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May's First Year: Conversations with a Mentor

by Brent Kilbourn & Geoffrey Roberts - 1991

Describes a first-year teacher's efforts to become a teacher and her experiences of the complex relationships among control, subject matter, and teaching. The article stresses the importance of the institutional context within which the beginner works, noting her relationship with her department head and mentor. (Source: ERIC)

May was a first-year English teacher who found herself in a difficult teaching situation. This is a story about her effort to find her way as a teacher, experiencing the complex relationships among control, subject matter, and the act of teaching. It is about the importance of the institutional context in which a beginner works. It is also about May’s relationship with Steve, her department head and mentor. Although the trials and tribulations of first-year teachers are well known, the details of each individual case are unique and offer insights into the nature of the difficulties of the first year—insights that help stimulate thoughts about what would be useful to beginners as they engage the long process of learning to become a teacher. The aim is simple: May’s story is intended to encourage and contribute to meaningful conversations about teaching.

May’s smile is dazzling. Her enthusiasm is infectious, complementing an agile mind and sparkling personality. She joined the school with terrific recommendations and credentials, including an M.A. in English Literature. Her attractiveness and stylish dress were predictable pluses to image-conscious teenagers. Like many beginners, May was very young, barely distinguishable from her students chatting in the hallways before class. There was one critical difference: What sets her apart from most beginning teachers is that her first year of teaching was spent in a prestigious private boys’ school.

It was a school with all of the trappings of an upper-middle-class private school—BMW’s and Alfa’s in the parking lot (the students’ lot, that is); European vacations, of course; a rigorous curriculum, somewhat classical; low student/teacher ratio; lots of tradition and school spirit; high-profile parents with big expectations for their sons. To everyone’s mind, these boys were destined one day to sit at the heads of long mahogany tables. And they believed it. The setting would be intimidating to most beginning, if not seasoned, teachers; but May was plucky and eager for the challenge. She was keen and she loved studying literature.

The particular ways in which the context of a private boys’ school shaped the unfolding events are not easily identified; rather, it seemed to be a matter of tone and nuance, an atmosphere about things. The school was an insulated cocoon of developing power. May did not enter with even the modest social gloss of authority usually granted beginners in more commonplace settings.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the cards were all stacked against her. In fact, many aspects of the situation were sympathetic to a beginner. Even though the selection committee had regarded her as the most promising newcomer to the staff and her department head, Steve, was anxious to exploit her considerable expertise in literature, he also was sensitive to the hectic life of a beginning teacher. She was given a reduced teaching load, including one class with only ten students. The only wrinkle in her schedule was a grade 11 academic class of twenty-five. They had a reputation for being difficult. Steve was not unconcerned but, then again, he thought that most likely this would be where May’s expertise would really shine. Anyway, her practice teaching reports were particularly laudatory about her management skills and rapport with students. In fact, Steve was so confident of May’s ability that at the beginning of the year he did not bring up the issue of management for fear of insult. It was as if she had somehow conjured years of experience from a few weeks in practice teaching.

The period of grace was brief. May’s academic class gave her a very hard time indeed—nearly drove her mad. She privately wondered if she could make it through the year and, at times, she also wondered if she really wanted to be a teacher. It seemed to be a variation of the hackneyed “don’t smile ‘till Christmas” and “once you lose them, you can’t get them back.” Such cliches are limited, though, because the truncated stories they foster lack texture and encourage conceptualization at the surface of May’s experience, primarily in terms of control. Much more was happening with May’s academic class than control problems. The longer story, the more interesting story, reveals that, unlike her other classes, this group of boys pushed May to grapple with what it means to be a teacher.

Early in the first term, May went to Steve for advice. She seemed flustered and expressed concern that her academic students were not taking her seriously. She felt that somehow her students had lost confidence in her and she was not quite sure how to get it back. When pressed for specifics, she said that the students were rude and inconsiderate to one another and to her. They did not listen to her in class, they were often late, and sometimes they skipped her class completely. She wondered how to create a sense of day-today continuity when everything seemed so chaotic.

