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Choosing to Teach: Reflections on Gender and Social Change

by Lisa Smulyan - 2004

This study uses data from a 10-year longitudinal study to explore how women graduates of a liberal arts college experience the gendered construction of teachers and teaching as they make life and career choices. These women respond to the expectations and pressures of families and teachers, renegotiate their own definitions of success and achievement, and reconstruct definitions of teaching and themselves as teachers. Despite their understanding of the status of other possible career choices, and their resistance of gendered frameworks of career and success, the women in this study ignore the rhetoric of teacher professionalization that might provide them with an alternative definition of teaching. Instead, they reframe teaching as a political act, one through which they can address issues of social inequality and social injustice.

For each of them, taking up the identity of teacher was fraught with tensions as a result of the deeply gendered discourse of teaching as womens true profession. Not only does this discourse maintain an essentialized nature of gender, thus precluding agency, but in being perceived as a womens profession, teaching is devalued. To enter into a profession that is not only devalued, but that suggests women do not have agency, is to participate in a form of self erasure. To take up an identity as a teacher, without erasing one’s self, requires a complex renegotiation.

(Munroe, 1998, p. 112)

Twenty-five years ago, when I graduated from a small liberal arts college, my family and friends expressed surprise─and some dismay─when I said I planned to teach. I could have chosen any career. Why teaching? Did I choose to teach because it felt like a natural step for a 21-year-old woman? Was there any way in which choosing to teach, from the position of power granted by my educational background, was a way of resisting the gendered teaching identity described by Munroe in the quote above? I knew I wanted to contribute to social change; teaching seemed to be a viable choice. But how did gender influence that choice or the way in which I chose to define myself as a teacher?

My own students today, women at an elite liberal arts college who are interested in teaching, face similar struggles. They wonder if they are entering teaching because it fits a comfortable gendered definition of self and position. Or have they chosen teaching despite their recognition of its gendered (and subsequently devalued) status, or even, perhaps, as a way of resisting or trying to change that gender regime? They, too, often want to be agents of social change, and as they explore their choice to teach they find that they renegotiate how they define themselves, their place in society, and their definition of teaching itself.

This study uses longitudinal data to examine the voices and experiences of a unique cohort of teachers: a sample of women who graduated from a small, academically rigorous liberal arts institution. In this article, I first describe some of the historical, social and psychological trends that have contributed to our conception of teaching as a gendered profession. I then describe a longitudinal study of 28 college women who choose careers within this gendered context. I examine how and why these women arrive at the decision to teach and how their choice is a conscious process through which they explore, modify and sometimes resist the gendered identity of teacher. I argue that as these women define their own roles, they begin to help us redefine the teaching profession as a position from which they can act on their critique of existing social injustices.


In 1835, Catharine Beecher explained that women, as the guardian of the nursery, the companion of childhood, and the constant model of imitation are the natural teachers of young children (in Cross, 1965, p. 67). Hoffman (1981) demonstrated that women historically chose to teach for a variety of reasons, including a desire for financial and personal independence and a concern with broad social issues (e.g., the education of freed slaves). With the development of public schooling and the organization of school districts in the late 1800s and early 1900s, teaching came to be defined as a female profession, acceptable and appropriate for women as an extension of their work with children in the home (Hoffman, 1981; Spring, 1986).

Following patterns of early 20th century municipal and corporate reform and development, schools gradually became more hierarchically organized. John Philbrick, principal of Quincy High School in Massachusetts, described this structure in 1856: Let the principal or Superintendent have the general supervision and control of the whole, and let him have one male assistant or sub principal, and ten female assistants, one for each room (quoted in Spring, 1986, p. 135). The emphasis on hierarchy, efficiency, and scientific management led to the creation of the myth of the neutral professional educator, a term applied primarily to men in educational administration: Business managers, school board members, and other social groups encouraged school administrators to become more professional, to apply scientific-management ideologies in their work, and to build power on neutral apolitical expertise separate from the politics of the community (Ortiz & Marshall, 1988, p. 125). Hierarchy contributed to the gendered division of labor in education; women, in their roles as teachers, assumed the appropriate subordinate, nonprofessional role in the institutional structure.

The historical assumption that teaching is a natural, acceptable, and subordinated role for women continues to frame both popular expectations about teachers and the bulk of the research on who enters the teaching profession (see, e.g., Green & Weaver, 1992; Harris & Brown, 1992; Tusin, 1991). In addition to acknowledging this historical framework, researchers today propose a range of explanations for the continued dominance of women in teaching, including institutional or structural barriers, the internalization of social norms, and differences in values and goals that influence career choice.

In the first explanation, structural barriers limit womens professional options in the field of education. For example, women dominate the ranks of teachers (83% at the elementary level and 53% at the secondary level) while men control the principalships (63% elementary and 88% secondary) (National Center for Education Statistics, 1994). Women who aspire to school administration face barriers of discrimination in hiring and promotion that often limit their movement. One of the key barriers is that those in positions to hire, such as school boards, superintendents, and other school administrators, are usually men. These gatekeepers tend to hire people with whom they are comfortable and who most resemble themselves in attitudes, behaviors, career path, and values (Bell & Chase, 1993; Edson, 1981, 1988; Marshall, 1984). Other external barriers limiting womens access to educational administration include a lack of available information about positions and few structural opportunities to gain the skills and visibility needed to advance in the system (Edson, 1981; Wheatley, 1981; Yeakey, Johnston, & Adkison, 1986). Without information and experience, women may not know about possibilities for advancement or may, in the eyes of those who hire, lack the preparation required for the job.

A second explanation for womens overrepresentation in teaching is that norms socialize men and women to expect that women will be in helping professions and men in business and the sciences. Women, the research argues, have internalized traits perceived by themselves and others as compatible with certain roles and not others, such as a sense of self as helper

rather than leader, as warm rather than ambitious, as emotional rather than rational, and as passive and deferential rather than active and independent (Grogan, 1996; Pavan, 1991; Yeakey et al., 1986). Acting in ways which challenge these traditional roles may lead to conflict or stress for women who aspire to nontraditional careers. It may also limit the numbers of those who pursue such careers, even if they aspire to them.

