The Work and Lives of Teachers: A Global Perspective

reviewed by Katrina Liu - October 02, 2017

coverTitle: The Work and Lives of Teachers: A Global Perspective
Author(s): Rosetta Marantz Cohen
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1316501639, Pages: 241, Year: 2016
Search for book at

In this age of the global assault on public education, placing the experiences and voices of real teachers at the center of discussion is a necessary move to counter the neoliberal standard under which privatization, if not downright privation, marches. The work and lives of teachers: A global perspective by Rosetta Marantz Cohen could not have come at a better time. Working with seven high school teachers in seven countries and regions, all selected because of their role in the PISA testing system, Marantz Cohen creates “ethnographic portraits” to understand the status of teachers within very different educational systems by “documenting [their] work through the eyes and words of individual practitioners” (p. 2).


Structured as a series of short chapters, The works and lives of teachers presents each teacher on their own before providing a short comparative discussion in Chapter Eight. Each chapter is titled with the country the teacher lives and works in, followed by a pithy summation such as “Finland: Autonomy and Respect,” “Taiwan: Tradition and Change,” and “France: Defending Rigor.” The book ends with eight short self-histories written by teachers from other countries not represented in the major chapters, presented without comment or analysis from the author.


The result is a breezy, journalistic series of interviews and observations written in an engaging manner that presents vivid portraits of the seven teachers and their colleagues. Drawing upon the lived experiences and words of the teachers, Marantz Cohen gives the reader deeply personal views of very different educational systems, some of which (like Finland and Taiwan) have been repeatedly used as points of comparison in the polemics over school reform in the United States, while others, such as Azerbaijan and Chile, have been notably absent. This is a refreshing approach that gives life to what is too often a numbers-driven analysis and discussion, and one which needs to be pursued more often in international and comparative studies of teaching and teachers.


At the same time, Marantz Cohen’s choice to take a less formal route and minimize engagement with other scholars, which is visible immediately in the relative thinness of the endnotes and absence of a bibliography, raises several problems that recur in the book from beginning to end. One problem is the oversimplification of the theoretical and methodological context within which she claims to work, both in terms of data collection and analysis. Clifford Geertz did not develop “thick description” by thinking of ethnography as an art form as Marantz Cohen suggests; rather, it grew out of an earlier approach based in the deep structure / surface structure ideas of structural linguistics. Although in works such as The interpretation of cultures (Geertz, 1973) Geertz and later scholars, notably Marcus and Fisher (1986) and Clifford and Marcus (1986) spoke of ethnography as a form of literature, they were focused on the writing practice called ethnography, not the social science data collection method also known as ethnography. These are important distinctions that need to be acknowledged when making claims for a relatively novel methodology such as ethnographic portraiture.


A second problem growing from the lack of engagement with other scholars is that Marantz Cohen seems unaware of serious blank spots in the histories and cultures of the countries she represents through these teachers. For example, in her chapter on Taiwan, she repeatedly used the word kanji to refer to Chinese characters. This is a Japanese word; the Chinese (Mandarin) word is hanzi. This seemingly small point is actually rather troubling: Is the author unaware that the word is Japanese, not Chinese? Or did her Taiwanese participant use the Japanese word instead of the Chinese word? If the former, this is a very basic misunderstanding of East Asia that calls into question other, more complex conclusions she draws from her time in Taiwan. If the latter, then given the complex history Taiwan has had with both Mainland China and Japan, this slippage by her participant demands further examination. Given the odd formulations of Taiwan’s history in the summary chapter on The Teacher in Comparative Perspective, including phrases such as “From China, under whose rule Taiwan lived since the late seventeenth century…” (p. 176) it is clear, at any rate, that depth of historical context was not a priority.


Finally, there are curious failures to deal analytically with contradictions between what Marantz Cohen’s primary participants say, what the descriptions of the educational situations indicate, and what the colleagues of her participants say. This is clear from the beginning with the chapter on Finland, in which the difference in perspectives between Anukka, a relatively new teacher, and the more senior Kari and Tuija, are immediately striking—Anukka full of praise for the Finnish system, Kari and Tuija full of complaints—but it runs right through to the final chapter on the United States. How do the different experiences of these teachers contribute to their different perspectives? What role might culture play here? One wonders if more prolonged fieldwork would have enabled Marantz Cohen to identify and address these intriguing questions; there is no clear statement of the length of her fieldwork, but the chapter on Greece is subtitled “A Week of Austerity.” However, the same problem arises in the discussion of the U.S. teacher, which the author has spent her entire career studying. For example, in the chapter titled “United States: Diversity and Leadership,” primary participant Bonnie (a young teacher) debates the practice of ability grouping with Sam, a veteran teacher. The debate, which is framed in terms of equity versus rigor, is central to race in American society, but race per se is never mentioned, and the debate is dropped as quickly as it arises, with Bonnie having the last word: “I’m optimistic, in general” (p. 161). This treatment of race is all too emblematic of white America inside and outside the schools (Haviland, 2008); it should not stand without comment.


In summary, with The Works and Lives of Teachers, Marantz Cohen has given us short, readable portraits of teachers in seven countries and regions, with enough context and dialogue to raise many important questions about the status of teachers and education worldwide. The problems raised above do not make the book any less valuable when used in an appropriate context. For example, as a text in a course on teacher education in comparative perspective, the chapters in this book would be excellent jumping-off points for deeper reading. The contradictions between the worldviews of her participants and those of their colleagues and how culture plays a role in those contradictions, in particular, are fertile ground for discussion, and may well lead to further research.


Clifford, J., & Marcus, G.E. (Eds.) (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Haviland, V.S. (2008). “Things get glossed over”: Rearticulating the silencing power of whiteness in education. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(1), 40–54.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Marantz Cohen, R. (1988). After 35 years: Ethnographic portraits of three veteran teachers. New York, NY: Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Marcus, G.E., & Fisher, M.M.J. (1986). Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 02, 2017 ID Number: 22177, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 11:38:45 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review