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Career Development as Self-Development

In A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned, Jane Tompkins describes her journey from a competitive life in academia to an experimental teacher and scholar. She closely examines her own life history, and there are many moments and events that inform her teaching style. During a time when she was teaching experimentally, she also decided to take karate lessons. These lessons were influential in how she shaped her ideas of herself, as a human being and as a teacher, and subsequently played a part in her career development and decisions.

Tompkins’ path from a transmission style of teaching to a more developmental and nurturing style of teaching was, by her own account, a long and difficult one (Collins & Pratt). Changing careers in mid-life can be both challenging and frightening (Ibarra). While Tompkins didn’t necessarily switch careers, her switch in teaching style and in what teaching meant to her, had similar challenges as an entire career switch.

In an article about career change, Herminia Ibarra claims that career change is not about finding a career that is ‘really’ you, but accepting that we change throughout our lives and it makes sense to change careers as well (35). Ibarra’s description of the process sounds very much like Tompkins’ own experience: “Though the non-linear process of experimentation may leave us feeling like we’re wasting time, it can result in a richer and more embedded definition of our working identity” (Ibarra, 36). Tompkins’ karate classes gave her a richer definition of what teaching is, and what a good classroom can look like.

Tompkins describes a karate class that is orderly and hierarchical to an extent. Still, the instructor has been able to create a space where they are all viewed as equal, what Tompkins describes as “A classroom free of fear. Pedagogy as the creation of a safe space” (159). She goes on to talk about what a safe space means for her; “There is no way to go wrong. When someone makes a mistake, it is called a good thing. That’s how you learn” (158). It is unclear exactly what it is about this karate class that makes it feel safe to her, and we don’t learn if any of her classmates or her instructor agrees on the relative safety of the course.

It appears that Tompkins is attracted to an apprenticeship teaching style (Collins & Pratt), which may be one of the reasons she decides at the end of her book to teach writing classes instead of literature classes (Tompkins, 226). She becomes aware during her karate classes that there are ways to create a safe space while still being a ‘leader’ in the classroom. Tompkins’ career development is one of self-development as well. Whether it results from the era she grew up in or the environment she learned and taught in, she grows as a teacher while growing as a human being. In “The Academic Calling,” Diana Walsh writes that;

Faculty owe it to themselves to teach what they love. In so doing, they nourish their students. They owe it to themselves to show their students who they are. To do this, they need to know what they love, and who they are – not a simple task, but surely the anchor without which they’ll drift (20). Clearly this is a belief that Tompkins subscribes to, one where there is little difference between your personal development and your career development. The paths she takes in life (karate classes) and the paths she takes in teaching (experimenting with pedagogy) are parallel, no matter how many twists and turns they take.


Collins, J. & Pratt, D. (2002). A summary of five perspectives on ‘good teaching’. Retrieved April 21, 2008, from the University of British Columbia, Department of Educational Studies: http://www. edst. educ. ubc. ca/faculty/pratt/DPtpsum. html. Ibarra, H. (2005, June). Reworking your identity: walking the crooked path to career change. Training Journal, 34-37. Tompkins, J. (1996). A life in school: What the teacher learned. United States: Perseus. Walsh, D. C. (1999). The academic calling: creating spaces for spirit. Change, 31(4), 18-23.

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