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Willard Waller's "Sociology of Common Sense": A Tribute at Sixty-Six

by Randy Michael-Testa - 1998

Two years before the millennium, I take a close look at Wallerís classic text to see how well it holds up and what it offers first-time readers of educational sociology today. In this review, I locate Wallerís work within the social psychology of W. I. Thomas, place it against the backdrop of the American pragmatists, and pay attention to Wallerís keen interest in the works of Sigmund and Anna Freud. I argue that The Sociology of Teaching: (1) offers a fresh, trenchant discussion of the teacherís psyche and the inner experience of teaching; (2) makes a strong case that teacher-education programs should help beginning teachers understand how they are being socialized into the profession; (3) stands as a prototype for what is meant today by ďarts-based qualitative research," and (4) offers a rich compendium of projects whereby beginning students of school ethnography might become better educated themselves. In this essay review, I pay tribute to The Sociology of Teaching, an American educational original and its colorfully iconoclastic author.

Two years before the millennium, I take a close look at Waller’s classic text to see how well it holds up and what it offers first-time readers of educational sociology today. In this review, I locate Waller’s work within the social psychology of W. I. Thomas, place it against the backdrop of the American pragmatists, and pay attention to Waller’s keen interest in the works of Sigmund and Anna Freud. I argue that The Sociology of Teaching: (1) offers a fresh, trenchant discussion of the teacher’s psyche and the inner experience of teaching; (2) makes a strong case that teacher-education programs should help beginning teachers understand how they are being socialized into the profession; (3) stands as a prototype for what is meant today by “arts-based qualitative research,” and (4) offers a rich compendium of projects whereby beginning students of school ethnography might become better educated themselves. In this essay review, I pay tribute to The Sociology of Teaching, an American educational original and its colorfully iconoclastic author.

At the height of his academic powers fifty-three years ago, Willard W. Waller left his office at Barnard College with a heavy suitcase, heading for the Columbia University subway stop at 116th Street and Broadway. There, Waller and his son Peter planned to rendezvous, ride to Penn Station together, and board the “Broadway Limited” for Chicago. The preeminent sociologist was to give a speech in the Windy City, and the trip was to afford father and son an occasion to mix business with pleasure. So, dragging the big suitcase along, Waller eagerly huffed and puffed his way toward the designated meeting place.

But when Peter Waller arrived at the subway entrance, he found a crowd gathered around his father’s body.1 Ironically or perhaps inevitably, the robust teacher who enjoined educators to possess superabundant vitality collapsed from exhaustion. The unflinching observer of teacher delusion who cautioned that a life dependent on fictions “to too great a degree was unhealthful”2 had succumbed to the heart pains he had repeatedly dismissed. The far-seeing prophet who warned that “teaching does something to those who teach” (p. 375) had been done in by the profession itself. Willard W. Waller, one of the earliest ethnographers of school culture, had dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of forty-six.

In life and in his untimely death, Willard Waller embodied the sociological paradoxes he wrote about. He constantly wondered—and constantly worried—about what was happening to the human being behind the role of teacher. Drawing on his research and his own teaching experience, Waller painfully detailed the psychic costs extracted from teachers by that idiosyncratic institution known as “the school”. And like Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure, Waller was transfixed by the chasm between town and gown.

Sixty-six years ago Willard Waller’s trenchant questions were first published. Many of those questions still haunt teachers today. The medium for their enduring contemplation is Waller’s classic text, The Sociology of Teaching.


When first published in 1932, The Sociology of Teaching retailed for $3.50—quite a sum for a book then. Privately, Waller wondered whether it was worth the money. Even long after he had made a name for himself, a circumspect Waller wrote:

It probably [wa]s not a very good book. It fail(ed) to reach a wide section of the lay public because of its sociological stiffness, and it fail[ed] to impress the sociologists because of its popular looseness. . . . Before many years have passed [the author] is inclined to be very apologetic about his first book. It was not, he says regretfully, written in academic style.3

Despite Waller’s long-standing ambivalence, The Sociology of Teaching has proved itself a classic. This is significant, given the considerable number of obstacles modern-day readers will encounter. The book’s demographic content is dated, nowhere more so than in Waller’s discussion of who becomes a teacher. Second, a pervasive sexism runs through it: Waller chiefly discusses male teachers, only occasionally mentioning women, usually derisively. Third, by modern standards, Waller was homophobic. He feared, for example, “dramatic productions” in which boys played the roles of girls or girls played men’s parts as “undesirable” in high school “because of their possible influence in fostering homosexual attitudes” (p. 118). Throughout the book, Waller is preoccupied by the thought that teaching is “unmanly”—incapable of drawing “virile” men into its ranks—and, by association, fastened on what this says about him.

Toward the book’s conclusion, Waller even describes his revulsion while attending a conference of French teachers (Waller also taught French) “because of the terribly large percentage of perfect wash-outs among the other men teachers” (p. 423). Waller writes, “I take it all in, the pathetic women, the incredibly feminine men. There is the lame fellow who once tried to hold my hand. He is smiling at me hopefully. I pretend not to see him” (p. 423).