Assessment had become particularly difficult. How was she supposed to assess a student’s performance when he had missed the first ten minutes of every class since the. beginning of the term? And were these guys bullish! They persistently and aggressively questioned their marks. She felt intimidated. She said that at the beginning of the term she spent a lot of time carefully explaining to students the reasons for their marks, but the explanations fell on deaf ears and finally she gave up; students would have to be content with the comments she had written on the papers themselves. Besides, the constant arguing about marks was incredibly stressful. The emotional toll began to affect her daily work. Raw anxiety made it hard to concentrate.

Over time, assessment became more and more worrisome for May. In her isolation she began to develop an aversion to the whole issue. She took longer to hand back students’ work and by the end of the first term was swamped with unmarked assignments, some nearly five weeks old. Near exhaustion, she struggled to get a firm basis for end-of-term marks. The spectre of parents loomed in the near distance.


Toward the end of the first term the situation reached a critical point when a number of students complained to Steve. At the same time, May, physically and emotionally drained, came to him in near desperation, explaining that she could not see herself going through it again next term. Steve had suspected she was having trouble but he did not know how severe, and he had not wanted to meddle. Now that she had approached him, he thought it might be helpful if she became involved in an inquiry into her own teaching. He had just completed a similar experience, recording, transcribing, and analyzing several of his own lessons. He found that the process slowed him down so that he could, in a more relaxed fashion, see the interactional patterns in his teaching, think about what they meant and what he might have done differently. The transcripts stimulated his memory of events while at the same time he was not overwhelmed with the hurly-burly of classroom life. Steve suggested a similar inquiry to May and offered to sit in on her classes in order to help her document relevant parts of her teaching and to give her feedback if she wished.

They decided to team teach the academic classes the following term. Steve would be a “guest speaker” for some classes and May could observe what he did, then later ask questions, make comments, and listen to him talk about why he made the teaching moves that he did. She could watch him teach and notice that he had to overcome some of the same pedagogical obstacles she faced. Steve, in turn, would benefit from her observations and would have the chance to help May come to a better understanding of aspects of her teaching.

As a result of the inquiry, May began to see things that were of concern to her. The detail of Steve’s notes and the transcriptions of classes allowed her to focus on issues of meaning as well as interaction. She was concerned about her ability to be clear and to make sense to the students. As the day wore on she was less able to maintain her train of thought, and she sensed that the students would seldom give her the benefit of the doubt.

Defeated, she said, “You see, I feel most of the students will only give me one chance. And then I find when I try to edit and fix and explain and repair, they’re gone.” She enjoyed watching Steve teach, however, and naturally began to look at what he did that seemed to work as compared with what she did. In one of their conversations after class she again talked about clarity.

“I’m aware now of what I’m not doing and I don’t know how to go about doing it,” she commented. What did she think she was not doing? “I am still too tied up in my own response to the literature,” May offered, “and I have to get away from that. But you see, to me, at this stage content still means me working it out, me reading the book, seeing all the myriad of things there are to observe—like there’s this tangled mess of fishing line—my dealing with content has to do with personal response, which is what I do when I write essays.”

“Yeah,” nodded Steve.

“Yeah,” continued May, “but seeing into that mess of fishing line to see where is the most meaningful and discernable pattern to give these guys something to hang their hats on—that’s what I don’t know how to do. This explains to me why I’ve been so frustrated. I’ve always felt very confident that I know my material and that content is my strong point and that it’s the teaching of the content that I’m having trouble with, but now I see that it isn’t even just the teaching of the content, it’s that my perception of content is not working.”

In some ways it is hard to imagine that a freshly minted M.A. and a passion for literature would be liabilities, yet again, perhaps they might promote a false sense of security, luring a beginner away from concerns about teaching. May’s own confidence with literature and her active inquiry into it meant that she was unruffled by the tangled mess of fishing line; after all, that is part of the challenge of literature. Tangles are there to be sorted, some are worse than others, most will be untangled in good time. It was a challenge that she, personally, met with obvious enjoyment; but perhaps not so with her less knowledgeable, less committed, and prematurely worldly private-school boys. As the jargon goes, she found it difficult to respond to their needs, or even to know what their needs were.

