A teacher’s voice:
I was teaching year one at a private primary school. One day I decided to run a few science experiments with my class on velocity. The children were given some items that could travel a distance; for example, a ball or paper planes. I borrowed a pull-back toy car from a friend for the occasion. I told the children that the toy car was not mine but the owner had given us permission to use it and to please be careful with it. I explained that the car was to be pulled back and released — there was to be no forceful launching of the vehicle.
As I was working with a group I turned around to see a little girl laughing menacingly as she launched the toy car into the air with an overarm throw shattering it into pieces on the ground.
I stormed over to her in outrage and said with a finger pointed; ‘Sophie, how could you do that? I asked you to be careful!’ Sophie was typically a quiet girl. She was pleasant but struggled to make friends because she wanted to possess her one special friend, which would ultimately drive them away. Her bottom lip started to quiver while she told me that it fell out of her hand. I told her that she could not be trusted with the other equipment and set her to task on something else.
The next morning her father came to see me to tell me how out of line I had been. It came as a shock because we knew each other socially and had been good friends. According to him, his daughter was innocent and besides, if I did not want the toy damaged I should not have brought it to school. His criticism was maddening — damage could be lived with so long as it was not blatant vandalism. I stayed calm, explained myself and we agreed to disagree.
At the end of the year, Sophie had achieved well academically, which was reflected in her school report, but I had noted that her social development was of concern. I had recognised that while she was mostly quiet and almost severely compliant, every now again she would do something outrageous to attract attention from peers. Again, her father came to see me, complaining about the comments on her report. According to her father, I had it in for Sophie and I had best change the results on her report. I did not change the report and the consequence was a lost friendship.
I expected more of Sophie and her father but he also expected more from me. He expected that our friendship would buy allowances for his daughter.
This story brings into question ‘responsibility’. Who was responsible for the flying car; who was responsible for Sophie’s school report? Sophie’s father deemed the teacher responsible for both which highlights that teachers are often found responsible for the failure of students to meet targets.
Furthermore, who was responsible for the teacher’s outrage or hurt? Sophie’s father again held the teacher entirely responsible by declaring that the teacher was ‘out of line’. By only holding the teacher responsible, Sophie’s responsibility is removed and consequently minimised her agency. Agency is action underpinned by a sense of responsibility and self-evaluation — it is more than simply doing. As teachers, we work towards developing our students’ agency.
Sophie’s father was positioning her as simply doing and rather helpless in a way, yet Foucault vividly highlights that as long as someone is living they have agency. This is a story of shared responsibility and the need for collective agency to be recognised in schools. Everyone has responsibility in a classroom — everyone has agency — and the teacher, as the responsible adult, tries to facilitate and direct the collective agency.