The third explanation for the gender differences noted in career choice stems from research that examines womens and mens internalized values and feelings of self-efficacy that make them feel most productive and effective within certain roles (Eccles, 1994; Lackland & De Lisi, 2001; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). This research suggests that the assumption of a male standard of career path and success leads us to question what keeps women from reaching the same level of achievement as men rather than to examine womens choices as positive and meaningful. While it acknowledges the imposition of social expectations and norms, this literature explains that people do not just respond to the environment as they determine their plans, but that they themselves shape their choices, their paths, and the environments within which they act. People tend to develop and maintain interests in activities in which they see themselves as effective. They also want to experience outcomes that will match their values and goals (Eccles, 1994; Lackland & De Lisi, 2001; Lent et al., 1994; Lightbody et al., 1997; Whiston, 1993). Studies have suggested that, although men and women do not differ in the value they put on doing ones best at a job or at doing creative or intellectual work, women put more value than men on the importance of making occupational sacrifices for ones family and on the importance of having a job that allows one to help others and do something worthwhile for society (Eccles, 1994, p. 600). An individuals evaluation of self-efficacy and her choice of values and goals result from the interactions between her and the people, institutions, and social expectations with which she comes in contact. This approach to explaining the continued differences in mens and womens career choices does allow us to see women as agents (rather than victims) who make autonomous choices about their lives and careers, although it still acknowledges the imposition of interpersonal and social expectations that limit those choices.

More recently, feminist research has suggested that the traditional notion of career needs reexamination when applied to many women in education (Biklen, 1995; Grant, 1989; Sikes, 1985; Smulyan, 1990, 2000) and other fields (Smulyan, in press). Women choose teaching, remain in teaching, grow and change as teachers, and enter educational administration in ways that reflect both personal and social/historical pressures on their lives. These factors differ from those affecting men, whose life patterns have been used as the norm against which women are examined. For example, research suggests women generally enter teaching because they love children, because it is a socially acceptable role to family and friends, because they can envision making a difference in the world through teaching, and because in some cases they perceive limited opportunities for women in other fields (Pavan, 1991; Prolman, 1983). When they become teachers, women generally have no plans to enter administration (Grant, 1989; Polczynski, 1990; Sikes, 1985). Women who do leave the classroom for other positions in education tend to do so after many years of teaching, and possibly after raising a family (Marshall & Mitchell, 1989). They then usually work in special curriculum areas (e.g., reading, curriculum development) rather than in school administration, maintaining their connection to teaching and instruction rather than to management (Mitchell & Winn, 1989; Prolman,1983; Shakeshaft, 1989). This career path gives women a different perspective on their role in education; it also challenges the traditional notion of a linear, hierarchical career that ignores the individuals life history or the larger social and cultural structures within which she is working (Ball & Goodson, 1992; Smulyan, 2000). Rather than proposing a single alternative to the male model of career, this work suggests that career may encompass a range of work styles and pathways when womens lives are considered.



During the 19911992 academic year, I interviewed a sample of 28 women students, mostly sophomores and juniors, at an elite liberal arts college. Thirteen of these women had declared that they were premed when they entered college (i.e., would complete the requirements for medical school admission). The other 15 had indicated an interest in Education by their sophomore year (all 15 had taken a course entitled Introduction to Education which is the requirement for further work in Education).1 I was interested, at the time I began the study, in exploring differences and similarities in college womens life and career choices. Teaching and medicine, although both helping professions, have different levels of prestige in society and present aspirants with different kinds of choices.2

Of the 28 women, 19 were white, 5 were Asian American, 3 were Latino, and 1 was African American. Twenty-six identified as heterosexual, one as bisexual, and one as gay. Twenty described their familys socioeconomic background as middle or upper middle class, 3 as working class, and 5 as poor (see Figure 1). Of the 13 students who entered college premed, 8 completed medical school and residency programs after college graduation. Of the other 5, two became K12 teachers, one went to graduate school in


19 White

5 Asian American

3 Latina

1 African American

Socioeconomic status (self-defined)

20 middle or upper middle class

3 working class

5 poor

Sexual orientation

26 heterosexual

1 lesbian

1 bisexual

Figure 1.

Participants Backgrounds

education, one has become a college professor of biology, and one is a clinical psychologist. Of the 15 students who took the introductory education course, 8 became K12 teachers after graduation from college, and another became a middle school teacher after going to graduate school in English. One has held a series of jobs in the field of education, and one is a writer.3 Four did not pursue education: One became a veterinarian, a second now trains horses, the third has pursued a career in environmental issues, and the fourth is a graduate student in Biology (see Figure 2).

I reinterviewed this group each year for 5 years, during which time all 28 graduated and moved on to jobs or graduate school.4 I then reinterviewed all of them in the fall of 2001, 5 years after the last consecutive interview in 19951996. All six sets of interviews included questions about past, present, and future educational experiences and goals; relationships with family and significant others; and career expectations and goals. I also asked the students to reflect on the impact of gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation on their career choices, and, once they had left college, on the effects of their college experience on their sense of themselves as people and professionals. The core questions remained constant in each of the six interviews; a few new questions were added each year to explore issues that arose as we analyzed the data each year. All interviews were fully transcribed and a coding system developed and elaborated for each successive round of interviews. These interviews were semistructured; while I had a list of

Sophomore year of college

Post college*


13 premed

8 medical school/ residency/internship


2 K12 teachers


1 PhD in education


1 PhD in biology


1 PhD in clinical psychology

15 in Introduction to Education course

9 K12 teachers


1 writer (after history and education grad school)


1 foundation officer (after education grad school)


1 horse trainer (after physics grad school)


1 environmental consultant


1 PhD in biology


1 veterinarian

*The post college history for each woman is more complicated than suggested by this chart, especially for the 15 women in the Introduction to Education course. Most of the pre-med students followed a fairly direct route, either going to medical school and then residency/internship or going to graduate school either directly from college or after a year or two of work. The Introduction to Education cohort pursued more varied paths. The nine K12 teachers are women who went into teaching from college and remained there for several years. Several of them have returned to graduate school at this point. The veterinarian and the PhD in Biology pursued fairly direct paths to reach those goals. The other four all did some work in Education before pursuing other career paths.

Figure 2.

Participants Career Path

questions I wanted to be sure to cover, I also followed the issues and concerns raised by the participants in the study. Over the course of the 10 years of the study, I also found myself answering the students questions about me, my children and my work, and the college.


This article is based primarily on data from the 17 women who at some point in the 10 years of the study considered teaching or became teachers. I focus here on three themes that emerged from the data, rather than on individual, longitudinal stories, which are evident and will be discussed in future work. I do occasionally, however, demonstrate how an individuals thinking developed over time around one of the themes discussed. All three of the themes, presented briefly below and expanded upon later, emerged from data analysis during the first two years of interviews. These themes were explored through the interviews that followed and analyzed over the six interviews for ways in which they remained constant and shifted as the women moved from college, to work, and sometimes to graduate study or a changed career.

