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Teacher Self-Concept and Student Culture in the First Year of Teaching

by Robert V. Bullough, Jr., J. Gary Knowles & Nedra A. Crow - 1989

This article explores the problem of planning and how it underlies many of the problems common to first-year teachers. A related problem, how teachers define their students and themselves, is also considered. Case studies of three first-year teachers provide a context for discussion of these problems. (Source: ERIC)

 [When I plan] I see myself. I . . . close my eyes and . . . see myself just like in a [video] replay. I see myself presenting material [and] I go through it, step by step; [I’m] not just thinking [and] talking, but [I see] an actual . . . picture . . . , [my] interaction with [the students], and their faces. Maybe that’s the [source] of [the] frustration . . . [that] I’m feeling. . . . I don’t know anybody’s face; I don’t [know their] personalities!

The list of problems encountered by beginning teachers during the first year of teaching is a long one. The most common problem is classroom discipline, followed by motivating students, dealing with individual differences, assessing students’ work, and others.1 Lists of this kind are helpful when thinking about teacher education, evaluation, and mentoring but, by their very nature, they obscure perhaps as much as they reveal. Emphasis on the severity of beginning teachers’ problems hides the ways in which problems appear, disappear, and reappear, and how their intensity ebbs and flows over the course of a school year. Since most lists are based on studies that define teacher problems in instructional terms, emphasis tends to be placed on skill and content knowledge deficiencies, while other types of problems, sometimes even more fundamental ones, are ignored.

This article explores one problem that underlies many of the problems often listed as most common to beginning teachers. When fleshing out her planning scenario, to her dismay, Bonnie,2 the English teacher quoted above, realized that she did not have an adequate understanding of the students whom she was to teach. It is easy to see why this problem underlies so many others, like discipline and classroom management, for first-year teachers. Before ever meeting the students she is assigned to teach, the first-year teacher must plan curriculum for them, decide on what she believes to be appropriate and interesting instructional strategies, and establish rules that will govern their behavior. She does this for students who are yet strangers. If she is to enjoy any measure of success, she must quickly come to know and respect her students, otherwise their education becomes unlikely. Given this situation, and recognizing that there is no substitute for experience in handling this problem, what do beginning teachers do?

A related problem will necessarily be considered. The student and teacher roles are intimately linked, so that when defining who the students are when planning, teachers also define themselves. Specifically, when student behavior and the “replay,” as noted above, are at odds, adjustments in teacher understanding of students and of self-as-teacher are required. The difficulty of making such adjustments in the quest for educationally productive relationships with students is evident in beginning teachers’ struggles to know who they are as teachers. This problem is apparent in beginning teacher’s statements like the one made by Helena, a teacher in this study, when she said early in the school year: “Sometimes I am not sure who I am. Am I their teacher, their big sister, their mother, their friend, a police officer, a drill sergeant, [or] a baby sitter?”


Prior to the beginning of the school year, seven recently employed first-year teachers volunteered to participate in a year-long, twice-monthly seminar within which they would discuss their teaching experiences. Three of the teachers are discussed in this paper: Lyle, a junior high school science and math teacher; Bonnie, a junior high school English teacher; and Helena, a senior high school English, Debate, and Spanish teacher. We served as seminar coordinators. Prior to the first seminar meeting we explained to potential participants that they would be expected to keep a journal and a curriculum log, allow periodic class observations by the authors, and participate in a series of structured interviews.

Before school started we conducted formal interviews with each teacher that focused on their teaching ideals, how and what they had planned for the first few weeks of school, and any concerns they had about the first day and week of teaching. Subsequent interviews followed approximately every three weeks, all of which were transcribed for analysis and, starting in late November, transcripts were given to the teachers to become part of the teaching record they were creating. Classroom observations were interspersed between the interviews and resulted in extensive field notes.

The logs contained, for a single, specific class period, very brief descriptions of the activities planned, a sentence or two about their origin, and why they were selected for inclusion in the lesson. The logs provided a record of curriculum planning and modest-information about how the teachers’ thinking about subject matter changed, and occasional insights gained about their students. Independently, we analyzed the data generated and identified themes and patterns that were shared and discussed at length. The resulting interpretations reflect a consensus view.



Bonnie, whose remarks were quoted at the beginning of this paper, is a divorced, thirty-three year old mother of five children who decided to become a teacher for pragmatic reasons: She needed a steady income, health insurance, and a job that would fit the schedules of her young, active children. Teaching fitted the bill. Earlier, as a young honors graduate in English, she had other ideas:

I wasn’t interested in teaching at all. But, over the time [of being married] I . . . discovered how much more I liked kids than I thought I did. I . . . was . . . very curious about the things that I could teach them. . . . I liked talking to them.

After entering her preservice teacher education program and working with young people, she discovered that she had found her career niche: “When I got in [the classroom], it was just like, boom! This is so wonderful! . . . I have a knack for it. Wow! Look at this!” Later, she explained more fully what her niche was:

I was really lucky that what I wanted to be was consistent with where I had to be . . .—a parent. I decided that’s [what] really . . . makes me happy; giving love, nourishing, and caring. . . . It’s a really selfish thing because . . . ultimately [I] have a child love me, have a child care for me, [and I] care for a child. . . . That reciprocal relationship, even if it’s only for one hour a day, makes me happy. [After school] I’d go home and I was happy.

Bonnie taught six periods of English: two seventh-grade “regular,” two ninth-grade “remedial,” and two ninth-grade “regular.” Approximately 20 percent of her students were from ethnic minority groups, especially Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. Rifler Junior High School was a lower- middle- and middle-class school where, for the most part, schooling was taken seriously by parents and students alike.


Helena, a twenty-four-year-old, recently married graduate in Spanish and English, came from a long line of teachers. Despite this heritage she claimed she never intended to be a teacher: “I always swore I wouldn’t be a teacher because everyone in my family was. It’s something I just didn’t want to do because they all did it.” It was her love of Spanish, and her superior language abilities, that ultimately led her to reconsider becoming a teacher. No other career, she thought, would allow her to work with Spanish in such interesting ways. Helena began the school year thinking of herself, first and foremost, as a subject-matter specialist. This is not to say that teaching students Spanish was the only thing that mattered; other teacher responsibilities also seemed significant. She thought that teachers taught more than just content; they also taught responsibility and good work habits, for example.

