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First-Year Teaching: A Case Study

by Robert V. Bullough Jr. - 1987

A first-year teacher was observed and interviewed weekly to find out what happens to the beginning teacher as he or she tries to fit into an institutionally prescribed role. Problems encountered and the novice's responses to them are examined to see how these responses relate to the development of expertise. (Source: ERIC)

I wish to thank my colleagues Robert V. Bullough, Sr., Donald Kauchak, and Andrew Gitlin for helpful and critical comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

We know comparatively little about what transpires during the period between student teaching and teaching mastery, a time when the novice must come to terms with the teaching role. It is during this period of time—the survival stage of teaching—that the beginning teacher either makes a place within the institution or is crushed by it. Knowledge about this period is of great importance both theoretically and practically. Theoretically, it would help researchers in teacher education to understand the processes involved in making the transition from novice to expert teacher. Practically, understanding of this period and of the problems encountered within it by beginning teachers would be useful in designing more effective teacher education programs, in developing better mentor programs, and, generally, in restructuring institutional life.

We do know that there are significant differences between how novice teachers and expert teachers think, and how they behave in the classroom.1 We also know that there are dramatic differences between expert teachers and inexpert experienced teachers,2 and we know something about how student teachers and experienced teachers respond to institutional constraints.3 However, what happens to the first-year teacher as he or she tries to fit into an institutionally prescribed role? What problems are encountered? How does the novice respond to these problems? Finally, how do these responses relate to the development of expertise in teaching?

This article explores these questions through a case study of a first-year teacher.


During the 1985-1986 academic year, Kerrie was among a cohort of twenty-two secondary education students pursuing certification. I was the principal instructor of this group throughout a three-quarter sequence of courses including secondary school curriculum, secondary school instruction, and student teaching. Kerrie was selected from among this group of students for in-depth study for three reasons: First, she was among the better students in the teacher education cohort. Specifically, she possessed several of the qualities and abilities frequently identified with public school teaching success: enthusiasm, a sense of humor, intelligence, and the ability to communicate clearly and to vary instructional methods. She was chosen, in short, because she was likely to do well. Second, she received employment early enough in the summer of 1986 to have sufficient time to prepare for the school year without being panicked; and third, she was willing to commit the time and energy necessary for the study to take place.

Prior to the beginning of the school year Kerrie was interviewed to gain information about how she saw her role as teacher and about any concerns she might have had. Following the initial interview, I observed Kerrie teaching weekly.4 At the conclusion of the school day during which an observation took place, an interview was conducted. Stimulated recall questions were asked that attempted to get at the thinking behind various observed teacher actions. In addition, questions were asked that arose from analysis of the interview transcripts, which were coded to identify emerging themes. Once again, the attempt was to understand why certain actions were undertaken or decisions made. In addition, at mid year the principal was interviewed, as were four randomly selected students, two boys and two girls.


Rocky Mountain Junior High School was built in 1980 in the middle of what was once a thriving agricultural area, which urban sprawl eventually engulfed. Sprinkled in between modest but mostly new homes were a large rundown trailer park, a few small farms, and fields torn up in various stages of development. The student population of 970 was composed of working-class and middle-class and lower-middle-class students. In addition, a few “cowboys” remained.

Kerrie taught seventh-grade core as part of a three-person team. She had two groups of students for three periods, each: English, social studies, and reading. The twenty-three students in the morning class were identified as remedial according to the standardized achievement tests used for grouping. The afternoon class, bulging with thirty-six students, was “average.” The team leader had the “advanced” core, while the third team member taught an additional average section.


Personal characteristics—attitudes, beliefs, dispositions—are important factors influencing how the individual teacher responds to the teaching context.5 These form interpretative lenses by which meaning is made, and they help establish what is reasonable, right, and proper. To understand how Kerrie responded to her environment, and why, it is first necessary to know something about Kerrie.

Kerrie was a twenty-nine-year-old mother of two. She began college after her own children were in school and she began to feel the need to start a career outside of the home. She chose teaching for a variety of quite typical reasons. Her mother’s decision to begin a teaching career following the raising of her family served as a model for Kerrie’s decision. As a public school student, Kerrie had had several teachers who inspired her to think of teaching as a career: “I had this Mr. King. This is where I fell in love with history!” Through the likes of Mr. King, she developed a profound respect for teachers and an interest in the teacher role as she understood it: “They were rulers in their kingdoms, I guess. [It] sounds kind of funny. . . . They had a territory; it was theirs. They could rule it however they wanted within limits. They were the bosses.”

