Years ago, I remember one of my previous headteachers telling exhausted colleagues at the end of a long Autumn term that they did an amazing job, ‘Keeping up the act of being a good teacher all day’.’It’s not easy,’ she said, ‘staying in role for six to seven hours a day.’
I was reminded of this recently as I discussed Part 2 of the Teachers’ Standards with some Early Career Teachers. Keeping up appearances – or being professional – is hard when so much is going on: teaching, praising, sanctioning, calling home, meeting deadlines etc. Moreover, as the late Frank McCourt suggested in his memoir Teacher Man:
‘In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counsellor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.‘
Our job is multifaceted. We have various duties from teaching children to meeting adults and, subsequently, we have to act differently in the myriad situations that confront us. It is here that Erving Goffman’s classic sociological text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is useful as a framework for making sense of how we perceive our professional role in relation to how we really feel. It can also tell us something about why we act as we do and why that is important.
In order to make sense of how we behave in everyday life, Goffman uses the imagery of theatre to unpack and analyse the nuances and significance of face-to-face social interaction. Our daily interactions can be compared to theatre in that, like actors on a stage, we play a variety of roles in the different social contexts we find ourselves in. Goffman called this ‘dramaturgical analysis’.
Subsequently, Goffman argued that individuals put on acts in front of different people in order to fit in or impress them. He calls this ‘impression management’ as we endeavour to behave and present ourselves in a way that will prevent the embarrassment of ourselves or others as well as define our status and identity.
This is relevant to teachers as we are constantly being reminded that we are role models and that we have certain professional standards that might make us hide or subdue some aspects of our personalities, thoughts and emotions in front of our classes. In this sense, our professional behaviours are acted out in front of our pupils.
In understanding our multiple roles as teachers, we can use ‘dramaturgical analysis’ to make sense of our professional responsibilities in a number of ways. In addition to the idea of impression management, I find these concepts – as defined by Goffman – useful in making sense of our professional personae:
Performance: this relates to our behaviour in front of specific observers or ‘audiences’. Our chosen behaviour will convey how we wish to be perceived in that situation. In terms of teaching, our professional identity and status will involve a different performance in class than with immediate family at home. Moreover, our performance in staff briefings might be different to our performance with friends in an informal social setting, such as a pub. Our various performances in school are more likely to be formal and follow the expectations of Part 2 of the Teacher Standards (see “front” below), but even these will differ. You might be authoritative with a pupil in class, but not with immediate colleagues, certainly not with the headteacher.
Front: according to Goffman, an actor’s front is the part of the individual’s performance which functions to define the situation for their audience. In different situations individuals need to present different socially defined – or normalised – fronts, which Goffman likens to following a script. In school, there are various fronts we put on – in front of the class, in the playground, on duty, talking to parents on the phone etc. Although not scripted in a literal sense, the expected front will allow our audience to gauge our expectations of them as much as our overall intentions or outcomes from engaging in the situation itself. Goffman calls this the ‘definition of the situation’.
Appearance: this is central to our performance as it symbolises social status within the school and, arguably, society. Our occupation is seen as professional and we should dress as such. Of course, these expectations conform to societal norms, which you may well disagree with, but they are expectations of our professional standards nonetheless.
Manner: this relates to how we impress upon our audience our status or intentions (for example, are we dominant, receptive, serious, jovial etc.). Should we, for example, ‘banter’ with pupils and then expect them to remain formally mindful of pupil-teacher hierarchies in other situations.
Teams: school staff often cooperate in creating an impression. For example, ideally all members of a senior leadership team present the same image of soundness and quality, thus forming a performing team. Nonetheless, a performance depends on all members of a team playing their part and presenting a united front. This front is important regardless of differences within the group.
Regions: Goffman sees everyday interactions in a similar vein to the theatre in that there are three regions, each with different effects on our performance: ‘frontstage’, ‘backstage’ and ‘off-stage’. On the front stage the actor knows they are being watched and acts according to convention with the appropriate ‘front’ (as described above). For teachers, this would be the classroom, assembly hall, corridors etc.
However, in the backstage region, we often behave differently. In these situations we are more ‘ourselves’ and may say or behave how we think and feel. This could be in offices, department meetings (if non-hierarchical) and, of course, the staffroom as well as out of school.
