Relational Challenges and Breakthroughs: How Pre-Service English Teachers’ Figured Worlds Impact Their Relationships With Students
by April S. Salerno & Amanda K. Kibler - 2018
Background/Context: Figured worlds have been conceptualized as spaces, or “realms," where individuals assign meaning and significance to actors and characters or come to understand what they take as “typical or normal." This study applies a lens of figured worlds to descriptions that pre-service teachers (PSTs) give of themselves and their relationships with students they said were challenging to teach.
Purpose/Objective: Research focused on two questions: (1) How do PSTs describe their own figured worlds in relation to those of their students? (2) What challenges and breakthroughs do PSTs describe in their efforts to understand students’ figured worlds through relationship building?
Setting: Data are from a cohort of secondary English education PSTs during teacher preparation at a large public university in a South Atlantic state.
Population/Participants/Subjects: At graduation, the cohort consisted of 15 members, all of whom participated in our study. All of the participants were women of typical university student age. Participants described their race/ethnicity as White (11), Korean (1), Filipino-American (1), Chinese-American (1), and Hispanic (1).
Research Design: This qualitative study uses open-coding analysis to consider ways PSTs talked about their figured worlds and their student relationships across their two-year English education teacher preparation. Data include field notes of course discussions and practice-teaching observations, interviews, course presentations, lesson plans, and course assignments, especially from three teaching inquiry projects that PSTs completed during their program. The researchers take a practitioner-inquirer stance, as they were both involved in helping prepare the cohort.
Findings/Results: Among Question 1 findings, PSTs reveal various individual figured worlds in addition to several group-defined figured worlds, including group identities such as: women; students who had themselves excelled in school; new, young, and inexperienced teachers; people identifying strongly with English content; and people of privilege. Among Question 2 findings, PSTs overwhelmingly viewed relationships with students as important; however, they experienced many challenges and breakthroughs in building those relationships.
Conclusions/Recommendations: PSTs entered their preparation and their student-teaching classrooms with their own figured worlds about themselves and what teacher–student relationships should look like. In practice teaching, however, they experienced many challenges to building the types of relationships they expected. And they also experienced breakthroughs in improving these relationships. For teacher educators, it is important to understand the figured worlds that PSTs bring to teacher–student relationships and to help them in understanding that students’ figured worlds might not align with their own.
All adolescents, particularly those with histories of academic underachievement, need positive relationships with caring adults. A solid body of research supports the notion that adolescents benefit from such relationships (see, for example, Noddings, 2013; Resnick et al., 1997; Resnick, Harris, & Blum, 1993). Yet what it looks like when a teacher shows care for students is less easily defined and is tied to various factors of context and teacher and student identities, including racial, ethnic, linguistic, and class backgrounds. Emdin (2016) describes how teachers perceptionsparticularly White teachers perceptionsof what it means to be a caring teacher might vary in different settings, affirming long-held, misguided beliefs that minority children need strong discipline:
In the more affluent schools, ones ability to teach the subject material is prioritized, and so is a caring temperament. In this case, care is demonstrated by a teachers patience and dedication to teaching. In urban communities that are populated by youth of color, there are other, and oftentimes unwritten, expectations like having strong classroom-management skills and not being a pushover. In this case, care is expressed through tough love. (pp. 56)
Emdin explains how historically teachers in indigenous boarding schools, like urban teachers today, have held misguided views about care as equivalent to firm discipline. Such ideas can be linked to teachers having lower expectations for students, leading to what Haberman calls a pedagogy of poverty (Haberman, 1991; see also Ladson-Billings, 1997). Haberman (1991) writes that those who have lower expectations for minorities and the poor might believe that at-risk students are served best by a directive, controlling pedagogy (p. 291). Through such pedagogy, youthparticularly urban youthdo not reach their potential, but instead inhabit a classroom atmosphere created by constant teacher direction and student compliance that seethes with passive resentment that sometimes bubbles up into overt resistance (p. 291). Teacherstudent relationships at the secondary level are indeed tricky, two-way balancing acts involving both teachers and adolescent students, but steered by teachers, holding positions of authority. Complicating these relationships, for beginning or pre-service teachers (PSTs), is the fact that they are just learning how to build professional relationships while developing teacher identities (McLean, 1999).
Amid these changes, both PSTs and students bring to relationships their own backgrounds, conceptualized in this study as figured worlds. Holland, Skinner, Lachicotte, and Cain (1998) define a figured world as a socially and culturally constructed realm of interpretation in which particular characters and actors are recognized, significance is assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes are valued over others (p. 52). Regarding teacherstudent relationships, this means teachers and students interpret relationships by recognizing each other as playing certain roles, based on their previously developed figured worlds. With growing demographic differences between todays beginning teachers and students (NCES, 2017) and given the culturally affected nature of figured worlds, it follows that PSTs and students from different ethnic, linguistic, and class backgrounds might enter relationships with disparate figured worlds, including misaligned ideas about teacherstudent relationships. Although work is needed studying how both novice teachers and adolescents bring figured worlds to relationships, this study focuses on ways PSTs do so.
We draw on Gees (2014a) figured worlds tool for analyzing Discourse. Gee (2014b) conceptualized Discoursewith a capital Das a characteristic way of saying, doing, and being (p. 47), asserting that big D Discourse involves both language and accompanying actions. We conceptualize study of PSTs Discourse as revealing how PSTs draw from figured worlds in approaching relationships with adolescents.
It has long been suggested that strong teacherstudent relationships promote improved student learning. Rogers (1969) contends that attitudinal qualities, such as genuineness, trust, caring, and empathy, aided student learning, helping a student feel simply understoodnot evaluated, not judged (p. 112). Achieving such understanding in teacherstudent relationships might become more difficult (Lee & Fradd, 1996) but no less important when teachers and students come from different backgrounds.
In his 119-study meta-analysis, Cornelius-White (2007) found that teacher relational practicesincluding honoring students voices and adapting to individual and cultural differencesfacilitated student learning, having above-average associations with positive student outcomes, including critical thinking, drop-out prevention, verbal achievement, and fewer disruptive behaviors. Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, and Oort (2011) confirmed these results in a 99-study meta-analysis, also finding that student engagement and achievement were associated positively with positive teacher relationships and negatively with negative relationships. Additionally, they found teacher relationships were even more important for adolescents than children.
