Notes on Selections From: Ball S and Goodson I  (eds)  (1985) Teachers'  Lives and Careers, Barcombe: The Falmer Press


I have summarised a number of key chapters from this very interesting collection. You can go to each piece by clicking the book mark  (or hyperlink). The chapters I have summarised are as follows: Riseborough  (immediately below) (on how pupils affect teachers); Beynon ( on the tensions arising in a school following an amlagamation). Both of these show the importance of micropolitics. Sikes  (an example of the idea of life cycles applied to teachers), and  Measor  (on the use of the critical incidents technique) pursue more methodological lines, both using variants of life history techniques.  This excellent collection originally consisted of papers given at an educational conference, and became a 'set book ' for the legendary OU course Educational Organisations and Professionals  (E814).

 Riseborough G  'Pupils, Teachers'  Careers and Schooling: An Empirical Study'

 This piece begins with a plea that we grasp the 'richness of everyday life', rather than operating with an 'over socialised objectivism' or an 'over individualised subjectivism'.  What we need is a syncretic rather than a synthetic sociology of schooling, one which attempts to couple together traditional antinomies. We can do this by looking at teachers' careers, especially by exploring the moral implications. Schools are often seen as places of class warfare, operating on pupils, but teachers are processed by schools too. This helps us explore the 'symbiotic'  relations between the careers of both teachers and pupils: '" teaching does something to those who teach", and it is pupils who do some of the doing'. (204 ).

The new sociology of education tended to overlook teacher activity, in favour of a major focus on educational failure. The processes of schooling were examined, but the emphasis still lay on the definition of problems held by educators and professionals. This led to an over reliance on tacit teacher knowledge to define the field, and to a commonsensical sociology, still based on an occupational ideology, even where it was critical of teachers. Pupils' own point of view tended to be neglected: pupils were seen as reactors rather than cultural agents in their own right Even where analysis was ostensibly centred on the pupil, pupil activities were still seen as deviant, as a 'hidden curriculum'  (205). 

The other major focus was a more structuralist one, based on the theoretical interests of marxism and the persistence of capitalism. Schools offered only the endless reproduction of the system. Although this view was countered by some writers, such as Willis, it tended to lead to 'armchair theorising'  which ignored the complexities of real life. Teachers were seen as automatons, and this over socialised you simply ignored the 'iridescent existential variations in teacher and pupil activity'  (207).  Pupils were also stereotyped, operating with a limited form of subjectivity 'granted'  by the system. 

However, teachers were being processed too, by pupils as well, in a 'contested terrain', where the roles were not so clearly separated. Some interactionist work grasped this, but tended to be too pupil-centred .It did recognise pupils as culturally competent, however. 

The sociology of the curriculum tends to ignore people activities in favour of analysing what is imposed, from above. Gramsci offers one account of counter hegemonic tendencies in working-class common sense, so that children can be seen as 'philosophers' in their own right.  An example from Riseborough's own work shows how pupils often passively resist rather than just neatly receiving knowledge, and another one shows how the official curriculum is 'ricochetted and further converted counter-culturally into a differentiated  (Willis)  "counter curriculum"'  (211)  [I am not going to include many examples of Riseborough’s transcripts here -- you must go and see for yourselves if they really do contain evidence for such assertions]. Riseborough also noticed lots of children misbehaving: the hidden curriculum ('the supposedly subtle inculcation of the dominant values, training in obedience and docility') is also 'ricochetted' and differentiated: 

In metalwork we were putting chuck keys in the lathes, turning it on a and seeing if we could get them through the ceiling. We were making 50 pence coins for the cig machines as well...