To May the students actually almost seemed visibly younger when Steve was teaching.

“They seem so much younger with you. It’s like, ‘Dad’s here!’ ” she said as Steve chuckled. Steve asked whether their responses seemed younger. Well, actually, she thought that their answers were better and this was because Steve’s questions were clearer. She wondered if maybe her more open-ended approach was too threatening. This would explain why usually about three students responded to her, since they could think through things quickly. ‘The others want to, but they are afraid that they don’t understand the question, and even if they did, they are not going to hazard that,” said May.


She definitely saw differences between her teaching and Steve’s, and made a distinction between episodes of interaction that she felt were stilted or mechanical as opposed to those that seemed more vital and genuine.

“I was noticing the way you set it up,” she said. “You tell them things I’ve left out. I leave a lot of things as What do you think? You tell me.’ I don’t do enough priming of the pump to say ‘This is how it is.’ ” She paused, reflectively, “No, that’s not true. I do that, but when I do it I feel that it becomes mechanical really quickly. I put it on the board and I think, ‘This is meaningless.’ I do that kind of thing but to me it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s empty. And somehow, when you do it, it stays alive, and they go, ‘Yeah, OK, I can do that! I can write this down. I can answer that question. We can talk about this.’ " May recognized the structure that Steve provided but she felt mechanical when she tried it.

“I guess it’s a matter of everything that I take for granted,” she explained. “I take too much for granted in a book or a play. And I’m trying to get them to be able to do advanced work—running before they can walk. And with incredible results, to be perfectly honest, when I look and I see what I’ve been asking them to do. I see how they are much more comfortable, and have better participation and everything, when you do things that I would consider as being really obvious. And they enjoy it and the discussion works well and it’s—there’s vitality to it. What I want to know is how to learn to be able to see those things that we’ve got to talk about, like ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘foil characters.’ Do you see what I mean?”

Steve pointed out that what he thought he was doing was providing a rudimentary structure, but he emphasized that it was part of his own personal style. “It seems to me what I do, and it’s not ‘RIGHT’ but it works for me,” he stressed, “is put things into categories and give them something to hang their hats on.” He explained that at the beginning of class he tried to provide as much context as possible for students to make sense of what they would be doing. For example, he noted that, after he had taught his part of one of their joint lessons, he had given a relevant bit of context by referring to May and saying “Now Ms. Lind is going to talk about narrative voice in Huck Finn.” By contrast, in another class, Steve observed that May simply started with narrative voice without any preamble as to what the topic of conversation would be. ‘What you may be asking them to do is to open the book, start reading, and discuss it, without any prior ‘thing,’ ” he suggested.

“Yeah, you’re right!” exclaimed May. “But, you see, it wouldn’t occur to me to do it. And it’s a matter of training myself to do that because to think of doing that bores me to tears, and yet I can see how what you do . . .”

Steve interjected, “But it doesn’t bore the kids to tears.”

“It doesn’t bore them!” said May with surprise. “You all seem to be having a fantastic time. I look at what you do and I think, ‘I want to do that,’ or ‘I want to do something like that—my own version.’ And then I think, ‘Why aren’t I doing that? Why aren’t I doing that already?’”

Steve suggested that May not try to copy him, but grow into her own unique style. Nevertheless, he argued that, in general, part of the art of teaching is to be sensitive to intuitive feelings about how a class is going and to be willing to alter course when it seems warranted. He reiterated that he still thought some of the students were having trouble with context and turned to an example from his teaching earlier in the day. The example was important because, aside from its substance, it showed his own vulnerability. It also showed his ability to reflect on his own teaching, how he remained aware of what he was doing while he was doing it, and how he could look back and note events that were important.

Steve became quite animated. “I mean, in the second class, for example, I’m talking away, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m getting bored and I’m losing it.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Dammit, I’m not going to lose it!’”

“Right,” said May.

"And so I skip over an analysis of page five that I did in the first class. But the kids were getting bored for a specific reason. And the reason was that these kids could quickly go, ‘BANG,’ ” he snapped his fingers. “The second class could put it together more quickly than the first class—I mean, they’re flying.”

