Elementary and High School Teachers: Birds of a Feather?

By Marston, Susan H.; Brunetti, Gerald J. et al. | Education, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Elementary and High School Teachers: Birds of a Feather?


Marston, Susan H., Brunetti, Gerald J., Courtney, Victoria B., Education


1. Introduction

Public elementary and high school teachers in the United States are often assumed to be fundamentally different from each other. Historically, they have come from different educational backgrounds: Elementary teachers were characteristically prepared in normal schools (which evolved into state teachers colleges), where they majored in education; high school teachers often attended state universities or liberal arts colleges and majored in the subjects they would eventually teach (e.g., English, history, mathematics). For the most part, this difference in subject matter emphasis remains today (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002), consistent with the different kinds of classroom assignments the two groups of teachers have (i.e., teaching in all subject areas to the same group of students versus teaching a single subject to different groups of students). Despite these differences, elementary and high school teachers today are seen as representing a single profession and are generally treated as such by the school districts that employ them--they generally have the same salary schedule, the same employee union, and the same academic calendar.

The present study addresses the question: In what ways are elementary and high school teachers fundamentally the same and in what ways are they different? The study attempts to shed light on this question by comparing the motivations of three groups of teachers for remaining in the classroom and by examining their attitudes towards selected school-related issues. Such information can be useful in the career development process for both beginning and experienced teachers.

2. Theoretical Framework and Review of Literature

Teacher Attitudes and Development

In his seminal study, Huberman (1993) used life history and other methods to study the lives of French-Swiss secondary teachers, including the attitudes and perspectives of experienced classroom practitioners. Other researchers (Ball & Goodson, 1985; Knowles & Holt Reynolds, 1994; Goodson & Hargreaves, 1996: Brunetti, 2001; Muchmore, 2001; Stanford, 2001: Williams, 2001) have also used life history approaches in exploring the beliefs of experienced teachers. The present study follows this tradition.

Elementary Versus Secondary Teachers

A review of research yielded few studies that focused specifically on differences between elementary and secondary (or high school) teachers. A number of studies that addressed teacher characteristics across K-12 populations, however, identified certain differences. For instance, Hargreaves (2000) found differences in the "emotional geographies" of elementary and secondary teaching: Elementary teaching was characterized by "physical and professional closeness which creates greater emotional intensity," while secondary teaching was characterized by "greater professional and physical distance." leading secondary teachers to treat emotions as "intrusions in the classroom" (p. 811). In a study of teacher job satisfaction, Perie and Baker (1997) found that elementary school teachers tended to be more satisfied than secondary teachers and that workplace conditions had a positive relationship with a teacher's job satisfaction regardless of whether a teacher was elementary or secondary.

Williams (2001) studied job satisfaction among 12 "outstanding" teachers, including elementary, middle, and high school teachers, but unfortunately for the present study did not report on differences among the teachers based on teaching level. Willmam and Krumpulainen (1996) queried Finnish elementary and secondary teachers regarding their satisfaction with work. but no direct comparisons between elementary and secondary teachers were discussed. Their data did, however, reveal inter-school differences, implying that the sources of teacher job satisfaction were contextually defined.

3. Research Questions

The following questions were selected as particularly suitable for comparing experienced elementary and high school teachers:

1) To what extent are elementary and high school teachers satisfied with their jobs? …

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