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Shaping Pedagogies through Personal Histories in Preservice Teacher Education

by Gary Knowles & Diane Holt-Reynolds - 1991

Teacher educators must understand how personal histories influence the development of new teachers' pedagogies to influence how personal histories shape conclusions preservice teachers reach during college. The article examines insights gained from personal histories, discusses pedagogical thinking, and explains the impact educators' personal histories have on preservice teachers. (Source: ERIC)

An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, Mass., April 17-20, 1990. The authors wish to thank Kenneth M. Zeichner for a careful critique of the original paper.

Teachers of those who would be teachers have a unique opportunity to develop understandings about the relationships among the psychological, sociological, epistemological, philosophical, and ethical factors that can and do influence the development of new teachers’ pedagogies. Personal histories—experiences of family, of learning, and of being in school—have been one important, powerful dimension in our pedagogical thinking. By their narrative nature, personal histories evidence accumulation, integration, editing, and synthesis across the actors, actions, and consequences of multiple experiences to form a cohesive and coherent belief system.1 Preservice teachers’ belief systems provide an initial perspective against which they can begin to make purposeful choices about how they will behave as teachers. While personal histories are not irrevocably determinant factors for predicting future teaching practices, they do interact potently with preservice teachers’ efforts to frame classroom events, to identify social and political factors that affect students, classrooms, and policies, and to adopt more principled ways of thinking about practice in general.

Fortunately for us, the beliefs about “good teaching” that preservice teachers develop out of their personal histories, while highly individualized, are not idiosyncratic. Rather, we are encouraged as we discover that by looking carefully at the contents of the belief systems preservice teachers have built out of their personal histories and at the processes they have used to build those systems, we as teacher educators can begin to understand and thus more directly influence how personal histories help to shape the conclusions that preservice teachers reach as they participate in the formal study of teaching.

While facilitating individuals’ efforts to become teachers, we have encountered resistance to our ideas about appropriate pedagogies in public schools. Preservice teachers sometimes use alternate and potentially dysfunctional rationales for interpreting classroom events and making instructional decisions. We have found the beliefs that support those rationales difficult to inform or enlarge. In order to address these in our teaching, we have turned to the exploration of the personal experiences of those in our classes. As we think about the belief systems preservice teachers have built from their personal histories in relation to what they may need to know as skillful, principled practitioners, as we thoughtfully and conscientiously apply the findings of our research and the research of others to our practices of preparing individuals for working with children, we hope to uncover increasingly meaningful agendas and a purposeful pedagogy for working with future teachers.

In making the case for attention to be given to personal histories, we are mindful of the kaleidoscope of contemporary contexts and experiences playing out in the intellectual and experiential lives of preservice teachers. For the purposes of this article, we do not directly address this interplay between social contexts and personal histories, not because we do not recognize their influence, but because evidence suggests that in the thinking and practices of preservice teachers, early personal histories are very powerful.2 We do not intend to gloss or neglect these contemporary influences. Rather, we simply find ourselves unable to draw preservice teachers’ attention to social factors except as they clash, conflict, amplify, or aggravate well-developed and long-held beliefs, values, and experiences.

It is this very “apprenticeship of observation”3 that makes the preparation of teachers so different from the preparation of professionals in other fields. Lawyers, architects, physicians, and others have not been immersed in their future professions before they enter professional schools. For the most part, they have little or no personal history with reference to these professions to bring to their formal study. The influence of twelve years or more of observing and participating—often successfully—in “status quo” school and university classrooms introduces a tension unique to teacher education. Our focus here seeks to broaden our understanding of this aspect of teacher education, to confront it head on.

Our discussion has three parts. First, we briefly delineate some of the insights that we have gained from being students of personal histories.4 One of the principle ways by which our teaching is invigorated, and in which we maintain sanity amid the pressures of academia, is by conducting research that directly informs our teaching and by teaching in ways that directly inform our research.5 We focus on understanding the interaction of preservice teachers’ personal histories with the world of becoming a teacher. Second, we present some visible expressions—including glimpses of the kinds of assignments we give and the requirements of classes—of our pedagogical thinking as it has been informed by this aspect of our research and the research of others. This section provides windows on some of the values we uphold as important for classroom teachers. Finally, we briefly comment on the impact that our personal histories undoubtedly have on our interactions with preservice teachers. We acknowledge the power of our own histories and suggest ways in which the interaction of preservice teachers’ histories with them might be important to explore more fully.

Throughout, we use the term personal histories to refer to those experiences that mold the educational thinking of preservice teachers; it includes the many and varied experiences they bring with them to teacher education. In other articles we have used the term biographies to mean the same thing.6


Some of our insights—about the relevance of understanding our own and preservice teachers’ personal histories—occur when we simply take time to listen. It has been important that we be receptive to the commentaries of preservice teachers. When they struggle with theoretical issues, confront roadblocks in their evolving understandings of schools as institutions and of their places in such environments, explore the problems and dilemmas of education in inner cities, or come face to face with a landscape of questions and doubts about themselves as teachers and their role in classrooms, we have been privileged to hear intensely interesting personal histories. From the vantage point of extensive observations we also have watched their emerging practices. We enjoy listening and observing. Often, we see ourselves and our experiences mirrored in their commentaries, their successes, and their trials. Always, we learn much about what it means to become a teacher.


Many of our opportunities to hear preservice teachers’ thoughts occur as part of unscheduled, informal chats. Others develop out of prospective teachers’ needs to complete assignments connected with their course work. Some of the most exciting conversations develop spontaneously as part of class discussions. Still others occur during research activities or around observations of preservice teachers’ classroom practices. In these various contexts, we have opportunities to hear them think aloud, see them interact with new concepts, and feel their excitement or anxiety as they emerge more clearly as teachers. What do preservice teachers tell us in these conversations that we have together? What follows are some themes from their talk. The themes presented here appeared universally across the preservice teachers with whom we have worked; consequently, we are unable to offer great disparity in point of view.

