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Biographies, values and practice: trainee lecturers' constructions of teaching in further education

Ann-Marie Bathmaker
School of Education, University of Sheffield, 388 Glossop Road, Sheffield, S10 2JA.

James Avis
School of Education, University of Wolverhampton, Walsall Campus, Walsall, WS3 3BD.

Alex Kendall
School of Education, University of Wolverhampton

John Parsons
Collaborative Links Unit, University of Wolverhampton

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, University of Exeter, 12-14 September 2002.

Symposium for the BERA Post-16 and Lifelong Learning SIG entitled The New Breed?


This paper is one of three inter-related papers, which examine the experience of trainee FE lecturers, their perceptions of the FE sector, and their orientations towards teaching and learning, drawing on a study of trainees on a full-time FE teacher training programme in 2002. The papers focus on three areas: trainees' perceptions of work in their placement colleges; perceptions of the role of written text in teaching, and expectations of the ways in which FE students read; and in this paper, the relationship between trainees' biographies and their perceptions and orientations towards FE.

This paper explores what trainee lecturers say about their own learning career, and this affects their professional dispositions. Their visions of the role of the lecturer are compared with reality, drawing on their perceptions of the teaching and learning cultures in their placement college, factors which affect the way they work, and the match or mismatch between the Certificate in Education training programme and the trainees' experience of practice. Together, the three papers consider how trainees make sense of pedagogic relations, and interrogate developing forms of professionalism in the sector, and consider how such work might inform debate about new forms of professionalism in FE.


There is an extensive literature on how the terms and conditions in which teachers and lecturers now work have changed the nature of teacher professionalism (see for example, Ball, 1999; Easthope and Easthope, 2000; Goodson, 2000; Hargreaves, 1994; Hauge, 2000; Helsby, 1999; Sachs, 2001; Shain and Gleeson, 1999). Within this literature, those who seek opportunities for transformative democratic practice distinguish between forms of professional identity which involve compliance with the performative requirements of managerial cultures, and professional identities which are defined as 'authentic' to democratic values (Avis, 1999; Ball, 1999; Gewirtz, 1997). A contrast is made between 'designer' teachers (Sachs, 2001), who perform and conform (Gewirtz, 1997) and a whole spectrum of others, who include 'democratic' teachers (Sachs, 2001). Democratic teachers may strategically comply with managerial requirements (Shain and Gleeson, 1999), but they attempt to maintain their commitment to a set of values which includes commitment to students. However, particularly in the context of FE and vocational students, there is concern that commitment to students may involve forms of care which subtlely contribute to social control rather than transformative practice (Avis, 1988; Bates, 1998; Ecclestone, 2001).

It is all too easy for a gulf to build up between visions of democratic practice put forward by academics, and the day-to-day reality for teachers, which involves compromise and accommodation, and may not appear to challenge the prescriptive curriculum and pedagogic requirements placed on teachers and students. In a previous paper, Bathmaker (2001) draws attention to how practitioners may become cast as dupes or devils, meaning that they may be seen by academics as conforming, but by managers and policy-makers as failing to comply and thus undermining a system of rationally-structured education and training.

This presents a dilemma for attempts to develop ways of moving towards more critical and equitable practices in teaching and learning. Overcoming the dilemma includes developing ways for academic researchers and practitioners to work with one another, in order to develop shared understandings. Part of this process involves gaining a deeper insight into the possible basis for working together. This requires a better understanding of lecturers' values and perceptions of their work. In other papers we have looked at trainee lecturers' perceptions and constructions of students and other lecturers. It became clear that trainees measure their present situation against their own past experience of learning, and that their own learning careers and reasons for moving into teaching in further education are influential factors and offer insights into the value base they bring to teaching and learning.

