‘I have always worked’: Elementary schoolteaching as a career


The notion of “career” as we commonly understand it does not do justice to the lives of working women, says Ms. Biklen. The career model for teachers is often entirely different from our traditional conceptions.


We use concepts in the social sciences to give order — to help us make sense of the world around us and to clarify confusing particulars. Concepts are bound to ideas of the times and to individual perspectives, but the most valuable concepts are less wedded than others to the particular historical periods in which they originated. Of course, it is probably an oversimplification to think of concepts as emerging fully developed; they usually evolve over time to develop meanings that are widely shared by users.

Concepts facilitate discussions and interchanges. The concept of “role,” for example, enables psychologists, sociologists, administrators, and others to talk together — and, frequently, to disagree — about the role of a principal, a school psychologist, or a parent. The concept provides a framework within which discussion can occur and potentially conflicting views can emerge.1

“Career” is a concept that facilitates discussion less satisfactorily. First, this concept suffers from a narrow definition that is not widely shared. For example, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences says: “As a construct, a career is the opposite of random job mobility.” So far, so good. The taking of a job without any thought of its relation to one’s previous job suggests that one has an unorganized vision of working life. But the International Encyclopedia continues:

Careers imply a long, if not a life time, commitment to moving upward through a series of related occupations and statuses according to a schedule. They are, therefore, associated with situations in which occupational mobility is considered the norm.2

The narrowness of this definition restricts its usefulness. The definition excludes doctors, lawyers, and professors — whom we generally think of as having careers — if they cease to move up ward (as most of them do, by midlife). The International Encyclopedia seems to be defining careerism, not a career.

Moreover, the notion of career (as we currently understand it) was derived from the lives of 19th-century males and thus does not apply very well to working women. This is the issue that I will explore in this article, through an ex amination of the work lives of a particular group: women who teach in elementary schools. I will address three specific questions: What are some problems with the definition of career as it is commonly understood? How do we have to think differently about what a career is? And how will our revised understanding help us to rethink the ways in which female teachers in elementary schools make sense of their lives?

Traditional Definitions

The idea of a career, as we know it, is based on the ways in which men have been able to live their lives, freed from primary care-giving responsibility for their families. Burton Bledstein examined the 19th-century origins of our current understanding of the concept of career. As he describes it, a career is “a preestablished total pattern of organized professional activity, with upward movement through recognized preparatory stages, and advancement based on merit and bearing honor.”3 This definition emphasizes the coherence of the career and the goal orientation of the individual pursuing it.

Two other features also characterize this view. The first is that a career takes place in the public sphere and is measured by an individual’s participation in the wage-labor system and the status that accrues from that participation. In other words, work and family are separated. They are seen, in fact, as competing. When we speak of a man’s family problems slowing down his career advancement, we are simultaneously acknowledging the existence of a real-life problem and reinforcing this definition of career.

We have been accustomed to thinking about coherence in worklife in terms of upward mobility as well as continuous employment.

The second feature that characterizes this definition is career commitment. Personal or family life must be tailored to the demands of work. Such career commitment is possible for those men whose wives take primary responsibility for rearing and nurturing the children. But it is much more difficult for women, whose husbands rarely assume these duties.

Men need not rebel against social norms to have careers. Indeed, it is considered normal for men in the U.S. to participate in family life through the role of provider. Women, by contrast, must rebel against social norms if they wish to have careers, which are popularly understood to involve heavy workloads and to require significant commitments of time. We sanction women in the workforce as long as they make work secondary to family life. I have talked about career commitment as it relates to the short-term use of time for work, but long-term goals also reflect career commitment. A woman who chooses to become a teacher instead of a principal, for example, is perceived as having less career commitment than those women who aim for administrative posts. Given this widely shared perception, it is not surprising that Ward Mason measured teachers’ levels of career commitment by asking them where they planned to be, professionally, five years hence.4

Teaching as a Career

When we speak of teaching careers, we are using the word careers very loosely. In fact, Dan Lortie has called teaching “careerless,”5 because it affords few opportunities for advancement and because it is structured to accommodate women’s in-and-out employment patterns. “To persist in teaching is, in a sense, to be ‘passed over for higher position or marriage,” according to Lortie.6 Clearly, he is comparing teaching to a career pattern that takes the working lives of men as the norm. Individuals who remain in teaching do not show long-term career commitment; they evince work commitment, perhaps, but their ambition is compromised.

As it is widely understood today, the concept of career gives a certain structure to any data that it intersects. Thus, when we match the concept of career to the real lives of elementary teachers, the teachers show a lack of career commitment and ambition. If we looked at elementary teachers differently, however, would we arrive at similar conclusions? In what follows, a group of women who are elementary teachers will teach us about the inadequacy of our conception of career.

