furthermore, teacher education institutions can organize induction programmes to provide on-the-job support for beginning teachers.

Finally, beginning teachers and their colleagues can help themselves by setting up their own support networks, such as teacher collaboratives that meet regularly and online discussion lists or forums.
This is especially important when peer support is not available in schools, as revealed by Natalie’s acute sense of loss when a close colleague of hers left the teaching service.
The teacher communities of practice that span across schools can facilitate problem-based learning and build self-confidence, assurance, and professionalism by engaging their members in earnest conversation about teaching.

Updated: Aug. 02, 2015