Action research and the struggle to redefine the teacher identity
(1997) Educational Action Research, 5, 373-392.
Action research has received increasing attention in discussions of the improvement of teaching and teacher education (Noffke, 1992). Action research is seen by many as one important way to promote the reform of schools, involving teachers in research as a vehicle for teacher empowerment (Sardo-Brown, 1992). Yet little attention has been given to understanding the impact of action research on the teacher-researcher. This paper presents a first-person account of the process of action research and its effects upon the author. As action research continues to be promoted among both practicing teachers (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993) and preservice teachers (Noffke & Brennan, 1991), we must come to terms with the struggles and changes practitioners experience in the process of action research.
I recently completed a year-long study of my own classroom as a researcher returned to the classroom as a teacher-researcher (Hausfather, 1994). I intended to create a theme study classroom, organizing interdisciplinary investigations of themes around the problems, needs, and interests of the students. I explored the use of action research to investigate implementation processes and constraints from a teacher’s perspective. Action research provided the means to reflect on the essential meanings of theme study in my classroom and the changes I experienced as a researcher of my own practice. This study reports, from a first-person perspective, on the internal conflict of a teacher grappling with implementing beliefs against the background of countervailing institutional and personal socialization. The process of redefining the teacher identity will be addressed through exploring three areas of teacher socialization: interactive influences between students and teacher within the classroom microculture; institutional influences related to the characteristics of the school setting; and cultural influences deriving from wider societal expectations. The focus here is primarily on the impact of this process on the teacher; reporting on the results of the actual action research project is beyond the scope of this paper.
Background to my socialization
When I came to the university to pursue a doctorate, I possessed a strong identity as a classroom teacher. After eighteen years of teaching in elementary classrooms, I felt teaching was an essential part of my existence. I was distrustful of academic knowledge that went against my experiences as a teacher, yet excited by the world of ideas into which I had entered. I chose to study my own practice as a fifth-grade classroom teacher. I aspired to make visible the teacher’s role in the generation of knowledge about teaching and learning (Anderson, 1989; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990). Most studies of teacher thinking focus on teacher thought in isolation, ignoring important cognitive and affective understandings based on biography and practical actions in the classroom context (Clandinin & Connelly, 1986). I hoped I could provide access to my biography, thoughts, and actions as a teacher while also viewing my teaching as problematic. Living within this schizophrenia proved harder than I had expected!
I secured a fifth-grade teaching position at a laboratory school connected with a small, private liberal arts college nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the southeast United States, concurrently teaching one course per semester at the college. It is a large college campus, including miles of heavily wooded hills and valleys, dotted with buildings of classic southern architecture. The college serves a population of approximately 1600 students, mostly white and middle-class. It is located in a small, diverse city of 40,000 people. The laboratory school enrolls approximately 110 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, with one teacher for each grade level. Students come from a variety of backgrounds, with college faculty and upper-middle class families well represented. Approximately 40% of the children are from working-class parents, concerned for their children’s education or frustrated by the lack of personal attention their children received in the local public schools. The school makes an effort to enroll minority children as well, and has approximately 10% minority representation.
I chose phenomenological action research as a method to analyze my practice. My interest was distinctly qualitative and phenomenological: not to reduce what I was doing to a set of data, but to reveal the essential meanings of theme study as it was experienced in my classroom. Phenomenology is the science of phenomena, of objects and events as they appear in our experience. Phenomenology “endeavors to describe how the world is constituted and experienced through conscious acts” (van Manen, 1990, p. 184). The question continually asked in phenomenology is: What is the nature or meaning of human experience? (Polakow, 1985). Phenomenology attempts to reveal and describe the internal meaning structures of lived experience, the essences of phenomena.
Max van Manen (1990) outlines a phenomenological approach to qualitative research methodology in education. His model is based on “textual reflection on the lived experiences and practical actions of everyday life with the intent to increase one’s thoughtfulness and practical resourcefulness or tact” (p. 4). Essential to phenomenological research is the textual practice of reflective writing. In explicating lived phenomena, we reflect on experiences already past. Writing externalizes the internal, distancing us from the immediate life experience and creating a reflective cognitive stance. Writing involves a dialectic process of separating us from what we know while uniting us more closely with what we know; distancing us from experience while drawing us more closely into that experience; abstracting our experience of the world while concretizing our understanding of the world. “The methodology of phenomenology requires a dialectical going back and forth among these various levels of questioning” (van Manen, 1990, p. 131). It involves carefully cultivated thoughtfulness more than a specific technique.