About Models

Preservice teachers tell countless stories about their experiences as students. They tell stories about their teachers, about assignments they were given, about experiences they hated. They describe what worked in classrooms and what did not. Often, in the encounter with new teaching ideas through course work, the faces of preservice teachers come suddenly to life, and they interrupt to tell about an experience in school that they now see as a near-match of the point they hear us trying to make. The memories they reveal are as apt to be negative examples, counter evidence, as positive ones. Preservice teachers offer these stories in evidence of their sense about whether an idea under discussion is likely to “work” in real classrooms:

When I think about becoming a good teacher, I think about my former teachers, my experiences, all my past. I pull from my background experiences. I say, “All right, I didn’t like that when a teacher did that.” So I’m going to try obviously not to do that. “I really liked that. I thought that was very good and helped me and the class as a whole.” I’m going to try and do that. I was making my ideal teacher in my head. (Deidra)

Preservice teachers rely on and trust as models significant prior experiences as school students. They use these memorable experiences, these critical incidents, as a core or framework around which to structure “practical arguments”7:

I think a good teacher has to show the students that he or she has a real interest in the subject matter. The best teachers I’ve had are people that can really have fun with what they teach [and] not necessarily make everybody laugh every day. Although I did have a history teacher who was just incredibly funny and I learned more history that year than I’ve ever learned in my life. They are really, really interested in the things they teach. (Maureen)

They also use these memories strategically, as a backdrop against which to think about and evaluate the practical potential of ideas they encounter in course work. These memories act as one filter by which preservice teachers judge the worth of new, experiences, theories, and practices as these are presented to them:8

I think doing this pre-read thing is important. Because I know [in the past that] if I don’t know anything about the story and then I read it and then go to class and talk about it, I feel like I’ve wasted my time because I wasn’t looking for those specific things when I was reading it. (Corinne)

These stories or vignettes, for that is the form in which such memories are retold, comprise an essential foundation for preservice teachers’ knowledge of classrooms, teachers, students, and instruction, which they then use to think about the potential value of ideas they encounter in course work as they develop knowledge about teaching.9

About Processes

Preservice teachers describe in some detail the processes they use to predict the value of new strategies, theories, or principles of instruction. Preservice teachers tell us that, in testing new information they hear about through course work, they place it in the context of an imagined classroom:

I start with myself. I think, “What gets me interested? How did I think? Why was it that I had trouble with this?” . . . It helps me to come up with analogies. That’s how I was taught some of my favorite things. They fooled me into learning it. I think about myself in the place of the students and what analogies helped me. (Jude)

“What works for me,” that’s the computer that I put the notion from the professor [in], and it goes through. “What works for me” is the conglomeration of all the teachers that I’ve had that I liked, that were good, that were not good. What works or doesn’t work [is] based on when I was a student and upon what I’ve seen other students react to. (Lauren)

These scenarios are clearly based on critical experiences of the past. Preservice teachers use these experiences to construct a virtual world10 where they can explore predictions about what their own teaching might look like. The process works much like mental role-play.11

Preservice teachers first play the role of teachers. They assume the persona of teacher and imagine themselves assigning activities similar to those suggested by the theory, strategy, or principle under scrutiny. Almost immediately, preservice teachers mentally switch roles to assume the role of students engaging in activities suggested by the principle they are evaluating. Using the more familiar student persona, they ask themselves, “How would I react”? The answer forms a prediction against which preservice teachers, as teachers, can evaluate instructional theories and strategies:

[Decisions about ideas are based] mostly on gut feeling and my experience with being the student. There are a lot of times when things are presented, and I just say to myself, “That’s not going to work. I’ve been in a classroom where that’s been tried.” I know what class was like. (Maureen)

You just see what you liked, what got you interested in something as a student. If I’d want to do something like this. You correlate that to how you would teach something. (Corinne)

When preservice teachers talk about wanting “ideas that will work,’ they mean ideas that will pass their imaginary scenario-predicting system.

Even preservice teachers who do not imagine scenarios report evaluating new ideas from the perspective of self-as-student, not self-as-teacher. With or without an accompanying drama, this predicting process appears characteristically, sometimes quite voluminously, in preservice teachers’ talk.

Preservice teachers have been and continue to be students. They are going to be teachers. Yet, while they participate in course work, they are neither clearly one nor the other. Preservice teachers hover in a dilemma of tense, of time. For the most part they lack current classroom experience as teachers and must rely on former experiences as students even as they concentrate on projecting future behaviors as teachers. Preservice teachers creatively resolve this dilemma and practice teacher thinking by playing both the part of teachers and the part of students in imaginary classroom scenarios.

About Behaviors and Attributes

As part of simultaneously exploring the roles of teachers and of students, and making predictions about the interaction of those roles, preservice teachers often voice their beliefs about the effects of specific teacher practices. They connect particular teacher behaviors and attributes with specific student reactions as if these were inherently, causally linked. Preservice teachers tell us that a large part of why they have chosen to become teachers is so that they can influence or create particular, personally valued student reactions:

Looking back at teachers that I really enjoyed, [they] made me feel comfortable in the classroom and with them. I felt comfortable enough to talk to them, not as an authority figure, but as someone who was there to help me. I want to have an open classroom where my students feel comfortable and [able to] disagree with me. (Jeneane)

Their idealism, although not usually conceptually well-developed, is worn openly on their sleeves. Many preservice teachers tell us that their goals are to create particular instructional environments, yet their reasons for doing so are invariably grounded more nearly in the desire to foster particular student feelings and/or reactions in the immediacy of isolated classrooms rather than in the desire to address larger societal and world concerns. (On these later points we, as social reconstructivists, temporarily impose our own values. Ultimately, we want preservice teachers to be critical assessors of their own practical arguments and teaching contexts.)

