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Good Day, Bad Day: Teaching as a High-Wire Act

reviewed by Karen McCarthy - 2006

coverTitle: Good Day, Bad Day: Teaching as a High-Wire Act
Author(s): Ken Winograd
Publisher: Scarecrow Press, Lanham
ISBN: 1578862442, Pages: 256, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

The most difficult part of beginning teaching may be the feeling of isolation that comes from the relentless demands of lesson planning and classroom management, combined with an intense pressure to appear successful. Good Day, Bad Day: Teaching as a High Wire Act is an honest, unromantic look at the world of a beginning teacher and the realities of teaching in the high-stakes, underfunded world of public education. Ken Winograd attempts to address the experience of new teachers, thereby providing companionship and catharsis to those new to the classroom and exposing others to an underside of teaching.

Good Day, Bad Day documents experienced teacher–educator, former principal and former classroom teacher, Ken Winograd’s temporary return to public school teaching from his current position as an education professor at Oregon State University. After years away from the elementary classroom, Winograd returned during the 1998–1999 school year to teach part time in a nongraded class of first, second, and third graders in a low-income community. Beginning this one-year sabbatical with the goal to create a book about writing across the curriculum, Winograd’s focus quickly changed in response to classroom realities. He became plagued by two guiding questions: “How does order get constructed in the classroom and how does a beginning teacher construct a professional identity?” (p. 269). Good Day, Bad Day: Teaching as a High Wire Act explores these questions in two parts. First, Winograd collects data on his experience via daily journal entries. Second, he creates three case studies (using the journal as data) to examine teacher–student power relations, the functions of teacher emotions, and the changing identities of teachers—all landscapes new teachers are sure to cross.

The majority of the book is Winograd's journal. Recording a complete year of teaching, its entries discuss issues of management, curriculum, and external factors (such as politics, high-stakes testing, and funding) that affect Winograd’s success. His study, though grounded in theory, is a highly subjective experience of teaching. Its strength lies in its honesty—honesty that could be frightening for a preservice teacher. Winograd does not hesitate to inform his readers of the difficulties in the classroom and the toll they take on him physically, emotionally, and psychologically. There are “good days” and “bad days” each with a subsequent reflection. Winograd does much of the work for the reader—interspersing reflection with educational and social theory. Through the journal entries, Winograd works out his problems, reflects, assigns blame, vents emotions, and shares conflicts. Anyone new to teaching will see him- or herself in many of Winograd’s worries and angers; but for Winograd, a veteran teacher and education professional, the experience was highly unnerving. An entry from September 3, 1998, exemplifies his struggle:

When I try stand-up teaching, students don’t listen past my first twenty-second introduction. Side conversations and papers fly across the room. Students intentionally fall out of their seats. As the students get more antsy, I speak faster and sometimes become incoherent. I’m not sure what to say to them when they misbehave. I try different verbal signals: “I’m looking for active listeners. . . . please be quiet. . . . I’ll continue when you are quiet. . . . please be quiet. . . . .”  (p. 4)

It is refreshing to find a voice willing to acknowledge that teaching is not always easy and to concede that teachers are not always masters of their trade. Winograd is shocked by his lack of proficiency, which causes him to reevaluate his teaching identity and fuels his newly emergent case studies, which are largely about management—management of the classroom, his emotions, and his identity.

Part II recycles journal entries into data for deeper refection, producing case studies that explore aspects of teaching seldom discussed with beginning teachers. The first examines teacher–student power relations. This study, which is part theoretical and sociological examination and part confession, discusses factors that influence power dynamics in the classroom and concludes that all classrooms work on levels of negotiation. Using his journal entries Winograd illustrates various aspects of student–teacher negotiation, showing a changing dynamic of power. He argues that it is foolish to believe in a Pollyanna world of teaching where all student and teacher goals are the same, and he contends that there are multiple factors (beyond curricular interest) that create student engagement.