I determined to incorporate this phenomenological orientation into my action research. Teaching is a particularly complex, context-bound activity (Doyle, 1986). A phenomenological approach can express this complexity along with being consistent with an approach to knowledge as tentative and negotiated. I used the core components of action research, such as a focus on the practical, systematic inquiry, and reflexivity (McCutcheon & Jung, 1990), and I employed these components within the structure of the action research spiral delineated by Kemmis and McTaggart (1982). Kemmis and McTaggart have refined a model that structures critical reflection into a cyclical action research spiral. The process involves four dynamic, complementary steps. First, one develops a strategic plan, taking account of risks, constraints, and unpredictability. Deliberate action follows, with the researcher keeping goals in mind and flexibly looking back at the plans. Part of the plan involves careful observation to document the effects of actions and the action process. Retrospective reflection then seeks to make sense of the processes, problems, issues, and constraints. The process is both descriptive, building a better picture, and evaluative, pointing toward revisions to the plan. The cycle then repeats, more refined but also with questions reinvented.
Six times I cycled through this process, each time focusing on a particular theme and arrangement of contexts in which students could teach and learn. Throughout the year, I made use of textual reflection on the lived experiences in the classroom. As I began the in-depth rereading, rewriting, and analysis of the data I collected, I attempted to view my data through this phenomenological lens, drawing themes out of the data and connecting them to conceptual structures that might illuminate them. My goal was to reveal deeper meanings in classroom life, meanings unique to my local situation yet rife with questions applicable to any classroom. Although I will suggest conclusions, readers must create their own questions from this study and make them useful to their own practice.
Thus, I became a teacher again, yet a very changed teacher. Nothing was quite the same anymore. The terrain looked very different. I felt different. I was resocialized by a changed context: me, the place, the culture, the children. My actions in the classroom and my entire school persona responded in active and creative ways to the new constraints I perceived, the different opportunities available to me, and the many dilemmas I confronted within the context of the classroom and school (Pollard, 1982). Within this reciprocal relationship between my situation and myself, I felt myself socialized in ways I had not predicted beforehand.
To be socialized means to be inducted in a comprehensive and consistent manner into the objective world of a society (Berger and Luckmann, 1966). I had long ago been socialized into the society of teachers and felt comfortable within that role. I had the special knowledge of teachers, was comfortable with the institutions of teachers, and felt empowered by my knowledge. Subjective reality is maintained through one’s social base and social processes (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), and my subjective sense of myself as a teacher had been maintained in this way. When I had been a public school teacher, I was socially acclaimed as an excellent teacher and was given the role of mentor teacher by my peers. My role as a teacher and educational leader was continually reaffirmed in my interactions with others.
As a graduate student, I was socialized to a different world. I did not totally reconstruct my reality, but I expanded my perceptions of what it meant to be a teacher. While maintaining my identity as a teacher–an identity supported by social relations with other former teachers–I became immersed in the world of ideas. Time took on a new meaning as I spent most of my time reading, reflecting, and writing. My new role as supervisor of student teachers involved being in many schools, sitting and observing more than participating. The time to reflect was an essential aspect of graduate school existence.
Now I was being resocialized to a new situation. I was both the product and the creator of this situation (Zeichner & Gore, 1990). My definition as a teacher was to occur in the intersection of my self, my culture, the institution, and the children in the classroom. Pollard (1982) identifies three levels of social contextualization for describing the socializing factors in school experience: the interactive level, including the ecology of the classroom and the role of pupils; the institutional level, involving the larger school issues; and the cultural level, with the larger society mediating through the school. I will summarize how my practice appeared to fall into these levels of socialization.
The interactive level of analysis involves the relationships established between teacher and students within the ecology of the classroom. The ecological context of the classroom involves all those processes and events that influence behavior within the teaching environment (Doyle, 1986). The role of pupils in the development of teacher identity also provides a significant, reciprocal influence within the classroom (Zeichner, Tabachnick, and Densmore, 1987). These influences provide the most obvious level of analysis for revealing the socialization factors within classrooms.
It is between the children and myself that an educational and social climate was created that constitutes what school became for the year. My role in this process was very active, guided by certain clear‑cut goals. My past experiences as well as my research into the nature of theme study led me to create a classroom where both students and teacher assumed the roles of learner and teacher and where the relationships between people supported learning in the classroom. It is in my practice that these terms derived their true meaning.
A Democratic Classroom
The community of the classroom consisted of 15 fifth-graders and me. This was the large family that would live out the year together. I came into the group with the goal of sharing with students the power invested in the teacher. I wanted to create a democratic classroom where children developed the ethic of mutual respect and cooperation, a faith in the processes of working together, and the ability to participate in a cooperative decision-making process (Lickona & Paradise, 1980). A democratic classroom climate should involve democratic deliberation, respect for diversity, cooperative activity, and deliberate community building (Angell, 1991). I attempted to create these conditions through my relationships with the children, the organization and content of the curriculum, and democratic problem‑solving procedures.
