Primary Teachers Talking: A Study of Teaching as Work

By Jennifer Nias | Go to book overview
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Chapter three

Defending the self in teaching

It is reasonable to assume that people who are fortunate enough to be able to select their paid occupation will look for a sense of ‘fit’ between their self-image, their place of work and what the work itself involves. They are especially likely to seek for compatibility between self and context when they see themselves as idealistic, or, less powerfully, when they are aware of self-defining values in tune with which they wish to live and work. Yet the substantial self, and the values it incorporates, is itself socially conditioned, especially by early and powerful significant others and social groups (generalized others). The assumptions we learn to make about ourselves and our worlds become embedded in generalized perspectives and the correctness and accuracy of these are in turn confirmed by contact with people who have similar perspectives (‘reference groups’). So, when we enter the world of work (or any similar new arena) we open ourselves to a potential conflict—between the beliefs and values built up in our early years and sustained by our significant and generalized others and those exemplified by the people with whom we now interact every day. Moreover, the more important we perceive work to be, both as a general cultural phenomenon and in terms of its likely place in our own lives, the greater the possible conflict. But, in terms of psychological comfort, the less of this kind of cognitive dissonance we are forced to experience the better; we generally prefer to work in environments in which our substantial selves are confirmed, both by the ways in which work requires us to speak and act, and by those with whom we interact. Where the latter implicitly or explicitly challenge our perspectives, we may try to avoid contact with them. However, if we cannot do this, we may find ourselves under pressure to change our own values and thus our view of ourselves, a painful process from which we protect ourselves whenever we can. Moreover, we are particularly likely to resist the discomfort arising from a change in self-definition when we are under pressure in other areas of our lives (e.g. from domestic circumstances, fatigue, or the necessity to learn new skills). Yet these conditions occur with especial frequency when we take up a first, or a new job.


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