Neurodivergent teachers report self-doubt and a need to ‘normalise’ to fit in with traditionally accepted norms, according to research undertaken by Dr Annemarie O’Dwyer. The sector needs to do more to get the most out of such talented people.
This article presents two key findings from my doctoral research, about the ‘cult of the performative teacher’ and ‘post-panoptic performativity’ in the context of the further education and skills sector in England, and their implications for professionals in the sector (O’Dwyer, 2021).
The aim is to explore the potential contribution the findings make to the current literature on neurodiversity and, in particular, the implications for neurodivergent teachers. Walker (2021) defines neurodiversity succinctly as “the variation among minds” – however, she uses the word “mind” in a holistic way encompassing “every aspect of perception, cognition, emotion, memory, psyche and consciousness”.
In addition, a further critical exploration will consider if the current FE and skills environment, with its preoccupation on performative outputs and accountability (O’Leary, 2013), is a conducive environment to embrace a neuro-inclusive approach in policy and practice to the benefit of its neurodivergent teaching workforce.
To set the scene, the two findings outlined emerged from my doctoral research, which explored how the education policy process, policy techniques and performativity contribute to the construction of teachers with specific learning differences (SpLDs) as subjects in the English FE and skills sector. SpLD is a catch-all term encompassing dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. The term is situated within the pathology paradigm, which, alongside the neurodiversity approach(es), will be explained later in this article.
The first finding formed out of the sector’s preoccupation with measuring the worth of teachers by their ability to meet pre-determined standards and measures. Responses from teachers and managers working in FE and skills to the question, ‘What makes an effective teaching professional?’ – and their thoughts on lesson observations as a performance measure – formed a sort of ‘cult’ figure.
Both teachers and managers mechanically listed activities, attributes and behaviours that were similar in form, with only slight variations in descriptors used. Often the word ‘good’ prefixed the description, a word synonymous with Ofsted grading criteria. Ball (2003) explained this phenomenon using the concept of performativity. Ball argues that “performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation”.
“A good starting point would be to create a positive wellness space for teachers.”
Put simply, performativity in the context of education describes how performance measures, such as Ofsted grading and value-added scores, set the tone and culture of education, reducing the value of education to the aspects of teaching that can be calculated, measured and compared. Thus, according to Ball, “we make ourselves calculable rather than memorable”.
For the neurodivergent teachers (diagnosed with dyslexia) who took part in the research, their perception of a ‘good’ teacher was, like their neuronormative colleagues, shaped by how well a teacher could perform to pre-determined standards and measures. In addition, they also provided a rote checklist of the ‘good’ teacher, which included the same attributes and behaviours mentioned by the other participants.
However, for neurodivergent teachers there were greater ramifications, as they began to describe themselves as deficient in comparison to their neuronormative colleagues. One of them had this to say about why they should not be a humanities teacher: “One of the things I find the hardest is holding on to detail. I have no ability to hold on to detail whatsoever. And, therefore, I shouldn’t be a [subject] teacher.”
The perception of not meeting the neuronormative standard expressed in the neurodivergent teacher’s response is reflected across all sectors of employment. Birkbeck, University of London, published preliminary findings of a survey covering 1,117 people, which included 127 employers and 990 neurodivergent employees. The Neurodiversity at Work (2023) survey found that psychological wellbeing and safety was more important to neurodivergent staff than the provision of accommodations. For neurodivergent teachers, having authentic conversations with college employers about their neurodivergence can be difficult and exhausting, and can place them in a vulnerable position where their psychological wellbeing is compromised (McDowall et al, 2023).
In the work by Hamilton and Petty (2023), which draws on the principles of compassion-focused psychological therapies, they call for a “universal design for learning” (UDL), which appreciates a neurodiverse body of learners, and is ‘fit for purpose’ and evident in curriculum design, interpersonal relations and the culture of the higher education institution.
The focus of the work is on neurodivergent students; however, Hamilton and Petty recognise the need for neurodivergent staff to also benefit from a compassion-focused approach. In the spirit of UDL, they present good practice examples of accommodating neurodivergent staff. Suggestions include flexible working hours, allocating tasks and workstreams based on employee strengths, and promoting and welcoming neurodiversity in recruitment practices.
