Primary Teachers Talking: A Study of Teaching as Work

By Jennifer Nias | Go to book overview

Chapter two

The nature of the teacher’s ‘self’

The purposes of this chapter are to suggest that despite their differences, primary teachers see themselves in similar ways, to indicate what these are and to point out their significance to an understanding of teaching as work. It is, however, based on material obtained indirectly from those with whom I talked. I did not, during either set of interviews, ask them any direct questions about how they saw themselves. The reasons for this are twofold. First, it was only after the first interviews were completed that I gradually realized that almost every response contained some self-referential comment. This realization in turn directed my attention to the central importance of self-image. Secondly, when, 10 years later, I conducted the second interviews, I felt that little would be achieved by direct questions—few people can easily articulate their view of their substantial selves, especially at short notice. Instead, I listened carefully as we discussed other matters for comments which would throw new light on the topic. In addition, I asked all my second interviewees if they thought they had changed in the last decade. In the event, neither I nor they could detect much change in self-perception except in terms of becoming more relaxed or self-confident, so the material in this chapter is drawn mainly from teachers’ reflections on their first decade of work.

Of course, it seems contradictory to argue that our understanding of an individualistic profession can be advanced by presenting what appears to be the corporate self-image of a hundred teachers. Nevertheless, unique though each of these teachers was in terms of personality and experience, they shared common views of themselves, especially in terms of motivation, values and ideals. Patterns emerged; it is these which are reported here.

Unfortunately, there is little existing work against which to compare these patterns. There are several studies (most of them summarized and reviewed in Thomas 1980; Burns 1982; Wragg 1982) of aspects of teachers’ self-concern and self-esteem (though the majority were carried out with students and we should therefore be cautious about applying their results to experienced teachers). These studies are generally concerned either with measuring the extent of individual self-esteem or with the relationship between measures of self-concept and aspects of teaching behaviour. They do not give much insight into the nature of the ‘self’ which is being measured nor its potential for change, and even less into its roots or origins. Yet a few trends emerge. Bown et al. (1967) claimed that American student teachers see themselves as warm and caring towards children, a point confirmed by Lortie (1975). In a British study, Morgan and Dunn (1978: 47) concluded that ‘students choose to be primary teachers for soft-centred or, perhaps, idealistic reasons’. Ashley et al. (1969), examining students’ reasons for becoming teachers, suggested that the only self-perceptions shared by younger diploma women, graduate women and graduate men were fondness for or an interest in children. Other reasons they gave for their career choice were ‘intellectual involvement in, and social commitment to, the education of children’, ‘doing good’, ‘freedom and an absence of boredom’ (Ashley et al. 1969: 67). The authors go on to suggest that different patterns of loading by the four groups may ‘relate respectively to stereotyped self-images of the “aspiring professional”, “the interested and concerned mother”, “the charitably inclined middle class lady” and “the student”’. Cohen et al. (1973), studying achievement-need in student teachers, reported self-images of ‘ambitious’, ‘hardworking’, ‘individualistic’ and ‘sure’, but in the context of their study this is not surprising.

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