The data that I am about to report came from an eight-month study of an elementary school in a mid-sized city in the Northeast. The investigators relied on the qualitative methods of participant observation and in-depth interviewing.7 These methods enable researchers to try to understand events from the point of view of the people who are engaged in the setting or situation under study. In other words, they focus on the ways in which people try to make sense of their lives.

The school, which I will call Vista City Elementary, has a student population of 800 and an outstanding academic reputation. All but two of the classroom teachers at Vista City were women. They ranged in age from the mid-twenties to the late fifties. Some were single, some married, and some divorced. Most of the single women had worked continuously at teaching, though two of them had tried other kinds of jobs for short periods, hoping to obtain more recognition. Most of the married teachers had children, and some of them had husbands with traditional views about women’s roles. Some of the older teachers had conservative fathers who forbade them to enter the labor market when they were young adults. Some of the teachers had taken only six-week leaves for the births of their children; others had remained at home for a few years before returning to the classroom. In one case, a teacher did not complete her undergraduate education until her children were enrolled in school.

Their lives were characterized by “interrupted careers” and, in most cases, by deference to their husbands’ social values. Thus it is difficult to see how an observer could argue that these women had a sense of their work as a career. Nonetheless, I am suggesting that the traditional way of evaluating short- or long-term work commitment fails to do justice to the views of these elementary teachers. See what the data suggest to you.

Teachers Describe Their Work

From the start of this study, a contradiction seemed to emerge between the ways in which teachers described their work histories and the actual de tails of these work histories. Asked to describe their work experiences, teachers would often begin with the statement, “I have always worked.” Yet, as they provided chronological details of their work lives, they almost always described a discontinuous pattern: full-time teaching that had been interrupted for childbearing and/or part-time work, followed eventually by full-time reentry into the employment market. Surprisingly, they often ended their employment histories by reiterating that they had always worked.

Kate Bridges,* a Vista City teacher in her early forties, described her occupational commitment in these words: “I have felt passionately about teaching for 20 years.” However, she had not taught continuously for 20 years. She said she “loved” her first two years of teaching, which took place in an “inner-city kind of school.” After she had children of her own, however, she sought part-time work, which led to positions in a nursery school, an education department of a college, and a drug rehabilitation center. During this period, she also earned an M.A.T. degree.

These teachers thought about how they served the occupation, rather than about how the occupation could serve them.

As her children grew older, Kate noticed that the job market for elementary teachers was growing tighter. A job opportunity arose, and — though she had been planning to go to Europe with her husband, who was on sabbatical — she decided to take it. She said she felt that “if I don’t accept this job now, God knows if I will ever get my foot in the door.” In resisting pressure from her husband to arrange her own work plans around his schedule, Kate communicated to him the importance of her work in their lives. She knew that the new job signaled for her the beginning of a full-fledged teaching career, but she also knew that she had been interested in, involved with, and thinking about teaching for 20 years. As she saw it, she had shown internal occupational consistency. In other words, she had always thought of herself as a teacher.

Kate had worked hard for two decades, and some of this work had involved teaching children in schools. But she had not always been able to translate her passion for teaching into occupational reality. Although she had always considered herself a teacher, she had not always been actually engaged in full-time teaching. As Kate and her colleagues saw it, however, bearing and caring for one’s own children did not necessarily reflect on one’s career commitment. When these women were not actually engaged in teaching, they kept in touch with colleagues at their former workplaces and thus remained informed about school events, they sometimes ran day-care centers in their homes or engaged in other kinds of educational work with children, they continued to think of themselves as teachers, and they planned to return to teaching. In other words, their internal conceptions of themselves as teachers remained consistent.

Returning to Work

When the time came to return to work, many of those women who had been out of the classroom for five or more years found that locating a teaching position was not their only problem. Husbands had a major impact on the ways in which married teachers made decisions about work.

Some women took Kate’s approach and spoke to their husbands directly about their career interests. But other women had husbands who resisted their returning to work. The case studies of three such women reveal the tactics that they were compelled to develop in order to overcome their husbands’ resistance without outright defiance.

Sylvia Richardson, now in her fifties, taught seventh-graders for five years, followed by a nine-year hiatus devoted to child rearing, after which she re turned to teaching. Her husband had not wanted her to go back to work. “We’re not for this women’s lib thing,” she explained. But he had supported her decision to become a substitute teacher, since she would be able to turn down opportunities to work when it suited her. At this point, a teacher friend gave Sylvia a piece of advice: “Don’t substitute in the seventh grade, because the students have really changed since you were there.” Sylvia decided that, if seventh- and eighth-graders were “really violent” and if substituting was going to be a terribly difficult situation for her every day, then she’d better pick a group that would be less demanding. That way, her husband would not be able to say to her, “We don’t need this aggravation. Come on home.”

