A Classroom of Her Own: How New Teachers Develop Instructional, Professional, and Cultural Competence
reviewed by Lisa Kirtman - 2003
Title: A Classroom of Her Own: How New Teachers Develop Instructional, Professional, and Cultural Competence
Author(s): Dana Haight Cattani
Publisher: Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 0761945709, Pages: 176, Year: 2002
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In reading A Classroom of Her Own: How New Teachers Develop Instructional, Professional and Cultural Competence, one may wonder if there is a need for another case study on young white teachers in urban schools. What could this author possibly add to the abundance of previously published works? The author dispels these and other concerns also most immediately.
Cattani examines the lives of 6 young white teachers working in California’s urban public schools in hopes of “highlight[ing] their paths toward instructional competence, professional competence and cultural competence” (p. 2). The teachers have from 1 to 5 years previous teaching experience, and 5 out of the 6 teach in low income and low achieving schools. All are working with children that have economic and/or racial backgrounds that differ from their own. In constructing this book, she vividly allows each case story to fill in a piece of the complex world of teaching.
Cattani begins with a justification for why there needs to be more examination of this already saturated field of study. She discusses the interaction between gender, age, and the teacher induction process. In her review of literature, she argues that “age and particularly gender often determine a teacher’s social network with colleagues, which in turn, determine her access to power resources, and influence as well as her vulnerability to outside control” (p. 8). Unfortunately, as young teachers, by definition their authority is limited. This lack of authority in combination with the accepted notion of teacher isolation set up these teachers for failure and eventually an exodus from teaching. One of her goals is to provide the reader and the educational community as a whole with a way to alleviate the current and urgent need for new teachers: “the easiest way to attract new teachers is to retain the current ones” (p. 142). She points out that without veteran teachers, “the faculties become a collection of new comers….[with] few role models demonstrating the rewards of a career in teaching” (p.142). Since the majority of teachers in the United States are young white women, in order to retain these teachers, one must understand their experiences in urban school districts.
Each of the subsequent six chapters focuses on one teacher and one of the steps towards competence. Through the case studies, the author discusses authority, professional identity, school culture, school administration, professional judgment and affirmation, and attainment. Cattani skillfully weaves research into the stories of these teachers’ lives over the five months that they were studied to make her points not only clear and memorable, but also valid based on past research. For example, in the chapter on Karen that highlights “professional judgment,” the author discusses “fairness.” Cattani begins with a discussion and quote from Sockett’s (1993) work to explain the importance of fairness in a teacher’s world. After this discussion, she conveys a story of Karen’s dealings with a special needs student that vividly illustrated that “fairness is often a matter of perspective” (p. 98).
Chapter 8 focuses on what the author calls “Unpredictable Outcomes”. Through the use of research by Delpit (1995), Bourgois (1995), Ladson-Billings (1994), Wilson (1987), and Sikes (1997) among others, Cattani discusses race, ethnicity and class. She argues that interactions within schools are all complicated and changed by these issues, especially for white middle-class women. In this chapter, she touches on issues of power, race, ethnicity, and class, and how they impact the steps towards competence. She clearly seems to acknowledge that race, ethnicity, and class shape “social context in which knowledge is constricted, valued and transferred,” but acknowledging this fact is not enough (p. 121). In leaving these ideas out of earlier chapters, this author like many others makes the reader think that one can understand these ideas in isolation. Race, ethnicity and class impact every aspect of a teacher’s work with diverse populations. Although race, ethnicity and class may be “unpredictable outcomes,” they should still be on the forefront of every study on urban schools. The author does a beautiful job of breaking down and analyzing many aspects of this road to competency, but she needed to take a closer look at the very issues that cross all boundaries to create an accurate account of what young white teachers experience in urban schools.
In spite of this one area, the book is unique and a valuable asset. Most unique is the fact that the author has interspersed “Tips for New Teachers” and interesting and thought provoking topics called “Worth Discussing” throughout the book. The “Tips for New Teachers” range from practical topics such as How to get needed resources to How to choose committee work that is effective and rewarding. Each “Worth Discussing” area contains a scenario for discussion. The author makes it clear that there is not always a right answer for every issue that teachers may encounter, but that each teacher should be prepared to deal with a variety of issues.
This book, in spite of its claims, is not recommended for new teachers. It leads to too many unanswered questions, and, in fact, without guidance through and discussion of this book, it may scare new teachers into believing that they cannot succeed; there are too many things stacked against them. On the other hand, teacher educators should read and consider using this book in teacher-credentialing courses. Cattani has analyzed teaching in many important areas that our pre-service teachers need to be aware of so that we can “create fewer vacancies” (p. 140) in the teaching profession.
This book will help teacher educators analyze their own practices. Besides the fact that the book includes topics that should be included and discussed in credentialing courses, it also includes some notions that should be discussed amongst colleagues about teacher education practices in general. In her final chapter, she discusses “practical considerations.” In one of her recommendations she argues that
“Teacher educators [should] be candid about the tension between exposing new teachers to strategies that could be transformative in the long run but likely to exact a high toll in the short run….when well-meaning teacher educators try to effect school change by urging novices to attempt complex and sophisticated pedagogies, they inadvertently may set up those teachers for failure” (p. 139-140).
The author’s view should be taken to heart. She is not arguing that ideas such as cooperative learning and self-assessment should not be used, but that these techniques decrease the already limited authority that new teachers have by giving it over to the students. Techniques, such as these, need to be used by someone who is already on the road to competency not at the beginning of this very long journey.
In sum, although the case studies are even more complex than the author reveals, Cattani’s book is insightful and worth reading.
Bourgois, P. (1995). In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sikes, P. (1997). Parents who teach: Stories from home and from school. New York: Cassell.
Sockett, H. (1993). The moral base of teacher professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press.
Wilson, W. J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: the inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chigago: University of Chicago Press.