Good practice examples were provided by the neurodivergent teachers in the research; however, the examples were isolated and varied even within the same FE college. Of the two FE colleges that took part in the research, neither had a distinct policy on accommodating neurodivergent teachers. When support was mentioned, it was in relation to learner support services and learner support policy, although senior leaders interviewed were confident that, on request, reasonable adjustments would be made for neurodivergent staff.
The lack of a considered and appropriate approach in accommodating neurodivergent teachers is symptomatic of what neurodiversity academics and advocates refer to as the pathology paradigm, which shapes and influences disability policy and practice. Walker (2021) summarises the pathology paradigm by stating that it approaches disability from the bio-medical perspective: “If your neurological configuration and functioning (and, as a result, your ways of thinking and behaving) diverge substantially from the dominant standard of ‘normal’, then there is Something Wrong with You.”
Without an inclusive policy in place to guide managers on how to better accommodate neurodivergent teachers, teachers are left to ‘fix’ themselves, while managing the burden of fulfilling the ‘cult of the performative teacher’ role.
The second finding of the research – ‘post-panoptic performativity’ – will also act as an exploratory tool in examining the prevailing accountability culture of the FE and skills sector in England and the implications for employer colleges to be neurodiversity-affirming in the design and execution of neuro-inclusive policy and practice.
Post-panoptic performativity is a phrase used by Perryman et al (2018) to explain how teachers and managers within the sector become agents of control over themselves. They argue that teachers are in a constant state of Ofsted-readiness. The threat of surveillance leads teachers to become preoccupied with meeting performance and accountability measures. As educationalists, we should be concerned with such a preoccupation, as it encourages a ‘one size fits all’ approach to education, which is tangential to neurodiversity-affirming approaches and practices.
To better understand how accountability became the dominant culture in the FE and skills sector in England, we need to go back to the incorporation of FE colleges, which took place in 1993 following the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992. Incorporation brought with it a new style of management referred to as new public management, which concerned itself with applying commercial model techniques and principles to the sector (Lucas and Crowther, 2016).
Consequently, Hoyle and Wallace (2005) argue, a ‘new professionalism’ emerged, which concerned itself with performative outputs and market models. A by-product of the accountability culture and ‘new professionalism’ is what Holloway and Brass (2018) refer to as a ‘marketised discourse’ among teachers. Teachers applied market logics in their accounts of performance determined by external measures. The language of commerce was used to describe the business of teaching, with one teacher stating: “All you have is what you produce, and you have to produce the best product that you can, which is who can perform on a test.”
Juxtaposed to the accountability discourse is the neurodiversity approach(es), also referred to as the neurodiversity paradigm (Walker, 2021). Walker, like other neurodiversity researchers and advocates, distinguishes between the concept of neurodiversity, and both the neurodiversity paradigm (principle/frame of reference) and the neurodiversity movement (social justice and civil rights movement for the inclusion of the neurodivergent).
According to Dwyer (2022), there is no single unified approach to neurodiversity. Dwyer explains that like scientific paradigms, there are “discrepancies” and no “clear rules”. Like scientific paradigms, neurodiversity approaches are in the main “part action-oriented and prescriptive” and provide a frame of reference in how to “proceed in relation to human neurocognitive diversity”.
Where there appears to be a form of consensus in approach is in the belief that the individual requirements and preferences of the neurodivergent should be considered and, more importantly, that no intervention should aim to ‘normalise’ neurodivergent people in attempts to make them more neuronormative.
However, the reality for neurodivergent teachers is one in which they are left to ‘normalise’. This is done through masking and adopting resilience ‘strategies’ to assist in managing the performative demands of teaching.
Furthermore, they feared that in disclosing their neurodivergence questions would be raised about their competency. One neurodivergent teacher stated: “When I tell a class I am dyslexic I am partly revealing a weakness. I am saying there is something about me that is not perfect.” O’Connor’s (2023) paper states that one way to reduce stigma and masking for the neurodivergent college community is to “hire and support neurodivergent educators”.
