We asked Laura McInerney to give us her thoughts about teacher professionalism and voice in the current school climate.

Who owns the Moon? Everybody. On 10 October 1967, all major United Nations members signed the Outer Space Treaty stating that from thenceforth all celestial bodies would belong to the “common heritage of mankind”.

Two and a half thousand years previous a Greek leader also sat considering issues of ownership. King Leonidas knew that the Persian despot Xerxes was marching an army of 200,000 slaves to Athens in order to take over his land. Leonidas, however, did not want to order anyone into battle for fear that ‘owned’ people with no freedom to lose would not fight so hard. He therefore only recruited volunteers and yet – with a clan of only 7,000 people – Leonidas’ free men held off the super-sized Persian troop for seven days. And even in the final stand, when the King told his people they could leave, many stayed to fight for what they believed. Being owned by nobody, it seems, has some distinct advantages.

Zip forward two millennia, and 32 years past the Moon treaty. It’s October 1999 and my teenage self walks into McDonalds to get a job. Toiling away for £3.60 an hour McDonalds admittedly didn’t own my soul outright. But for those hours when I clocked in, somebody other than me owned what I did and said, and how I did and said it. And that somebody was McDonalds.

Hence, in this great universe, it is entirely possible that things can be owned by everybody, nobody or somebody. But what I can’t work out for the life of me is: Who owns teachers?

Technically, ‘everybody’ owns teachers. Paid for by taxes, regulated by government, accountable to the public – teachers are a public entity, like Royal Mail or the M1. But teaching is also a profession, and the main marker of ‘professionalism’ is autonomy. Hence, if teachers are truly professional then they should be as free as Leonidas’ men. Yet in a world where government dictates curriculum, performance targets, and inspection criteria, that freedom seems distinctly illusory.

Furthermore, as schools are moving out of local control and become academies, it can plausibly be argued that teachers are increasingly ‘owned’ by the academy chains and foundations operating these schools. Just think: If teachers can be trained by an academy chain through ‘School Direct’, and if that chain sets their own curriculum, pay scales, performance management structures – doesn’t it make more sense to think of the teacher as being owned by them too? One might even start a comparison to McDonalds. But teachers defy this expectation – after all, we are professionals. In classrooms, though there may be procedures and policies, teachers constantly use their own judgement. Teaching is not a burger-build model, and that should be just as true in academies as in any other school.

So how can teachers traverse this ownership confusion? Expected to perform for everybody, told what to do by somebody, and yet – when the classroom door closes – there’s nobody to rely on but yourself? It isn’t easy.  Last year’s new ‘Teacher Standards’ document theoretically outlines how a teacher should operate, and though each school may operate with different values, as long as teachers are following  these rules they can rest assured they are doing their job adequately. However interpreting the standards is not straightforward: one person’s “high expectations” may be another person’s “mediocre”, plus some school leaders are likely to argue that they want more than just ‘the standard’ from their staff – they want the extraordinary. And at that point we are back to conflicting expectations. Thankfully, teachers are capable individuals who will balance these complicated expectations by being careful in their judgements about where (and how) they want to be trained, and what sort of employer they want to work for. This is common with other professions – law or accountancy – and as Leonidas shows, the most important thing for effectiveness is that the decision is made freely and consciously.

Going forward, given the increasing fragmentation of the profession as school structures become varied, it’s also important to think about who will own ‘the voice’ of teachers. Too often politicians say “teachers want” some policy, yet outcries from within suggests otherwise, the current History curriculum being a case in point. Many in education lament the lack of a formal professional association akin to the British Medical Association, though hopes of an emerging ‘Royal College of Teaching’ are being trumped as a potential solution to this problem. Teaching unions also can provide a collective voice for teachers wishing to speak in a ‘united’ manner on government policies, as can subject associations on matters of curriculum. These routes, or countless other ways of being heard – through blogging, tweeting and online government consultations etc. – are providing teachers with more and more options for getting their individual voices across or for giving someone the right to speak collectively on their behalf.

Everybody, somebody, nobody. When it comes to ownership, those are the choices. Who owns teachers? I think the answer to that might still be up for grabs. What is clear is that decisions about who we trust, especially with the ownership of our careers or opinions, must be decided carefully and with purpose. Anything less and we could end up with McDonalds on the moon.

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