Teachers and Mothers: Facing New Beginnings

by Karen Kepler Zumwalt - 1984

New mothers and beginning teachers face many of the same types of feelings and experiences as they learn to cope with their new roles. Implications for changing the conditions of support for new teachers and suggestions for involving more individuals in teaching are offered. (Source: ERIC)

Beginning . . . is a great moment in a person’s life. It is a time of high expectations, special joys and, often, punishing difficulties.1

Memories of [one’s] own experiences—both good and bad—help to create a sense of familiarity and idealized visions.2

You’re happy and excited . . . but you wonder whether you are going to know how to do a good job.3

It is easy to spend most of [one’s] time and energy taking care of others’ needs all day. . . . What is left is not much of you—not one who can really enrich the lives of the people you love.4

Experiences of new teachers and new mothers evoke many similar feelings—so similar that some descriptions of the experience seem almost interchangeable. The above quotations—the first two on teaching, the last two on mothering—could be describing either experience.

Because I am a teacher educator recently inducted into motherhood, the striking similarities as well as the differences between these two beginnings have reinforced my sense that we could do a better job of inducting teachers into our profession. Doing a better job of this seems critical at this point when teaching is having difficulty attracting the most able college graduates; reports of burned-out, demoralized teachers flood the public press; and experienced teachers are leaving (or say they wish they could leave) the profession for easier, more lucrative, higher-status careers. Although there are definitely compelling external factors contributing to the situation, as a profession generally committed to a “trial by fire” induction for neophytes, we have not really paid enough attention to these crucial early years, which leave a mark on one’s teaching and on one’s commitment to the profession. As a recent request for proposals from the National Institute of Education asserts:

The conditions under which a person carries out the first year of teaching have a strong influence on the level of effectiveness which that teacher is able to achieve and sustain over the years; on the attitudes which govern teacher behavior over even a forty year career; and, indeed, on the decision whether or not to continue in the teaching profession.5

The first section of this article focuses on the similarities faced by beginning mothers and teachers as they cope with new experiences and feelings. Highlighting the commonalities provides a vivid picture for new teachers and for colleagues long past their own induction. We then turn to the differences in the “induction process” highlighted by comparing new teachers and new mothers. In the last section, these similarities and differences are explored for the implications they suggest for the induction of teachers. In some cases, the differences suggest changes to make beginning teaching more like beginning motherhood, and, in some cases, the differences suggest unique features of beginning teaching that deserve special attention.


Watching and helping the next generation grow and develop provides involved adults with a natural high—and an incredible learning opportunity. It is a time of learning about yourself, testing your competencies and values, and deepening your understanding of the human experience.

But such learning is not always exciting or easy. Child-care books speak about “postpartum blues” and teacher educators refer to the “curve of disenchantment.“6 New beginnings generate new joys and “constant, unremitting self-confrontation.“7 Between swings of self-assuredness and overconfidence and self-doubts and fear of failure, the newly initiated has to come to grips with her identity as a teacher or as a mother. Adjusting to a new role involves reshaping present roles and guarding against the new demands overshadowing other aspects of personal identity. Given the demands on their time and energy, it is easy for the new mother or new teacher to gravitate toward meeting personal needs through the new baby or the students. In both cases, there is a danger of “needless self-sacrifice and excessive preoccupation.“8 Restructuring one’s identity in a healthy manner is one of the personal challenges of the first years.

Labor Day heralds the beginning of the separation of romance from reality. The new teacher and new mother begin actively redefining the ideal in light of the real. The trick is to grow more realistic without losing your enjoyment and positive orientation. A more pragmatic form of idealism rather than a mere survival attitude will develop, it is hoped, as the new teacher and new mother discover that “it’s not as easy as it looks.”

Having many years of experience as children and as students, new mothers and new teachers think they have a pretty good idea of what the new job entails. But being on the other side of the desk or highchair, the familiar unexpectedly becomes foreign. Slowly your body adjusts to the physical and emotional exhaustion that at first seems overwhelming. Sleeping when the baby naps and the “afterschool/before dinner” collapse complement a new adherence to Ben Franklin’s “Early to bed, early to rise.” You learn that the excitement of teaching and mothering brings with it an acceptance of much that is sheer drudgery—mounds of paperwork and procedural details, dirty clothes and diapers, which seem to be perpetually regenerated. Being responsible for the development of others, you learn to accept the fact that the job is never done—you could always have prepared more for class or done more with your child. You learn to structure life around bells and grading periods, feedings and naps. Many of your responses are on other people’s schedules rather than self-determined. There is no time for mothers and teachers to get sick, even though they tend to get sick more often during their first year with children. Unexpected events—an infant’s first sudden 104o fever or an unplanned observation from the principal at the “worst time”—demand a good dose of flexibility and calmness in a world that is not as controllable or predictable as the one experienced in pre-mother or pre-teacher days. You have to learn to accept the good days and bad days, the ups and downs that seem inevitable during the induction process. You learn to take pride in small accomplishments—a smashing lesson, one more hour of sleep at night—and continue onward despite never being really sure of your impact. You learn that a teacher is not a friend, nor a parent a pal, as you struggle with being an authority figure and being liked by your charges.

