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close this bookPrimary Teacher Trainees in Trinidad & Tobago: Characteristics, Images, Experiences and Expectations (CIE, 2001, 55 p.)
close this folderChapter 6: Summary and Discussion
View the document6.1 Deconstructing Beginning Teacher Identity
View the document6.2 Implications for Teachers' College Curriculum

6.1 Deconstructing Beginning Teacher Identity

6.1.1 Introduction

In this chapter, an attempt will be made to deconstruct beginning teacher identity through the use of the images, myths, and metaphors that seem to be embedded in trainees' understanding of their work. Cultural myths, because they have been around for a long time, tend to be internalised in such a way that they become part of the substantive identity (Ball & Godson, 1985), that is, they become part of the "true" nature of the person. The "teacher as caring" seems to be a metaphor that has become part of the cultural myth of a good teacher in Trinidad and Tobago.

6.1.2 Cultural Myth - The Good Teacher

Most people in the society believe they have a good idea of what occurs in schools and what a teacher's work is about. This is because they have all been pupils at one time or another. In addition, we are all captive to the myths that are passed down from one generation to the next about teachers in this society. Teacher trainees are no different. They bring certain prior beliefs to bear in their approach to teaching. If the myths remain largely intact, despite changing societal and economic scenarios, there is a possibility that the myths may be masking real underlying changes. If this is the case, then we may have a situation where teacher training and the education system itself are acting out mythical assumptions against a social backdrop where such assumptions may not always be valid and, therefore, positive change in the education system may be difficult to effect.

It is the contention of this report that beginning teacher identity is enmeshed in a pervasive cultural myth in Trinidad and Tobago. This myth, that of the good teacher, intensified through initial training, offers a set of conflicting images from which metaphors are derived, resulting in a becoming teacher identity riddled with tensions and contradictions.

The study of teacher identity, then, becomes largely a process of deconstructing this myth, in order to gauge its consequences and study its implications. The findings generated in this study suggest that the myth generates a perpetual tension between the demands of self and that of society. Training in the teachers' colleges, for example, involves an intense socialisation into the myth. The training process focuses on the developing teacher in the classroom. It speaks mainly to the self of the beginning teacher and only explores the societal context in which this self must find expression in limited ways.

6.1.3 Genesis of the Myth

Teachers in Trinidad and Tobago have historically been accorded respect and acclaim in a manner similar to the way in which nuns, priests, and other self-sacrificing altruistic humanitarians are revered. The acclaim and respect are directly related to the low level of remuneration teachers were prepared to accept in order to dedicate themselves to the care and education of the young. Teaching, then, has historically been associated with matters of self-image, self-esteem, and self-respect. Rewards were mainly intrinsic. Nias (1989) refers to a common conception of teaching as an essentially personal activity.

Emancipation from slavery took place in the British West Indies in 1834. Trinidad, however, had proved to be a thorny problem for the British who only became colonial overlords in 1797. In the aftermath of emancipation, the British could see their hold on the island slipping. Trinidad was called a polyglot country. Its population - whites, coloureds, and ex-slaves - were mainly Roman Catholics, espousing legitimacy to Spanish and French culture, language, and customs. What schools existed at the time, pursued a French curriculum and were inextricably tied to religious ideals. To combat this pervasive French influence, the British conceived of a plan to institute universal primary education in the 1830s through state-run schools using an English curriculum and in which religion would be downplayed (Campbell, 1992).

Master teachers came from Battersea in Britain to train local persons to be primary school teachers. The local persons were from the ex-slave population, and the intention was that they would provide an education along anglophile lines, that would help the British to compete successfully with the French for the hearts and minds of the people. Education, then, was conceived in terms of bringing about political stability through a policy of Anglicisation.

Teacher training had to become rigorous, punctuated with many hurdles (examinations), so that the authorities would be sure that these ex-slaves would be able to legitimise British hegemony in the society. Hence, the training focused on content and methods and did not explore the social process of colonisation in which teachers were implicated. It did not conceive as important the notion that teacher training was propping up the status quo and was part of a policy for establishing order in the colony.

A myth about teachers seems to have emerged from this historical context. Teachers were seen as highly dedicated and special individuals who had taken on a difficult task that was in the interest of everyone. They were prepared to forego high salaries and status but would be suitably rewarded by the fulfilment of working with children and by the respect accorded them.

For a people newly freed from slavery, without land or capital, teaching appeared to be a respectable alternative to manual labour. Whilst the work of teachers was valuable to the British, they were not prepared to pay high salaries because they did not wish to alter the stratified nature of the society. They preferred to reward teachers with the universal respect accorded them and the self-fulfilment that could accrue from applying themselves assiduously to their task.

