ESE in status quo schools: ‘It’s just not a priority’


'It's just not a priority'

Box 9.1 Extract from Kath in workshop three

I promise I'll try not to cry but I'm in a pretty vulnerable state at the moment because I'm really not enjoying my job. But there's the learners who are considered at risk but they're six months behind level.... These are the learners who are getting taken out of every other subject for integration support for reading, writing and maths. They're being taken out of subjects like our integrated unit where we're looking at community, they're being taken out of science, they're being taken out of health, out of Bounce Back which is a resilience programme. They're being taken out of these classes just to focus on reading, writing and maths outcomes. So, it's just devastating.

(Kath, suburban school, workshop three)


Over the past decade there has been a global increase in national education policy reforms, which aim to provide national consistency in schools and increase a country’s international competitiveness within the global education market (Barnes & Cross, 2018; Savage, 2016). In Australia, in particular, increased national control over education has resulted in reforms such as a national curriculum, standardised national literacy and numeracy assessments, professional standards for teachers and school leaders and a national school funding model (Savage, 2016). These national reforms have resulted in not only increased national consistency but increased accountability within Australian educational contexts. Standardised literacy and numeracy tests have been introduced in Australia (testing all learners in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9) and the results of these tests have been published on the federal government’s My School website. The rationale behind the website when introduced in 2010 was to provide information to parents so they could (1) select a school for their children and (2) put pressure on principals to improve their schools’ test results (Mills, 2015). This, therefore, has resulted in an imbalanced focus on literacy and numeracy skills—limited, however, to the specific skills assessed on the test—and increased pressure on schools to teach to the test (Fehring & Nyland, 2012). Literacy and numeracy skills have become proxies for student success as well as identify a ‘good’ school from a ‘bad’ one. Therefore, what impetus is there to prioritise Environmental and Sustainability Education (ESE) in schools if it is not a viable measure of what determines a ‘good’ school?

This chapter explores the stories of four early career teachers as they articulate their struggles in understanding what should be taught in order to provide a ‘good’ education, particularly given their personal and environmental identities regarding the role of ESE in schools. This chapter begins by examining how Australia is positioned within the international education race that, over the last decade, has introduced a national assessment system, national curriculum and teacher and principal standards in order to provide consistency and improve educational outcomes across Australia. This, however, raises concerns about teacher agency in an era of standardised testing and accountability. Situated within these current policy trends, our three-dimensional narrative inquiry analysis (Cland- inin & Connelly, 2000) unpacks these four early career teachers’ stories, revealing the tensions that exist when early career teachers attempt to implement ESE within a school that does not see it as a priority. This analysis highlights how these early career teachers negotiate institutional norms in their first few years of teaching (temporal), second, their perceptions on how their school prioritises ESE (societal) and third, their views on the available spaces and places for ESE that remain after ‘core’ learning occurs (place-based).

Understanding how Australia is positioned within the global education race

With the increasing awareness that a nation’s educational outcomes have a direct impact on where nations sit relative to one another in an era of ‘informational capitalism’ (Ball, 2013, p. 1), education policy reforms have been initiated to help keep pace in the global education race. In order to assess where nations are positioned within this education race, international assessments such as the Programme for International Learner Assessment (PISA) have focused on the skills of literacy, numeracy and science to judge the effectiveness of a nation’s education system. Scores on the PISA, which tests 15-year olds in 72 countries around the world, play an important role in deciding where nations rank amongst one another (Barnes & Cross, 2018). Yielding a great deal of power, the decline in PISA scores over the past several years in Australia has resulted in a suite of educational reform measures to improve the quality of education (Barnes & Cross,

2018; Baroutsis & Lingard, 2016). In other words, these international benchmarks have harnessed great power in directing education policies. International assessments, such as PISA, have not only created a culture of performativity amongst nations, they have influenced how countries, such as Australia, rely on standards and standardised tests within their own education systems to determine what particular skills are important for a strong education system.