I felt really sorry for the guy who did human biology, sex lessons... It really was awful... some of the questions people ask! We knew more than he did.... it was ace. Doses and VD! Can you get it off toilet seats, sir? Can you get it off door handles? Only if you're tall enough, we told him.  (212)

...And this great big Deputy Head woman was screaming at  [an 11 year-old on his first day] at top note... And he looked at her [a female observer] as she passed and he winked at her. He winked at her! It was all washing over him. He wasn't taking a damn bit of notice  (213)

In this way, the pupils were able to dominate the agenda of the lesson, and lessons became a 'site and stake of class struggle'  (214) 

Pupils as Moral 'Labourers'

Labelling theory is too one-sided, seeing teachers as the labellers or as moral entrepreneurs -- but pupils, correspondingly are moral labourers, counter-labellers, able to victimise teachers. This can lead to new labelling, and thus a further spiral of victimisation  [examples of teachers being threatened, by gestures and words, are provided]. Sometimes, one child can spark off a deviancy amplification spiral.  Labelling can take place at both the social and psychological level, but. the victims need not internalise the label. Teacher labels often arise from past bitter experiences with pupils. Pupils can offer their own solutions to the problems of order in class, and direct their own versions of 'symbolic violence', or real violence, in response to that directed at them: 

We had to rescue  [a teacher] a couple of times. He had a tough time in the playground. The kids went up... and they would go right up to him and take his arms and squeeze him, and another would walk on the other side. It ended up with six or so or crashing into him, or around him, squeezing him. And all the other kids looking on.

 The girls who had told me about the theft, they got beat up in the toilets... Then one day... I was just arranging the kids and just as I was turning around I saw this kid swing this base around and just let go of it. Smashed straight across my toes... Once I started accusing her of doing it on purpose or her friends said,  "No she didn't, she just dropped it".  (222)

Teacher Processors

The idea of school as a  Ideological State Apparatus is countered by an 'Educational Counter-Ideological Counter-State Apparatus, a teacher mincer'  (223). This can produce serious personal crises for teachers, including nervous breakdowns. Teachers can try to cope by ‘withdrawing their knowledge’, going through the motions,. and ignoring the chaos, or by developing a school phobia of their own. Teachers are often 'dramaturgically incompetent', unable to protect a 'viable, sacred self' in the frequent classroom degradation ceremonies they endure  (227). Many become disillusioned and end their careers, precisely because of the pupils, and this affects young teachers in particular 

Teacher Careers

This section is developed from Goffman's idea of a 'moral career'.  Teachers typically go through stages in adapting to teaching: 

(a) The 'plunger' dives in with lots of energy and earnestness, and this phase often ends with exhaustion

(b) The 'sinker' is a failed teacher who has to try to cope. This is especially difficult if they have been an idealist, a 'high priest'. Cynicism is often best, as a long extract beginning on page 236 shows

(c) The 'swimmer' , learns to adjust, sometimes after going through the earlier stages,, and the occupational culture often helps to make new teachers tougher and more cynical [becoming 'pachyderms' -- having the hide of an elephant], so they can adjust to reality, and even find some self-respect in it. They may adopt a stance of domination or tactical withdrawal. They aim at institutional incorporation rather than at some ideological goal and gained some moral compensations in coping with the 'dirty work' of teaching in tough conditions. This is the usual path to becoming one of those agents of repression on behalf of the State double - it is a matter of 'lived experience of a wider societal contradiction mediated on the chalk face'  (245), a negotiated solution, although one still riddled with contradictions  [really lengthy extracts from transcripts ensue]. Swimmers have to undergo a number of adjustments, frequently becoming more didactic, getting the right sort of language for pupils, learning how to motivate and handle pupils, developing classroom techniques designed primarily to manage pupils rather than actually achieving anything, and learning how to negotiate a truce by turning a blind eye to some of the school rules:

We have developed ways of approaching these kids. It is the easiest thing in the world to reach a massive conflict situation, very, very easy and part of the art and the skill is knowing how and when to avoid it. You've got to be on good firm ground, you’ve got to be sure that you've got them for something they can see is not the right thing to do... You've got to work within a framework of justice they recognise. Don't mess around with triviaYou can so easily get into a lather...) kids have a level beyond which they will not go. If you implement every school rule you'd run yourself ragged and create an awful lot of hostility'.  (251)

Pupils as 'Double' Career Gatekeepers

Pupils have control over both objective and subjective elements of schooling -- for example the ability to control pupils is a criterion for the recruitment, promotion and deployment of teachers, including seeking promotion as an escape from classrooms. Pupils act as gatekeepers in a double way, both direct and indirect.  [The direct influence is when pupils force teachers to resign or have nervous breakdowns, but some examples of indirect influences are provided too, for example in the long extract on page 251].  For example, taking the 'dustbin class' is a common first test for a probationary teacher  [teachers had to serve a probationary year at the time of writing]. Occasionally, teachers find themselves forced to use formal methods on someone else's class. The staff often collude among themselves to exclude teachers who cannot cope or pass these tests. 