And last, the book’s tone has been characterized as bleak—one of “unrelieved pessimism”.4 While The Sociology of Teaching offers searing descriptive analysis, over time some have asked, “To what end?” Waller himself warned his readers early on that he “cruel things to say” about the established school order and rather sanctimoniously justified his remarks with:

The duty of the social researcher is something akin to the physician; it is to diagnose shrewdly and to tell the truth. If he does these things, no physician and no researcher need be accused of pessimism because he sometimes returns a gloomy diagnosis. (p. 4)

Despite the perception of it as gloomy, The Sociology of Teaching remains a continued presence in the literature of teaching and educational sociology. As of 1985 it had sold 32,078 copies.5 Even though Waller went on to write across a wide range of sociological topics (divorce, the family, the plight of returning World War II veterans), The Sociology of Teaching is generally regarded as his chief and lasting contribution. The American Sociological Association’s Section on Sociology of Education annually presents the “Willard Waller Award” for an outstanding book in educational sociology. For many years, The Sociology of Teaching was regarded as the book in the field, and it is one still frequently referred to today.6

School teacher, Dan C. Lortie’s classic study of the ethos of the teaching profession, for example, makes numerous references to Waller’s work7 as does Sara Lawrence Lightfoot’s, The Good High School.8 Elliot W. Eisner, in The Educational Imagination, pointed out that aside from Waller, “there was little interest in the educational consequences of schooling, per se, until the 1960s,”9 while Robert C. Bogdan and Sari Knopp, in Qualitative Research for Education, discuss Waller’s contribution to qualitative research at some length.10 They comment that when it was first published, The Sociology of Teaching went against prevailing norms of what constituted scholarship. Unlike others in the field of educational sociology at the time who viewed quantification as the “dominant school of thought,”

Waller relied on in-depth interviews, life histories, participant observation, case records, diaries, letters, and other personal documents to describe the social world of teachers and students.11

In Among Schoolchildren, a profile of a year in the life of Holyoke, Massachusetts, teacher Chris Zajac, Tracy Kidder describes teachers as “hirelings of communities which have frequently conceived of them as servants and have not always treated them well.”12 To underscore his observations, Kidder invoked “the classic sociological study of teaching—written by one Willard Waller and published in 1932.” Kidder discussed Waller’s provocative idea that many people in a given community regard teaching as a “failure belt.”13 Kidder additionally cited long-standing sentiments first articulated by Waller that people think teachers teach because they’re incapable of doing anything else.14

Detailing images of “The Ideal Teacher”15 found in education textbooks in the earlier part of the century, Pamela Bolotin Joseph employed Waller’s discussion of teachers and communities:

From the standpoint of the sociologist, Waller perceived what teacher-educators inspiring young people to enter the profession could not see or would not admit: a circuitous state of affairs that would prohibit teachers from overcoming caricature. Despite the teachers’ own interests and inclinations (and their awareness of the advice supplied by teacher education textbooks to refrain from caricatured behavior), they would be pigeon-holed by the community and viewed in a stereotypical manner. Schoolteachers constricted by cultural images of teachers—as absurd prudes or pedagogues—would have had little chance of socially interacting with community members in order to repudiate such likely misconceptions.16

Finally, the most thorough recent critique of Waller’s work is to be found in Willard Waller on Education and Schools: A Critical Appraisal, a collection of essays resulting from a Waller seminar held October 1987, at Penn State University, where Waller taught as an associate professor of sociology, from 1931 to 1937. The editors comment that Waller’s work “has long been considered a bench mark by thoughtful students of schools” because “Waller provided the first extended treatment of schools as organizations in social contexts.”17

The Sociology of Teaching is notable for its direct, pragmatic approach to the organizational complexities of school life and its discussion of their impact on teachers and students. Waller’s use of theory to illuminate the concrete and the practical embodies William James’s definition of what he called “the pragmatic method”:

To try to interpret a notion by tracing it s respective practical consequences. . . . If no practical difference whatsoever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.18

James elaborated this definition of pragmatic method (with the assistance of Charles Peirce) to include “rules for action” which produce visible conduct:

Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action, said that to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct for us is its sole significance.19

Because Waller was first and foremost a schoolteacher, he had an intimate acquaintance with the variety of forms of conduct in school. Waller looked at conduct and influences upon it almost like an archeologist, seeking to excavate its “rules for action,” its underlying structures, themes, and patterns. Waller employed methods and interpretations always with an eye to practical consequences—with what light could be shed on the concrete social realities of school life and its rules of action.

Waller used his own experiences—“descriptions of school life in the upper grades and the high school” and his work with college students, what he called “illustrations from college life.” The Sociology of Teaching also makes “effective use of [Waller’s] father’s experience as a [school] superintendent, of his own experience as a secondary-school teacher, and of the case materials he collected from teachers during his University of Nebraska tenure.”20

Waller defined his pragmatic method of working with these materials as “empirical and observational” and described his writing style “as non-technical as it was possible to make it” without “a loss of essential meanings.” He hoped to offer “a sociology of common sense,” one that would serve two aims: “To enable prospective teachers and school administrators to find their way more readily and accurately in the intricate maze of social life in school” and “to give an orientation for suggestions and experiments aiming at the reconstruction of schools” (p. 3).