Australia’s National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NA- PLAN) test was introduced in 2008 and was followed by the creation of the My School website in 2010, which aimed to provide both transparency and accountability within Australian schools by publishing NAPLAN data for school comparisons (Fehring & Nyland, 2012; Mills, 2015). There have been concerns raised about the unintended consequences of NAPLAN, including a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test (Fehring & Nyland, 2012; Johnston, 2017). Rose et al. (2018) conducted a systematic review to determine the dominant discourses surrounding NAPLAN and identified the prevalence of the following four overarching discourses within the literature: ‘datafication,’ ‘social justice,’ ‘affect and emotion’ and ‘accountability and performativity.’ Their review recognised the benefits of NAPLAN, including the identification of key life skills, targeting funding for schools with the greatest amount of need and bringing awareness of the ‘scandalous gap’ between the educational outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners (Rose et al., 2018, p. 12). However, they also argued that for standardised testing to be beneficial, it needs to provide substantial information on both learning strengths and gaps as well as ensuring that teachers and learners are well informed and believe in the purposes of the test.

In most cases, however, there seems to be a focus on the gaps rather than the strengths. Tests, such as NAPLAN, are used to identify academic achievement gaps which usually result in pressure being placed on schools—and teachers—to close that gap (Miranda, Radcliff & Flora, 2018). While identifying and addressing academic achievement gaps is an important role that teachers and schools must play, the increased national control over what is taught in Australian classrooms, through national tests and a national curriculum, has left many educators feeling a sense of disempowerment as they struggle for greater autonomy in their role as educators.

Teacher agency in an era of standardised testing

In an attempt to improve overall performance in schools at a national level, the government has often employed strategies that increase control over teachers’ work (Kostogriz & Doecke, 2013). In Australia, an increase of national control has been realised over the past decade with the establishment of the NAPLAN, a national curriculum and national teacher and principal standards (Savage, 2016). The push for accountability and standardisation across Australian schools has left many educators feeling disempowered. Sahlberg (2010) argues that standardised testing has left teachers feeling ‘trapped,’ as they desire to teach with a moral purpose and build social capital within schools but must be accountable to a competitive, efficiency-driven environment that focuses primarily on measurable achievement (p. 49). If educational success and education quality can be effectively and solely measured in numerical terms, we dismiss vital aspects of the teaching and learning process. Kostogriz and Doecke (2013) attempt to capture the complexities of the classroom, which cannot be understood simply by a world of numbers:

The world of numbers—the world of My School—is a place of abstraction in which particular teaching practices and events, as well as social relationships between teachers and learners, disappear. The world is indifferent to the everyday life of teachers in schools, in their unique locations in communities, their decision-making about what and how to teach, and their situated responsibility for learners.

(p. 91)

Marginalised and/or underperforming schools often become the targets of education reform initiatives that seek to improve test scores rather than respond to local needs. Colegrove and Zuniga (2018) suggest that there is a tendency for underperforming primary schools to focus on highly structured, remedial learning programmes to satisfy national and state standardised testing regimes rather than provide rich learning experiences that embrace the community’s uniqueness. This preoccupation with keeping pace in the education race has stripped away teachers’ freedom and agency to respond to the unique needs of their learners and their communities. Early career teachers, in particular, are positioned precariously as they attempt to develop their professional identity within an era of standardisation and control. In the context of Australia, increasing national control, which has prioritised literacy and numeracy skills, has left many early career teachers with a limited sense of agency to provide rich learning experiences that allow them to embrace their ecological identities.

The teachers' stories: a three-dimensional analysis

Four of the 11 early career teachers in this study taught at schools that we have characterised as being a ‘status quo’ school. In other words, the priority of the school was to ensure that learners were performing well, particularly in comparison to other schools, and providing remedial learning for the skills deemed most important. This narrative inquiry analysis investigates the temporal, societal and place-based dimensions of these teachers’ stories to illustrate the tensions that exist when early career teachers attempt to implement ESE in their classrooms. The four teachers (Mary, Kath, Daniel and Rick) were all teaching at the primary level, with two schools having just completed a school review which put a great deal of pressure on these schools to improve learner performance on the NA- PLAN. First, the three-dimensional analysis reveals the tensions that exist when early career teachers attempt to understand and negotiate institutional norms within their first few years of teaching and fuse their professional and ecological identities during this time. Second, the analysis exposes the societal pressures that arise when schools must perform and therefore prioritise what learning counts. Finally, the places and spaces for ESE, both physically and in the curriculum, are discussed to expose how ESE is prioritised in these four schools.