In this paper, we draw on interviews with full-time trainee lecturers during the academic year 2001-2002, focusing specifically on what they say about their own learning career, and how this affects their professional dispositions. We consider how their visions of the role of the lecturer compare with reality, drawing on their perceptions of the teaching and learning cultures in their placement college, factors which affect the way they work, and the match or mismatch between the Certificate in Education training programme and the trainees' experience of practice. These issues are considered in relation to how they help to uncover the vision different trainees have for their role in further education. We are seeking here some form of critical pragmatism (Skrtic, 1991) which can point to ways forward for developing democratic educational practices.


The research for this study was undertaken with one whole year group of full-time students training to teach in further education (totalling 150 students) at a university in England. The study was undertaken during the academic year 2001-2002.

All students who were present on one day in February 2002 (55 in total), midway through their course, took part in a focus group (students were split into four groups) and they all completed a questionnaire. The focus groups were carried out by two members of the research team, one of whom was unknown to the students, the other who worked as a tutor on the course which the students were undertaking. These were tape recorded and transcribed, and detailed notes were also taken during the focus group sessions.

Students were asked if they would be willing to be interviewed about their perceptions and experience during their training year, and seventeen volunteers were subsequently interviewed in May, just before the end of their one year training course (see table 1). The interviews were carried out by three members of the team, two of whom were known to the students. Interviews were transcribed in full. This paper draws on ten of the interviews.

Name (pseudonym)

Subject/vocational area


Agriculture and SEN


Art and design


Psychology and basic skills




Human resource management




Tourism management




English and Access to HE


Dance and performing arts








Agriculture and SEN




Art history



Table 1: trainee teachers interviewed in 2001-2002


The paper is divided into four sections. The first section explores trainees' reflections on their own educational experience. The second discusses trainees' visions of teaching and learning. The third section compares their visions with the reality of their experience on placement in FE colleges, and the final part considers how the study might inform debate about new forms of professionalism in FE.

Reflections on own educational experience

Trainees had strong images of what they wanted teaching and learning cultures to be like based on their own experience. They offered both positive and negative perceptions of their own education. Carole described her bad memories of secondary school:

I loved primary school but hated secondary. I went to a huge comprehensive. I think there were about 1500 kids there and found it really anonymous. I mean, I was a real high achiever, I did really well, but I was just incredibly unhappy there, the whole anonymous environment, you know, people don't really know your name, you were a number really. I actually left when I was fifteen much to my parents' horror and I was kind of dragged back and they had like the deputy head come round and say "you have to come back, it's illegal." So I went back and I stayed for about a year of the sixth form and then decided to go to FE, to a proper college. [....] I actually sometimes have nightmares about it (laughs), the corridors and assembly rooms, it's just very negative. (Carole)

Sue explained that:

In school from about 13 I didn't go, I went intermittently and the main problem was that I felt that I wasn't in control that I had no control over my life. No one ever asked me why, they asked me the consequences, they asked me what I was doing but no one ever asked me why. (Sue)

It took her 20 years before she felt able to return to education, to join an access course. In contrast to her very negative memories of school, she said of her access course:

It valued me, it valued my experiences and who I was and that's what it gave me. (Sue)

Carole contrasted her experience of FE college with school as follows:

It was really good. I had very supportive lecturers. I had one very supportive lecturer who really encouraged me, noticed I was bright and able, but also encouraged me to go to university, which I wanted to do anyway. But with my school I felt it was more they wanted their statistics to look good. They were like pressurising me to go to Oxford, go to Cambridge. But I didn't feel it was for me, it was for them. And this lecturer in FE, she was just really really fabulous, a great teacher. Perhaps good because she wanted you to do well and get the grades, but also really inspiring, really really skilled and very kind of able to see people's stories, what might be going on and what kind of support they might need. And she encouraged me to go to Cambridge but I actually went to Durham. (Carole)

Other trainees (Brandon and Daljinder) described positive experiences of both school and college. Daljinder completed her post-16 studies in a school sixth form and an FE college, and said:

both of them were really positive experiences. It wasn't something where I thought, 'I just want to go to sixth form college' because both of my experiences had been very, very good, in both my FE institution and sixth form college. (Daljinder)