Linear or Cyclical Careers?

Teachers need not progress from plunger to swimmer, but can cycle around these options. The context offers some important variables --'With each new class or timetable the teacher becomes a plunger ...Some teachers in certain schools with certain timetables can be all three at one and the same time'  (258) Even those who can cope are constantly afraid of being undermined and sinking again, often following some particular 'critical incident'. 


Schools are class institutions where order is achieved through negotiation. Reproduction theorists miss this. Bourdieu is especially naive in terms of his view that schools impose or hand on an aristocratic culture: on the contrary, schools are places   for a 'bottom-up' counter cultural definition: schools usually actually fail to break working-class culture  (261). There are links to the parent culture here. Teachers are frequently 'warrened by pupils from without'.  Pupil resistance is particularly effective in denying the moral status of teaching, and this has considerable effects on teachers' moral careers. The reactions of pupils have clear effects on teachers' imagery of themselves as people who can cope: in this way, they affect or process teachers' careers.  This has the paradoxical result of mincing teaches, including those who could actually help -- the school therefore becomes a reproducing  and pupil-mincing institution after all.  

It is difficult to see how radicals might intervene to prevent this consequence. Liberals have trouble hanging on to their beliefs, and marxists have yet to learn how to encourage emancipation, and unwanted deconstruction --how can we non-oppressively emancipate -- 'How can pupils be humanely prevented from socially constructing the kinds of teachers they "deserve"?' ( 263)

Beynon J  'Institutional Change and Career Histories in a Comprehensive School

The experience of teaching needs to be understood, instead of formal analyses of roles. Conflict and micropolitics especially tend to be ignored. The life history method, and ethnography, can show the interweaving between the personal and the organisational. The initial purpose of this study was to examine initial encounters with pupils, but the study rapidly lead to a recognition of both biological and historical factors, and the effects of into staff relationships, including notions of career progression, and informal hierarchies. Staff biographies were an important resource. 

The impact of changes towards becoming comprehensive [after a merger between a grammar and several secondary modern schools] were noticeable. There were those who had formerly taught in a grammar school who brought an initial superior status. Those teaching in the old secondary modern school tended to stress their superior expertise in classroom practice, but tended to feel disgruntled, and soon developed a number of coping strategies:

 (a) they developed other careers, outside the school

(b) they advocated mixed-ability teaching, which would enable them to break out of their traditional association with the less able pupils

(c) they developed covert curricular innovation, using their traditional classroom freedom, in a spirit of 'putting one over'.

(d) they claim superior expertise in pedagogy and in discipline, rather than an exam successes, for example taking pride in their low truancy rates

(e) they developed their own home base where they could exert their authority, especially in amplifying 'teacher normality and deviancy'  (161). Staff rooms became polarised too

(f) they were able to recruit staff to their faction, and socialised newcomers into their ways

 The split in status between those teaching in secondary moderns and in grammar schools has been stressed in other research it is not always the case that grammar-school teachers are dominance, and sometimes the better teachers are given the greatest opportunities. A process of reaction formation  [a reference to some classic work in juvenile delinquency here] can lead to the formation of cliques and to opposition to new headteachers as aspirations remain unsatisfied.

[The conflicts often take the familiar but coded form of arguments about the relative merits of 'theory' and 'practice': 

We're teachers, not theorists or academics -- that's the difference. Up there a lot of them sound good outside the classroom, but inside they’re a dead loss. The kids treat them as doormats, yet they can write a book when it came to theory  (161)]

The life history method had its origins in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. It has been revived recently partly to meet the criticisms of ethnography on the need to account for context. It can help discover the links between personal and work experiences, and the effects of previous careers. We know that the lives teachers have outside school can 'strongly influence  (even determine) activities and reputations  [inside school]'  (164).

