When performativity meets agency: how early career teachers struggle to reconcile competing agendas to become ‘quality’ teachers

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Published: 
July, 2021

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 27:5, 388-403

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this paper, the authors examine how the ‘performativity agenda’ in the form of externally developed accountability standards and processes that school leaders implement using performance management strategies impacts on the ‘agentic professional agenda’ which is mostly internally driven by early career teachers’ attempts to become the teachers they want be.
This article reports on a study that examined high-achieving graduate teachers’ perceptions of ‘quality’ early in their careers

The study
The study drew on data that was collected as part of an Australian Research Council funded project.
The authors conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 early career teachers in South Australia who were purposively selected because they had graduated from a merit-based scholarship programme in secondary teacher education (n = 8), and from an Honours programme in primary teacher education (n = 8).
Participants were aged between 23 and 52, the majority were employed in a different occupation prior to teaching and they had between 1 and 2 years of teaching experience.
It is important to note that 10 of the 16 participants were permanently employed and the remaining six participants were employed on long-term contracts.
The interviews were conducted either in person at the participant’s school or over the phone and lasted approximately one hour.
Interview questions focused on recruitment, induction, support, opportunities, relationships, commitment and aspirations.
The interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, checked by the research participants and imported into NVivo 12 where an iterative analysis was used to examine the data.

Findings and discussion
The authors found that, despite the teachers having broad notions of what it means to be a quality teacher, they were highly influenced by the pressures of performativity in assessing themselves.
This shows that high-achieving early career teachers ‘governed’ themselves using the regulations and discourses related to ‘the quality teacher’.
However, they also found that the early career teachers displayed a ‘sense of agency’ in their commitment to becoming a good teacher in ways that mattered to them.
These two agendas often competed with each other in the minds of the teachers, resulting in uncomfortable dilemmas which sat with teachers as they tried to understand themselves as teachers whose work is of quality and who embody what quality is meant to be.
The early career teachers in this study struggled to reconcile their own ideas of what a quality teacher is with ideas about ‘quality teachers’ promoted by the advocates of new accountability and performativity measures designed to address a perceived ‘crisis’ in the quality of education in Australian schools.
Their struggles reflect the discourses of accountability and performativity, which are pervasive and powerful but not all-encompassing.
Early career teachers do not enter the profession with a ‘blank slate’; they ‘actively use their pre-existing identities to interpret, learn from, evaluate, and appropriate’ those aspects of the ‘teaching landscape’ that enable them to be the teachers they want to be (Buchanan, 2015, p. 701).
While the early career teachers in this study were subjected to all the rigours of ‘performativity’, they also articulated their own views about what qualities a good teacher should have—the ability to facilitate learning and build positive relationships with students, for example.
While teachers have always been committed to these aspects of their work, the growth of performance cultures (Sachs & Mockler, 2012) has seen a move to assess teachers’ work in more narrow ways.
Professional standards, national testing and final-year examination results have reduced the ways teachers’ effectiveness is judged.
These external benchmarks have eroded broader understandings of what it means to be a quality teacher.
The teachers in this study were recognised as quality teachers and received positive feedback about their performance as they progressed through the induction phase of their careers.
However, the performative measures in place in their schools narrowed the criteria they applied when deciding what it means to be a quality teacher.
The continual monitoring of early career teachers using performativity levers (often communicated as irrefutable ‘common sense’) seems to have led the participants in this study to become focused on external definitions of ‘quality’ and what it means to be a ‘quality teacher’.
Foucault’s (1980) notion of ‘governmentality’ helps us to understand why these teachers, who were identified as ‘high-quality’ pre-service teachers, became embroiled in discourses of performativity.
The data show that they were, at times, ‘governing’ themselves using the regulations and discourses related to ‘the quality teacher’.
Clearly, the findings indicate that the notion of a ‘quality teacher’ was highly influenced by the pressures of performativity.
Yet these early career teachers also showed that they were, at times, able to resist this agenda and return to assessing themselves against their own broader ideas of what it means to be a quality teacher.
The authors repeat Kelchtermans (2019, p. 88) assertion that early career teachers are quite capable of making judgements and acting in ways that challenge accepted methods of defining teacher quality.
Moving beyond deficit notions of new teachers is critical.
As Ball argues, teachers have a right to define themselves according to their own quality criteria. (Ball, 2016, p. 1056)
This research conducted in Australia has international resonance, especially because the retention of teachers during their induction period continues to be a major concern in many countries (Craig, 2017; Sullivan et al., 2019).
This study indicates that to take the issue of teacher quality seriously, a return to more holistic and broader assessments of teacher quality would provide more possibilities for early career teachers to develop as well-rounded agentic professionals than is currently the case (Kelchtermans, 2019)

References
Ball, S. J. (2016). Neoliberal education? Confronting the slouching beast. Policy Futures in Education, 14(8), 1046–1059.
Buchanan, R. (2015). Teacher identity and agency in an era of accountability. Teachers and Teaching, 21(6), 700–719.
Craig, C. J. (2017). International teacher attrition: Multiperspective views. Teachers and Teaching, 23(8), 859–862.
Kelchtermans, G. (2019). Early career teachers and their need for support: Thinking again. In A. Sullivan, B. Johnson, & M. Simons (Eds.), Attracting and keeping the best teachers: Issues and opportunities (pp. 83–98). Springer Nature.
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972–1977. Harvester Press.
Kelchtermans, G. (2019). Early career teachers and their need for support: Thinking again. In A. Sullivan, B. Johnson, & M. Simons (Eds.), Attracting and keeping the best teachers: Issues and opportunities (pp. 83–98). Springer Nature.
Sachs, J., & Mockler, N. (2012). Performance cultures of teaching: Threat or opportunity? In C. Day (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of teacher and school development (pp. 33–43). Routledge.
Sullivan, A., Johnson, B., & Simons, M. (2019). Introduction. In A. Sullivan, B. Johnson, & M. Simons (Eds.), Attracting and keeping the best teachers: Issues and opportunities (pp. 1–11). Springer Nature.

Updated: Mar. 14, 2022
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