The first theme, recognizing the problem, emerged from data analysis during the first two years of this study, while the women were still in college. In college, the women began to realize the personal and social pressures that they experienced as students at a rigorous undergraduate institution who were expected to challenge traditional notions of what jobs and careers women can have. Although they continued to reflect on these expectations in the years that follow, their choice to teach was often based, in part, on redefining success, the second theme that emerges in the data. This theme also appears in the data during the womens college years and continues to be refined in later interviews as they move into the working world. The final theme, redefining teaching, appears as a philosophical or rhetorical pattern while the women are still in college. In college, they reflect, in the abstract, on why they want to teach, frequently explaining that they see teaching as a way of addressing social injustice and ameliorating inequality. As they begin to teach, first as student teachers and later as full time teachers, they sometimes shift and sometimes solidify their redefinition of teaching to include goals and practice that allow them to work toward social change. Each of these themes will be examined in more detail below.


I have always been interested in using interviews and other qualitative methods to explore the life histories, the personal and professional experiences, of women whose lives have frequently been underexamined (Smulyan, 1990, 1992, 2000). These methods appreciate the value of allowing an individual voice, one which is often underrepresented, to be heard, respected and legitimized (see, e.g., Ball and Goodson, 1985; Burawoy, 1991; Plummer, 1983; Reissman, 1993 on life history research). Such a focus offers an opportunity to examine previously silenced stories within the larger social patterns framing womens lives (Franz, Cole, Crosby,& Stewart, 1994; Reinharz, 1992). There are, however, some dilemmas involved in using this approach to understand both individual lives and social and cultural patterns. The first dilemma involves accepting and legitimizing the unique voices of the study participants while simultaneously finding in those voices and in prior research a framework for analysis. In this study I used interviews to gather information about these womens life experiences; I did not attempt to triangulate this data by interviewing others or by observing them at home or at work. I am dependent on the participants framing of their own stories, their choice of what to say, their lenses for explaining the events and decisions in their lives. I feel the responsibility of accepting their perspectives, sharing their stories, and communicating to others what they have said to me. At the same time, I am in a position from which I raise questions, reflecting on each individuals story across the 10 years of the study and comparing it to the narratives of others in this cohort. I also want to connect the individual stories to larger social and cultural patterns─all processes which might lead me to conclusions or frameworks that challenge the perspective of any of the individuals involved. There is in this work, therefore, a tension between recognizing and acknowledging the voices of the participants and providing an analytic framework for interpreting that experience (Acker, Barry, & Esseveld, 1991; Wolf, 1996).

A second dilemma in carrying out this type of research involves negotiating the relationship between the researcher and the researched. Feminist researchers, in particular, have examined the dilemmas involved in establishing trusting, mutual relationships as a part of the research process (Acker et al., 1991; Chase, 1996; Fine, 1994; Josselson, 1996; Kelly, Burton, & Regan, 1994). We have come to recognize that the multiple positions we and the participants involved hold will always affect our relationships (Wolf, 1996). I am a White, upper middle class, former secondary school teacher who has taught education at the college level for 19 years. In the case of this research, I was also professor or advisor to some of the women I interviewed. I was, therefore, in a position of power with them. In many cases, I was also mentor and advocate. Even if I did not know them well before the interviews began, over the course of the ten years we developed mutual relationships of respect and care. In the early years of the study, when the women left an interview, they frequently thanked me for the opportunity to talk, to be heard; in later years they told me they looked forward to the interviews as an opportunity to reflect and share their experiences with me. During the interviews, I was aware that I could comment on their decisions, make suggestions, or give them examples from my own experience or the experiences of others that might help them think about their own. In some cases I did respond to them, knowing that I was, in the process, juggling the roles of researcher and advisor. There was a way in which I wanted to give something back to these women, since they so generously shared their lives with me. In this project, and in other work I have done, I find that developing the collaborative, trusting relationships called for by life history research contributes a great deal to the meaning and depth of a research project; it also feels more comfortable and honest to me as a person. At the same time, however, I know that the development of these relationships influences the data I collect and the ways in which I interpret it. I am aware, for example, that I am often proud of these women and the goals they pursue, and that I share many of the values I hear them espouse.

A third dilemma arises in questions about the generalizability of findings generated from this study. This is an unusual sample; it became clear to me, especially in the final round of interviews, that this cohort of women from an elite liberal arts college is one from which it might be quite hard to generalize. These women, regardless of background, are privileged, and they have been taught a set of critical, analytical skills that they apply to their own lives and to their positions in society. More generally, life history and case study work has been challenged to consider how it contributes to theory, how it can be generalized to provide insight into larger social patterns. Life histories and case studies contribute to the development of grounded theory, and, in doing so, influence the ongoing conversation about our understanding of the world (Burawoy, 1991; Donmoyer, 1990; Orum, Feagain, & Sjoberg, 1991; Schofield, 1990; Smulyan, 2000; Stake,1994). Presenting an individuals story as a unique, important, and valid life history must be balanced against the attempt to see it as one of several stories that provide insight into socially and culturally framed patterns of experience. This final research dilemma, then, is preserving the voice of the individual, recognizing the uniqueness of this particular sample, and presenting a general argument about the life and career paths of young women teachers (Burawoy, 1991; Hatch & Wisniewski, 1995; Riessman,1993; Stake, 1994).


Although many of the women in this study believe that they chose to teach, they are conscious of the fact that all choices are compromised by both visible and invisible factors. Many wondered aloud if what they saw as an agentic choice made in spite of traditional expectations of womens roles was actually the result of socialization. Few of these women came to college expecting to teach; many dragged their feet as they considered the possibility, resisting the idea that they (like some of their grandmothers, aunts, mothers) would fall into what they initially saw as the easy─and stereotypical─path of teaching. In this study, as they clarified their own desires and values during their years at college and after, these women reflect on their choice to teach and their awareness of the complexity of that choice. As I listened to their voices, I heard a number of ways in which they responded to traditional gendered notions of teaching and renegotiated their own positions in relationship to the role. For many of these women, their conscious questioning of the traditional gendered identity of teacher helped them to reframe teaching; their goal became helping their students join them in their awareness of and attention to social injustice.

To renegotiate definitions of teaching, these women often had to begin by facing their parents, teachers, friends, and their own stereotypes of teachers and their contrasting expectations of what it meant to be smart and successful women. As they recognized the problem, they did so by reflecting on the social and internalized frameworks which informed their choice. For some of the women in this study the choice was influenced by class or cultural backgrounds─variables frequently ignored by those examining the experiences of women teachers. For some of these women, those who were first generation immigrants to this country, for example, or who were the first in their families to attend college, teaching was not devalued nor seen as a female, and therefore low status, occupation. It was, instead, an opportunity to use and share ones own education, to contribute to society (and perhaps ones own community), and to provide stability for oneself and ones family. These women resisted the idea that teaching, as a female profession is nonagentic; they saw themselves as strong, positive social and sometimes political actors. For others, the expectations of their cultural community provided yet another barrier that they had to overcome in order to choose teaching.