Neurodiversity approach principles should be employed by colleges and other FE and skills settings. A good starting point would be to create a positive wellness space for teachers. This will not only allow them to declare their neurodivergence in a safe and supportive environment, but also to know that their employer has a neuro-inclusive policy and protocols to recognise neurodivergent teachers. This is designed to accommodate their unique neurodivergent strengths without the subtext of trying to ‘normalise’ them.
However, the strong hold of performative and accountability culture, which continues to drive behaviour in the English FE and skills sector, appears to be at odds with the practice and acceptance of neurodiversity. It is within the gift of all employers to fully embed neuro-inclusive policy and practice to the benefit of their neurodivergent teaching workforce. When they do so, they will not only be advocating for neurodivergent teachers but demonstrating themselves as allies for neurodivergent learners and the neurodiversity movement as a whole.
The sample of research participants included 15 adult professionals from within two FE colleges, and wider sector agencies, organisations and departments in England. They were selected using both purposive (recruited based on characteristics – for example, they work in the FE and skills sector) and volunteer sampling techniques.
Qualitative, semi-structured interviews were selected as an appropriate method and were carried out between May and August 2018. The research inquiry moves beyond subjective accounts of how teachers with SpLDs navigate through the expectations of what it is to be a teaching professional. Instead, it appreciates how a set of circumstances, created by sector policy reform and policy, contributes to the subjectification of teachers with SpLDs.
Unfortunately no ‘good’ practice example emerged from the research. However, I am pleased to announce, in partnership with a certified ADHD life coach, and a neurodivergent teacher and advocate, the creation of a new online support group for neurodivergent teachers. This will meet monthly and provide a safe and creative space for neurodivergent teachers to share their experiences in a supportive and likeminded environment.
To find out more, or share examples of best practice, please email me at email@example.com.
Ball S. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy 18(2): 215-228.
Dwyer P. (2022) The neurodiversity approach(es): what are they and what do they mean for researchers? Human Development 66(2): 73-92.
Hamilton LG and Petty S. (2023) Compassionate pedagogy for neurodiversity in higher education: a conceptual analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 14: 1-9.
Holloway J and Brass J. (2018) Making accountable teachers: the terrors and pleasures of performativity. Journal of Education Policy 33(3): 361-382.
Hoyle E and Wallace M. (2005) Educational Leadership: ambiguity, professionals and managerialism. 1st Edition. London: Sage Publications.
Lucas N and Crowther N. (2016) The logic of incorporation of further education colleges in England 1993-2015: towards an understanding of marketisation, change and instability. Journal of Education Policy 31(5): 583-597.
McDowall A, Doyle N and Kiseleva M. (2023) Neurodiversity at Work: demand, supply and a gap analysis. Birkbeck, University of London. See: eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/50834.
O’Connor C. (2023) Departments: alternative format: will neurodivergent teachers and students ever unmask? Language Arts 100(5): 383-387.
O’Dwyer A. (2021) The construction of teachers with specific learning differences (SpLDs) as subjects in the English further education sector: an exploration of the contribution of policy techniques, policy process and performativity [Doctoral thesis, University of Roehampton]. University of Roehampton. See: bit.ly/Roehampton-thesis.
O’Leary M. (2013) Surveillance, performativity and normalised practice: the use and impact of graded lesson observations in Further Education colleges. Journal of Further and Higher Education 37(5): 694-714.
Perryman J, Maguire M, Braun A and Ball S. (2018) Surveillance, govermentality and moving the goalposts: the influence of Ofsted on the work of schools in post-panoptic era. British Journal of Educational Studies 66(2): 145-163.
Walker N. (2021) Neuroqueer Heresies: notes on the neurodiversity paradigm, autistic empowerment, and postnormal possibilities. Fort Worth: Autonomous Press, LLC.
Dr Annemarie O’Dwyer is director of Neurodivergent Insider (inTuition edition: Winter 23/24)
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