The pervasive cultural myth of the good teacher, then, seems to have emerged from the 19th century. Today, it is still well represented in how the trainees speak of good teaching and their aspirations of being a good teacher. For example, note the hardship that this trainee was prepared to undergo as an untrained teacher:

...walking 2½ miles to school in a poverty-stricken area where no taxis worked and get to school on time. It is valuable to me because, against all odds, I wanted to be the best teacher I could be and I had to overcome the trials. It made me more stronger (sic) as an individual and I learn to take up responsibilities.

Being a strong individual, overcoming, and taking up responsibilities, are pervasive themes in the beginning teacher identity. However, such a teacher enjoys the respect of all and is self-fulfilled:

My children- my class. I really love them; they made me want to return to them filled with greater knowledge. It's valuable because I lean on their eagerness and love.

In the beginning teacher identity, the cultural myth of the good teacher as described above seems to be alive and well.

6.1.4 Beginning Teacher Identity

The cultural myth which seems to dominate thinking about teaching in Trinidad and Tobago regards teachers, generally, as engaged in self-sacrificing work which they do because of a love of children and a desire to contribute positively to the country. Teachers have always been accorded some measure of respect because of their apparent willingness to forego the rewards that others may desire out of a career, for example, lucrative salaries and higher status. More specifically, the myth sees teaching as something peculiar to the classroom and the teacher as a powerful individual, within the classroom, capable of effecting change through love and selfless dedication. It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that the beginning teacher identity is located within this framework about teaching and teachers.

In the 19th century, lower-income, intelligent people saw teaching as a way out of a lifetime of manual labour. They would not necessarily be better off materially, but they would be comfortable with the respect their work accorded them and the advantages that came out of this. Today, we can see parallels with the trainee teacher. At the beginning of the 21st century, the majority of the incoming trainees to the teachers' colleges tend to be drawn from the lower socio-economic classes and they possess basic secondary school credentials. It would seem that many of them are making teaching a career because it is a way out of unemployment. However, a large percentage of them have their eyes set on moving out of the primary school system, typically to enter the secondary school system or to obtain another job with a status and level of remuneration higher than what obtains at the primary level.

The beginning teacher identity, then, seems to be characterised by tensions. These tensions exist since trainees hold primary teaching in high esteem because of the attributes associated with the cultural myth of a good teacher, yet, many of them wish to leave teaching because it does not provide the extrinsic rewards that other professions do. Many are prepared to move into teaching at the secondary level where the tension might be eased, somewhat, because of higher salaries and, generally, more comfortable working conditions.

If we now draw reference to the concepts of the substantive self and the situated self, a picture emerges in which the substantive self has embraced the cultural myth of a good teacher, whereas the situated self will experience some difficulty as the young trainee embarks on a career that does not have the rewards that coincide with other dominant values in society such as money, success, and material possessions. Depending on the person's biography and life history experiences, agency will come to the fore here in the attempt to resolve this internal dilemma. Trainees may choose to commit to the altruistic values associated with teaching, and that will be the face they present to the world. On the other hand, the commitment may be only partial as they seek to discover greener pastures. The findings of this study suggest that many trainees fall into the latter category. Such an accommodation resolves some of the tensions in the beginning teacher identity. It, however, produces others because it does not address the myth.

A tentative picture of teacher identity is emerging where there are tensions caused by conflicting beliefs and experiences. Provenzo et al. (1989) raise the issue that a crucial component of teacher identity is the tension between the expected or desired and the experienced. Cultural myths and the teachers' college curriculum could be thought of as projecting a desired scenario, while the trainees who were exposed to the OJT programme and/or who operated as untrained teachers in the system prior to coming to college, experienced something, in most cases, that was radically different. Trainees expect that in lieu of material rewards, teaching will at least afford them some altruistic and fulfilling experiences. Yet they know that in the realities of primary school life (for example, overcrowded classrooms), such experiences are few. Thus, what the cultural myths of teaching say about teaching appears not to hold at all times. Even if one is prepared to forego material rewards, there is no guarantee that one can be satisfied by intrinsic rewards.

These insights about the beginning teacher identity do not augur well for the retention of teachers at the primary level or for the education system as a whole. As primary teachers use any means necessary to leave, the primary level will always be receiving new, untrained teachers, and newly qualified teachers, to swell the ranks of those who will not, or cannot leave.