Despite such benefits, positive relationships do not always exist in schools. Poplin and Weeres (1994), studying problems in four ethnically diverse California schools, found that students problems with relationshipsparticularly with teacherswere more prevalent with adolescents than children, and for minority students: Students of color, especially older students often report that their teachers, school staff, and other students neither like nor understand them. Many teachers also report they do not always understand students ethnically different than themselves (p. 13). Additionally, the study found differences in how teachers and students perceived caring. Teachers demonstrated caring by working hard, while students felt cared about when they had positive personal studentteacher interactions.
TRAINING PSTs TO BUILD STUDENT RELATIONSHIPS
For PSTs, learning to build student relationships can be challenging. Not only can teachers misunderstand how students perceive caring, but teachers might also find determining appropriate boundaries difficult. Uitto (2012) contended that pre-service and in-service teacherspressured to appear as model citizensgrapple with questions like whether to tell students about their personal lives or give students their phone numbers. From an analysis of letters written by 141 Finnish people about their former teachers, she found that students learned teachers personal information regardless of whether teachers divulged it. Given the impossibility of hiding personal lives from students, she argued PSTs need teacher educators support in learning to set boundaries. Aultman, Williams-Johnson, and Schutz (2009) found from interviewing 13 teachers at various career stages that experienced and beginning teachers drew different relational boundaries. While experienced teachers believed beginning teachers had a stronger desire to become friends with students and consequently sometimes lost control of classrooms, experienced teachers appeared to negotiate balances more easily between professionalism and involvement (see also Newberry, 2010).
Amid these challenges, questions remain about how PSTs develop student relationships. In studying 138 PSTs, Kesner (2000) found that PSTstudent relationships appeared connected to relationships with PSTs parents. PSTs who recalled less harsh parental discipline generally perceived closer student relationships. Jiménez and Rose (2010) found that PSTs who had learned second languages and lived abroad themselves most easily related to ELL students, while PSTs who did not relate to language learners often engaged in deficit-thinking about them, hindering relationships. It is important for teacher educators to recognize that PSTs do not come to teacher preparation devoid of past experiences. Yet how to build uponor move pastPSTs figured worlds in relationship building remains uncertain.
In seeking to add knowledge for improving PSTs preparation to relate to whole classrooms of culturally and linguistically diverse learners, we draw from Gees (2014a) figured worlds tool (p. 174), which can guide Discourse analysis. Anthropologists have long written about the notion of worlds as organized differently across cultures, explaining how individuals understand their belonging to cultures (Hallowell, 1955, reprinted 2010; Quinn & Holland, 1987). Gee (2014a) expands Holland et al.s (1998) definition, cited above, of figured worlds, adding that individuals carry with them a picture of a simplified world that captures what is taken to be typical or normal (p. 176). What individuals take as typical or normal, he argued, varies across groups. For this reason, people from different backgrounds, told to imagine a wedding, might envision widely disparate events (Gee, 2014b). Additionally, an individual can simultaneously have multiple figured worlds, sometimes competing with one another in influencing the individuals Discourses1 (Gee, 2014b). For Discourse analysts, figured worlds lead to various questions, including: How are the relevant figured worlds here helping to reproduce, transform, or create social, cultural, institutional and/or political relationships? (Gee, 2014b, p. 115). Within classrooms, this question might explore how teachers figured worlds lead to their various expectations about student relationships.
To better understand how PSTs approach student relationships, we study PSTs descriptions of relationships with students in field placements. In doing so, we seek to understand (1) how PSTs describe their figured worlds, and (2) how they describe student relationships, given the figured worlds PSTs reveal about themselves and that PSTs might be trying to understand students figured worlds. This dual approach makes it possible to see how PSTs bring figured worlds to relationships and employ them in interpreting relationships with students having different figured worlds. It is important to explain that our intent is not to justify PSTs beliefs about students as somehow inherently correct because they are part of PSTs figured worlds. Gee (2014b), to the contrary, warns of the danger that individuals will translate difference into deviance if they think of typical as normal, acceptable, and right (p. 100). What Gee (2014b) asserts is that we do assume that everyone has good reasons and makes deep sense in terms of their own socioculturally-specific ways of talking, listening (writing, reading), acting, interacting, valuing, believing, and feeling (p. 115). Instead of thinking of PSTs figured worlds as inherently right, we aim to better understand how PSTs reveal their own individually held figured worlds about students, and how prepared PSTs are to build meaningful relationships with students having different figured worlds than their own.
(1) How do PSTs describe their own figured worlds in relation to those of their students? (2) What challenges and breakthroughs do PSTs describe in their efforts to understand students figured worlds through relationship building?
Data are from a cohort of secondary English education PSTs during teacher preparation at a large public university in a South Atlantic state. During four semesters, we observed PSTs in English teaching-methods coursework and field placements (see Table 1 for a detailed overview of PSTs course of study and data collected). For two semesters, PSTs observed classes weekly in initial field placements and taught eight total lessons over both semesters. The third semester, they completed full-time student-teaching in different classrooms, and the final semester, they revisited student-teaching classrooms, observing and writing student case studies. The first author took detailed field notes during observations, audio-recorded discussions, collected course assignments and lesson plans, and periodically interviewed and surveyed cohort members. She transcribed oral presentations and excerpts from course discussions cited in this paper. Across the two years of data collection, we saw many questions emerge, but a focus of our interest and observations throughout included understanding how PSTs described and related to students (see Salerno & Kibler, 2016, for more on student descriptions). Through coursework, PSTs analyzed field-placement classrooms in three teacher-inquiry assignmentsprojects in which PSTs self-examined their teaching and students with goals of improving their practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). In the projects, PSTs largely considered research questions about students they said were challenging to teach (see Salerno & Kibler, 2015, for more on PSTs inquiry questions). The intent of tasks was not to place responsibility for challenges on secondary students, but rather to help PSTs understand that limitations were their own, and that inquiry might help build their pedagogical expertise to teach all students more successfully. These assignments particularly provided rich descriptions of student relationships, alongside field notes and interviews.
Table 1. PSTs Course of Study and Data Collection
*Boldface underlining indicates primary data for this study.