The off-stage region is where we interact with audience members independently on the front stage. An example might be chancing upon pupils out of school, you might not be as authoritative here, but will still be wary of your behaviour.
Other concepts: Goffman also discusses concepts, such as ‘idealisation’, ‘setting’, ‘discrepant roles’, ‘communication out of character’ as well as saying more about ‘the arts of impression management’. However, I think the concepts selected above are most useful to teaching practice.
Can this work in practice?
Studies indicate that workers care about co-workers’ perceptions of them and that these shape their relationships and influence their ability to work well together to achieve joint goals. Peck and Hogue (2019), for example, suggest that conceptualising various typographies of “impression management” in the workplace can generate better pro-social behaviours as opposed to selfish or individual goals, especially if workers are encouraged to create positive perceptions of themselves amongst their colleagues. Others have found impression management to be impactful in sport (Ginis, Lindwall & Prapavessis, 2007), as a procedure of codifying moral standards in organisations like hotels (Dillard et al, 2000), a process for strategic change (Whittle et al, 2021) and as a tool for better leadership (Kerns, 2019).
What would a ‘framework’ for teachers look like?
Goffman argued that performers ‘can use dramaturgical discipline as a defense to ensure that the “show” goes on without interruption’ (Goffman, 1990 : 24). Additionally, we can prepare in advance for ‘how best to stage a show’ and anticipate the ‘likely contingencies’ of the performance (Goffman, 1990 : 212). Goffman calls this ‘dramaturgical circumspection’. Therefore, if we are to codify aspects of his theory into advisory statements as part of a framework for professional practice in schools, we could suggest that ‘dramaturgical professionalism’ allows us to:
- act out intellectual and emotional involvement academically and pastorally, especially if lessons or situations are repetitive and we are – if honest – occasionally disinterested;
- remembering one’s part and not committing unmeant gestures or faux pas, especially in front of impressionable youngsters;
- not giving away secrets involuntarily – particularly in teams like SLT or as a staffing body;
- offering plausible reasons or deep apologies for disruptive events – even if we feel they are not our default or beyond our control;
- cope with dramaturgical contingencies in stressful or difficult situations, such as:
- maintaining self-control (for example, not over reacting to pupils’ secondary behaviours);
- suppressing emotions to private problems (we don’t need to share these with pupils); and
- suppressing spontaneous feelings (like anger or fear).
Although Goffman wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in the 1950s, the book remains one of the most famous and widely taught sociology texts. It was listed as the tenth most important sociology book of the twentieth century by the International Sociological Association in 1998 and The Times Higher Education Guide has listed Goffman as the sixth most-cited author of books in the humanities and social sciences.
Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily push it as a school focused strategy, my colleagues and I have found the ideas formulated by Goffman useful discussion points when focusing on our professional behaviours and the centrality of Part 2 of the Teaching Standards to our teaching practice. Importantly, the framework above can be referred to when addressing situations where professionalism is, or has, been hard to maintain. Moreover, the book itself allows us to better understand the nuances and significance of performing well in the various social situations we find ourselves in as teachers.
Dillard, C., Browning, L. D., Sitkin, S. B., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2000). Impression management and the use of procedures at the Ritz-Carlton: moral standards and dramaturgical discipline. Communication Studies, 51(4). https://doi.org/10.1080/10510970009388534
Goffman, E. (1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Martin Ginis, K.A., Lindwall, M., & Prapavessis, H. (2007). Who cares what other people think? Self-presentation in exercise and sport. In R. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (pp. 136–153). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiles & Sons.
McCourt, F. (2005). Teacher man: A memoir. London: Simon & Schuster.
Kerns, C. D. (2019). Leadership Presence at Work: A Practice – Oriented Framework. Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness, 13(3). https://doi.org/10.33423/jmdc.v13i3.2241
Peck, J.A. & Hogue, M. (2019). Acting with the best of intentions… or not: A typology and model of impression management in leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 29(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2017.10.001
Whittle, A., Gilchrist, A., Mueller, F., & Lenney, P. (2021). The art of stage-craft: A dramaturgical perspective on strategic change. Strategic Organization, 19(4). https://doi.org/10.1177/1476127020914225
Photo credit: Pxhere (used under a Creative Commons Licence)