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Learning from the First Years of Classroom Teaching: The Journey In, the Journey Out

by Helen Featherstone - 1993

Presents narratives on beginning teachers and their experiences. They describe a complex interplay between self-discovery and explorations of individual students and subject matter.

Late one afternoon in January, the four members of my Beginning Teacher Study Group and I are perched on small chairs around the library table in a public elementary school that has kindly offered us space for our meetings every other week. Suzanna Tierney, who has now been teaching kindergarten for four months, begins to reflect on her preparation for teaching. In a part of the country where applicants outnumber teaching positions by a very substantial margin, she feels lucky to have gotten a job. She attributes her good fortune to her previous experience in day care. The personnel officer, she suspects, had assumed that her year and a half working with four-year olds had prepared her well for kindergarten teaching. But Tierney has not found this to be true: "Day care is a whole different story than school," she asserts.

"Oh, sure," someone agrees. "Because you can just let them do what they want."

Tierney nods, "Whatever. Anything that's creative. Anything that's fun. And I never interrupt to say 'hurry up.' It's all developmental."

As a kindergarten teacher, she explains, she feels and acts differently. She sees herself constantly rushing Sophie, who works painstakingly and often becomes so absorbed in her task that she does not hear her teacher when she asks for "eyes up here." "And, of course," Tierney concludes, with self-mockery, "That's when I get mad. Because I want them to jump when I blink."

Going from day-care, where it was all play-related, I came into kindergarten feeling that I wanted to keep that, and not be so structured, feeling that kindergarten was so structured. But, I don't know, my kids walk down the hall, and I watch other kids walk down the hall, and I really want them to be school-aged kids. You know: The other side of me wants them to be prepared for first grade.

We had an art teacher come in the other day and she was talking about doing stuff with a brush and dotting things and all the kids were moving around and they started to bump into each other. I started to say "Stay where you are sitting and don't move around." And she looked at me and said, "Let them do it. That's just natural." For me it was just a slap in the face of "Suzanne, you are losing all conception of creativity and natural rhythms."

I go back and forth.

A few days earlier, she had described her feelings even more vividly in her teaching journal: "At that moment I felt like a drill sergeant."

Tierney seems to see herself learning from the experience of being part of two traditional school faculties (she teaches morning kindergarten in one urban elementary school and afternoon kindergarten in another) without quite having decided that she wants to follow this path. When the art teacher gently reproves her she realizes that she has abandoned her vision of a looser, more developmental kindergarten and is now more fully acculturated than the natives. But identifying the problem does not solve it: If she feels bad when she faces the extent of her "learning," she still wants her students to conform to school norms and succeed by the standards of the institution. She worries, she says, about "these curriculum things that they have to know by year end," and about the judgments her colleagues will make: "I get so nervous that they are going to go into first grade and the teacher will say, 'Uh, oh, that's another one of Miss Tierney's kids.'"

During their first years in the classroom, many teachers face major difficulties managing student behavior and respond by becoming more authoritarian, more conservative, and less child-centered. Researchers attribute a good part of this change to the management-custodial orientation of schools, the overwhelming nature of the beginning teacher's task, and socialization by other teachers.(n1)

During the last few years I have been listening to and reading the stories beginning teachers tell and thinking about what these novices have to say about their own learning. As a result, I now think somewhat differently about the lessons of early teaching experience: I have come to feel that self-knowledge is a major fruit--perhaps the major fruit--of early teaching experience, that the loudest of the voices urging strict discipline may come from inside the novice's head, and that the struggle to manage the behavior of young people is intimately bound up with the struggle to understand and change the self.

The narratives that have led me to these conclusions come from two places. I have drawn most of my stories from the journals and taped conversations of six novice teachers who participated in two Beginning Teacher Study Groups that I organized and led during 1987-1988 and 1988-1989. These teachers--all white women, two in their twenties and unmarried, the other four in their thirties and forties, married and with children in school and/or college--had earned certification within the last three years from a variety of public universities and were all teaching in public elementary schools. Both of these study groups met every other Thursday afternoon for the major part of the academic year; some members of the first group continued to meet with me during their second year of teaching. A smaller but still significant number of stories come from the narrative literature on teaching: published nonfiction accounts of teaching written by teachers themselves.

These stories do not, of course, give us an objective picture of what or how teachers learn from classroom experience. To begin with, no one who lives through an experience as intense and as extended as the first years of classroom teaching imagines that he or she can be objective about it. In addition, teachers' narratives are selective: People learn, as Tierney tells us, without realizing what is happening; they also learn things that they choose not to talk about. Furthermore, these stories reflect the experiences of a fortunate few with the time and the audience for storytelling. Despite these limitations, they help us to understand the sense teachers make of their own experience.

Stories are the product of our efforts to interpret our lives. Jerome Bruner argues that the human race has two basic approaches to making sense: analysis and logic on the one hand, and narrative on the other.(n2) Often stories contain our best wisdom in its most complex yet most accessible form. When we distill that wisdom into maxims or propositions, we lose much of the richness of what he have learned, and often tell readers less than they already know. Our story embeds what we have learned in all its rich complexity; the story changes as our understanding of it changes.