South Nile High School, where Helena began teaching, was a lower-middle and middle-class suburban school, which also drew students from a large working-class area traditionally occupied by employees of the mining industry. The collapse of the industry in the 1980s crushed the expectations of many of the children of these workers, who had taken it for granted that they would follow their fathers into the mining industry. Academically, it was an undistinguished school, neither particularly strong nor particularly weak. Helena was assigned to teach one section each of advanced Debate and beginning Debate, sophomore English, and two sections of beginning Spanish and one of advanced Spanish. An important feature of her assignment was that the nature of her planning changed dramatically from subject to subject.


Lyle, a married, thirty-seven-year-old father of two young children, never planned to be a teacher. While working as a research biologist in a large government laboratory, he frequently engaged in discussions with a fellow researcher about making a career change. At work Lyle was, as he put it, “consistently unhappy for a long time.” Sharing similar feelings, his colleague decided to become a teacher, which Lyle thought worth exploring because teaching would allow him to use his biology expertise. He enrolled in a teacher education program and became heavily involved in a junior high school not far from the one which he eventually secured a teaching position.

Throughout the teacher education program Lyle wondered, sometimes aloud, whether he should make the career switch. However, he had been so unhappy with his previous work situation that anything seemed better. Yet, after the start of the school year, and partially as a result of having had a difficult time during student teaching relating to students in other than friendly ways, he continued to question his decision. In an interview prior to the first day of school he pondered: “It seems like [I’m] constantly making that decision all the time." Throughout the first months of teaching he continued to wonder if he had made a serious mistake. His teaching lacked direction and purpose other than to get through the content matter.

The problem, as Lyle identified it, was that he was unable to decide who he was as a teacher. Two months into the school year he framed the problem in his journal this way: “I experience . . . a constant conflict between being personal and positive [with students], on the one hand, and being distant and consistent on the other.” As a result he said: “I was on a kind of emotional roller coaster; . . . one minute . . . angry and fed up, and a moment later, encouraged and positive.”

Jordan Junior High School, where Lyle began teaching, was one of three local schools (of a total of fifteen junior highs in the same district as Rifler Junior High School) that qualified as a Chapter One school. The student population of 1,100 was generally poor, highly mobile, and, according to Lyle, little interested in school. It was a “tough” school within which Lyle had a “tough” schedule, teaching two regular classes of eighth-grade Physical Science, four periods of low-ability Mathematics in a special, highly structured, individualized learning program funded through Chapter One, and, to increase his income, one period (in lieu of a preparation period) of ISS (In School Suspension) within which he worked with varying numbers of students ejected from other classes for misbehavior. The Chapter One Mathematics program required no teacher planning whatsoever, nor did ISS.


Interest in how teachers plan has been increasing and it is now clear that much of the planning teachers do is mental,3 that teachers do not follow an objectives-first model, and that most frequently they begin by thinking about the content to be taught and the activities for students to engage in, particularly in the light of time available.4 Moreover, experienced teachers rely heavily on past experience as they make planning decisions, attending to what worked and what did not.5 Brown notes from her study of twelve experienced middle-school teachers that “most teacher planning involves revising and updating last year’s plans from unit notebooks.”6 Experienced teachers, at least those in Brown’s study, make “plans that fit into school schedules and curriculum guide objectives”; they tend to be consumers rather than producers of curricula.7

The situation is much more complicated for first-year teachers. Prior to and at the beginning of the year, they lack extensive plans from previous teaching, know little if anything about the students they are to teach, are unfamiliar with the school context, and are often uncertain about who they are as teachers. While they may receive some helpful advice from other teachers, along with some materials to use and the school district programs, they must “do it” on their own. As Lyle remarked: “[It] felt good to talk to experienced people who were supportive [and] understanding. Still, I’ve got to go . . . in there tomorrow, alone.” Facing this situation, beginning teachers draw on all available resources and prior experiences.8



Bonnie worried about her planning before the school year began because the “student element was missing.” However, she felt confident in her knowledge of English and believed that once she got to know the students she would be able to provide an adequate curriculum for them: “I can only go so far [in my planning] with the material [I have]. I’ve got . . . to get their feedback, and then [I’ll use] what they say [to get] prepared.” Her aim was to develop a program responsive to student interests and concerns, and that would reach out into the broader world of ideas.

To discover what was of interest and concern to students, Bonnie relied on knowledge gained from her own children: “I use my son [who is an eighth grader].” Through her children she recognized a set of issues as important to junior high age students. For example, she wanted to present “things that deal with anorexia, . . . with bulimia . . . [because] nobody deals with those issues. Seventh graders deal with those issues. There’s [also] not a short story in [the textbook] about divorce [or] . . . about a kid in crisis.” As a guide to planning, she also thought about what she was like as a junior high school student: “I remember vividly what it was like to be a student. I remember what appealed to me . . . [and] that’s why I’ve got the room situated the way it is.” She stated her central intention: to “make this literature . . . meaningful to these kids, it’s got to pick up something in their lives. There’s got to be something . . . that . . . reflects on their lives [and connects to] what they’ve experienced.”

Based on these recollections, knowledge gained as a parent, and hints gleaned from student teaching in a remedial English program for sophomores, she made her initial planning decisions. Using this knowledge as a filter of sorts, and together with her desire to be a nurturer, she reviewed the state curriculum and school district curriculum guides seeking what she thought to be appropriate topics. Similarly, she reviewed the prescribed lists of readings, seeking ways of connecting them to the topics presented in the curriculum guides. She settled on a thematic organization of the content, linking books and topics directly to what she thought were central student interests and concerns. For example, early in the first term she organized a “Coming of Age” unit that included the novel Dandelion Wine together with content suggestions presented in the guides, selected readings from the grade-level anthology, and activities from, as she put it, “her head.”

The first week was planned very tightly and emphasized, in addition to content, routines and rules intended to produce desirable classroom behaviors. The classroom, she asserted, was her “territory” and she would set the rules as she did at home with her own children. Her planning was very detailed, “up the ying-yang” in detail, as she described it, and the week unfolded very much as she had imagined. Part of her planning included identifying activities that allowed her to quickly gain insights into who her students were and what they were capable of achieving. Each class, she decided, would begin with students writing in journals, which she would read but not grade. Rather quickly the journals proved to be extremely important sources of personal information about individual students:

[This student] put herself out on a piece of paper. What shouted through that paragraph was real low esteem—not hate, not belligerence. But she said, “I only sleep with guys when I really like them.” So, I’ve got to watch this child, I’ve really got to watch her. . . . She’s a good writer. There’s a lot of potential there.