The Sociology of Teaching is pragmatic in more than method. Waller’s basic view of the school itself makes him the philosophic kin of James, Peirce, and Dewey, the “great pragmatists,” as Maxine Greene described them.21 Greene points out that James and Peirce

had a profound effect on present-day philosophy through their emphasis on human experience in an indeterminate world; on knowing as a kind of participant action; on truths tested by their efficacy in settling uncertainties, by their consequences for thinking and for life. John Dewey, like them a rebel against absolutes and the “closed universe,” saw philosophy as a response to the conflicts of social life.22

For Dewey, education was the “means for developing the kinds of dispositions appropriate to the new and changing world.”23 Echoing Dewey, Waller viewed education as development, a process of “dynamic interchange between the individual and the situation with which he or she is confronted” (p. 449). Where Dewey noted that “education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” and that the school’s job was “to represent present life—life as real and vital to the child as that which he or she carries on in the home, the neighborhood, or on the playground,”24 Waller concluded The Sociology of Teaching by saying “the school may attempt to reproduce the pattern situations of life itself” (p. 450). For pragmatists like Dewy and Waller, the means (school) was the end (education) in the making.

As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Waller became “part of a rich life of work and companionship.”25 Waller and his graduate-student peers eagerly discussed the sociology of, among others, William I. Thomas26 It can be argued that Waller’s interest in the psychic and social life of the school is rooted in Thomas’s social psychology.

“The vitality of institutions,” writes Waller, “and the very life of the formal structure of society, depend upon the closeness of their connection with human beings.” Accordingly, the “major task of social psychology,” in Waller’s view, was to “trace the workings of original nature in society.” Waller defined original nature as “instinctive nature,” adding that “at the present time, complex, patterned activities corresponding to instincts” had yet to be found (p. 135). Thus “scientific precision” would better be served by adapting a different concept.

Here Waller turned to Thomas’s “doctrine of the four wishes,” which Waller regarded as “classifications of attitudes.” Waller thought the four wishes duly represented “the totality of human conation”: the wish for response, recognition, new experience, and security. Waller even titled chapter 11 of The Sociology of Teaching, “The Four Wishes in the School.” The point of Thomas’s doctrine was that normal human beings develop these wishes in social interaction, very early in life; Waller wanted to see how these wishes were transformed by, and, in turn, transformed, the school. As Waller discussed the “wish for response,” for example, he invoked his keen interest in the work of Sigmund Freud, saying:

The wish for response includes most of the impulses which Freudians classify as sexual, but like the Freudian notion to which it roughly corresponds, it includes many phenomena for which there is no organic sex basis. (p. 135)

In the chapter’s extended tracing of the process of wish-satisfaction in school, Waller melds Thomas’s doctrine with Freud’s psycho-sexual theory of development, detailing at length the fate of what Waller called “the sex wishes,” from infantile sexuality to “the sex life of teachers” (p. 143).

Of additional interest is Waller’s application of Thomas’s doctrine to the ideas of recognition and achievement in school. Waller observes, for example, that “it is true in many cases that many children who like school do so because of its flattering implications for themselves” (p. 151), and at the chapter’s conclusion says “the real art of the teacher” is the manipulation of the classroom social situation in such a way as to cultivate wish fulfillment “along desired lines” (pp. 157-158).

Seven chapters later, Waller titles a second chapter after another W. I. Thomas doctrine and writes, “One of the sociological concepts most useful for understanding of the life of human beings in and about the school is that of the definition of the situation,” a concept that “designates certain aspects of psychic and social life, and explains phenomena otherwise without significance” (p. 292, emphasis added).

For Waller, the definition of the situation is a process, one denoting how individuals explore behavioral possibilities, thus “marking out” the “limitations which the situation imposes on [one’s] behavior. This forms an attitude toward the situation, or more exactly, in the situation” (p. 292). The phrase also applies to “the actual concrete situation as it has been defined or denotes certain aspects of group life” (p. 292) left residually from many situations.

Using Thomas’s concept, Waller explored three ways school social situations could be defined:

1) Spontaneously by students or teachers, or by students and teachers.

2) By teachers, chiefly with reference to standards current in society outside the school or current in the teacher group.

3) By students, chiefly with reference to standards current outside the school. (p. 292)

In his explorations of these three definitions, Waller uses stories pulled from an unpublished manuscript; lists fourteen classroom management rules; explains the importance of ritual as a means of establishing a definition of the situation; mentions sportsmanship, fair play, and even the place of “puppy-love” within a situational examination of school.

Through Thomas’s doctrine of the four wishes and the definition of the situation, Waller was provided with a basic set of lenses, ways of observing and working that take the interplay of basic human impulses into account with more formal social structures or institutional patterns of behavior. Waller saw school life as fluid, a place affecting and affected by those within its confines.