In telling stories we create a space outside of the relentless stream of experience and demands. We represent both our understandings and the contexts that created them, streamlining a series of lived events, selecting salient details to highlight. Sometimes our "understandings" are no more than our confusions. Sometimes they represent emerging insights, conjectures, propositions. Because a story launches a dialogue with the listener or reader--as a host of teacher groups and networks are now showing--stories may be our best path to cumulative collective insight into the vicissitudes of teaching practice.(n3)


I find Tierney's experience particularly poignant because I am teaching an introductory course for undergraduates who are considering a career in education. As part of an effort to get these sophomores to reconsider their assumptions about what teaching involves, I ask them to think about what they will need to know as teachers, and how they might go about learning it.(n4) My students are conscientious; they intend to study hard, to pay dose attention to their methods courses and to their distribution requirements, but they are firmly--and eloquently--convinced that they will learn the most important lessons from classroom experience.

For the most part, working teachers agree with them: They say they learned to teach through teaching and that day-to-day encounters with students--rather than in-service workshops or university courses--continue to provide them with their best opportunities to grow and to improve their skills.(n5)

Many teacher educators are a good deal less sanguine about the lessons of experience. They have worked hard to enlarge the ideas about teaching that their students have brought with them to the university--ideas bred of their own experiences as students in conventional elementary and secondary schools and of years of immersion in the larger culture(n6)--only to see them return to similar schools, either as university students completing the field components of teacher education courses or as teachers, and relearn from their experience that schools are places where students tramp through their basal readers and math texts and where teachers arrange the environment so that the journey is as pleasant, orderly, and predictable as possible.(n7) As Robert Floden, Margret Buchmann, and John Schwille note in connection with children, "More often than not, life teaches people that they have to fit themselves into the scheme of things."(n8)


Prospective teachers often speak as though they will learn to teach in much the same way that B. F. Skinner's pigeons learned to peck at the right place to get grain. They expect to try out approaches to teaching, incorporating those that work into their repertoires and abandoning those that do not. They hope that the positive and negative reinforcements provided by quiet and productively engaged children on the one hand, and noisy, bored, ignorant children poking their neighbors with rulers on the other will show them the path that "works for them."

Certainly people as well as pigeons learn some things this way: I turn the flame low while sauteing garlic because I have tried high and medium heat with poor results. We could, in theory, experiment in a classroom in much the same way I do at the stove; in reality, however, the experimentation itself may create so many problems that the beginner learns very little about the effect of different approaches. Not long after her encounter with the art teacher, Suzanna Tierney confided in her journal that she was having difficulty controlling her classroom and keeping her patience:

I've got to sit down and devise a new management program. Up until now, I've been trying a little of everything. I haven't really thought of one major plan. I think the kids sense this lack of consistency.

This lack of consistency is my problem with other parts of teaching. I feel as though I'm trying out so many different styles of teaching that I don't have the consistency of one particular style. I know that structure and consistency are the most important factors in management in a classroom. But I also want to try out different ways of doing things to make sure I don't miss out on anything that might work better.

Tierney abandoned her experimental stance a little wistfully, but with a conviction that it was not working.

Even though Tierney concluded after a few months of teaching that her classroom could not be used as a laboratory, she still believed twelve months later -- after teaching for a year and a half -- that she was a far better teacher now than she had been when she started out, and that experience had made the difference. The changes seemed immense, global; she tried to make them more concrete for me by talking about decisions she made each day as she taught.

Well, you come in the morning with your plans. But things don't go that way, and you have to change your plans. Like, say I had this really creative art project planned, but when the kids came in they were really hyper and wired. Now I wouldn't do it. I'd do cut and paste or something.

"And last year you would have just plowed ahead?" I asked, checking to be sure I understood her point. Tierney laughed, "Yeah, I probably would have."

I groped toward a clearer understanding of exactly how she felt she had changed. "Because you didn't have enough experience to improvise? Or because you wouldn't have been able to read the kids and know when it would be a disaster?"

Tierney considered the question for a moment. "Both, probably." She paused thoughtfully, and then began to talk about the previous year:

Last year, every time I taught a lesson, or did a project, it was for the first time.

When I was in college, there was this one teacher, she was very good-the best I had, I think. She was always giving us these hypothetical situations. She'd say, "What if you were doing something, and some kid started to do something -- something different, you know? What would you do?"

And I'd say, "I'd go on with the lesson" and she'd say, "What if three kids were doing it?"

"I'd still keep on."

And she'd keep going: "Well, what if everyone did it?"

So I'd say, "Well, I guess I'd stop. I'd do something else."

And she'd say, "And would that be okay?"

And I'd say, "No. No, it wouldn't be."

She was a great one for going with the flow, for doing whatever got the kids' attention and interest.

At this point, I felt I was beginning to understand a bit more about what Tierney saw herself learning from her year and a half of teaching: "So it wasn't just that you didn't know anything else to do or that you couldn't read their signals. You were disposed to continue."