As they challenged traditional notions of teaching as womens work, many of these women explored how to redefine success in ways that responded to external expectations and incorporated their own shifting internal values. They also began to redefine teaching so that it included responsiveness to a broad range of social inequalities. For many of them, just becoming a teacher signaled a rejection of the imposition of gendered expectations and roles. But, perhaps more important, many of the women in this study saw the possibility of using their now redefined teaching position as a way of contributing to social change. Although some of them entered college with a vague goal of changing the world, they explained that the analytic skills, the discourses, and the process of education in which they engaged at college made it possible for them to develop and act upon their goals. Their view of themselves as critical participants in social change influenced the approaches they used as teachers and the goals they had for their students. In the sections that follow I expand on how these women experienced the imposition of stereotypes and expectations, how they chose to become teachers, and how they explained why and how they teach.


The women in this study were well aware of the low status of teachers in society and the gendered nature of that status. In the first sets of interviews, while they were still in college, many of the women mentioned that their parents and teachers questioned their decision to enter teaching, a questioning that impacted their own choices and self-confidence. Sometimes, their parents commented on the cost of college in relation to their daughters earning potential as teachers. They implied that the money would be better spent if their daughters entered more esteemed (and higher paying) professions or suggested that they should have chosen less expensive institutions for teacher training.5

My mother made a comment once about, Thats what were spending $20,000 a year for? (19911992)

My dad is like, Well here I am spending all this money and you just want to become a teacher. You could have gone to the local college here. . . . Why dont you become a doctor? (19911992)

In addition to questioning cost and return on their investment, parents wondered if teaching would be personally and intellectually fulfilling for their smart and ambitious daughters:

And when I told [my father] I wanted to be certified [to teach], his response was, well his first response was, Why are you doing that? And the second response was, Well, I guess its good. Itll give you something to do for the first couple of years while you decide what you really want to do. (19911992)

Even once these women had graduated from college and had begun teaching, parents continued to question their choice:

[My father] finds it hard to believe that I could be personally satisfied teaching full time, at least if it werent at the college level. In a secondary school he has trouble believing that that would be enough to stimulate me intellectually. (19951996)

Other people in these womens lives, including teachers themselves, created expectations about what a smart girl should do. One Asian American woman, facing gender and model minority issues, had teachers tell her she should stop being a cheerleader and start using her brain:

I actually think theres an expectation for Japanese American people of my age and the generation before. When I was in high school there was a chemistry teacher . . . and he used to tell me things like, You know, if you werent on such a popularity trip and trying to be a cheerleader and trying to be a president of the school then maybe you could tap into the fact that youre a very bright person. But maybe its too late. . . . And I guess the issue I have a problem with is that, I mean I think they expected me to be like an intelligent and liberated woman which I feel like I am. And therefore Im liberated enough to make the decisions to do the things I want to do. And they had real problems with the decisions that I made. (19921993)

In some cases, as reflected in the quote above, the individuals ethnicity or cultural community contributed to the expectations of what she might achieve. A Latina woman explained that her mother moved to this country so that her children could be professors, doctors, not so they could teach in public schools. A Korean American woman in the study explained that even though she had taught for 7 years and was proud of her work, her community continued to influence her own perception of teaching as less prestigious:

I know I shouldnt let that bother me, but just growing up in the Korean community, you know educators are not well respected. If youre a teacher, thats well, okay, well anyone can be a teacher. The positions that are well respected and highly regarded are positions in the medical field, doctors, lawyers, maybe a professor. But a teacher, and to that an elementary teacher, you know thats not a well respected position in the Korean community. . . . Ive internalized a lot of it, because I mean its still bothering me. (20012002)

The same woman explained that in her community, children are expected to care for their parents when they are older. She worried that, as a teacher, she might not have the financial security she needed to support herself and keep her parents comfortable.

Class sometimes impacted womens prospective understanding of their career choices. One woman, who grew up in a family that struggled financially and who subsequently worked her way through college, explained that her past experience made teaching a difficult option while she was in college:

Im much more careful with my money, because I dont want it to be, like, a monster, always growing and trying to drag me down. So thats, again, almost a push against being a teacher. Unless I have a husband who makes a lot of money then I can afford to raise my children and be a high school teacher. (19911992)

Another woman from a working class community, however, explained that when she returned to her home to teach she found that teaching was both acceptable and perhaps admired by her peers who had much less prestigious jobs. This context allowed her to feel quite comfortable with the status of teaching:

I think that a lot of people think you get looked down upon because you teach. I just never felt that and it might be because of the people I knew. In my community the people I knew, if they werent teachers, which most werent because they worked at a grocery store and other things. Most of my friends did [that kind of work]. The fact that I had a dental plan was enough for them. In my town I didnt really have upwardly mobile professional friends. (20002001)

Class can, therefore, work as a deterrent to teaching for those who want more financial security than they feel teaching provides. It can also be a positive influence, since teaching may provide more security and benefits than the individual and others in her community have experienced in the past.

In addition to dealing with the imposed frameworks of others, many of these women also had to struggle with their own, internalized under- standing of teaching as a gendered, low status profession. They faced the reality that they would earn less than many of the other women who graduate from their college and that they would never receive the social recognition afforded to those in high status careers. Their explanation of the dilemma they faced─while they were in college, after a year or two out teaching, and reflecting on the choice to teach 10 years after the study started─almost always referred to the gendered nature of teaching and their own desire to somehow challenge social stereotypes and gendered expectations:

Why are the people who are teaching─the people who are going to become lawyers, if they’re so great they get paid $100,000 a year while a teacher makes $29,000 why doesn’t that make sense? [Teaching] should be the most rewarding profession in our society. That bothers me. I feel like Im getting paid nothing to do one of the most important things. I mean, I guess there are professions like doctors that should be highly valued, but I dont know. I feel like Im giving in to them. Im a woman and I am going to teach and I am going to have to put up with that. And I dont know what Im going to do about it. (19911992)

I want to do something thats different. I dont want to do something thats different than teaching, but I wish that not so many women were teachers, were elementary school teachers. Or that so many people that I knew were teachers, which I know sounds really weird probably. But I like to do things that are different than what other people are doing, and I feel like a lot of people do the same thing that I do. . . . And I dont really feel like I challenge a whole lot of stereotypes when I say, Oh yeah, I teach. Im an elementary school teacher. (19951996)

For a little while there was a time when I thought, I cant be a teacher. I need to go do something that women arent supposed to do. But I got over that. Its really clear that teaching was what I really thought I should do. (20002001)

Some of these women try to carve out a niche within teaching that makes them feel different and special, or they redefine themselves as teachers who are different from the mainstream. The woman quoted previously who in 19911992 doesnt know what [shes] going to do about it explains a few years later that for her, the solution is to become an exceptional teacher . . . because if everyones going to be doing it, then I want to do it really differently than them! (19951996). Others say that they chose to teach nontraditional subjects, such as math or science, in order to break the stereotypes they so want to resist.