At graduation, the cohort consisted of 15 members, all of whom participated in our study (see Table 2). Similar to general teaching-population demographics (NCES, 2017), PSTs all are female, and most are White, though there was some ethnic and linguistic diversity. Academically, PSTs were completing either a two-year post-graduate PG/MT or a five-year BA/MT program. PSTs completed field placements in public middle- and high-school English classrooms.
Table 2. Participants
Role of Researchers
As practitioner inquirers, we collected data while helping prepare the cohort. The first author assumed various roles: teaching assistant; small-group facilitator; classroom observer; lesson-plan reviewer; and most influentially, student-teaching supervisor for Amy, Karen, Lynn, and Robin. The second author was instructor of the first English-teaching methods course (see Table 1). We acted as what Erickson (2006) named observant participants (p. 245), contrasting with less involved participant observers. We actively helped PSTs, discussing with them teaching approaches, lesson plans, and challenges including difficulties with student relationships. Viewing our work through a teacher-inquiry lens (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009), we expect our involvement affected PSTs development. Given research suggesting that how teacher educators relate to PSTs affects how PSTs view student relationships (Kim & Schallert, 2011), it is likely our relationship with PSTs also affected their student relationships. Our sustained involvement with the PSTs helped us not only to triangulate our findings (drawing data from course observations, teaching observations, assignment collection, interviews, and meetings with mentors), but also to develop a deep relationship with these PSTs in which they shared with us on countless informal occasions the challenges and joys they experienced in the classroom. We hope that our own relationship with PSTs modeled for them an open, professional relationship in which we worked together with PSTs to further their learningand oursand to problem solve when new challenges arose.
Because we believe collection and analysis can be recursive, we initiated preliminary analysis while collecting data, considering early questions in frequent conceptual memos, which we discussed with fellow researchers, or critical friends (Heath & Street, 2008). We found that certain assignments and activities by their nature offered more opportunities for students to reflect on, describe, and discuss their figured worlds and student relationships: they included PSTs inquiry papers, transcriptions, and field notes from oral presentations, interviews, and course discussions (see Table 1). For this reason, we decided to focus on just these as our primary data sources, thereby reducing the data (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Using an open coding process (Erickson, 1986; Merriam, 2009), we re-read our primary data sources. While reading we created codes inductively, marking sections where PSTs discussed their figured worldswhich they often called their backgroundsin relation to students. Question 1 coding criteria included PSTs discussion of their own educational or personal histories (see explanation and examples of coding in the Appendix). Sometimes, PSTs compared their experiences directly to students experiences, but we coded passages regardless of whether PSTs mentioned students (see Appendix Priv code example). Additionally, in answering Question 2, we coded data where PSTs discussed student relationships, defined broadly as how PSTs made or did not make connections with students. We included both general discussion of the importance of teacherstudent relationships and examples they gave of buildingor not buildingrelationships with individual students, as revealed through PSTs challenges and breakthroughs in relationships (see the Appendix). Coding was exhaustive in that we examined all sources described above, re-listening to audio when necessary and fully transcribing to enhance field notes. When passages talked about both figured worlds (Question 1) and student relationships (Question 2), we coded passages in both categories to avoid omissions in subsequent analysis. After analysis, we checked for triangulation across themes presented in the findings. Each theme was present across field notes, interviews, and projects/documents, with the exception of privilege, which did not appear in interviews but was present in two other data sources.
QUESTION 1: PSTs FIGURED WORLDS
Throughout data, PSTs revealed various ways figured worlds shaped their perceptions of relationships. PSTs revealed various personal worlds, shaped by individual experiences. Throughout discussions and interviews, they explained how their decisions in relating to students were affected by past experiences (see Jiménez & Rose, 2010; Kesner, 2000). Cynthia, for instance, said being raised in Mexico affected her relationship with Spanish-speaking students because she understood them when they talked in Spanish to one another. And Shawn said her experiences as a resident assistant made her decide that boys as well as girls should read a young-adult novel about the rape of an adolescent girl. Because these past experiences are multiple and varied, it would be impossible to explain all the ways data revealed individual backgrounds affecting relationships. We focus instead on the several ways figured worlds appeared group-defined by PSTs joint cohort membership, as Gee (2014a) contends that groups form identities to recognize one another as belonging to the group. Our approach is also in alignment with his argument that groups play a crucial role in norming the experiences that help form figured worlds (Gee, 2014b, p. 95).
PSTs included in their Discourse group-defined figured worlds. Although it is unclear to what extent each PST agreed with group-defined identities, these shared figured worlds emerged through PSTs use of the collective we in creating what might be thought of as an in-group identity, normative within the cohort (Bloome et al., 2008, p. 17). In-group identities included identifying as:
new, young, and inexperienced teachers;
English people, or teachers identifying strongly with the study of literature and the academic reading and writing practices associated with an undergraduate English major;
and people of privilege.
First, this cohort was somewhat singular in its all-female composition. Additionally, methods and inquiry professors were women, as were student-teaching supervisors. Some PSTs had male mentors,2 but since mentors did not attend course sessions, discussions generally included only women (see Kesner, 2000, and Roorda et al., 2011, for more on teacher gender and student relationships). At times, this gendered identity appeared explicitly within cohort Discourse and seemed to suggest a figured world associating gender and English instruction. For instance, at an end-of-second-semester meeting, after PSTs gave the professor flowers, she said she had not taught an all-female cohort in years. That previous group, she said, had called themselves the ladies auxiliary, alluding to early covert feminist organizations and linking to a text that the cohort had discussed about teaching being subversive (Postman & Weingartner, 1969). PSTs themselves would frequently ask about a text or pedagogical strategy in terms of how boys might receive it, or they would describe textsspecifically graphic novels or video-gaming magazinesas more interesting to boys than to themselves.
PSTs, particularly those involved in extracurricular activities, said gender affected their student relationships. Karen wrote in her final inquiry project that she connected better to girls:
Though I try to make strong connections with all of my students, I tend to reach out to the needs of my female students in an extracurricular way. I have helped two different female students outside of school, with attending youth groups at local libraries or going to an open mic poetry night so she could perform. This is perhaps because I am a woman and may feel professionally uneasy taking an adolescent boy to extracurricular events without anyone else present.
