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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

A Window into New Teachers' Minds

A marathon, a walk in the woods, even a piece of sea glass: Novice teachers provide surprising metaphors and symbols for good teaching and learning.

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We've all encountered metaphors about teaching—the teacher as a gardener planting seeds, a conductor leading an orchestra, or a captain piloting a ship. Sometimes seeing which image we're drawn to helps each of us get a sense of our own teaching philosophy and which elements of teaching we want to emphasize and strengthen.
In our work as teacher educators, we ask ourselves: What internal symbols of good teaching do the emerging teachers we're guiding have? How can we tap into their individual representations to help these teachers grow?
We direct the Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, funded by the National Science Foundation, designed to recruit and mentor new teachers to help students in high-needs schools learn math and science. When we give these new teachers opportunities to choose a metaphor or symbol for good teaching, we get a window into their thinking. This helps us better mentor them and guide their professional growth.
The new teachers in our program prepare a "performance of learning"—a presentation that summarizes understandings a person has built from a learning experience—to share and highlight what they're learning. They engage in this process at various points in their program, typically at the end of their courses in their two-year preparation program and in a follow-up workshop series during their early teaching years. We invite these novices to show their most powerful learning by presenting to us and their fellow participants an artifact and describing what that artifact represents to them about good teaching and how they are practicing it or hope to practice it.

Five Revealing Images

We see a new set of artifacts or metaphors each year, and we're constantly struck by the variety. We respond by asking the teachers some generative questions and proposing strategies they might try, resources they might explore, or ways they might vary their teaching approaches to strengthen their practice in the way their artifacts suggest. This approach acknowledges each teacher's thinking. It enables the new teachers to structure their own plans for the work ahead, while helping them build a repertoire of research-based, student-centered instructional practices.
We share here the artifacts or metaphors that five novices—all teaching in middle or high schools—recently presented and described in their performances of learning. Each teacher explained how he or she selected that artifact or symbol and how it served as a metaphor for a personal vision of good teaching.

Running Shoes

Ms. Hansen's artifact was a pair of running shoes—to symbolize her belief that she must be flexible and willing to respond to students' divergent needs. She explained,
Every running shoe is different, each providing a different running experience. Each offers a different type of support in different locations on the foot. … Some have spikes; most do not.
Ms. Hansen noted that good teaching in her school could be described as "differentiating materials and providing innovative, active learning." She reported that as a new teacher, she had a general sense of well-being and felt that her classes were organized and well managed.
To help Ms. Hansen strengthen her flexibility, we prompted her to reflect carefully on whether she is teaching in innovative ways. We asked her to describe how she differentiates lessons and assignments to address students' divergent academic needs. And we asked specific questions aimed at helping her act on her intentions, such as, What does listening to your students' responses tell you about their thinking? How might you better connect with them as math thinkers as a result of what you hear?

A Marathon

Mr. Jose is an athletic, well-regarded third-year teacher. He described good practice at his high school as making certain all students understand and comprehend the material that teachers present. Good teaching, to Mr. Jose, means providing clear procedures for solving math problems, encouraging students to be persistent, and differentiating instruction when certain students can't replicate a procedure. He feels gratified when he sees students collaborate to solve math problems and respond confidently to challenging questions.
Mr. Jose selected a marathon as the metaphor that represents his quest for good practice—and also his students' struggles to learn:
Completing 26.2 miles requires relentless training of body and mind. It needs determination to endure the challenges and overcome the obstacles. This metaphor helps shape my thinking about the difficulties my students have had regarding [learning material required by] the Common Core.
Mr. Jose views an ideal classroom as one in which a teacher presents—and models well—a universal lesson for all students. Applying his marathon metaphor to this concept of an effective classroom, he would ideally like all his "runners" to cross the finish line at the same time. He strives for that one lesson to reach all, although he intuitively understands that one lesson often doesn't work for all students and that he may need to follow up by trying various approaches.
To help Mr. Jose grow as a teacher, we tried to shift his paradigm, to help him recalibrate his concept of good teaching to include approaches consistent with constructivist pedagogy. We suggested that he look at his students as individuals and look at his classes as groups of individuals, not as a homogenous whole. To help him do so, we offered such resources as math activities that foster students' ability to work in a self-regulated way (for instance, an activity in which students work as architects would, using formulas to minimize building costs but maximize floor space). We proposed that students can run the marathon at various paces—ending up in front of or in back of one another. Crossing the finish line together is less urgent than crossing the finish line.

