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This research-paper explores the work of classroom teachers. It is organized around the following questions: What is the nature of teachers’ work? What are the primary goals of this work? What do teachers do in their jobs day in, day out? In what contexts is their work performed and how might those contexts shape teachers’ work? Finally, what directions might teachers’ work take in the future?
These questions appear easy to answer. After all, there are approximately 3.2 million elementary, middle school, and high school teachers in the United States (U.S. Department of Labor, 2007). Anyone who has completed high school has witnessed at least 45 to 50 teachers on the job. However, there is no shared public understanding of what teachers actually do (Johnson, 2005). Surprisingly, very little research has documented the full range of their work. Some aspects of teachers’ work have been well documented, for example, what elementary teachers do in classroom instruction. But overall, according to Dreeben (2005), “Teaching is a prime example of . . . the limits of our knowledge of what is actually done in accomplishing a given job” (p. 60).
Thisresearch-paper draws upon the available literature to map the broad contours of teachers’ work. Due to space limitations, a substantial amount of nuance and detail is sacrificed (e.g., differences between elementary and secondary teachers, regular classroom and special education teachers, teachers in under-resourced and well-resourced schools and communities, etc.). We encourage the reader to consult the cited literature. Our discussion is not about who teachers are or what constitutes effective teaching; it is about the job of being a teacher. We intend to promote greater understanding of teachers’ work. We hope to help persons considering becoming teachers make sound decisions. In addition, we hope to provide some insights for educational administrators and policy makers to think clearly about the problems of teachers and teaching and how to address them.
The Nature of Teachers’ Work
Teachers are employees of schools and school districts, called to public service and charged with the responsibility of preparing children and youth for productive and personally satisfying lives. On average, during the course of a 30-year career, an elementary teacher will serve nearly 650 students and, depending on the assignment, a high school teacher will serve as many as 6,000 students. It is noble work, work that is crucial not only to the learning and development of children and youth but also to the vitality of society. To many, the work is extremely rewarding. To some, it is daunting and overwhelming.
Goals and Expectations
The goals and expectations for teachers’ work are sometimes ambitious, broad, and dynamic. At times, they are also vague, contradictory, or in dispute (Ingersoll, 2005). They may vary substantially depending on the state, school district, and local community in which teachers are employed.
The goals for teachers’ work have expanded substantially over time. At the establishment of the first publicly funded schools in New England during the mid-1600s and throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries, a central expectation for teachers’ work was the religious and moral development of children. With the growth of political liberalism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge came an increased emphasis on the political and economic utility of education. By the middle of the 19th century, expectations for teachers’ work grew to include a greater emphasis on vocational education and secular instruction in the academic disciplines. Although the emphasis on overt religious training diminished, teachers were still expected to act as moral agents. Indeed, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, school boards often established “decency requirements” that governed teachers’ behavior in and out of school. During the industrial period, expectations grew for teachers to develop in students the capacity for meaningful civic, economic, and intellectual life. Successive waves of immigration, rapid industrialization, and mass schooling at the turn of the 20th century further expanded expectations for teachers’ work not only to prepare students for jobs but to be agents of socialization or “Americanization.”
Today, the general goals and expectations for teachers’ work encompass all these things. Teachers are expected to promote students’ intellectual development and academic achievement as well as their personal, social, and moral development. Teachers are to prepare students for citizenship and economic productivity. Teachers are also to perform a socialization function, passing along ways of life and culture to future generations.
Teachers’ work is sometimes referred to as an art or a craft. It involves substantially more than the routine application of specific practices. According to Lieberman and Miller (1984), teachers’ work is “a messy and highly personalized enterprise” (p. 5). It is most often considered semiprofessional work (Sykes, 1999). It reflects some qualities of professional work but differs from work of the “true” professions, such as law and medicine, in several important ways.