Preservice teachers know and can describe “exactly” how they want their future students to respond to their teaching and to themselves as teachers. Generally they want students to be interested, motivated, involved, participatory. Preservice teachers want students to feel that they have “access” to them as teachers, that they are free to interrupt and to ask clarifying questions, that their teachers care about them as individuals. In talking about teaching, preservice teachers indicate values for developing teacher behaviors almost exclusively in terms of how well such behaviors will produce these particular, valued student reactions. They often talk about this in highly specific subject-matter contexts:

I had some bad teachers and I don’t want to be like that. One who was really intimidating in [my] foreign language class. . . . I couldn’t stand it. I would dread it. I would get butterflies in my stomach every day before I had to go to the class just because I hated being put on the spot. I would never want a kid to feel that way in my class. (Katherine)

While preservice teachers can be quite explicit and detailed about the responses they want to elicit from their future students, they often find it difficult or impossible to explain why these particular responses have inherent value for classroom life and for student growth:

There’s more to being a teacher than running the show, than being sure that everything gets done. Letting [students] know why is important. I really can’t articulate why at the moment. (Lauren)

They also often have great difficulty explaining how students’ responses foster learning or are connected to teaching even though they do know quite clearly that these responses embody the practices they valued or desired as students. As they attempt to articulate their dedication to these goals for student reactions, preservice teachers use power-laden verbs that clearly express how personally responsible they feel for the production of desirable student responses. Phrases like “cause them to,” “make them,” “force them,” “give them,” and “get them to” abound in their talk about future dealings with students and about effective classroom teaching.

As preservice teachers recall experiences as students, both positive and negative, they use these as a base for modeling, extending, and otherwise detailing the sorts of experiences and environments they want to provide for and pass on to their own future students. The fundamental usefulness of interpreting prior experiences, personal histories, comes from being able to attribute particular experiences to future teacher actions.

About Self

As preservice teachers talk about and explore their future roles as teachers, they frequently speak of their own experiences as students as if those experiences were prototypical. The examples of preservice teachers’ talk cited in the previous paragraphs abound with reference to self and to personal experience as if that experience were generalizable to the experience of others. Preservice teachers use their own experiences as reliable data for generating beliefs about “good” teaching. Their past experiences have predictive value precisely because those experiences are treated as if they were a legitimate prototype for all student experiences.

Preservice teachers also tell stories of their friends; they relate experiences they have witnessed:

I think back about kids that were in my school. I can see kids [today] saying the same things I said. (Theresa)

Before I decided to become a teacher, I watched my tracked friends. My best friend was tracked. He thinks he’s dumb, but, in reality, he is incredibly intelligent. That really influenced me. I don’t want that happening to anybody. I figure if one student, [then] others. (Deidra)

Even though preservice teachers freely acknowledge that not all students react as their friends did or as they might, they proceed with their imaginary scenarios as if these experiences could indeed be generalized. They exhibit limited ability to place their student experiences against a wider, more diverse context or to build imaginary scenarios based on anything other than those events and responses personally witnessed or experienced. While preservice teachers do not reject as invalid either descriptions or case studies of schooling experiences that differ radically from their own, neither do they report using these narratives as the content or context of their decision-making scenarios.

The processes preservice teachers tell us they use to help them decide about the potential value of the formal educational principles they learn through teacher education courses are strategically valuable to them. Their prior experiences are invested with powerful, significant interpretations. We wonder how best to enlarge this experiential base.

Preservice teachers use their own experiences as students to predict appropriate teacher actions they might use. They do this by recalling past incidents in their lives as students, attributing particular teacher actions as the causal or critical element in those incidents, and thereby forming predictions about what teacher actions “ought” to be. But the life experiences of the students they will teach are likely to be quite different from their own. The experiences that preservice teachers consider must eventually come to include those beyond their own.


The kinds of thinking that we hear in preservice teachers’ talk are played out in their classroom practices.12 Through discussing and observing the classroom activities of preservice teachers, we have learned much about the relationships between classroom practices and personal histories. Actions of preservice teachers do not always closely mirror their descriptions of those actions, their reasoned positions. Student teachers sometimes have well reasoned, theoretically sound underpinnings for their work in classrooms, and these positions are represented in what they tell others about their actions. More often, they initially justify their decisions about practices with practical, attributional arguments. For example, they may defend a planned activity based on what the activity will do for students’ positive thinking about the teacher or the class. Pedagogical, theory-driven arguments occupy a secondary place in their thinking. When they find their teaching—the implementation of their planned-for practices—not progressing satisfactorily, preservice teachers are especially prone to fall back on atheoretical ways of thinking about their practices. Not surprisingly, the resulting reactive, revised teaching practices reflect their atheoretical thinking.

In order to give very specific feedback about the teaching practices of preservice teachers, our observations of them working in classrooms have been modeled on horizontal evaluation,13 with the purpose of understanding both their actions and the origins of those actions. In discussing preservice teachers’ practices, we focus on three areas where connections between personal histories and practices are evident: selecting pedagogical practices; identifying, solving, and coping with problems in the classroom; and thinking of themselves as teachers. These connections are often first made clear in talk, and only later surface in classroom actions.

Selecting Pedagogical Practices

The previous section on preservice teachers’ talk made explicit some of the ways in which preservice teachers think about and ultimately come to value appropriate strategies for acting in classrooms. Once they leave the university classroom and proceed to student/practice teaching, preservice teachers continue and extend their use of mental scenarios to guide practice. Their prior experiences are at the Center of decision making, a point that is hardly surprising given the notion that teachers’ thinking directly predicts their practice.14 It is these personal theories and beliefs, often primarily the result of previous engagement in the processes of learning, of being in classrooms, and of thinking about teaching and teachers, that form the bases for many practices in classrooms.

While the selection of teaching practices is an idiosyncratic procedure based in part on reasoned positions, accepted educational theories, and established practices—in this case, ours—as presented in teacher education programs, we can safely say that a good deal of the selection is based on the experiences that make up personal histories and the associations beginning teachers believe to exist between specific, desired student reactions and particular teacher actions. We know that some decisions are made by prospective teachers on the basis of experientially grounded arguments such as “Students will enjoy class because learning needs to be fun.” These arguments are often problematic because they are based on scant personal experience with out regard to other, reasoned evidence. Some arguments appear to be whimsical or fanciful; at other times decisions are made on the basis of mere expediency. There are serious limitations in the abilities of preservice teachers to step beyond their prior experiences and personal history-based belief systems in arguing for and selecting appropriate classroom practices: “I don’t have the knowledge to make judgments about methods that I have not experienced myself. If they worked for me as a student then I know they will work for me as a teacher.” (Chris)

Identifying, Solving, and Coping with Problems in the Classroom

The problems and coping strategies of prospective teachers provide particularly valuable insights into their practices in light of their personal histories.