A Walk in the Woods

Ms. Grassi finds that taking a walk in the woods with students symbolizes her present thinking about how to be a good teacher:
I find learning to be not a linear journey, but [more like] a walk in the woods where students discover, through their senses, the interconnectedness of the woods' ecosystem and develop their own structure for understanding. My purpose as an educator is to be aware of the "scene" as I anticipate, for example, which rocks my students may stumble upon. With this awareness, I must decide whether to warn them of those rocks, or mediate afterwards, so they may still feel like they are creators of their own path.
Ms. Grassi also said that she sees knowledge as "unveiled" rather than "acquired" and believes students are born with "masterful minds."
Our challenge with Ms. Grassi was to have her consider knowledge as "built" rather than just "unveiled." We encouraged her to work with that distinction and determine how making such a distinction might change her teaching practice. What would it mean for her students to construct knowledge as opposed to stumbling upon it?
Ms. Grassi showed a sensitivity to student needs, but she hadn't yet documented how she would transform that sensitivity into meaningful instructional practice. Doing so will require another set of knowledge, skills, analysis, and reflection. Her symbol showed us she is ready to be encouraged to go to that next level.

Sea Glass

Ms. Jamal's artifact was sea glass, which to her represented the need for good teachers to recognize the uniqueness of each student and to "polish" each one to bring out his or her individual strengths and beauty:
Every piece of sea glass is unique. Each piece starts off rough around the edges, and some may even be broken, but with the waves … each becomes smooth and aesthetically pleasing.
Ms. Jamal compared the action of waves washing over pieces of glass to teachers' acts of care and nurturing:
We might not look like our students or come from the same place [they do], but if we take the time, we can make a difference in their lives. This artifact reinforces my thinking that effective teaching acknowledges the uniqueness of each student. Further, it mirrors why struggling students thrive in environments where their talents are nurtured and their self-esteem and self-efficacy are cultivated.
Ms. Jamal referred to an important goal for her teaching—seeing the uniqueness of each student and teaching in ways that bring out each one's strengths. To increase her ability to offer curriculums and lessons that address this goal, we worked with her on how she might gather evidence of student learning—beyond standardized exams. As she moves deeper into her teaching career, how will she know what her students are—and aren't yet—learning? How will she make sure that her instructional practices respond to that evidence?

Battery, Magnet, and Copper Wire

Mr. Jason presented a battery, a magnet, and copper wire as the symbol of "what I am getting out of my teacher preparation program." He said he has learned to help his high school physics students build abstract ideas from concrete experiments, instead of, say, just presenting lessons on Faraday's law or Lenz's law of electromagnetic induction. The famous scientist Michael Faraday used a battery, magnet, and copper wire to prove his ideas. Mr. Jason's students do, too.
Mr. Jason said his current school defines good practice as making real-world connections so that students walk away from lessons with understandings they can readily apply outside of school. Mr. Jason also noted that the battery, magnet, and wire remind him how important it is to use tangible objects and real-life examples in lessons to help introduce difficult concepts—which he often does.
"Over the last couple of lessons," he said, "I've used a marble launcher to introduce aspects of projectile motion. I also use practical examples students encounter every day, such as throwing a football or basketball."
We encouraged Mr. Jason to go further in providing "everyday" lessons that connect concepts to the out-of-school world or students' interests and that include opportunities for students to reflect. We also challenged Mr. Jason to consider the power of posing contradictions to students' "correct" answers to deepen their thinking.

Acknowledging the Complexity

One consequence of reducing school and teacher effectiveness to test scores is that the public routinely underestimates the complexity of teaching and the individual journeys new teachers take as they learn to teach. Most of today's mandates, curricular changes, and testing programs also ignore how complex teaching is. All teachers face big challenges in bringing their best thinking to teaching; novice teachers face even more daunting challenges. Teaching is a difficult task that requires tapping multiple knowledge domains and working with them simultaneously.
Our Noyce Scholars Program encourages participants to help one another develop these knowledge domains and to refine their skills by acknowledging, and reflecting on, their personal theories of teaching and learning. Sharing one's thinking through these performances of learning offers a model for reflecting with colleagues that can help all of us grow throughout our teaching careers.
Authors' note: This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Grant DUE-0934766. All names are pseudonyms.
End Notes

1 Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1999). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

2 Ingersoll, R. M., & Smith, T. M. (2003, May). The wrong solution to the teacher shortage. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 30–33.

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks is associate professor and director of the Science Education Program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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