Steve commented that, partly as a result of sensing that the students were ahead of him, he intuitively became dissatisfied with the somewhat disjointed nature of the “board work* he had been doing. He pointed out that board work, when done well, can be a way of providing context and structure for students, but he was uncertain about its effectiveness in this instance. However, May thought his board work was fine, especially in comparison to her own.

“Oh! I thought it looked absolutely marvelous compared to what happens when I start writing on the board. I just don’t even bother doing it half the time because . . .”

Steve jumped in, “But of course it’s really useful for the kids who won’t do anything unless you write something on the board.”

‘Well, exactly,” agreed May. “That’s what I used to think. But then when I started to see some of the products of my own chalk work, I thought, ‘This is worse then nothing.’ So I stopped.”

“Maybe to you it is, but maybe not to the kids.”

“Yeah. But I mean, c’mon. First, I have ‘narrative structure’ and then I run out of space and I end up . . .”

“Yeah. BUT!” exclaimed Steve, “the kids aren’t going to write it down that way. And, frankly, maybe it doesn’t make a difference how they write it down. They may have learned something from that.”

The whole thing about board work was a small technical point, really, overshadowed by May’s private thoughts about the place of structure in her teaching, at least in the way Steve saw it. Steve seemed to work with the structure of literature for giving structure to learning, but her image of teaching was to be herself, playing out the role of committed “literary person” in front of the class, expecting the students to follow suit. That was proving difficult. It seemed partly to be a matter of learning to be excited about helping kids learn what you already knew about literature without losing the excitement of learning about literature yourself.

“I guess it’s just this matter of being able to switch gears from being a really excited student of literature to figuring out how to make it exciting to them even if it isn’t exciting to me,” said May.

“Right,” interjected Steve, “that’s the job.”

“And I don’t know how to do that. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at that, so that means I have to learn it. I know that’s the job, and that’s what I need to learn, but that’s . . .”

“Not easy.”

“No,” said May quietly. “It’s not easy. And it’s, you know, how do you teach something that comes easily to you? Well, you have to learn to think what they think and see what they need. I want to. I really want to. And I think I can, but I’m feeling kind of depressed right now.” She knew it was so important to be alive in teaching and she desperately wanted to project to these boys the inner exhilaration and vitality she felt in her own personal engagement with literature. But whenever she tried, it just seemed to fall flat. How in the world did Steve do it? How did he maintain that incredible vitality?

“It comes back, in some ways, to this spark, and you,” said May, glancing at Steve, “can take a very structured approach to things and give them the context. It’s intensely mechanistic in a lot of ways, and yet you bring a spark, and they get a spark. They have more of a spark because they can write the stupid thing down and they feel that they’re in control and you’re leading them. And it works! So, because it’s more mechanistic, it ends up being more vital. I do it that way and it’s just mechanistic. Maybe I’m not seeing it from their point of view. And maybe it’s because I don’t feel that I have enough control over the material myself.”


The issue ran deeper than either May or Steve fully appreciated at the time. Much later, with the luxury of hindsight, he wondered how he might have approached it differently. It was not simply a matter of having structure or vitality. May and he were working from very different conceptions of literature teaching and learning. His scholarly orientation had its roots in venerated traditions of academic literary criticism. Analysis of genre, plot, character, narrative voice, and technique provided an inherently structured starting point for classroom discussion and only hinted at the many categories through which literature could be analyzed and understood. Steve was interested in helping his students appreciate the wonder of literature by analyzing how poets worked their magic. In contrast, proponents of the approach with which May was grappling emphasized the personal response of the student. It was a perspective less concerned with categories and analysis than with a reader’s feelings and experience with literature. May wanted her students to respond to literature emotionally, not analyze it intellectually.

Steve was artful, though, you could not deny it. He had a sense of presence in the classroom. His command of the teaching situation grew out of an easy comfort with his academic view, and command-of-the-situation was a language these boys understood. He was not mechanical, even though the literary categories he used could lend themselves to mechanical teaching. He was smooth, deftly wielding the structure embedded in his whole approach. May was too inexperienced to have become artful. For now “presence” was beyond her reach. One day she too would wield structure but it would wear a different guise. As for now, the only structure she could see was Steve’s and it came from an approach to which she felt no personal commitment. No wonder it felt mechanical when she tried it. No wonder it was so frustrating when she saw how well it seemed to work.