Teachers’ work requires a substantial amount of independent judgment and discretion. Yet, it is not guided by a specialized body of knowledge that is developed and controlled by teachers themselves and that the public believes is necessary for successful job performance. There is substantial knowledge that underlies teachers’ work, but that knowledge is largely tacit and “action-centered” (Pratte & Rury, 1991). It is developed in the course of, embodied in, and conveyed through practice. In the absence of an explicit technology, much of teachers’ work must be guided by their own understandings, values, beliefs, and assumptions. Unlike the “true” professions, teachers’ work carries the cultural status of ordinary rather than elite work. It is a job for which relatively little formal preparation has been demanded and that many people think most anyone could do. There are few professional controls that govern teachers’ work. In large measure, teachers’ work is externally controlled. Criteria for entry and removal and for judging effective performance are not determined so much by teachers themselves as by others. Teachers serve at the pleasure and under the authority of state education agencies, local school boards, and school and district administrators. Since the mid-1980s, there has been substantial discussion about how to professionalize teachers and their work. A review of that discussion is beyond the scope of this research-paper.
Teachers’ work is multidimensional and remarkably complex. There are important variations associated with different job assignments (e.g., elementary or secondary, general education or special education) and classroom, school, and district work environments; however, teachers’ work can be characterized by several common properties.
First, teachers’ work is inherently social. It is people-centered and is enacted largely through interactions between teachers and children and among teachers, administrators, and parents. The highly interactive nature of teaching was captured years ago by Jackson (1968) who reported that elementary school teachers engage in as many as 1,000 interpersonal classroom interactions each day. Second, teachers’ work is highly intellectual (Leinhardt & Greeno, 1986). It is dynamic and unpredictable, and it requires teachers to attend continuously to what is going on around them, analyze and diagnose information, draw inferences, and adjust their thinking and behavior accordingly (B. O. Smith, 1987). According to Shulman (1987), “[Teaching] begins with an act of reasoning, continues with a process of reasoning, culminates in performances of imparting, eliciting, involving, or enticing, and is then thought about some more until the process can begin again. . . .” (p. 13).
Third, teachers’ work is an inherently moral enterprise. Hansen (2001) observes that it “presupposes notions of better and worse, of good and bad. . . . Teaching reflects the intentional effort to influence another human being for the good rather than for the bad” (p. 828). The moral dimension of teachers’ work spans ends and means. Hansen indicates that “Any action a teacher undertakes . . . is capable of expressing moral meaning that, in turn, can influence students” (p. 826). This includes how teachers communicate with and attend to students, the subject matter they emphasize, and how they organize students and conduct classroom activity. Even the most routine and benign aspects of teachers’ work can convey moral meaning as students interpret them.
Fourth, teachers’ work has an important historical dimension. Teachers’ work is shaped by histories of societal expectations for teaching and schooling, histories of teachers’ schools and local communities, and personal histories of teachers and students. Moreover, what happens at any moment in teachers’ work becomes part of the context for what happens in the future. For example, how teachers give feedback on assignments may affect how students engage in future assignments.
Contradictions and Dilemmas
Teachers’ work is defined by contradictions. On one hand, teachers’ work is public, and on the other, it is private and largely invisible. Teachers perform much of their work in front of students and in close proximity of other adults. Their work is performed while “living in a crowd” (Jackson, 1968, p. 8). Yet, teachers’ work, especially with students, is largely out of view of other adults. And because much of it is conducted apart from other adults, it is considered largely independent, isolated, even lonely work (Lortie, 1975). Still, teachers’ success with any group of students is related to the success of teachers who have previously worked with those students. Likewise, the learning and development that teachers promote in their students are likely to influence the work that other teachers do with the same students concurrently.
Teachers’ work has certain constancies and regularities. It is bound by the rhythms of the school calendar and class schedule. It is contained by the walls of the classroom and the covers of textbooks and encapsulated by societal norms and expectations about teaching and schooling (Sarason, 1996). For many teachers, there is a predictable repetition in the cycles of class periods, school days, weeks, months, seasons, and years; in the rituals of assemblies and administrative work; and in seeing the same students and adults day in, day out (Lieberman & Miller, 1984; B. A. Smith, 2000).
At the same time, teachers’ work is ambiguous and unpredictable (Lortie, 1975). To reiterate, the goals of teachers’ work are vague, and a formal knowledge base and technology are not well developed. The complex social environments of schools and classrooms can be unpredictable. Teachers must deal with a substantial amount of nonroutine information that is often difficult to decipher. The outcomes of teachers’ work are frequently hard to detect and the connections between teachers’ efforts and outcomes are often not immediately evident. This is true especially with regard to student learning outcomes. This all means that teachers must make their own “translations” (Lieberman & Miller, 1984). They must improvise and devise their own solutions to complex problems (Borko & Livingston, 1989). Depending on their circumstances, teachers may become bricoleurs who can “remain creative under pressure, precisely because they routinely act in chaotic conditions and pull order out of them. . . .” (Weick, 1993, p. 639). Thus while forged in the constancies and regularities of the job, the work ultimately reflects teachers’ personal knowledge, preferences, emotions, and identities (Lieberman & Miller, 1984).
