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Researching Teachers’ Lives and Careers

Jennifer Nias

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The research to which this piece refers is published as Nias (1989).  I used a fairly simple methodology, dictated by my own lack of research experience (at the time) and the need to interfere as little as possible with the preoccupations and busy lives of primary teachers.  I did not find any prior reading on research methods useful, except Berger (1963).  I did however draw heavily upon my earlier experience of historical research (Nias, 1978).  I also found the work of Marshall (1981) reassuring as I struggled with the analysis and interpretation of the data, and that of Lortie (1975) when I needed to mount a post-hoc justification for my choice of interview questions.  On the whole, I have never found it productive to do much substantive or methodological reading in advance of data collection; rather, after a preliminary analysis of data, I turn to what others have written and then move between my understandings and theirs until my own ideas have taken form.

In this piece, I have used an existing retrospective, self-critical account of my research into teachers’ lives and careers (Nias, 1991) to highlight the most important lessons I learnt during 99 interviews, conducted over two years.  After 10 years, I re-interviewed 67 of my original sample, thus providing the basis for some longitudinal findings, but I have omitted most consideration of this aspect of the work (see Nias op. cit. for details).

Formulating Research Questions This research started almost by chance and grew out of the work in which I was engaged during the 1970s.  At that time, I was responsible for designing and running a one-year postgraduate Certification in Education course for graduates who wished to teach children between 7 and 13 years old. Each year this group numbered between 12 and 20 and worked in an isolated basement room.  Staffing was limited, the pressure to cover a good deal of professional ground in a short time was intense. As a result, we spent many hours in each other’s company and got to know one another very well.  Once individuals had begun teaching, they would often telephone, call or write, seeking reassurance, support and information.  After 5 years I decided to spend a forthcoming sabbatical term visiting past graduates from this course and exploring with them the strengths and weaknesses of their training.  In other words, the enquiry was initially conceived as a naïve and personal attempt to evaluate the course for which I was responsible.
As a start, I conducted two trial interviews with local teachers.  Almost as soon as I began to talk to them, I realized that there was a mismatch between what they wanted to tell me and what I thought I wanted to know.  Yet they were presenting me with a vivid picture of the lived experience of primary teaching, of a kind and with a richness of detail which I did not think existed in published form. Accordingly, I reformulated my aims.  My intention became, and remained for the next two years, to capture as nearly as possible in the words of the teachers themselves, a detailed and comprehensive picture of the subjective reality of primary teaching. This explains my lack of precise research questions, formulated in advance.

Choice of Interviewees After some months, I added to my own ex-students an opportunity sample of graduates from other PGCE courses; in the end they made up one third of the total number.  Throughout, I limited my enquiries to those who had been teaching for at least two years. It would have been redundant to add to the existing literature, all of which showed that teachers were not prepared for the ‘reality shock’ of classroom life, whatever the nature of their training.  I also approached those from my course who had left teaching, reasoning that people who had given it up, for whatever reason, might have important things to say about their professional experience.

Importance of Trialling Methods I asked my next four trial interviewees to talk to me about their life in teaching so far. As they did so, I became progressively more aware of issues that teachers themselves felt it important to raise, and was able to modify or eliminate questions which appeared to yield little data.  I ended up with about twenty salient topics which I covered in any order.  I represented these for myself, as an aide-memoire, by single words on a small, unobtrusive piece of card.  They remained substantially unchanged over the next two years, because they seemed central to teacher’s experience.

Key Interview Methods In conducting the interviews, I was guided by three principles:  (i) I tried to ask questions as naturally as possible, so that interviews resembled open-ended conversations. I did however often use probe or supplementary questions, if I felt it would help my interviewees to clarify or elaborate their feelings or ideas. (ii) I sought for concrete rather than abstract responses and where replies contained words capable of many interpretations, I asked for examples of particular behaviours or situations. (iii) I approached sensitive areas, especially ones likely to be associated with strong feelings (e.g. shame, love, hate), with indirect rather than direct questions.

Interviews took place wherever teachers chose and lasted as long as they wanted to go on talking.  None was shorter than one and a half hours, many were longer.  This in itself taught me much about the loneliness of many teachers’ working lives.  They did not talk more, or more openly, out of school; the release of talking to an interested, professionally knowledgeable colleague seemed to override considerations of place or territory.  I also interviewed 8 people over the telephone.  These too yielded valuable insights, even though I lacked non-verbal clues and context.

Recording.  At this stage I had no funds for tape recording or transcription and, in any case, feared that a tape recorder would inhibit open discussion.  So I took rapid notes in a personal shorthand, recording verbatim whenever I could.  I found this difficult, because I was also trying to maintain as much eye-contact as possible and a relaxed conversational atmosphere.  I did not subsequently give interviewees any form of feedback on what they had said or I had recorded.

