Primary Teachers Talking: A Study of Teaching as Work

By Jennifer Nias | Go to book overview

Chapter one

Teaching and the self

The claim that teaching is a personal activity is often advanced as a reason why it cannot be systematically taught to others or fully brought into the public domain. Yet this claim is seldom explicated or justified, to the detriment of mutual understanding among people inside and outside the profession. So, in this chapter, I show that to be a teacher in the primary (and in some instances, the middle) schools of England is to work in a historically determined context that encourages individualism, isolation, a belief in one’s own autonomy and the investment of personal resources. Each of these conditions stresses the importance in teaching of the teacher as a person, as distinct from, though not as opposed to, the teacher as the possessor of occupational knowledge and skills. In other words, the self is a crucial element in the way teachers themselves construe the nature of their job. In turn, this directs attention to theoretical formulations of the self, a hypothetical construct which has been explored by, among others, poets, philosophers, psychologists, social psychologists and sociologists. Here, I focus upon the sociological and psychological perspectives provided by symbolic interactionism, Freudianism, and self-psychology, and in particular upon the nature of the self as ‘me’ and the self as ‘I’.


Teaching as an individual activity

Unique and interpersonal

Most obviously, teaching is a personal activity because the manner in which each teacher behaves is unique. Teaching, like learning, has a perceptual basis. The minute-by-minute decisions made within the shifting, unpredictable, capricious world of the classroom and the judgements teachers reach when they are reflecting on their work depend upon how they perceive particular events, behaviours, materials, and persons. In turn, these perceptions are determined by schemata (‘persistent, deep-rooted and well-organized classifications of ways of perceiving, thinking and behaving’ which are also ‘living and flexible’, Vernon 1955: 181) or basic assumptions (‘schemata . . . organised in more generalised, vague or ill-defined patterns’, Abercrombie 1969: 64) which help us to order and make sense of the world around us. Schemata and assumptions are learned; they are slowly built up as, from birth, we develop and exercise the skill of seeing (or hearing, smelling, tasting, touching). They are modified by experience and activity. Since no two people have the same life experiences, we all learn to perceive the world and ourselves as part of it in different ways. So teachers, as people, ‘see’ and interpret their pupils and the latter’s actions and reactions according to perceptual patterns which are unique to themselves. No matter how pervasive particular aspects of a shared social or occupational culture may be or how well individuals are socialized into it, the attitudes and actions of each teacher are rooted in their own ways of perceiving the world.

-13-

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