"Yes." She nodded emphatically. "Yes, I'm very much disposed to finish things I have started. I felt that if something was planned, we should do it. And they should just learn that at reading time we read."

Tierney paused before continuing. "Being spontaneous is a real struggle for me in the rest of my life, too. Sometimes on Saturday morning I'll get up and I'll think, 'It would be fun to go out to breakfast.' I'll think about who I might call to go out with. But then Ill think, 'No, I was going to do my laundry and clean. I should get my work done and play later.'"

"Only later never comes?"

She grinned, "Or if it does, I don't feel like playing any more."

Like many other teachers, Tierney claims to have learned "everything" from experience. The example she gives, and the comments she makes about this example, point us in interesting directions when we begin to explore the scope and complexity of that "everything." I want to look briefly at some of the themes echoing through her story and then consider the way they manifest themselves in the narratives of other beginning teachers.


When we examine Tierney's story, we find that an important part of what this young teacher sees herself learning concerns herself and the way her own character affects her teaching. During her first year in the classroom, Tierney taught hundreds of new lessons. Some of them succeeded. But as she watched others, which she had prepared with equal care, fall apart, she began to see that her determination to complete every scheduled activity set the class up for failure. She learned something about teaching -- that it is important to respond flexibly to students and to take their moods and preferences into account -- but she learned this in the process of learning about herself.

Often the most powerful stories of beginning teachers, the ones that suggest that the writer has moved a significant way along the road to becoming a real educator, are those that involve learning, or verifying, some truth about the self. These stories usually include some sort of encounter with the outside world. The real drama, however, is interior.

Tina DeFranco, for example, in a meeting of another Beginning Teacher Study Group, described an experience that had changed her whole feeling about her job. DeFranco had been struggling for three months in virtual isolation. The reputation and rhetoric of her school -- it is in a wealthy midwestern suburb where, like Lake Wobegon, "all the children are above average" -- reinforced her loneliness. When, in the orientation meeting for new teachers, an administrator explained that the school system had received over 4,000 applications for ten jobs and had every confidence that this handpicked cadre of rookies would become outstanding teachers, DeFranco wanted to sink through the heating vent. Listening between the lines, she heard the principal and the superintendent telling her that she was not to have any troubles. So, much as she wanted some advice on curriculum and management, she kept her problems to herself.

Early in November the school system sent all its first-year teachers to a daylong regional conference. On her way home from the last workshop, DeFranco stopped at school to pick up her students' papers -- she had asked the substitute to leave them on her desk. As she headed back out the door, her arms laden with children's work, she spied a note in her mailbox. The message was brief: Her students had missed their scheduled music enrichment class because when the music teacher came to pick them up, they had already gone outside for recess. The substitute had not known about the music enrichment class because DeFranco had failed to put it into her schedule book. "The paper," she told the study group, "was covered with question marks." It bore the principal's signature.

Wondering how this could have happened, DeFranco sped back to the classroom to examine her schedule book; there she found that she had entered "music enrichment" under the wrong day.

I worried about this all night. I thought "She's really going to be angry with me. I'm going to be in all kinds of trouble because I had it on the wrong date." So I went in early in the morning and I said, "I'm really sorry about yesterday."

And she said, "Well, what about yesterday?"

"Well," I said, "about not scheduling it. About not having it in my book."

She said, "Having what in your book?" She didn't even know.

And I said, "You mean you're not going to fire me or anything?"

She said, "Oh, that. We'll just reschedule it."

And I had just stewed about it all night.

DeFranco had talked repeatedly about her worries, and had told the study group that both her husband and her friends were urging her to relax. She wanted to follow their advice, but could not. This incident brought their point home. She began to see the ways in which she was magnifying dangers and imagining disapproval. She continued to put in long hours in preparation, but the contrast between her fantasy and the humdrum reality convinced her that she had been exaggerating problems. "I feel a lot more confident." Her difficulties began to seem manageable, and when she wanted advice she now went to her principal, who gave her support and useful counsel.

DeFranco had learned about the school, but her most important learnings concerned herself.


Tierney's learning went beyond simple identification of a personal disposition and an ongoing examination of the ways in which this attachment to a preconceived plan interfered with her other teaching goals. It involved a battle to change her behavior and ultimately herself. As she became convinced that when she ignored the signals from students she doomed herself and everyone else to a difficult morning, she struggled to be more spontaneous and responsive in the classroom. This battle mirrored -- and perhaps prompted or reinforced -- an effort to be more spontaneous and flexible in her personal life.

Written narratives of other beginning teachers provide examples of other such struggles. In the late 1960s Sonny Decker, a young graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, took a job teaching in a high school in downtown Philadelphia.(n9) The school provided her with all the challenges that descriptions of inner-city secondary schools have led us to expect. Some of her own habits compounded the difficulties: "I'm a talker. It's so easy to rattle on, making terribly important points, and so easy to forget that kids will give you about ten minutes of that kind of self-indulgence before they shut you off."(n10) This insight came coupled with the realization that the lesson plans she had rejected as pedantic and not "cool" in graduate school could help her to discipline her impulse to keep the spotlight on herself.

