The Professional Teacher in Classroom School and Community

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Meyerson and Martin (1987) have defined organization as constituting unique cultures. Undoubtedly, secondary schools have been regarded as cultural entities with each school having a distinctive institutional character. Researchers have found that administrative practices can have a great impact on the secondary school culture. (Delaney, 1991) Under the pressure of decreasing birth rate, every school attempt school improvement for attracting more students. As a result, lots of development teams or departments have been set up. Every single staff has to devote themselves to school development. Are those departments really can help every school? In this article, I would like to analyze why the departmentalization of my practicum school become one of the obstacles for improvement.

Background of the school:

The aided school started operation from 1994. The medium of instruction is Chinese. It has suffered from the problem of under-enrolment in the last three years. The number of class of secondary one, two and three are three only. In this school year, it just fulfills the requirement of avoiding school closure.

There are totally 54 teaching staff including the principal. Within nine school years, 4 principals managed the school. 40% of teachers have working experiences less than 5 years. Another 40% teachers have more than 10 years.

Fig a. The structure of school

Literature review:

According to Hargreaves and MacMillan, secondary schools are balkanized into "a maze of bureaucratic cubbyholes" known as departments. (1992) Balkanization restricts the school's capacity to develop the more cultivating sides of its mission. In addition, balkanization can lead to a situation in which academic subjects have more status within school community than do their technical or vocationally based counterparts. Therefore, status differentiation among subject areas contributes to status differentiation among students and teachers. Moreover, balkanization of subject departments lowers the effectiveness of improvement as it is always difficult to give up own interest and personal views.

Definition of balkanization:

Simply working and associating with colleagues in small group does not amount to balkanization because balkanization can and does have negative consequences for student learning. Take school improvement team as an example, it probably can benefit for both teachers and students. It is not only forming subgroups but also the particular patterns do often take along with their effects. Balkanized cultures have four additional characteristics: (Hargreaves et al., 1992)

Low Permeability

Sub-groups are exceedingly insulated from each other in balkanized cultures. Multiple group membership is unusual. What members know and believe in one group can be fairly different from what others know and believe in another.

High Permanence

Membership of subgroups is clearly delineated in space with clear boundaries between them. Furthermore, once subgroups established, the membership tends to have strong permanence over time.

Personal Identification

People become especially attached to the sub-communities within which most of their lives are contained and defined.

Political Complexion

Political Complexion is existed within balkanized cultures. Everyone tries to maintain their self-interest. Promotion, status and resources are not distributed evenly and realized according to their performance. Nonetheless, they are frequently distributed between through membership of sub-cultures.

Balkanization of subject departments:

Traditional knowledge classification leads to different subjects. Teachers are trained with subject knowledge and became subject teachers. 'Subject teacher identity' is followed with the mindset of each teacher and intensified after starting teaching career. The values of teachers come through teachers' own school socialization and hence they learn to see the world from the perspective of the subjects. In addition, administration structure of school intensified 'subject teacher identity' by subject department. It can be formed by two to three or even several teachers. There are often difficulties during collaboration inside a subject department. However, since they teach the same subject and therefore more easily sharing similar education aspiration and teaching strategies under learning problems. Subsequently, unique characteristics of subject are created and become the boundary of subject departments. As teachers usually belong to one culture only, subgroups are in lack of communication.

There is not only the communication boundary but also a physical barrier. In this practicum school, there are two staff rooms which are located at first floor and seventh floor. All the Chinese language teachers, Mathematics teachers and technical teachers are at one staff room while English teachers and Science teachers are in another one. Due to the physical barrier, the opportunity of communication is even less. In other words, teachers are not working alone or collaborate with the whole school.

Incidents of balkanization in practicum school:

Cancel chemistry in the new senior secondary curriculum next school year

Since the number of secondary three students is dropped significantly, the elective subjects in new senior secondary one are adjusted. In the next school year, there will be no chemistry for new senior secondary one students to choose. One of the chemistry teachers expressed that the decision is made by "new senior secondary curriculum committee". She is disappointed not only because her career is seriously affected but also due to no science teacher representative in that committee. Based on the past few years, chemistry is one of the favorite subjects of students' choice and the exam result of public exam is quite good. She is hard to accept and complained that they still did not know the reason of decision.

