Intellectual Practicians: An Exploration of Professionalism among Upper Secondary School Teachers with Icelandic Mother Tongue Teachers as a Contextualized Empirical Case
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The study Intellectual practicians explores an educational practice; more particularly that of mother tongue teachers in upper secondary school in Iceland as experienced and described by some of these teachers.
The study’s dual research question runs as follows:
- What conceptions do Icelandic mother tongue teachers in upper secondary school have of the Icelandic subject and what implications do they attribute to the professional management of the subject?
- What occupational self-concept may be identified in the teachers’ descriptions of their work and their own professional persona?
To answer the main questions, supplementary questions are explored. These include questions about what requirements and skills the teachers find imperative in the execution of their profession, about the underlying fundament of their notions, and about what may have shaped these notions. The project thus consists of a descriptive part, in which the teachers’ descriptions and views are accounted for, and an interpretative and theorizing part, which discusses the knowledge, practice, and professional self-understanding which emerge in the teachers’ accounts. In this second part an attempt is moreover made to contextualize the identified conceptions and explore from where they may be derived.
Intellectual practicians is a qualitative study. The empirical material consists of the participating teachers’ personal written and oral descriptions of their own practice and occupational self-understanding. The subsequent hermeneutical interpretation of these descriptions is based on Charles Taylor’s hermeneutics. Taylor’s specific version of hermeneutics was chosen as the study’s theoretical fundament because Taylor has taken an interest in interpretation of social action and interaction. The Taylorian approach is supported by Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological empiricist point of view, particularly as this is expressed in his theory of practice.
The study’s main findings and the interpretation of them are presented in the chapters “Teaching as a primary category in the teachers’ discourse” and “The teachers and their professional self”. In the first of these chapters it is stated that the teachers to a high degree mediate their discourse via the notion of “teaching”. This notion is highly dominating in the teachers’ discourse, and is used so frequently and so broadly that the term becomes somewhat inaccurate and vague. An analysis of the notion based on the teachers’ usage of it was therefore required. Based on this analysis, a division of “teaching” into four separate terms is suggested, and these terms – teachment, schooling, wise, and tokener – are used in the further interpretation.
The teachers pay particular attention to the specific didactic activities (teachment in the thesis’ terminology) and this theme occupies a dominating position in their accounts. Several possible explanations of this are proposed in the thesis. One explanation may be that teaching is both a specific activity and a practice in a wide sense, and that it as such implies a particular logic, i.e. a way of reasoning as a professional agent. Another explanation, per se consistent with the former one, may relate to professional positioning; these teachers’ basic education is not basically a professional education, since it consists of academic studies at the Faculty of Arts, subsequently complemented by a teacher training course. However, while trained as academics, the participants have chosen a career as upper secondary school teachers, an occupation rather different from that of university teachers, which they might also have chosen to become. The teachers’ heavy emphasis on teachment may at the same time signalize that they are at home with the codes and forms of knowledge of their occupation, and that they through their specific emphasis and choice of terms position themselves as something distinctively different from university scholars. The teachers’ statements about their occupation and the subject they teach seem to support this interpretation.
When the teachers talk about teachment, they speak at length about teaching activities, and they accentuate their educational principles, which e.g. imply emphasizing practical skills as much as theoretical knowledge in their teaching. In addition, they underline that teaching in upper secondary school implies much more than imparting the subject curriculum to their students; it is just as much a matter of preparing students for their future life, according to the teachers. Stimulating students’ social and cultural awareness and enhancing their capacity as social agents are key concepts in this context, the teachers find. Consequently, teaching at this level should be regarded an educational activity in the widest sense, and so, the teachers’ ethical standards are an inescapable part of their professionalism. Through examples the teachers display how this is implicit in their occupational practice and how it even has impact on their choice of teaching methods and topics. It seems, then, that all impartment of the subject matter is value-laden, and that “objective” teaching seems to be an impossibility. It is claimed that this requires a broad understanding of upper secondary school teachers’ professional knowledge; an understanding that acknowledges moral and social judgement as essential teacher knowledge, in addition to thorough knowledge of the subject one is teaching, as well as knowledge of educational theory, and teaching skills.
All the participants express satisfaction with their job. Likewise, although all the teachers emphasize individuality in their self-accounts, they are all at the same time very loyal to their colleagues and the local school administration. The teachers moreover unanimously express a positive attitude to their pupils and a keen interest in didactics and teaching. In light of this, it is something of a paradox that the teachers’ accounts are almost completely free of stories about individual pupils. However, rather than classifying this finding as a mere paradox, the contextual interpretation indicates that if one takes the organization of the teachers’ work into account, this apparent contradiction may be explained as structurally logical.
The teachers regard themselves teachers of Icelandic language and literature, and upbringers and agents for cultural and democratic education in equal measure. The 9 latter task relates to what the teachers consider the mother tongue subject’s particular responsibility for impartment of the national cultural heritage, which in Iceland is closely connected to the national language and the classic Icelandic literature. Education is furthermore regarded a matter of imparting students a fundamental understanding of their cultural identity, and of providing them with the cultural and social competency required in future education and citizenship.
In their self-descriptions, the teachers accentuate their practical orientation and skills, while their academic knowledge is granted a less prominent position. They are primarily teachers, the participants state, and have all developed increased interest in educational matters during their career.
As for the suggested implications of the study’s findings, the first two concern a couple of major concepts in educational discourse: First, it is argued that a refined understanding of the very broad notion of “teaching” is required, and second, that there is a need for a nuanced understanding of the notion of teacher knowledge and professionalism. Next, it is suggested that general education should be accentuated more than has often been the case as part of (upper secondary school) teachers’ knowledge and skills. Finally, the study raises the issue of whether the participants’ experience of finding themselves to be primarily practicians in their everyday work, while at the same time regarding their academic background a prerequisite of their practice and a significant element in their self-understanding may be a general characteristic for what is here termed relational work.