It took about a month of blundering before I gave in and wrote a real lesson plan. Funny, how the discipline of stating your ways and means on paper forces you to really teach. And if you've written it all out, you can step back look at it before show time, to see exactly what's going on. That's where you can really save a lesson. There's got to be a balance between how much the teacher talks, how much kids work alone, and how much interaction there is. (n11)

Kim Marshall, another Ivy League graduate of the late 1960s, took a job teaching in an inner-city Boston elementary school. In Law and Order in Grade 6-E, Marshall describes a disastrous and demoralized year in which children fought, ran around the classroom, and stole from one another, while he tried to find ways to teach them something. He saw that other teachers could silence the unruly hordes simply by walking into his classroom, and he attempted "the shouting kind of repression" and the equally time-honored "stream of busywork."(n12)

There were still regular explosions and confrontations, but this method took the pressure from outside the class off me and made the holding action more bearable. It also made me more ashamed than ever to call myself a teacher.(n13)

Eventually Marshall confronted himself: "Clearly I wasn't cut out to be a conventional, stand-up teacher in this kind of school."(n14) But as he struggled to find a style of teaching that he could manage, he also began to change -- not only his style, but his personality.

I was being forced to abandon the luxury of a soft, understated personality by my demanding and often threatening environment, by being front stage for nearly six hours a day. I slowly developed into more of an actor and a performer, more of an extrovert, and grew a thicker skin and a different kind of detachment and humor.(n15)

The worlds actor and performance point us toward an important aspect of the new teacher's journey: the crafting of a public identity. The adult who enters the classroom may have shaped himself or herself mostly in small groups and intimate private relationships; the new teacher is constantly on stage and urgently needs to develop a performing self with whom he or she can live comfortably. Marshall's story suggests some of the complexities of this construction: For one thing, his language indicates that the changes he describes are not entirely of his own choosing, that he is less certain than either Suzanna Tierney or Sonny Decker that he is the architect of his fate. Many beginning teachers feel as Marshall seems to: They have struggled with themselves and with their students, their administrators, and their circumstances. The resulting changes are not necessarily those they would have chosen at the outset, but they "work."


These two points -- that self-knowledge is one of the major fruits of the beginning teacher's experience, and that the reaming involves not simply observation but genuine struggle with portions of yourself --link closely with a third: Learning involves work that is emotional as well as intellectual.

The foundations of Tierney's learning were laid before she entered her first kindergarten classroom, during a course she took for certification. Her professor had repeatedly suggested that a good teacher takes cues from students, capitalizing on their interests and inclinations. But examining the merits of this proposition was not a simple matter of watching to see what happened when she abandoned plans for planting seeds in paper cups in order to take the children outside to look for signs of spring. It required probing dearly held beliefs about how one ought to live and what adults ought to teach children about self-discipline and confronting a feeling that she would be displaying cowardice in the face of the enemy if she gave in to the momentary impulse to substitute play for work, the simple for the complex, the attractive for the useful. It meant changing the way she felt as well as the way she thought.

Mimi Gelb, a member of Tierney's Beginning Teacher Study Group, encountered similar demons as she struggled to find a way to teach second grade that seemed both right and satisfying. In September of her second year she described the long mornings of reading instruction --she had five groups -- as tense and unsatisfying: "I feel as though I'm on an assembly line." She would work with one group, struggling to focus their attention on the task at hand, to get them to read with expression and to learn the target vocabulary, only, it seemed, in order to repeat the process with the next group.

While she moved through these mechanical and repetitive tasks, she monitored the rest of the room, making sure that the noise level did not rise too high, and that the groups working at their seats stayed on task. When talk at one table got too loud, as it inevitably did several times each morning, she rang a bell, called out, "Detention, Group Four," and set a timer for the five minutes of absolute silence now required of these six children. As a hush fell over the room and she turned back to the group of seven-year-olds before her, she found herself wondering, "Is this all there is? Twenty more years of 'Detention, Group Four'?"

In October, however, Gelb began to fed better about her teaching. Although part of this improvement was physical -- she had begun the school year with a cold that had finally cleared up -- it also reflected a successful attempt to reassess her situation. She made some substantive improvements in her teaching. She also began to analyze more objectively the noise that she had been battling.

I'm thinking it's not so bad for the class to be noisy.... I used to focus on "Oh, the noise, I'm not being effective." And I still feel that: When they are quiet I think, "Ah, that's nice." But when they do get noisy I look around and see what they are doing. If they are interacting with each other, and it's productive, I'm not getting all excited about it.

As the weeks went by, Gelb's ability to tolerate -- and even sometimes celebrate -- what she now termed "busy noise" was fortified by her realization that because she had changed over the twelve months she had taught, the meaning of classroom noise had changed. "Before, when they were noisy, I worried that the class would get out of control. But I realize now that I have control of the class and that if I want quiet, I can get it." When she saw that she had control, she did not need to exercise it as often.

