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And the Oscar goes to…

Given the need to play ‘your part’ in the staff room, how long is before new teachers are invited to “break a leg” before they leave for practicum?

Strategy, it seems, is not left on the playing fields of physical education but is significant in departmental spaces and in the interactions that occur between departmental colleagues. “Playing the long game” or “hitting the short side” are, perhaps, not tactics that belong solely on the ‘pitch’ or ‘court’ but they also play a part in developing and maintaining “cordial relations” with significant others; others who might hold a new teacher’s future career in their hands. Putting in a good performance is no longer the domain of the athlete or actor but also fits the teacher. Perform or perish perhaps?

This blog considers how “pre-service and beginning teachers ‘perform’ their ‘selves’ within the subject department or staffroom”. Specifically it considers how such performances come to be viewed as authentic and how new teachers safeguard their ‘selves’ within the protective cocoons they weave about themselves through these performances. By filtering their ideas and actions through the expectations of a) the subject and/or b) of the department staffroom, the participants in this study either found a way to be accepted or, in refusing to play along or perform, were rejected.

If we take this study as an indicator of general practice then we learn that “during their practicum experiences, pre-service teachers spent the great majority of their non-teaching time in HPE subject department offices”. As such we can assume that these space are significant in terms of the social tasks that young teachers’ perform and the opportunities they afford for newcomers to interact and forge relationships. That said it also became clear that students had to ‘perform’ in certain, privileged discourses to be most successful. Rossi and colleagues suggested that these dominant performances were “performing valued discourses” and “performances of the body”.

Performing valued discourses

If they ‘talked’ about sport and fitness – indeed about the performance of bodies – then they were on the right lines. New teachers perceived, however, that they also needed to show (perform) certain ‘attitudes’ towards obesity and the whole obesity debate. In contrast to the critical and yet open-mined approach that students had been encouraged to adopt at university (perhaps another ‘performance’ itself but that debate is for another day) new teachers were expected to think in terms of ‘ticking time bombs’ and have certain “bodily aspirations” themselves. Furthermore, pre-service and beginning teachers were expected to talk about ‘fat people’ in terms of “well-rehearsed” characteristics i.e. lazy, incompetent, disorganised and/or unreliable. When they aligned themselves with or performed these ideas they expressed a ‘sense of comfort’ and created a “sense of protection” for themselves from more hostile gazes.

Due to the timings of the practicum (i.e. the season of different sports) – and the dominant focus we discussed last week on traditional male sports – Rossi and colleagues suggested, “female pre-service teachers were at an immediate disadvantage. Given that it was winter and the “three main football codes” were in season the topics of conversation were dominated by these sports. This meant that new teachers (male and female alike) had to be ‘highly informed’, ‘contemporary’ and show the appropriate ‘prejudice’ with regards to the sports that were worth playing. Being able to participate in certain conversations afforded “certain pre-service and beginning teachers access to contact with key teachers (i.e. supervisors, mentors and sports coordinators) who acted as the ‘audience’ to this performance participation”.

In contrast to those who couldn’t or wouldn’t ‘perform’ in this way, and who frequently found themselves on the “periphery of the HPE community in the school”, ‘performers’ created wider opportunities for themselves. By ‘performing’ in the ‘correct’ way new teachers were invited to take advantage of social opportunities outside of school and were seen as a ‘good’ fit. One student suggested that she almost wanted to be wanted and although she lacked the ‘highly informed’ language of rugby league she created opportunities for herself by showing the right attitude – “all right, rugby, teach me”. Indeed those participants who “lacked” the right background had to “be all the more sophisticated and required alternative strategies such as volunteering for team manager positions and/or helping other teachers”. By developing what Rossi and colleagues called a “performance of inquiry”, and helping established teachers see a need for them, new teachers connected to the staffroom in more subtle ways.

Fitting in, no matter how they did it, was a distinct advantage. Those who felt that their ‘performances’ were misaligned or out of keeping with the social environment of the department were made to feel unconformable. Some found other places in which to spend their time but this was a high-stakes game that could have “repercussions such as social isolation, a low rating and/or limited employment opportunities.

Performances of the body

Another strong discourse in many departments revolved around “expectations regarding body form, bodily maintenance and health within the HPE profession”. For many new teachers what they noticed most was the degree of scrutiny and regulation that existed in the department. One teacher suggested that she learnt to sit in “certain ways” in an effort to camouflage her body. Rather than sit in certain comfortable chairs she stayed behind her desk so as not to be in full view. This decision put her on the periphery of staffroom conversations but allowed her to “pass muster” with regards to how she looked. New teachers reported that they needed to manage their ‘look’ i.e. how their bodies looked and how they were clothed, and that this was a constant performance while at school.