As I see it, four aspects of The Sociology of Teaching are significant today. First, in an era when psychological problems are increasingly addressed by pharmacological solutions, Waller’s book offers a trenchant examination of the inner experience of teaching, for teachers as well as students. Arising as it does from Waller’s attentiveness to the social psychology of W. I. Thomas, as well as initial psychoanalytic work done in the 1930s, The Sociology of Teaching provides compelling examples of the psychic qualities operating in classrooms, teachers and students. By extension, it makes an early but lasting case for the benefit of psychotherapy in treating causes rather than symptoms.

Second, Waller believed that teacher preparation should offer insights into the nature of school’s social reality. Although all-too-often ignored in teacher training, Waller felt that understanding the nature of the socialization process of beginning teachers should be “a central point” in their guided preparation.

Third, Waller was unafraid to cross disciplinary lines or blur the boundaries between art and social science. The Sociology of Teaching serves as a prototype for what is meant today by arts-based qualitative research.

Finally, The Sociology of Teaching offers beginning students of qualitative research and the sociology of education a rich compendium of projects with which to become better educated in these fields.


Willard Waller was compelled to discover what the psychic qualities of those entering teaching are and how those psychic qualities change over time as a result of teaching. For better and worse, teaching hands powerful roles to teachers “which habit ties to their inner frame of personality and use makes one with the self” (p. 381). Waller sought descriptions of the social situations most frequently encountered by teachers, then sought to “analyze them to discover how the qualities considered to be characteristic in the teacher are produced in them” (p. 381). Waller understood that the most-commonly encountered social situations concerned teachers’ relationships with students:

It is also around this relationship that the teacher’s personality tends to be organized, and it is in the adaptation to the needs of this relationship that the qualities which mark the teacher are produced. (p. 383)

He saw that one of the psychic capacities arising out of teachers’ relationships with students is the teacher’s ability to dissociate. “Through dissociation,” Waller wrote, “there is sometimes produced a many-faceted personality which gives the appearance of having a great range.”

The large number of sides which teachers of this sort show to the world results from the fact that they are not at one with themselves.

They have split off certain segments of their personalities, and they have segregated certain others from all contact with each other; from the strain inherent in this sort of organization and the psychic structures which they have worked out to buttress it, there results a factitious and delusive appearance of a great range of personality. (p. 236)

While concluding reluctantly that “complete integration is not always useful in the schoolroom,” Waller also warned that whatever prestige the teacher gained from this segmented, multi-faceted personality “is unstable and costly both to himself and others” (p. 236).

Published in 1932, The Sociology of Teaching cites the 1931, first edition of Anna Freud’s text Introduction to Psycho-Analysis for Teachers.27 Waller was reading Miss Freud at the time of her initial explorations, eagerly incorporating her work into his. In discussing positive ways teachers might win the child’s confidence, for example, Waller made use of Freud’s discussion of transference in the classroom, saying that when a teacher endeavors to “let the child know that he realizes the nature of his difficulties and feels with him in them” the rapport between the two was likely to be strong “on account of the transference mechanism” (p. 251). Waller also paid keen attention to Freud’s blunt moral rectitude concerning the psychic costs to children when teachers’ inner conflicts were unknown and/or unresolved:

I feel [a teacher’s] educational successes are too dearly bought. They are paid for by the failures with those children who are not fortunate enough to reveal symptoms of suffering which remind the teacher of her own childhood and so make sympathy with them possible for her. I hold we are right in demanding that the teacher or educator should have learned to know and to control her own conflicts before she begins her educational work. If this is not so, the pupils merely serve as more or less suitable material on which to abreact her own unconscious difficulties.28

Waller echoed Freud’s warning saying, “Because it [this rapport] is so strong it is a little dangerous for the child, who is then unduly susceptible to any injury which the teacher, as a teacher, might work upon him” (p. 251).

A hopeful Waller speculated that “if the day ever comes when the importance of psychiatric work with teachers is realized,” it might be feasible “for qualified persons to increase the stability of teachers’ characters by resolving their mental conflicts, thereby making them at once better disciplinarians and more wholesome influences upon their students” (p. 242).

Waller urged that in addition, his fellow sociologists closely examine teachers’ dreams, because they “ought to show where the points of stress and strain appear in the school situation as it effects the teacher.” He felt that “particularly this is true of recurrent dreams, or of similar dreams of different teachers” (pp. 403-404). Waller even brought one of his own dreams in to his Educational Sociology class, read his description of it aloud, then asked his students to interpret it. The next day a young male teacher presented a dream of his own.

Waller felt that working in this way with students (many of whom were teachers) and for himself “was potentially of great assistance in interpreting the impact of the teaching situation upon the teacher’s personality” because the dream “pointed to something which the teacher did not ordinarily face in his conscious life” (pp. 403-404).