Teachers’ work is also defined by dilemmas. Dilemmas are conflict-filled situations that pit highly valued alternatives against one another. Most dilemmas teachers face fall within several broad areas. Some dilemmas sprout from the need to coordinate multiple purposes of schooling and expectations for teachers’ work. Teachers must allocate time and energy among different aspects of their jobs. They must attend to the needs of individual students and to the needs of groups, classes, even entire schools. They must balance the need for promoting academic achievement with the need for promoting other aspects of student learning and development. They must balance work required outside the classroom with work required within. There are tensions between external organizational controls and the extent of teacher autonomy and discretion required for success in the classroom. And there are dilemmas posed by the demands of multiple, and sometimes conflicting, educational policies and reforms. Last but not least, there are dilemmas between the personal and the professional (Lieberman & Miller, 1984). These are not simply tensions between individual preferences and broader expectations for how teachers’ work is to be performed, whether those expectations emanate from local communities or federal education policy, such as No Child Left Behind. These are tensions between the substantial demands that the work makes on teachers’ time, energy, and emotions, and the interests that teachers have to live full and satisfying lives outside their work (Spencer, 2001). Such dilemmas are endemic. Teachers’ responses can only be provisional, “good-enough compromises rather than neat solutions” (Cuban, 1992, p. 7). They make dilemma management an enduring part of teachers’ work.
Work Across a Career
Teachers pass through several developmental phases in their work from entry to retirement. Although each teacher may move through them differently, these phases suggest a general way in which the work is experienced. According to Huberman (1993), teachers entering the job experience a period of initial enthusiasm, reality shock, and survival. They begin to build their practices and develop their own teaching styles largely through trial and error. During this entry phrase, teachers are typically concerned about managing classrooms and controlling students, building relationships with other teachers, and navigating school bureaucracies. They also tend to be preoccupied with concern about themselves and their own ability to succeed. This phase is usually followed by a period of stabilization during which teachers make a commitment to the job and develop an identity as a teacher. Teachers become more secure and confident personally and professionally. They hone their pedagogical skills and redirect concern about themselves toward concern about instruction and student learning. Many teachers in this phase tend to act with increased confidence and spontaneity.
Later phases are more difficult to discern as individual “routes” develop and diverge (Huberman, 1993). What often follows stabilization is a period of experimentation and diversification. Teachers may embark on personal experiments with new methods and materials. They may feel a stronger desire to increase their impact on the classroom. And they may search for new challenges outside the classroom. Diversification may give way to a period of uncertainty and reassessment. This phase usually occurs mid-career, between 15 and 25 years of teaching, but it is not experienced by all teachers in the same way.
For some teachers, reassessment leads to a period of conservation and complaint (Huberman, 1993). This period is characterized by growing disenchantment, increasing rigidity and dogmatism, greater precaution, resistance to innovation, and pronounced nostalgia for the past. Teachers in this phase may become protective of the status quo and their own self-interests. For other teachers, reassessment leads to a period of serenity and distance. Confidence and commitment return, but levels of ambition decline. There is renewed interest in doing the job well but less need to prove oneself. Whether reassessment leads to conservation and complaint or serenity and distance, both periods lead to eventual personal and professional disengagement through retirement or resignation.
Although teachers may experience different phases during the course of their careers, the structure of the career itself is usually both constant and “flat” (Lortie, 1975). For many teachers there is substantial continuity in the roles and responsibilities that teachers perform year after year. The work can look the same the year that a teacher retires as it did the year of entry. With few exceptions, the structure and nature of the job does not vary according to teachers’ experience or expertise. There are no ranks associated with different levels or types of work or with accomplishment.