Karen discussed how gender affected her extracurricular relationships with students (a theme present elsewhere, with both Marilyn and Amy coaching girls running teams). Data suggest Karen devoted extra attention to female student relationships by helping them attend local events, promoting language and literacy skills. It is possible Karens figured worlds include differing expectations for how she should relate to students based on gender. Interestingly, in an interview, Karen discussed how a male student called her a gender slur, describing the incident as a student-teaching moment when she felt powerless. It is unclear what, if any, impact her own differing standards for relationships based on gender might have had on these complicated relationships. But it is clear that gender was an issue in how Karen related to students.
Together, PSTs defined themselves as having been high-achieving students. In discussions, they mentioned how struggling students or smart kids might respond to instructional approaches, with an intimation that PSTs had been among the smart kids in school. For instance, in a small-group discussion during first-semester methods course, PSTs discussed grading group presentations. Field notes indicate:
Elizabeth said that even then the smart kid could be doing all the work even though others are doing the talking in the presentation. She said that she had a problem with this type of group work because of that.
Elizabeths comments suggest she is very aware of challenges facing smart kids, possibly suggesting they are part of her figured worlds. Indeed, PSTs were successful students at a well-respected university, requiring 3.0 GPAs or higher in English and teacher-education courses. It is possible PSTs more easily understood experiences of high-achieving students. Shawn, for example, in her final inquiry paper, assigned to her focal student the pseudonym of Hermionea high-achieving student in the Harry Potter series (Rowling, 1997), which Shawn was then reading. Shawn explained: When it comes to Hermione, I have a background in heavy high school course loads, so I have an understanding of her situation that may make me biased. In contrast, PSTs frequently said they worried about teaching students in lower-level courses. In an interview, Rachel said she was surprised a lower-level class was more interested in instruction than an advanced class: I didnt think I could teach the lower-level kids, like I was afraid to because they were really hard to engage and really didnt want to be there. Rachel said her perspectives changed as she learned about students and their aspirations. Such findings apparently point to disparity between PSTs figured worlds as high-achieving students and those of students who have not had the same kinds of positive school experiences.
New, Young, and Inexperienced Teachers
PSTs talked collectively about being new, young, and inexperienced, causing students not to see them as authority figures. Marilyn, for instance, said that being a visibly young and inexperienced teacher made her a target for her focal student. Cynthia said being young made it difficult to have relationship-building skills, feeling most prepared to develop students cognitive skills and least prepared to develop affective skills: Im only 22. So like for me to have enough wisdom to kind of know how to pair those two is a process. It is not surprising, given participants status as PSTs, that they share this new-teacher identity, but it still plays a role in their figured worlds.
PSTs, preparing to become English teachers, described themselves as English people and as language people, sharing interests in English- and language-related content. In interviews, PSTs said being English people shaped their career choices. They commented in discussions that as English people, they might love canonical literature, while students might prefer nonfiction. Elizabeth, for instance, presenting a unit she planned for her first methods course, said:
Really I guess my a-ha moment was realizing that not everybody likes fiction and creative writing as much as I do, and that many people dont like either of those. So I guess Im in this mindset where its like I write my lessons based on what I liked to do in high school.
If Elizabeth planned lessons based on her own figured world of high school, she might also have tried relating to students as she wanted others to relate to her in high school. In this sense, relating to students not identifying as English people might be challenging for Elizabeth and other PSTs. Furthermore, English-teacher identities, particularly those that enforce so-called standard English, can be viewed as exclusionary and deficit-oriented toward students who speak varieties of English or who speak languages besides English (Curzan, 2009). In a methods-course discussion of a student writing sample, PSTs said that as language people, they saw grammar errors first.
Near the end of the second-semester methods course, after having been exposed in methods courses to various readings related to equity in education (including Curzan, 2009, cited above; Kutz & Roskelly, 1991), PSTs occasionally began initiating discussions about their own privilege. In a course presentation, Kimberly compared PSTs and students status:
Looking around the room, I see a lot of us are White middle class, myself included obviously. By an accident of birth, we were placed in kind of a privileged position. Our education and our culture were pretty closely aligned, and it wasnt a big jump between our home life and our school life. When we opened up books, it was pretty easy to see the contexts and events of our everyday lives on the pages. And we grew up seeing people similar to ourselves in positions of power and authority. But not all of our students are going to be that lucky. Most of them are going to be from a different kind of background.
Kimberly suggested PSTs could identify with books, perhaps related to their English people identity, and that this identification was possible because PSTs could see themselvesand other White middle-class membersin books. Kimberly made explicit connections among privilege, race, and class, directly stating that these figured worlds would be different from students.
QUESTION 2: HOW PSTs DESCRIBED STUDENT RELATIONSHIPS
In coding PSTs descriptions of student relationships, we found variance across semesters. In early field-placement projectswhen PSTs were part-time classroom visitorsPSTs wrote generally about the importance of knowing students but did not detail specific relationships. In student teaching, however, as PSTs became immersed in classrooms, as they experienced shifts in their figured worlds of what it means to be a teacher, and as they tried to understand students figured worlds, PSTs began giving details about specific students, describing at length both relational challenges and breakthroughs. Later, in final reflections and interviews, just before graduation, PSTs returned to the more general theme of the importance of teacherstudent relationships. In coding, we found patterns in the relationships category about how PSTs discussed the importance of relationships, challenges in building relationships, and relational breakthroughs. We describe findings in each of these subcategories in the following sections.
Importance of Relationships
An overwhelming theme was PSTs emphasis on the importance of relationships. In initial inquiry papers, PSTs frequently listed among their studies conclusions that teachers should spend time getting to know students. In part, this might be due to the assignments nature, asking PSTs to interview two students to learn about their viewpoints, but it might also indicate how teacher preparation in generalwith assignments as one piece of that contextwas affecting PSTs thinking about relationships. Marilyn, for instance, wrote: Genuine interaction and intentional discovery about student life are key to knowing your students and ensuring effective learning. In these initial papers, PSTs wrote about first experiences interacting with students. For PSTs, such as Dawn, these early experiences appeared to be important discoveries:
During weekly visits to a local high school this year, I got a taste of what it was like to be a teacherbut even more so, I got a taste of what it was like to interact with and become connected to a group of students. . . . I felt like I learned a lot about the realities of being a teacher and taking into consideration the students I would be teaching.