Developing as an early career teacher: a time-consuming process

Many empirical studies in education report that teachers often claim that they lack the time to adequately meet the needs of their learners due to the time required for planning, providing additional support for some learners and fitting in all aspects of the curriculum (Barnes, Shwayli & Matthews, 2019; Caldwell, 2015;). However, the time-consuming nature of meeting learner needs is intensified for early career teachers, as they must not only manage their own time but also negotiate the institutional norms, practices and priorities of their school. Many scholars suggest that early career teachers’ instructional practices are shaped by their school contexts over their first years of teaching (Vagi, Pivovarova & Miedel Barnard, 2019). The institutional or collective habitus of their school therefore reshapes their professional identities and their professional practices, further validating their personal and environmental identities.

In the case of our four teachers, the negotiation of institutional norms first occurs when they realise that there is a clash between their ways of thinking, or their habitus, and that of the school.

It’s how you juggle what you want to do versus what you need to do versus what you’re told to do.

(Daniel, workshop four)

I think that may be a bit of a frustration when you first come out of university] and have all these ideas of what - we know what we should be doing. We know what we’re passionate about. We’ve seen the research. We know it. Then when you get out there, it's like, but I can't do that? That's not important?

(Kath, workshop four)

While both Daniel and Kath experienced what they felt they should do, based on their identities, their passions, convictions and prior experiences at university, and what they can or are told to do, were sometimes at odds with one another. This created a disruption to their habitus or their current ways of thinking and doing and required time spent on negotiating their habitus with the school’s collective habitus. It led to a dissonance between their personal and environmental identities and how their professional identities were being shaped. However, through the process of our workshops, Kath articulated that it takes time and patience for others to understand and realise one’s passion for ESE. The desire and passion to care for the environment and value the connections between the environment and one another is not something that can be transmitted passively to others. Instead, it is a process that requires others to take ownership over time:

...absolutely it takes time and patience. I think those slow steps will help develop and build other people to invest their own time into it and their own ownership and to connect with them and they’ll be more inclined to be a part of it.... So just taking those really slow steps is one of the big things I took from last session...

(Kath, workshop foui')

These slow steps refer to the multitude of questions, discussions, activities and instructional practices that teachers can take to ignite a passion within learners, colleagues and school leaders, and allow them to invest personally. This revelation holds great importance as Kath comes to the realisation that while her convictions and passion for ESE are vital to her overall identity, those around her in her school setting must be given the time to connect to ESE in a way that is meaningful for them.

In addition to coming to terms with their evolving professional identities, which embraces their environmental identities in new and different ways, the teachers found that prioritising ESE was difficult in an already crowded curriculum:

I did find at the end of the term with assessments and everything it was very difficult to fit it all in... That’s what I’ve found this year and it has been really hard, actually. You might have some ideas and they’re happy for you to take the children outside and that sort of thing, but you’ve still got to tick everything off that week and what you need to cover.

(Mary, workshop four)

.. .they were talking about planning out the next 12 months, and then one of the head teachers came in and said, ‘These are all the focuses, and everyone wants their time, something’s got to give.

(Daniel, workshop five)

Mary acknowledges that in her school, she has some freedom to implement ESE in the classroom; but there is the difficult task of attempting to cover everything while also weaving sustainability themes into the many topics she must cover. Similarly, Daniel highlights that in the juggle to cover everything, usually something has to give and, in many cases, this tends to be ESE, as discovered in our previous research (Barnes et al., 2019). Kirkby, Moss and Godinho (2017) argue that early career teachers are often expected to manage a workload that is similar to their more experienced colleagues and to navigate their evolving professional identities on their own. Consequently, early career teachers’ professional identities are being shaped by the educational field and/or the collective habitus of their school, yet all the while they are not adequately supported in negotiating their workload, in attempting to cover everything in the curriculum or mentored in navigating their evolving professional and environmental identities.