In this incident, a few features of balkanization have been showed clearly. There are two different subgroups: science teacher subgroup and the new senior secondary curriculum committee. Most teachers have restricted experiences of teaching outside of their subjects. As a result, they identify strongly with their subjects and have developed pedagogies that match with their subjects. Subject attachments and identities have tended to become not only stabilized but even a bit entrenched. What teachers come to know, think and believe are varied between subgroups. Besides subject identities, members in the committee and subject department can only understand, accept and maintain their own interest but not stand in the other sides to think. The committee even may not consider students' choice. Different subject departments care about the student performance and therefore they compete for resources. The subject with better academic results can get more resources, in contrast, the other have to face the stress of limited resources. Resources are not just restricted to manpower and material resources but also the high-achieved students in order to boost the public exam results. It is very difficult for one subject teacher to sacrifice for other subjects. Without a science representative, other subject representatives decide to cancel chemistry next school year is explained. The decision had divided staff and created dissonance as well as a poor staffroom atmosphere. This incident exemplifies very clearly the low permeability and political complexion which are the two of the defining criteria of balkanization.

Liberal Studies department

Liberal Studies is the new compulsory subject under the new senior secondary curriculum. Liberal Studies department is found two years ago. The number of teaching staff in this department is over ten. Compared with science department and other technique subjects, this department is quite large in human resources. However, the personal identification of them is not as strong as others. Those Liberal Studies teachers actually came from other subject departments and none of them teach Liberal Studies only. When asked about their identity, their first answer is science teacher, history teacher, mathematics teacher, etc… However, they do not admit their Liberal Studies identity in the first response.

Subgroup and teachers' membership in them remain comparatively stable. Teachers come to see themselves as not just teachers in general but subject teacher. Also, few teachers move between subgroups. High permanence and personal identification can be shown in this example. Therefore, Liberal Studies teachers admit their original subject rather than Liberal Studies. Moreover, Liberal Studies teachers are distributed in both staff rooms. There is a physical barrier within the subgroup. Teacher with different subgroup background are in lack of communication even they teach the Liberal Studies of same grade. For example, all form 4 students have to make a board presentation. One of the Liberal Studies teachers with science background did not know. Her students asked her whether they have to do. Then, she finally got the information a week before the presentation. This incident really affected the student negatively. A subgroup does not know what goes on in other departments. They could only comment on what happens in their own. The influence of balkanization perpetuates changelessness among teachers, masks the individual initiative that many teachers possess to improve themselves.


School improvement is a process to change the situation of school or provide better education quality through planning. (Lo, 2006)No matter what measures are taken to adjust the school culture, management practice, teachers' mission or teaching strategy, the successful key is the collaboration of teachers. Low permeability and high permanence of balkanization have negative impact to the aspect of communication. School improvement has to converge all the wisdom with a view to increasing the effectiveness of teaching.

Balkanization must be replaced by the collaborative culture. Each department must be provided adequate opportunity and channel to let every teacher communicate and learn from others. In addition, vision and mission of the school are needed to be planed through open and efficient politic. Then, teachers concentrate to the work and student.

Cross-subject project learning:

Common interest can break the boundary of departments and provide a common communication platform. This is the first step to start collaboration. The advanced relationship between teachers can help the school development. Recent education reform stresses the importance of generic skills such as critical thinking skills and creativity. Generic skills are not restricted to certain subjects but all. Therefore they break the boundaries between subjects and provide a platform for collaboration. One of the most usual teaching strategies is project learning. (Tong, 2003) Since most of the teachers are inexperienced in this aspect, teachers are more willing to support each other even with different subgroups background. It is a chance for them to have professional dialogue which weakens the subject identity and ensures the improvement of school. Consequently, a "talking department" will be formed. A group of teachers from different subgroup come together without their subject identities to focus on project learning as well as construct a new working relationship. This relationship provides a higher permeability and a foundation for collaborative culture.

Mosaic organization structure:

The current departmental structure will not be easily or coherently replaced by structure that can support common identity and consensus. The antidote to balkanization might more properly be the moving mosaic. (Hargreaves et al., 1992) It is understandably that large organizational structure still accommodates different subgroups and do not strive for unachievable goals of common experience and value consensus. Subject departments may continue to exist but not in their current form all over the time. Under mosaic structure, both the subject identity and membership of subgroup do not become entrenched and remain unchanged but change over time. In addition, they will likely carry on with other committees that evolve in response to continuing challenges such as the school improvement team and community links team. Department leaderships carry no permanence which are elected or rotated and temporary. Furthermore, they carry no automatic promise of career advancement. The moving mosaic is an organizational structure that lowers permanence and reduce political complexion by fair rotation.


Balkanization is charactered by strong and stable boundaries between different departments of the school, by subject identification with the domains these boundaries define, and by differences of influence between one subgroup and another. It is an organizational pattern that sustained by the prevailing hegemony of subject specialism. This pattern is not only restrict professional learning and educational improvement among communities of teachers but also be responsible for the conflicts and divisions of school.

De-balkanization requires establish collaborative culture. With a view to doing that, the structure of school and work of teachers have to be changed. Cross-subject project learning provides a platform for professional dialogue. Mosaic organization structure weakens the membership of subgroups and faces challenges together. This might be one of the ways to build the school as a professional learning community.

(2002 words)