In the final chapter of The Sociology of Teaching, titled “Recommendations” (the book’s shortest chapter, perhaps corroborating criticism of it as pessimistic), Waller expressed sympathy for teachers whose teaching was affected by their personal problems. He saw this as a logical consequence of the prevailing structure of schools, “for the present order is rooted in personalities which teachers of the present day have worked out in adaptation to it, and teachers are unwilling and unable to change.” Waller believed that what he called “personnel work” (intense work at schools by professionals, psychiatrists, and psychologists with teachers as well as students) would help “by enabling such teachers to struggle more successfully against their own interior demons” and that this “might bring about radical changes in the social world of school.” It was obvious to Waller was that “some sort of psychiatric service might profitably be furnished teachers” because “only the normal, happy, and well-poised teacher is capable of discipline that is painless and constructive.” Waller felt that the strongest argument in support of such psychiatric work was the maxim that “unadjusted teachers pass on their personality problems to their students.” Waller summarized his attitude toward school reform with a plea for assistance to teachers in fostering their psychological well-being:

The reformation of the schools must begin with teachers, and no program that does not include the personal rehabilitation of teachers can ever overcome the passive resistance of the old order. (pp. 457-458)

Waller’s discussion of the teacher’s psychic qualities and the merit of psychoanalytic work set the stage twenty-three years later for Arthur Jersild’s now-classic When Teachers Face Themselves, an examination of teachers’ inner struggles and their efforts to ameliorate them.29 Like Waller and Anna Freud before him, Jersild emphasized that “a teacher’s understanding of others can only be as deep as the wisdom he possesses when he looks inward upon himself” and that “to the extent a teacher genuinely sought to face the problems of his own life, the more he will be able to realize his kinship with others, whether they are younger or older, like him or unlike him in education, wealth, religion, or professional rank.”30 In order to gain knowledge of the self, Jersild felt that “one must have the courage to seek it and the humility to accept what one might find. If one has such courage and humility, one can seek professional help and one can draw on many resources in everyday life.”31

More recently, Brown and Gilligan made a plea for the centrality in the education of girls for girls to learn to give voice to disagreement—with genuine thoughts and feelings attached.32 Their comments extend Waller’s understanding of healthful “adjustment,” and Freud’s plea that teachers should know and address their own unconscious difficulties:

We recognized what . . . we had to do as teachers and mothers and therapists and women in relationship. Unless we, as grown women, were willing to give up all the “good little girl” things we continued to do and give up our expectations that the girls in our charge would be as good as we were, we could not successfully empower young women to act on their own knowledge and feelings. Unless we stopped hiding in expectations of goodness and control, our behavior would silence any words to girls about speaking in their own voice. Finally, we dared to believe that one can be intelligently disruptive without destroying anything except the myths about the high level of female cooperativeness . . . [and that] confronting conflict openly with strong feelings in public [w]as essential to young women’s education . . . 33

In an era when teacher education seems fixated on prescriptive content and methods courses, Waller’s belief in the primacy of the psyche in teaching and his attempts to study factors in the teacher’s day-to-day existence that influenced it are fresh and worth re-examining.

“To be sure, most of us agree on the importance of both content and method to insure teachers’ effectiveness,” write James M. Banner and Harold C. Cannon in a recent issue of Education Week.34 But, as Waller did first, the authors make a plea today for balance between content, method, and a cultivated understanding of the person teaching:

Teaching, we correctly say, is inconceivable without [content and method]. But we differ, and probably always will, on the desirable balance between the two. . . . Meanwhile, that third component of teaching—the “who” of teaching—goes largely neglected, as it always has. Yet the truth is that who we are matters to our teaching every bit as much as what we teach and how we choose to teach it. In fact, our characters and our personalities determine the quality and effectiveness of our teaching long before what we know and how we present it even come into play.35

Waller searched schools for the factors which strengthened or tarnished the personal and professional qualities of teachers. He discussed them, analyzed them, wondered about them, worried about them in himself, and even devised projects whereby students could examine them closely. (“Analyze the laughter of teacher and students in a particular class for the light it sheds upon the rapport between teacher and student.”) (p. 245).

As the culture turns increasingly from therapy to pharmacology as a psychological corrective, we would do well to contemplate Waller’s plea for insight into the teacher’s psyche derived from psychoanalysis, and the possible void left in the absence of such work.


A second compelling aspect of The Sociology of Teaching involves Waller’s observations about beginning teachers’ socialization. Out of deep empathy with the beginner, Waller felt that good teacher preparation programs should offer insight into the nature of the school’s social reality. Waller went so far as to say that discussion of that reality should be “a central point” in such a program.

“It is not to disparage teacher training that we remark upon the fact that teachers still learn to teach by teaching,” Waller writes at the outset of The Sociology of Teaching. “The teacher gets something from experience which is not included in his ‘professional’ courses, an elusive something which it is difficult to put between the covers of a book or to work up into a lecture.” That “something,” Waller offered, is social insight (p. 1).

Waller saw that “over and over again” the disappointment of beginning teachers in their first schools is especially harrowing because they lack a road map with which to make their way through the social maze of their schools.

The young teacher comes fresh from the training school to his first position. He has accumulated a great fund of idealism during his training; he is enthusiastic over his work and the self-fulfillment it will represent. He is usually elated over the prospect of at last receiving a salary for his services. When he arrives at the scene of his labors, which he has pictured with a certain glitter . . . he sees that which gives him pause; the community seems barren, sordid, uninspiring; the school itself is uninviting. . . .

