23 Pages

Institutional Change and Career Histories in a Comprehensive School

Teachers’ careers and professional identities have, in the past, been too readily taken-forgranted, with teachers depicted as carrying out role demands but with scant attention being accorded to how they actually experience schools, colleagues and staffrooms. Conflicts between teachers, whether on a personal and/or ideational level, have rarely been deemed worthy of study in spite of the fact that such ‘preference orders’ (Arfwedson, 1979) can be crucial factors in policy formulation and pedagogy. Underneath the apparently settled face the secondary school shows to pupils, parents and outsiders, there are likely to be antagonistic teacher groups with very different historical traditions and training (Hargreaves, 1980; 1982.). However, hand-in-hand with the current resurgence in the life history method is a concern with teachers’ changing experience and perceptions and, in particular, a growing awareness of the importance of the ‘micro-politics’ of everyday school life (for example, Ball, 1984; Hoyle, 1982; Hammersley, 1981; Riseborough, 1981; Beynon, 1981). To date remarkably little is known about, for example, the interplay between teachers’ professional and personal lives; or about changes in their outlooks over time; or how individuals are currently reacting to severe curtailment of career prospects during the economic recession. Yet what Arfwedson (1979) terms teacher and school ‘codes’ cannot be divorced from personal and institutional life histories: in short, unless we first understand teachers we can hardly claim to understand teaching. In this chapter, therefore, my object is to show how the life history interview can sharpen the ethnographer’s insight into an educational setting and its processes. Data is drawn from fieldwork at the start of the year in Lower School, which contained the first year (approximately three hundred and fifty boys) of a large urban comprehensive called Victoria Road. I first provide details of the secondary modern-grammar schism in Lower School and then make a number of claims for the life history method. I then bring these two concerns together to focus on the field data, which I explore in terms of ‘personal domain’ (namely Mr Pickwick’s careers as a history teacher) and ‘institutional domain’ (Lower School’s evolution as a bastion of schoolmastery and the implications of this for the drama teacher, Miss floral).