A teacher’s relationship with students is a dilemma all teachers face (Feiman‑Nemser and Floden, 1986). The conflicting need for the distance of authority versus the closeness of personal bonds exists as a daily struggle for teachers. My teacher role demanded I maintain a distance from the children, the distance of authority expected in schools. Yet closeness to children constituted one of my reasons for teaching. I wanted to treat the students as friends, to share humor, passions, and problems with them. I joked in class, shared my stories, and elicited theirs. They expected me to be the teacher, the ultimate authority. Some students tested me with their behavior, challenging my friendliness with their quest for power. Given the permission to question authority, they did not always know where to stop. I gave them power over various aspects of the classroom, including some measure of decision making, social problem solving, and curricular directions. I often asked if they wanted to do a particular activity and gave them options. I generally respected their decisions. But I also made many decisions myself, maintaining the nonnegotiability of certain aspects of classroom life.
As the year progressed, children became more aware of who was making various decisions and asked often for input into an ever‑widening circle of decisions. The children challenged my concept of a democratic classroom through their acceptance of and desire for power within the classroom. I accepted their viewpoint, yet felt a dilemma in managing my classroom. By making the classroom theirs, I was relinquishing some of my managerial power as a teacher. I responded sometimes with control and sometimes with power sharing.
A Responsive Curriculum
Student involvement in research was a key aspect of my conception of a theme study classroom. Through research, students became active stakeholders in the teaching/learning process. My goal was to share the decision-making process with them while maintaining general leadership of the curricular process. Thus, we negotiated the development of our research projects. At first, I created the forms. Later, I gradually began to share some of the power of decision-making in curriculum. Sharing that power also involved sharing the responsibility, something some students were initially hesitant to accept. I found it very hard to give up the power vested in me as the classroom teacher, really to trust the students to be copartners in the creation of curriculum. As the year progressed, students became more comfortable negotiating with me their approach to learning. They began to take a more active role in making decisions for themselves about the direction of their study.
Creating a theme study classroom was revealed as a process, as curriculum responded indirectly in unforeseen ways. My first cycle of action research, using the theme “Why are we here?”, involved establishing geology research groups. Research and learning groups created teaching texts, which they then used to teach reconstituted small groups. Although students began to see themselves as researchers and teachers, books and student lectures appeared to become the sources of school knowledge instead of the teacher, still separate from student knowledge and experience. “Understanding differences” was the theme for a second cycle of action research, involving research and chart making related to Native Americans. Students were more actively involved in processing knowledge, as writing, literature, and art all came together around the theme. Through their participation in teaching, students were beginning to take active roles in the joint construction of knowledge, but I sensed they were not participating enough in instructional conversations within the classroom. An instructional conversation occurs when social interaction assumes the learner has something to say beyond answers (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). It involves discussion where the student’s viewpoint is heard and respected, acknowledged as an integral component of the direction of study.
My next cycle of action research involved the students more in designing the research around the theme of “Exploring the unknown,” both in terms of early American explorations and explorations of outer space. My approach to theme study appeared to promote a questioning relationship to knowledge more than integrating around themes, as inquiry opportunities moved us toward creating instructional conversations. A discussion in class on reasons for the seasons turned into a hard look at naive theories and a forceful push to logically justify each theory. Questioning knowledge, inquiring into the meanings behind the facts, was fast becoming the enterprise that I saw as primary in my classroom.
This is exactly the type of relationship to knowledge which I am interested in promoting. I must see “thematic” pale in comparison to “inquiry” as the focus for the relationship to knowledge. Themes might promote curriculum which pushes us to inquire, but by no means will that necessarily happen. Projects push students more in that direction. I’ve seen that this week as students report to the class on their planet posters. As students take on the role of producer of knowledge, knowledge which they have researched and selected, they identify themselves with that knowledge. It becomes their’s. They are mini-experts, standing in front of the class telling what they know, proud of their accomplishment and of “their” planet. And the other students respond with valuable questions and an interest in knowing more. (Teacher Journal, 18 January, 1992).
Through our teaching and discussion activities, astronomy research began a process of students becoming resources who shared their developing knowledge. Discussions during and after presentations began to provide a nonthreatening environment in which ideas were encouraged rather than judged. As teacher, I could lead and organize the questioning, modeling critical inquiry into the ideas presented. Students were encouraged to become critical questioners, tying the knowledge shared to their own interests and experiences.
We finished our astronomy poster presentations . . . There was an obvious commitment of each student to share the knowledge they gained, and good participation of the class in discussing and evaluating that knowledge . . . When Nate told us of the high temperatures on Venus, I questioned why they were so high. Nate mentioned the many clouds. We looked again at what those clouds were, mostly carbon dioxide. What is carbon dioxide? Various students mentioned breathing, trees, and plants. Someone mentioned the ozone and heating of earth. So I pushed further into the greenhouse effect and global warming. Many had heard about these and were concerned. How was it related to Venus and carbon dioxide clouds? So we discussed pollution, deforestation, and warming, and connected it to Venus. Someone brought up the possibility of trees on Venus, and we discussed trees changing Venus’ atmosphere to more oxygen . . . Nate’s father mentioned that Nate came home full of excitement at sharing the discussion over Venus’ atmosphere and global warming (Teacher Journal, 26 January, 1992).