It was her psychology teacher at college who inspired her. She explained:

We had 25 people in the class, everyone would just stare at her, and she'd be saying things. I wanted be like that. I wanted to be the teacher who could inspire. (Daljinder)

Brandon described his art teachers in the sixth form at school as very good, who 'went beyond what you were supposed to do for the curriculum'. From there he went on to a Foundation course in Art and Design at the local art college, where the teaching inspired him, and he felt encouraged to extend himself, as he explained here:

I particularly remember one occasion, very early on, when I went to the head of foundation, I said 'what do I call you? Do I call you sir, or do I call you Mr [name]?' And he went 'No'. You call me [first name], like everybody else. So it was a very expansive sort of thing. There didn't seem to be any limits to what you could do, and you were encouraged to push it as far as you could. (Brandon)

Conveying that tingling feeling: trainees' visions of teaching and learning

Their visions of what education and training should be like drew on their past experience of what made studying a positive or a negative experience. They had also developed their own vision of the underlying purpose of learning, often related to a commitment to their subject and knowledge base, which was articulated as the importance of different ways of knowing - as an artist, or as a psychologist, or through reading literature for example.

Brandon saw being an artist and being a teacher as similar activities. For him:

If you're teaching art and design it's the same as being an artist, because it's all about being critical. Not only critical of your own work, but critical of others. (Brandon)

Daljinder wanted to inspire students, as her own psychology teacher had done. She said:

I've got a tingling feeling, to be carried on through my teaching. (Daljinder)

She talked of students developing a passion for her subject. Her vision for psychology was what she had valued in her own studies:

Our teacher never said to us, "right, here's the study, here's a theory, and here's the criticism". She'd actually say, "here's the theory, here's the study, let's talk about it. What do you think? How can we criticise and think about what you've learned, think about what you know?" And then we'd sit there, and we'd criticise it. And that's what I wanted. (Daljinder)

There was also evidence of a concern for students to develop confidence, criticality and autonomy. Carole said that she liked the idea of 'the equality and the sense that they are young adults and the lack of the hierarchy in FE compared to schools.' She wanted to find ways to inspire students to enjoy studying English, and said: 'how do I actually leave this group knowing more about the play?' She aimed to open up students' imaginations, and to help them see things 'a bit more holistically'. She felt it was important to have a good relationship with students. She explained:

I think it would really be lovely to get them to feel as a group quite safe and quite confident, because often the groups are only like 12 or 14, and I think it's small enough for them to get to know each other and think this is a safe environment. (Carole)

For Peter, it was important that students learned to express themselves. He felt that the whole emphasis should be on the student. He felt that he was there to 'make their learning experience so much better'. He said also:

To see them walk away with a smile on their face, then you know that you have done a good job. (Peter)

Confronting the vision with reality

Three important factors affected trainees as their visions were confronted with the reality of teaching in further education. The first concerned the relationship between their PGCE course and their teaching placement. Trainees felt that the PGCE training course stood apart from the day-to-day reality of teaching in a college. Peter and Noreen talked of the difficulties of balancing the heavy workload of studying and working at the same time, and for Noreen, the assignments were not worth the effort in terms of how they prepared trainees for their professional practice. She contrasted what they were required to do with what happened in college:

On the FAHE programme it is drilled into us, lesson plans, lesson plans. You have to do them. I can do a lesson plan with my eyes closed. That's how used I am to doing them. I asked the lecturer "how do you do a lesson plan?" And he said "What's one of those?" And it's either we are being taught the right way or we are just going through the motions. Basically wasting our time doing these lesson plans. (Noreen)

Barbara also felt that there was 'a disparity between what we're taught here and what really goes on and sometimes it's just difficult to tie the two in.' She said that issues of differentiation, equal opportunities, and the way they were taught to do lesson plans, were not considered by staff she worked with in college.