Problems that preservice teachers identify are often mirror images of their negative experiences as students. It is as though they come to teaching actually expecting to encounter from the teacher’s point of view a version of what had been experienced as a student’s difficulty. For example, Angela had vivid memories of being caught up with unruly students, feeling very frustrated that her teachers, particularly one male history teacher, had to spend so much of her time maintaining law and order. She had resented her disruptive peers. When in student teaching she found it extremely difficult to maintain the focus of a junior high school class, she explained her inability to develop a different, less potentially disrupting learning environment by arguing and hence resigning herself to the “fact” that the situation was an example of a “typical problem that teachers face and sometimes you can’t do too much about it.” While she recognized and was unhappy about her role in both the identification of the problem and the creation of it, she was comforted in her knowledge that other teachers had the same difficulties.

Angela’s rationale for explaining and understanding the problem did little to promote her own development as a teacher. In fact, her conclusion, “Well, maybe I’m not suited to teaching in this manner or [with] this age group,” actively insulated her from developing a proactive ownership of the difficulties that she generated in the classroom.

Similarly, but more often, preservice teachers identify problems in light of both long-held and recently acquired philosophical positions; they blend theoretical and experiential bases. For example:

I recognized that I had a problem yesterday because the reaction of [the student] was just like [that of] a kid I remember from high school. When kids begin making those kinds of [disrespectful remarks], you know there’s more trouble coming. In trying to contain the impending problem I flashed through my mind all that stuff on management that we had in class. The situation fitted. (Valerie)

This particular preservice teacher went on to describe what she remembered as being from a course on classroom management but was actually a principle of “assertive discipline,” something she had been exposed to as a high school student and that she saw as a way for dealing with the difficulty. Personal history—based practices are robust.

Theory-based practices, however, exhibit a fragility that is not evident when long-observed and admired practices are employed. Preservice teachers occasionally take on a particular new teaching strategy or classroom practice without first questioning, exploring, and planning for all of the ramifications for its use. When the practice or method does not proceed as planned or as imagined, they assess the resulting situation and blame the method itself as the source of the failure. They do not generally recognize or acknowledge that their own planning and preparation for using the method were inadequate for the method’s successful implementation:

You had wanted us to experiment with different ways of doing lessons. I did that but could not pull off the lessons as I thought I should have done. On talking with my cooperating teacher, and because it did not seem right to me, I decided that teaching noisy, discovery, and cooperative learning lessons were not for me. I don’t want to teach that way. It’s not the way I learned. And, I believe others [think] like that. (Hilda)

Hilda changed her plans midstream and discarded the practices she had prepared. She suddenly decided that discovery and cooperative learning were inappropriate for teaching math. In the process of justifying her stance, she “peeled off’ the more recently encountered, fragile, theoretical positions and practices that she had learned at the university and had been encouraged to pursue, trying instead some tried and tested teaching methods with which she completed the unit. While she continued with the presentation of the same subject matter, her methods became those of her “favorite math teacher”—everyday routinization of lecture, guidance while students practiced computations, further individual practice, assignment of homework, and a period of time before the bell sounded for students to begin their homework.

Problem-solving Strategies

Hilda’s case also illustrates a typical preservice teacher’s approach to solving some kinds of classroom problems. She resolved her discomfort with an unfamiliar practice by changing her method to something that she was comfortable with and with which she had prior experience.

Preservice teachers use their knowledge of being students as a way to guide their interactions with students. For example, younger, traditional prospective teachers tend to have recent knowledge about the ways students act but are often surprised about how far off the mark they are. David, barely twenty-two years of age, prided himself on “being just one of the gang.” Initially, onlookers sometimes indeed had difficulty telling him apart from the students he taught. He claimed he had a “real understanding of students.” After a few weeks, however, his rapport with the students declined. They became disrespectful toward him. At first he denied the fact, but after some of the larger boys told him to “fuck off and leave [them] alone,” he acknowledged their sentiments. He interpreted their actions as hostility toward him, as very offensive, believed that they were unruly students, and read their behavior as a sign that he “really needed to get tough” in class.

David saw the problem as one of particular unruly students, as having nothing to do with him directly. He drew on some early experiences with “tough teachers” as a way of resolving the perceived difficulty. He began to treat the students in sarcastic and demeaning ways, remarking about their physical appearance, clothing, and academic prowess, or lack of it, and was heavy-handed with them in the management of the classroom. His demands sometimes became quite unreasonable. His cooperating teacher likened him to a drill sergeant, a description that was fitting since David told stories about the appropriateness of a ROTC officer’s tactics for containing. unruly behavior. When asked about why he switched roles, he replied: “I wanted to be liked by the students, but they could not handle a teacher like me getting on their side. They were not appreciative of my friendship and my willingness to work with them.” Unfortunately, David did not regain the students’ respect and ended student teaching on an unhappy note, holding very poor recommendations in his hand.

Preservice teachers who display abilities for resolving problems invariably have one or a combination of crucial characteristics. They have developed over the courses of their lives intuitive strategies for dealing with groups of people and problems or they have acquired skills that achieved problem identification and reasoned, sequential strategies for dealing with the difficulties—they evidence common sense in their approaches. These characteristics are clearly skills that they bring with them and, over the duration of their professional teacher preparation, individuals who possess these characteristics hone their skills and focus their continued development on issues of teaching, classrooms, and students.

Other individuals come to preservice teacher education with inadequate skills in problem solving. As teacher educators, we need to pay special attention to these individuals, modeling in extensive ways appropriate problem-solving practices for the classroom.

Coping Strategies

There are a number of ways in which preservice teachers cope with the demands of student/practice teaching.15 Ignoring problems, blaming others, isolating oneself, and controlling others are examples of coping strategies that are used by some student teachers to mitigate pressures induced by problems, both real and perceived.16 Oftentimes such coping strategies or the behaviors that elicit them are clearly related to personal histories.

