Case Sensitive: Teacher Alienation (with a link to questionnaire)

“Alienation is the degree to which man feels powerless to achieve the role he has determined to be rightfully his in specific situations.” John P. Clark (1959)

Alienation as an epistemological shift to an existential quandary 

To experience “alienation” is initially to recognise the “discrepancy between his definition of the role he is playing and the one he feels he should be playing in a situation” (Clark, 1959). The underlying emotion is that of powerlessness to eradicate such acute sense of frustration. In other words, alienation springs from “man’s feeling of lack of means (power)” (Clark, 1959). However, alienation is not purely caused by the lack of self-determination alone. Nettler (1957) has argued that “alienation is a psychological state of an individual”. He describes an alienated person as “one who has been estranged from . . . his society and the culture it carries”. Clark (1959) points out the transient nature of this psychological state: “at one time the now estranged person was not so or at least that he was not aware of the estrangement”. In addition, Nettler’s (1957) definition seems to suggest an epistemological shift (the “something” ((1959)) in Clark’s words) that gives rise to our realisation of feeling or being estranged from our particular social circumstances, mentally or physically, or indeed, both. Our psychological state can fluctuate from time to time depending on the result of our critical evaluation of our interactions with aspects of our social conditions. 

In addition to feelings of separation, Clark (1959) also includes “feelings of being manipulated and of meaninglessness” (1959). Moreover, Clark (1959) argues that feeling alienated can result in social isolation and “even of being a different person in his behaviour than the self he believes he should be were conditions different”. Such Kafkaesque haplessness and helplessness is a direct result of the doubt or loss of identity. A sense of total detachment from ones immediate social milieu and professional environment seems to be an inevitable outcome. Indeed, these feelings of not-belonging are instantly recognisable for many knowledge workers such as teachers; their existential crisis is inextricably linked to their moral quandary.

Schools as a social system

Drawing from the study by Nettler (1957), Clark (1959) cautions that situations in which one feels alienated are not always specific or representative of total social involvement. The more meaningful way of measuring alienation is a single unit approach, “selecting for study only those whom we can establish to be involved in a single, well-defined unit, for instance, a social system” (1959). A “social system”, as defined by Parsons, 1951), “consists in a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the “optimization of gratification” and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of carefully structured and shared symbols”.

Educational organisations such as schools can be thus treated as a “social system” in Parsons’s sense. To ensure the equilibrium of such as system, interactions between actors with different agendas of optimisation of gratification are constantly subjected to frequent change of personal and circumstantial situations. Moral and functional boundaries are constantly negotiated between members and their organisation and between individual members and their counterparts. Tension arises from these negotiations; emotions are aroused and one of which is feeling of alienation.

One phenomenon characterising the current educational reform is a “national network of Teaching Schools” (Education White Paper, 2010). It’s objective is to develop a “self-improving school system” (2014) that allow schools to come together to form partnership, such as Teaching School Alliance. Department for Education so far has published a first phase interim report of the progress and initial findings from 18 case study TSAs in the “Big Six” priorities: 

1. Play a greater role in recruitment and training new entrants to the profession (initial teacher training);

2. Lead peer-to-peer professional and leadership development (continuing professional development);

3. Identify and develop leadership potential (succession planning and talent management);

4. Provide support for other schools;

5. Designate and broker Special Leaders of Education (SLEs);

6. Engage in research and development activity. (2014)

Clearly, staff response to such expansion of structure has not been one of the priorities. If teacher retention remains a major concern in education, then it makes perfect sense to try to investigate reasons behind teachers leaving the profession. Alienation may well be a underlining factor.

Another latest development in education is Multi-Academy Trusts (MAT) that allows schools to expand and extend their influences. Though still in its embryonic stage, impact on staff feelings on changes cannot be ignored. Studies of alienation will help identify factors that govern attitudes towards the new structure. 

Measuring alienation

The “single unit” selected in Clark’s study of alienation is an agricultural marketing cooperative. An agricultural cooperative of this nature fulfils the requirements of the definition of a “social system” (Parsons, 1951). Clark’s study in measuring alienation felt amongst members of an agricultural co-operative can be a useful model to ascertain the degree of alienation felt amongst teachers within a school, TSAs or even MATs. 

Clark’s measuring method is modelled on Dean’s (1956) alienation scales from selected items of social interactions to arrive at a final alienation score. Interviews were conducted with a random sample of 361 of the 3000 members. The items selected are listed below. 