It was not as though Steve were totally unaware of the issue. After all, he kept emphasizing that he was talking about what worked for him, what kept him interested and animated in the classroom. He really did not want May to mimic, he just hoped she could somehow take control. An important part of it concerned her relationship to students—she was quite sensitive to that, and she realized that it was integrally tied to her whole image of herself as a teacher. Again, as on previous occasions, she used the metaphor of “parent” to express that what Steve did was beyond her reach because of her age and lack of experience.

“I can’t do . . . ,” she hesitated, “at this point I’m not doing the parenting sort of thing. And I wish I could. I don’t create that umbrella for them. They don’t feel—I don’t think they really feel like they really know where they are going. I don’t think they feel that security.”

“So maybe you have to give them that security by showing them where they’re going to go as best you possibly can,” Steve offered.

“I hope you’re right,” replied May. “I mean, maybe I can do that. I just feel that so much of this comes from personality, and I guess I don’t see myself as being anything even close to being able to do a parenting role, you know. I mean, I don’t think they see me that way. I’m not old enough. I’m not experienced enough.”

As she explained it, the one way she could relate to these young men was through her youth, and in order to do what Steve did she would have to relinquish one of her major strengths. Playing the parent was simply inconsistent with her established ways of relating to her students.

“I would have to change a whole pile of other things, like how I interact with them outside of the classroom,” said May. “But I find that that’s the more successful part of my teaching, so I’m reluctant to tamper with that. I don’t have years and years of experience to be able to give them the clarity, the crack clarity, that someone else could. But I think the kinds of things I do have to offer, that someone else with more experience wouldn’t, are the fact that I’m still really close to their experience and the fact that I can relate very intensely to how they feel and how they perceive things-sometimes.”

May talked about the time and energy she put into informally talking with students outside the classroom. She distinguished teaching “in here”—formal classroom teaching—from teaching “out there”—informal conversations. May felt she was good at out-there teaching but that many students seemed unprepared to make the role switch. At times she found it hard to make the switch. She referred to Richard, a student with whom she had spent a lot of time outside the classroom because of his need for someone to really listen to him.

‘With Richard it causes no problem. Richard has this amazing ability to distinguish between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’ which no other student I have this year has. But I wonder what it does for my ability to distinguish between the two, because ‘out there’ is a meandering, almost picaresque conversation, and ‘in here’ it’s got to be strict and formal,” said May, affecting a stern look and slapping the back of her hand. “And I take what I teach ‘out there,’ which is very slow, and they govern the pace, depending on who you’re talking to, and I can’t make the switch.” She paused. “So that, in a nutshell, is the problem I’m having. The ‘out there’ kind of teaching I think I do very well because I’ve been doing it all my life. But the ‘in here’ type of teaching, I don’t know how to make it clear, how to be in control, how to teach to the group and not let it meander.”

May’s frustration was all the more intense because she was able to see significant issues, yet felt helpless to turn the situation around. “I know good teaching when I see it and when I do it. And I know when I don’t do it. I can see what I’m not doing or I know when there’s nothing happening. But I feel powerless,” said May.

What was she to do? She agreed that in order for her students to begin to respect her teaching “in here, " in the classroom, she had to provide some structure and take control. But to her mind taking control, like Steve, meant becoming a parent and she was not at all comfortable with that. It also meant relinquishing her natural, literary self, the one she was really good at. Her sense of herself as a teacher in relation to her students constructed a personal reality that made it difficult to deal with classroom realities—at least the realities of her academic class. By that time of the year the whole context of the situation, all of the well-established patterns of interaction inside and outside the classroom, conspired to make change seem so remote, so utterly impossible.

