Research roundup

January 14, 2015 J-C Couture

The nested lives of Alberta teachers

“School teachers … are the economic proletarians of the professions.”
C. Wright Mills (1951, 129)

Depending on one’s views about the effects of globalization over the past few decades, Mills’ analysis both clarifies and confounds our understanding of the current conditions of practice of Alberta teachers and their collective status as a profession. Since Mills offered this prescient conclusion decades ago, we have seen the rise in the number and status of the professions alongside widening income disparity among the professional classes — all accompanied by diminished workplace control and flexibility over conditions of practice. In the latter case, such technological advances as data analytics and surveillance tools have facilitated external mechanisms of control in fields ranging from  health care to policing, education and business administration — all supported by the growth of performance-management systems, hierarchy and regulation.

This historical trend helps to contextualize a key element of the Association’s strategic plan to advocate for optimal conditions of teaching practice. An increasing body of research points to the growing gap between the government’s policy rhetoric claiming to support teacher professionalism, autonomy and leadership and the experiences of Alberta teachers, who increasingly live their lives as “professional employees” (Smaller et al 2005, 30) held to account by managerial models of school governance and inappropriate performance measures that do little to build capacity nor trust in public institutions.

In the current paradoxical role as “professional employees,” the aspiration of Alberta teachers to be seen as professionals, “is continually in jeopardy because of organizational decisions made outside the influence of classroom teachers. Educational practices such as standardized curricula, testing and reporting, bigger classroom sizes, and increased administrative duties, just to name a few, have an enormous impact upon the immediate workspace of teachers.”

For the Association engaging in this collective challenge, the dilemma remains clear: to advocate for building the capacity of the profession while acknowledging that teacher and school factors combine to determine no more than 30 per cent of student learning outcomes (Berliner and Glass 2014). In a recent speaking tour of Alberta, David Berliner, one of the foremost educational writers today, further reminded us that, “in the rush to improve student achievement through accountability systems relying on high-stakes tests, our policy makers and citizens forgot, or cannot understand, or deliberately avoid the fact that our children live nested lives.”

The same can be said for Alberta teachers as one considers the findings of ongoing Association research:

  • The average teacher in Alberta works 56 hours a week, the equivalent of almost two days a week of unpaid time.
  • Thirty-two per cent of Alberta teachers report that they have little control over their work lives, and 72 per cent report high levels of conflict between their working life and their personal time.
  • Outside of declining support for students with special needs, the most critical reason that teachers are experiencing a dramatic decline in their professional work life is that they are seldom consulted about the acquisition of new technologies, especially those used to track and report on student progress.

All of these developments are highlighted in the upcoming publication Teaching and Learning Conditions in Alberta: A Global Perspective, which will contribute to a research mobilization strategy to address the ongoing refusal of key jurisdictions and government officials to attend to workload issues. Drawing on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), this study demonstrates that Alberta teachers work, on average, 10 hours more than the international average and with larger class sizes that have more complex student populations than many other Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) jurisdictions. With the exception of Japan, no other jurisdiction reports higher numbers of hours worked by teachers. Again, this is even more significant given the composition of Alberta classrooms and the declining supports for students with special needs.

Having endured the government’s past year’s focus on “excellence in teaching,” the emerging enthusiasm by some system leaders and government officials to ramp up “quality teaching” driven by the marketing of John Hattie’s Visible Learning program ignores the complex inter relationships that determine the conditions of teaching practice and student readiness to learn — and how these relate to the interior psychological lives of teachers and their relationships to their students, school communities, personal and family circumstances and the broader educational policy environments they work in. While Hattie’s work offers important insights into teaching and learning, there is huge risk that his work will become marketed as the latest cure-all that ignores the systemic obstacles to learning in Alberta classrooms.

A human ecology approach to enhancing teacher efficacy

The recently published research study, Reflections on Teaching: Teacher Efficacy and the Professional Capital of Alberta Teachers explores the question: What are the key influences that characterize the relationship between teachers’ sense of efficacy and work-life balance over the course of a school year?

The overriding purpose of this study was to examine the potential and utility of a teacher reflection tool that school leaders could use to engage their staffs in collaborative inquiry about the critical influences that shape teachers’ day-to-day lives. This tool was adapted from The New Lives of Teachers, a 2010 longitudinal study of teachers’ career paths in the United Kingdom by Christopher Day and Qing Gu. This work draws on a long line of social-ecological theory that seeks to understand the complex inter relationships that influence individuals’ behaviour in complex social subsystems (Bronfenbrenner 1977).

His work on human ecology was later applied to the study of teachers, specifically studies of special education teachers by Miller, Brownell and Smith (1999). In the case of the New Lives of Teachers study, the four influences that shape teachers’ sense of efficacy (personal, pupil, practice setting and policy) were applied to the Association study of Alberta teachers.

This study builds on teacher work-life studies recently conducted in schools across Alberta, including The 2010/2011 National Study on Balancing Work, Life and Care Giving: The Situation for Alberta Teachers, by Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins, and The New Work of Teaching: A Case Study of the Work-Life of Calgary Teachers, which identified a number of complex factors that contributed to teachers’ work-life balance and teachers’ capacity to carry out their professional roles and responsibilities.

As well, the growing interest in better understanding the drivers that sustain teacher efficacy was the focus of a recent major study by a University of Alberta research team in collaboration with the Association and education partners in the province. The study, funded by Alberta Education, Exploring the Development of Teacher Efficacy Through Professional Learning Experiences (Klassen and Parsons 2014) will help schools and districts better consider ways to develop professional learning initiatives to build teachers’ self- and collective efficacy. An invitational symposium to be held at the end of November at Barnett House will feature this important research and identify strategies for mobilizing this work in the schools.

Ongoing research efforts will continue to highlight the challenges teachers face in their classrooms where conditions of practice continue to be characterized by the growing complexity of student needs and expectations to improve learning opportunities for all students. Association members further interested in these research activities or who have suggestions for exploring lines on inquiry are invited to contact me.


Berliner, D, and G Glass. 2014.  50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1977. “Toward an Experimental Ecology of Human Development.” American Psychologist 37, 513–31.

Day, C, and Q Gu. 2010. The New Lives of Teachers. New York: Routledge.

Klassen, R, and J Parsons. 2014. Exploring the Development of Teacher Efficacy Through Professional Learning Experiences. Edmonton, Alta: Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Miller M D, M T Brownell and S W Smith. 1999. “Factors that Predict Teachers Staying in, Leaving, or Transferring from the Special Education Classroom.” Exceptional Children 65, 201–18.

Mills, C Wright. 1951. White Collar. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smaller, H, P Tarc, F Antonellis, R Clark, D Hart and D Livingstone. 2005. Canadian Teachers’ Learning Practices and Workload Issues: Results from a National Teacher Survey and Follow-Up Focus Groups. SSHRC-funded New Approaches to Lifelong Learning Research Network and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

J-C Couture is the ATA’s associate co-ordinator of research.

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