Speaking as one. Or silencing the many?

As a former international school music teacher, I always enjoyed teaching music terms to diverse groups of students. ‘Unison’ was one of those terms. We would find other words which began with the prefix ‘uni-‘ to understand singing in unison. Universe, united, university all came to mind; one place, one mission, one school. When we are in unison, we are one sound, singing together.

But as beautiful as that seems for a primary music classroom, in the wider social world, unison can be limited. But ‘voice’ itself is a tricky word. Do we define it as a collective term as in ‘the voice of the people’? Or individually like ‘my voice’? Is ‘our voice’ really heard as one? Can we all speak in ‘unison’?

The lack of a universal voice or even a group voice is evident to me in several ways. In my travels overseas this last 18 months, the topic of the United States presidential elections has been inescapable. Taxi drivers, colleagues and random strangers, who figure out that I’m American, have felt compelled to ask what I think about the results. Somewhat surprisingly, people have readily understood that it would be wrong to assume I have the same views as those spoken by US government officials or demonstrated through US foreign policy. My relationships with  friends and colleagues of nations, religions and backgrounds demeaned by rhetoric from the US government have not changed even as the voice of ‘my’ government has. We share stories of disbelief as if I were a foreigner in my own country. They understand immediately that there is not a singular American voice and that the loudest, most powerful voice cannot speak on behalf of everyone.

In many cases, it is easy to see how a person embedded within a community can retain their individuality. There is no universal expectation of what Americans think and no united voice of ‘the American people’. However, I believe that being seen as an individual within a community is a privilege afforded only a few. There are times when we conflate an individual with their organization, their profession or their background. In this case, we may assume that it isn’t important to hear the voices of individuals. Rather, we might accept that they speak with one voice and that someone powerful within that group can speak for everyone. This is one of the definitions of marginalization and, in my own doctoral research, the teacher participants have experienced acutely.

When school ratings are announced and student test scores are released, we hear these outcomes discussed as if they accurately portray a single characteristic of the school and describe the quality of its teachers. The term ‘good school’ seems to miss the fact that school evaluation glosses over the nuance of each individual teacher, student, process and classroom. Ball (1997) describes this problem accordingly:

‘schools, school managements, school cultures are not ‘of a piece’. Schools are complex, contradictory, sometimes incoherent organisations, like many others…They are changed, influenced, and interfered with regularly, and increasingly. They drift, decay and regenerate’ (pp. 317-318).

Each teacher speaks with their own voice, groups of teachers negotiate how to create their organization and students are the most influential element in the decisions teachers make. These individuals cannot be so easily defined with a single phrase or by a single voice.

Hargreaves and Moore (2005) describe the problems of assuming teachers speak with one voice. They detail the risks of listening to singular voices, problems with teachers’ nostalgia and research design that treats a few teacher voices as ‘definitive and generically representative’ (p. 130). Interestingly, Hargreaves and Moore criticize researchers who rely on kind, loving and caring teachers as research subjects to the exclusion of the voices of cynical, traditional, sexist or racist teachers. They recommend triangulating teachers’ perceptions with government policy documents, historical records and other forms of hard evidence.

While I appreciate their tenacity for seeking the truth – or multiple truths – they do seem to neglect the full range of teachers’ subjective experiences and ignore how many teachers quietly question government policy. Using formal documents, created by people with ‘loud’ voices is unlikely to truly triangulate with the individual experiences of teachers.

I do think that there is a middle ground however. While single voices cannot speak for a group, we should not discount the possibility that teachers’ voices add to the conversation and can be useful for creating policy. If policymakers don’t listen to any teachers, however few, ‘even the most well-intentioned of school reform efforts is likely to fail’  (Bullough & Hall-Kenyon 2011, p. 128).

Teachers should not be spoken about as a uniform or unitary group. Their voices are not expressed in unison. They do not work in a universal way. However, listeningto the voices of teachers has incredible potential for understanding the inner workings of schools, the conditions of school work and the enactment of policy.

References
Ball, S. J. (1997). Good School/Bad School: Paradox and Fabrication. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 18(3), 317–336. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1393334
Bullough, R. V., & Hall‐Kenyon, K. M. (2011). The call to teach and teacher hopefulness. Teacher Development, 15(2), 127–140. https://doi.org/10.1080/13664530.2011.571488
Hargreaves, A., & Moore, S. (2005). Voice, Nostalgia, and Teachers’ Experiences of Change. Counterpoints, 275, 129–140. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42978781
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