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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Snapshots from High School: Teachers' vs. Professors' Views

Instructional Strategies
Last spring I embarked upon a research project that introduced me to a rewarding concept of collaboration. Although I had interviewed and observed teachers before as part of research studies, my work with Laura Hunter and Jim Chesnut—two high school teachers—caused me to reexamine my own views of teaching. Although I belonged to the world of the professor's perspective, I suddenly saw that much of it was irrelevant to the daily experience of classroom teaching.
My intent was to explore the beliefs and practices of two teachers and two professors, their respective outlooks, and the functional values of their perspectives. Laura and Jim, two teachers of English and social studies, respectively, teach in downtown Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The design of the project was really quite simple in nature. Having worked with Laura and Jim on school-university programs for a year, I knew that they each ran very traditional, teacher-centered classes. This was completely contradictory to the way the two education professors who worked with me in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Alabama defined good teaching. Like many young education professors today, my two colleagues—who taught the methods courses in secondary English and social studies, respectively—endorsed student-centered classrooms, particularly pedagogical strategies inspired by constructivism, inquiry- and discovery-learning, and cooperative learning.
Rather than use a confrontational format (where, I feared, individuals would withhold honesty rather than offend one another), I proposed an indirect “dialogue” through me and written texts, a process that would involve four phases. During phase one, I would conduct an ethnographic study of each teacher's classes, produce a narrative text, and interview them about their pedagogical beliefs and careers.
In the second phase, I would interview each of the methods professors about her methods course and the beliefs underlying it. As I did with the teachers' interviews, I audiotaped my interviews of the professors, transcribed them, and used the transcripts to write narratives.
In phase three, I exchanged narratives: that is, I gave each methods professor a copy of my narrative describing the beliefs and practice of the corresponding teacher; I gave a copy of my narrative describing my interview with each methods professor to the corresponding teacher.
In the final phase, I interviewed each participant again. I asked each teacher to comment on the professor's methods course and asked each professor to evaluate the teacher's practice.

Snapshots of Two Classrooms

Phase one began on a cloudy Tuesday in January, when I started observing and taking field notes in Jim's classroom. He was obviously nervous about having a professor sitting in the back row, but as the days and weeks passed, Jim came to regard me as just another student in his social studies classes.
Out of my copious notes, I produced what I hoped was a coherent narrative of my impressions. My objective was to be neither hypercritical nor flattering, but to present a neutral “snapshot” of Jim's classes. I left a copy of the text in Jim's mailbox at his school, with a note asking him to call with his comments. Twenty-four hours passed without a word from Jim. Then a second day passed. I decided Jim was so offended by what I had written that he would probably never speak to me again. But another part of me urged patience: he was just busy. After four days of silence, I could no longer stand the suspense. On Friday morning at 7:45, I stood outside Jim's classroom chewing my lower lip, anxiously searching the hallway for his tall frame. By the time he arrived, I was a wreck: “You're mad at me, right?” I blurted out.
Jim simply smiled. “Dona,” he said, “that was an amazing thing to read. I had no idea that I did some of those things in class. Yet, somehow, as I read it, I felt you had captured the real me. When are you going to interview me about my beliefs? I'm beginning to look forward to this.” I was stunned.
Five days later, I interviewed Jim about his reasons for choosing a career in teaching, his experiences in Tuscaloosa, and his fundamental pedagogical beliefs. Jim likes to walk as he talks, so we spent several hours criss-crossing the high school campus until we finally settled on some bleachers overlooking the softball field. As my cassette recorder whirred, I probed Jim's responses.
Although Jim adheres passionately to a clear set of beliefs about schools, children, and teachers, he had great difficulty expressing himself. I suspected he had never before been asked to reflect publicly and at length on his career. When he groped for words, I would offer my own interpretation and ask, “Is that what you mean?” The result was very much a jointly constructed story. A week later, when I returned the written narrative of the interview to him, we once again negotiated words and interpretations.
With Laura, the experience was a bit different. Having already begun the process with Jim, I was less nervous. From the beginning, she seemed oblivious to my presence in her classroom. My interview with Laura about her beliefs and teaching experiences also had a different texture. One day after school, we sat in her classroom for three hours, as she took me on an intimate tour of her childhood, her adolescence, and her overwhelming desire to obtain a college degree. Coming from a rural family of modest means, her only hope was a government loan program designed for those interested in becoming teachers.
Even with the financial support she needed, long commutes made Laura's college years difficult. She largely taught herself to teach during her first jobs in small, rural schools in Alabama. She also spoke about the coming of court-ordered integration in Tuscaloosa, and how she had to learn to relate to students whose values and assumptions about life differed greatly from her own. A week later, when I returned my narrative of the interview to her, she edited the text: questioning my interpretation in some cases, inserting paragraphs, clarifying and mitigating the portrait I had painted.