Sometimes I wonder if I were a male would I still want to be a teacher? And I think, Huh? This is going to help a lot. Another girl going into teaching! And I think thats why, its another reason Im happy Im going to be a math teacher. Its not an area thats totally female dominated. (19911992)

Well, being a biology teacher as a woman, that is sort of against the stereotype. Because in all my high school science classes theyve all been men. Male teachers. I never had a woman science teacher. And its a growing field for women. . . . And that does sort of stick in my head. . . . And its a good thing. I mean, its about time. (19911992)

The comments of parents and teachers contributed to the internal questioning these women experienced as they explored teaching as a possible career choice. Unlike women who experience gatekeepers who keep them out of certain fields, these women acknowledge pressures from others (and from themselves) to move into more prestigious non-traditional careers. As they responded to others concerns, they began to develop a range of explanations for their decision to teach, explanations which sometimes reflect class and ethnic backgrounds. Both prospectively and retrospectively, many of these women acknowledge the social imposition of a gendered definition of teaching and reflect on their own discomfort in choosing this path. Even though teaching does, as the literature on career choice suggests, match their values and goals, their consciousness of the cultural construction of those values and goals makes them question their choice. As the next section explains, by choosing teaching, these women reconstruct what they mean by attaining success and begin the process of reconstructing what it means to teach.


As these women became more comfortable with their choice to teach, many of them began to redefine what they meant by success and what they desired in their lifes work. Although they did not lose the consciousness of their apparent acceptance of a traditional female role, they began to create a new definition of what it meant to be successful in a career, as a person and as a woman. Again, this theme began to emerge during the womens college years and remained salient as the women entered the workforce and reflected on their choices.

Several of these women, while in college, experienced a shift in perspective on what it meant to have a successful career. For example, one woman, who entered college premed, decided to leave the pre-med track in her sophomore year. Her decision reflected her rejection of a socially imposed definition of achievement and a growing acceptance of a more internalized vision of success:

Well just looking at why I wanted to (be a doctor) . . . It felt to me that, I liked science Im a hard worker, I like people. And the final thing: And this is achievement. You know. And so those four together seemed to add up to, Well, youre going to be a doctor. And once I took the fourth reason away, once that didnt seem to make sense anymore, then the other three didnt necessarily add up to, Well you should be a doctor. You know, there seemed to be a lot of other things that I could do, that I feel more passionate about, that interest me on a level that has more to do with me and the kind of person I am than what Ive been told. (19911992)

By her junior year, this woman had redefined achievement in terms of what she valued, which centered on being a good teacher:

I think teaching is a really valuable thing and really important and its something that works with my values in a lot of ways. The idea of being a good teacher that would be a real achievement. (19921993)

Another change in perspective that occurred in college for several of these women was a shift from defining a smart, independent woman as someone with high status and salary to defining her as someone who, like themselves, does work that has personal and social value:

I think that education has become more important to me. Not that money has become any less important. I also think that I couldnt, like, two years ago I could see myself as graduating and going to law school, working 80 hours a week for five years and then suddenly finding myself with lots of money and a huge apartment in New York and not being happy. And I couldnt see myself doing that anymore. . . . .I dont think in any other career (than teaching) you could feel better about yourself by being in that career. (19911992)

Up until I was a senior (in high school) I really followed this woman- independence role model. And what I really wanted to do was to strike it rich and do all these things that would help me get rich. And I wasnt going to have a family or I wasnt going to get married. I was just going to own all these companies. But then, somehow I changed my mind. All of a sudden, to where, I mean, a drastic turn-around. To where I wanted to have a job that I could work more with people and not with money. . . . I think it wasnt always, Im going out to work because I want to. It was because I have something to prove. And I saw that going out and being this rich successful business woman was more, not because thats what felt good, it was because I had to prove something. And I knew, I was like, You know, who are you really proving it to? . . . And what Im still hoping is that if I go into elementary teaching, Ill deal with kids at an age when theyre still forming themselves as people. And Im not doing it so much because I want people to read, or to know how to add and subtract. But more because I think there are some really crucial lessons that people need to learn. . . . I think that would be one of the most satisfying things that I could possibly do. When I think about the goals for myself and what’s important to me─that would fulfill the goal in every sense of the word. (1991–1992)

This changing vision of what it means to be successful was important to many of these women whose education prepared them for social and economic advancement. Success defined in terms of helping others resonates with past work on gender differences in career choice, but success defined as helping others in order to achieve social justice may be a new perspective, one that moves the gendered notion of care into a more public arena.

Not all of the women in this study entered college planning to pursue a high status career. Others, who were more initially unsure about their career path and goals also, however, began to express an awareness of their own potential agency in society and the possibilities provided by teaching to act on their concerns and values. These women also found that they had to renegotiate their expectations of status, of what it means to be a successful working woman:

I guess I always wanted to teach, but I fell into the stereotype of it not being a real job, and I really convinced myself that its such an important thing and its so valuable, but its so undervalued in our society. And it would be really hypocritical of me to be like, Im going to [a rigorous college]. I can do more than be a teacher. And I just realized that if I dont go out there and teach, who is? I complain that there arent good people teaching in high schools, but its because people like me wont teach. Its because people who really could teach, who could really do the job, decide to do better things. . . . And I realized that I cant sit there and complain if I wont do it myself. (19911992)

These women recognized the low status of teaching but chose to teach, because they saw teaching as an important, and even powerful, role in society:

But I dont consider teaching to be a lower-status position. I think that the pay scale is way off. I think that teachers are more important than just about anybody else, because teachers are responsible for educating all the people who are going to be the next generation of leaders and people holding jobs. So I dont think of it that way. (19911992)

For some of these women, their class or ethnic background contributed to their redefinition of teaching as a successful career, even though some note (see previous quotation) the constraints these same identities impose. The Latina woman who explained that her mother had not moved to America so her children could be teachers, also explained in her senior year that her mothers experiences in this country, and her own experiences growing up poor in a Latino community, provided her with an awareness of social injustice and a desire to contribute to change.