While useful for helping her identify topics and issues, as well as for thinking about how to approach some topics, information of this kind proved very troubling to Bonnie—as her journal indicated: “A lot of sadness in life—these kids are sad: depression, abuse, rampant promiscuity—that sounds harsh but they are making choices and they are just babies! But I love them and I wish them all the happiness in the world. I hope I can do them justice.” The more personal information about the students she gained, the more responsive her curriculum became—but at a cost; the more she was drawn into their lives, the more strained her energies. She worried, constantly, about her students. The more she knew, the more she worried, and the more frequently she confronted the limitations of her influence: “Tammy’s been raped [by her step-brother], but it’s going to stop. She told me about it today, [and together with the counselor, I contacted] protective services.” With knowledge of this kind pressing in on her, along with the considerable demands made on a single parent of five young children, Bonnie began to wonder, only a month into the school year, about whether she could continue to be a teacher-nurturer:

My own life; is there one? And now there is a door decorating contest. Time, time, time—what’s become of me? Am I who I wanted to be? Just a hazy shade of winter—I’m tired. [Are] my babies taken care of while I care for these souls—[these] little children?

Moments like this, moments of questioning her sense of self as teacher-nurturer or teacher-parent, were short-lived, but brought with them the realization that there were limits to how involved she could become in the lives of her students and still have enough energy left over to take care of herself and her own children. She continued to struggle to locate this boundary, but as the year progressed, and as a result of discovering that some students had lied to or taken advantage of her, she became more willing to draw the line: ‘I’ve found out I’ve been taken advantage of—biggest bull shitters in the world!” Nevertheless, she continued to be deeply involved in the lives of her students and identified curriculum themes in response to her understanding of the problems and issues they faced.

In addition to their journal writing, Bonnie gained insights into her students through occasional class meetings within which they could safely discuss personal problems. Bonnie was thrilled with the results of these meetings. Of one meeting, held out of doors a few days into the school year, she stated: “It was the best thing . . .: kids connected to kids, kids connected to me, kids connected to themselves as [members of the] human race. . . . It was marvelous. I’ve had kids [ask], ‘When are we going to do it again?’” Bonnie also gained information about the students through talking with them whenever the occasion arose. Knowledge gained through these means was used in a variety of ways, not only in the choice of topics or themes to study but also in determining how classes were approached instructionally. In addition, it influenced how she approached planning. Quickly she formed a steering group composed of specific students that she thought about when considering a new activity.9 Adjustments in her planning would be made based on knowledge of these students.

Initially, Bonnie focused her attention on coming to understand individual students, watching closely for “lights to go on,” but as her knowledge of individuals grew she noted similarities between students. Early in the school year she recognized that the students were very cliquish, hanging around in groups in the hallways and at lunchtime. By the beginning of her second month of teaching, she identified what she thought were the more significant student groupings and some of the meanings students associated with them. Group affiliation revolved around musical tastes and style, topics that will be discussed later in the article. Knowledge about what groups students identified with also played a role in Bonnie’s planning. For example, in class meetings she discovered that some students would only very reluctantly join in the circle, and that some students would not sit next to others. These problems, she learned, were connected to group codes of behavior that she initially knew nothing about.


The summer before Helena’s first year of teaching was spent attending university classes and she had little time to plan for school. Unlike Bonnie, Helena taught in three different subject areas: sophomore English, Debate, and Spanish. Because of her various levels of expertise and the different demands of the subjects, she approached planning in each area differently before and during the school year.

Helena had a solid academic background in English but had never taught the subject. Before school began her aim was to outline the units to be taught during the term, and to plan the first unit in some detail. She started by reviewing the school district program in English: “The district has some real intense guidelines . . . but I’m not sure how to [use them].” The guidelines included topics to be taught and suggestions for student readings. Like a “puzzle solver,” as she described it, and with the guideline in mind, Helena sat down at a large table covered with all the materials she had accumulated as a teacher education student, materials borrowed from friends, both English teachers and teacher education students, and some “things an English teacher . . . gave me.” She then began sorting, sifting, and trying to decide on unit topics and suitable activities, seeking a solution to the puzzle that felt intuitively right.

In the process of planning in all three areas, like Bonnie, Helena imagined what her students would be like, an image based on “the kids I student taught.” She fleshed out images of students by recalling herself as a public school student, although she was clearly a much better student than most of those she was destined to teach, and felt much more positively about school: “I loved high school. Well, just today I sat down and thought, ‘If someone asks me to do this [activity] would I want to do it?’ . . . I tried to draw myself back a little, [as] if I were an adolescent. . . . I can still see myself . . . in the classroom-as a student.” She also called on her younger brother for advice. Even while doing this, Helena realized that hers was a partial student image, a hypothesis, really, and that, generally speaking, she would have to trust that the materials she was given were appropriate—at least that some other teachers had found them so. Given the uncertainty of this image, Helena worried about how well she would get along with the students, perhaps recalling some tensions that arose during student teaching, and about how appropriate her curriculum would be.

Planning the curriculum for Debate was a worry. She inherited a fairly successful program from the previous teacher. He was worn out by all the work and six years were all that he could stand. Though not trained in Debate, Helena was certified to teach it by virtue of possessing an English minor. Had it been a good year for job openings she probably would not have accepted the position—but she did. In Debate there were no school district guidelines, no adopted textbooks, and really only a calendar of upcoming tournaments. Helena was very concerned: “I have nothing,” she said. What she did have was experience as a high school and college freshman debater. She had liked Debate but had not thought about it for six years: “I know how to debate, but I don’t know how to teach anyone how to do it [and] that’s what I’m wrestling [with] . . . now.” After talking with the former Debate teacher, she decided she had no choice but to rely heavily on the more advanced students to help her with the less advanced, and that she would have to develop a program while teaching it, keeping in mind that much of what she would do would be in response to the demands of tournament preparation. As a result, for most of the first two months of the school year Helena only planned two or three days ahead, a great source of stress, although during the second week she did locate a few helpful materials that assisted her efforts. For a person whose initial motivation to enter teaching was tied to subject matter expertise, this was a troubling situation:

Those [Debate] kids are smart. They know more than I do right now [and] . . . I have to . . . pretend . . . I know more than I really do. I’m afraid that they’re going to lose confidence in me and not respect me as the person that’s really in charge. . . . It’s important for me to be in charge [and to be a person] they can work . . . with. . . . I’m afraid that I’m going to lose . . . my credibility.