Dawn linked the realities of teaching and taking into consideration the students, possibly contrasting realities PSTs said they faced in secondary classrooms with pedagogical theory they learned in coursework (see Worthy & Patterson, 2001, on the importance of having PSTs examine beliefs through theory). Samantha similarly said in her final interview:
I do think that being in the classroom as much as we were over the past two years has given me specific relationships with students that informed the theory that were getting in classes. And yeah just, it gives a face and an experience to attach reading and discussion to.
In this sense, Dawn and Samantha indicated that practice teaching gave them experience-building relationships, which they suggest is possible only in actual classrooms.
Interestingly, a specific relationship-building element PSTs said they could practice as English teachers drew connections between relationships and text selections. In conducting interviews, PSTs typically asked students about their reading interests3 (see Salerno & Kibler, 2015, for more on questions PSTs asked). PSTs wrote consistently about what they described as connections between exploring texts in English classrooms and building student relationships. Kimberly, for instance, wrote:
Every student is interested and motivated by different things. Because of this, we should include in our curriculum a wide range of texts that appeal to different interests. Further, this provides an opportunity for us as teachers to foster personal relationships with our students. If we know our students, we can point them to books and materials that [sic] would enjoy on an individual basis.
Kimberly suggested not only that teachers who know students well can select interesting texts for them, but also that text selection provides teachers with relationship-building opportunities. Discussion of texts thus becomes an avenue for fostering shared figured worlds through personal relationships, as Kimberly noted.
Although PSTs overwhelmingly wrote in initial inquiry papersand continued doing so throughout the programabout the importance of relationships, in later projects they began articulating relational challenges. PSTs said in interviews and course discussions that they gained understanding of actual difficulties in relationship building once they began full-time student-teaching. Challenges included having:
too many students;
students who were too dependent on teachers;
students who had emotional disturbance or had experienced trauma;
students who were often absent;
secondary roles in classrooms to mentor teachers;
issues establishing professional relationship boundaries; and
most prevalently, difficulties in not taking it personally when students misbehaved or did not show interest in course content.
In this section, we briefly give examples of each of these challenges.
Too Many Students
PSTs typically said having to manage and provide instruction for whole classes distracted them from focusing on individual relationships. Rachel, for instance, said she had seen progress through the inquiry project with one student as they began talking one-on-one, but said she found it difficult to give all students such attention: When you have so many classes and they have 30 [students], then looking at every student is hard. She continued, explaining how she was juggling learning several skills:
The hard part for me right now is that I have so many other things Im trying to masterthis is especially in student teachingthat like I can do like maybe two at a time or three at a time and I have to slowly stage things in as Im going. . . . Its all a lot more complicated than people on the outside think it is.
Rachel faced dual challenges of managing relationship building with individual students while also trying to concentrate on developing her teaching skills. In commenting that teaching is harder than people think, she might have been referencing others in her life without teaching experience, or she might have been suggesting that her previous figured world of teaching did not include an understanding of how difficult teaching would be (see Moon, Callahan, & Tomlinson, 1999, for more on complexities of student teaching). Throughout discussions, PSTs mentioned having to set limits on individual relationships so they could help other students. Grace, for instance, described an inquiry-project focal student, He takes so long to give me nothing, that you know I need to move on to check on other students. Just as much as Id like to devote my time to him, I have 40 other students. Though spending time with a student may not equate to relationship building, PSTs typically expressed that a relational challenge was having inadequate time with one student, for fear of neglecting others.
Students Who Were Too Dependent
While building relationships despite having so many students was a general challenge for PSTs, some faced challenges with students described as being too dependent on them. For some, these students always seemed present. For instance, Amy discussed a student who was always first to arrive before class and last to leave afterwards. The first author observed in Amys student-teaching classroom as Amy repeatedly asked the student to leave for lunch so Amy could hold a private meeting. Amys consideration of this student involved trying to determine how the student could build relationships with peers and be less dependent on adult relationships (see Pianta, 2001).
Students Who Had Emotional Disturbances or Had Experienced Trauma
For PSTs teaching students with emotional disturbances or past traumatic experiences, specific challenges arose. While several PSTs taught students with emotional disturbances or other disabilities, Karen taught in an alternative high school where students had frequently experienced trauma. She described two focal students as having histories of sexual abuse, and she related in course discussions the second week of student-teaching that one of her students had been murdered. These circumstances created a host of challenges in relationship building that Karen described. She explained in a course discussion that a student, for instance, had made her feel threatened:
When I mediated4 with him, he stared at me for 30 minutes straight. . . . He was compliant; he was cooperating; he was participating; he was articulate, but he would not stop staring at me, and that . . . felt like some kind of psychological warfare with him.
Karen continued throughout student teaching to use the schools mediation system to work on relationship building with this student and others. Though Karen taught a population frequently having emotional difficulties, other PSTs described individual students with emotional disturbance as difficult to relate to.
Students Who Were Absent
PSTs typically said they had difficulties building relationships with frequently absent students. Sometimes, these students were described as skipping school, missing class due to disciplinary suspensions, or leaving the class or school permanently. Occasionally in interviews, PSTs said they did not choose absent students as inquiry-project focal cases because they did not have sufficient observational data. Rachel described a student in an interview:
He actually liked me and the class. It was kind ofit was great because when he was in my room he was fine, but he was a kid where I felt like there was like almost nothing I could do because he was never there.
Secondary Role to Mentor Teachers
PSTs also described challenges in feeling that students responded more readily to other teachers. Notably, these situations did not appear to be ones in which PSTs had difficult relationships with mentors. Dawn, for instance, who repeatedly expressed admiration of her mentor, said students listened to her mentor or a collaborating teacher instead of her. She told how a student ignored her asking him to stop bouncing a basketball, but stopped when another teacher asked. Additionally, PSTs described not having student informationincluding IEPs and family informationthat classroom teachers had. Such experiences might be typical for PSTs, given their professional situations as pre-service, rather than licensed teachers, but this secondary role appeared to be an obstacle for PSTs in building student relationships.