When I think about it, what is most important to me is that I come from a working class background. My mother was an immigrant. My father, his whole family was immigrants. He was the only one born here. His father worked in a coal mine he had to work very hard. . . . Like thats what is most important to me. That there is economic injustices more than anything else. Its really important to me that people are hungry. . . . My mother is so important to me, and her experience as someone who was poor and Hispanic is important to me. And thats why I can see myself working with people. I guess I feel like I am helping my mother, like, I guess for Latin immigrants who come to the United States. (19931994)

The Asian American woman whose teachers told her (in an earlier quote) to start using her brain, explained that she, too felt like her commitment to equality and therefore to teaching came in part through her own familys experiences as immigrants to this country. Her reflections on this choice to teach came after she had taught for several years:

I really feel like theres a lack of equity in this world, and I think that public education can make a difference in that. Particularly for kids who dont have as many opportunities. I felt that was where I wanted to work. And I actually feel that I was really fortunate personally with the kinds of opportunities that I was given. And to look at my family over generations, not just the generation that Im around, but the kinds of hardships that they experienced and the kinds of, probably, luck that they had and, you know, mixed with hard work, to allow them to come where they came. I dont think everybody gets that luck. Part of the luck is learning how to work hard, really, because not everybody learns that. And so anyways that was sort of my commitment to why I did the kind of work, why I taught and why, why it was important that I taught in certain populations. (20012002)

Another woman who grew up in a poor family also explained, in retrospect, that, I grew up really poor, so its just sort of a gut feeling . . . I have this idea that if I teach I need to teach in public schools where anybody can go (20012002). In these cases, the experiences of poverty and ethnicity contributed to these womens choice to enter teaching and to their reflections on why it was a valid choice. Success may be redefined to include giving back; it can also include the opportunity to change a society that they or their families experienced as unequal and unjust.

In choosing teaching, therefore, these women had to respond to the pressures of significant others and to social and cultural constructions of teaching that seemed to degrade or disparage the career. In the process of arriving at the choice to teach, they had to clarify their own values and goals, examine those values and goals within the personal and cultural constructs within which they lived, and then redefine their understanding of success, achievement, and teaching.


One key reason that many of these women see teaching as an achievement, as justifiable, and as important is that they come to define teaching as a means to change a society that they see as inequitable and unjust. Some of these women approach education as an institution that can contribute to social change; others see their work with individual children making a difference in those childrens lives. Most combine the two. Whether they take the broad social perspective or the more individualistic approach, these teachers see their work as part of a movement to use education for change in society. This perspective influences their views on why they teach, where they teach, and how they teach. While the language they use to describe this goal shifts over the ten years of the study, this redefinition of teaching emerges during the womens college years and continues through their work in the years that follow.

The Role of College

Although some of these women say that they wanted to be involved in social change before they entered college, many explain that their college experience provided them with the knowledge, the skills, and the language to explain and pursue their goals. In looking back at the college experience, they comment on the role of college in shaping their goals and their desire to teach in order to reach them:

I think Im more critical with more of a knowledge base and more of an understanding than I was before. I was definitely critical before (college). I mean, the way I rebelled in high school was to join the radical communist youth. Obviously I was not too happy with the status quo when I was in high school. But I think I understand a lot more [such as] why I should be critical, and what things in the society and in America and in the schools and all that─what’s wrong with them. I’m sure there’s so many more things I don’t see and haven’t learned─but I think I have better tools to learn them now. (1994–1995)

For some, college provided an entirely new lens on the world, one which was personally empowering and which focused on the potential of education for helping individuals and changing society. In particular, several cited Introduction to Education as a course that allowed them to reflect on their own experience and to see education as a pivotal social and political force in society:6

I was never critical of education in any sense until I took [the introductory education course]. And then I was so consumed by how self-consciousness was such an empowering or like energizing thing. You know? Just to be aware that you control your environment, just to know that the way you were taught or the learning experiences that you had affect you emotionally. Just having an intellectual life is exciting and (knowing) that everyone can have one that was really important to me. (19951996)

Susan Middleton (1989) explains that the combination of personal experiences of discrimination and access to radical social theories allows women to understand their experiences as a part of more comprehensive dynamics of social and political power. Their gendered understanding (imposed and self-constructed) of teaching as a subordinate endeavor and their college courses (in particular their Education courses) that explore theoretical frameworks of social inequality provide a context within which these women teachers begin to see both the need and possibility for change.

These women believed that the critical knowledge and perspectives they learned in college were not just personally empowering; they led to a certain kind of responsibility. For most of them, this responsibility translated into teaching others to be a part of the movement for social change:

[In college] I was surrounded by some really brilliant people with really amazing ideas and a lot of ideas that I had never thought about before. And I would say probably [I gained] mostly the ability to think critically. . . . Theres a lot of responsibility that comes with it too though. Because I think that when you become aware of ideas and become aware of reasons then you know when you have information, then you have a choice to make in terms of what you do with that information. And I think I learned a lot about the world and what needs to be done. And do I have some responsibility now. And thats okay. I think its a good thing. And in fact its something that I think about when I teach kids is that they have a responsibility in this world and I want to see them exercise it now. (20012002)

Again, the sample in this study is unique; all of these women attended a small liberal arts college and had available to them courses that contributed to this critical, analytical perspective and many peers and professors who shared their views. This environment provided students with room to examine cultural constructs and redefine themselves in new ways. It is the women, themselves, however, who translated these experiences into the personal commitment to engage in the work of teaching as a way of acting on what they had learned.7

The Goals of Teaching

Given their critical perspectives, many of these women say they chose to teach because it allowed them to use education to challenge existing power structures, in part by teaching students to be critical members of society. Some of these women described, in general terms, the role of teachers and teaching in addressing issues of social inequality. For example, one woman started college considering a career in politics before deciding to teach:

Because I didnt like the way things were. I was very dissatisfied. I thought there were too many poor people and too many people that didnt have a chance at all. And maybe if there could be a change in the power structure, that that could change as well. I sort of had this socialist, idealist view of the world in my mind that I would like to have. . . . I think teachers are really an important part of society, even though society doesnt always recognize that. I think theres really not a position thats more important than that. I think that maybe the way to change the world is to teach children differently and let them grow up with these different ways of looking at the world. (19911992)

Several years later, as a teacher, this same women explained that by changing schools we can begin to empower those disenfranchised in society:

I think theres a lot of teaching, like so much of reform and so many new things that need to be tried at a high school or middle school level. I think there are so many problems with the ways that classes are taught in a traditional middle school classroom. . . . And I think its important to get people in that have a very explicit goal of some sort of liberation type─like Hegel, Freire . . . I think that there are so many people and there are so many classrooms and neighborhoods and parts of society that are just so disempowering to so many people. And there is the possibility with the school system to deal with some of that. . . . and I think its important to get students to be critical, too, of what theyre learning and how theyre learning and whos teaching it. (19941995)