These were important influences but apparently they confirmed a decision made very early in Kerrie’s life. Indeed, Kerrie could not remember a time when she had not wanted to be a teacher: “I always wanted to be a teacher. We played school all summer long. [I always was the] teacher. . . . We had a nonexistent [class] that we were handing out work to. Sometimes we’d drag in my girlfriend’s brothers to be the students. They’d have to be sent to the principal all the time because they were bad. . . . I liked organizing things like my desk. Getting my mom to buy me a roll book. Going around looking through my house at things that I could put on my TV tray which would be my desk. Lining up chairs. Assigning names . . . writing on the chalkboard.”

Each of these factors was important to Kerrie’s decision to become a teacher; they also shaped her understanding of the teacher role. Perhaps the most important factor in shaping this understanding, at least initially, was her experience as a mother and the related value of nurturing. This influence was expressed in variety of ways. It was present in how she approached planning: “I think I bounce . . . most [of my] ideas off. . . my children.” It was present in her statements about goals, where the most important outcomes centered on student growth and development and on establishing warm, caring relations: “It makes you feel good to have the students doing different things. To see that they’re happy.” Further, she was pleased with her morning class because it was “like a big family . . .” and a “cohesive group.” It was present in her language and in her descriptions of what she found most satisfying about teaching. She was thrilled, for example, with the outcome of a student evaluation: “I had an awful lot say ‘You’re my favorite teacher,’ or ‘You’re the best teacher I ever had.’ . . . That’s heartwarming.” “Of course, ‘like’ isn’t everything. But it sure does feel good to have your kids like you.”

Success as a student, a mother, a student teacher, and in various church-related teaching responsibilities gave Kerrie confidence as she entered her first year of teaching that she would be a good teacher. According to the principal, this confidence was one of the reasons she was selected for the job over the other applicants: “She presented herself very well. . . . She was confident as I talked to her.” As the year progressed this initial impression was strengthened: “She’s got confidence. . . . At least as I watch her and as the kids watch her there is no doubt that she knows what she’s doing. She is confident in front of the class. Handles herself very well, and works hard.”6 This quality was important because even in very difficult times during the year she remained firm in the conviction she could and would succeed.

One other quality bears heavily on how Kerrie responded to the teaching context that confronted her: She was, as she put it, “a loner”:

I’m really a loner. . . . I mean, it’s funny because sometimes it will be fifth period before I even say anything to [the teacher who shares my pod]. I’m not someone who goes around and visits with everyone. I’d rather sit down and read a book! . . . It’s my personal makeup . . . I like to be left alone.


On accepting their first position, beginning teachers are typically thrown into the classroom to sink or swim.7 They are presumed, implicitly, to know all that is necessary to be able to assume all of the responsibilities of teaching. One discovery first-year teachers quickly make is that “real” teaching and student teaching are remarkably different experiences: As student teachers they taught in classrooms where instructional and management routines were already established. They enjoyed the support and attention of a cooperating teacher who was genuinely interested in their success if for no better reason than to make certain they did not foul up the students or the teacher’s programs too severely. They had cooperating teachers’ units to draw on even if they did not like them. First-year teachers can count on none of this; they quickly discover that in various ways their experience has been inadequate to the tasks facing them.

The discovery of inadequacy ushers in what Ryan, among others, has labeled the survival stage of teaching, the fight for one’s professional life.8 The challenge is for the beginning teacher to survive in a difficult situation, but how the neophyte survives, what kinds of coping mechanisms and strategies he or she develops, helps determine what pathways are opened or closed to developing the understandings and skills associated with becoming expert. Not all pathways lead to professional competence, although they may offer hope of survival, however marginally.

Many of the problems faced during the survival stage of teaching arise from the common structure and organization of American schooling.9 Often these problems appear to creep up on the preoccupied novice.10 This indeed was Kerrie’s experience. The first few days of teaching at Rocky Mountain Junior High were euphoric for Kerrie. The students behaved well and her lessons went as planned. Soon, however, her euphoria dissolved and she found herself in the struggle for professional survival. Control and management problems increased to an intolerable level, and other insistent problems compounded the trouble.