Many preservice teachers simply act as if they can resolve problems by ignoring or not recognizing their root causes. Cynthia, like Angela mentioned previously, did not recognize problems that resulted from her teaching practices.17 She designed potentially exciting lessons and taught them to the few willing and attentive students, but she did not acknowledge—or perhaps even notice—that, for the remainder of the class, she was an ineffective teacher. She taught as though she were oblivious to the disruptive and inappropriate behaviors in which the remainder of the class engaged. After being removed from student teaching, she analyzed her experience and concluded that her prior experiences did not provide opportunities to learn how to assert herself with groups of people. Despite grasping theoretical positions and acknowledging as well as understanding when supervisors offered advice that could have helped in dealing with unruly students-despite knowing other ways of acting—Cynthia consistently relied on long-held patterns of interacting with others as a means for dealing with the difficulties of the classroom. These patterns reflected her personal history, not her university teacher preparation.

Blaming others or the educational system is another way in which preservice teachers respond to problems. For example: Lahdan grew up in a Middle East country and experienced its schools and teachers as a young person. She had vivid memories of “the right way of doing things" based on some significant homeland role models. When student/practice teaching placed her in an American school that operated very differently from schools she was accustomed to, she had considerable difficulty understanding the new context. As a way of coping with the new complexities and with the problems she faced in the classroom, such as those resulting from poor pacing and from students who did not want to learn, she blamed the school system, the administration, and the teachers within it, and labeled them “grossly inferior to [those she] grew up with.” She never admitted there was anything awry with her perspectives, consequently, she never saw the problems as connected to her practices.

Frequently, as a result of their perception of interpersonal problems, preservice teachers isolate themselves—cut themselves off—from their cooperating teachers. They believe that nothing can be gained from close association. For individuals used to going through school without relying on others, who have little experience with cooperative learning or similar activities, having to work closely with other people can present special difficulties, especially if the tasks do not seem easy to accomplish through collaboration, One way to cope with these kinds of situations is to withdraw from those who are available to give assistance. On the one hand, such actions merely mirror the typical practices of teachers—individuals working in isolation. On the other hand, for able preservice teachers who have always known success as students, the rigors and demands of practice/student teaching often present complex problems that seem overwhelming. Maxine’s recollection provides a good example of this: “It became useless to try and talk to my cooperating teacher about things that really mattered. After the first month we hardly ever talked. It was no use. He couldn’t see my point of view. We had nothing to talk about.”

Coping strategies that control, such as those mentioned in David’s case, are also often exhibited by individuals faced with difficulties for which they cannot readily provide viable and humane solutions. In situations where students have not responded as anticipated, preservice teachers feel that their very existence in the classroom is threatened and so act to forcefully and autocratically strengthen their positions in ways they have witnessed throughout their formal schooling.

Thinking of Themselves as “Teachers”

Our attention has been drawn to the fact that some prospective teachers enter teacher education programs with well-formed images of themselves as teachers. These individuals initially seem to have heightened self-concepts; a relative sophistication in their conceptual knowledge about schools, classrooms, and teachers; and a tempered idealism that at least partially takes into account the realities of working in contemporary schools. In addition, a few of them have high levels of maturity, as evident in their initial responsiveness and receptiveness to preservice teacher education and to thinking and acting in ways that do not blatantly discount the value and place of their previous experiences.

Crow, in a study of biography and socialization, maintains that such individuals have strong and positive “teacher role identities” that are primarily a result of the experiences embedded in personal histories. While Crow places some importance on the influence of university teacher education programs in addition to early experiences, we posit that the major influences in this apparently heightened sense of self as teacher appear predominantly before formal teacher education.18 Typical formative influences on this image of self as teacher include those of family, school, classroom and teacher role models, previous teaching experiences, reading, and other significant relationships and events.19 In effect, later contemporary experiences do not appear to carry the weight of earlier experiences.

Cynthia, the prospective teacher mentioned earlier, was a person with a weak sense of self as teacher. The image she had was based on memories of individualized instruction, on her own enthusiasm for learning, on instructionally innovative teacher role models, and on docile, receptive students. Within this image there were no pictures of herself dealing with large groups of students, no accommodation of those who thought in ways vastly different from hers, no provision for taking care of inattentive students, especially those who were unruly and disruptive. She relied instead on an innovative curriculum to prevent problems. This, coupled with her own inability to equip herself during formal preparation with new practices, and the inability of her university supervisor and her cooperating teacher to uncover the root of Cynthia’s difficulties, netted her an unproductive, unsatisfactory student teaching experience -a situation from which she was eventually removed.20

Likewise, Elizabeth entered a junior high school with some remarkably firm views about how she would teach and what “good” teaching looked like. She had a strong image of herself as teacher, but it did not tit the context in which she found herself. When she realized that her cooperating teacher’s practices were not congruent with hers, she distanced herself from the teacher, was critical of the teacher’s actions, and eventually developed a hostile relationship with the teacher. Later, Elizabeth recognized the powerful origin of her thinking about teaching; her views replicated her teacher-mother’s positions, views that were regularly discussed around the family dinner table. When she was not able to teach according to the image she had of herself as teacher, one similar to her mother’s and reflective of the educational values of the religious community within which she had previously taught, she reverted to the highly rigid teaching practices experienced as a student in public schools. This was done despite the fact that she was an able student of teaching and had a solid cognitive grasp of theoretical issues and alternative practices.

For those preservice teachers whose images of themselves as teachers are well formed, and even those who are still forming images but who are receptive to new ways of looking at teaching and who can adapt to different conditions, their images serve as productive vehicles for practice and professional development. For those who have maladaptive images or images ill-formed and inappropriate for working in classrooms, without considerable modification of their perceptions, these practices end up being quite unsatisfactory and largely reflective of negative elements of their personal histories.


Curiosity about preservice teachers’ experiences with course work and field work has led us to look closely at what they do and to listen to what they say. We have been eager to learn all that they can teach us about how they experience the terrain as they become teachers. They have taught us how to teach them. Preservice teachers’ talk—about their prior experiences and their practices as beginning teachers—profoundly affects what we do when we meet them and attempt to influence their future directions. We meet them as they stand at the crossroads of course work and field work. Many of them approach this intersection with reservations. While they hope that course work and early classroom experiences will completely prepare them for their career as teachers, they actually have little sense of how this “miracle” might happen.