The second concerned the constraints of the qualifications and assessment system. When asked what got in the way of how they would like to teach, six of the trainees (Barbara, Carole, Hazel, Brandon, Daljinder, Sue) emphasised the constraints placed on them by the qualifications and assessment system, which they felt obliged to comply with, but which they felt detracted from, rather than enhanced, the students' learning experience.

Barbara explained how she felt that she had to work within the requirements of the qualification specifications, as:

I felt I would be wasting their time, filling their heads with things that wouldn't be relevant to them in the exam. [...] It's exam driven.

Hazel described how the emphasis on theoretical and written work in the assessment for dance was very demotivating for her students:

The first years had performed a devised piece and they had to critically analyse a piece after in the written work, which was then marked. And they didn't get good marks really, but the practical piece that they didn't get marked on was very good. The students were very disheartened and there were a lot of comments that they might not take the subject next year. (Hazel)

For Daljinder, the psychology curriculum was 'just horrendous', and meant that students were given information, but not gaining from it. She felt that the modular curriculum and the assessment requirements got in the way of developing skills of critical analysis, and helping students to think for themselves. She felt that time constraints did not allow students to develop a passion for their subject.

Sue believed that the curriculum and assessment for English were so restrictive, that 'only the brightest students are allowed to get the beauty, all that beauty of the literature.' The impact on students was that they became 'materialistic and wanting this end product all the time', having gone through a system of 'watch the board.'

The third factor was the teaching and learning cultures within their placement college. Six of the trainees described the positive teaching and learning culture in the department where they were placed (Carole, Hazel, Brandon, Naomi, Sue, Peter) and a further two contrasted positive experiences in one department and negative experiences in another (Barbara, Daljinder). A positive culture meant teachers who were friendly (Barbara, Carole) and supportive (Carole, Peter, Sue, Hazel), where there was a bond between the staff (Peter). Staff were responsive to students (Daljinder) and concerned about them (Barbara). Barbara talked of staff having a good laugh, and Peter described his department as a hub of activity.

The above contrasted with the negative cultures described by four trainees (Barbara, Daljinder, Mike, Noreen). Here, lecturers were described as cynical and demoralised (Mike), there was a lack of trust (Noreen), and Mike referred to a 'ghetto mentality'. Lecturers appeared to have no regard for the students (Barbara), and there was little support for the trainee (Noreen). Such an environment 'sapped your enthusiasm' (Mike) and felt intimidating (Noreen).

Barbara contrasted between two different cultures in her placement college:

In the A level, he was so sort of complacent. He hadn't done any schemes of work, he didn't do any lesson plans. He was nice, don't get me wrong, but his attitude had become very stale I think. He had no regard for the students, he didn't care if they missed a lesson, he didn't care if they didn't do very well. He was nice but his attitude towards his job as a teacher was very negative. He didn't know where anything was or what any of the policies were. It seemed to me like a really dusty old section if you know what I mean, and they were all like that. They'd all been there for about twenty years. One girl, she was the Psychology teacher, and she was a bit more modern and a bit more upbeat and professional, but the others were a bit stuck in their ways and a bit stale. But that didn't detract from the fact that they were nice and supportive, but they were not very professional. (Barbara)

GNVQ lecturers offered her a lot more help and guidance:

They were a lot more professional, they were friendly, they had a good laugh and everything, but they were more professional and they did their jobs properly. They knew where all the policies were and what they were about. If the students were late they addressed that properly, they didn't just sit there and go 'Oh' (tired sound). They had logs of them phoning up the students and asking them why they hadn't come in and that sort of thing. It was just a whole sort of more professional role. (Barbara)

Daljinder also contrasted her experience of teaching psychology, which had been her main goal originally, with her work in the basic skills department. Whereas psychology had proved a major disappointment, she described basic skills as 'fantastic'. The curriculum was much more flexible, and she was expected to respond to the needs of the learners as they arose, rather than being constrained by the requirements of a set curriculum.