Perhaps the biggest shock in coping with reality comes with the realization that perfection is an impossibility-that your images of what teachers/mothers should and should not do and what babies/students should and should not do need to be tempered by the realities, the complexities and constraints, of everyday life. Mistakes are inevitable, and something to, learn from rather than indicators of failure. It is hard to maintain “consistency” and everything seems to take much longer than you ever expected. And despite your prior convictions, you learn that there are few “nevers” in teaching and in mothering. The once-derided pacifier or playpen, behavior-modification technique or multiplication drill, is quickly placed in a more acceptable context. While you learn to accept the fact that “less than ideal” practices of mothers and teachers from your own past will become part of your present practices, you also develop your own characteristic ways of dealing with the new role, ways that do reflect some of your earlier images of teachers and mothers that are “more ideal” than the ones you experienced.

In juggling dreams with reality, you inevitably make some compromises; you revise some commitments and fight for others. Regardless of preparation, struggling and coping is the norm—something that is a desirable stance of a growing adult rather than a sign of personal failure or an indication of inadequate preparation. The new teacher and the new mother are constantly experimenting—with different management techniques and instructional strategies, with different approaches to feeding and sleeping. One hopes that most of the experimentation is more rational than frantic, yet sometimes out of desperation comes something that “works.”

Deciding on and balancing priorities is a major task facing the new mother and the new teacher. There are so many choices available as you decide how to approach each week. You just cannot do everything you want or think others want. Swamped with papers to grade, you learn to assign fewer or give detailed comments only on selected ones. Swamped with child-care choices, you learn that the daily bath or walk is not sacred. For both the new mother and the new teacher, planning, organizing, and managing time become critical skills to prevent the job from becoming overwhelming, to prevent survival from becoming the only goal.

In coping with new demands, the new mother and the new teacher are faced with much advice but “little of it offers her support for her own individual reactions and intuitions.“9 Such counsel tells her how to be perfect, it is often contradictory, and it leaves her confused and guilty when she cannot follow it. In the extreme, knowing too much can lead to “analysis paralysis”10 or a sense of failure as the neophyte tries to duplicate the master instantaneously. A noted pediatrician comments that “in spite of this avalanche of advice, of ‘sure ways’ to mother a child, a new mother must realize that no one of them is the only answer. She must find her own way as a mother with her own special baby.“11 Likewise, a noted educator concludes:

We might as well face the likelihood that teaching may not consist of standard best ways to do particular things. Being a good teacher, like being a good statesman or a good mother, may involve infinite possible human excellences and appropriate behaviors, no one much more a guarantor of success than the others.12

One needs to come to terms with the fact that there is no one right way in teaching or in mothering, that the right way evolves as one applies a good dose of personality, intuition, common sense, past experience, and values along with the accumulated knowledge and skill offered by professionals.

Besides putting professional advice in context, you also learn to deal with the well-intentioned, often conflicting and sometimes hurtful advice of relatives, parents, friends, and colleagues. And despite disagreements, you learn to exploit the experiences of other mothers and teachers in acquiring those important tricks of the trade- how to get gum out of hair, how to get the most out of consumable workbooks.

Learning how to utilize expert and “not so expert” knowledge is critical because one’s preparation prior to actually taking on the new role can never be adequate. Not only would it be impossible to prepare totally for the myriad of new situations, but advice and knowledge take on a new meaning when one is actually confronting the phenomenon—being a teacher, being a mother.

While there is much truth in the common belief that one “learns to be a teacher (mother) by being a teacher (mother),” and that one learns from how one was handled as a child by mother and teacher, the preparation provided in student teaching programs, childbirth classes, magazines, books, and just talking with experienced practitioners and parents helps the neophyte to cope better with the new demands, helps eliminate some trial-and-error stumblings, counteracts the potential for misleading and miseducative lessons from experience, and helps one more efficiently and effectively meet personal and professional goals.