For May the blunted dullness of the remaining weeks of school played themselves out in agonizing contrast to the glorious spring weather. But she hung on with grim determination. She continued the inquiry with Steve, trying to understand what was happening and why it was so hard to get it to work to her satisfaction. They focused on teaching, noticing patterns, discussing what seemed to go well and what did not. One sunny afternoon, after class, May asked Steve if she would be hired for the next year. He had dreaded the thought of having to tell her. No, she would not be hired. May had been hired with the clear understanding that it would be a one-year appointment, filling in for a teacher on sabbatical. Yet she also knew that the school was expanding and she was hopeful that the enrollment had increased enough to warrant another teacher. That very morning Steve had checked the enrollment figures and saw that it was not a possibility. Her reaction surprised him.

“Why are you helping me with this?” she puzzled. Why would he spend so much time with her when she would not be at the school next year? Steve explained that he saw it as part of his job and that documenting aspects of the process allowed him to reflect and learn about how to work with his staff; so, in fact, he was getting a lot out of it himself. Although true enough, his literal explanation did not say what had become increasingly clear over the term. Steve really cared about teaching. He cared about students. And he cared about May.

They talked quietly in the empty classroom as one of the last cars turned out of the winding tree-lined drive. May said that she was not sure if she would have been able to cope without someone to talk to about what bothered her—not just a good listener, but someone who knew the particulars of her situation from the inside. She felt that she was learning about the importance of paying close attention to the details of teaching. In fact, she really had learned a lot about teaching and about herself. The whole process had been personally and professionally rewarding. By examining concrete issues together they were able to unearth some of the underpinnings of her turmoil. But, of course, it did seem such a shame, ending the school year with a whimper. As to a career in teaching—well, she would have to mull that over.

Sometimes Steve did wonder whether it was worth it—such a commitment of time and energy with no apparent effect in the present, and no way of knowing in the future. Yes, May had said that it was extremely helpful, but still he wondered. He really wanted to believe he could make a difference, but realizing that his efforts did not seem to help her turn the situation around was acutely sobering and a blow to his own sense of efficacy. Sometimes Steve felt as frustrated as May. He studied the transcriptions of their conversations in order to reflect on his own skills of listening and feedback; he decided to give them to May in the hope of helping her make sense of the year.

They were quite a revelation. She noticed how hard she tried to cast herself as a bad teacher—but also how she refused to accept any role of teacher as an authority figure, as distinct from being authoritarian. Because she confused the two and because she rejected the latter, she also rejected the former—and that, she felt, was why the students had lost confidence in her. For her too, it was partly a matter of slowing down to reflect.

“Well, with every other learning experience I can remember, at least at university, I’ve always got to the end of a course and have had this moment of epiphany where I say, ‘Now I understand,’ ” said May. “And I would often wish I could go back to the beginning and rework through some things.” She reflected, ‘This year with teaching, the learning didn’t work that way because I was doing all my beginning baby steps, all those emergency solutions as I was talking about it. Emotionally, the process we went through was very helpful, but also because it gave me the confidence to know that, even though everything was not terrific, at least there was enough good happening—and nothing so severely bad—that I could at least keep going. By sitting down and reading the transcripts later, now I can really assimilate it,” said May. “I now know more about what we were talking about regarding questioning technique. And I can see that I was unable to accept any responsibility. I spent nine-tenths of the year assuming the kids can find their own way, and I now know they can’t. That doesn’t mean they have to be pushed and shoved every inch of the way, but I have to lead. That’s what I’ve been put there for. I feel a little bit guilty because in some ways I feel like, ‘What have you been paying me for?’ Have I been teaching? I guess so, but I guess it’s first year teaching.” Steve laughed. “And you knew you were getting that when you hired me,” she quipped.

At the end of the school year Steve wished May good luck and promised to call her and see what and how she was doing. Late in the fall they met over coffee in a small cafe. Steve need not have been apprehensive about calling. As he walked over to her table, he could hardly believe it! May’s sparkle was back. She seemed like the person he had hired almost a year and a half ago. She was at a new school and was having a wonderful time—enjoying the school, her colleagues, the students, loving teaching. Was it helpful, Steve asked, all that stuff they went through? Are you kidding? She could almost recite some of their conversations, conversations that were guiding her this year and helping to make it work. In spite of the grey November day, Steve drove home feeling relieved and very pleased. In fact, by the time he got home he was positively elated.