Unfamiliarity with the curriculum and with the students was the initial source of difficulty. How does one plan for and discipline students who are strangers? In Kerrie’s case, the situation was worsened by being assigned to teach a group of relatively unsophisticated students who pressured her to lower her standards to conform to their expectations.11

Moreover, the physical arrangement of the classrooms in a pod allowed sound to carry easily from one classroom to another, which made her hypersensitive to student noise. By looking through the open area linking the three classrooms, team members could observe Kerrie teaching, so she felt she was always under surveillance and being judged. She had difficulty coming to terms with a day organized into seven forty-three-minute periods. Pacing lessons, and beginning and ending class on time, proved troublesome. If she ended a period too early or the pace was too slow, discipline problems increased. Fitting into the team and into the institutionalized teacher role also proved troublesome. She worked under a principal who was too busy to visit her classroom for anything but the briefest of visits to give her feedback even while conducting mandatory evaluations of her performance. Although ostensibly Kerrie was a member of an instructional team, she received virtually no constructive criticism or feedback from the team members on how she was doing, nor did she receive any help in understanding how the school operated or what the school rules were. For example, it was only after she had planned a party with her classes that the team leader informed her that such activities were prohibited. In effect, although Kerrie was a member of a team, she was isolated.12 Yet another problem was that she could not possibly accomplish all that was expected of her no matter how furiously she worked: “It just drives me crazy, there’s so much to do!” There was too much to do especially for a person who had to learn on the job through trial and error. The situation was worsened by the contradictory nature of many of the work demands facing her—to satisfy one demand meant neglecting another.13 Finally, there were interrelated problems arising from the expectations and habitual ways of interacting that characterized the role of teacher as understood by the students, the principal, and the other teachers. All pressured her to act like a teacher. Never having actually been one, however, Kerrie did not always behave in institutionally acceptable ways.


Kerrie’s responses to the problems that confronted her need to be understood in the light of the personal characteristics noted earlier. While the problems faced are common ones, it is unclear to what degree her responses are typical. Recall that Kerrie asserted that she had always wanted to be a teacher. Clearly, she thought of herself as a teacher prior to beginning teaching. She brought to her first year of teaching an internalized role identity through which she made sense of the environment and by which she judged the appropriateness of her actions. Along with it came an idealized teacher common sense—this is what teachers do—that was tested for its reasonableness, utility, and accuracy throughout the first year.14 Kerrie responded to the problems she faced in what were to her commonsensical ways, “natural” ways, only later to find out through teaching whether her sense was indeed common or exceptional. Therefore, she often reacted intuitively to her environment and the problems she faced, a tendency encouraged by the intense work load placed on her and the lack of time available for reflection: “When you ask me [why I do certain things] I can come out with [reasons] but I don’t think about them.” It was only when intuition failed that she began to respond reflectively to her situation.

Other personal characteristics also came into play. Throughout the first year of teaching her commitment to creating happy and warm classes was maintained. Her confidence stayed intact although it was occasionally shaken. Moreover, despite numerous disappointments she continued to be able to laugh at some of her mistakes and to enjoy the students. Finally, she worked hard and with great determination:

I call [names to make certain the students are] prepared in that class. You have to have a reading book so that when you are through with your map [assignment]—because they all finish at very different times—you can sit and read, there will be no excuse for talking. So, I don’t have a problem . . . yet, but I’m not going to have a problem either. I refuse to have a problem!

Kerrie demonstrated six different types of responses to the problems encountered during the survival stage of teaching: (1) environmental simplification, (2) stroke seeking and withdrawal, (3) context restructuring, (4) compromise, (5) skill improvement, and (6) laughter. These were, with the clear exception of skill improvement, primarily intuitive responses, reactions to problems, that over time became habituated. The fact that such responses become habitual is of considerable importance to the development of teaching expertise. Each will be discussed in turn and in relationship to the constraints identified earlier.


One of Kerrie’s responses to the overwhelming complexity of teaching, the intense work pace, and student and administrator pressure to conform to role expectations with its resultant value contradictions was to simplify the environment by reducing the number of demands that came into play at any given moment. Id this way, the work environment became more manageable, and she became more efficient. There were three ways in which she did this, one done “naturally” or intuitively, and two done somewhat rationally. She simplified the environment by ignoring constraints, selectively responding to constraints, and systematizing or routinizing aspects of the environment.

Unthinkingly, Kerrie ignored some of the demands placed on her. For instance, this was the way she softened the impact of being watched and evaluated constantly, particularly by the principal: “I don’t think about it very much. See, this is one of those things I can’t do much about . . . so, I don’t bother to think about it.” Later, she felt confident enough to assert that she “behave[d] as through he [the principal] doesn’t exist, honestly. I wouldn’t be doing anything differently if he was standing outside my door. And that is true. I don’t even think about it. He can walk through my class at any time and I’d be glad to say why we’re doing what we’re doing. That’s not . . . my problem . . . at all.”

