The Watchers – Directors of educational decline

Jan 9, 2023
Lecture room or School empty classroom with Student taking exams, writing examination for studying lessons in high school thailand, interior of secondary education, whiteboard. educational concept

A word that comes to mind when thinking about the plight of those left in NSW Public Schools is dystopia, the antonym of utopia.

It is beyond question that the morale of teachers and schools in NSW Public Schools is at an all-time low. The administrative demands and the relentless supervision of working practices have become overwhelming yet the politicians, bureaucrats and some academics cling to top-down, neoliberal dogmas that demands compliance to their strategy. To ensure schools are conforming to these demands NSW has appointed a team of Directors, Education Leadership whose major task is to supervise schools.

The proclaimed intention that supports the role description for these Directors is to make sure schools ‘maximise the academic achievements of all students and create a culture of success, learning and a desire to achieve, underpinned by innovative, adaptive and supportive strategies that also supports the quality of teaching and educational leadership at the school level’ (Role Description Director, Educational Leadership, Page 1. 2021) a beautiful example of management speak. The five-page description of the role these officers will undertake is archetypal motherhood statements full of weasel words, but within this diatribe of neoliberalism their true role is obvious; they are supervisors of schools, watchers who ensure teachers and principals focus on compliance and accountability, nothing more!

This cult of supervision has an adverse effect not only on those being watched but on those who do the watching. Their focus becomes circular, teaching children is only a secondary consideration!

The examination of work practices is the focus of the field of cognitive evaluation. A major finding in this discipline is on the impact external compliance pressures has on the internal psychological health of those being supervised. When a school, and particularly the principal are being ‘watched’ persistently and consistently their sense of agency declines; their sense of control is lost. The strict external constraints, imposed through various methods, training, reporting, inspections, etc. consumes their working hours. This lack of freedom to contribute their own professional skill towards the delivery of the best possible learning experience for their students is the cause of this decline in performance; their motivation, the effort they make and the satisfaction they get from their work are all diminished.

A word that comes to mind when thinking about the plight of those left in NSW Public Schools is dystopia, the antonym of utopia. This describes the feeling of distress, fear, loss of agency. Extreme measures of this total control through externally regulated requirements and the supervised compliance to such directives has been the theme of books such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 415 all describing the cataclysmic decline in society when freedom is denied. I would argue NSW Public Education is currently a microcosm of such societies. The effects on the citizens the tyrannical supervision these novels describe are paralleled distress on contemporary teachers.

Not only does this increase in surveillance reduce the efficiency, productivity and motivation in the workforce but it also has a physical cost to the individual because of the increase in the levels of stress suffered. Persistent elevated stress levels has a known, negative impact on teachers’ health and in the long-term it reduces their life expectancy.

Teaching, like other human service occupations rely on the rewards teachers get from the development of their students; their motivation is intrinsic. When this opportunity is no longer available due to the exhausting extrinsic demands a proportion of those who have been subjected to this scrutiny can adapt and transfer the source of their motivation from their own set of values by adopting those of the organisation. They become willing participants in the bureaucratic structure, they sign-up to this top-down controlling system, taking on the role watchers, ensuring teachers and schools conform! By doing this they have descended into a work environment where the only positive rewards they receive is when their supervisors, those who watch them are pleased. To be rewarded they need to embrace the demands of their masters and to ensure permanency they must anticipate what will please the organisation. Eventually, by making sure those below them in status are fulfilling the demands of the administration they gain recognition. This act of anticipation and supervision becomes what they are and to survive in such an environment they become self-watchers. They make sure they conform!

Franz Kafka’s work is strongly influenced by the impact external control has over the individual. Perhaps his most insightful reflection on surveillance comes in a brief story ‘The Watchman’, the following sums-up the final loss of freedom! “I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: ‘I ran through here while you were looking the other way.’ The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. ‘I suppose I really oughtn’t to have done it,’ I said. The watchman still said nothing. ‘Does your silence indicate permission to pass?’”

Kafka’s character had become his own supervisor, surveillance turns the watched into self-watchers’! George Alliger, a Consultant Work Psychologist and lecturer at Rice University in an article “Kafka Warned Us: ‘Surveillance Turns the Watched into Watchers’” (Psyche Journal, 21 December 2022) presents the argument that not only does the focus of the work change for these supervisors but also their reputation is tainted. If those who oversee this system understood the long-term and permanent effect of their management style they have to understand they cannot know the trustworthiness of their workers. They can’t call on them for honest opinions or evaluation, they have lost the very thing that drives improvement. Any system will survive, even improve for a short period when subjected to severe external threats but the long-term loss of psychological and ethical wellbeing and hence the performance not only of those being watched and those who choose to watch deteriorates; in the long term the system will fail. We have arrived at this point!

The increasing problems are emerging in NSW schools with monotonous regularity, staff shortages, increase mental health problems in the workforce, lack of enthusiasm, falling enrolments are all met with more surveillance, more ‘training’, more compliance. Like the protagonists in the dystopia novels mentioned above, those who protest too much are being removed from the system!

Perhaps the greatest loss of this top-down neoliberal approach is in those ‘Directors’ who become the Department’s watchers. Too many of these Directors began their careers loving their work and enjoying the intrinsic rewards that come from feeling in charge, competent and included in working in what was a great profession. By seeking rewards from their masters these once great warriors have become nothing more than watchers! The Roman poet Juvanal in the first century AD wrote ‘who will watch the watchers’? The answer can be heard in those voices who still value effective public schools!

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