Historically, career advancement has meant leaving the classroom for school- or district-level administrative work. But since the mid-1980s, growing numbers of schools and districts have sought to expand and enrich teachers’ work. Many early efforts came through career ladder plans. Recent efforts have focused on new leadership roles for teachers (Smylie, Conley, & Marks, 2002). While not a panacea, job expansion and enrichment are thought to increase the variety and significance of teachers’ work and thus help attract, motivate, and retain teachers. Research on teacher work redesign is emergent and inconclusive, but these efforts are generally considered promising for teachers and for school improvement.
What Teachers Do
What does teachers’ work look like? What do teachers do day in, day out? We consider these questions in two ways.
First, we consider the various roles that teachers perform. Second, we examine specific tasks and activities in which they engage.
Consistent with multiple goals and expectations, teachers perform many related roles (Heck & Williams, 1984). Their primary role is leader or facilitator of student learning. This role can be organized around any number of models for teaching and learning (e.g., student-centered, constructivist models or teacher-centered, transmission models). Teachers serve as resources of knowledge, norms, and attitudes. Teachers often function as local historians. Coupled with knowledge of contemporary community circumstance, such memory can help teachers work more effectively with students.
In addition to promoting the learning of others, teachers perform the role of learner themselves. Teachers learn through experience on the job. They also learn through interactions with other adults and participation in formal learning opportunities (e.g., professional development workshops, college and university courses, attending conferences, reading professional literature). These and other sources can help teachers develop new knowledge and skills to promote student learning. Or they may simply reinforce existing knowledge and skills.
Teachers act as gatekeepers through whom students may gain access to social and professional services inside and outside of school. Teachers often function as frontline responders when students experience social-emotional, psychological, or physical difficulties. When teachers are unable to address these needs, they may refer students to appropriate services. Teachers are often bound by state law to intervene in cases of suspected abuse or neglect.
Teachers may be partners with parents. Teachers and parents may share many interests, and they can work together to promote student learning and development. By extension, teachers may recognize shared interests with their local communities and join with individuals and organizations to garner resources and support for student success. Because there can also be competition and conflict between teachers and parents, such relationships may need to be initiated and managed by teachers. This could involve teachers helping parents and community members learn how to be effective partners in and out of school.
Teachers also perform the role of developer and implementer of programs, policies, and practices. As discussed earlier, teachers invent and improvise classroom practices. They may join with other educators to create new curriculum, programs, and policies at the school or district levels. Teachers also act as developers when they implement school- or district- or state-level programs and policies. Rarely do teachers simply administer programs and policies as they are written or even intended (Fullan, 2007). Even with prescriptive initiatives such as comprehensive school reform models, teachers often adapt programs and policies according to their own understanding, interests, skills, and classroom situations. This is not resistance or refusal (although sometimes teachers do resist and refuse); instead, such adaptation reflects the discretion that is such a key element of teachers’ work (Lipsky, 1980).
In addition, teachers perform the role of colleague. Working relationships among adults in a school can make a substantial difference in the ability of the school to improve and to serve students effectively (Rosenholtz, 1989). Indeed, working relationships among adults can make a substantial difference in the opportunities available for teachers’ professional learning and development. The literature suggests that the organization of adult relationships into professional communities is perhaps most conducive to school effectiveness and improvement (Fullan, 2007). Such communities and collegial relationships do not simply happen. While administrators play a crucial role in their development, teachers are the ones who must make these communities work.
Teachers may perform various leadership roles (Smylie et al., 2002). These roles may be associated with formal positions and carry titles and specific responsibilities (e.g., mentor teacher, instructional coordinator, team leader, department chair, union representative). Or they may be informal, naturally occurring, or emergent as suggested by recent conceptions of organizational leadership (e.g., distributed leadership). These roles may come on top of or in place of teachers’ regular classroom responsibilities. They may focus on school governance and decision making, curricular and instructional development, and teacher professional development. Although some teachers may feel that these roles intrude on their real job in the classroom, these roles have become more focused on the work of school organizational improvement.
What connects all these particular roles is the overarching function of the teacher as an agent of change (Smylie, Bay, & Tozer, 1999). The goals and expectations for teachers’ work, regardless of how vague or contradictory, call teachers to promote change. Whether it is in the learning and development of students, their own professional learning and development, the engagement of parents and community members, working with colleagues, or performing leadership work, the fundamental role of the teacher is to make things different and presumably better.