Eventually, and unhappily, she came to terms with the problem: “[I’ve] resigned myself to accepting the fact that I don’t know everything.” As a result, Debate became a kind of extended workshop.

Helena entered a Foreign Language department with a program already in place. Before school began she met with one of the Spanish teachers, who gave her all the available program materials, including a “checklist” of topics to be taught, along with a personal orientation to the program. Ironically, Spanish, the area in which she needed least help, was the one in which she was offered the most help. In deciding how to use the school program Helena relied on her student teaching with similar ability students, and her own experience with the language in South American contexts. She planned out the first week with some care, but as a specialist in the area had little concern about it: “I could go in and teach Spanish without much preparation.”

The first day of school, in all classes, would involve making introductions and then sharing a “disclosure statement,” which contained her academic and behavioral expectations—there would be little formal teaching. In thinking about discipline and classroom management, Helena made a few decisions based on her experience during student teaching: “I think I was a little tough when I was student teaching. I expected a little too much. [Now] . . . I’ve decided to just have a few common rules.” These rules would remain the same throughout the year. She was determined to stick to them and she did, although two months into the year she stated: “It’s been really hard.” One set of rules had to do with how she would treat disruptions in class:

I’ve decided . . . how many disruptions I’ll allow a student to make in a class before I . . . turn them [over] to the principal, or vice-principal, or before I. . . notify parents; . . . I’ll allow one disruption, and then the next one they’re at the office [and the administration] will support that.

Unlike Bonnie, Helena did not make explicit provisions within her curriculum for activities that would provide insights into either student interests or concerns, although she also required journal writing of her English students. Apparently, she assumed that as she interacted with the students in both English and Spanish, she would adjust the curriculum. Debate was another matter, however. She was dependent on the help and good will of the varsity debaters who, on occasion, let her down: “I really needed the varsity kids . . . to [give some materials] to me [but they’re] stalling and not getting their work done. So, that’s cut me off. . . [and] I feel under the wire.”

In Spanish and English, Helena expected to function as an expert, commanding student respect. As she interacted with the students, and as she realized the impossibility of doing all that was necessary to always be an expert and still maintain any semblance of a personal life, this view softened and broadened. Undoubtedly, the experience of being an unwilling novice Debate teacher influenced this change. She found she enjoyed the students immensely; gradually they became the primary source of her positive feelings of self-worth as a teacher: “I . . . care about them. . . . They’re teenagers [and] life is hard. If they screw up now, who knows when they’ll catch up?” While she did not want to be friends with the students, she did want caring relationships, and a classroom that would be both productive and fun. Reviewing Helena’s curriculum log, for example, revealed a gradual increase in the number of activities included in her lessons because the students either liked them or, she believed, would find them fun. Unintentionally the journal proved to be a source of very useful information about students’ likes and dislikes. For example, after reading students’ journals she discovered:

Half of them don’t like to read. They told me that in their journals. So, because I love to read and that’s important to me, I’ve got to do something different [instructionally] because it’s not important to them. . . . [Perhaps I’ll] read the book out loud and try to . . . dramatize it.

When Helena felt comfortable with the content, and as she got to know the students better, her planning became more spontaneous and flexible, although, simultaneously, she increased her emphasis on classroom rules to maintain control. As the year progressed Helena would always begin lessons as planned, but then diverge from them as it seemed appropriate and in response to class energy and mood: “I think I’m prepared, in a sense. But, I [don’t have] a strict lesson plan of what I’m going to do. [I] try to be creative. [Pause.] The kids seem to enjoy the classes.” That the students enjoyed the classes and were under control encouraged Helena to take even greater curriculum and instruction risks, but at a cost.

If I got sick tonight, I don’t know what I’d have a substitute [teacher] do tomorrow in some of my classes. [My planning] is day to day. [It’s this way] because I have prepared a week at a time and . . . get into class and find out that it just does not work.

This was possible only because of Helena’s extensive subject-matter background. Nevertheless, as she heard her students complaining about other teachers’ lack of expertise, she continued to worry: “I hope my kids can’t tell I’m winging it.” Later in the year, as she got to know the students better, she found she could successfully plan a week at a time.

Like Bonnie, Helena filled out her planning image of students, first with individual students and their personalities, from which she generalized. Also like Bonnie, she quickly began to recognize patterns in student behavior. A few of her discoveries were quite pleasant. For example, based on her student teaching experience she approached grading with genuine trepidation, expecting to be confronted by students who disagreed with her assessments. To her delight, students in South Nile did not question their grades: “The students I taught last winter and spring would challenge me down to the half point.” Other discoveries were very irritating: “The [students] I’m hard on—some of them I like—are so lazy! They don’t do anything. I don’t want them to think I’m a softy; it’s hurting them and it bugs me!”

Some of the patterns she identified were tied to different groups within the school; like Bonnie, Helena ran headlong into categories and cliques tied to student music and life-styles but, with the students being older than Bonnie’s, the differences were more accentuated, the groupings more powerful. Helena recognized this, and accepted the groupings, although not entirely happily, making no pretense that she could or should change them as such a responsibility was not the teacher’s. Nevertheless, accepting the groupings and coming to terms with them as they manifested themselves in her classroom were quite different matters.


Initially, Lyle’s teaching was a way to stay in science without remaining in the research laboratory: “I. realized I enjoyed talking about [biology]; intellectualizing [about] . . . science and ideas.” Student teaching made him realize that there was more to the teaching of Science than just science content: “I . . . realized that there’s a hell of a lot more to [teaching] than . . . subject matter.” Through student teaching he made some rather remarkable discoveries:

Subject matter is a very small part of . . . teaching. There’s a tremendous amount more to it. [Realizing] that has been very difficult . . . and . . . it has been a great discovery: I’m a people person [and] I . . . enjoyed the contact [with] professional people who cared about what they were doing. . . . I discovered . . . I enjoyed the kids even though I couldn’t always control them or impact their behavior the way I needed to. . . . I found them [to be] fascinating human beings.