In 2001, 10 years after her first interview, this woman still described the classroom process as one which can ultimately contribute to social change:

I think Ive said something about how teaching is one of the most powerful things I can do. And that is the way to change people. And to get people to change their world. And I think that that still continues to be my goal. And I still see education as one of the few ways─education even in the broader sense than what happens in schools, even though what I want to do is in school─I still see it is as that. I still see it as my goal as getting people to become more critically conscious, to create a space for rational critical discourse. (20012002)

Other teachers shifted from the broader goal of social change to a more concrete focus on how their work could empower individual students, suggesting that this would lead to the social change they envisioned. One teacher, for example, described her goals as wanting to help individuals develop their full potential:

I guess Ive always thought of education as a way of helping people open their minds and helping them to be more of who they can be and helping people become more articulate and expressive and not scared. (20012002)

Whether focusing on the need to address institutional and social power differentials or on the need to empower individuals to take control of their lives, many of the teachers in this study agreed that the goal was social change. Their redefinition of teaching pushed them to explore both content and pedagogy that would help them achieve this goal.

How to Teach

The perception of teaching as a means toward the end of significant social change influenced how and what these women taught. As student teachers in college and as they worked in a range of settings after graduation, their choice of content and concepts (when they had a choice) reflected their social and individual concerns. The processes they used to engage students in working with ideas were those that asked students to be active participants in the construction of meaning. Whether they taught elementary school or high school, they focused on helping students take a thoughtful, analytical, and critical perspective.

Often the teachers in this study could not control the content they were given to teach. They explained, however, that they worked with this content in ways that allowed them to meet their goals and challenge their students to think critically. One woman, as a student teacher in a fourth grade classroom, said that she saw herself as an important female role model in her classroom. Given a text that initially struck her as irrelevant for her students, she worked to find ways to use it to challenge her students views of socially constructed gender roles:

And it was so exciting to be with them at that point [in their lives when] they were really excited to start deciding on who they were and the things that were going to be important to them, and looking at role models of people who had done things that they admired. . . . So being with them at this stage when theyre really starting to take off, in my mind, is something I might really want to be a part of. Because I know that the classroom I was in had fifteen boys and ten girls, which set up a real power dynamic in my mind. And I was glad to be there, because I felt like a woman was needed in that classroom. . . . I was like, what value could this book possibly offer these fourth graders? Is there any? And I came to it, and I thought, like its about this girl whos really strong, and its about their strength as females. I was like, well thats important. Thats really important. And especially in this classroom with these ten girls who I think havent made any decisions about where theyre going yet. (19931994)

A beginning high school English teacher with little control over the content she could teach described how she challenged students to critique that content, an analytic process she explained that she learned in college.

I mean, everything we were learning in seminars and classes [was] stuff I wanted to try─and they were my goals. And some of them were really hard within the school district. But I wanted kids to look critically at the materials we gave them and the texts they gave them, and don’t just take them at face value, because the stuff they were reading was abysmal in terms of what, who it represented, what it represented, what kind of knowledge we were giving them. So we did a whole lesson on like analyzing our texts. . . . So I guess one goal would be to look critically at what we were doing. . . . I mean to me, Im more concerned with educational change than I am with teaching itself─but then again, I see them going hand in hand.(1993–1994)

These teachers are quite conscious of the power they wielded in choosing content and providing critical skills and lenses. Many of them chose to use that power to try to make a difference in the lives of their students in a society as a whole:

I really think its important to get students to be critical too of what theyre learning and how theyre learning and whos teaching it. . . . Theres just so much that isnt questioned. I think I was really lucky─I had a lot of teachers who did question it. The first day of my seventh grade Texas history class, the teacher was like, ‘‘We’re not using this book because it’s racist. And you’ll see that.’’ And he made a big point of pointing that out, and that made me really start looking at race relations in this country. And I think thats the power of a teacher. And its a power thats not used enough. (19941995)

As these women challenged the gendered construction of teaching and redefined teaching as a means toward social change, some of them were aware of the fact that their very presence as women teachers might give students a message that they tried to resist in their teaching. They struggled with the contradiction they lived every day:

I guess I wonder what the kids see. I mean, I know I can be a positive role model. But you know theyre also seeing so many women in this field. . . . And I mean, for me, at some levels it doesnt bother me because I know that this is what Ive chosen to do. And I know that no one came out to me and said specifically, This is all that you can do. But you know there are certain levels that are placed on─certain roles in society and usually the teachers have been females. But I guess I don’t like that because, I don’t like that stereotype because you know I don’t like the restrictions, I don’t like people thinking that we are the lesser gender, that we are incapable of certain things, that we dont have a brain, that we dont have feelings. That we have to be placed in this role. For me, this was my choice, but I dont want other young women and girls to feel like they have to fulfill some role thats just placed in front of them or what they think they should be doing because theyre female. And for them I hope that their teacher or their parents or their friends help them develop that stronger mind that I was talking about before that I would hope my [students] have. (20012002)

Some of the women move from a consciousness of the tension between perceived position and goals to action that addresses the tension, again using their own experience of subordination as a starting point for movement toward political and social change (Middleton, 1989; Weiler,1988). By trying to help their students understand redefined roles of teachers and schools, they continue to reach toward their goal of using education to promote critical reflection. They defend their choice to teach by engaging their students in a redefinition of teaching that emphasizes its importance not as a high status profession but as a means of contributing to social change. Several teachers had conversations with their students about their own choice to teach as a way of helping students learn to question the social structures that defined the students values and goals:

And then [my students] started asking me all these questions, and they said, Why are you a teacher? And I said, Well, yeah, I mean I got some recruitment letters from Wall Street firms that probably would have started my pay a lot higher than what Im here for. But you know, thats not my point, thats not what I want to be doing. And they went, Oh my god, you could have been working on Wall Street and getting all worked up about the whole thing. And I said, Well you guys really dont value your education, do you? And I had this whole conversation with them about, you know, that I think that theres a lot of people out there who complain about schools and about public education and how kids dont know enough and all that stuff and I believe thats true and thats why Im here because I want to change some of that. And they all got kind of quiet, and this one kid said to me, Well couldnt you like, be a theorist or something, or you know, work at some office or university or something and make more money? And I said, Yeah, I probably could but I feel that Im more useful here, that Im making more of a difference here. And it was so cute because I mean, they got really quiet. (19931994)

These women, then, have moved from recognizing and responding to the imposition of gendered norms, expectations and constructions to teaching their students to recognize and respond to these same social structures. Their critical assumption of the role of teacher involves a renegotiation of who they are, what it means to be a teacher, and the goals and processes of teaching.


