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Teaching in Wisconsin Classrooms: New Occupational Folklife Project Collection Documents Some of America’s Most Essential Workers

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This is a guest post by Nancy Groce, Senior Folklife Specialist

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman looking forward.
Blia Vang Schwahn, a teacher from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Photo by Ruth Olson.

Just in time for the start of a new school year, the American Folklife Center has posted to its website a wonderful new collection of Occupational Folklife Project interviews documenting Teaching in Wisconsin Classrooms. This important resource features in-depth interviews with 32 dedicated, resourceful and creative elementary teachers throughout the state of Wisconsin. Given the essential role played by American teachers, it is perhaps surprising that the AFC archive previously contained so few first-person narratives by classroom teachers documenting their work lives. This collection begins to address that gap.

The new collection consists of sound recordings, interview logs and transcriptions, photographs, and supplementary materials documenting the work-related experiences, training, and occupational folklore of 32 classroom teachers in a wide variety of Wisconsin schools. These teachers were documented several years ago by a four-member research team consisting of folklorists Anne Pryor, Mary Hoefferle, Ruth Olson, and Mark Wagler from the non-profit organization Wisconsin Teachers of Local Culture (WTLC). Those interviewed included elementary art teachers, fourth- and fifth-grade classroom teachers, and teachers whose work involves more community-facing orientations and activities. Teachers in rural districts, suburban and urban districts, special education teachers, and teachers in small and large schools all participated in the project. The team of folklorists involved also had a long-standing commitment to using folklore, traditional arts and local knowledge to enrich school curricula. They were delighted to be able to add the voices of their local educators to the national record.

Head and shoulders portrait of a man looking forward.
Brian Hop, a teacher from New Richmond, Wisconsin. Photo by Ruth Olson.

As team member Mark Wagler notes:

It’s great to see the work lives of teachers included in the Occupational Folklife Project. Almost everyone has had many experiences with teachers, so they typically assume they understand teachers and their profession. But because schools and teachers are so much in the public eye, K-12 educators sometimes prefer the safety of official language to describe what happens at school. We have probed beneath this surface to ask about informal interactions with colleagues, traditions specific to individual school buildings, the details of a typical workday, stories about students and projects, views of what good teaching looks like, and other offstage work experiences.

And, he adds:

When I listen again to our interviews, what strikes me most is the great variety among excellent teachers, and beneath that a strong common voice that reveals why they became teachers, the profound care they feel for students, and the heart and strength it takes to overcome the daily stress of teaching.

The diversity of backgrounds and variety of experiences that led those interviewed to become teachers is impressive. Some always knew they wanted to teach and, in fact, are teaching in the towns and schools districts in which they themselves grew up. Others came to the United States as immigrants and consider teaching a way of giving back to their communities. Still others came to teaching after considering careers as lawyers, scientists, or artists.

Headshot of a smiling woman.
Kira A. Fobbs, a teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Mark Wagler.

The level of dedication and often unheralded commitment of time and energy necessary to be a great teacher comes up in interview and after interview. Madison elementary teacher Kira A. Fobbs sums it up nicely when she explains:

The profession of teaching is a lot like being a police officer. It is a lifestyle, it’s not a career, it’s something that is all encompassing of your life. Whenever there are more than two teachers together, they are talking about teaching. It doesn’t matter where you are.

Teaching in Wisconsin Classrooms is the 22nd Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) collection to go online. The OFP website now makes more than 500 interviews with contemporary American workers employed in a wide variety of jobs available to the public. More collections are being processed and will be posted soon. Like the other OFP collections, documenting the experiences of these Wisconsin classroom teachers was made possible through an Archie Green Fellowship (AGF). These AGFs support individual researchers or teams of researchers to undertake fieldwork projects that record and document the voices of contemporary American workers. AGFs are awarded through competitive grants; the annual application deadline is usually in the spring. The application date for 2022 will be announced shortly here on the blog–subscribe to be sure you don’t miss it!  To discover the latest class of AGFs and the occupations that are currently being documented, see this previous post at Folklife Today.

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