As mothering and teaching evolve, that which is learned from reflective experience reinforces the advice from professionals and shares some striking similarities. For example:

—You learn to establish and reinforce rules and routines, which requires clarifying your expectations and priorities. You learn how to say no, while stressing the positive and possible. And you learn how difficult it is to change patterns once they are set—asserting yourself and dealing with initial crying and complaints is far preferable to becoming a long-term nag about behavior patterns that should never have been allowed to become established in the first place.

—In matters of management, you learn, as Dr. Spock suggests, that “a strictness that comes from harsh feelings or a permissiveness that is timid or vacillating can each lead to poor results.“13 Moderation combined with a preventative rather than punitive approach seems to work best. You also acquire eyes in the back of your head, extra antennae, the ability to read subtle messages, and a repertoire of nonverbal desists and encouragements. You learn how to handle tantrums and being tested in a world that is considerably more out of your control than that previously experienced. And you learn the importance of not taking things too personally but also expressing anger when appropriate.

—You learn to deal with constant interruptions and juggling several balls at once. You learn when to intervene and when not to intervene and how to take advantage of “teachable moments.” You learn how to separate the important from the trivial, to respond or not to respond. And you learn the importance of pacing, the timing of motivation, redirection, and variation. Getting your charges to help takes direction, patience, and some lessons from Tom Sawyer. And you learn to delegate to husband and assistants, to baby-sitters and substitutes.

—You learn to deal with several dilemmas concerning your goals. For example, the more you encourage a child to explore, be independent, be creative, to write and do science projects, the more work you make for yourself. Allowing children to “mess about” with materials or ideas and letting them try things you can do better demands compromises with orderliness, schedules, efficiency, and control.

—You also begin to see elements of the environment in a new light—the often-passed playground, the previously discarded margarine tubs, the taken-for-granted community services all become valuable resources. You become a hoarder of potentially useful material (e.g., catalogs, toilet paper rolls) and ideas (e.g., socks that stay on, nontoxic washable markers, good spontaneous activities). You learn your way around forgotten closets and storage rooms, around toy stores and new sections of department stores. And you are introduced to another world-a world where birds are huge and grouches live in garbage pails; a world where mention of “baseball” sends a class of twelve-year-olds into uncontrollable laughter. While parts of this world are new, other parts are wonderfully familiar reminders of worlds left behind years ago.

Entering the world of teaching and that of mothering also involves coming to terms with the conditions of the work place and the public image of the mother and the teacher. Literature on teaching and child care speaks about the physical isolation of mothering/teaching, which can lead to social isolation.14 Being underpaid and having little contact with other adults, mothers and teachers seek their rewards from themselves and their child/children. Without a doubt these intrinsic rewards can be incredibly satisfying. Yet it can be demoralizing “to realize how little the world values a mother’s job”15 or in Lortie’s words how the “real regard” for teachers never matches the “professed regard.“16 The messages are conflicting, however.17 Although the work is not held important, if anything goes wrong, it is the fault of the teacher or mother. This responsibility can generate guilt and frustration as well as be a source of satisfaction and pride. The incongruities between societal importance and status ascribed to mothering and teaching are dilemmas faced by the neophyte at a time when the job seems much more demanding than the beginner ever realized and certainly more demanding than others imagine. Coping with the “just a teacher”/“just a mother” response of others is not easy at a time when friends in nine-to-five jobs and friends without children seem to have it much easier. It is easy to become envious of their free evenings and weekends, their more carefree life-style and their greater financial freedom. For new teachers and mothers, coming to terms with one’s status demands a recommitment to one’s choice and a confidence in one’s ability to do a good job and to grow personally and professionally in a socially valuable, but undervalued, role.


In many ways the differences between new teachers and new mothers suggest that new teachers have a more complex task facing them than do new mothers. Although there are also unique tasks facing new mothers, I will focus on unique difficulties facing beginning teachers in light of my desire to draw implications for the induction of new teachers.

As “Labor Day” draws to a close, a long-anticipated event brings immediate change in the lives of new mothers and teachers. Although the experience is still tiring and awesome, nature has eased the transition for the new mother by simplifying her immediate tasks. Sleeping and eating are the primary preoccupations of her new little one. Her initial focus revolves around fulfilling the baby’s basic needs for sleep, drink, cleanliness, warmth, and love. Slowly, as the baby develops, the complexity of the new mother’s task increases. In contrast, most new teachers are asked to assume all the responsibilities of experienced teachers from the first day of employment. It is not only that the concrete tasks required of new teachers and experienced teachers are indistinguishable, but that the dilemmas of teaching confront the neophyte from the start. New mothers have eighteen months before facing the challenging dilemmas of the “terrible twos”; new teachers face their equivalent almost immediately. New teachers are asked to adjust to their roles in full-blown fashion while nature has provided a more gradual unfolding for the new mother, which matches the growth of her newborn.