But [in time] there is no mistaking the fact that disillusionment has already set in. It needs now but a row with the school board, a set-to with a parent, and a wrangle with a colleague, plus, perhaps a few weeks of following the course of study. (pp. 41-42)

Waller’s conclusion is grim: “The teacher goes out with a vigorous idealism, determined to pass his values on to others, eager to find his own place in the give and take of the universe,” but finds instead, “the world without comprehension of his values”. . . “unready to receive them, interested in coarser things managed by duller, harder men.” Struggling “in vain against disillusion,” the teacher eventually yields to it (p. 42).

To counter this state of affairs, Waller hoped his “ambitious undertaking” of a book with detailed analysis of the school’s exigencies and vicissitudes would offer beginning teachers and administrators that map, whereby they could “find their way more readily and accurately in the intricate maze of social life in school.”

According to Waller, a second difficulty beginning teachers face in their assimilation into school culture is a chasm between theory and practice. “The student teacher learns the most advanced theory of education and goes out from school with a firm determination to put it into practice,” Waller noted. But theory, offers little assistance in the face of what Waller called “the concrete social situation” facing the teacher. Sadly, “after a few attempts to translate theories into educational practice,” the teacher gives up, taking refuge in what Waller calls “conventional sources”: older teachers, “the proverbs of the fraternity” (e.g., ‘Don’t smile until Christmas.’), and the “commandments of principals.”

With an indicting eye toward academe, Waller concluded, “It is this failure of the science of education to deal with actualities that largely accounts for the slow pace of progress in educational practice.” He also warned that “when theory is not based upon the existing practice, a great hiatus appears . . . and the consequence is that the progressiveness of theory does not affect the conservatism of practice” (pp. 192-193).

A third potential difficulty for beginning teachers in their socialization into school life is their youth and lack of maturity. “Age,” noted Waller with characteristic understatement, “is not wholly a matter of years.” Waller felt the greatest hazard for beginning teachers is an “inability to maintain social distance between themselves and their students.” In “trying to reconcile friendship and authority, [they] end by losing both.”

As Waller saw it, the “teacher-pupil relationship seems to realize its best possibilities when the teacher is a young adult,” one “far enough away from adolescence to have solved his own problems, but near enough to be understanding and tolerant.” Waller believed a teacher’s “maximum efficiency” comes after three years of teaching. “The fact that teaching is a routine job accounts for the short period in which learning is possible or necessary,” Waller editorialized. “If the teacher were given an opportunity for a greater degree of personal growth and development,” he believed “a longer period of increase in teaching would result” (p. 216).

Waller offered beginning teachers commonsense in the face of dogmatic, untried theory: “The essential idea of some of the newer educational theories seems to be to put as much as possible of the responsibility for the process of education upon the shoulders of the teacher.” Yet “every hardened veteran of the classroom knows that the real problem is to get students to take responsibility for their own education” (p. 243).

He also cautioned the beginner against an “ambition to be high-powered,” of this “ideal that has been drilled into them.” But in time the young teacher will learn that “the educational principle of most value is that every person must educate himself” and that the “best relation, ideally as well as institutionally, seems to be that in which the teacher . . . serves as mentor and guide through the intricacies of the curriculum, but does not do the students’ work for them” (p. 244).


“I have tried,” Waller declared, “to write such a book as would appeal to every teacher everywhere.” To this end Waller crafted an amalgam of art and social science, never failing for a minute to “cross academic boundary lines in search of usable interpretations” (p. 2) or blur their lines of demarcation altogether. Waller thought this would make for what he called “an adventure in realism.” Today The Sociology of Teaching might also be thought of as an adventure in arts-based educational inquiry. Eisner notes that arts-based qualitative work is distinguished by seven features.36

1. Arts-based inquiry is distinguished by the creation of a virtual reality.

In critiquing a section of The Sociology of Teaching titled “What Teaching Does to Teachers,” Hansot discusses the unique “moral landscape” created by Waller, his use of time in the text, and his characterization throughout of the Teacher as Everyman:

Waller’s characteristic movement is directly from the particular to the universal. His teacher is Everyman; the terrain on which his classroom battles take place is a timeless one. Both past and future dimensions of time fall away, leaving a stark, unrelieved present. There is little to suggest the changing and conditional nature of previous teachers’ struggles, and the future—the dimension in which things might be otherwise—offers little realistic hope. The process in which the battle is fought and by and large lost spares no one.37

Hansot points out that Waller’s pessimism is comparable in some important aspects to Greek tragedians:

Like Oedipus, Waller’s teacher-protagonist is trapped in a timeless, universal dilemma; the process to which he is subject is inexorable; the victim is portrayed isolated from human companionship or solace; and he is unsuspecting, unaware of what is to befall him.38

Thus The Sociology of Teaching creates a coherent universe, a virtual reality filled with the drama of school lives in flux.