Despite these discoveries, he thought very little about the students during planning and focused, instead, on working through the textbook. Recall, he had virtually no planning to do for either ISS or the basic Math classes he taught. All that he had to plan for were the two eighth-grade Physical Science courses. Unfortunately, while he had an extensive science background, his strength was in the biological rather than the physical sciences, which increased his reliance on the textbook and added to his insecurity in the classroom: “So, my planning has . . . revolved around the textbook!” Similarly, the lack of materials in the school for labs or demonstrations elevated the text in importance. Lyle wanted to plan labs but could not afford to pay for the necessary materials out of pocket, which, another teacher told him, was what he would have to do. Hence, Lyle sadly concluded, there would be few labs. Lyle spoke with a senior member of the Science faculty, who offered a few suggestions: He also borrowed from a younger faculty member his first unit plan: “I said, ‘Boy, this looks like I could really use this.’ . . . And he said, ‘Sure, go ahead and take it.’ ”

To help himself get into the mental attitude needed for planning, two weeks before the school year began Lyle spent three days in his classroom. He particularly thought about ways of handling classroom discipline and management, a major problem area during student teaching. So it was with respect to obtaining control that he thought about students, basing his image of them almost entirely on the few difficult students he encountered as a student teacher. He believed classroom control would be helped if he could produce a varied and interesting curriculum, but he thought this unlikely given the work context of Jordan Junior High School.

On the first day of school, discipline problems started. Lyle was not ready for the students he found sitting in his classes. He wrote in his journal:

The whole day [was] so traumatic! . . . I wasn’t ready for eighth graders. . . . Somehow, the lack of contact over the summer . . . lulled me into forgetting [what] it’s like to be around [students]. Third period remedial Math is the worst combination of defiant and mouthy boys . . . I’ve ever seen. Most of my other classes were more or less silently nervous. These guys took me to the cleaners immediately. I just don’t have that hard edge yet that is needed in a class like that, to come down [immediately] and kick ass.

Within a few days he was nearly overwhelmed, facing situations that demanded immediate and consistent responses, but being uncertain about how to react. He was of two minds and students quickly perceived him to be inconsistent, vacillating between friend and a very tough, unpleasant policeman. For example, he was dismayed at his reaction to difficulties that arose during his first laboratory session: “During my instructions for a lab there came a time [when] I should have retracted the lab and put them to work writing or [doing] other seatwork, but I didn’t! Damn it, what’s wrong with me?”

Lyle recognized the problem, but by midyear was still unable to resolve it, which profoundly affected his curriculum and instruction decisions. The first issue to be considered when planning an activity was whether the students were likely to easily go off task. Student control, not learning, was the primary criterion. This is evident in the curriculum log where comments such as: “Thought it might help with the noise level” and “need to settle them down” gradually slipped in alongside reasons having to do with the need for students to learn the content. Anything having to do with student interest, or even fun, dropped out after the first few weeks of teaching. Lyle almost ceased trying to engage the students: “Demonstration in first [period] got some student interest; but I almost didn’t try it.”

A second problem that contributed to student misbehavior was that lacking adequate knowledge about student ability, and being overwhelmed by the fear of losing control, Lyle frequently taught over the lower-ability students’ heads: “There’s low ability kids who are off task because they can’t grasp my lessons or activities.” To make matters worse, he feared that the more able students were bored: “I think a growing problem in my regular classes is boredom.” As Lyle became even more concerned with control (or, rather, his lack of it) and more frustrated about not being able to teach any content—a primary value—he dwelled on the problem to the point where he had little energy left for other activities and became increasingly negative about students and toward himself as teacher:

Deep down . . . I still can’t accept that some of them just have a meanness about them, or a dishonest and out-of-control nature to them. . . . Yet, this is the nature of the beast [and] . . . I still grapple with this. A day like today makes me feel incredibly inadequate and incompetent; no matter who I am or what kind of person I am. . . . I feel, at times, that I’ve just “written” these classes off as a lost cause . . . [and] this leads . . . to poor quality or too little planning.

The more negative he became, the poorer was the quality of his planning, or so he reported, and the worse became his relationships with the students. He was deeply troubled: “This will be a very long year if I can’t change this [negative] feeling about the environment or [improve my] relationships [with] students.” Five weeks after this journal entry, Lyle was working hard to distance himself from his teaching problems in order to check his continued and deepening feelings of failure and frustration, but with little success—he even dreamed about the problems:

I’m trying to work, mentally, on not letting the kids and things that happen at school get to me so much. I have to really try at this [and] . . . create a . . . frame of mind that keeps me relatively unaffected. . . . It helps me get through the days . . . . I’ve also been . . . listening and thinking about other teachers’ suggestions [about how] to simplify [my work] and distance myself from the students.

Like Bonnie and Helena, as Lyle worked with his students his image of them fleshed out. Unlike them, however, his image was heavily colored by frustration and disappointment, feelings with which he continuously struggled. He was unable to use his knowledge of either individual students or student groups in ways that resulted in a richer curriculum. Instead, it led him to hold ever more tightly to the textbook and to reduce the number of instructional and curricular risks he was willing to take. Indeed, his planning, as he described it, actually deteriorated under the influence of his negative view of students and student characteristics. There were, of course, some good students, but these were overshadowed by the power of those he called “beasts.”


We have discussed the gradual process by which the three first-year teachers began to come to know their students, generally by moving from recollections of themselves as young people and reliance on experience with their own children or siblings, and in student teaching, to the context-specific knowledge that comes only through working with a particular group of students over time. Within the teaching context they came to know individual students from whom they generalized, producing a kind of generic student image that, eventually, could be spoken of in some detail useful for planning.

Berliner notes that expert teachers possess just such images, but fully fleshed out to include knowledge about common learning problems that can be then anticipated, as well as common interests and concerns.10 Even before teaching at the beginning of the year the expert teachers in his study “in a sense believed they already knew all about [the students]. They did not have to delve very long into the assorted class records before deciding that these students were ‘like other kids.’ ”11 Expert teachers begin teaching with this image in mind and, we assume, adjust it as the situation demands. Whether these images are accurate seems to be beside the point. The question is, are they educationally useful and productive? Can the teacher teach, and do the students learn? We will return to this question later when again discussing Lyle’s student image.