Another difference between the experiences of new mothers and new teachers is related to the baby’s continuing growth, which confronts the new mother with a gradually changing set of demands and the comforting knowledge that difficult periods in development (e.g., sleepless nights, early evening fuzziness) will soon pass. It almost seems that once a feeding schedule or set of diversionary techniques becomes comfortable, the developing infant and the evolving new demands force the mother to adjust once again. The forced changes in patterned ways of interacting facing the new mother (e.g., coping with the newly mobile infant) almost preclude the stagnation that often follows when the new teacher finds something that works. Much of the literature on teacher induction speaks about the teacher’s adopting expedient survival mechanisms that become stultifying permanent teaching strategies. As McDonald argues:

The beginning teacher focuses on what is necessary to “get the job done”—manage the class, prepare lessons, grade papers, teach each lesson. Effectiveness means doing these things reasonably well, without getting into trouble; it means being accepted, even liked by the students. The teaching practices which seem to produce these ends merge into a style, which—whatever its other merits—works for the beginner. This is his style, and he will rationalize it and ignore its limitations.18

Given the immediate assumption of full-blown responsibility, which encourages a survival style, and the fact that the teacher sees only a slice of the developmental life of a child (often making difficult times seem permanent and eliminating the need for continual changes), it is not surprising that “stagnation” is a concept often found in the literature on teacher development.19

Some have said that a mother of a twenty-year-old has had twenty different years of experience while a teacher with twenty years experience has had one year twenty times.20 While definitely an exaggeration, it does remind us that it takes much more effort to keep the new teacher growing—an effort that must occur during the induction years because it is less likely to happen later.

In addition, the new mother may be in a safer environment for nonevaluative problem solving, analysis, and reflection—necessary ingredients for growth. Most new mothers are not fearful about asking for help: such a request does not reflect negatively on their basic competency nor does it have anything to do with whether they will be rehired! Asking advice of a pediatrician does not carry the imagined (and sometimes real) consequences of asking help from a principal. Their differential power over the advice seeker affects the way their knowledge and skills are utilized.

The structure of interaction also accentuates this difference. While in the hospital, the new mother talks with her pediatrician daily. The checkup visits are scheduled at regular intervals, and other visits are scheduled as problems arise. In contrast, most new teachers after their interview and orientation meetings have one-on-one conversations with their principal only when the one or two formal evaluative visits are scheduled or when problems arise. As Feiman-Nemser comments, “Under such circumstances, it is hard to separate judgments of competence from discussions of practice.”21

Support from others also differs for new mother and new teacher. For nine months, the mother-to-be is the center of much attention. Few question her choice, most share her joy and excitement. The arrival of motherhood is cause for celebration. In contrast, the teacher-to-be faces the questioning doubts of relatives, friends, and self about this choice of profession. The arrival of teacherhood is not cause for celebration, but rather a “nonevent” for almost everyone but the new teacher. Mostly the new teacher is ignored by peers22 and subjected to their “burned-out” commentary in the teacher lounge. The missing “new father” counterpart heightens the isolation of the new teacher.

Colleagues and other mothers can be sources of both support and competition for the neophyte. Brazelton speaks about

the subtle ways American mothers compete with each other. Each is ready to help another feel inadequate as a mother, to see her baby’s behavior as inadequate. . . . The speed with which each child takes steps to grow up seems to be equated with success in mothering.23

While there is definitely a competitive flavor to some mother-to-mother interaction, there is also much sharing of ideas, tricks, problems, outgrown clothes, and equipment. Unfortunately, “many new teachers feel cut off and isolated from those people who could help them the most: experienced teachers.”24 The corresponding lack of sharing among teachers may relate to the fact that teachers, unlike mothers, do not often get to view each other “in action,” that time for informal interchanges is limited, and that the natural personal competition is augmented by public competition—teachers are constantly being judged and compared by administrators, colleagues, parents, and students. And these comparisons and judgments, unlike those of mothers in the playground—which can be just as hurtful—can have consequences in terms of employment.

