Willard Waller, a scholar at Pennsylvania State University, conducted some pioneering ethnographic analysis (1932) of schools as micro communities and their problematic relationships with the larger community. While his work did not receive any critical acclaim at the time, Waller did provide some important sociological insights into some of the issues which perplex many education reformers. He was fascinated with organisational structures and their effectiveness in leading improvement. He was keen to understand what impeded quality teaching and learning, how balance could be struck between control and authority and how teachers could be best supported to do their work given the highly emotional nature of the job.
Waller highlighted two dominant emotions emerging from his studies, fear and pride. As Hargreaves (1998) notes, “the fear was that of losing control or losing one’s job and with it the thin veneer of pride in classroom control and academic standards that helped ward off deep seated feelings of inferiority about one’s status in the community and one’s competence among colleagues.” Waller was quick to point out that policy-makers and politicians rarely grasped the fundamental nature of schools as they operated and steered education at a distance and spent little time directly listening with attentiveness and empathy to the range of voices of emotions of those in the job, doing the job.
Because schools (according to Waller, although also true today) are ‘small societies’ run by employees with a strong feeling of vulnerability to pressures, both from within and without, we strive for control, efficiency and demonstrable progress to appeal to onlookers with an array of expectations. He noted that when under constant threat politically, economically and socially, schools assume a garrison mentality and give birth to other potent emotions, most notably guilt.
Hargreaves and Tucker (1991) suggest that teachers experience guilt traps and guilt trips. They differentiate between the two; “Guilt traps are the social and motivational patterns which delineate and determine teacher guilt; patterns which impel and imprison many teachers within emotional states which can be both personally unrewarding and professionally unproductive. Guilt trips are the different strategies that teachers adopt to deal with, deny or repair this guilt. They are ways of coping with or responding to guilt that teachers have developed over the years. Burnout, exit, cynicism, and denial are among these major guilt trips of teaching.”
I would suggest that many teachers experience a sense of guilt that is akin to feeling persecuted. This may eventuate from doing something that is not expected or not permitted by either internal processes or external authorities who exercise accountability demands and bureaucratic controls over us. This sensation looks back at tasks, reflects on failure and holds concern for the future. Action is restricted to rectification and keeps us in a cycle of reaction rather than proactivity. It could be said then that guilt is socially generated, emotionally located and practically consequential. It’s hard to know how to neutralize the very things that can trigger guilt, especially when we consider the four paths that Hargreaves and Tucker (1991) suggest lead to its creation: (i) a teachers commitment to care, (ii) acceptance that education is ultimately open-ended, (iii) the pressures of intensifying accountability and (iv) a persona of perfectionism and wanting to do and be the very best for students.
Education, as Waller indicated 85 years ago, is threatened by many forces which can induce fear, and as Hargreaves and Tucker point out, guilt. Excessive workload, inspection, results publications, concern about schools and systems being left behind adopting the latest research/evidence informed strategies, worrying about dubious international policy-borrowing, uncertainty about articulating a view about an educational philosophy debate could all be examples of things that could worry teachers, but could equally preoccupy them. With such a myriad of potentially worrying and dividing educational activity, I wonder what could be done to ameliorate fear and guilt. What, as Biesta (2017) asks “can release us from the more difficult task of making judgements?” Judgements about philosophy, work prioritisation, communicating successes rather than merely deficits, which research and evidence to embrace.
I wonder about Waller’s commentary about policy-makers existing at a distance from schools and teachers. If that distance can be bridged or closed by healthy, robust and representative interaction with those enacting the enterprise of education, perhaps the issues of guilt and fear can be articulated and addressed. Have we got the right voices speaking into the conversation? Have we got the access we need? Have we got the measure of the impact of emotion involved in teaching in order to better things for everybody?