Is ESE a priority in Australian schools?

Given the time constraints to cover as much of the curriculum as possible, which requires prioritising particular knowledge and skills over others, the participating teachers from these status quo schools reported that they felt that, in their particular schools, ESE often did not make the priority list. With debates surrounding the overcrowded Australian Curriculum in primary and secondary schools, Marsh, Clarke and Pittaway (2014) suggest that this is due to the multiple and diverse education stakeholders who all have different ideas about what should be prioritised in schools. Therefore, they argue, these different priorities should be carefully considered and appropriately contested, where needed. However, as discussed above, many early career teachers struggle to navigate the tensions between the seeming priorities of the school with their own convictions about ESE. Several of the teachers explicitly stated that ESE was not a priority and they found it difficult to receive support in implementing sustainability themes within their classroom practices:

So, I’m finding the school that I’m at, it is not a priority whatsoever and that is a big challenge that I’m facing to even implement little things in my classroom.

(Kath, workshop two)

Their priority isn’t [ESE] - it’s fitting those [other curriculum areas] things in.

(Mary, workshop four)

It’s just hard, you don’t get support from - not that my school’s not supportive, but it’s just not a priority, it’s not an interest.

(Rick, workshop two)

Unlike Kath, who felt that she had little support to implement ESE in the classroom, Rick found that his school is generally supportive, yet they still did not prioritise ESE. Interestingly, he mentions that it is not of interest. In contrast to Chapter 7, where the participating early career teachers felt that their school implemented a whole-school approach to ESE because it was part of their ethos or collective habitus as a school, Rick’s school did not share that same ethos. Mary suggests that ESE is not a priority because it must compete with more pressing curriculum areas. This may suggest that national initiatives like the NAPLAN and My School place pressure on schools to prioritise skills such as literacy and numeracy in an overcrowded curriculum. In other words, this exposes a knowledge hierarchy that is supported by societal agendas (Miller & Windle, 2010). Kath’s comments about the NAPLAN expose this knowledge hierarchy:

.. .they [her school] did go through a peer review and their focus is all about improving maths, reading and writing targets. That is their focus and it’s all about NAPLAN... Last year it was reading, year before it was maths, now it’s writing. They want to see data, improvements in targets and it’s [ESE] unfortunately just not a priority... I don’t understand why they’re just picking and choosing that part [reading, writing and maths] and not this part [ESE| as well.

(Kath, workshop three)

Kath’s comments reveal the frustration that comes with being an early career teacher who is attempting to understand the knowledge hierarchy in schools—or more specifically understanding the field of education—what counts and what does not. Importantly, Kath, Rick and Daniel comment on their schools’ desire for improvement and how this desire often marginalises ESE as a knowledge area:

.. .we just went through a review two years ago so it’s [ESE] not the priority.

(Kath, workshop two)

Our school went through a review not last year but the year before. Environment or sustainability is not really a priority even though they sell it on the curriculum, and I take it on board, or try to do it myself and then seek permission later, or forgiveness basically... The politics in the school, or working for the government anyway [teachers in public schools are government employees], is just ridiculous.

(Rick, workshop two)

There’s a lot of school improvement stuff going on at our school at the moment, so we’re doing big workshops on evidence on how we’re filling certain criteria... principals are competitive against other schools in their area as well. Because they’re competing for the same learners as well. So, they’re making sure that they’re doing everything that they need to do to be able to be attractive...

(Daniel, workshop four)

These comments suggest that there is a knowledge hierarchy and this hierarchy is established by meeting particular criteria, mainly through improving performance on the NAPLAN. Given that ESE is not a form of content that is assessed on the NAPLAN, it is easily brushed aside in a bid to be competitive in the education race and be attractive in the educational field. However, the participants suggest that while ESE is not prioritised, it is still something they have to tick off the list, often in a tokenistic manner, as shown by Rick’s comment above. Kath and Daniel report how their school attempts to tick ESE off the list by positioning it in mission statements and in professional staff focus groups:

The mission statement...So, I suppose, on paper, it looks like, oh yeah, they’re doing all of that. But if you actually go into the school, it’s a bit tokenistic at times, I suppose.