As a teacher I found this process both challenging and frustrating. I had to be very active in the process, moving back and forth from teacher to learner, participant to observer, always being careful to give students enough space to develop their own questions and problems while also challenging them to be active participants. I had to model critical questioning without threatening the student/expert presenting the material. I had to create an environment that was both secure and critical.
I experimented with somewhat different arrangements as my next action research cycle examined the theme “Investigations,” struck by how the subject areas determined the direction of the curriculum. Simulations and literature were both essential activities in integrating and creating the theme. “Powerful” ideas around the issue of stereotyping emerged which united all our studies. Students struggled to understand the attitudes many Americans had toward Native Americans during the American westward movement, while they also explored their own attitudes toward those different from themselves. School knowledge appeared tied to student knowledge through a process of negotiation, but there was still not enough student generation of knowledge involved. State research projects were more highly structured toward facts, yet students still expected to take on roles as teachers-experts-questioners.
As we launched into our last theme, “Greed and charity,” I perceived the whole class excited and consumed by the ideas in our study of the U.S. Civil War and economics. Knowledge became alive as students actively created questions from their interests, enthusiastically launched into research, and committed themselves to a questioning approach. Source documents on slavery and concurrent events in the world, such as race riots in Los Angeles, propelled the class toward intersubjectivity as all became inquirers in truly “big” questions. The class together refined our theme to become useful as a lens for viewing the world in which we all live.
Student involvement, along with my modeling and stimulating questioning, brought us close to creating a culture of learning, where the interest of all was focused on pursuing and understanding knowledge. Students and teacher together developed knowledge in the classroom. Instructional conversations began to be created and supported in our discussions with presenters, in our book discussion groups, and in our debates and simulations, allowing students to be partners in the exploration of knowledge. I felt I had moved toward creating a theme study classroom, unique to my local context yet powerful in influencing the conceptions of knowledge of those involved. Each cycle of action research brought me closer to defining theme study more by the use of projects and an inquiry approach to knowledge than by an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum.
The Classroom Microculture
Students and teacher together create the microculture of the classroom (Erickson, 1986). Through class meetings, through curriculum activities, and through my relationships with the students, I bring my direction, my perspectives, my agenda to the construction of the classroom environment. Whatever activities I create, they are jointly constituted by the students. They are enacted by the students according to their willingness to involve themselves (Doyle, 1986). I push, entreat, and enforce their participation, but I cannot force their involvement.
The socializing role of pupils can reciprocally influence teaching methods, patterns of language, and general teaching approach (Zeichner & Gore, 1990). As teachers gain in experience, their growing awareness of and concern for the children results in even greater socializing potential for the children in the class. I was intensely aware of the role of the children in the dilemmas I faced in the classroom.
The students shared conceptions of what constituted teaching and learning in school. Though most of the class had spent most of their school years in the progressive atmosphere of this school, they still conceived of learning as something given to them. I was to teach them, and they would learn, maintaining passivity during certain times. They expected fun activities, yet those were not necessarily the core of learning for them.
I also feel the pressure of the students for me to teach in predetermined ways. They resist using manipulatives or exploring in depth the reasons why an algorithm exists. Give us the trick, or let us do it the way we’ve been taught before. Just give us the knowledge and let us get on with our work! The idea of constructing knowledge together runs smack into the pressure, both from students and from the teacher, to move on quickly and get through with the topic. In problem solving, it is so much easier to flow with the constructions of the students, to allow different ways of seeing and create together an explanation for how to arrive at an answer. With math concepts and skills, I feel the pressure to expose the right way, push the correct algorithm, and move on. The Madeline Hunter [behavioristic] model comes out in my teaching the skills to the whole class. And maybe that is the time for it, although I see the differences in students not always being served by this sort of direct instruction. (Teacher Journal, 27 December, 1991)
Student perceptions of what a teacher is or does, of how learning happens, influenced how I taught and what I felt I could do in the classroom. The enacted curriculum became a negotiation between myself, the children, and institutional pressures.
My conceptions of the classroom learning and social environment were continually being influenced and challenged by the children’s directions, perspectives, and agendas. As has been observed in other classrooms (Metz, 1979), the tone of the classroom environment was strongly influenced by a few more active students. Connor, Mark, and Bob all had problems of self‑control that affected those around them. The behavior of a few students made it harder for me to progress toward my goal of establishing a smooth‑running community focused on learning. Classroom order is the flip side of teaching, a somewhat necessary yet antagonistic complement to learning (Kliebard, 1989). The requirement to establish order conflicted with my conception of learning within a democratic classroom community.