Student commonalities are the stuff out of which this image is created. Each of the three beginning teachers within a matter of three or four weeks began noting some commonalities, most prominently those having to do with student interests and concerns. Knowledge about students’ common learning problems came more slowly. As noted, in tilling out their generic student image, both Bonnie and Helena noticed very early that cliques were operating powerfully in their classrooms. Eventually they identified these cliques with differing life-styles centering primarily on differences in musical tastes. Through interacting with the students, they gained insight into what these tastes were and, more importantly, the meaning the various groups had for participants. In so doing, Bonnie and Helena encountered a few of the common forms of American youth culture. These are not isolated forms, evident only in their two schools, but rather are representative of a cultural phenomenon that many adults find disturbing but with which they nevertheless must grapple. Bloom, for example, in a spirit vaguely reminiscent of some of Lyle’s words, harshly concludes that young people have embraced “a worldview [that] is balanced on the sexual fulcrum . . . [where] nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place. . . . There is only room for the intense, changing, crude and immediate.”12

What holds this world view together is music as a way of life.13 Teachers encounter “Rockers,” “Wavers,” “Hard Cores,” “Skaters,” “Preppies,” and “Cowboys,” along with the expected “Jocks,” “Nerds,” and “Normies,” the latter being a label given by students to their “good” student peers.14 These groupings are of great importance to the young people who inhabit them, although not all students fall neatly into one or another grouping and not all hold with equal tenacity to membership. They provide young people with categories, meanings, and rules by which to structure their social world. Moreover, as Hebdige argues, they are the means by which the young person attempts to make an independent place in the world.15

Since each subcultural group reflects a different social experience, the relationships of subcultural groups to the dominant culture, a culture represented by teachers, vary. Groups “can be more or less ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive,’ integrated into the community, continuous with the values of that community, or extrapolated from it, defining themselves against the parent culture.”16 From a teacher’s perspective these are important differences, signifying to them that they may be facing students for whom group belonging requires classroom behavior of disruption, withdrawal, or compliance.

Beginning teachers face an even more serious challenge because they enter the student world, for the most part, unaware of the subcultures and the role they play in students’ lives. Facing this reality, and despite the temptation to ignore student subcultural groupings, beginning teachers must soon learn to decipher the meaning of group characteristics and develop strategies for dealing with them, which is precisely what Bonnie and Helena sought to do. Lyle, in contrast, found himself drowning in the face of this reality.


Public school classrooms often contain a mixture of students. Most of Bonnie’s, Helena’s, and Lyle’s students would be grouped as Normies, but sprinkled among the Normies were Nerds, Preppies, Jocks, Cowboys, Skaters, Wavers, Rockers, and Stoners (no Hard Cores—“Punkers”—were ever seen in any of the classes). Normies, Nerds, Preppies, and Jocks generally liked school, reflecting values of the wider community. Wavers, Rockers, and Stoners, in contrast, were little interested in or involved with school.

Virtually all of the observed teachers’ classes contained various groups—even in such academic electives as Helena’s third-period beginning Debate class, a small class of only sixteen students. For example, during that period in the middle of the room sat two Wavers, a male and a female, complete with their baggy, mostly black uniforms; across the room near one of the six office-like practice debate rooms (which students would occasionally retire into to listen to music and to prepare their cases) sat two Skaters (the apparent leader of the group, a male, wore a brightly colored “Brazilia Volleyball Tournament XII” T-shirt); and in the front of the class were two Preppies who, before the buzzer, excitedly talked about preferred colleges. The rest of the students were probably considered by other students to be Normies.


Bonnie enjoyed the different groupings in her classes, finding them interesting and challenging. She had a particular soft spot for students on the fringe. As a nurturer who expected her classrooms to have a family-like feeling, however, she felt she had to encourage students to cross boundaries. This was a particular problem with the ninth-grade students, who had already more or less settled into groups. These students, she said, “respond according to [their] category—that’s what’s expected of them—[and] they won’t break out. . . even if their personal feelings come into play. . . . There’s no crossing those lines.” In contrast, many of the seventh-grade students, particularly girls, she said, “haven’t figured it out yet.” Bonnie thought that group affiliation made “a lot of difference in their attitude towards each other: . . . ‘No, I won’t work with this person because I’m a Rocker, and she’s country [a Cowgirl].’ ” For example, in a class meeting Bonnie found that the “Rockers wouldn’t sit next to Wavers.” Situations like that bothered her, complicating her effort to create the kind of cooperative classroom learning environment she sought.

Given her aims, she began to “take their categories into consideration” when planning. She accepted the categories, just as she accepted the students who bore them. For example, she spoke, a month into the school year, of Muffy, a Rocker:

She won’t move out of that [group]. I’m not expecting her to . . . [because] I don’t want to lose her. . . . Maybe later in the year I could ask her to do something [to] . . . challenge her to move out of [her group], . . . [but for now], I want them to have the security of their groups. . . . They’ve got to feel secure with themselves.

Later in the year she thought she might be able to challenge student categories, but first, as a teacher, she needed to build trusting relationships with them. Ultimately she wanted to weaken not only the boundaries separating the students but also the categories themselves because, she said, “I feel like [their categories] weigh them down.” It troubled her that so many of the available groupings were destructive: “I can see these guys when they’re thirty years old and [they’re still] trying to work out some of the things they did when they were in junior high.”

Recognition of the groups added support to Bonnie’s initial decision to build a curriculum around student concerns and interests, a curriculum that would enable students to explore values. She needed to do more than this and began thinking about ways of including in her curriculum increased opportunities for students to cross groupings in relative security. One of the surprising aspects of the groups in her school was that, like the students in Grant and Sleeter’s study,17 they appeared to cut across ethnic lines, which suggested that the boundaries between groups could be breached.


The students Helena taught were older than Bonnie’s, and the categories more numerous and the boundaries more firm. In particular, Helena, unlike Bonnie, was confronted by quite a few Cowboys and Jocks, and a few Stoners. Mostly, however, her classes were filled with Normies, a few Preppies and Nerds (particularly in English and Spanish), Skaters, and an occasional Waver. ‘Members of some groups were clearly harder to work with than others. For example, Helena described her experience with a Stoner, one of a group of students who were “drug rejects, . . . flunkies of a [drug rehabilitation program]”:

I turned one [Stoner] in yesterday because I saw him snorting [drugs] outside the school at lunch. He comes to my sixth period [class] after lunch just really weird and . . . hyper. He screams sometimes [and is

out of] control in class.

