My research into teachers’ lives, life histories and careers has been dominated by accident and opportunity. It started almost by chance growing out of the work in which I was engaged during the 1970s. At that time I was a lecturer at the School of Education at the University of Liverpool, responsible for designing and running a one-year postgraduate Certificate in Education course for graduates who wished to teach children between 7 and 13 years old. Each year there was a substantial cohort of secondary students; the primary group numbered between 12 and 20 and worked in an isolated basement room in a large old building whose upper floors were inhabited by more prestigious courses. The physical conditions under which we all worked were difficult, staffing was limited, the pressure to cover a good deal of professional ground in a short time was intense. As a result, we spent many hours in each other’s company and got to know one another well. Once individuals had begun teaching, they would often telephone, call or write, seeking reassurance, support and information from an interested, professionally knowledgeable colleague who did not have the control over their careers which was now vested in their headteachers or inspectors. When, one day, someone who had been teaching for three years returned from many miles away to talk about her experiences in school and, in passing, exclaimed, ‘I do wish you could come and see what I am doing now!’ I decided to spend a forthcoming sabbatical term visiting past graduates from this course and exploring with them the strengths and weaknesses of their training.
It seemed sensible to limit my enquiries to those who had been teaching for at least two years. By 1974, when I began seriously to listen to ‘primary teachers talking’, several studies of the probationary year had been published. The early experience of