There are clear links between the structure of society and how students experience school. The inequities in society are reproduced in schools via a phenomenon that privileges the dominant culture of society; it makes sense that teachers’ social class, beliefs and values will impact a school’s culture and shape students’ experience and expectations of the school, and society. Schools mimic society’s structural class dynamics through the reproduction of social expectations, norms and understanding via teachers’ habitus within the traditional hierarchical structures of a school (Mills, 2008). However, schools have the potential to also define and transform society through an equity-focused social mutual responsibility (Connell, 2012). An education system that encourages teachers to promote social justice through democratic equity practices, allows the possibility of transformation in education, and society. However, the political climate heavily influences society’s purpose for schools, and increasing neoliberalism has infiltrated schools and undermined the democratic ideals of education. The purpose of schooling has changed from a democratic equality social-good focus to an economic individualistic focus (Cranston, Kimber, Mulford, Reid, & Keating, 2010). Aligned to neoliberal marketisation, the introduction of national standardised testing with increased teacher accountability has been justified, and has led to an increase in school privatisation and competition between schools and students (Angus, 2015; Cranston, Kimber, Mulford, Reid, & Keating, 2010).
The erosion of the democratic vision of schooling has caused conflict for teachers because of the tensions between their awareness of the growing inequities in schools and their need to comply to an increasingly data-driven accountable performativity that has become a prioritised requirement of their work (Cranston, Kimber, Mulford, Reid, & Keating, 2010). Teachers are trained to be aware of their habitus, the cultural capital that influences a person’s disposition and habits (Mills, 2008), which commonly sits within the dominant culture and is applied in the social and cultural reproduction of society in schools, thereby maintaining society’s class structures and the related inequities. A teacher’s awareness of the impact of their habitus, influences a teacher’s drive to transform the inequities they see in schools. But this also causes the teacher demoralised frustration against the decreasing autonomy, and the undermining of their profession, that they experience within the neoliberal market-driven system (Mills, 2008), which often causes teacher burnout. These tensions are magnified, and highlighted in articles that warn of teacher burnout, during the sudden need to conduct remote learning due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The unplanned move to remote learning due to the COVID-19 crisis caused many teachers anxiety because they were ill-prepared digitally, but most importantly their underlying care for students were restricted and this exposed the massive inequities in schooling. Arguably, teachers not only see inequities in schools, and thereby society, but they are also acutely aware of their role in either maintaining these inequities or their potential for transforming the status quo through democratic, critical teaching practices (Mills, 2008). Teachers care about their students and tend to feel responsible in ensuring inequities are minimised in the classroom to allow equitable learning for all students. This situates teachers in roles as agents of transformation, not reproducers of social inequities (Mills, 2008), and this works against the current neoliberal educational climate; therefore, this conflicting tension becomes frustrating for teachers and attributes to burnout. The added pressures of sudden remote learning causes further teacher exhaustion because the inequities are magnified and teachers’ concern for students rapidly increases due to their inability to check that their students are safe, and supported with nutritious food and relevant differentiated learning. Teachers were over-worked in their attempts to learn new digital platforms, develop differentiated resources for remote learning, and some teachers personally visited their students’ homes to ensure they were safe and well. Ironically, while teachers are concerned about the well-being of their individual students during this crisis, the education system, the Australian Government, many parents and the media, all mainly focused on and demanded quality of teaching and learning during this time, with continuous voicing of concerns about students falling behind academically. This situation only exacerbates the ongoing dilemma that teachers experience already between the opposing views of the purpose of schools; the democratic equity ideals versus the economic-driven individualistic pursuits related to neoliberalism. These teachers burnout, become demoralised, and eventually either leave the profession or sacrifice social justice and their own integrity in their teaching practice.