Teaching in Tension: Teacher-Mothers, Work-Life Alignment, and a Falsely Feminised Profession

Bouchard, Elizabeth
Jacobs, Meg
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Master of Education
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Auckland University of Technology

Teaching is widely seen to be a feminised profession. The beliefs that women dominate all aspects of teaching, are better suited to the requirements of the role, and will have careers that fit neatly into their familial obligations are intrinsically nestled into societal ideals. Over the past several decades, multiple studies have detailed the tensions of being a working mother. While this phenomenon has gained broad recognition, the tensions of being a teacher-mother are less studied and less understood by society.

This thesis examines teacher-mothers’ realities, revealing the interplay between women’s agency and the societal and professional structures that influence their ability to create work-life alignment. Specifically, this study mobilises the interaction of sociology and feminism to theorise teacher-mothers' experiences in their domestic and work spaces and how these were often intertwined. It questions how teacher-mothers negotiate the complex relationships between their own experiences and the perspectives of others. In doing so, it examines the tensions where different ideologies converge, confronting the inherent discord between societal assumptions of the feminisation of teaching and the lived realities of being a teacher-mother.

This study amplifies teacher-mothers’ voices in its design, focus and findings. By taking photographs of their daily lives, the women were able to illustrate and articulate their experiences in detail during photo-elicitation interviews. While society and educational agents often view teaching as a family-oriented career choice, there are significant challenges contrary to this belief. This widely held view is detrimental to both individual teacher-mothers and the education sector as a whole. Yet the teacher-mothers in this study were not simply at the mercy of social structures. While they were pulled between opposing ideologies regarding successful women and intensive mothering, their practices represented an agency that helped them to shape the conditions in which they worked. The role of the school organisation and school leaders were also found to be influential in shaping their experiences. The school acted as a mediator between macro-level determinants and the women’s micro-level realities.

Taking account of both structure and agency when studying teacher-mothers’ work allows their experiences to be understood while recognising that women can also impact larger gendered structures. They are simultaneously shaped by and shaping the world around them. With this in mind, it is hoped that the findings and recommendations of this thesis will support women in their transition from teacher to teacher-mother and also support actors in the education system to definitively see the complexities of this time in a critical group of educators' personal and professional lives. This understanding comes with a professional shift towards respecting all teachers as carers both within and outside of their classrooms and, secondly, empowering teachers to build alignment between these socially valued aspects of their lives.

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