At other times, she chose more mindfully to not attend to some work demands. For instance, she selectively responded to student misbehavior: “I wondered, are some kinds of misbehavior OK, and others not? Yes . . . definitely. I allow [some misbehavior] because it seems like there are so many other things to attend to. [For example,] like sitting . . . reading a book, [that’s] not disturbing anybody.” And further: “I’m really busy right now. I have a lot of papers to correct, tomorrow’s mid term and I have to fill out all these papers and I don’t write ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ so I’ve got to estimate all those grades! [laugh] And so, instead of running around and keeping people quiet and reading, I just let them go because I have to do [so much right now].” Unfortunately, the standard driving this decision was a pragmatic rather than an educational one.

A third way in which Kerrie simplified the environment was by routinizing or systematizing much of it to reflect her values as much as possible. She did this through an extended and difficult period of trial and error. It should be noted that the identification of acceptable routines and their implementation requires considerable skill and is one of the signposts marking the transition from the survival to the mastery stage of teaching.15 Routines impose a structure on the environment that, when educationally sound, results in an increase in teacher power and student learning. However, it also should be noted that teacher-initiated routines can, over time, force their creators into deep ruts that put a ceiling on professional development—thus the experienced but inexpert teacher. The routines created and the tenacity with which they are maintained are of considerable consequence to the development of teaching expertise. Clearly, some routines are miseducative—for example, Kerrie’s allowing students to do whatever they wished while she figured grades—while others facilitate student learning and teacher development.

Kerrie succeeded in identifying a number of educationally defensible instructional routines. Among the reasons for her success two stand out: First, except for a very brief moment a little more than a month into the school year, she did not allow her own need to survive in the classroom to become the central value informing her curricular and instructional decision making. Creating a warm, happy learning environment remained the driving value behind her thinking. For example, she actually abandoned routines that were effective in maintaining classroom control because they were offensive to other more fundamental teaching values held, even while in the short-run abandonment brought with it an increase in her control and management problems. Second, and in a related vein, Kerrie demonstrated dogged persistence in the quest for acceptable routines. She genuinely believed there were better ways of doing what she wanted to accomplish, and she was intent on finding them. The result was that she engaged in a halting experimentation before settling on a routine. While initially students were confused by the constant change and some problems resulted, in this way she got to know the students better—what they liked and disliked—which allowed her to tailor her routines to suit her classes. Clearly, routines can be imposed with little if any knowledge of students, but given Kerrie’s values—the students came first—such an approach would not have been defensible.

The benefits Kerrie received from establishing effective routines were significant. By establishing routines—for beginning classes, for making transitions from one activity into another, for grading, for passing out materials, for making assignments, and for disciplining students—she was better able to control the pace of work and keep the students on task. In this way she was able to impress a pattern of acceptable behavior on the students that simplified management while having the added benefit of enhancing student learning. In addition, teaching became less enervating, less stressful, and more enjoyable.


Kerrie entered Rocky Mountain Junior High School a loner. She had not expected to become fast friends with a large group of teachers. She had, however, hoped that she would be given a measure of support and some critical feedback that would help her develop professionally. In this she was mostly disappointed. Initially she saw in the occasional team meetings the possibility of initiating satisfying professional interaction, but meetings were infrequent and agendas set. Moreover, she did not think it “her place” to call team meetings, perhaps fearing to offend the team leader, and wanting to fit in:

KERRIE: I . . . feel we should have [team meetings] just because you end up talking about things you don’t normally talk about. And, it might bring up things. I don’t know what, but suggestions [about teaching]. . . .

INTERVIEWER: So why don’t you have them?

KERRIE: It’s not my responsibility to call them. I don’t want to be a pest. . . . If I were the team leader I’d have them not every week, but every two weeks, for sure—when I’m the team leader! [laugh]

In response to this situation, Kerrie sought feedback and found support elsewhere: teachers she shared in-service classes with, family, friends. In-service classes proved to be a boon in part because others in attendance shared her concerns.

KERRIE: I get more strokes going to the stupid in-service things with people I don’t even know. . . .

INTERVIEWER: But you talk and share things?

KERRIE: Yes, I would say that I have a couple of people I’m closer to at those [meetings, than here].

INTERVIEWER: And they’re from different schools?

KERRIE: Yes, one of them is not even a teacher, he’s a counselor.

