Chapter Six: Teachers, Administrators, and the School System

6.4 The School as a Workplace

Who determines what work is done, when, where, and how in schools? Authority over schools except First Nations schools officially rests with provincial governments and school boards. These bodies may (though they are not required to) delegate authority to administrators and teachers. As employees of school boards, teachers are required to comply with instructions given by school boards and school administrators. Teachers have very limited influence over their teaching assignment. They must teach at certain times in certain classrooms, and they do not choose their own students. In all these respects, the work of teachers is highly constrained and controlled.

In these ways, the school is a bureaucratic, hierarchical workplace, sometimes compared to a “factory model” of organization. The term “bureaucratic” derives from the work of sociologist Max Weber, and broadly refers to a hierarchical organization that is governed by rules, staffed by people with expertise, and operated on the basis of standard procedures and practices. Although the term is often used pejoratively now to imply organizations that are overly rigid and wedded to strict rules, the development of bureaucracies was a response to previous organizations that generally operated on the basis of favouritism, patronage, and the whims of those in positions of power. With the development of the hierarchy of decision making also came the definition of role responsibilities, channels of due process, and protections against abuses of authority. Moreover, a certain amount of organization and standardization seems both necessary and desirable in operating a school system that involves large numbers of students and staff, and a varied and complex body of knowledge.

In other respects, the school is a professional organization. Teachers have traditionally held a considerable amount of autonomy within their own classes as to how they teach. While teachers must follow a prescribed curriculum, many curriculum guides give teachers considerable choice in how they approach the subject. Matters of teaching methods and style, approach to discipline, treatment of students, and overall classroom atmosphere remain largely subject to the discretion of teachers. Teachers thus have had more autonomy than exists in many other jobs in which workers are not only told what to do, but also how to do it. Over the last decade, however, more teachers and teachers’ organizations are becoming concerned with the growing encroachments of reforms, accountabilities, and expectations that they perceive are constraining teacher autonomy (British Columbia Teachers Federation, 2018; Osmond-Johnson, 2018; Paradis et al., 2018). The following section discusses some of the characteristics of teaching as an occupation that may have an impact on the ways in which teachers describe their work environment.