The women in this study describe their experiences of facing and responding to the gendered stereotypes of teaching as low status, intellectually undemanding, low paying, and beneath them as graduates of an elite college.

Despite the pressures from family, teachers, and their own internalized understanding of how success is defined in society, they choose to teach. Their choice is informed by the critical perspectives to which they have been exposed, sometimes before coming to college, but largely through the college experience. It is also a choice informed by class and the ethnic and cultural communities within which they were raised. Despite their understanding of the status of other possible career choices, and their resistance of gendered frameworks of career and success, the women in this study ignored the rhetoric of teacher professionalization that might have provided them with an alternative definition of teaching. Research and practice in school reform, which call for teacher professionalization as a cornerstone of school improvement, serve today as another challenge to the traditional notions of teaching as subordinate, devalued and unprofessional. Professionalization of teaching will, some reformers believe, change societys perceptions of teachers and teachers views of themselves. It also provides teachers with the internal and situational power they need to become actively involved in school change. Given these common goals, however, those who advocate professionalization define the term in different ways, each of which emphasizes different aspects of the teacher role and position within the institution of school. For example, some approaches to teacher professionalism look to more stringent criteria for entry into teaching and retention within the job as a way of strengthening the field (Anderson, 1993). Other definitions of professionalism focus on ensuring that teachers have the professional knowledge required to meet student needs and improve the overall quality of education (Fueyo & Koorland, 1997; Swanson, 1995). In some work, professionalism is tied to teacher effectiveness as measured by how much students learn (Schalock et al., 1998). While these approaches to teacher professionalism all emphasize access and performance, other approaches focus on providing teachers with greater power and agency within a school culture that is collaborative and democratic. This perspective suggests that professional teachers who will be leaders in school change and improvement are those who inquire into their own practice; take responsibility for decision making about curriculum, instruction, and school structure and governance; and have opportunities to collaborate and develop with colleagues (Fueyo & Koorland, 1997; Leonard & Leonard, 1999; Lieberman, 1995).

None of these proposals for the professionalization of teaching acknowledge the role of gender in the position of teaching in todays society. By ignoring the historical and cultural interweaving of gender and teaching, researchers and reformers who focus on teacher professionalism ignore key barriers to─and possibilities for─the reframing of the position and role of teacher in society (Kaufman et al., 1997). The concept of a profession, like the concept of career, has been created by and applies to jobs and career paths that were, from their inception, male dominated. Attempts to professionalize teaching may stumble on the lack of acknowledgment of the role of women in shaping and carrying out their work in schools. Biklen (1995) points out that professionalization may not be what teachers actually want or need to be effective; we may, in fact, need a new construct that redefines what is valued and rewarded.

Many of the women in this study chose to teach because they see education, in particular classroom teaching, as a way of changing society. They are concerned about low pay and status, but rather than responding to existing calls for teacher professionalization, they redefine success and achievement in their own terms. Like women in other studies of career choice (Eccles, 1994; Lackland & De Lisi, 2001; Lent et al., 1994) they focus in part on altruistic and relational values and goals as they choose to teach. Unlike women in other studies, however, they describe themselves as actors in an inequitable society, potential agents of social change. They may, as a result, prefer to see themselves as challengers of the status quo rather than as professionals within the existing social structure.

To practice within their reconstructed definition of teaching, these women pay close attention to the content and processes they use. They want to engage students in the kind of critical thinking that they hope will make a difference to individual students and to the larger society. Are they successful? I have to acknowledge that, at this point, I dont know. These women often teach within institutions and contexts (schools, districts, communities, cities) that do not recognize their goals and efforts. Some describe feeling overwhelmed, some have moved in and out of teaching as they search for ways to be effective. The words and actions of these women, however, begin to provide new portraits of successful women and new constructions of teaching that confront and challenge traditional notions of the woman teacher.

On a practical level, this study has some implications as we consider the education of preservice teachers. In this climate of standardization and regulation, it is easy to lose sight of the developmental process experienced by young people as they explore the possibility of becoming teachers. For many young women, this may involve a complex process of examining themselves, the role of women, the role of teachers, and the place of schools in our society. This study provides us with insight into the kind of teacher preparation program that might help support women in their renegotiations. Such a program would provide students with opportunities for critical examination of the teaching profession; of the position of women in the field of education and the larger society; and of their own personal choices and conflicts as they explore possible roles in the field. We need these reflective practitioners; we need these women to choose to teach. We therefore need to provide them with experiences in which they can examine the issues raised in this study. And then we need to help them create the institutional and social contexts within which they can succeed as critical educators.


1 Very few students enter this college interested in K-12 teaching. Most arrive at the decision to teach after taking the introductory course.

2 See Smulyan (in press) for an initial analysis of the similarities and differences in the perspectives and experiences of those women pursuing medicine and teaching.

3 All of the eleven who entered the field of Education have been in and out of graduate school, 8 of the 11 in Education (the others have done degrees in English, Political Science, and Public Policy). Four are currently still teaching; four others are considering returning to the classroom following their graduate work.

4 In a few cases, I am missing an interview with a particular student in a particular year, usually because she was studying abroad or traveling out of the country during the time of the interviews.

5 Comments about the cost of college and on the possible lack of fulfillment their daughters would find in teaching came from parents in all socioeconomic groups.

6 The course, Introduction to Education, to which these students refer, uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine key issues in American education. The course starts with an exploration of student experience in classrooms, moves into theories of teaching and learning (including Dewey, Skinner, Brunner), examines historical and political roots of American education, and ends with discussion of policy issues and reform (including equal opportunity, standards and assessment, choice, charter schools). Issues of race, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation are explicitly woven through these topics. The course also involves students in weekly fieldwork in a classroom. For a number of students, including those who had not before considered teaching as a profession (or who had rejected it for many of the reasons described in this article), the course places teaching into a larger cultural, political and social context that allows them to see education as both a field of study and an arena for social action.

7 It is interesting to consider, as some have done before (see, e.g. Travers and Sacks, 1989) the role of liberal arts colleges in preparing teachers. It may be that this environment is an important one to examine when looking at effective teacher preparation.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 3, 2004, p. 513-543
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11526, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:31:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Smulyan
    Swarthmore College
    E-mail Author
    LISA SMULYAN is professor of education and chair of the Department of Educational Studies at Swarthmore College where she teaches courses in educational foundations, gender and education, and social and cultural perspectives in education. Her research interests include classroom-based research with teachers, case history as a basis for understanding school practice, and investigations into the role of gender in students’, teachers’, and administrators’ school and work experience. Recent publications include Redefining Self and Success: Becoming Teachers and Doctors, Gender and Education (in publication) and Balancing Acts: Women Principals at Work (2000, SUNY Press).
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