The tasks involved in the job that is being judged are also quite different. Teaching, unlike mothering, is concurrently:

management of individual learning;

coordination of several groups working on different tasks;

the social organization of the classroom as a collective enterprise;

planning and implementation of curriculum as the allocation of time and resources to activities;

the struggle for power with administrators, students and community members over the control of classroom activities and emphases.25

Held particularly accountable for specific cognitive and affective outcomes, teachers are responsible for designing and implementing an appropriate curriculum. In providing effective learning environments, the teacher, unlike the mother, faces a variety of content decisions:

1. How much time will be devoted to a subject (e.g., economics) or goal (e.g., social problem-solving).

2. How different subjects/goals will be related.

3. What topics/objectives will be taught.

4. To whom the topics/objectives will be taught.

5. When and how long each topic/objective will be taught.

6. In what order and how each topic/objective will be taught.

7. How well the topics/objectives are to be learned.26

The “answers” are neither found in textbooks nor immutable once discovered. The teacher’s continuing dilemma is to find a balance between such factors as:

high and moderate success rate

whole class, small group, individual instruction

time allocated to different subject matter goals

cognitive and affective concerns

coverage and mastery

teacher decisions, joint decisions, child decisions

absolute attention and realistic inattention

standardized criteria of evaluation and idiosyncratic criteria

needs of individuals v. needs of group

needs of teacher v. needs of students

maximizing v. minimizing individual differences.27

While the desirable outcomes may be equally clear to the new mother and the new teacher, the goals are more diffuse and limitless for the new mother.28 The kinds of specific outcomes the new teacher is asked to achieve within the first ten months on the job for 20 to 240 different learners place very concrete demands on the new teacher for which she is to be held accountable. Unfortunately, progress is often not as visible as it is to the new mother, who is watching the most rapid period of human growth. The new teacher wonders whether her students are really learning as fast and as well as they should be.

As Lortie describes it, evaluating progress produces a

torrent of feeling and frustration: one finds self-blame, a sense of inadequacy, the bitter taste of failure, anger at the students, despair and other dark emotions. The freedom to assess one’s own work is no occasion for joy, the conscience remains unsatisfied as ambiguity, uncertainty, and little apparent change impede the flow of reassurance. Teaching demands, it seems, the capacity to work for protracted periods without sure knowledge that one is having any positive effect on students. Some find it difficult to maintain their self-esteem.29

Unlike the new mother, who literally just has to watch rather than directly orchestrate much of the learning process, new teachers know that students’ progress is largely dependent on their efforts.

Although the teacher does not have the twenty-four-hour, twenty-one-year responsibility of the new mother, having to focus on the development and education of more than one child at a time definitely affects the character and complexity of the tasks involved. While both new mother and new teacher must maintain control, order priorities and activities, and arouse and sustain the child’s interest,30 the new teacher must accomplish all of these tasks within a group context. Not only does the group context complicate the actual tasks involved, but it may also be the source of problems for the child-oriented new teacher.

Even though mothering and teaching generate similar feelings, the roles demand different responses because of the teachers’ responsibility to a group of students rather than to an individual child. As Katz has outlined it, mothers respond with high affect, high attachment, irrationality, spontaneity, and partiality. In contrast, new teachers, who typically have entered teaching because of their enjoyment of children, are now asked to demonstrate low affect, detachment, rationality, intentionality, and impartiality as they manage and instruct a group of children.31 New mothers can play out all their feelings as a child’s primary advocate, while new teachers, to survive, must contain some of their very natural impulses when interacting with a class of children.

Besides adapting to the particular group of learners with their varied learning rates, knowledge, experience, and different ethnic, racial, cultural, and social backgrounds, the new teacher is also faced with adjusting to the social system of the school.32 This adjustment involves not only coping with a myriad of administrative policies and procedures, but also figuring out and appropriately responding to the values, norms, and politics of the adult school community. While the social systems in which the new mother exists are basically familiar (i.e., family, neighborhood) or may be ignored (i.e., mothers at the playground), the new teacher’s very livelihood is dependent on coping not only in her classroom, but also in the larger context of the school’s social system. Although interacting primarily with youngsters, the new teacher is very much enmeshed in a new, oftentimes not very friendly or open, adult world.

Outside the school, the new teacher often is faced with the demands of beginning adulthood as well—a first apartment, a new marriage, a new community, a first car. Being on one’s own for the first time involves all kinds of nonteaching adjustments, which for many new graduates are taking place simultaneously with assuming the role of teacher. As women are delaying motherhood, more new mothers are lessening the effects of simultaneous adjustment to adulthood and marriage. But for most new teachers, having just completed teacher education programs, teaching is their entry to adulthood.