Occasionally, PSTs said schools themselves hindered relationship building. Cecilia and Marilyn, for instance, who both worked in alternative charter schools for students from low-income families, complained that strict discipline policies inhibited relationships (see Salerno & Heny, 2016, for more on PSTs experiences in charter schools). Cecilia told of taking a fieldtrip to a performing arts center:
In that environment, it was pretty fun too. It was like you know one girl was like, Come sit next to me, Miss [Mulligan]. Ive warmed the seat up for you. . . . just being totally goofy and weird, and then of course she was slouching in her seat, and I had my grade-level chair like pointing at me to make her sit up, so like I have to yell at her. . . . So thats just how I feel um, conflicted.
Establishing Professional Boundaries
In line with previous research (Aultman et al., 2009; Uitto, 2012), PSTs said they were learning where to set relational boundaries. Sometimes, PSTs felt that students clearly overstepped boundaries, as with Amy, who said a male student repeatedly asked her out. In less obvious situations, PSTs said they were conflicted, wanting students to regard them as teachers, but also wanting to be seen as friends or real people. Rachel told in her final interview about an experience in her initial placement:
I was realizing the importance of them like seeing me as being a person, not just a teacher . . . and [a student] and her friend . . . [said] Miss [Thomas,] you dont really seem like a Star Wars person. And I was like, I love Star Wars! And they were like, Wait! What? . . . And they started to see me as being more human I think.
In this way, Rachel not only wanted to be regarded as a teacher, but also to reveal enough of her personality so students could see her as a person, in this case a Star Wars fan.
Taking It Personally
Finally, PSTs consistently indicated it was challenging not to take students actions personally, causing them to be offended and shut down their relationships. Shawn described, for instance, that it was difficult when students did not participate: Watching students constantly avoid or ignore work was frustrating, considering the amount of time that both I and my clinical instructor put into preparing. PSTs expressed frustration, too, when students were disinterested in English content. This attitude toward the content was possibly particularly hurtful to PSTs, given the aforementioned findings that PSTs figured worlds included identities as English people. Regarding behaviors, too, PSTs expressed they often felt disruptions were directed at them. Rachel described a student in her case-study presentation: Hes one of those students where you feel like hes always out to get you. Rachel depicted the student as belonging to a category of students targeting the teacher. Marilyn similarly described another student:
She consistently disregards the behavior expectations of the classroom when she defies the teacher, distracts other students, and mocks students and teachers. . . . I was shocked by her rudeness and mean attitude. As a visibly young and inexperienced teacher, I serve as a great target for [her].
In an interview, Marilyn explained why she focused her inquiry on the student: [She] was just like really bothering me, and I like really wanted to hear other peoples perspectives and to like talk about it because she was . . . so personally offending me or hurting me.
Despite challenges, PSTs described varied approaches toward building student relationships. While they said some of these approaches did not yield great results (e.g., recommending students see counselors or changing classroom arrangements), others seemed to allow PSTs to have real breakthroughs in tough-fought relationships. These came from:
one-on-one interactions with students,
learning about individual students,
using texts and student writing,
positive interactions with families,
involvement in extracurricular activities,
seeing mentors build positive relationships, and
discoveringoften when they finished student teachingthat students liked them.
One-On-One Interactions with Students
Although PSTs said it was difficult to find time with individual students, they consistently said one-on-one interactions were key in improving tough relationships. PSTs said student interviews in initial inquiry projects supported such conversations. Elizabeth, for instance, said:
I think that was really helpful just because it was nice getting your students like one-on-one, and I was surprised at how much they really opened up. . . . It was really helpful, but Im not sure like in my future as a teacher how often I would be able to just like interview kids.
In full-time teaching, Elizabeth said she would more likely have informal conversations with students. PSTs often described such conversations in student-teaching contexts. Samantha, for instance, explained she built a relationship with a student other teachers found difficult because she consistently spent time with him during before-school tutoring:
Our personal relationship is strong as well, and I think he sees me as an ally. We frequently high-five in the hallways; he invites me to his basketball games, and hell say hi to me, even when hes with his friends.
She said she attributed his openness to tutoring to her attendance at his games and her acknowledgement that it was difficult for him to attend tutoring.
Learning About Individual Students
PSTs said they had relational breakthroughs via intentional attempts to learn about students individually. Instead of taking students behaviors personally, PSTs generally adapted classroom instruction or management to individuals interests, in the context of inquiry assignments. Cecilia said in her final inquiry project, It has become clear to me that each student handles the obstacles and challenges of a classroom in a different way. Some may act out, some may zone out, and others may find out-of-the-ordinary ways to participate. In her final interview, Linda said she changed her perspective, learning that students require different approaches. When she realized a student who had been constantly getting up responded to humor, she joked with him that from then on he would be glued to his seat. Through such changes, not only did PSTs find that behaviors improved, but they also related to students in positive ways, as behavior issues subsided (see the discussion section for more on these co-occurring changes).
Using Texts and Student Writing
Many PSTs talked about using language content to build student relationships. Cynthia said she established rapport with ELL students by learning some words in their first languages. The only PST placed in an ESL class for student teaching, Cynthia was singular in her inquiry-project emphasis of including language learners first languages in class. But other PSTs similarly said they designed literacy assignments around students interests. Grace, for instance, said she would use a discovery that a hard-to-reach student loved pit bulls to provide him with writing prompts about dogs. PSTs said content-related work provided opportunities to know students better, by discussing texts students were reading, or learning about students through their writing. Lynn, for instance, said a defining moment was getting to know students in her remedial English class through their conversation calendars, weekly calendars students and teachers use to write back and forth about life, concerns, or curriculum-related questions (Tovani, 2011, p. 18). Later, as she interviewed for full-time jobs, she told employers she would use conversation calendars to build student relationships.
Positive Interactions with Families
PSTs said positive interactions with families brought about changed relationships. Amy perhaps found the most dramatic change. A student complained she moved his seat from racist motives, and his father requested a conference with her and the principal. Amy was visibly upset, crying when she told cohort members about the situation (see Salerno & Kibler, 2014, for further analysis of this incident). One conference outcome was that Amy or her mentor would call the students father about future problems. After the first week without problems, Amy decided it was worth calling to report the good news:
His dad was like, Ive never received a positive phone call about my son. . . . Although he still was a discipline problem, I feel like I understood the student better after having that interaction. This poor child has never had a good relationship with school. I cant imagine going through school and never having a positive comment from a teacher.