Gelb, like Tierney, needed to change the way she felt as well as the way she thought about her teaching. She had to go beyond reanalyzing the meaning of noise in her classroom, because as long as she felt as though she was on an endless treadmill, condemned to repeat certain dreary routines over and over until liberated by retirement, she could bring few of her many strengths to the service of her teaching. The intellectual, emotional, and practical work went hand in hand.

A story from the classroom of another member of this Beginning Teacher Study Group sounds the same theme, with a new twist. Carol Holtz had dreamed of becoming a teacher for twenty years, but by the time she finally got her elementary certification, several of her children were in college. She felt fortunate to land a teaching job in a small rural community several months later.

Holtz looks for the bright side in any situation, but her job was a difficult one. She and her first-graders shared an enormous classroom space with three other classes. Because of the room's acoustics, the other teachers had decided to keep all the children working quietly on academics every morning and to monitor the noise level closely even in the afternoon. Holtz had more than her share of slow learners and difficult children; unable to adjust classroom tempo and activities as she wanted to, Holtz fought frequent brushfires.

In early spring, her daily journal described a particularly disagreeable confrontation:

At the end of the day, we played a [math] flash card game -- they did quite well except that Edwin got very angry and belligerent when he lost. He gave me some unnecessary foul backtalk and raised an inappropriate digit. I got angry. He had to put his name on the board, head down and he cried. He deserved it! I told him that if he wanted to survive first grade, then he'd better never do that to me again!

I talked to his mom, told her what happened and she was very upset that he would so that. She will also punish him at home and Ill be getting a written apology tomorrow.

The rest of the kids were shocked and mad at him. Some just looked at him and others wouldn't talk to him even when school let out. I hoped he learned a lesson from this. I know I did. If it happens again I will send him to the office for some of [the principal's] conversation; plus some more drastic disciplinary action.

A year later, in an interview, Holtz reflected on the journal entry, and on what she had meant when she said that she had learned a lesson. Rereading the entry, she registered shock at the unvarnished anger it so clearly expresses. "Gosh, this brings back so much. Yick." She drew a deep breath and tried to reconstruct the meaning the event had had for her at the time:

Even though I had been challenged in other ways, that was my first open very defiant situation.... I felt I had to do something right then and there. I wished I hadn't gotten angry because in a sense I let him -- because he got the response he wanted. Had that happened again . . . well, it did happen again: He hit me. He swung back, and swung around fast like that [she demonstrated]. And I handled it completely differently: I just took him by the shoulder, and sat him down, and told him, "When you get control of yourself, we'll talk."

And I wished I had done this the first time. Because by my getting angry and exploding, I think, first of all, it might have helped me with some of the other kids, because they found out that I could get mad. But it didn't help the situation with him at all. Because it just allowed him to think, "Aha, I found her breaking point."

And then I was upset for the rest of the day. With myself and with him. And I knew better than that. It was just the straw that broke the camel's back: I had just about had it at that point.

Reading Holtz's journal, I had assumed that her learning was intellectual -- that she had seen something new about handling explosions, or about some other aspect of the situation. But her commentary tells a different story: She already "knew better" than to display anger in the classroom. That was why, despite months of provocation, she had not exploded before. But the confrontation showed her, in vivid technicolor, exactly how it felt to explode at a child. She mode the emotional roller coaster of her own rage, complete with the bitter aftertaste, and she resolved not to ride it again.

Experience taught Holtz'a heart what her head already knew. She already knew that she never wanted to lose control of her anger in the classroom, but as soon as she exploded at Edwin she knew it in a different way. The next time Edwin defied her, she was prepared emotionally as well as intellectually. In consequence, she handled the situation quite differently.


Tierney's story prompts a fourth observation, one that in a sense brings us back to where we began: The education beginning teachers get from experience is often a mixed bag. Tierney has clearly learned some important things about herself as a teacher, and she has taken arms against dispositions that limit her flexibility and responsiveness. She has learned to "read" and respond to her students. So far, so good. But her example suggests another aspect of the journey, an education in Henry Adams's ironic sense. For in the case she describes, attending to children's cues means choosing the mundane over the adventurous--playing it safe.

The "really creative" project is abandoned in favor of cut-and-paste. A sensible decision, no doubt, if the children are "wired," but one that probably creates, at least for the moment, a drabber learning environment. The example echoes the story that Tierney told a year earlier about her encounter with the art teacher; she still sounds very much concerned with meeting the school's expectations that classes be quiet and orderly. What will become of the more creative art project? Will Tierney scrap cut-and-paste another day, when she notices the children's serene mood, and dig through her closet for the abandoned materials? Perhaps. But perhaps not.