The purpose of our pedagogy is to inform and expand the reflective abilities of preservice teachers as they come to know. How can we improve the teaching potential of beginning teachers? Do they need us to map out their journey and to guide? Will it help if we caution and explain? Is it important to tell them facts about the landscapes they will encounter? Should we coach the development of certain critical points of expertise before encouraging them to go further? To what extent should our reconstructivist viewpoints be imposed on them?

Despite our concern about the content of our teaching, questions about our roles as teachers of those who are emerging as teachers are clearly centered around issues of process rather than content. In the foreground of our thinking, we do not puzzle over questions about what preservice teachers need to know so much as we endlessly struggle with questions about how they might come to know. Certainly we have strong biases for encouraging in preservice teachers attitudes of respect for cultural and social diversity, tolerance of criticism, generosity with time and expertise, individualization of responses to students, and innovative, constructivist responses to curriculum and to the policies and socializing elements of schools. Helping beginning teachers develop attitudes like these and learning to translate those attitudes into teaching behaviors is our role.

Our experiences as teacher educators lead us to acknowledge, however, that we have yet to develop a pedagogy—a process—that makes the content we hope to communicate truly accessible to preservice teachers in meaning-filled ways. Understanding more thoroughly the processes they already use to make sense out of their full range of experiences—experiences of home, family, friends, experiences as students prior to university, experiences in classrooms and in teaching prior to university, and ongoing experiences in teacher education course work—can guide us toward decisions about how our instruction might look.

Therefore, as we attempt to foster these attitudes, we have sought to understand how preservice teachers’ experiences are translated into knowing about teaching, about students, about curriculum, about instruction. As teachers, we believe that understanding the strategies and processes that our new colleagues have used to build their knowledge base will tell us how we might cooperate with their continuing effort. Over this understanding, we layer reconstructivist agendas—our tacit curriculum. We want to educate new teachers to become respecters of diversity and individuality, critics of their own practices, skeptics of the status quo in schools, and agents able to effect change in an increasingly complex technological society.

Two primary observations about preservice teachers’ processes serve to organize our pedagogies. First, we have developed strategies for our teaching that tend to invite preservice teachers to make explicit and external those ideas, theories, and beliefs they have developed and internalized as premises, as ways of thinking about teaching.21 Second, we have practiced pedagogical strategies that tend to encourage preservice teachers to take external experiences and reflect on them, reinterpret them, and reorganize them as an internalized vision of self.22 What follows is a partial record of our present pedagogy, made in the contexts of our current traditional undergraduate preservice teacher education programs.


We recognize two fundamental principles about how preservice teachers learn about teaching. Each has implications for what we do when we interact with students in course work or field experiences.


Students cannot be talked out of what they know and believe about schools. We recognize and are constantly reminded that we do not encounter preservice teachers at their point of origin. What they know and believe about teaching is constructed out of personal experience, not out of formal study. We cannot tell them to discount experience and the processes by which they have come to understand the meanings of those experiences. The lessons they have learned from experience are not amendable via direct instruction to the contrary.23 Experiences with classrooms as students are far more powerful teachers than mere classroom talk about teachers. Experienced teachers testify to this phenomenon when they refer to the continuous nature of learning to teach24 or to the importance of student/practice teaching in their formal preparation.25 This is the first principle we have come to understand in our close encounters with preservice teachers.

Therefore, we bow to the superior pedagogy of experience, and we choose to cooperate with preservice teachers’ habituated patterns of learning from it. This conclusion must not, however, be interpreted to mean that we passively accept that personal histories control future pedagogies. To the contrary. Our response to the evident power of personal histories is twofold. First, we must give preservice teachers a basis for acknowledging and understanding the history of their previously unexamined, tacit beliefs. Second, we must structure opportunities for preservice teachers to develop alternatives. This means we must develop strategies for reorienting our instruction so that those preparing to teach have new experiences as students, thoughtfully structured to optimize the chance they will encounter the principles we want them to incorporate into the future practice, not as principles passed on orally by “experts” but as principles they discover experientially from student perspectives.

For example, we do not tell preservice teachers, as part of a course on reading instruction or reading in the content areas, that helping readers negotiate text demands is important. Instead, we assign them a truly difficult text and, when they complain, we agree together that teacher intervention is valuable. Neither do we tell them about the value of small-group interaction as part of instruction. Instead, we ask them to participate in small-group activities, making these integral to their course work—and we invite them to explicate the value of these activities for their learning. We do not tell preservice teachers that writing is a wonderful tool for helping students think critically about text or issues. Instead, we ask them to write and we respond to their work in the ways we hope they will learn to respond to the writing they will one day require of their own students. We do not tell them about the importance of activating relevant schemata as preparation for new learning. We simply do so for and with them in dramatic, highly visible, and memorable ways. Since we understand that preservice teachers already have processes for building premises about good instruction out of experiences they have had as students and that this process is in fine working order, we see the powerful potential for cooperating with them and the process. We aim to evoke change.


Preservice teachers use their experiences as students as if these were prototypical. This is the second broad principle that we draw from our conversations with and observations of preservice teachers, and it is actually a corollary to the first. Preservice teachers develop attributions for what they are experiencing. When their studenting experiences are noticably “good” or “poor,” they “look up” to identify what teacher actions have “caused” that experience. Unfortunately, only the surface features of teachers’ presentations are readily observable. Teachers’ rationales are hidden, not easily extrapolated from observable events. Since we want to influence the elements of instruction that preservice teachers attribute as causal in the experiences we craft for them, we make those elements and the teachers’ rationales that accompany them explicit and unmistakably observable. Since students—as the preservice teachers were when in schools as youngsters—have only limited access to the rationales teachers have for the things they do, we look for opportunities to make our own rationales explicit to preservice teachers. We externalize our thinking about the activities of the class in which they are students. We do this because we are conscious of the internal role-playing scenarios they employ for thinking about the value of new instructional ideas.