 Life history data has:

 (a) a subjective function, illustrating the subjective reality and consequences of occupational interactions, especially critical interactions. Such data brings out the 'turning points, confusions, ironies and contradictions'  (164)

(b) a contextual function showing the importance of the personal and socio-economic factors, and of historical continuity. Life history shows how these contexts are linked through choices for the individual, who come to terms of organisational changes

(c) an evaluative function, demonstrating the importance of looking at the subjective experience, rather than a conceptual analysis, of changes such as going comprehensive. This can lead to later hypotheses too.

 The ‘critical incidentstechnique is used for, illustrating key turning-points and so on. Generally life histories indicate that going comprehensive was a crucial watershed for the participants, involving a continuous re-evaluation of their present position. In this way, they show how past events can affect present action, even if these were unknown to ethnographers.

The 'personal domain' is still influential: the remembered past of teachers can clearly affect their current conceptions  [rationalisations?], even the effect of chance events, or childhood memories. One case study illustrates this. 'Mr Pickwick'  was embittered and frustrated. His main interest was in his parallel career, and he said he was teaching only to earn a salary: he had moved 'from teacher enthusiast to cynical time server'  (177). He attributed his failure to be promoted to an academic dispute about the nature of history which had been interpreted as a challenge to the head teacher. He was still locked in acrimonious conflict with the deputy head. He developed a very sparse coping strategy, based on the copious use of handouts to avoid actual contact as often as possible.

 Turning to the 'institutional domain' the amalgamation, 12 years before this research was still a live issue and underpinned much of the politics of the staffroom, and many of the seemingly irrelevant disputes and debates, about pedagogy or about the way subjects were taught  [there are some marvellous case studies here]. Newcomers were recognised as a threat. Even promotion led to anxiety, since people felt 'on trial'. There were high levels of personal distrust and intolerance. People took up camps in different areas of teacher politics, and talked about classroom practice, and the preservation of the old traditions. There were many 'clashes of personality' sometimes leading to personal contests in classrooms  [teachers intervening in drama lessons to quieten classes, for example, leading to comments such as: 'All the women, with the possible exception of Mrs Calm, ought to be sacked for their failure to control their classes'. The response from the (female) drama teacher was that:'...the kids had a great time and really did some good work... but they [her colleagues] were all in the staffroom saying that they wished they could get out into the sun, but they had [proper] work to do... and it was OK if you're just entertaining kids rather than educating them... There's no way in which drama in this school is ever going to be seen as more than just a lark'  (175)]  In this atmosphere, minor deviations were seen as threats to the whole moral order

The piece ends with a plea to study the subjective aspects of teacher commitment, and micropolitics. The importance of contexts and responses to them need to be thought out again, as explanations for things like the loss of enthusiasm. Substantively, the study suggests that the impact of going comprehensive had very important subjective effects, often divisive ones.

Sikes P 'The Life Cycle of the Teacher'

 This is a study of a small group of teachers (48 in all, with a preponderance of females) which attempts to show the links between ageing or occupational development and identity. Status is related to age and so are hopes and expectations. There are links between this process, the personality of the teacher and the social system. Teachers are unique, though, because they work with children and experience and increasing distance from their own generation: this leads to a shift in the form of relationship with the pupils, which develops from older sibling to parent. Relations with younger colleagues similarly alter. There is a loose fit between the data here and the model provided in Levinson et al (1979).  [NB Examples from the ethnographic data are used throughout -- I have hardly included them here].

 Phase one (ages 18 to 21). Here the teachers enter the adult world with open possibilities of exploring a number of options, including other careers. There is concern to cope and learn the job. A particular concern is the maintenance of discipline, especially when dealing with large children: young teachers lacked the authority of age and do not attract traditional respect from the pupils. The usual advice is to start tough and then ease up. Teachers tend to blame themselves if they are unable to cope, often blaming their own 'personality', or ‘nature. They experience a range of critical incidents, often relating to their authority and therefore their identity.  There may be gender differences here. 

If they survive this phase, there are fewer difficulties subsequently, and the issue of discipline diminishes for them. Even the size of some of the larger kids is less frightening as you take the group through the system. They also learn that the older teachers are not so good either, and undergo a classic 'status passage'  as the mystique is dispelled.