The discussion from the next to the last meeting of the first Beginning Teacher Study Group, three weeks before the participants concluded their first year of classroom teaching, illustrates the mixed fruits of the rookie's experience. Asked what she planned to do differently next year, Tierney thinks immediately about management:

Next year? I think behavior management would be a biggie for me.... I feel that, at this point, my kids have me pegged. And I'm kind of a wimp. I really believe that. Even now, when I get angry, they'll be good for half an hour [she laughs], and then it will turn right back around and they'll be little pills again. You know, they really have me pegged. Whereas next year I would be a lot more structured. Just really not give them an inch, not give them an inch. Whereas now, like we talked about at the beginning of the year, consistency is so hard for me.

The word consistency strikes an immediate chord with Dianne Furlong, who responds to Tierney by analyzing her own failures in this department:

For a while I'm just a real stickler. And then, some days when I correct papers, I forget to look at penmanship, so it might get messy. Well, then they think that, "I got away with it," you know. It gets progressively worse, and today I just said, "Wait." And we started right back over: "Remember how you formed this letter? Remember this?" You know. And it was my fault, because I didn't keep on top of everything. I just felt I couldn't. It would be impossible.

The first issues to surface, then, concern the management of children's behavior. Hard on their heels comes the issue of managing and disciplining oneself--for consistency seems to require self-monitoring and restraint that are all but superhuman.

Then slowly the conversation moves toward more academic--and intellectual--concerns. Furlong, Tierney, and Gelb resolve to plan time better next year; they are now rushing through basal readers, trying to finish grade-level books before June. Gelb and Hotz debate the importance of handwriting: Gelb asserts that other teachers will overlook a child's faults if he or she writes neatly and that employers care about handwriting. Yet, says Holtz, "If it's legible and you can read it, there are other things that are more important than perfect handwriting. It's not a sign of intelligence."

After some further talk about what really does matter to them now as teachers, Furlong decides that next year she will give reading a higher priority:

Some days, I would skip reading. You know, to do other things. Reading isn't my favorite subject and I think it should be, because it's so important. And I feel like I want to take a couple of courses in reading or something, just so I feel like I know more about it. So I feel like I'm more, I don't know, a better teacher.

Maybe I would like to do it then.

She is also determined, she says, to change the way she teaches spelling, moving away from the spelling book and emphasizing her students' writing more.

Holtz then announces that she intends to revise her reading program. She is not happy with the basal reader and has been delighted by what her students have been able to do with creative writing: They have written some wonderfully imaginative stories; they have also learned an astonishing amount about punctuation and the like. She says that she feels competent in the management of time and children's behavior:

But I want to work on reading. I hate teaching reading. I find it extremely boring. And I'd rather teach it in different ways. So I'd like to look at what I would like them to do in creative writing and coordinate the language arts.

These beginners have learned some things about how to fulfill the expectations they perceived for orderly classrooms and tidy handwriting. But they have also begun to reexamine priorities, to plan ways to increase their own competence in certain subject areas, and to work on ways to teach reading that are more interesting to themselves and their students.


In the vignettes I have quoted here, Tierney describes four avenues of learning: She learned by osmosis; she learned by glimpsing her own behavior through the eyes of a colleague; she learned by juxtaposing old advice and new experience; she learned by struggling with teaching problems.

To begin with, she learned by osmosis to fit into the expectations that she perceived in her new environment. Without consciously deciding to do so, she reshaped her vision of kindergarten to match the expectations that were visible to her in the two urban schools in which she was teaching. In doing so, she followed a well-worn and much documented path: Many researchers have described the changes in the perspectives of beginning teachers, and many describe a similar path away from the progressive vision of the university toward a more restricted view of what is possible or desirable in school. ((n16)

Tierney allows us to see how and why this happens. She and her students are part of a small enclosed society whose expectations look clear and firm. Tierney does not have much experience as a revolutionary--on another occasion she described her younger self as "a good little Catholic girl"--and it is as natural to her to absorb these goals as it had been a few years earlier to adopt the looser, more developmental, vision of the day-care center in which she then worked.

But the expectations of her colleagues turn out to be a bit less monolithic than they at first appear. For when Tierney instinctively moves, during the art lesson, to enforce the norms she has absorbed by osmosis, the art teacher gently reproves her. At this moment, by looking into the mirror that the art teacher (perhaps unintentionally) holds before her, Tierney learns something different: She learns how much she has changed. Her teaching journal reflects her dismay: "At that moment I felt like a drill sergeant."

By holding up a mirror in this way, the veteran teacher provides Tierney with a chance to learn in a second way. This second sort of learning offers a possible antidote to the first. Having been made conscious of the extent to which she has unconsciously absorbed norms she once questioned, Tierney can now analyze her situation and choose consciously between two different images of kindergarten. And even though she does not make any revolutionary decisions in consequence of this opportunity, she has clearly learned something: From now on the decisions she makes about behavior management must reflect a more thoughtful choice.

The art teacher's comment also reminds the rest of us that the culture that Tierney and other beginners learn by osmosis may sometimes be simpler than the one that exists for insiders. The quiet hallways of the traditional school evoke the hallways of our childhood, reminding us that schools are places where children are supposed to work quietly and to follow adult directives. As veteran students, beginning teachers may assume that they know exactly what the silences and straight lines mean and see more unanimity than actually exists. Some of the expectations they learn may be the ones that they bring with them.

