Privilege, Power and Agency: A multisite study of teachers in elite private schools in Australia

George Variyan

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    The elite private school in Australia usually finds itself located in contemporary media tropes as either a gold standard in schooling, or more pejoratively, as a beacon of inequality. In relation to the latter trope, sociologists’ sojourns into these privileged spaces have typically focused on the student experience, school leaders and structural advantages that reproduce and amplify social inequality. While this call to ‘study up’ has generated a considerable body of work in this regard, my doctoral research instead brings visibility to the minutiae of teachers’ understandings, their practices and their experiences, because teachers will be essential actors in any transformative agenda if the political appetite for change ever arises.

    This doctoral thesis utilised data gathered from a two-year qualitative study of teachers in three Australian elite private schools, including interviews, observations and document analysis. Foucauldian analytics, in particular, Foucault’s concepts of the nexus of power and knowledge, the reciprocity or capillarity of power relations, the technologies of self that are the animus of agency, his concept of a heterogeneous social assemblage or dispositif and his heterotopological understandings of social space, are the critical infrastructure of analysis.

    This study makes five key findings regarding teachers’ work-lives in elite private schools. Firstly, that the teachers are actively participating in a myriad of discourses that legitimate elite private schooling per se. Yet teachers’ agency in this regard is not without the contradictions and nuances that are typically omitted by the everyday politics of privilege played out in media representations. In this vein, the second key finding highlights how teachers’ agency is also constrained by the highly asymmetric relations of power in which teachers are enmeshed, eroding both their authority and their autonomy. Thirdly, the identity practices and discourses of elite students within elite private schools, which are supported by teachers and that appear diverse and cosmopolitan, are instead seen to promote and reproduce archetypical ideals. These are modes of hypermasculinity and boundedness that marginalise female subjects and empathetic modes of relating. Fourthly, sexual harassment of female teachers by boys in elite private schools that is emergent in the data is in-part enabled by elite private schooling practices, discourses and material investments that increase the reach of digital communication technologies. The fifth and final key finding is that teachers also actively participate in disavowals and erasures of these transgressive behaviours, which compound the effects of sexual harassment that are experienced by young female teachers and arguably lead to an under-reporting of these incidents.

    This study sheds light on teachers’ capacity for agency within elite private schools and posits that even if it is to ignore, mitigate or simply navigate the moral and ethical questions that elite private schooling generates, that these actions already suggest some standing capacity for personal agency. However, in the light of these key findings, the potential for teacher agency to inaugurate a transformation of practices in elite private schools is muted, at best. Teachers’ agency is found to generally support institutional goals rather than challenge them, even though these overall effects are not without underlying contradictions and tensions that the teachers navigate and at times do resist. Thus the specificities of teacher experiences in elite private schools evidenced in this study shed light on the practices and discourses that both constrain and enable their agency. The findings in the study suggest that teachers’ work in the main, but also in the margins of their schools’ discourses and practices, offers essential insights for a truly transformative praxis in spaces more easily reduced to antagonisms than nuance.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Edwards-Groves, Chris, Principal Supervisor
    • Langat, Kiprono, Co-Supervisor
    • Wilkinson, Jane, Co-Supervisor, External person
    Award date12 Feb 2018
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


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