Tasks and Activities
To perform these roles, teachers engage in a large number of tasks and activities. One of the most comprehensive sources of information about these tasks and activities is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). The DOT identifies dozens of specific things that teachers do in their work (U.S. Department of Labor, 2007). Many are common across grade levels. Still, teachers at different levels in different contexts will devote more time and energy to some tasks and activities than to others. It is probably impossible to compile a complete inventory of the tasks and activities that teachers perform because their work is so multidimensional and complex. Nonetheless, among the many tasks and activities contained in the DOT are the following examples.
Teachers prepare objectives, activities, and materials for working with students, and they instruct students in groups and individually through a variety of methods, from lecture and presentation to discussion to in-class reading to group work. Teachers develop and evaluate classroom and homework assignments. They prepare and administer assessments of student learning and develop grade reports or other reports of student progress. Teachers communicate with parents and discuss curriculum and student progress with colleagues. They keep administrative records (e.g., attendance), administer standardized tests, and enforce school policies. Sometimes teachers work with students and other adults in extracurricular activities.
Other sources are also useful for identifying things that teachers do in their work. For example, Grant and Murray (1999) indicate that teachers listen to and motivate students and that they model ways of learning and of “being in the world” (p. 43). Shulman (1987) points to the tasks of managing students, discourse, and ideas: “Like a symphony conductor, posing questions, probing for alternative views, drawing out the shy while tempering the boisterous . . . , pacing and ordering, structuring and expanding, [the teacher] control[s] the rhythm of classroom life” (pp. 1-2). To this we might add that teachers perform a number of other managerial tasks, including grouping students for instruction, disciplining students, managing time and student movement in the classroom, collecting money, taking younger students to the restroom, managing fundraising activities, and keeping classroom plants and animals alive.
Beyond the School Day and Year
Teachers’ work does not stop at the end of the school day. The National Education Association’s 2001 national survey of public school teachers reveals that on average teachers spend 10 hours each week beyond the school day on instruction-related activities (National Education Association, 2003). They spend almost 12 hours each week performing noncompensated school-related work. Nearly 40% of teachers across the country reported that they take on additional work within their districts to supplement their incomes. Thirteen percent reported that they moonlight in jobs outside their school systems to make more money.
There are a number of tasks and activities that teachers may perform in their work beyond the school day. These can include instructional planning, reading and evaluating student work, preparing administrative reports, communicating with parents, and leading extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, clubs, performing arts). They can include tutoring, counseling, and extending other forms of extra-classroom academic and personal support to students. They can also include working with other teachers to align curriculum and coordinate instruction, planning and carrying out various school improvement activities, and engaging in one’s own professional development alone or with others.
Teachers’ work is often portrayed as a nine-month job. In 2001, however, nearly 30% of teachers across the county were employed during the summer within their own school systems (National Education Association, 2003). This work could involve developing new curriculum, programs, and policies; leading professional development activities; or engaging in school improvement planning and development work. It could also involve teaching summer school, an increasingly common prospect in districts where high-stakes accountability systems require attendance of low-achieving and failing students. Among other possibilities, it might involve working in school- or district-sponsored summer academic enrichment, recreational, or other nonacademic programs for children and youth. About 20% of teachers worked outside their school systems at other jobs to supplement their school year income.
These activities do not represent the totality of teachers’ work beyond the school year. Most teachers use portions of their time off to plan activities and develop materials for the next school year. They also use summers for professional learning and development, often taking courses at area colleges and universities or attending workshops sponsored by school districts or professional associations.
Contexts of Teachers’ Work
We have understood for some time that social and organizational contexts of work can have profound effects on the nature and structure of work and how it is performed. So too is teachers’ work shaped by a constellation of contexts that extend from the most immediate workplace settings of schools and classrooms, to local communities and school districts, to state and federal policy environments, and to social institutions. Referring to schools, Johnson (1990) explains, “Workplaces are not inert boxes that house practice. Rather, they are complex sets of features that interact with practice. They convey information about what is expected. They influence what is possible. They determine what is likely” (p. 9).
