How language teachers can engage with policy (and why they should)

Teachers are busy and getting busier, and so many of us would shudder to think about adding learning about government policy to our growing list of duties. When teachers undertake their pre-service training, there are  rarely classes in educational policy, and discussions about policy are usually limited to the current curriculum model.

It can be easy to see how school-based policies have an impact on the everyday lives of language teachers, and language teachers have been known to be great advocates for their subject at the school level, pushing for better conditions for their language programs and ultimately their students.

However, the focus of this post is on government policy, policies that are top-down, made higher up the food chain. As the impacts of policy trickle down to our schools and classrooms, we, as language teachers, must deal with the consequences (good or otherwise) of these policies. So, in essence, we become mere consumers of policy. This post is a digested version of a plenary speech given at the MLTAQ conference in 2014, which aimed to encourage language teachers to become more engaged in the political process. You can see the Powerpoint from that speech here or read the paper here.

So, what is policy?
The Oxford Dictionary (online) produces the following definition:

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Government policy can be a little tricky to pin down. It isn’t always (or even often) a lovely bound document with the clear words ‘policy’ typed on the front. Policy can take many forms: reports, position statements, white papers, green papers, working papers, reviews, statements of intent, advocacy papers, etc. As well as being textual, policy can also include ‘discourse’, the debates and discussions about a particular issue.

Policy can be symbolic or substantive. If you’d like a simple explanation of the difference, and a laugh along the way, please take a look at this short clip from The Hollowmen, an Australian political satire series (I promise it will be worth the 2 minutes of your time!).

How does government policy flow down to language teachers?
It can take time for a government policy to filter down to the classroom, as it travels down to each level below. In Australia, as per the image below, federal government policy influences state policy which in turn influences school policy and impacts on language teachers. In other countries there may be more or less levels to go through, but the end will always fall to the language teachers, implementing the policies at the chalkboard.

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In what ways can policy impact language teachers?
Language education policy can make explicit the aims and expectations about what should be taught and how it should be taught. It can recommend or mandate how much language education students should receive. It can prioritise the teaching of certain languages. It can announce aims to improve the quality of language education, or increase the number of students learning a language. It can introduce programs and set aside funding in order to meet these aims.

The political discourse can set the tone for how language education policy is implemented as it travels down to each level. If governments value language education, and give it serious thought and attention, then schools are eventually likely to follow suit. If funding is given to prop up policies and programs, schools will be obliged to pass that on to languages, not siphoned off into other areas. If governments implement programs that support the sustainable growth of language education, universities will be encouraged to offer more opportunities for pre-service training of new teachers.

If policy does not  include clear implementation plans, accountability measures, or funding allocations, it is more likely to be seen as hollow rhetoric, and thus not taken seriously by those further down the chain. If policy statements are vague, then liberties can be taken at the school level. In Qld, Australia, where state policy requires that language education is provided to students from years 5 to 8, there have been examples of schools offering only one semester (20 weeks, half a school year) or one term (10 weeks) language programs, meaning huge gaps between learning (I waited 18 months to see my year 9 elective students after their one term compulsory year 8 course). In another example several schools have used the argument that coding is a language (my argument about that here) to ‘tick the box’. These two examples show that where policy is vague, it can be open to various interpretations which may not be conducive to quality language education.

How can language teachers become policy influencers?
The first step to becoming a policy influencer is to be policy literate. I would like to advocate that education policy studies be part of all teacher training, and that educational policy should be made easily accessible to teachers. Where districts or governments are not open to this, perhaps language teachers associations could assist in making relevant policy available in an online space.

Being involved in the consultation process is paramount. Give your opinions about proposed policy through the consultation process, and where there is not one go through your local members.

Your involvement can be as an individual, or as part of a collective, or both. Language teacher associations and teachers unions may provide a collective voice for language teachers, and being a member of these associations may help your voice be heard.

Even if we are loud, we may not always have the power to be heard. I think it’s important to get local communities to understand what you need to implement strong language programs. Parents care about the education of their children. They are in greater number and thus have more voting power, and also have the power to move their children from a school or sector (say, public to private). Just like teachers, parents may not see the link between what happens in schools with what happens in government policy meetings. If they understood this, like in the excellent case of Canada with the Canadian Parents for French organisation (the subject of an upcoming blog), then they might band together and wield considerable power.

“Why is there only 30 minutes a week of language teaching at this school?”
“Because there has not been enough political lobbying to force the government to introduce minimum standards for language education, and noone really cares to make a big enough fuss to change that.”
An oversimplification, maybe, but you get my point.

Finally, be empowered with the knowledge that you have the right and the ability to be engaged in the political process, to influencing the type of language education policies that will help you to create a successful language program.

 

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OVER TO YOU …

*What do you think of the role of policy in your everyday teaching lives?
*Are you aware of the recent and current government policy where you are?
*What other ideas do you have for time-poor teachers to be involved in the political process?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our Facebook comments.

 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 
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