Analysis and Interpretation Initially, I was overwhelmed by the quantity of data I had collected and partly for this reason was slow to embark upon analysis of it.  In addition, the open-ended nature of much of the questioning, the wide-ranging nature of the conversations and my search for concrete examples meant that there were few ready-made categories built into the interview responses.  After many delays, I embarked on a first, and what I hoped would be a fairly straightforward, attempt at category analysis, triggered by the frequency with which the teachers mentioned and commented on their headteachers.  Patterns soon began to emerge and, with the encouragement of a colleague, I published an article (Nias, 1980).  Several others followed.  Nias (1981a; 1981b; 1984)

However, category analysis of this sort took me only some of the way into the deeper and more theoretical aspects of my material.  I soon began to realise the extent and nature of teachers’ self-referentialism, but was daunted by the task of understanding and using the underlying concepts of ‘self’ and ‘identity’ Nuas, 1984b 1985; 1989).  I would probably have given up had it not been for the interest in my tentative conceptualisations shown by teachers and colleagues and their support, intellectual excitement (at the possibility of breaking new ground) and tenacity.  It was a complex and time-consuming task, made more difficult by having to fit working with the data, reading, thinking and writing around the demands of a full time job.

Despite the challenges posed by the task of making sense of such a huge and loosely-structured set of data, the long-drawn-out process had its methodological advantages:  With so much material, patterns could easily be checked and internally validated; there was no shortage of illustrative examples; the variety and individualism of my interviewees was an antidote to boredom, as I returned time and again to the material.

Writing I am a slow and painstaking writer, most of whose work goes through four drafts (an initial attempt, however rough; a struggle, painfully and tenaciously, with ideas, structure and expression; then a critical reshaping and refining of all of these; finally, polishing).  For me, data collection is generally interesting and enjoyable and analysis and interpretation are intellectually rewarding.  By contrast, writing is drudgery.  I persist in it only because I feel I have ideas or evidence which are worth making public, and because I take a craft pride in the finished product.

Funding and Support During 1975-77, I received no external funding, and since at the time, research had little priority in many HE institutions, my own enquiries had little formal support.  Similarly, the second, longitudinal section of the research (see Nias, 1991, pp 156-9) was fitted in round the 480+ group teaching hours required of tutors in the largely teaching-only HE institution to which I had moved.  However, both my employers directly or indirectly covered the cost of travelling to the schools, and of postage.  In the second phase (Nias, op cit), I also had help with the cost of tape-recording and transcription.  Otherwise, I operated on a self-help basis, staying with friends when I needed to be away from home, squeezing time and resources from other commitments. In addition, my colleagues were forbearing and helpful during the tortured months of authorship.  I owed much of my persistence with this undertaking to the confidence placed in me by others and to their tacit or open encouragement.

Impact on Teaching In 1977, I changed from initial to in-service teacher education and this research therefore had little impact on my teaching of PGCE students.  However, my subsequent work enabled me frequently to test my thinking against the perceptions and professional insights of teachers themselves.  As a result, I was satisfied that the picture which I was painting reflected the world that teachers themselves inhabited and yet helped them to see it, and themselves within it, in fresh ways.  It also led me to emphasise in my teaching, and later research, not just the subjective realities of the classroom experience but also the importance of seeing primary schools as organisations of adults, with management needs, and of exploring the relationships between colleagues and between them and their managers (Nias, Southworth and Yeomans, 1989; Nias, Southworth and Campbell, 1992). In the process, I sharpened and refined my capacity to ask productive questions, to listen carefully but critically to the responses and to use these to move my thinking and that of my students forward in constructive ways.

Weaknesses and Strengths I started this research with little grounding in research methods.  It was 15 years before the findings were published in book form. During this time I learnt a good deal more about qualitative research methods.  I would now argue that the work had a number of weaknesses:  a crude and simplistic methodology with heavy reliance on one form of data collection and few controls on subjectivity in collection, recording or analysis; little protection against memory decay over a long period and unsophisticated methods for data analysis;  lack of attention to the ethical rights of respondents;  failure systematically to collect biographical data which might have revealed cohort influences or pointed me towards historical or cultural interpretations instead of the socio-psychological one which I adopted.

