Chapter Six: Teachers, Administrators, and the School System

6.5 Characteristics of Teaching as an Occupation

Teaching has been the subject of a number of important studies over the years. One of the first of these, The Sociology of Teaching, was written in the 1930s by U.S. sociologist Willard Waller. In 1975, Dan Lortie published his book, Schoolteacher, though the book was based on data collected years earlier in the 1960s. A powerful study of Australian teachers by R.W. Connell, Teachers’ Work, was done in the mid-1980s. In the 1990’s there were further discussions about the nature of teaching as an occupation, including Rod Dolmage’s Canadian book, So You Want to Be a Teacher (1996), Goodson and Hargreaves’ edited collection Teachers’ Professional Lives (1996). All of these works offered conclusions about some of the basic characteristics of teaching. Although evidence suggests that these characteristics are still common in Canadian teaching, the nature of their work has changed substantially, and increasing concerns over teacher health and wellbeing have been noted (Canadian Teachers’ Federation, 2020).

In the past, teaching was often largely an isolated job. Teachers worked most of the time with students and did not have much interaction with other adults. This was true not only of new teachers, who may have felt that they are left to “sink or swim” on their own, but also of experienced teachers. With the increasing development of collaborative professional development, team teaching, interdisciplinary inquiry learning projects, and teamed support for diverse learners, much of the isolation in teaching is being dispelled.

Although each teacher learns to teach individually, and has a unique style, teachers tend to reject the idea that there is a single best way to teach. Given the increasing diversity that exists in classrooms today, teachers recognize that meeting the learning needs of students also necessitates that they work with their colleagues to consider what teaching is and how best to do it. The research on student learning suggests that the teacher is the most important in-school influence on student learning (Leithwood et al., 2006). It is therefore not surprising that much of the recent professional development for teachers has centred on differentiated instruction, assessment, and inquiry learning, all of which offer opportunities for teachers to reflect on how they work with students.

Teaching involves conflicting roles. Teachers want all children to succeed and to develop a love of learning, yet much of their time and energy goes into controlling students’ behaviour and evaluating students according to external standards. The more one tries to reach students individually, the more one may feel conflict with other aspects of schooling, such as the need to sort students by ability or the pressure to have students conform to rules and standards.

Teaching is also highly uncertain, and it is very difficult for a teacher to know when he or she is successful. While short-term measures such as grades and test scores are important, most teachers are far more concerned about the long-term development of their students. Teachers tend to rely on their own judgments about students as well as other measures driven by data collection and assessment. When teachers feel that their ability to have an impact is limited by the influences of other phenomena, such as peer pressure or societal issues, a report from or about former students who have been successful is the affirmation they need to realize the difference they can make in the lives of their students.

All of these characteristics are important in shaping the way people think about teaching. For the most part, these characteristics tend to make teaching a difficult and uncertain enterprise. The hierarchical, bureaucratic model is less suited to an environment where there is no common technical culture and where outcomes are uncertain. Yet a professional model is difficult to implement in a setting where people face conflicting demands. A community model works well if school and community members have built trusting relationships and work toward a common vision. Effective schools create a balance between the models that affirm professionalism, offer a consistent and secure structure, and focus on building a shared vision for learning.


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