2. Arts-based inquiry is distinguished by the presence of ambiguity.

Waller notes the ambiguity of The Sociology of Teaching, saying that as a first treatment it was “rough and inconclusive.” He understood full well that preliminary research would have to be done in the field before more precise work could take place. Waller warned readers that he made “no great claims either to accuracy or completeness” because his book was “a result of systematic wondering rather than of highly objective research” (p. 3). Waller’s work repeatedly underscores the fact that work with human beings is messy, that theory cannot supplant human complexity, and, where schools and people are concerned, that gains and losses are always relative to one another.

3. Arts-based inquiry is distinguished by the use of expressive language.

Waller’s writing is one part Theodore Dreiser, one part John Dewey, and one part George Bernard Shaw—stiff, theoretical and lyric simultaneously. In describing the teacher’s persona in the community, for example, Waller stops suddenly in the middle of his descant, turns to his reader, and asks pleadingly:

A banker and a lawyer may converse together with interest and profit, because they live in the same universe of values, but any contact between either of these and the professional teacher must be more difficult. Of what is the teacher to talk? (p. 60)

The inhabitants of The Sociology of Teaching are not merely “subjects,” but human beings rendered with “souls and elbows” through expressive sociological language unique to Waller’s vision.

4. Arts-based inquiry is distinguished by the use of contextualized and vernacular language.

Waller was a dramatist with a keen ear for school dialogue: the thinly disguised contempt of one teacher for another; talk by alums in the bleachers at a football game; a teacher’s admonition to his student; a wisecracker to a teacher; the condescending administrator to an underling; the teacher struggling to stifle himself while listening to a parent’s inflated estimation of her child’s genius. Waller didn’t hesitate to present material “in the idiom in which it naturally consorts in the folk talk of teachers” (p. 2).

In exploring the sociological concept known as “the definition of the situation,” for example, Waller points out that the situation is often defined by “the express statement.” To illustrate what he means, Waller offers this drama:

The teacher says, “We do this in our school,” or “We do not do that in our class.” This technique often suffices for the verbal imposition of a taboo or to mark out a change in the situation. Almost every teacher who has to succeed some weak or easy-going or popular teacher in the control of a school or class finds that he has to resort to some such device as this to make clear the transition from the control of the other person to his own domination. Students say, “But Mr. So-and-so let us keep our books open in class,” and the teacher replies, “It’s not old Man Nelson you are dealing with this year. It’s Old Smith, and that’s another story altogether.” (pp. 312-313)

The Sociology of Teaching can be read as a collection of teaching parables, peppered with educational jargon and the vernacular of their characters.

5. Arts-based inquiry is distinguished by the promotion of empathy.

The Sociology of Teaching is a model of advocacy scholarship, written by one who knew all too well that if one teaches, one should be prepared to be heart-broken. In his heart, Waller wrote with improvement in mind, recognizing that maladies would have to be clearly identified before they could be changed. Waller attempted a piece of research, “essentially constructive in its nature,” one which sought “a new understanding of the schools” and those in them, in order to “find remedies” for their “existing ills” (p. 4).

6. Arts-based inquiry is distinguished by the personal signature of the researcher or writer.

Waller’s signature is clearly scrawled across The Sociology of Teaching. At its conclusion, for example, in order to make a sociological point, Waller stops his austere discourse and suddenly tells a joke:

A minister is walking down the street when suddenly beside him is a handsome man who announces he’s the Devil. The minister confesses he’s always been curious about the Devil, tells him outright he’s glad to see him. Then he asks the Devil what he’s up to this particular morning. “The usual,” the Devil replies, “going about corrupting the works of man.” The minister and Devil chat pleasantly (“For I have never been a devil hater,” the minister acknowledges), and then the minister confides he’s surprised by the Devil’s civility and intelligence.

After a while the two notice a man in front of them who “gives all indications” of having just been struck by a really good idea. The minister turns to the Devil and says, “Now there’s a man with a good idea—and that’s a point against you. What are you going to do about that?”

“Nothing easier,” the Devil says without batting an eye, “I’ll organize it” (p. 441).

It is quintessential Waller to tell a wry, folksy story in order to make a complicated sociological point: “Something happens to ideas when they get themselves organized into social systems” (p. 441). The Sociology of Teaching should be read for its insight and manner of presentation—a Wallerian blend of objectivity and bombastic editorial.

7. Arts-based inquiry is distinguished by the presence of aesthetic form.

Recently I re-read Waller while also reading The Inferno of Dante, in Robert Pinsky’s translation, and I am struck by similarities in their aesthetic forms. The Inferno is a tour of Hell, with Virgil, that “embodiment of art and human reason” as the reader’s guide.39 Hell is rendered as nine descending, concentric circles, each circle smaller and populated with sinners more terrible (and thus more hideously tormented) than those in preceding rings. The ninth ring—the smallest ring—is the Melancholy Hole, the pit of Hell whose floor is a frozen lake reserved for those committing “sins of treacherous fraud.”40

The Sociology of Teaching is Waller’s guided tour of School—hellish in ways Waller took great pains to render in order to give the reader a sense of the totality, beyond mere qualitative descriptors. Himself the embodiment of art and social science, a bemused Waller wearing the teacher’s “wan smile,” the “frankly ambivalent expression of both amusement and the desire to maintain order” (pp. 232-233), is our guide. The journey takes the reader through the school’s sociological structure, illusions, and possibilities. Exclusive of its introduction and conclusion, Waller has crafted four concentric circles of his own, each packed with observations of school life more incisive than those preceding it. Waller leaves no desk unopened, no locker closed.