In terms of their subject, an early personal interest and commitment to it leads to some security and an identity as an expert, which can connect to disciplinary problems, for example whether there is mixed-subject teaching. This offers a particular attention for those entering through the BA plus PGCE route. Pedagogical problems become dominant, and any teacher training is seen as of limited value  (36). Problems often encountered, especially if teachers try positive or supportive approaches. A process of occupational socialisation helps teachers try things they have never done before. New techniques can be school specific, or general -- for example, young teachers learn to avoid talk of problems in staff rooms, and to see any such talk not as genuine requests for advice, but as anecdotes, as entertainment, as solidaristic. Asking for help is rare, and this leads to isolation and depression. Sometimes new teachers form self-help groups, in contrast to the old ones, and form a 'moaners'  group'. This acts as a safety valve, but also helps the transition from idealism. School colleagues can offer a source of social life as well, and there can even be similar interests with pupils, if teachers are close to their age: this can help with good relationships with pupils, as a compensation for the lack of authority.

For there to be good social relationships with colleagues, much depends on other variables too, including social class, which can produce a need for, or the inevitability of, social distance from pupils. There are school specific patterns here as well. Social class differences are can be overcome by sport or marriage but there are often special problems for young male teachers. Popular women have their own problems, including facing sexual innuendoes, sometimes in their lessons. Extra-curricular activities can also be pursued for careerist reasons, and could be a route to promotion  [in the 1960s and 1970s, not so much today].

 Phase two  (ages 28-33) Here, life becomes more serious as commitments and responsibilities increase, and there is a need for more stability and a life plan. There are gender differences here, since for women, the age 30 is a kind of watershed, leading to pressures to decide about parenthood. The state of the job market is also important, affecting the chances of returning from maternity. As experience grows, teachers expect change or promotion, and if this is lacking, there is a fear of being overlooked. Teachers can become cynics or grumblers, members of an anti-school clique.  Money becomes more important as family commitments grow and as a compensation. Teachers lose touch with youth culture, and find more pupil rejection. Pastoral jobs become more appropriate. It is possible to find new relationships with the young, out of school, but this often leads to disappointment. Teachers in this phase feel relaxed in classrooms, able to trust their own ideas and to rework their styles. They typically experience a shift in interest to the curriculum or to pedagogy, rather than their subject, where knowledge is sometimes seen as 'out of date'.

Phase  three  (pages 30-40) This is a phase of settling down, where teachers are at their peak. Women may be expected to focus on their families rather than establish themselves in careers, although men are expected to be careerists even at the expense of their social life. Some teachers burn-out. Some become interested in management as a route out of classrooms. Those who remain in classrooms often profess a deep interest in teaching, but as an excuse or coping strategy. There are high levels of personal and financial commitments, and this can lead to changes in perspective on one's career -- for example, it can be seen as inherently interesting even if not particularly rewarding  (49). Teachers may join an anti-school clique, or develop an interest in careers outside the school, or in their families. They feel under threat from talented newcomers. Teachers are now so far apart from pupils, in terms of age, that they compare them unfavourably with their own generation, often taking on more judgemental and authoritarian roles, although female returners can appear as 'mums'. Indeed, all teachers with children of their own tend to shift to a parental role. Male teachers are no longer so attractive, which is a blow to the ego, also much safer  (51). 

Phase four  (ages 40 to 50/55) The successful ones are out of classrooms by now. Male prospects of promotion are worse after the age of 40, although women's prospects are better since they can take pastoral posts. Generally, there is a plateau in career terms, and the need to accommodate. This can be as traumatic as adolescence, involving a need for self reappraisal and acceptance of their own mortality. It is possible to be a grand parent to pupils, and a parent to younger teachers. Older teachers become authority figures, including representatives of tradition, and as dependable 'backbones'. This can lead to high morale again, as ability to cope rises and ambition declines  (53). Some teachers in this phase stagnate and become anti-school. 

Phase five  (ages 50-55 plus) This involves preparation for retirement. Energy and enthusiasm decline, teachers become time-servers. One result can be a new relaxation and enthusiasm for teaching as one finally become 'mature'  and 'realistic'. Teachers in this phase feel old, and are also two well known. They have problems relating to pupils and younger teachers especially if they are in authority over them. They are able define some satisfaction in vicarious success of their pupils, and in enjoying a local status in their town. 