The second case study investigates the role of teacher emotions in the classroom. Winograd first lays out a conceptual framework for understanding emotions. He then argues that teachers work under “feeling rules,” which state “teachers generally are supposed to enjoy children, enjoy their work, maintain a patient and kind front, become angry with children infrequently, and so on” (p. 205). Winograd argues that few teachers completely subscribe to these rules and the subsequent emotions they feel may become functional or dysfunctional. He uses data from his journal to categorize and understand the purpose and value of his emotional responses in the classroom. Winograd describes teaching as “a profoundly, all encompassing, emotional endeavor” (p. 199), noticing when functional emotions would “alert him to problems in his work” (p. 199), and exploring when his emotions were dysfunctional, focusing on blame and doubt, which he found inherent in the job. He believes that the common self-accusatory stance of teachers diverts them from looking beyond themselves and may prevent them from creating political change.

The third study concerns itself with teacher identity and the situations that construct it. As a former teacher and education scholar, Winograd felt intense pressure to be successful immediately, “My struggle as a teacher was to reconcile the tension in the boundary between my self-conception as a teacher and the material reality of the teaching situation” (p. 234). He discusses the blend of background and circumstance that comprised his shifting identities in the classroom. The bulk of this case study documents the many ways he handled the struggle with his identity, including blame, changing his beliefs, problem solving, managing impressions, and finding reference groups. He uses the metaphor of the tightrope walker to explain the shifting and precarious nature of teacher identity arguing that new teachers must be flexible and that this should be made explicit to a beginning teacher.

Much of this book is about coping with failures in the classroom, coping with the emotional nature of the work, and coping when ideals clash with reality. For anyone who wonders how a beginning teacher manages such challenges, Winograd gives us his journal. It is a testament to the rigor and resilience that are found within the first years of teaching. Alhough emotions are studied deeply, perhaps the most important emotion is the one Winograd concludes on—hope. The concluding chapter examines hope as a motivation that is central to teachers’ beliefs about their work. Unfortunately, Winograd’s troubled journal does not provide many stories of hope. Although experienced teachers will realize that the insecurity Winograd documents does alleviate itself with experience, those whose job it is to prepare and sustain new teachers would do well to remind themselves of the intense struggles new teachers will face, especially in high-poverty schools filled with high-need students.

The general message of Good Day, Bad Day is that teachers should be prepared in a way that acknowledges the multifaceted experience of teaching—experiences that are emotional, messy, and undermine established self-concepts of identity. Through the journal we see the various ways in which Winograd attempts to make sense of his situation. He is a stellar model of self-reflection, yet is stymied at every turn by disruptive students, little knowledge of special needs, and feelings of self-doubt and embarrassment. Winograd’s reflections, though interspersed with theory and references, aren’t weighed down by jargon, making this a very readable companion for a new teacher. Good Day, Bad Day’s downfall lies in the sheer volume of entries and reflections, which seem to repeat the same struggles continually. Journal entries are cross-referenced and requoted once again for each of the three case studies. It seems Winograd could have created the same effect with less, and possibly avoid the loss of reader interest.

Winograd reminds us, “to understand the imperfection that is inherent in teaching: there will always be a gap between the teacher’s intentions and the outcome of her work. Our goal as teachers is to effect some intellectual, social, or emotional growth or change in the students” (p. xii). The book is a dark reflection of the troubles new teachers face in the high-stakes, underfunded world of public education. Although Winograd titles his last chapter “Concluding on an Optimistic Note,” there is little optimism here. To those new to teaching the first year can be a very isolating adventure. Winograd exposes himself to his readers—all the insecurity and failure, the self-doubt and small successes that we stow away. He contributes to the field an understanding of the multiple experiences and dimensions of new teachers. More than a companion for new teachers, Good Day, Bad Day is also a book for those who want to improve the climate of the classroom and prevent the growing problem of teacher attrition.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1702-1705
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12220, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 10:06:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Karen McCarthy
    Boston Public Schools
    E-mail Author
    KAREN MCCARTHY is a high school English teacher and special educator in the city of Boston. She has worked with middle school children on Martha’s Vineyard, taught math and reading to underprivileged children in Guatemala, and has written for Let’s Go Travel Guide in Spain and Portugal. After extensive travel, Karen earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and entered the classroom. She presents at professional development conferences throughout Boston, currently holds a position as a teacher–leader in her school, and is recognized by Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Her professional interests include urban education, the achievement gap, brain-based learning, literacy, and gender studies.
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