‘Children can wind you up!’

‘Children can wind you up!’: learning to labour in the nursery

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Children can wind you up!’: learning to labour in the nursery

Helen Colley, Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Leeds

Paper presented at the Gender and Education Association Conference ‘Revisiting Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Education’, University of Sheffield, 14-16 April 2003.


[T]he problems of specifying caring work, and particularly the emotional labour which is part of caring work, [can be attributed] to the minimal attention which has been paid to it. The low profile and low status historically attributed to such work contribute to this, for it is a form of labour which is recognised not when the outcome is right, but on those occasions when it goes wrong. The product itself is invisible…the value of the labour is as hidden as the value of the routine management of emotion (James, 1989: 28).

This paper revisits feminist perspectives on ‘learning to labour’. It is specifically concerned with how women learn to do emotional labour in caring occupations, an under-researched theme in the under-researched field of post-compulsory education and training (PCET). In it, I explore the learning experiences of a group of trainee nursery nurses – almost all of them teenage girls – during the first year of their course (a fuller case study can be found in Colley, 2002a). Their narratives of workplace learning centred on the emotional content of their work, and I trace the impact of this labour on their dispositions. The course is one of 16 learning sites in the project Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education (TLC), which forms part of the ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme. My approach is a critical interpretivist one (Anderson, 1989), drawing particularly on the work of Bates (1990, 1991, 1994) and Hochschild (1983), and on feminist readings of Foucault, Marx, and Bourdieu.

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