Amy saw a shift in a strained relationship after reporting a students good work to his father. Not only did she find the students attitude changed in class, but Amy also understood the student better. She said she could not imagine never hearing a teachers positive comments in school, revealing something about her own figured world, perhaps as part of the cohorts smart kids group identity explained in Question 1 findings.
Involvement in Extracurriculars
Extracurricular activities, particularly sportsbut also drama and poetry readings in Karens casehelped PSTs build relationships. Sometimes, PSTs did this by watching performances or games, such as Samanthas attendance at basketball games. Other PSTs coached sports, although they debated in interviews and discussions the wisdom of assuming extra responsibilities amid student-teaching time pressures. Some opted to lead activities, and said they built relationships through them. Marilynquoted above on how she felt targeted by her students behaviorssaid she joined a running club in which she ran and led health-related talks with girls, including the student she identified as challenging:
I called on [her] and she justshe gave like a really solid answer, and um, I affirmed her, and it was just a really good moment between us, also in front of other kids, which is very rare in that social setting to have like a good connection with a student especially [her], so I thought that was really great. And then we talked one-on-one while we were running.
Marilyn said in her final interview before graduation that getting to know students through the running club had helped her improve in not taking student defiance personally: You cannot take it personally. Its not about you, its just that like you are someone telling them that they cant do something or they have to do something.
Seeing Mentors Build Positive Relationships
PSTs said they learned to build relationships by watching mentors. Dawn, for instance, who also said that sometimes students listened to other teachers instead of her, told cohort members how her collaborating teacher advocated for a student at a teacher meeting:
She was saying like how teachers need to, for this kid . . . that relationships are the key thing. So like yelling at himnot going to happen, but you need to you know, you know thats whats really going to help him is building that relationship, so I tried to take that perspective with him this week. And work on that. And its been really good in my experience.
Dawn explained she had talked with the student about topics outside class, and had gotten him to return to reading by asking about the book rather than pointing out his misbehavior.
Discovering Students Liked Them
Finally, PSTs described feeling better about relationships after discovering students liked them. PSTs typically expressed surprise at hearing kind words from students they thought disliked them. Sometimes, such interactions occurred when PSTs received students notes, as with Cecilia, who described how students wrote Thanksgiving thank-yous to her:
I had another kid, who had some severe problems staying on task. . . . He wrote me this Thanksgiving letter saying that he felt like I was his mother at school, and the only interactions I could remember with him were like me yelling at him.
More frequently, these discoveries occurred as PSTs left student-teaching classrooms. Karen remembered her last day:
A student I had that you know absolutely couldnt stand me at the beginning, and at the end he was able to say, he wrote in my little card, We had a rough time, but I still learned a lot from you. To still get that, to know that youre not necessarily the best liked by everyone but to know that the teacherstudent relationship is totally happening.
Such kind words from students helped PSTs feel better about challenging relationships, though PSTs typically received comments too late to impact relationships with these students. How interactions might affect PSTs future teaching is unclear, but Karens remark suggests the students note helped her complexify her figured world regarding teacherstudent relationships, recognizing they can be built even when she was not the best liked by everyone. This contrast suggests Karen might be differentiating between personal relationships where she is liked and professional relationships where learning is occurring. Her acknowledgement that professional relationships were happening amid challenges might lend Karen confidence in future difficult relationships.
This study used Gees (2014a) figured worlds tool to examine how PSTs Discourse revealed: (1) their own figured worlds, as related to those of students; and (2) PSTs efforts to relate to students who might have different figured worlds than themselves, while adapting to their own new figured worlds as novice teachers, including the challenges PSTs faced in relationship-building and the breakthroughs they discovered. These questions are here discussed together in exploring a general explanation for how PSTs figured worlds affected their student relationships.
PSTs came to teacher preparation already having established figured worlds based on lifetimes of accumulating experiences. Though PSTs certainly had many varied individual experiences, they also enacted within their Discourse common identities, such as the following: PSTs were all women; they themselves had been successful students; they were becoming new teachers; they loved English content; and they came from privileged backgrounds.
They entered student teaching consistently talking about the importance of student relationships. Whether originating from personal beliefs they brought into teacher preparation or from the context of assignments and instruction they received in preparation, PSTs Discourse frequently stressed the importance of teacherstudent relationships. But once tasked with full-time student-teaching, PSTs encountered a host of challenges in actually establishing such relationships, including those they described as: too many students, overly dependent students, students with emotional disturbance or past trauma, absent students, secondary roles to mentors, institutional obstacles, issues establishing boundaries, and difficulties taking it personally when students misbehaved or were uninterested in content.
It is possible to interpret data as suggesting PSTs entered classrooms with figured worlds about teacherstudent relationships, including that they as teachers would work hard to develop and deliver engaging lessons, while students would respond to lessons with interest and courtesy. When relationships did not develop in this way (possibly because of differences Poplin & Weeres, 1994, found in how teachers and students perceived caring), PSTs were surprised. Marilyn said she was shocked at what she saw as her students rudeness and mean attitude. Instead of becoming a kind and benevolent teacher relating to students through diligence in creating an engaging classroom, Marilyn began considering herself a target for the student she said would mercilessly laugh at even her mentor, a more experienced teacher. PSTs appeared to develop their own category of students, as Rachel said, who are always out to get you. These students did not fit into the figured worlds PSTs described bringing to classrooms. PSTs, in contrast, had been successful students who had loved English content and often had deep, personally meaningful relationships with their own English teachers. Faced with such unexpected and challenging behaviors, PSTs said it was difficult not to take students actions personally. In a sense, PSTs came to understand the limitations of their own figured worlds when trying to relate to a range of learners.
Sometimes, PSTs saw little change in these difficult relationships. However, many did describe breakthroughs. In some cases, breakthroughs occurred simply as PSTs discovered students liked them, but in most cases, breakthroughs can be conceptualized as stemming from PSTs efforts to better understand students figured worlds: one-on-one interactions, learning about individual students, using texts and writing to relate to students, having positive interactions with families, involvement in extracurriculars, or watching mentors build relationships. These breakthroughs seemed to occur as PSTs learned not to take students behaviors personally (see McDevitt & Ormrod, 2012, for more on typical adolescent behavior).