The relationship between contexts and teachers’ work is remarkably complex. The nature and characteristics of contexts may vary substantially from one place and one time to another, and individual teachers may interpret and respond to different contexts differently. Contexts may shape the structure of teachers’ work (e.g., roles, tasks, and activities) and how teachers perform their work within that structure. Different contexts may be aligned and operate in a mutually reinforcing manner, or they may conflict. The latter possibility was noted by Waller (1932) more than 70 years ago when he observed that the occupation of the teacher was enmeshed in a complex system of authority, with each segment having its own, often competing, agendas and demands on teachers.
The most immediate context of teachers’ work is the classroom. The classroom is a “small society” (Waller, 1932) defined by structures, a social system, norms and values, and its own politics (Barr & Dreeben, 1991; Jackson, 1968). Class size and composition, particularly academic and language-cultural heterogeneity and the presence of special needs students, may shape how teachers organize classroom instruction and how they teach. So too may the quantities and qualities of curricular and instructional materials and other resources available (or unavailable) to teachers.
Classrooms are nested within the organizational contexts of schools. Schools can also be characterized by their structures, their social relationships, their politics, and their organizational cultures (Johnson, 1990; Little & McLaughlin, 1993). Structural characteristics such as range of grade levels, the size and composition of student enrollments, conditions of facilities, and adequacy of resources may affect teachers’ work and how it is performed. As noted, teachers’ work can be influenced by the allocation and organization of instructional time via classroom schedules and school calendars. It can be shaped by teacher assignment to particular grade levels and student groups, to particular subject areas to be taught, and to non-instructional tasks such as administrative and supervisory duties (e.g., department chair, lunchroom and hall monitoring). It can be shaped by the school’s (and district’s) adopted curricula, textbooks, and instructional materials and by the school’s administrative systems of evaluation, supervision, and reward. Teachers’ work can be influenced directly by other teachers and by building administrators, especially principals (Rosenholtz, 1989). Beliefs and expectations for what work is to be performed and how it is to be performed, sources of motivation, and mechanisms of accountability and control flow through working relationships. And through those same relationships come opportunities to exchange information and to learn.
Equally important, if not more so, are the contexts found within schools: grade-level teams, departments, and “houses.” Because they are more proximal to and because they may be more tightly organized around teachers’ specific job assignments and interests than the school as a whole (e.g., students at particular grade levels, different subject matters), these intermediate contexts may act as particularly potent sources of influence (McLaughlin &Talbert, 2001).
School districts can also influence teachers’ work through policies and procedures concerning teachers and students; adopted curricula, textbooks, and instructional materials; teachers’ assignments to particular schools; opportunities for teachers’ professional learning and development; and the expectations they convey through missions, goals, and values. Districts can influence teachers’ work through systems of student testing and teacher accountability. Through collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions, districts can specify various structures of teachers’ work, including contract periods, work scope, evaluation policies and practices, compensation and incentives, and working conditions.
Of particular salience is the ability of school districts to raise revenue. Education in the United States is decentralized and controlled primarily at the community level. It is funded at that level primarily through local taxation, tying economic resources for school districts directly to the wealth of their local communities. This dependency is as true today as it was in an earlier century when, as needs arose, community members gathered with hammers and nails to construct one-room schoolhouses. Dependence on local revenues tends to perpetuate disparities in resources available to individual school districts, despite funding from state and federal levels that may be designed to equalize funding among districts. Funding disparities often translate into disparities in supports available to teachers, including equipment and instructional materials, work space for teachers, and the physical condition, deferred maintenance, underuse, and overcrowding of school buildings.
Among the distant contexts that shape teachers’ work are state and federal policy environments. State and federal policies influence teachers’ work by “bringing the resources of government—money, rules, and authority—into the service of political objectives; and by using those resources to influence the actions of individuals and institutions” (McDonnell & Elmore, 1987, p. 133). There are numerous examples of state and federal policies that might affect teachers’ work. Policies at all levels—federal, state, and district—can exert direct influence on the structure of teachers’ work and on its performance. Policies can also exert indirect influence by shaping other contexts in which the work is performed (e.g., the working conditions of schools). These influences can come in the form of mandates (e.g., regulations specifying instructional time in particular subject areas), inducements (e.g., grants-in-aid, merit pay), initiatives to develop capacity (e.g., training and professional development programs and policies, class size reductions, capital improvement), and initiatives to redistribute authority (e.g., decentralization and participative decision making; McDonnell & Elmore, 1987).