May’s first year was not an experience to be wished on anyone. A handful of observations will bring her story to a close. Perhaps the most obvious is the amount of support a beginner might need in the first year and how painful its lack can be. The lack of support means that year after year the profession loses potentially good teachers. May stayed in teaching rather than flee to industry, publishing, or graduate school, but it was a close call. Given the trauma of the first year, it is unlikely she would have stayed without the kind of support Steve provided. “Support” in this context means more than an accepting tone, setting aside judgmental impulses. To be sure, it does mean that; but it also means becoming skillful with knowing when to listen, when to accept, when to observe, when to praise, when to intervene, when to analyze, and, yes, when to confront.

May’s story underscores the significance of detail and why it is important to tell stories that, through their detail, have a realness about them. The story has several well-recognized themes common to many beginners: wanting to be friends with students, not wanting to take control, and fondly hoping that demonstrable love of the subject will win the day. Yet saying that falls flat. The themes need more texture. For instance, little is learned about May or any beginner when it is revealed that she had difficulty with control, but something is learned from May’s use of the “parenting” metaphor in the context of taking control. Some insight is gained about how she thought of herself as a beginner; the question can be raised as to whether she needed to act as a parent in order to be a teacher. Perhaps she could have been helped to become aware of alternatives to this confining dichotomy. These kinds of details are points for inquiry. For the future, other beginners might be helped to find their way by honoring the detail and texture of their experience.

May’s story is also a reminder of how dispiritingly long it can take to learn things that are complicated, like teaching, and why it is important to engage it as a form of continuing inquiry. Given all that had happened, it was most unlikely that she could have turned her academic class around before the year ended. It probably was better for her that she started fresh in a new setting. She needed the summer, out of the heat of the classroom, to come to an inner understanding of what had happened and a reconstituted will to make it right in the future. In spite of common understanding about the time it takes to think things out, the mindless pace of the institutional structures teachers often have to tolerate tends to promote a results-now mentality that can be debilitating to genuine reflection and thoughtful learning.


May is now in her third year. She looks back at her first year with mixed emotions and, quite naturally, with shifting emphases and changing perspectives. Growing comfort with her own teaching allows her to think about broader issues concerning school culture and she now sees some aspects of the first year in a different light and with more intensity. The unrelenting, unforgiving nastiness of that academic class is blindingly vivid; those boys have become a symbol for the wrenching situation she was in as a young woman. In some sense their smug arrogance was a mask for male adolescent fear—certainly, fear at revealing their inner selves through the poetry of literature. In any event, they unwittingly blocked themselves as learners while, for a time, they blocked her as a teacher.

Thinking back, May wonders if really anything could have been done; perhaps her and Steve’s most Herculean efforts might have been inadequate to the vague enormity of the situation. For her now, the significance of the work with Steve lies not as much in what he did, but who he was as a person. What is clear is that she misses serious conversations about teaching, like those she had with Steve. Conversations would have a different focus now, of course. She knows that there are many teachers who feel as passionately about teaching as she and Steve do, but the culture of the school makes it so very hard to seek them out and to sustain conversations that are meaningful and help solve rather than just cope. Once again May wonders if she will stay in teaching.

The recounted events of our lives are, after all, constructed stories. This story is based on a standard academic case-study report. Steve was a participant-observer in May’s academic class every other day for most of the spring term. He kept field notes on his observations, experiences, and conversations with May. On three occasions her lessons were audio taped and the transcriptions were the basis for their discussions, which were also taped and transcribed. While cast in narrative style, all of the quotes in the story (minimally altered in a few instances to improve readability) are from verbatim transcriptions. This story is one among several that could be told about May’s first year. It has been corroborated as accurate in spirit and substance by May and Steve (pseudonyms), who agreed to have it told. We have aimed to make the story as interesting and vivid as the events themselves. Our thanks to Helen Harper and Jim Howes for helpful suggestions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 2, 1991, p. 252-264
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 233, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:52:31 AM

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