However, it also has its strengths.  The simplicity of the research design freed me to concentrate on the evidence, instead of taking refuge in the discussion of methodological complexities. I had to wrestle with the ideas implicit in teachers’ accounts or give up the enterprise.   The extent and quality of the information challenged me to search for connections and relationships between apparently isolated ideas and gave the enquiry added depths. Similarly, its apparent formlessness and complexity forced me to struggle with chaos and prevented satisfaction with premature foreclosure.  Its long gestation meant that I had time both to get to know my data intimately, and to consider them from many perspectives, some of them generated by the other work in which I was involved.  In short, at every stage of the research, I had time to think, and was forced to do so.  I also learnt that some thinking takes place at an unconscious level and that time off-task can be very productive.  Finally, over the long period of the research, I had frequent opportunities to test my emerging ideas with practitioners and to be convinced that they recognised and yet were challenged by my findings.  This was the most important form of validation I could have sought.



Berger, P. (1963)  Invitation to Sociology,  New York: Doubleday

Lortie, D.(1975)  School Teacher:  a Sociological  Study,  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press

Marshall, J. (1981) ‘Making sense as a personal process’ in Reason, P.and Rowan, J. (eds) Human Inquiry,  Chichester: Wiley

Nias, J. (1978) ‘Sociological research:  Some analogies with historical method’,  Cambridge Journal of Education, 8, 1, 32-44

Nias, J. (1980) ‘Leadership styles and job satisfaction in primary schools’ in Bush, T, Glatter, R., Goodey, J. and Riches C (eds)  Approaches to School Management,  London: Harper Row

Nias, J. (1981a) Teacher satisfaction and dissatisfaction: Herzberg’s ‘two-factor’ hypothesis revisited. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 23. pp 235-246

Nias, J. (1981b) Commitment and motivation in primary school teachers, Educational Review, 33, pp 181-190

Nias, J. (1984a) Learning and acting the role: in-school support for primary teachers, Educational Review, 36, pp1-15

Nias, J. (1984b) The definition and maintenance of self in primary teaching, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 5, pp 267-280

Nias, J. (1985) Reference groups in primary teaching: Talking, listening and identity, in Ball, S. and Goodson, I. (eds) Teachers’ Lives and Careers, Lewes: Falmer Press

Nias, J (1989a) Teaching and the self, in Holly, M.L and McLaughlin, C. (eds) Perspectives on Teachers’ Professional Development, Lewes: Falmer Press (also in Norris, N (ed) (2008) Curriculum and the Teacher: 35 years of the Cambridge Journal of Education London: Routledge

Nias, J. (1989b) Primary Teachers Talking: a Study of Teaching as Work,  London: Routledge

Nias, J., Southworth G. and Yeomans R., (1989b) Staff Relationships in the Primary School: a Study of Organizational Cultures,  London: Cassell

Nias, J (1991) Primary Teachers Talking: a reflexive account of longitudinal research, in Walford, G. (ed) Doing Educational Research, London: Routledge

Nias J., Southworth G. and Campbell P., (1992)  Whole School Curriculum Development in the Primary School,  London: Falmer


Links to relevant TLRP research

The Enhanced Competence-Based Learning in Early Professional Development TLRP project team (2003 – 2007) examined the developing identities of new teachers in Scotland and a number of their publications give further insight into researching teachers’ lives: see, for example:

Boreham, N. & Gray, P. (2005) Professional Identity of teachers in their early development, Dublin Symposium.

Boreham, N., Gray, P. & Blake, A. (2006) Job satisfaction among newly qualified teachers in Scotland. BERA 2006 Conference.

Cope, P., Gray, P. & I’Anson, J. (2005) Teachers’ World: motivation and being in the induction of Scottish teachers.

Corbin, B. (2006) ‘Settling in? ‘ Unsettling experiences in inducting new teachers. Discourse Power Resistance 5, Research as Subversive Activity Conference.

Corbin, B. & Stronach, I. (2006) Professionalism on Probation: Induction and New Teachers in Scotland. BERA 2006 Conference.

Corbin, B. & Stronach, I. (2006) Feeling professional: new teachers and induction. Annual TLRP Conference 2006.

McNally, J. (2005) From informal learning to identity formation: a conceptual journey in early teacher development. Scottish Educational Review, 37, pp.79-90.

McNally, J. (2005) Becoming a teacher: a question of identity formation. Evabcom Seminar.

McNally, J. (2005) Identity, person and purpose in the preparation of teachers.

McNally, J. (2006) A loose thread of research in a seamless garment of professional development. TLRP Seminar Programme: Changing Teacher Roles, Identities and Professionalism (C-TRIP).

McNally, J., Blake, A., Corbin, B. & Gray, P. (2007) Finding an identity and meeting a standard?  Connecting the conflicting in teacher induction. Journal of Education Policy.

McNally, J., Gray, P. (2006) Finding an identity or meeting a standard? Conflicting discourses in becoming a teacher. European Educational Research Conference 2006, Geneva


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