Besides the logistics of living one often has to cope with the fact that “being on one’s own” is not what one expected. Added to these potential emotional strains is the fact that

for some, the setbacks experienced in teaching are the first serious ones of their lives. They expected teaching to be satisfying, yet it does not seem to be. They had all sorts of expectations and plans but few of them are working out.33

Obviously, the new teacher does have an option that the new mother does not have—that is, the option of leaving. Hence, an additional agenda faces the new teacher. Did I make the right decision? Is teaching for me? For how long? Is the problem this particular job? Or are there other things I would prefer to be doing? The new mother may question her decision, but most realize that their choice is not retractable. While the new mother is faced with the finality of her choice, the new teacher is faced with continually reassessing her choice. In exchange for freedom comes the burden of choice.


Exploring similarities and differences in the experiences of beginning mothers and beginning teachers provokes many thoughts about the induction of new teachers. Besides increasing awareness of the first-year experience, it also illustrates the appropriateness of a particular conception of teaching and teacher education, and suggests certain changes in school culture to support learning from teaching and changes in society to support teachers.

The discussion of similarities and differences highlights for the new teacher some important aspects of the first-year experience for which one is rarely adequately prepared. Awareness of anticipated experiences cannot take the place of actually experiencing, but it should help the new teacher face the struggles of the first year more realistically. For instance, to understand that coping, struggling, and experimenting are the norm—something that is a desirable stance of a growing adult rather than a sign of personal failure or an indication of inadequate preparation—might provide a different perspective for the first-year teacher. The numerous comparisons cited in the first two sections not only provide the beginning teacher with a more realistic perspective, but serve to remind teacher educators, staff developers, administrators, and colleagues—most of whose first-year memories have been reshaped by years of experience—about the particular needs, interests, and concerns of the beginning teacher.

The similarities between beginning mothering and teaching illustrate dramatically that teaching is more than a repertoire of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that the teacher brings to bear in an effort to create certain changes in learners. This technological view of teaching, underlying many competency-based teacher education programs, fails to capture the educational dynamics and demands that face the new teacher. A more inclusive view sees teaching, like mothering, as a dynamic, deliberative process. Teaching entails applying the basic tools of the trade—one’s experience, intuition, and understanding of particular learners, context, and subject matter—in what is essentially a fast-paced, continuous, complex, problem-solving, and decision-making process.34 Some of these decisions, representing Schön’s “knowing-in-action,” appear spontaneous. Other, more conscious decisions involve “reflecting-inaction” and “reflecting-on-action” by the thoughtful practitioner.35 The similarities between beginning teaching and beginning mothering accentuate the value of a deliberative rather than a technological orientation toward teaching. Teaching and mothering involve much more than “application of scientific theory and technique to instrumental problems of practice.“36

But exploration of the differences between mothering and teaching also provides insight for those working with beginning teachers. The analogy highlights the additional pedagogical knowledge needed by the beginning teacher, the importance of providing teachers with the same impetus toward growth forced on mothers by the changing child, the needed changes in the school culture that would support the learning teacher and more profound changes in the way society views teachers.

Given the different roles mothers and teachers are expected to perform, the challenging demands of their jobs should evoke qualitatively different responses. But the similarities—the isolation, the constant need for experimenting, the multiple choices and decisions, the physical exhaustion, the rewards from interacting with children—have a tendency to evoke similar responses. As McDonald has said, “In the aloneness—of personal struggle—evolves an individualistic, self-sufficient approach to teaching.“37 Lortie talks about what teachers learn about teaching as being “‘intuitive and imitative’ rather than ‘explicit’ and ‘analytical’; it is based on individual personalities rather than pedagogical principles.“38 “Socialization into teaching is largely self-socialization; one’s personal predispositions are not only relevant but, in fact, stand at the core of becoming a teacher.“39