Problems of control remained a continual problem for me the entire year, as I tried to walk that fine line between order and learning. My attempt to share power and authority, my creation of a democratic classroom, conflicted with institutional and cultural perceptions of classroom management. I encouraged children to question authority through my responsiveness to their viewpoints. I stimulated children to be decision-makers in their own learning. Such freedom in a classroom setting carries costs.
The behavior of my class has been causing grief as well, both from the director and the lead teacher. The director is supportive: “anything I can do to help . . . ” But the lead teacher is barging in, trying to solve my problem, which I feel I can handle, and have handled myself. My students are feeling their oats. I find less joy in being the policeman, and see little problem when I am doing exciting curriculum. The other question is: is it too much their life and not mine, so that their behavior, and lack of control for some, becomes problematic? I don’t know . . . (Teacher Journal, 4 November, 1991).
The contradiction between the control function and the education function is inherent in schooling (McNeil, 1986). Too often the subject matter is shaped by management considerations in ways that defeat the purposes and intended effects of the curriculum (Doyle, 1986). I attempted to address this contradiction throughout the year, yet found no satisfactory middle ground. I instituted a behavior modification system in which the class earned plus points toward a classroom party. I wrote problem children’s names on the board and had them sit in for part of recess. At the same time, I gave students much flexibility, many chances to try again, and numerous opportunities to make decisions for themselves. I did not want to be the policeman, contributing to the reproduction of authority‑based social and cultural patterns (Apple, 1990). My curriculum at times challenged students to be self‑directed learners. The tension between the organizational and personal aspects of teaching can cause much conflict and frustration for teachers (Feiman‑Nemser and Floden, 1986). My struggle to negotiate power and control within perceived institutional constraints became an underlying thread in my effort to allow the process of change to happen in the classroom.
The institutional level of analysis involves socializing influences related to the characteristics of schools as workplaces (Pollard, 1982). The organizational properties of the school as a workplace influenced what I perceived as important within the classroom and school. Both collegial and authority relationships went far in defining my identity as a teacher and a colleague.
Time and schedules became an issue for me early in the year and continued to be problematic thereafter. I felt I never had the time to slow down, to finish, to reflect, to relax.
How quickly the day goes. Minuscule time for reflections, except the continual adjustment of the schedule to how much time was really used. That flexibility is so important. The time breaks [of the schedule] are real, and starting a subject all over [after a break] is too hard. Doing base ten blocks for the first time with the students today, they just needed a lot of time to play with them . . . So I let it go longer, and still had to stop them to come together and discuss and make a chart. I had them leave the messes on their tables to finish after lunch. How will I do this if students are only in there for math? Time and schedules are the enemies of creative teaching! (Teacher Journal, 23 August, 1991)
The day schedule created by the school was typical of most schools in the United States. The structure of writing, reading, and math forced me into creating the curriculum around those divisions. Yes, the literature we read in reading time related to the social study theme we researched in the afternoon, but subjects were kept separate by this unnatural partitioning of time. The institutional expectation was that I do reading during reading time, math during math time. Visits by other teachers or the director during those times reinforced that expectation.
I was finding the intensity of time itself problematic in the classroom. Doyle (1986) highlights the distinctive properties of classroom settings as including multidimensionality, simultaneity, immediacy, and unpredictability, along with publicness and history. The multidimensionality of the classroom, the large quantity of events and tasks, meant that every decision I made had multiple possible consequences. Sometimes keeping up with the many simultaneous happenings in the classroom was hard. The immediacy of events occurring rapidly and their unpredictability made reflection almost impossible during the school day. For all practical purposes, there were no breaks during the day. The short fifteen-minute recess in the morning was always filled with getting a math problem on the board as well as speaking privately to students, classroom aides, or college students. Lunch was eaten with the students in the cafeteria. If there was any afternoon break, I had to supervise it. The entire day felt like one rush of energy through the hours.
Being in a private school was different for me, although it was part of my history. I had taught in small private alternative schools for five years before becoming a public school teacher, so I thought I knew what it meant to be teaching in a private school. Meaning, however, is context‑specific. I learned quickly that this experience was to be qualitatively different from my past private school experiences.
Some parents complain about their students not having enough school‑like work, not enough homework, as they worry about next year in the public school. Funny thing is, I’m not doing that much differently from when I taught in public school. It makes clear to me the detriment of my teaching in a private school. There’s the need to explain oneself, almost conform, so that students will not be too different on entering public school. (Teacher Journal, 4 November, 1991)
These were some very different expectations for me. I taught fifth grade, the last class students take before they leave for public school, and I was working in a school where creative teaching was the norm. I felt unappreciated for the innovative curriculum I was promoting, something for which I was given accolades in my public school teaching experience. Here, innovation was expected, and parents were worried about how their children would make the transition to public schools.