Like the first two paths of learning Tierney describes--absorbing school norms for children's behavior by osmosis and confronting the extent of her own "learning" in the wake of the art teacher's chance comment--Tierney's third is social in character. It develops from an ongoing conversation with a figure from her past. By itself, experience cannot be counted on to teach very much: We learn not from having an experience, but from reflecting on it. Tierney's story suggests that this reflection may be particularly likely to occur, and particularly instructive, if someone else prepares us in advance to make sense of it.

Temperamentally inclined to finish what she has started, at the time that Tierney decided to become a teacher she felt almost morally impelled to teach her students to feel the same way. During her first year of teaching she wrote often in her journal about children's misbehavior and about a general concern with discipline and management. Over and over again, both in the journal and in the study group, she chided herself for inconsistency and resolved to be less of a "wimp" in the future. Her first inclination, it seemed, was to interpret management and discipline problems as a sign that she needed to be stricter, firmer, more unbending.

Yet in the middle of her second year of teaching she claims that experience has taught her to attend more closely to the mood of her students and to plan her lessons more flexibly. What accounts for this shift in perspective, this new inclination to see modification of the task, rather than stricter and more consistent discipline, as the key to better teaching? Tierney traces the change to the words of Dr. Bancroft, an education professor she respected who had raised questions about her disposition to persevere with an activity she had planned even when the winds of student interest blew hard against her.

Dr. Bancroft's view had not held sway at the time--Tierney brought her disposition to persevere to her first classroom intact. Experience, however, raised questions in Tierney's mind. Often the morning did not go as she wished; children misbehaved and misused materials; they teased one another. She tried being stricter and more consistent. But new management schemes did not achieve all that she had hoped, and she continued to puzzle over her problems. As she struggled, her personal resources as a teacher increased: She learned to read the mood of the class more accurately and her reservoir of lessons and activities grew.

In her first year, she explains, every time she taught a lesson, she did so for the first time; by the middle of the second year she had a year and a half of lessons under her belt. If the one she had planned looked unpromising, she had some options. Perhaps a year of classroom experience had prepared her to hear Dr. Bancroft's suggestion again partly by preparing her to act on it. Experience had raised the question to which Dr. Bancroft's suggestion now seemed like an answer, and experience had given her some of the resources she needed in order to act on that answer.

Many teachers' stories of learning from experience feature a "proposer" like Dr. Bancroft, someone who suggests a way of looking at the self or at the problems of teaching. And often the proposer's proposition antedates the experience that makes that proposition palatable or plausible. Tina DeFranco's husband regularly argued that she was seeing disapproval where there was merely ignorance or indifference. DeFranco, however, could not believe or act on his version of reality until her experience provided corroboration. When she realized that she had imagined herself into a state of terror by misreading her principal, she heard her husband's reassurances again; this time she allowed them to subdue a few of her inner demons.

Obviously, not all learning from experience grows out of the interaction of experience with the remembered words of a proposer. Both Mimi Gelb and Carol Holtz tell stories of learning that is more solitary, less obviously mediated by others. And we ought not to overlook the fourth mode of learning embedded in Tierney's second story: learning by struggling with classroom conundrums. Alone in the kindergarten with her five-year-olds, Tierney learns to "read the class," to anticipate what will happen next, and to act on what she sees. When she talks about this development, Tierney echoes the hopes of prospective teachers who seem to be looking forward to this sort of learning when they talk about all that they will "learn from experience." It is worth noting, though, that learning to read the class touches Tierney's teaching most powerfully after she has found ways to address more personal issues.

Often the path to learning is difficult to trace, but what these stories do make clear is that beginning teachers, like the rest of us, learn from experience what their past experience has prepared them to learn. They get precious little outside help in making sense of what happens to them, or in interpreting it in new ways. Many reflect endlessly on their experience, but they bring to bear on this experience only the resources they have brought to the classroom on the first day, along with the clean attendance book.


These narratives do not tell us all of what beginning teachers learn from experience. They do not invalidate other versions of this education, but they do remind us how complex and personal the learning of beginning teachers is. Just as readers of a short story construct their own meanings from the text, shaping their version of the author's meaning from what they already know from the life and the self they bring to that encounter with the printed page, so beginning teachers stitch a personal education out of the fabric of a year of teaching experience.

They learn about themselves, especially about themselves as teachers. They often struggle both intellectually and emotionally with these newly revealed saves, and endeavor to change them--all this in virtual isolation, armed only with the weapons they brought to their first classroom: the images of themselves, of teaching, and of schools, the words of professors, spouses, fiances, friends, parents, siblings.

Where does this leave teacher educators? What role can they play in an education that takes place away from the university, after the conclusion of the teacher preparation program? Several points seem worth making.