While such an orientation is likely to persist and in itself may be one of the main attractions of teaching, there is a danger of “excessive realism” —the danger of accepting the kind of teaching that one has observed as the “upper and outer limits of the possible.“40 In making one’s decisions—consciously and unconsciously—one may be trapped by habit and tradition. The teacher with knowledge is more truly free to choose.41 To make intelligent decisions about the dilemmas facing the teacher charged with the education of twenty-five to thirty-five children (e.g., whole group versus small group versus individual instruction, cognitive versus affective goals), one needs more than accumulated experience, intuition, and personal values. One also needs to rely on “accumulated knowledge of how children develop and learn, and what is appropriate pedagogy for children of a given age range and experiential background.“42 There are curricular, instructional, organizational, and management skills that facilitate the task of teaching groups of children within a given period of time with limited resources in a particular social context. Given the specific role and social responsibilities expected of a new teacher in contrast with those of a new mother, it is clear that knowledge—let’s call it pedagogical knowledge—plays a more critical role for the beginning teacher than for the beginning mother. Relying on parents’ natural self-interest to curb extremes, society can more afford “individualistic, self-sufficient approaches” to parenting than to teaching. While most parents rely on various sources of knowledge, it is the obligation of teachers to have acquired a common pedagogical knowledge base that underlies their unique teaching styles and personalities. This knowledge—the mark of a professional—is a critical element informing the deliberative process central to teaching.

While this knowledge base for teaching certainly includes some of the traditionally identified areas (e.g., child development, teaching methods), this content perspective of pedagogical knowledge has helped create a misperception that one can learn how to teach by mastering specified bodies of knowledge. Given the nature of teaching, an equally important perspective is helping the beginning teacher to use this knowledge along with intuition, experience, and values in the deliberation process. The knowledge does not point to the “one right way” but awareness of it helps one decide which are the “better ways” in certain circumstances given certain goals. And it is a knowledge of ends as well as means, for both means and ends are “defined interactively as [the teacher] frames a problematic situation.“43

Acquiring pedagogical knowledge is not enough; learning how to use it in the practical world of teaching is essential. Too often beginning teachers see no relation between what they learned in the college classroom (with the exception of student teaching) and what they do on the job. One might attribute some of this sentiment to lack of experience—not enough familiarity with the phenomena to realize what is and is not useful—but some of it is related to an emphasis on learning how to teach rather than learning from teaching in preparatory programs.44

Besides being a more appropriate stance in view of the deliberative nature of teaching, an emphasis on learning from teaching provides the new teacher with the mother’s “developing child.” Instead of stagnating with coping mechanisms of the survival stage, the new teacher receives impetus from self-analysis and reflection. Learning from teaching ensures a continual process of self-growth and change. Ever-changing, long-time challenges are delivered with a new baby, but they are there only for new teachers who have learned to see teaching as a complex mixture of rational decision making and value judgments rather than the static application of a body of knowledge.

With beginning teachers who have been taught how to learn from teaching rather than beginning teachers who have just learned how to teach, the focus for the school becomes one of supporting their learning rather than eliminating their problems. As Feiman-Nemser has noted, “alternatives of boredom and burnout or growth in effectiveness are less a function of individual characteristics and more a reflection of the opportunities and expectations that surround teachers in their work.“45

Helping teachers to continue to learn from their own teaching would be facilitated if the experience of new teachers were more like that of new mothers: a more gradual assumption of full responsibilities, a safer environment for risk taking and experimentation, and nonjudgmental assistance.

The British experimentation with a reduced workload is worth exploring. The teaching load for beginners is reduced by up to 25 percent.46 With their released time, these neophytes meet with experienced teachers, attend special noncredit, nontuition college courses designed for them, become involved in teacher center activities or curriculum development projects. These experimental programs combine a more gradual transition into teaching with nonjudgmental colleague support—from both peers and experienced teachers.

The pediatrician role from the new-mother analogy might be performed by a principal, a supervisor, or an experienced master teacher given released time to work formally and informally with the new teacher. The idea of periodic “well-baby” checkups might help replace the present problem-oriented seeking of assistance with the idea that all can benefit from professional dialogue about “what’s happening in the classroom.” Rather than being a sign of weakness, participation in such interchanges could be seen as indication of the professionalism of the beginning teacher. These frequent dialogues could also help new teachers put their performance in more realistic perspective by helping visualize the progress that is so often elusive to the newcomer wishing to immediately emulate the “masters” —the ideal, as well as the real. Forced to confront one’s behavior, it is less likely that “survival tactics” will become engrained habits. Such dialogue could increase awareness of choices, as well as model the desired stance of reflective inquiry.

Fortunate is the new teacher who resembles the new mother in finding a playground full of supportive, largely noncompetitive, mothers or constructively involved relatives. The assistance offered during induction is likely to mean more if it takes place in a school where, formally and informally, all teachers view their own professional development as part of the job. Little refers to two powerful norms that characterize such schools. “The ‘norm of collegiality’ refers to the expectation that improving one’s teaching is a collective undertaking. The norm of ‘continuous improvement’ refers to expectations that analysis, evaluation and experimentation are tools of the profession that can help teachers be more effective.“47

While the above changes in school culture may seem at the same time obvious but difficult to achieve, they would be greatly facilitated by an equally obvious and monumental change in the way society views teachers and teaching. The status and financial compensation accorded teachers do not match their importance. Children and society have always deserved more, but the crisis in quality is particularly critical now. Schools are finding increased competition from hospitals, courts, and corporations as talented women decide to make their contributions through the more lucrative and prestigious M.D., LL.B. and M.B.A. routes.

