Exploring women primary teachers’ understandings of professional learning : putting together past experiences, present demands and policy influences
Rae, Ann Jacqueline
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Internationally the contribution that teachers’ learning can make in bringing about change in education, by improving outcomes for young people, is a topic of ongoing interest. Influenced by discourses of professionalism, in Scotland education policy has developed over time to support and structure teacher learning throughout the teaching career. However, the lived experience of being a teacher is a socially constructed act located in multiple realities. Policy in action may, or may not, reflect the intentions of policy makers. Within the context of Primary Education, in which 92% of teachers are women, this qualitative study explores women Primary Teachers’ experiences and understandings of professional learning. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 18 women Primary Teachers and 12 opinion shapers. Critical analysis of relevant educational policy also took place in order to explore dominant policy discourses. A Grounded Theory approach was adapted for data analysis and theory construction. Sensitised by thinking tools provided by feminist theory and Bourdieu, the findings suggest early schooling plays an important part in shaping experiences and understandings of learning. Moreover, gender matters in understanding women Primary Teachers’ experiences and understandings of learning. Early gendered learning identities seemed to notably influence how learning was negotiated and enacted later as a woman, as a teacher and thus as a professional. The woman teacher participants in this study were theorised as Caring Teachers. However, Caring Teachers is not a homogenous construct as the women performed as Nice women, as Confident women, as Kind women and as Authoritative women. Influenced by early schooling and a desire to be ‘good teachers’, the Nice and the Kind women produced themselves within traditional discourses of femininity, of compliance and subordination. This performance of a teacher was vulnerable to policy demands as, despite the rhetoric of professionalism, education policy constructs Class Teachers as technicians. In contrast, the Confident and Authoritative women, more likely to be Chartered Teachers, produced themselves somewhat differently. Their habitus predisposed them to perform as a learner with some confidence. However, although the Confident women and Authoritative women understood and enacted teacher learning differently, their learning too was constrained by the limitations of policy-sanctioned discourses. Informed by the findings of this small-scale study, I argue that teacher learning is subject to complex, interwoven understandings of woman, of learner and of teacher as professional. Attention, therefore, should be given to the interrelated nature of the aforementioned constructs as Women Primary teachers’ learning and professionalism has played, and will continue to play, an important role in shaping the outcomes available to children.