(Kath, workshop four)

... it was getting crowded for the planning for next year, and there was even talk about, “Do we even have sustainability as a focus community?” ... we’ll just tick that box, it’ll come together, and life will be good... It [ESE] was on the outer.

(Daniel, workshop fine)

Overall, the participating teachers felt that ESE was identified as a curriculum area that needed to be addressed and/or checked off, but it did not hold any particular status or importance within their schools. When compared with the knowledge and skills that could quantify the school’s performance against other schools (e.g. literacy and numeracy skills), ESE had limited pull in shaping the school ethos.

Finding a place for ESE in status quo schools

Given the priority placed on literacy and numeracy skills in order to keep pace with other schools, one of the schools represented in this chapter withdrew learners from the classroom during ‘integrated subjects’ which would allow for the integration of ESE themes. This disruption to the classroom resulted in some learners missing out and made it difficult to organise meaningful place-based opportunities that built a sense of community action within the classroom, as the teacher did not want to leave people out. The following exchange, between Kath and one of the community partners, contextualises the quote used at the beginning of the chapter and illustrates the early career teacher’s struggle to make ESE meaningful when learners need to show that they are progressing in reading, writing and math outcomes:

.. .there are the learners who are considered at risk but they’re six months behind level... These are the learners who are getting taken out of every other subject for integration support for reading, writing and maths. They’re being taken out of subjects like our integrated unit where we’re looking at community, they’re being taken out of science, they’re being taken out of health, out of Bounce Back which is a resilience program.

They’re being taken out of these classes just to focus on reading, writing and maths outcomes.

(Kath, workshop three)

They’re trying to marry the modern ideas with the 1950s rote learning, and as teachers we just have to recognise that’s the way it is and sometimes you can win a battle and sometimes you can’t... Particularly for you [Kath]. Your biggest issue is some of these kids are taken out, how is that atfecting you and your classroom learning other than the kids themselves are missing out on those units?

(community partner, workshop three)

Well yes, they all come and go and then they come back into the classroom and then it’s like, ‘What have we just done, what are we doing?” and you have to catch them back up on that. Then they start feeling like I don’t know what’s happening and so then they become disengaged because I’ve missed that whole chunk, it doesn’t matter so then they’re missing that... And then they fall behind even more.

(Kath, workshop three)

This exchange brings to light several tensions at play in current classrooms. The first, as discussed earlier, is that it can be difficult to build a sense of community and continuity when learners are being taken out at various points within the day. The community partner suggests that not only does the withdrawal of learners during class time influence those learners, but also the classroom’s collective learning. Classroom transitions provide timely challenges for learner disengagement and require teachers to have strong classroom management skills (McCurdy et al., 2018). As an early career teacher, it can be difficult to manage the classroom and keep a natural flow and energy within classroom activities when there are constant disruptions, such as learners packing away their school supplies to attend a remedial lesson. This speaks to an early career teacher’s sense of control and agency as they must negotiate the school’s ways of doing, or habitus, and attempt to respond in a way that allows them to still feel as if they have control over their classroom. It also speaks of the constant battles to address conflicts between their personal and environmental identities with their professional identities as teachers. The community partner suggests you can win some battles and others you cannot. Therefore, Kath must come to terms with what she has control over and what she does not, while also devising a plan of action so she can ensure the class is collectively learning and progressing.

Second, learners begin to identify that integrated units, or units that allow for the integration of topics such as ESE, are not a priority and therefore ‘catching up’ on these topics is considered not as important as other topics. Given that many scholars suggest that taking learners out of mainstream activities can deprive them of important sources of knowledge (Zyngier, Black, Brubaker & Pruyn,

2016), it becomes important to consider how remedial programmes position other content areas and how they can promote disengagement with topics that might provide relevant learning opportunities for these underperforming learners. Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of social reproduction, underperforming learners become trapped in a holding pattern in which they try to catch up, but in exchange for something else. These learners fall into a pattern of inequality that sees them progressively falling behind their peers. Zyngier et al. (2016) suggest that remedial and alternative programmes must be a last resort for schools, with prevention and early intervention as the first step. Therefore, schools need to be proactive in tackling underperformance rather than responding with remedial programmes to address their school’s decline in NAPLAN scores.