Among the most notable illustrations of policy influence on teachers’ work are current state curriculum standards, student testing programs, and the student accountability provisions of federal No Child Left Behind legislation. There is increasing evidence that these sorts of policy mandates can significantly influence both teachers’ work and their performance. They have been found to shift teachers’ instruction toward subject matter tested (subject matter not tested is often sacrificed), toward more teacher-centered instruction, and toward more review and test preparation than instruction in new subject matter (Valli & Buese, 2007). This may be because teachers find such changes more powerful than alternatives, because of a sense of care or duty to students to ensure that they do well in high-stakes testing, or because they are being held accountable for their students’ performance. These mandates may also have a number of unintended consequences, including introducing new sources of stress into teachers’ relationships with students and parents and disincentives for teacher performance.
The Future of Teachers’ Work
There are several significant changes taking place in the contexts of teachers’ work. While it is difficult to predict their effect, there is reason to believe that, as former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra might have put it, “The future of teaching ain’t what it used to be.”
One of the most significant changes is the revolutionary development of information and communications technologies (Smolin, Lawless, & Burbules, 2007). Advances in hardware and software have dramatically increased access to information and the ability to exchange it. The production of new knowledge is exponential and unprecedented. While these new technologies are opening classrooms to the world and creating unimagined opportunities for student learning, they are also making substantial demands on teachers to learn and know more, to develop new sets of technology-related skills, and to manage ever-increasing amounts of information. These advances may imply much more. They have already begun to alter the basic relationships among teachers, subject matter, and students as learners, as well as authority relations between teachers and others (e.g., administrators, students). They have substantial implications for the definition and development of learning environments, actual or virtual. Moreover, these new technologies may alter working relationships among teachers and other educators and between teachers, parents, and other members of local communities.
Another change involves the growing diversities among students and communities and concurrent increases in disparities in resources and learning opportunities. The proportion of racial and ethnic minority students in U.S. elementary and secondary schools rose from 22% to 42% between 1972 and 2005 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). In 2005, 41% of all fourth-grade students nationwide were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2007). That year, almost three out of four African American and Hispanic fourth-graders were eligible. Growth in the numbers and proportions of racial and ethnic minority students, increases in language and cultural diversity, and accentuation of socioeconomic class differences all portend to make teachers’ work more complex and challenging. More and more, teachers’ work is lodged within gaps—gaps in student learning and academic achievement; gaps among classes, languages, and cultures; gaps in community wealth and resources for schooling; gaps in access to technologies and information; and gaps in visions and prospects for students’ futures. These changes may introduce to teachers new social and cultural ambiguities and tensions; demands for new knowledge, skills, and commitments; and dilemmas associated with agendas for excellence and equity. For many teachers, the demands associated with increasing diversity may be made more complex and difficult to address with limited resources and heightened demands for external accountability.
There is growing specification and intensification in teachers’ work (Hargreaves, 2003). In the present era of standards-based, test-driven educational policy, this is manifest in a narrowing of goals and greater accountability for student academic outcomes in a limited range of subject areas (although it is likely that most parents and community members will continue to expect that teachers achieve the broadest range of educational goals for their children). In addition, calls are coming (again) for tying teacher evaluation and compensation to student academic performance. The demands imposed by specification and intensification have already begun to conflict with demands associated with increasing diversities and disparities.
Last, but not least, is the emergence of neoliberalism and globalization. Neoliberal thinking and policy place increased emphasis on the economic and workforce development goals of education. They create prospects for expanded roles for the private sector in public services, including education. Globalization may create unimaginable opportunities for new learning. It may also promote profound shifts in notions of community. Past and present concepts of schooling within and for local community may be challenged, and perhaps supplanted, by concepts of schooling for global political and market economies. Instead of preparing students for jobs within their local communities, teachers will need to prepare students to compete worldwide for jobs unimagined.
No doubt these changes will make teachers’ work even more complex, uncertain, and challenging than it is now. They will likely take teachers’ work in different directions, and they will certainly introduce new tensions and dilemmas. Whether these changes will alter the basic nature and structure of the job remains to be seen. Regardless, the work of teachers will be as important as ever in years to come. It will remain necessary to ensure that those who choose this occupation will be adequately prepared and supported and that the work, whatever it might become, will be performed effectively.
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