The Professors' Perspectives

What emerged from my interviews with the professors and the teachers were two very different views of classroom teaching, what I called “the teachers' versus the professors' perspectives.” The two methods professors saw the primary goal of teaching as promoting problem solving and higher-level thinking among students. They viewed mandated curriculums and standardized achievement tests as largely irrelevant to that goal, because they are generally targeted to lower-level academic skills. Therefore, each professor advised her preservice students to avoid the trap of “teaching to the test” and, when necessary, to surreptitiously subvert the mandated curriculum. A good teacher motivated lifelong learning outside the classroom—not for the reward of grades, but for the intrinsic joy of exercising one's mind.
According to the professors, the most important factor in determining whether this or any other kind of learning occurs is pedagogical method, the way a teacher organizes and presents academic material. Here they drew a sharp distinction between information-giving models of teaching (lecture, demonstration) and inductive methods, where a teacher requires students to infer meanings and patterns. Where the former methods reinforce an authoritarian, grade-oriented notion of learning, the latter are likely to promote the intrinsically enjoyable acquisition of problem-solving skills that students can apply beyond academic contexts.
Although both professors conceded that a teacher's personality and professional commitment are important ingredients, they are secondary to pedagogical method. In selecting pedagogical methods, a teacher should look to educational/cognitive psychology and educational research for guidance. In this sense, the professors saw good teachers as clinicians whose practice is firmly based in social sciences. As a professor of education, this was a familiar perspective to me, as I was socialized and committed to the same culture.

Jim and Laura Respond

The teachers' perspective stood in sharp contrast to this view. Laura and Jim saw their role as that of preparing students to succeed: namely, to acquire necessary academic skills and information, to score well on standardized tests (especially college entrance exams), and to develop into rounded individuals with self-esteem, social skills, and healthy values. Promoting higher-level thinking was only a small part of their role as teachers. Thus, Laura and Jim did not apologize for “teaching to the test” or for adhering to mandated curriculums.
In fact, they viewed the professors' cavalier attitudes on those issues as dangerous. As teachers, Laura and Jim felt that their job was not to subvert the system, but to help students succeed within it. They regarded the notion that students could be motivated without concrete rewards (grades) as naive and contrary to human nature. They were also honest about their feelings that parents and religious/community leaders should be held as accountable as teachers for a child's success in and out of the classroom.
However, the greatest difference of opinion concerned the primary mechanism believed to effect learning in classrooms. Laura and Jim saw learning as the end result of countless personal interactions between a teacher and students, collectively and individually. How a teacher presented academic material was simply an organizational task: material needed to be organized and explained with clarity and patience. What really mattered was the teacher's intuition, sensitivity to children, and ability to meet the idiosyncratic needs of each child. In this sense, Laura and Jim did not see classroom teaching as a predictable applied science, but as the art of social interaction.
What mattered most was not the pedagogical method but the teacher: the personality, values, affection, and commitment communicated to students. Each of these elements was shaped by a teacher's unique biography. For example, to her classroom Laura brought the lesson she learned growing up—that education can be the key to economic and social independence. In Jim's case, his early attraction to a military career helped him turn history into the study of leaders and the interacting effects of their decisions.
Laura and Jim were also frank in expressing the belief that one did not acquire the sensitivities to read and negotiate the needs of students by completing university programs of teacher education, programs that they felt were badly out of touch with the way teaching is experienced on a daily basis. Moreover, they regarded educational psychology and research as relatively useless sources of guidance, because they rarely examined learning in authentic and complex classroom contexts.

A Political Struggle

Inadvertently, a political theme emerged from the interviews: a story about the seat of power to define teaching (its objectives and mechanisms) and to determine how future generations of teachers are to be educated. However, the implicit political struggle suggested by the two views of teaching will remain unrealized as long as the teachers' perspective (as reflected by Laura and Jim) is denigrated by education “scholars” and excluded from the professional literature of teaching, which is virtually monopolized by education professors.
On a personal level, I learned something else from my work with Laura and Jim. As I sat at my typewriter trying to weave the separate phases of the project into a book, I realized how much the study had changed me. In listening closely to Laura and Jim, in transcribing the audiotapes, and in using their words to construct narratives, I had come to see the world partially through their eyes—not as the result of objective reasoning on my part, but as a natural by-product of communicating intimately with two individuals about whom I had come to care. Realizing how they trusted me to make a public presentation of their lives, I wanted desperately to get their stories right: “right” not simply in the sense of accurate, but also in the sense of comfortable. In short, I learned that collaborative research is a process, not a product, and that the product is not a written document, but the ways the participants change one another and grow as a result of learning about one another's disappointments and triumphs.
End Notes

1 D. Kagan, (in press), Laura and Jim and What They Taught Me About the Gap Between Educational Theory and Practice, (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press). Available September 1993 from SUNY Press, c/o CUP Services, P.O. Box 6525, Ithaca, NY 14851; $39.50/cloth, $12.95/paper plus $3 for shipping.

Dona Kagan has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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