Despite Kath’s experiences with learners being physically withdrawn from the classroom, influencing the classroom dynamics and testing her sense of control and agency, several of the teachers found agentic ways to integrate ESE by utilising outdoor spaces:

We do have a small garden and they have a garden club on Monday which I’m now involved in, but it’s just for Year 2 to 6 so a lot of the kids haven’t been to the garden before... So, I got to take each grade out one lesson each and we were exploring nature and took them to the garden, then we came back and talked about what we saw... Then we had another session where we were talking about looking after our environment and recycling and that type of thing.

(Mary, workshop two)

I teach PE, but then how do I incorporate from a cross-curricula point of view?... how do I get these kids forming a connection with place and love for the outdoors through PE? That’s something that’s stayed in the back of my mind. We do our PE lessons - we've got a big oval, we’ve got basketball courts, all that built stuff. But we've got this amazing outdoor play area that got rebuilt last year that’s in the trees. There’s a lot of nature in there. So, we do a lot of our PE, either warmups or actual games, through there. I’ve actually found that kids are starting to pick up rubbish when they go through there now, which they never used to do. They used to just walk straight past it... Because it’s a place that they enjoy. So that’s something that I can do within the confines of the school...

(Daniel, workshop four)

For both Mary and Daniel, they had to identify what they could do ‘within the confines of the school.’ For Mary, it meant she joined the garden club, which many learners had never visited, and volunteered to take out each grade outside for one lesson. In contrast to Kath, while Mary’s school may not have prioritised ESE, they allowed her the autonomy to make connections to ESE, utilising the existing school garden. Similarly, Daniel found a way to identify the spaces that currently existed within the school to allow for meaningful ESE connection. Given that there was an outdoor playing area that provided a nature strip of trees, he (re)envisioned how he might use this space to link physical activity with environmental sustainability. Building on the tenets of place-based education (see Chapter 7), Daniel was able to provide an opportunity for his learners to make a meaningful connection between physical education and nature and take ownership of a place that they enjoyed.

Looking to the future—hopeful applications

The classroom can at times be a site of struggle for early career teachers as they respond to the tensions between their professional and ecological identities, while also trying to understand their schools’ collective habitus or ways of being, so they can become legitimate members of their new school community. However, this chapter attempts to highlight that these teachers are agentic, and they respond, contest and modify their beliefs and practices in a way that seeks to accommodate their schools’ habitus while still recognising their own habitus, personal convictions and identities.

While Mary and Daniel found solace in the spaces available in their schools that allowed them to connect to ESE into their own classes, Daniel’s participation in this study and his involvement in our community of practice promoted agentic actions to embed ESE through a cross-curricular and whole-school approach:

I think last time we met we were looking at potentially having focus groups in our school so that we got little communities within the school, and I was put onto STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics], So we had a STEAM meeting and they were talking about planning out the next 12 months, and then one of the head teachers came in and said, ‘These are all the focuses and everyone wants their time, something’s got to give’ and so I took your ideas, I said, ‘Why don’t we put sustainability in with STEAM’ and they were like, ‘Right, how would that work?’ and we talked about these different projects that we’re doing and they’re like, ‘Right, one of them is going to be sustainability and STEAM together.’ So, a little bit excited by that. But it made me think that, at my school at least, sustainability needs to be integrated as that cross-curricular thing, it doesn’t work for us as a standalone, it needs to be joined in with other things. So, I was pretty excited about that, I wanted to share that.

(Daniel, workshop five)

Whether articulated or not in this extract, Daniel had a sense of relief and joy that as an early career teacher he was able to proactively find a way to embed and integrate ESE themes within current curricular projects. In addressing the temporal, change can occur over time as teachers actively negotiate their roles as early career teachers, but also embrace their agency as they find physical spaces and/or curriculum connections to further ESE ideas within a school that may acknowledge its importance but struggles to prioritise it.


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