Despite this, Helena “really liked him.” Even after having turned him in she would not give up on him despite the vice principal’s warning: “Don’t get too stuck on these kids.” He responded by coming to her class, even while his girl friend sluffed, and while he missed other classes. The key was that he was willing to meet her half way; those students who would not make an effort to succeed were set adrift while she concentrated her efforts on others. Helena kept track of this student in school and, while in class, constantly passed by his desk to offer assistance and encouragement, showing herself to be a firm but fair-minded and interested adult.

In Debate the presence of Wavers presented Helena with a bothersome problem. The Debate teams represented the school in the various tournaments throughout the state. Prior to the first tournament, Helena worried about how these students would represent the school: “I’m embarrassed to death to send them to a tournament.” Despite her concern, she planned to let them go. As it turned out, she did not need to worry. To participate in a tournament students had to maintain a 2.0 grade point average with no more than one F. The Wavers, not surprisingly, did not make the grade—no Waver ever did. A more serious problem arose earlier when Helena began to form debate teams. Students were very reluctant to cross group lines. When she attempted to pair a male student, who was quite serious about debate, with a female Waver who was very bright but seemed to be little interested, the boy remarked: “I can’t debate with a partner that has purple hair!” As the Waver failed to perform, and “came to class looking worse and worse each day,” Helena realized she probably could do little with her. Helena invested her energies elsewhere, concluding that “I don’t think I can change [her].” Like Bonnie, she realized she would have to accept student groupings of this kind as a fact of school life, but unlike her, she had no ambition to challenge them.

While Helena’s Debate curriculum was heavily influenced by the advanced debaters and by tournament preparation, it was not responsive to subcultural group differences. Neither was the Spanish curriculum particularly responsive, although Helena made efforts to tap differences whenever possible. Of the three subject areas Helena taught, she attended most to group differences in English, but not nearly to the extent Bonnie did. For instance, based on her knowledge of student groupings she altered the journal writing assignments to better connect to student group experience.

Helena’s knowledge of the different student groups played only a minor role in her curriculum planning, in contrast to Bonnie’s. Part of this contrast is a result of difference in content areas, and part tied to differences in their teaching values. In the skill classes, subcultural differences were of little importance compared with individual differences in ability and interest, for example. Where this knowledge proved useful was in terms of helping her better understand how to work with students occupying one or another category. The categories provided her a kind of shorthand way of thinking about the students and then, in turn, of thinking about her behavior so that she might better help them with their studies or better utilize her own energy. While Helena’s curriculum planning was only slightly affected by her knowledge of student groups, her instruction and the quality of her relationships with students were clearly influenced.


Lyle recognized several different student categories, each reflecting what he called “high peer awareness.” When asked about them, he remarked:

Body image is . . . very important . . . [and the students] value a certain kind of body image. There are various body images [to] choose [from]; like the Rockers who have the long hair and the Megadeath T-shirts. I’m serious, . . . that’s what they value, their long hair and that body image, [and] . . . the other things that go with that—probably a smoke out in the back [of the school] . . . [and] the music.

He recognized other groups as well, such as Wavers, representing different “body images” and embracing “a certain music and a value system.”

For Lyle, one characteristic united the various groups; their dislike of authority—“They don’t like it”—and he took this dislike personally: “It almost seems to be my role to be their target”; but, he concluded, “Somebody has got to do it.” It was, he said, “the nature of the beast” to challenge authority, which he “hated . . . because . . . I haven’t come to terms with . . . using power; . . . but I’m being forced to all the time.” Rockers were particularly challenging since they cared so little about school, and their working-class families were unlikely to be very supportive of teachers: “The Rockers . . . tend to come from poorer home situations where there’s one parent, no parent, low income, and welfare. . . . Some of them come from pretty shitty situations . . . [and then] . . . bring that stuff to school!”

While Lyle recognized different student groups, they were educationally meaningless except with respect to his thinking about discipline and management, where a Rocker, for example, meant trouble. In the Science classes, where he planned the curriculum, he made no provision for individual or group differences, choosing instead—and in part because of his lack of subject-area background—to emphasize “this academic crap, day after day . . . [and] book learning” even though he realized that “they don’t relate to it.” He did this for control reasons, having concluded that students, in general, “don’t have the self-control” necessary for other curriculum and instruction approaches to be successful, particularly the inquiry method. Justifying his decision, he observed that other teachers in the Science Department also emphasized “bookwork.” Although not happy with the decision, he saw no alternatives because of large class sizes in Science, and especially because he was uncertain about the kind of teacher he wanted to be. By midyear, when he looked out on his Science classes, he saw an “intimidating” crowd, and teaching had become “crowd control.” Given this image of students, two aims came to dominate his actions: to survive the year, and to not let the students get to him.


The story of Lyle’s beginning months as a first-year teacher is a story of confused images of self-as-teacher interacting with and shaping the emerging images of the students he taught. The interaction with students influenced how he planned the curriculum and how he viewed his own role of teacher. Although this story differs in fundamental ways from the stories of Bonnie and Helena, there are similarities among them of importance for teacher educators.

In forming their images of students each of the three teachers went through a similar process. They began the school year by drawing on personal experiences with students and children, and by recalling images of themselves as young people. This initial image was fleshed out through teaching by knowledge gained of individuals and of small groups of students, from whom generalizations were made to larger groups. Eventually, Bonnie’s and Helena’s initial images of students were fleshed out, then solidified, and finally dropped into the background when planning.

Once teaching begins, interaction with students shapes the images teachers form of them. In this process of image formation students exert a powerful influence. As noted for the first-year teachers, however, this is an interactive mental process tied closely to teacher’s self-perceptions and instructional purposes. A key developmental factor in the interaction involved the teachers’ recognition of commonalities among students. Of particular interest to this study were the categories the students used to define themselves and others within the school and societal contexts. Although these categories were used by the teachers to varying degrees in their planning, the categories strongly influenced how they thought about individual students. Moreover, each teacher responded to the student categories in ways consistent with idiosyncratic perceptions of themselves as teachers. For Bonnie, the nurturer, even Rockers were thought of as children who needed to be cared for, sometimes punished, and sometimes, for their own good, forced to work in ways they resisted. Her planning reflected this view. She developed curriculum that attempted to change various “rowdy and hard students” into good people. For Helena, the information generated from the student categories played only a minor role in curriculum planning but proved instructionally useful and important in her interactions with individual students. For Lyle, whose confused and insecure self-image as teacher focused on tension between students and teacher, student categories confirmed his conclusion that the students were generally “beasts.”