So Sylvia began to substitute in the elementary grades. Because she was available, she was soon substituting every day, which caused her husband to relent and endorse her return to full time teaching. “At least we’ll know where to find you,” he said.

In order to reenter teaching, Sylvia Richardson consciously used a strategy. She chose a grade level that would be less “difficult” than junior high school, so that she would not be tempted to burden her husband with her occupational concerns. She started as a substitute teacher, which gave him some time to adjust to her working outside the home. She chose this path carefully to accomplish her goal without disrupting her family life.

Jessica Bonwit’s strategy was more determined but perhaps more personally costly. She had also dropped out of teaching to rear her three children (though she had operated a day-care program in her home during this peri od). But “something went ‘click’ after six years,” and she knew that she had to return to the classroom. Although her husband did not share the household work with her, Jessica promised him that her return to teaching would not require increased effort of him. “He didn’t mind so much when I went back to work, because his life didn’t change at all,” she explained.

Jessica paid a price for her return to full-time teaching, and she resented her husband’s selfishness. “I love my husband, but sometimes I don’t like him very much,” she said. She valued teaching enough to shoulder full responsibility for both classroom and home. Only the future will reveal the true price of this decision.

Carrie Amundsen did not work outside the home before her children were born. Like Sylvia and Jessica, however, she had to develop a strategy in order to enter the workforce as a full-time employee later on. Carrie alluded to her husband as “the original male chauvinist pig.”

Because she had never completed a bachelor’s degree, she enrolled in a mathematics course at a local university. Her goal at the time was only enrichment — but she enjoyed the course and “ended up taking more of them.” After completing an undergraduate degree in reading, she earned a master’s degree in special education.

By this time, Carrie was eager to put her training to use. However, when a former professor who was starting a special program in the schools offered her a position, she responded, “My husband will never let me work full-time.” Her future employer responded, “Let me worry about your husband.” So Carrie and her professor “worked out a deal,” whereby she would tell her husband that she intended to try working for just one year. At the end of that first year, Carrie “weaseled” her way into one more year, and then another, and another.

Sylvia, Jessica, and Carrie chose tactics that enabled them to teach full-time without having to engage in ideological battles with their husbands or to rebel openly against social norms. When the time seemed right, each translated her mental commitment into an occupation al reality. While they were away from the classroom, some of these women ran day-care programs in their homes. All of them stayed in touch with their colleagues and discussed classroom and organizational life with them. All of them planned to return to full-time work, and they developed strategies for overcoming their husbands’ resistance to that plan.

To an observer, these women appear to lack career commitment, because our ways of measuring career commitment do not take the realities of women’s lives into account. By contrast, the women see themselves as exhibiting both commitment and coherence in their working lives.

External Structure and Internal Concepts

We have been accustomed to thinking about coherence in worklife in terms of upward mobility as well as continuous employment. Just as the teachers at Vista City Elementary School questioned why breaks for the bearing and rearing of children should be equated with a lack of career commitment, so they brought a different perspective to the issue of upward mobility.

Those teachers who had reputations as outstanding practitioners brought a high level of idealism to their work. This idealism caused them to work hard to accomplish their goals and thus contributed to their reputations as excellent teachers. At the same time, the work setting frustrated these teachers because it was not ideal. Some of these excellent teachers responded by focusing more strongly on their own classrooms and isolating themselves from other adults in the building. Others brought their idealism to bear on other aspects of the job, such as committee work. In neither case, however, did the idealism of these teachers further their careers. Plainly stated, teaching affords few opportunities for advancement. But these teachers placed higher value on teaching ability than on administrative ability.

Administrative opportunities are limited in education. Therefore, few teachers face the situation of having to decide what to do when an administrative opportunity knocks. However, those who do face such a situation often reveal the kind of idealism about teaching that excellent teachers exhibit in their daily work.

For example, when Barbara Timmitts was first offered a position as an instructional specialist, she turned it down. She felt that she had not taught long enough to be able to perform at the highest level. She took the position the second time it was offered, however — not because she was certain by then that she would be an excellent administrator, but because she wanted the job and was fearful that it would not be offered to her a third time.

If we examine Barbara’s thinking with regard to this job offer, we notice that her major concern is whether or not she will perform well, not how the new position will advance her career. This orientation toward work seems idealistic, because one’s performance of a particular role is always measured against one’s ideal concept of how the role ought to be performed.

The teachers in this study focused on the content of teaching as an occupation, rather than on the occupation of teaching as a link to other occupational choices. In other words, quality of performance overrode career value in their minds. These teachers thought about how they served the occupation, rather than about how the occupation could serve them.