One of the highlights of my work with undergraduates interested in education at Dartmouth College is presenting Willard Waller and watching student reactions to reading him for the first time. The Sociology of Teaching offers beginning students of qualitative research a compendium of projects with which to become better educated in the field and a medium for reflecting on their school experiences.

After reading “What Teaching Does to Teachers,” a student interested in becoming a teacher wrestled with her self-generated question, “What was the most disturbing aspect of this piece for you?” by saying:

What I find most disturbing about this description of “What Teaching Does to Teachers” is that most of Waller’s logic makes sense to me. He makes a strong argument by tying various aspects of a teacher’s life with the resultant personality traits those aspects produce.

However, I don’t believe that this resultant personality is as predetermined as Waller asserts. I have known many teachers who fit his description to a ‘T’ but I have known many more who resisted the regimented, repetitive effects of school life. I think that the teaching profession can effect those who are predisposed to becoming introverted, rigid, and unenthusiastic in the ways Waller elaborates upon.

However, I also don’t believe that these alterations in personality are inevitable in every individual who pursues the teaching profession. I believe that in addition to the negative effects Waller outlines, teaching also brings out positive aspects of teachers’ personalities. It’s those gifted teachers I was fortunate enough to be taught by, teaching brought out their patience, their compassion, their creativity, and their caring for their students. Waller includes none of these characteristics in his analysis, and I believe their absence leaves a huge gap in his characterization of both teaching and those who are part of this wonderful profession.

Another student answered her self-generated question, “What does Waller say about scholastic as opposed to athletic distinctions and their ceremonies?” by pointing out that

Not until the very end of the chapter, on the second-to-the-last page, are scholastic achievements and their ceremonies even mentioned. Here, Waller said recognition for the best “average grade” is given to students in specialized ceremonies. These ceremonies are usually held on Commencement Day and only occasionally, if at all, present throughout the year.

There are two major concerns addressed here, however. The first is that of the students who are actually being recognized. Since the system is based on the highest average grades, the students who are recognized are often those in the easiest classes, as opposed to students who may be challenging themselves in more difficult classes, actually working harder, but obtaining slightly lower grades. I know I experienced this in my high school.

When it came time for the final grade point averages to come out and the valedictorian, salutatorian and essayist to be chosen, there were certain people standing up on that podium at graduation, representing my school, who were not as deserving as others.

The second major problem addressed [by Waller] is that of the typical lack of fanfare when it comes to academic ceremonies. Athletic-centered ceremonies are usually more fun and effective in increasing school spirit. There is such a lack of interest in academics, and such an overflowing interest in sports. Unfortunately, this is how it is in our society: sports are valued more greatly than academics in the average small town. Academics are not really valued until late high school or college, if at all. And for the academic, this is a tragedy.

These are two examples of student engagement. Other students collaborated and presented a take-off of Waller’s “What Teaching Does to Teachers” titled “What Competition Does to Competitors.” Their paper discussed Waller’s views of sport and ritual and used his project suggest ion, “Describe and analyze the behavior of a crowd at a football game” (p. 132), to do an analysis of a men’s lacrosse game between Dartmouth College and Brown University.

Another student took Waller’s project suggestion (“Analyze several issues of a school paper. What social functions does the paper serve?”) (p. 132) and wrote about the Weekend Update™—an electronic newsletter sent out weekly to Dartmouth students who subscribe to it via e-mail. Other projects included analyses of the Dartmouth alma mater, an undergraduate society, and a dramatization of “What Teaching Does to Teachers” as part of a take- home, group midterm.

I have found Dartmouth undergraduates eager to look closely at the school life about them. They find Waller’s work troubling, largely applicable to their experience as undergraduates, and a provocative entry into the world of educational sociology.


I wish I had known Willard Waller. I wish I had studied with him. On the eve of the millennium, I have tried to make the case that his 1932 writing is still contemporary, still worth reading. Waller’s examination of the teacher’s inner life; his discussion of why teacher preparation must offer insight into the school’s social reality; his fearlessness in crossing disciplinary lines (his book acting as a model for arts-based inquiry); his application of the works of W. I. Thomas, Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud, and his own numerous project suggestions for beginning sociologists all make The Sociology of Teaching a still-relevant classic.

Reminiscing about his former teacher, sociologist Vance Packard wrote, “Willard Waller was not only brilliant but a very adorable person, kind of a brighter Alec Guiness41 with a keen sense of humor. I think,” Packard concluded, “he won marks from his more rebellion-oriented students by smoking during his classes despite no smoking signs.”42

The academic provocateur defying convention with a lit cigarette in his hand is emblematic of what Waller’s book did to the field of sociology. Were Waller alive today, I would offer to light his cigarette, then ask him to read from his text.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 4, 1998, p. 758-778
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10288, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:01:49 PM

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