Since we are usually more expert at this reasoning about the principles behind good instruction than are preservice teachers, we want to make our expertise explicitly available.26 We invite them to think aloud with us about why a particular activity we have just completed “worked” or fell short of the mark. We offer more principled explanations for the success of activities than those they initially are able to perceive. For example, when they tell us that writing a journal is a good idea because it helps them be interested in the readings or in the course, we suggest that it might also be valuable because it provides them with a concrete reason and a forum for thinking about what they have read. When they tell us that beginning class with role-playing is good because it involves them and is interesting, we point them to the fact that role-playing also helped them make their own relevant prior knowledge explicit. When they tell us that small-group activities make the time go fast and are really interesting, we suggest that their opportunity for participation was increased by the small-group format and that their high level of engagement with the material might well be attributed to that increased opportunity rather than to “interestingness” alone.

We do not negate or try to supplant preservice teachers’ perceptions that being “interesting” and “caring” and eliciting “student involvement” are important features of good instruction. We do suggest that preservice teachers come to understand these as elements of presentation, not as principles of good instruction. “It was good because it was interesting” is a common, pervasive, and ultimately dysfunctional attribution. In order to enlarge, challenge, and inform this particular thinking directly, we have sometimes presented preservice teachers with highly interesting but totally vacuous activities and then invited their critique.

As we model the principles of good instruction that we hope they will employ, we also consciously explicate the teacher thinking that accompanies the development and implementation of those practices.27 In so doing, we invite them to add features to their list of premises about “good” teaching, to question specifically whether something like “interestingness” of itself achieves the learning they hope will occur. We encourage them to look for principles of instruction in the activities we do together, to look beyond the surface features of these activities and of our personalities as teachers. We couple informal opportunities to analyze the components of the instruction in which they participate as students with more formal written opportunities to analyze the potential of a match between specified teaching goals and descriptions of formats and assignments that might actually be used. We ask them to analyze the instructional decisions of others before we ask them to generate their own examples.


In facilitating the efforts of preservice teachers to make sense of their external experiences, we encourage them to internalize those experiences through the process of making them known to others. We have begun to do this through autobiographical writing,28 through elements of field experiences, through peer support and observations, and through elements of student/practice teaching supervision.


We have used autobiographical writing assignments in our teacher education courses for a number of years. Their value is rooted in the process of coming to terms with oneself, a position akin to therapy and increasing self-awareness.29 We do not intend the autobiographical writing to be therapeutic, although it may be for some individuals. We initially implemented autobiographical writing because, intuitively, it seemed a useful tool, but over the course of time, we have recognized its enormous value and potential.

First, there is value in helping preservice teachers make records of their personal histories as they relate to education, learning, and being in schools. What this does is to help individuals situate their contemporary selves in the long “apprenticeship of observation”30 they have experienced. Preservice teachers have already spent countless hours in classrooms under the tutelage of teachers. This fact alone suggests that individuals come to teacher education programs with extensive views of their future roles as teachers. Putting their experiences in perspective helps recall, more specifically, the origins of some of their contemporary thinking about becoming teachers, an activity that helps clarify some of their newfound insights.

Second, there is power in autobiographical writing as a vehicle for learning, an argument especially well documented within the context of teaching English.31 Autobiographical writing, especially in journals, has been documented as being useful in the teaching of other school subject matter such as history, music, foreign language, philosophy, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and geography.32 Journal writing has also been used in teacher education—although its value for all preservice teachers has been challenged.33 When preservice teachers make clear on paper the meanings they ascribe to materials being learned, theories to be understood, skills to be practiced, they reveal the extent of their learning. It is expressed by their levels of engagement with and excitement about elements of course work.

Third, autobiographical writing has value for those of us who read it because it is a window into preservice teachers’ perspectives about themselves and their needs and about their responses to the process of becoming teachers, which oftentimes alerts us to difficulties that prospective teachers experience. The writing is also a measure with which to gauge the effectiveness and relevance of our instruction and programs. With the reading comes a heavy responsibility, a “standard of care” that the reader owes to the writer, especially when delicate, personal information is revealed.

Fourth, autobiographical writing has value for improving the quality of preservice teachers’ writing. Our courses are writing-intensive, and autobiographical writing is particularly useful because it allows preservice teachers to concentrate on the process of thinking. Over the duration of our courses, many preservice teachers display and recognize a marked improvement in fluency and in their ability to use writing as a vehicle for articulating their ideas. Some students resist autobiographical writing, especially in journals, and for these people it may be an inappropriate task, even “miseducational”34 and quite unproductive.35

Fifth, autobiographical writing has value for research. One attractive current notion is that of “teacher as researcher,” a concept that on one level is seductive because it implies a change in teachers’ status and activity without regard to school contexts. On another level, the concept holds great promise. If teachers are encouraged to develop the habit of autobiographical record keeping, which places value on their experiences, they may extend its application to relevant and context-specific research questions,36 a process that may be particularly useful for empowering women and minorities as they develop their teaching selves.37 Through autobiographical writing preservice teachers may also recognize the spurts and plateaux in their own learning and relate them to the experience of younger learners, while simultaneously acknowledging their professional growth and development.

Sixth, it is valuable when autobiographical writing becomes interactive, shared with others as a dialogue,38 such as when we, as teacher educators, and preservice teachers interact in the pages of journals. It is a productive learning process for all concerned. Preservice teachers write. We respond with questions, additional points, and answers to their questions. They continue to write, respond to questions, experiences, points of interest. Such interaction provides prime examples of the intersection of personal histories.39

Seventh, there is value in autobiographical writing and the sharing of personal histories since this helps develop trust while at the same time it is an outcome of trusting relationships—between teacher educators and preservice teachers, among preservice teachers—that make for coherence and camaraderie within cohorts of preservice teachers. The process models appropriate behaviors for preservice teachers’ future work in school classrooms. To incorporate autobiographical writing in our courses we have used a number of vehicles including personal history statements, interactive journals,40 and reflective papers.