She felt that in psychology she had not had much support. This meant that:

It was basically, I'd be given the brief of what I needed to do, maybe two days in advance, and that would be it. Or I'd be teaching on Monday and the teacher would ring me on a Saturday or Sunday, and she'd tell me what she wanted me to do for the Monday, and I'd prepare it and that would be it. A lady who works with me, who's from this university, she's also doing her placement at this college, and neither of us have ever had any photocopying done for us, never had a photocopying card, neither have we been given anything to be photocopied. So we paid for everything that we photocopied, printed, absolutely everything. And so we've not had much support from anyone really.

A basis for transforming practice?

The contrast between the factors which contributed to preferred teaching and learning cultures for trainees, and what they perceived as negative, is summed up in the table below.



Lecturers' dispositions



having a good laugh

hub of activity

sapped enthusiasm

cynicism and demoralisation

bond between staff


lack of trust

lack of support

ghetto mentality


Relationship with students

Valuing individual students

No regard for students

Feeling of anonymity

Responsive to students

Does not address students' needs

Equality and lack of hierarchy

Giving students choice and control

Lack of control

Motivating students

enabling students to enjoy learning

inspiring students

opening up students' imagination

creating a safe environment to develop confidence





A curriculum which allows for growth

A restrictive curriculum geared only to the exam

Helping students to become critical

A system of 'watch the board'

Table 2: Teaching and learning cultures. Positive and negative factors identified by trainee lecturers'


There appears to be a strong basis for constructive debate about transformative democratic practices. However, the context for such debate needs to be considered as well, for it frames and constrains such possibilities. Three issues have emerged out of this study in this respect.

The FE context

The negative cultures described by some trainees were closely related to conditions in FE, where restructuring, shortages of staff, and fear of redundancy, had a considerable impact on teaching and learning. The college where Mike was placed had merged with another college and had undergone a great deal of change in the previous two years. The 'cynicism' and 'demotivation' he found amongst staff may well have related to the process of being taken over by another college, and all that such change involved.

Noreen explained that she was going to continue teaching at her college until the students had taken their exam in June, although her placement officially finished in May, because:

there's nobody else to teach marketing to the travel and tourism students - that's why they asked PGCE. So they are up the creek without a paddle. (Noreen)

Barbara, who contrasted between the A-level and the GNVQ departments, explained that the A-level staff feared redundancy:

The staff said that they weren't in vogue any more, we were the forgotten bunch, and actually they've been disbanded now and the A-level department won't exist any more. The A-level students are joining in with the vocational, so there'll still be say the A-level psychology teachers going to the Health and Social Care sector, but there's not going to be a group any more of just these A-level teachers. They felt like the forgotten qualifications, the forgotten few sitting there, and they were all quite negative. (Barbara)

The relationship between the PGCE programme and practice

The comments made by trainees suggest that university programmes may not match reality, not because they are out of touch, but because they require students to address issues which are supposedly part of national standards (see FENTO, 1999), but which are conveniently forgotten in the struggle for survival in colleges. As university programmes increasingly comply with such requirements, it seems worth asking how far such courses may be defined in terms of negative or positive images of teaching and learning cultures for trainee lecturers.

The qualifications and assessment system

Trainees appeared acutely aware of the constraints of the qualifications system, and its negative impact on students, and they spoke in detail about the requirements of their own curriculum area. Whilst this may be read as a sign that new lecturers have not simply acquiesced to externally prescription, there is also cause for concern as trainees' visions become closed off by the wider constraints that they face.

Whilst the evidence of this study suggests that there is common ground on which to construct new forms of professionalism, it also suggests that good practice, whether that defined by national standards, or as envisaged by academics in favour of social justice and democratic practices, cannot be achieved without engaging with practitioners' and trainees' about the wider context in which they work. Otherwise the visions they hold may be slowly drained from them to be replaced by cynicism and demoralisation in the day-to-day practice of teaching and learning.

Surely, that 'tingling feeling' is worth pursuing.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 20 December 2002