While new mothers face the same status/pay discrepancy, the choice of motherhood remains a female prerogative that is not a negative reflection of intelligence or success, does not preclude other vocational pursuits, and does not present one with the constant option of leaving. Whether to stay in teaching or not is one of the many puzzles facing new teachers. The first few years should be a time when beginning teachers are helped to make a realistic assessment about their future as teachers—in the particular school and in general. And it should be a time when we actively try to retain the services of those who bring something special to teaching. Teachers who receive support while they learn are more likely to stay positively committed to teaching. Undoubtedly, there are people who might still be in teaching if the struggling of their early years had taken place in a more supportive environment and if society truly recognized the importance of their contribution.

Declining test scores and fewer college students seeking teaching credentials indicate that the problem is more than keeping potentially good teachers from getting prematurely discouraged and outstanding experienced teachers from burning out. The problem is attracting quality candidates to a low-paid, low-status but vitally important profession at a time when neither avoidance of war nor commitments to relevance and social responsibility are adding to its attractiveness. It is highly unlikely that tougher admission standards, federal loan deferments, or token financial incentives will be able to turn the tide. Rather, “a broad national attack on the pervasive problems of the ‘prestige, power, pay, and preparation’ of America’s schoolteachers”48 is necessary. According to a report in Education Week, forty university presidents and thirty-eight state education chiefs participating at a conference called to discuss solutions to the crises in teaching agreed that “a climate now exists” to mount such an effort.

Unfortunately, the Band-Aid nature of most proposed remedies limits their effectiveness. Either they are not powerful enough to impact on the status issue or they do not involve a restructuring of the teaching profession. Two exceptions are the master teacher concept and the national service proposals.

Master teacher plans provide incentives for teachers by recognizing them financially, by title and by job description. Monetary rewards are tied to increased or differentiated responsibilities within the school. With or without a career ladder structure, there are many responsibilities teachers could take on, if desired and qualified. These might include responsibilities as curriculum developers, staff developers, supervisors, administrators, action researchers, subject matter or learner specialists, and school board or community liaisons. For those who want to remain full-time teachers, their additional responsibilities might be to serve as demonstration teachers, to try out new curricula, or to serve in other capacities at times that would not interfere with their teaching duties (e.g., during the summer months). Besides providing concrete evidence of recognition through money and title, these proposals have the potential of providing teachers with the ever-changing challenges of the “growing child.” Even for teachers who know how to learn from their own teaching, sometimes an external change in demands is a necessary impetus for continued professional growth.

A more radical response might involve the establishment of two years of national service for all Americans eighteen to thirty years of age. Those wishing to meet their national service requirement in the public schools would have to meet rigorous academic standards to become a part of this selective, elite corps of national service teachers. If prepared to teach, they would have to pass a performance test to enter. If not prepared to teach, their first year would involve a subsidized graduate program. The first year in teaching for both groups would be paid internships as regular classroom teachers, with a reduced load, under the supervision of a master teacher. The second year of teaching would be full-time. During the two to three years of service, rigorous deselection techniques reminiscent of the early Peace Corps would be in effect. At the end of two years of successful teaching, the graduates would form a cadre of first-step master teachers, publicly recognized and financially compensated. As at the end of any national service term, some would elect to stay in for a few more years or for a career. Others would go on to other things but with a better understanding of the dimensions and difficulties of distinguished service in teaching.

Whether master teacher or national service plans are needed yet and whether they would have the desired effects are still open questions. But the crisis facing the nation is here. Mothers may be having fewer children, but America does not face a critical shortage of children nor are good mothers likely to become an endangered species. But our children and their parents will soon face a crisis in teaching that spreads beyond the present shortage of qualified math and science teachers. Too many competent adults are seeking personal and professional satisfaction elsewhere. If quality education is really valued, some rather fundamental changes in the prestige, power, pay, and preparation of teachers is demanded. Attention to the beginning years of teaching is critical. As the nation begins its response to the teacher crisis, let us remember that “In the beginning is my end. . . .“49

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 1, 1984, p. 138-155
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 939, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:46:05 AM

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