Personal History Assignments

In helping preservice teachers write their personal histories we offer several alternative frameworks on which to hang their prior experiences. For example: They may write chronological life history accounts by focusing on early memorable experiences, and relate those experiences to their present thinking about teaching; they may revolve their stories around critical incidents in which contemporary thinking about education is intertwined with formative early experiences; they may write thematically, focusing on broad meanings and implications of their experiences; they may write about their biases, about their strengths and weaknesses as prospective teachers, all with the view of identifying their present positions regarding teaching and the origins of those positions.

Interactive Journals

Journal writing is an integral part of our curricula. Journals reveal many of the catalysts and inhibitors in prospective teachers’ past and contemporary experiences, and in their thinking about future practices. We ask them to write regularly, selecting central themes such as evaluations of their own ongoing learning and changing beliefs about teaching; reactions to concepts, theories, principles, or practices; responses to school and classroom environments; interactions between themselves as teachers and students; and other topics of their own or that emerge from our interactions with them. The journals eventually provide preservice teachers with data with which to evaluate their course and program experiences in a “reflective paper.” Finally, our written interactions in the journals reflect our orientations to teaching. We have agendas and orientations, a result of past experiences, that both intentionally and unintentionally guide the interactive dialogues.

Reflective Paper Assignments

We assign reflective papers to help preservice teachers to continue writing personal-history narratives. With a structure to link their most recent experiences—a result of course work assignments, readings, and field experiences in schools—with prior thinking about becoming teachers, individuals may recognize the extent of their continuing professional development, and take greater charge of it. Typical structures suggested rested on prospective teachers’ analyses of the documents and artifacts of our courses, their learning of the major principles and theories, their translation of educational principles and theories into classroom practices, their assessment of their strengths and weaknesses as teachers, and formulation of goals for their continuing professional development. In sum, the reflective paper helps preservice teachers take charge of their own learning.


Recognizing that prospective teachers are hesitant to try out unfamiliar teaching practices, despite theoretical understandings and appropriate modeling, a useful vehicle to help them become familiar with the unfamiliar is a gradual introduction to the responsibilities of the classroom and to the use of new practices. Expectations that are achievable and manageable are more important than those that push preservice teachers to the verge of disequilibrious and dysfunctional states. Asking preservice teachers to try out unfamiliar practices, first in the safety of small groups of students or in laboratory settings and only second with larger groups once reasonable levels of proficiency have been reached, seems a reasonable way to develop confidence and reduce the chances that they will reject appropriate practices. Unless there is a structure in place to encourage continued experimentation and refinement of the practices that they “try on,” preservice teachers quickly “peel off” the most recent practices in favor of those that they have long observed and are comfortable with. With this in mind our pedagogy has encouraged the trying on of different practices in safe settings and within the presence of other peers. Moreover, our approach suggests a particular stance to supervision, one that provides high levels of safety and care.


Preservice teachers’ statements of personal histories and their journal writing provide useful vehicles for them to talk with each other about the meaning of their experiences and the development of their pedagogical thinking. Stories from the documents are catalysts for introductions to each other and, as they share the products of their writing, long-term and ongoing relationships are developed. We find this to be highly important for maintaining solid collegial support within cohorts of prospective teachers, and especially useful for acquiring meaningful and productive strategies for improving their practices in classrooms.

In methods courses and in field experiences, peers play important roles in assessing each others’ performance and professional development. They evaluate each others’ teaching practices by using a modification of “horizontal evaluation.“41 Key components of this nonjudgmental evaluation method are its reliance on establishing normative frameworks for explaining classroom actions through discussion about, among other things, historical perspectives, and reliance on descriptions of practice rather than external judgments. We extend their emphases to include shared understandings about the personal histories of individuals as a way of modifying hackneyed and unproductive teaching practices, biases or stereotypical classroom responses, and untenable solutions to classroom problems. In sum, we look to improve the quality of preservice teachers’ classroom practices through extensive interaction with nonjudgmental peers who are prepared to describe and to explore the reasons behind classroom actions.


Preservice teachers’ pedagogies emerge from their experiences in course work, the materials they read, the writing they do, their conversations with peers and with us, their early experiences as teachers in classrooms, and the socializing effects of the broader school environment as well as the society in which we live. The meanings they attach to the experiences we craft for them are enriched, informed, colored, and sometimes even distorted by the meanings and beliefs they have attached to and developed from their personal histories. How much these meanings are influenced by our pedagogical interventions is difficult to assess. We have no reliable way of knowing what meanings and subsequent teacher actions would have developed minus the experiences we add to preservice teachers’ lives. They react to our instruction with such comments as “I never thought of it like that before.” If teacher thinking precipitates teacher action42 and if enlarging the repertoire of thinking processes is our goal, then these sorts of reports are encouraging.

One additional feature of working with personal histories must be acknowledged. In the pieces of preservice teachers’ talk that we have isolated and cited as monologues, in the stories of their encounters with self in classrooms—their practices—that we have shared, we too have been physically present and interactive.43 We are participants in the dialogue as well as characters and pedagogues in the experiences preservice teachers have as part of their formal preparation.

We acknowledge both the intentional and unintentional effects of our personal histories on our pedagogies. We realize that, in trying to please us, preservice teachers often reflect salient features of the intersection of our personal histories and pedagogy. This phenomenon of trying to please those in evaluative positions through “impression management”44 is bothersome, one that we would rather eliminate from the picture. Yet we recognize that, just as the effects of personal histories impact preservice teachers’ pedagogies, so our own personal histories have a part in the shaping of our practices. Our personal histories are at work when we watch preservice teachers’ classroom practices, when we conceive the questions we ask, when we structure assignments and focus course work. Since these are realities, a useful way for us to address the phenomenon is to reveal to the preservice teachers with whom we work the influences, including our recent and distant personal histories, that have shaped our pedagogies.

The highly personal; interactive nature of learning and teaching about teaching is inescapable, sobering, and delightful. We accept the critical mandate inherent here. We recognize that how we talk with preservice teachers and what we note in their practices and select as topics for further exploration become experiences we share, can interpret, and by which we will all name and come to know our mutual world of classrooms and students.45

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 1, 1991, p. 87-113
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 251, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:48:08 AM

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