In other ways there was an expectation that new teachers had to adhere to community expectations and taken-for-granted truths that connected bodies, activity, health and values. This was conveyed through the “words, actions and organizational structures of the HPE department”. Participants felt that ‘playing along’ with the general “corporal discourses” was part of their ‘performance’ as aspiring or new teachers and yet this is stark contrast to the underpinning principles of teacher education i.e. inclusion and acceptance of difference.

Looking the part and appearing to look like a physical education teacher allowed new teachers to consolidate their performance as being professional. Rossi and colleagues suggested that “habits of dress style, values and historical constructions of HPE teachers were performed within the department offices in highly explicit ways”. Indeed failing to meet the standards of dress style invariable resulted in derision and insult.

In concluding my portion of the blog I am left to ask if we are caught in a performance loop? Rossi and colleagues ask if pre-service and beginning teachers are involved in a performance that simply re-establishes the truths of practice in physical education. By conforming to expected practices of the departmental office are they part of a process that further entrenches the self-same practices and if so, how do we change what is understood as being acceptable?

Rossi, T., lisahunter, Christensen, E. & Macdonald, D. (2015). Workplace learning in Physical Education: Emerging teachers’ stories from the staffroom and beyond. London: Routledge.

My experience in my practicum and first year of teaching was fairly similar to those in the article. In my practicum and first year of teaching I was part of a PE department. Coming into a new department is always interesting, as you want to make a good impression so that you fit in with the team. The PE departments I worked with had been working together for years and had created their philosophy together. In some cases, grading students based on dressing out was expected of the department team and this never sat well with me. I experimented a lot with technology and they seemed to support me in this - if you call a pat on the head and a “that’s nice”, a form of support.

I conformed to their standards and expectations to “play the game”. I think this was to their benefit as well as mine as it saved me from years of social isolation and it saved them from having to reflect on their practices and ultimately change.

In my last three years of teaching I was the only PE teacher in my school.  This meant I was the PE department. Where some physical educators may feel they have to conform to the PE department philosophy, my challenge was the staffroom and community and their perception of physical education. I am fortunate that my principal was supportive of my teaching practices and my program. I did gain critique from parents and other teachers, as I did not have a “traditional” PE program. I tried to turn their viewpoints into an opportunity to advocate for my program and educate folks about my physical education philosophy.

“Participants felt that ‘playing along’ with the general “corporal discourses” was part of their ‘performance’ as aspiring or new teachers and yet this is stark contrast to the underpinning principles of teacher education i.e. inclusion and acceptance of difference.”

This quote from the blog had me re-think my experiences. I felt that “playing along” or as I sometimes call it “trying to survive” is a way of passage that everyone goes through. This quote makes me question my experiences, wondering if inclusion and acceptance of difference were encouraged, or if conformity was the main theme. This whole idea concerns me. As educators we teach our students personal and social responsibility, we teach them acceptance of others. Yet are those the experiences our students have? If new teachers coming into the profession feel as though they must conform to a set of predetermined rules to “fit in”, do our students see this and mimic it? If we are not accepting of differences in our departments how can we be accepting of differences in our students? How can we support them in their physical literacy journeys and their plight to be life-long learners and movers if we cannot support who they are?

Conformity and resistance to change have all been a part of my experience as a new teacher in the profession. Not only are you trying to figure out who you are as an educator, but also navigating the waters of your school community. It is difficult trying to play a role you may not fit into in order to maintain your job. Are we stuck in a performance loop? I think so. I will leave you with this quote by Audre Lord “It is not our differences that divides us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences”.

 

Ashley Casey
About me
On Monday 29 June at 17:00 Ashley Casey said
“As educators we teach our students personal and social responsibility, we teach them acceptance of others. Yet are those the experiences our students have? If new teachers coming into the profession feel as though they must conform to a set of predetermined rules to “fit in”, do our students see this and mimic it? If we are not accepting of differences in our departments how can we be accepting of differences in our students? How can we support them in their physical literacy journeys and their plight to be life-long learners and movers if we cannot support who they are?” In reading, and briefly responding to, Naomi’s reflection I am drawn to one section in particularly and will focus here. There were a number of areas I could have discussed and I thank her again for taking the time to respond and share her experiences with the readers of the ‘Major Themes’ blog.  In considering the ideas of equity and inclusion I wonder if the old adage applied “put your money where your mouth is?” How many times do we sit back and thoughtfully consider this and then act upon it? I wonder if the PE office were viewed as part of a fly-on-the-wall documentary if people would behave as they do? Is it acceptable to behave as is reported in these series of blogs because it is a semi-private space? The truth, I guess, is that young teachers are not in a position to be change agents. They need to conform to survive and they are not positioned to enacted change. They accept that they need to behave in a certain way but they shouldn’t have to. We are in the driving seat. We are squarely in the position to make changes and enforce change. As was said last week the HOD has the responsibility to be the change agent but as experienced teachers and educators we can decide to be compliant and survive ourselves or we can actually do something about it. Before we do, however, we need to recognise that it’s even happening.  

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