In this sense, PSTs had to relate to students with different figured worlds for teacherstudent relationships than theirs. Samantha, for example, in establishing a breakthrough relationship with her student, explained he was not malicious at heart, in striking contrast to PSTs descriptions of students as out to get them. Linda found that when she related to her student through humortelling him he was glued to his seathis behavior improved. In this way, it seemed PSTs student relationships improved simultaneously with students behavior. The two appeared to go hand-in-hand. Stronger relationships made better behavior and better behavior improved relationships, in support of Cornelius-Whites (2007) findings that positive relationships were associated with reduced disruptive behaviors and that associations appeared bidirectional.
Data suggest the consequences of improved relationships are not simply having tidier, better-managed classrooms, but possibly real, lasting effects for students. PSTs said their relationships mattered for students in making decisions about staying in school or attending college. While PSTs comments merit further investigation from students vantage points, such life-altering consequences suggest the importance of not only teaching PSTs early on that they need to build relationships with students who are different from them, but also teaching them how to build such relationships (Jiménez & Rose, 2010).
In helping PSTs learn how to build relationships, first, PSTs from smart kids figured worlds need instruction on not taking it personally when students misbehave or do not share their love of school or content. Additionally, the breakthroughs these PSTs experienced, documented in this study, might be presented to other PSTs as strategies that help build shared figured worlds for establishing relationships with students they find challenging. Schools might make institutional changes, such as providing PSTsand teachers (see McCombs, 2003, for more on how pressures affect full-time teachers relationships with students)with caseloads that are not so heavy as to preclude time for establishing relationships or attending extracurricular events. Discipline policies, too, might be written with flexibility, allowing teachers to provide correction in ways offering dignity (see Reeve, 2006, on gentle discipline) and allowing further relationship building. Researchers can examine how PSTs in other contextsand male PSTsestablish student relationships and how the relationships compare with these results. They can explore comparisons between (1) how PSTs relate to students in student teaching, and (2) how they later build relationships when becoming full-time teachers. Gee (2014b) explains that figured worlds are organized in complex ways. There are smaller figured worlds inside bigger ones. Each figured world triggers or is associated with others, in different ways in different settings and differently for different socio-culturally defined groups of people (p. 109). In this study, we have described how PSTs language has suggested the presence of various figured worlds in their relationship building with students. Gee (2014b) contends, Unfortunately, the simplifications in figured worlds can do harm by implanting in thought and action unfair, dismissive, or derogatory assumptions about other people (p. 96). Using similar language, Emdin (2016) wrote, The reality is that we privilege people who look and act like us, and perceive those who dont as different and, frequently, inferior (p. 19). As their own teachereducators, we do not view our work with PSTs as perfect. We question our own perceived membership within a realm of English instruction that might be viewed as belonging to privileged women who love English content and were themselves smart kids in school. But we also see many opportunities for helping PSTs broaden their descriptions of who they are as a group, and how they might leave their cohort and go into classrooms where they can form meaningful relationships with students who will inevitably be very different from them.
1. Gee (2014a) explains children develop a primary Discoursea culturally distinctive way of being an everyday person (p. 184). Primary Discourses can change, hybridize with other Discourses, and they can even die (p. 184) as individuals acquire secondary Discourses.
2. All PSTs worked in classrooms with full-time teachers.
3. Assignment requirements stated, The purpose of this assignment is to explore what interests secondary-age students have and what they already know and think about English. PSTs developed individual interview protocols and analyzed responses.
4. Karens school had an established structure for third-party mediated meetings between teachers and/or students addressing difficult relationships.
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Question 1. Backgrounds: included any references PSTs made to their own personal backgrounds, can include references to family, prior schooling, past or present experiences
Women (Wom): included discussion of group members as being women or in gendered discussions
Smart Kids (SmKd): included references to selves as students who do or did well in school or classroom settings
New Teachers (NT): included references to themselves as new, young, or inexperienced teachers; might include references to role of student teacher versus fully certified teacher
English People (EngPe): included discussion of PSTs when identities are expressed in relationship to English content
Privilege (Priv): included references to themselves as people of privilege, as having privileges themselves or possibly as having privileges that students might not have
Question 2. Relationships: included any direct mentioning of relationships with students. Initial coding included both references to relationships with specific students and general descriptions or attitudes about student relationships.
Importance (Imp): included general discussion of the importance of relationships, why its important to build relationships with students generally, general beliefs about relationships but probably not descriptions of specific relationships with students
Challenging (Chall): included descriptions of challenges in building relationships, could be difficulties generally in building relationships, but often applied to description of relationships with specific students
Breakthroughs (BrkT): included discussion of successes found in building relationships, usually where previously there had not been success
Data: Samples of each Code
Data: Samples Coded Excerpt
Interview with Rachel:
Interviewer: Teaching inquiry has been central to these three assignments. Tell me about your understanding of teacher inquiry, based on these experiences. How, if at all, have these assignments shaped your understanding of teacher inquiry? What role, if any, do you expect they will have in your future practice?
Rachel: Teacher inquiry definitely like looking into, trying to solve problems basically. Im curious if I would have thought about that before because we came in with this idea, but I feel like what its done with me is kept me really on my toes with problem solving. If I have a student whose not engaged, it keeps me from being like well theyre not disrupting other students Ill just let it go. It keeps me actively thinking about it (BrkT). When you have so many classes and they have 30, then looking at every student is hard. I feel like it would be a slow kind of yearlong process to kind of work through all of them (Chall). I definitely have found that very, very valuable and Ive had a lot of good things come out of it, and it takes a few for it to come out, and then she slowly started doing worse and worse and worse, and then I started talking to her and looking at the other kids schools and gave her an intervention and within the next quiz she had a B (BrkT). Its kept me very active in looking for solutions to things.
I think the hard part for me right now is that I have so many other things Im trying to master in student teaching, I can do maybe two at a time or three at a time and I have to slowly stage things in as Im going (Chall). I think that is where it would be valuable to keep track of students and have someone else come in to give you ideas (BrkT). Its all a lot more complicated than people on the outside think it is (Chall).
Triangulated Data with Manuscript Example