1. Interviewee’s statement of who actually owns the cooperative.

Farmer-members (0), Non-farm businessmen and others (4). 

2. Interviewee’s statement of how much influence he feels he has in the cooperative. 

Very much (0), Quite a bit (1), Some (2), Very little (3), None at all (4). 

3. Interviewee’s statement of how much “say” he feels members should have about how the cooperative is run.

Less say (0), About the same (2), More say (4). 

4. Interviewee’s statement of the extent to which he feels a part owner of the cooperative.

Very much (0), Quite a bit (1), Some (2), Not very much (3), None at all (4). 

5. Interviewer’s rating of the interviewee’s feeling of belonging to or identification with the cooperative.

Very much (0), Quite a bit (1), Some (2), Little (3), None at all (4). (Clark, 1959)

The possible total scores can range from 0 to 20. The statistical data collected is used to interpret the extent of alienation felt by the cooperative’s members – the higher the scores the more alienated they feel. 

Admittedly, Clark’s mix-methods methodology can be refined further to strengthen his findings. For example, whilst data collected through interviews can potentially increase its credibility and reliability, such method without means of triangulation is also liable to biased response. The bias issue in turn can be exasperated by the random selection of members in the cooperative. A focus group established through an initial questionnaire may have resolve the issue. In addition, the construction of scales is simplistic enough to yield uncomplicated numerical system whereby degree of alienation can be determined. However, translating complex feelings from narrative to numbers risk missing out more subtle aspects and ambiguity in human emotions. Finally, the first four items chosen to determine degree of alienation felt by members of the cooperative seek only to solicit subjective opinions from the members. The fifth item can cause significant criticism over reliability as the scores are based on the interviewer’s interpretation of the interviewee’s feelings. Without a vigorous process the demonstrate it reliability, the validity of the findings can be jeopardised. 

Imperfection notwithstanding, Clark’s research offers a useful model to measure alienation felt by teachers within specific school, cluster of schools, schools within Teaching School Alliances and even schools within the newly developed Multi-academy Trusts. A more sophisticated research design can be devised to produced reliable findings to inform the teaching profession of best ways to eliminate elements that increases the discrepancy between a teacher’s definition of the role he is playing and the one he feels he should be playing (Clark, 1959).
Why should we care about alienation?

It is no exaggeration to state that many teachers frequently assess and evaluate their professional situations. Many would reiterate that what we are doing is not necessarily what we think we ought to be doing to fulfil our role as teachers. What we appear to be doing does not necessarily define who we are and what we do as professionals. Professional identity should not be reduced to codified “standards” only. Besides, meeting standards fully does not necessarily guarantee good teaching. Having the power to improve is key. Having the self-knowledge of the limitations of a prescribed identity relies on acknowledging our feelings of alienation. Advocates of extended professionalism (Hoyle, 1970), new professionalism (Fullan, 1993) and activist professionalism (Sachs, 2000) all highlight the importance of teachers as change agents. Without taking a critical stance in evaluating ones own sense of alienation in ones profession, desire to change is almost inconceivable. 

Regardless of roles or status, sense of frustration is felt throughout the school structure, from Teaching Assistants to the Headteacher; from Business Manger to Midday Assistant. Causes of frustration may vary, the underlying feelings of “meaninglessness, powerlessness, belonginglessness, being-manipulated, social and self-isolation” can be overwhelming. Without understanding the underlying issues that cause our alienation, such personal predicament will only continue to undermine our professional commitment.

Our political masters apply pressure through policies based on unchallenged and “unchallengeable” “evidence”. Teachers have little freedom to shake off the shackles of ideological dogma often disguised in euphemistic terms and moral rhetoric to enforce compliance. We are all guilty of hypocrisy. Maybe that is the intrinsic devil in education. Nevertheless, as knowledge workers with an acute sense of a moral purpose, we must not simply accept such condition as an unalterable norm. We might be accused of being hypocritical; hypocracy needn’t be our destiny. Our moral purpose to our students, our colleagues and ourselves is ultimately our action to disrupt such a hypocrisy narrative from becoming a fixed moral, professional and personal reality. Only through our individual and collective struggle can we begin to seek to minimise the discrepancies between the role that we play and the role we believe that we ought to be playing in education. 

What is to be done to gain the power to rectify the situation? The solution is not just about power-gaining. We need to identify the kind of power that we need to minimise the discrepancies in areas of our professional work and life that causes our alienation.
If you would like to take part in my Teacher Alienation Survey, please complete a simple questionnaire by clucking this link:

Thank you for reading and taking part.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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