When I was a public school teacher, there was less to be compared with as to what should be expected of fifth grade students. As a private school teacher, I am often reminded, by parents and other teachers, of the comparison with the public schools. Are the students getting everything they are supposed to get? Given that fifth-graders need to go into another school next year, will they be prepared for the pressures and academic standards they will encounter there? I feel confident they will but I feel the pressure of doubts. I am also to prepare them for a very conservative school system on the outside. My gut feeling is to allow them to enjoy learning now, be challenged by it, and they will be thus prepared for outside schooling. There will be a hard transition, no doubt. But I don’t see that as something that should affect my academic program. Yet it does. (Teacher Journal, 27 December, 1991)
I felt this as a constant pressure during the entire year of teaching. Would my students be ready for public school? How could I get them ready and still maintain allegiance to my beliefs about how learning should happen in school?
There were other expectations of me within the school as well. I had to be careful not to be too pushy, not to try to change things too fast. Coming in fresh as a new teacher here, full of ideas from the university, I saw many areas I would change or at least question. I pushed at several teachers’ meetings for changes in the lunch routine that would enable teachers to have some time together without the children, for changes in an assembly schedule that required much teacher energy outside the classroom, and for a deeper look at the curriculum of the school as a whole. Although some on the faculty were responsive, the more powerful lead teachers usually took the position, “That is how it has always been done here.” I sensed the need to step back somewhat, to not “rock the boat.”
It was also made clear to me that I was to be deferential to the authority of those above me. It was my duty to inform them of the status of my teaching and of student problems that might be arising. I was to initiate; they would not necessarily inquire or provide support until I did so. I was not to show too much autonomy in decision making. The lead teachers and director were the decision makers, and I was to defer to them.
This week did not start on a positive note. I was called “onto the carpet” in a meeting with [the director] and the lead teachers. It was almost a gripe session about me, led apparently by [the director’s] concern that I was not showing enough deference to the image of the school. I hadn’t called her, instead calling [the lead teacher] when I was sick on the teacher work day, and then in apologizing questioned exactly what was the line of authority. I allowed the students to play rap music in class one day (recess and during their afternoon party). And I sent Mrs. M [classroom substitute teacher] with my class so I could have some research time during the field trip to a puppet show in town. All quite petty, but for her pointing to some sort of disrespect for authority and for the all‑important image of the school. [The lead teacher] voiced several petty things as well, like not putting the conference reports in the cumulative folders quickly and not coming to her more often. It felt like “jump on me” time, with my role being to plead forgiveness. Nobody mentioned anything about my teaching. That was fine. It was my apparent attitude toward the “hidden curriculum” of relationships between teachers and administrators, my failure to ask permission for any slight difference from the norm. . . . The unwritten law is I come to them but they don’t come to me . . . There is so much hidden here, so much assumed knowledge that is not readily shared. And then I get in trouble for not knowing it. (Teacher Journal, 7 March, 1992)
The institutional characteristics of schools might represent some of the most potent determinants of teacher perspectives (Zeichner & Gore, 1990). Teacher isolation is often reported as a key characteristic of teaching (Feiman‑Nemser & Floden, 1986). I experienced the typical structural isolation of a single adult boxed in a room with my children, given scant opportunity for interaction with other adults within the school. The teacher culture at the school stressed autonomy along with deference to authority. A certain amount of autonomy was guaranteed if you could maintain quiet and control. This was not the quiet of a public school classroom, but the appropriate quiet of hallways, public spaces, and determined work. Noise was accepted when accompanied by learning, but not as a part of socializing. Autonomy, which can also be seen as a lack of mutual support (Feiman‑Nemser & Floden, 1986), allowed me much latitude to plan the curriculum, within the structural imperatives of the school. Those imperatives were hidden within teachers’ and parents’ expectations, the daily schedule, the history of how things were done at the school, and the standardized tests given at the end of the school year.
Within this teacher culture, I was not to question too deeply, not to act excessively on my own without the permission of those in authority. This represented a different relationship to authority than the one in which I had functioned previously. In my previous teaching experience and during my time at the university, I was accustomed to openly questioning the status quo and agitating for change. In this new teaching situation, I was being told in many ways to conform to the situation. I found myself responding somewhere between strategic compliance and redefinition (Lacey, 1977). I adjusted some of my behaviors, but not my beliefs. I worked to change some of the hidden expectations of the school, but also surrendered some of my goals.