Christine Bart, head of the first-grade team at Vista City Elementary, provides a good example of this attitude. She played a strong role among the teachers in her school and on districtwide committees. Though a likely candidate for a principalship, she expressed little interest in obtaining such a post. In her view, principals are powerless. Caught between parental demands and regulations established by the central office, their hands are tied.

Christine shared the view of many teachers at Vista City Elementary that administrative work is not productive work — and thus that administrative positions waste valuable talent. She saw Barbara Timmitts as a case in point.

“My priority is in here with these youngsters,” Christine said. “You look at someone like Barbara Timmitts. She is about the best teacher in this school, and she was promoted to pushing a cart down the halls. She walks around with requisition slips and a pencil in her hand. Now what is that?” According to many of the teachers in this study, children are the core of teaching.

 We cannot have a concept of career that describes only those women who combine great ambition with a willingness to challenge social norms.

In their daily work, these teachers revealed their commitment to teaching and their attempts to match their efforts to their idealistic conceptions of the job. Although they often complained about the lack of breaks in their daily schedules, many of these teachers devoted what breaks they had to their work. Roberta Blake, a special education teacher, gave up every free period, including lunch, so that her class could be mainstreamed for art, music, and physical education. Kate Bridges spent a majority of her lunch hours correcting the papers that her class had completed during the morning. She asserted that this approach provides “infinitely more mileage” for the children, even though that mileage is taken “out of the teacher’s skin.” The members of the sixth grade teaching team asked the principal to schedule all special classes for their students first thing in the morning, so that they could have as much continuous time to work with their students as possible. Sandra Miller gave up her lunch hour and her time after school for a month, in order to administer individual “levels tests” without stealing the time from her reading groups.

Clearly, many Vista City teachers focused their efforts on becoming “great teachers,” not on moving into administrative posts. As they saw it, a great teacher had a schoolwide or districtwide reputation for excellence. That reputation was not determined by style. Great teachers could be strict or lenient — interested or not interested in, say, learning centers. But they were the teachers in whose classes parents hoped that their children would be placed, for in these classes most children were stimulated, were learning, and were happy.

Those who had reputations as great teachers were able to wield more power and thus to strengthen their autonomy. These were important benefits. Power increased formally through such things as election to the faculty council or nomination to serve on a districtwide committee. The power of the great teachers increased informally when the principal solicited their views or gave them greater leeway to organize their classrooms and curricula.

To faculty members at Vista City Elementary, being a great teacher meant something. Given the manner in which schools and school districts are organized, they were not convinced that being a great administrator carried equivalent weight.

Clearly, the way we generally use the concept of career does not describe the work patterns of these Vista City teachers. They do not always value upward mobility; moreover, they sometimes leave their jobs because of domestic or parental responsibilities. Traditionally, these facts have been interpreted as signifying lack of career commitment. And, since the occupation of teaching is structured to favor these very orientations, we cannot call teaching a career.

More to the point, we cannot call teaching a career because our concept of career has been generated from male work patterns. Thus the concept best fits a “family-free married man.”8 As the stories presented here suggest, parental roles must be conceptualized as compatible, not competitive, with work roles. Parenting is not the opposite of career commitment. When women choose to bear and nurture children, they are not necessarily signifying a lack of career commitment. We cannot have a concept of career that describes only those women who combine great ambition with a willingness to challenge social norms. Our concept of career must account equally well for the lives of all men and women.

Concepts generated by the social sciences are useful when they help us to understand and organize experience. But when they hinder understanding, they must be reconsidered.

*To protect the privacy of informants, all names are fictitious.

  1. A narrow view of the administrator’s role, for example, can cause difficulties for women who take administrative positions. See Charol Shakeshaft and Irene Nowell, “Research on Theories, Concepts, and Models of Organizational Behavior: The Influence of Gender,” Issues in Education, Winter 1984, pp. 186-203.
  2. William H. Form, “Occupations and Careers,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 11 (New York: Macmillan/Free Press, 1968), p. 252.
  3. Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 172.
  4. Ward S. Mason, The Beginning Teacher: Status and Career Orientations (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961).
  5. Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).
  6. Ibid., p. 89.
  7. See Robert Bogdan and Sari Knopp Biklen, Qualitative Research for Education (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1982).
  8. Arlie Hochschild, “Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers,” in Florence Howe, ed., Women and the Power to Change (New York: McGraw Hill, 1971), pp. 47-80.


Citation: Biklen, S.K. (1986). “I have always worked”: Elementary schoolteaching as a career. Phi Delta Kappan, 67 (7), 504-508.

SARI KNOPP BIKLEN is an associate professor of education at Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y.

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