For all three teachers, the temptation was to act toward students as Rockers, or Wavers, and to neglect the individuals beneath the label. Bonnie appeared to resist this temptation, as did Helena, to a lesser degree. In his siege mentality, Lyle, in contrast, gave in to the temptation more fully, and in concert with feelings of insecurity and ambivalence found in labeling a means of coping with a very complex set of circumstances and partially explaining his feelings of failure. Clearly, for some teachers like Lyle, student cultural groupings present a barrier to creating a satisfying and productive program, while for others, like Bonnie, they present challenges and opportunities to grapple with questions of curricular relevance and to touch individual lives.

Throughout this article we have called attention to the intimate relationship between each teacher’s conception of self-as-teacher and his or her perceptions of students. In contrast to Lyle, both Bonnie, the nurturer-parent, and Helena, the subject-matter expert, had relatively clear and consistent conceptions of themselves as teachers, conceptions evident not only in how they talked about teaching but also in how they acted within the classroom and toward students. While their self-conceptions changed somewhat through teaching, and they occasionally wondered who they were in the classroom in response to a variety of challenging situations, generally the experience of teaching resulted in clearer images of who they were as teachers. Possessing a consistent sense of self enabled them to act consistently within the classroom and toward students. On the other hand, on entering teaching Lyle felt disoriented and on unfamiliar ground, and uncertain of himself. He reacted to his environment and toward the students by defining himself through the relationships and interactions he had in the school. On every front, seeing himself primarily through the eyes of others led to disappointment and ever-increasing frustration and, eventually, hostility toward students and toward schooling.

Lyle’s difficulty in developing a productive and healthy sense of self-as-teacher was compounded by the context within which he worked. We begin by briefly contrasting Lyle’s work context with Helena’s since they both experienced subject-matter and expertise mismatches. Both teachers went into their new jobs with open eyes, but neither fully realized the potential effects of a subject-area responsibility and expertise mismatch. Making up for a considerable lack of expertise and availability of appropriate teaching materials, Helena was forced to accept her limitations in Debate and employed the expertise of the varsity debaters to assist her through the early months of teaching. While this represented a challenge to her conception of herself as expert, she saw no alternative but to compromise, accept, and make the best of the situation. She did not give up her sense of self, only adjusted it, somewhat. On the other hand, Lyle continually felt disadvantaged by the subject-area mismatch that he experienced, and frustrated by the lack of outlets for his considerable knowledge, perhaps forgetting that his Physical Science expertise soared above the level of lower-stream junior high students. Facing this situation, and not having additional resources to call on, Lyle held ever more tightly to the textbook, which deepened his frustrations. For both, planning suffered as a result of the mismatches, and yet Helena eventually succeeded in creating a productive program while Lyle withdrew further into himself and took fewer and fewer instructional risks.

Lyle’s subject-matter and expertise mismatch was not the only source of his difficulties. Other contextual factors also came into play. Recall that for reasons of increasing his income, Lyle agreed to teach a section of ISS during his preparation hour. Not having a preparation period meant that Lyle had to spend more time outside of school planning, a source of family tension and increased stress. More than this, being responsible for ISS meant that Lyle, who already had difficulty coming to terms with students, spent an increased amount of time policing the most disruptive students in the school, students who, for example, engaged in a spitting fight within the classroom during one observation when Lyle stepped out of the door for a moment to take care of a request from a visiting adult. This was not all. While the Math classes he taught required no formal preparation, once again Lyle encountered the least motivated and least able students in the school. No doubt both of these experiences colored his views, encouraging him to conclude that students were beasts. Moreover, while on the face of it not having Math preparations may appear to be a plus for a beginning teacher, working with someone else’s curriculum produces its own kind of stress. Lyle had no ownership of these classes and little, if any, autonomy within them, which may have increased his feelings of inadequacy. When coupled with his difficulties disciplining students, it is little wonder that Lyle felt discouraged and increasingly thought of himself and his students in negative terms.

As we have thought about the experience of these three teachers, and Lyle in particular, we have begun rethinking some basic premises that underpin teacher education. Traditionally, preset-vice teacher education programs are skill-oriented, in that major components of preparation center on developing technically sound teachers who master particular instructional strategies. For us this study has raised a troubling question: To what extent are the technical aspects of teacher preparation valuable to beginning teachers? All three teachers had adequate theoretical knowledge about teaching, exposure to and practice of appropriate teaching skills; indeed, they completed the same preservice teacher education program together. What they initially lacked were useful understandings of the contexts in which they would work and, particularly for Lyle, consistent, grounded, and accurate understandings of themselves as teachers. Fortunately, Bonnie and Helena relatively quickly began to gain the necessary understandings, while Lyle for a variety of reasons, many of which we have noted, did not. As we have thought about the meaning of these cases for teacher education, we have concluded that the technical emphasis, while important, needs to be complemented with an increased emphasis on the critical study of the context of teaching, along with an expanded emphasis on the personal and idiosyncratic nature of the roles of teachers, not only in terms of how planning is taught, but more fundamentally, in how teaching and the teacher role are understood. Teacher educators must help the prospective teacher answer the question “Who am I?” Otherwise, many of the early experiences in teaching may well leave beginning teachers crippled for the remainder of their careers, unable to develop educationally sound approaches for stimulating student learning and unable to locate a pathway leading to further personal and professional growth. Ad dressing this problem is critically important in the light of Ryan’s and Bullough’s assertions that the beginning months of the first year of teaching are the most important for teacher socialization.18

With respect to the context of teaching, an additional point needs to be made: In the light of this study and others, much greater and more careful attention needs to be given to the work situation of first-year teachers.19 Too few school districts and principals display a keen awareness of the plight of first-year teachers and too little is done for them. To succeed, as they can, first-year teachers require reduced teaching loads, an appropriate match of expertise with assignment, reduced class sizes, reasonably “good” class assignments (not to be assigned “tough” classes), and mentors who have no part whatsoever in personnel decisions, such as certification.20


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 2, 1989, p. 209-233
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 413, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 2:55:10 AM

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