The cultural level of analysis links the socialization of the classroom teacher with the influences of the local community as well as the ideologies, practices, and material conditions of society at large (Zeichner & Gore, 1990). It is here where the constraints and opportunities from society mediate through the institution. Three factors worked to influence my socialization: the parents, my roles beyond being only a classroom teacher, and the forms and meaning of rationality existing in the larger society. As stated previously, the expectations of parents were that I would prepare their children for public schools the following year. The pressure was there for me to teach in more traditional ways than I believed were most effective.
My role as a classroom teacher was influenced by wider societal expectations. I did not fit neatly into the role of teacher. My different roles exacerbated my consciousness of being different, of not fitting the mold. I was not just a teacher, but also a researcher. I was not just an elementary school teacher, but also a college instructor.
The other demands on me, from the college, my family, other teachers, as well as some extremely demanding students who disrupt the classroom peace on a regular basis, all have created classroom conditions over which I do not feel complete control. . . . I feel more like an outsider looking in. This schizophrenia between the teacher me, the researcher me, and the want‑to‑be‑professor me creates a distance in the classroom with which I am not familiar. I sometimes feel teaching is merely acting the part so that I can study it. I often feel there are many parts of the day I just want to get through. I am not dedicated to the entire experience of teaching the entire day. There are parts that excite me, certain activities that I am very interested in. Then there are other parts I wish I didn’t have to be there at all for, and long for the chance to write or reflect on what I see as the important parts. Time once again rears its ugly head, and pushes me out of the experience because I don’t have enough time to look from the outside. The inside is too all‑consuming an experience. (Teacher Journal, 27 December, 1991)
Researching one’s own practice creates a distance that is both positive and negative (Mohr & MacLean, 1987). While I had opportunities for a wider vision of my reality, I also sometimes felt a separateness from my reality. Teaching involves wholehearted involvement, and being both removed and connected sometimes created a sense of alienation that caused me to doubt my ability to perform well as a teacher. My role as a college instructor might have created some distance between myself and both other teachers and parents. Seeing a teacher-researcher as not quite totally inside the school structure can create confusion or distrust among those involved only in the school (Lampert, 1991). Teachers sometimes seemed to assume I knew how to do things and therefore did not offer help, or remained distant. Parents sometimes seemed to wonder whether the classroom was my priority. I did not fit neatly into the culturally defined role of teacher. I was expected to learn that role, while maintaining my other roles.
The forms of meaning and rationality dominant in our society also affect one’s socialization into the teacher identity (Zeichner & Gore, 1990). My past provided me with a set of rich meanings of the role of teacher, but I sometimes found these meanings at odds with my new reality. I was still a teacher, defined by society as one passing on the accumulated knowledge of our culture, but my vision of the approach to knowledge had been altered in graduate school. I now perceived knowledge as constructed through negotiation with the social and physical environment. My own background, the children, and the culture around me, however, still viewed knowledge predominantly as a thing to be transferred, from materials or the teacher to the child. I struggled throughout the year with my identity as a teacher, gaining insights through reflection yet also observing myself occasionally slip backwards into cultural norms. My teaching was full of contradictions, as I resisted some cultural norms while reproducing other ones (Giroux, 1988). Within my own classroom, I was at times able to empower children to see learning as a process. Outside my classroom, I felt powerless to change the institutional realities of the school.
My resocialization as a teacher did not progress as I had hoped. Too many discrepancies existed between the way I had previously perceived my identity as teacher, the way I perceived my identity as a graduate student, and my new role as a laboratory school teacher. I tried to fit in, but instead experienced alienation. I did not accept the reality of the school. I questioned the taken‑for‑granted institutional order. I moved beyond asking “What?” to asking “Says who?” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). The responses I received shut me down, yet might have led to some consideration of alternatives. I never quite fully accepted a redefined identity as a teacher. I functioned throughout the year within contradictory roles.
Action Research: Powerful and Problematic
Through action research, I struggled to maintain a distance that could provide objective perspectives on classroom life while I remained immersed in classroom life. Action research can lead toward fuller understandings of the complexity of local situations, providing rich classroom cases that can ground theoretical explanations. It is a quite emic view, deriving from the participant a definition of his or her own reality (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990). Yet it can also be an etic view, given the distance from the experience caused by teachers’ reflections and discussions with others. The distance the teacher attains is a matter of degree. The challenge becomes overcoming the difficulty of interpreting experience without being imprisoned by it (Geertz, 1983). I found the process of action research in my own classroom to be both powerful and problematic.
Action research was most powerful in the reflection it promoted. I was able to see anew my actions, the students, and the consequences of my curricular and instructional decisions. My systematic use of journal writing provided a process of dialoguing with myself about my practice. My journal was a place where I could question my beliefs, comparing them with my practice and the context of the school. Reflections led to revised plans, daily changes, and long-term understandings of underlying processes occurring in the classroom. I could step outside my participant role to see the growth of the curriculum and the redefinitions of content and theme occurring in the classroom. Action research was also powerful in the voice it provided me. Despite the countervailing pressures, I felt empowered by the insights I was gaining into myself, the children, and my situation. Within an environment I found disempowering, finding this voice gave me strength to resist the constraints I perceived around me.