First, Tierney's story indicates that the voices of teacher educators sometimes echo forward into these first years of teaching, that the novice sometimes rehears, with a new ear, propositions that seemed to have little impact at the time they were offered. Certainly teacher educators cannot count on this sort of sleeper effect, but they can comfort themselves with the thought that their ideas may sometimes resurface as the answers to questions posed by classroom experience. It happened for Tierney, and Sonny Decker tells a parallel story about her "discovery" of the value of lesson plans.

Second, the learning that seems especially powerful connects intimately with the conscious crafting of an identity, with the discovery and reshaping of the self. This observation connects closely to the commonplace finding that beginning teachers complain more about management and discipline than about any other category of difficulty. The women of the Beginning Teacher Study Group remind us that learning to manage the behavior of others is partly a matter of learning to manage the self. It also involves developing a public self, a self who is, in Kim Marshall's words, "more of an actor and a performer." Many women and students in our culture have little need, and little opportunity, to develop this side of themselves. The first year of classroom teaching challenges them to invent, explore, and reshape a public self, a self that is both willing and able to exercise authority. Like Marshall, many beginning teachers see themselves struggling to change who they are rather than just what they do. They are recreating themselves even as they learn new skills.

The idea that personal development ought to play a role in the education of prospective teachers has a long history. It was central to the design of the University of Texas's Personalized Teacher Education Program and also figured in Bank Street College's advisement program.(n17) The teachers quoted in these pages--like those surveyed by Arthur Jersild almost forty years ago(n18) --suggest that the work of teaching (perhaps especially the challenge of managing the behavior of others for six hours a day) creates conditions in which introspection and struggle are both more likely and more necessary than they are during the student years.

So, while preservice teacher educators ought to ask themselves what they are doing to prepare their students to look inward, five-year programs that continue the candidate's connection with a university through an internship year may offer the most promising opportunities for helping students make the most of these new glimpses of their own character in action. To the extent that interns function as real teachers, rather than simply as more experienced' student teachers, young adults in these programs will have more access to university educators during a crucial stage of their education. In most programs they will also participate regularly in groups that include other teachers, either novices like themselves or more experienced teachers who are working toward advanced degrees. These changes ought to create new possibilities for learning during the rookie year.

It seems to me that this will happen, however, only if we think more deeply about what is involved in exploring the self, and what role others can profitably play in this process. Here the narratives of teacher-writers-people like Herbert Kohl, Vivian Paley, James Herndon, Jesse Stuart, Leo Tolstoy, Eliot Wigginton, and George Dennison(n19)-- may provide us with invaluable guidance. For all of these teacher-writers describe a complex interplay between self-discovery and explorations of individual students and subject matter. Perhaps their stories can help us to see aspects of this journey more clearly.

An earlier version of this article was published by the National Center for Research on Teacher Education, Michigan State University.


(n1) Robert V. Bullough, Jr., First Year Teacher: A Case-Study: (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989); Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Robert Floden, "The Cultures of Teaching," in Handbook of Research on Teaching, ed. M. C. Wittrock (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 50526; and Simon Veenman, "Perceived Problems of Beginning Teachers," Review of Educational Research 54 (Summer 1984): 143-78.

(n2) Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).

(n3) See, for example, Jill McConaghy, "Teachers' Stories and Pedagogical Insights" (Ph.D. dies., University of Alberta, 1991).

(n4) Sharon Feiman-Nemser an d Helen Featherstone, Exploring Teaching: Reinventing an Introductory Course (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992).

(n5) See Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975); and Susan Johnson, Teachers at Work (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

(n6) Lortie, Schoolteacher.

(n7) Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Margret Buchmann, "Pitfalls of Experience in Teacher Education," Teachers College Record 87 (Fall 1985): 53-65.

(n8) Robert Floden, Margret Buchmann, and John Schwille, "Breaking with Everyday Experience," Teachers College Record 88 (Summer 1987): 489.

(n9) Sonny Decker, An Empty Spoon (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

(n10) Ibid., p. 48.

(n11) Ibid., p. 18.

(n12) Kim Marshall, Law and Order in Grade 6-E: A Story of Chaos and Innovation in a Ghetto School (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), p. 18.

(n13) Ibid., p. 19.

(n14) Ibid., p. 32.

(n15) Ibid., p. 32.

(n16) See, for example, Veenman, "Perceived Problems."

(n17) Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Teacher Preparation: Structural and Conceptual Alterntives, Issue Paper 89-5 (East Lansing: Michigan State University, National Center for Research on Teacher Education, 1989).

(n18) Arthur Jersild, When Teachers Face Themselves (New York: Teachers College Press, 1955).

(n19) Herbert Kohl, 36 Children (New York: New American Library, 1967); Vivian Paley, White Teacher (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); idem, Superheroes in the Doll Corner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); idem, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990); James Herndon, The Way It Spoze to Be (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965); Jesse Stuart, The Thread That Runs So True (New York: Scribners 1949); Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy on Education, trans. Leo Wiener (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967); Eliot Wigginton, Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1986); and George Dennison, The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School (New York: Vintage, 1969).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 95 Number 1, 1993, p. 93-112
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 91, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 4:47:21 AM

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