Teachers are human, and so are 'subject to biological and psychological changes'  (57) [  as important as social and political factors?] that alter their perceptions and experiences. This study looked only at teachers of art and science, but there are clearly other possibilities, such as those for physical education teachers [who are particularly susceptible to the effects of ageing on their authority etc]. Sciences go out of date, art teachers tend to lose energy and enthusiasm, and their marginal status does not help. Thus specific as well as common if not universal personal developments are associated with the ageing process.

Measor L  'Critical Incidents in the Classroom: Identities, Choices and Careers'

 This is a study of the life histories of  teachers (48 in all). Critical incidents are defined as 'key events... around which pivotal decisions revolve'. The idea was to search in teachers'  biographies for these, and then see if generalisations were possible.

The first stages to identify critical phases in a teacher's career. These might be extrinsic  (the effects of the War, or of policy changes), or intrinsic  (such as the first teaching practice). Phases could be divided into entry, first teaching practice, 18 months after the first job, three years after the first job, mid-career, and pre-retirement  (there are clear links with notions of the life cycle here). There can also be personal phases -- leaving parents, getting married, becoming a parent themselves. Critical incidents occur within these phases, and seemed particularly important in the first 18 months. 

Life histories were recorded for secondary teachers in art and science. There were three groups in all, all living in the same town, and all known to each other  (this permitted a certain amount of cross checking of the different stories). One group was retired, one mid-career, and one younger. In the first a team once, people reported difficulties with discipline and exhaustion. Male pupils were a special problem. They felt often under pressure from older staff to show a heavy hand  [which could include physical violence and corporal punishment in those days]. A typical critical incident often involved a confrontation with a pupil: if the difficulties were surmounted, teachers often gained a long-lived reputation. 

There were common patterns and different responses  [some long examples are given pages 64-66. Briefly, some teachers seem to have enjoyed giving the details of the critical incident, others still felt distressed, some teachers change their teaching style, others developed new tactics].  Some respondents found that 'real anger in the classroom is genuinely counter productive, and that teachers need to  "stage-manage"  a "front" of anger if they are to cope as "proper teachers" '  (page 66). Teachers lose face if they cannot cope with pupil trouble. They often reflect on their own style afterwards, for example to distinguish themselves from their seniors, as well as to undergo some form of negotiation

Critical  incidents can be combined with 'counter incidents', which helped to justify themselves: counter incidents showed teachers coping. Teachers describe how they managed to remove an unruly child from the class  (69), or manage a class with gentleness  (70). In telling the stories  [perhaps dramatising them?], teachers apparently feel a need to 'balance' their own accounts  [ 'balance' is an important teacher virtue] (72).  Retelling the critical incidents also seemed to spark off other memories and ideas.

Critical incidents act as symbols for teachers' 'values, attitudes and roles'.  They seem to have a role rather like some of the adolescent myths of the pupils they teach  [which Measor has also researched].  In both cases, participants find it difficult to talk about their identities directly, so they need these symbolic coded approaches. Claims about the self are being made, 'signals' about acceptable role models and identities, as well as the choices that teachers have made during their careers.   [This is why Measor is not particularly concerned about the accuracy or veracity of these stories, perhaps?  The point is to show how 'identities are built for individuals at particular points in their life cycle... the individual chooses  "a way"  and by so doing makes a self'  (75)].

Gender differences are important. Female teachers reported critical incidents concerning violence with male pupils, and tended to face different sorts of bad behaviour, as indicated by reports of sexual harassment. In one incident:

 The teacher entered the classroom to find that each of her male pupils had displayed their genitals on the desk in front of them. She told the pupils to put them away and then frogmarched one of the boys out of the classroom. Her classroom was on a first-floor balcony and somehow the woman teacher pushed the boy in such a way that he fell over the balcony and onto the floor some distance below. A now carefully buttoned up group of boys watched his fall in a hushed and respectful silence. The woman had no further discipline problems.

This particular recollection is described by Measor as 'perhaps particularly colourful...'  (63). Other examples are less dramatic, even if they might seem strange to modern readers -- one female teacher was chased around the art room with a bunch of mistletoe (73-4). 

Social class and the location of the school produced social differences too, and there were some other anomalies -- one teacher had a story circulated about him that he had been a Commando during the war, and he was able to intimidate the boys without having to hit them!