I found the process of action research problematic as well. Interactions within the classroom microculture continually challenged my identity as a teacher-researcher. One of the conflicts that exist in the teacher-researcher participant-observer role tension takes place between teacher as authority and teacher as observer (Mohr & MacLean, 1987). My identity as researcher called into question the ground rules that determined my authority in the classroom. My sense of control felt threatened in the classroom, as the classroom microculture demanded that I fulfill certain expectations as authority and leader in the classroom. I struggled to reconcile my vision of how I believed my classroom should be and how my research should progress with the reality of how my classroom actually existed. My continual struggle to manage this dilemma (Lampert, 1985) stymied my ability to bring the students into the research. My relationships with the students made getting their objective perspectives difficult. More than the difficulty it presented, bringing them into the research as partners threatened my authority, an authority already threatened by the curricular relationships I was attempting to establish. I found myself shying away from attempts to bring students actively into my research process. In the struggle to maintain my position in the classroom, I sacrificed the opportunity to bring more student voice to the action research process.
The institutional context of school as workplace created the greatest pressures on the action research process. Teaching is a full-time profession without the additional commitment of research. I often felt I had no time, energy, or resources to extend to the extra demands of research. I was exhausted at the end of a day of intense interaction with my class, a day without breaks even for lunch. Lecturing duties at the college and a family with two young children left little time for reflection. Within the pressures of the classroom environment, I added my research component and what observation I could. Within my busy life, I found time for reflection. The frustration of reflection was that it revealed what I could be doing but felt powerless to do. Within the constant pressures of classroom life and the institutional pressures toward accountability and a subject-centered curriculum, I managed my action research. Like so much else in education, my research was defined through compromise. Balancing action research with classroom teaching and institutional school life resulted in contextually defined practice that did not always match theoretical models. Compromise led to constant struggles to maintain the depth of the research, occasional gaps in observation and reflection, and unplanned decisions about the direction of the research. Reflecting back on the year reveals many unfulfilled promises.
In observation, the researcher truly confronts the teacher. I observed everything, through my participation, yet that was not enough. I collected voluminous documentary evidence, video- and audiotaped regularly, gave students questionnaires and tests, and wrote regularly in my teacher journal. Throughout, I continued to feel guilt at not doing enough recording, documenting, and writing. I cursed the days when significant classroom happenings occurred without definitive documentation. How often that spark of inquiry ignited in the classroom and the day ended without having any concrete research data to show for it! Many times I did not take advantage of those moments, the fleeting lifeworld of the classroom. Juggling the world of teacher with the responsibilities of researcher made doing both harder. Teaching was the immediate world, the situation that demanded response daily. If something had to be neglected, research was the component to suffer.
Cultural influences continued to challenge my identity as a teacher-researcher. The struggle I continually faced in my role as researcher was maintaining distance while living inside the researched world. To gain perspective on my own teaching and classroom, I needed to be able to suspend the traditional roles established during seventeen years of teaching. While I was willing, I was not always able. My “teacher” self would often creep in, reinforcing a more traditional lens for seeing my classroom. I struggled with this participant-observer role tension, aware that distance was ultimately unachievable (Mohr & MacLean, 1987) but that it was possible to move away from being only a participant. I lived the dichotomy of enacting curriculum while observing myself in the process of enactment. Through journal writing I could achieve some distance but not necessarily maintain it in the classroom setting. Although I could see deeper into my teaching and context, I was not always successful at making the changes I saw as necessary. The constant pressures of classroom life, especially in terms of underlying power relationships, moved classroom life forward at such a rapid pace that I often did not consider my previous reflections. At other times, my reflections proved invaluable in influencing the direction of the classroom.
As educational researchers, we must assume responsibility for the way the research process affects teachers (Noffke, 1990). Engaging in research challenges one’s identity, promoting a reflexivity that can both enlighten and alienate. Living in this contradiction, one sees the complexity of conflicts not readily solvable. In negotiating new meanings for knowledge, I as the teacher had the hardest time transitioning to new ways of thinking. Students, although resistant, were ready and willing to change given a changed social context. How do you teach an old dog new tricks? How can teachers who have successfully adapted to behaviorist paradigms move toward redefining their identity? As we promote action research among both preservice and inservice teachers, we must be aware not only of the positive rewards of increased reflection. We also need to focus on the disaffection resulting from action research, and to do so in ways that allow teachers support in living their daily struggles in the classroom. Understanding the opportunities and constraints of lived action research is an essential foundation that we must build before we promote action research as the prescription for creating reflective practitioners.
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