For emotional support she relied heavily on her family: “I can always talk to my mom [who is a teacher]. She’s always open. . . . She [calls me] all the time . . . when she’s really mad at the people she works with or mad at the P.T.A. . . . or something like that. . . . I [also share some of my experiences with my husband] . . . or my friends, Catherine or Mary.” Ultimately, however, Kerrie was on her own, and she had to meet her own standards: “There’s a personal feeling of knowing [that something has gone well]. . . . You set a standard for yourself and you meet the standard.”

In effect, Kerrie compartmentalized her life. In one slot was Rocky Mountain Junior High School, where she was satisfied with the emotional support and the personal and professional confirmation, albeit infrequent, that came from the students. She gave up the expectation that she would enjoy open, professional relationships with other teachers on the staff. In another slot was her home arid family: “I think [it’s] really strange but [that’s] just how it works, it’s like a different life.” She did not, for example, “talk shop” with her husband. “When I do [share with him], it’s usually anecdotal type things, about something that has happened [in school] or even something interesting that we are doing like making filmstrips, [something] out of the ordinary.” Home and family served as a break from school, a haven, a place where she could go to be loved and supported unconditionally. Somewhere in between these two slots stood her in-service coursework, which was secure and fun, an escape from Rocky Mountain Junior High yet connected to her professional development.


Kerrie could do little about two of the most significant sources of her management and control problems: large class size and the layout of the building. What she could do was to try to create physical arrangements within the classroom that reflected the high value she placed on appropriate student interaction and activity, which she associated with having a relaxed and happy class. To this end, she experimented with various seating patterns. For example, she clustered the desks, forming in the afternoon class six teams of six students with a rotating team captain responsible for passing out and gathering materials and for reminding team members to keep on task. Despite initial student resistance, this arrangement encouraged class “unity”: “There is not unity in rows. There’s a possibility [of achieving it] in tables.” Unfortunately, this arrangement created a set of unanticipated problems that after three months led to a return to having desks in rows. To her surprise, the arrangement encouraged off-task behavior—the students were unable to monitor themselves effectively. Nevertheless, the cohesiveness and friendliness encouraged by this arrangement endured.

As Kerrie moved through the survival stage of teaching, particularly as her knowledge of the students and available materials increased, it became possible for her to alter the curriculum she had inherited. At the beginning of the year she had no choice, really, but to teach the units given to her, trusting that they were appropriate for her students. Besides, she wanted to fit in with the team. Gradually, she made over much of the curriculum to better reflect her values and to better respond to her students. For example, by mid year she felt secure enough to take a two-week break from the required English text:

I’m taking the rest of this week and next week and just stopping book work. When I did my evaluations [student evaluations of her teaching] they said, “Why don’t we play more games and do things other than—especially in English—go through the book? That’s about all we’ve done.”

At other times, she altered the curriculum by excluding some topics and adding others; and she broke stride with the team by varying the length of time spent on various units: “[The team leader] will probably mention [the explorers] for a couple of days, I’m going longer than that.”


One striking characteristic of the survival stage of teaching is tension and conflict associated with clashes between personal values and institutionalized role requirements and expectations. Each beginning teacher must negotiate his or her place within the institution; compromise is necessary. The question is, how much compromise? And, compromise of what values?

The context and the problems Kerrie faced pressed her to be, in her words, “hard as nails.” As she thought about herself, she knew this was not a role she could play easily, even while she thought she should play it: “I’m just not a hard-as-nails person. I see people who do that [and] I think that [it’s] something I need to strive to do [but] I just don’t know if I can do it.” She vacillated, giving her students a mixed message that only sharpened the difficulties she encountered during the survival stage of teaching: The students wondered who this person was who was teaching. Gradually, she came to terms with the dilemma:

I don’t want to dread certain people in school. They are not going to make school a miserable place for me. So, by laying down some rules I feel like I can [maintain a decent environment]. I have to maintain control of [the class]. So, yes, [I’m] being tough. But, they still know what I’m like [although] I’m still going to be stricter.

While she could not be tough as nails, she could become “stricter,” which meant setting some rules and sticking to them. It was only in this way, ultimately, that she could achieve the classroom atmosphere that she desired.

A related set of compromises arose as a result of the school’s commitment to assertive discipline and Kerrie’s need early in the year for ideas about controlling her classes.16 When Kerrie entered Rocky Mountain Junior High School she brought with her a strong dislike for assertive discipline, which she perceived as contrary to her teaching values; she did not want to be a “police officer.” Yet as the year progressed she realized policing was part of teaching, an unpleasant part to be sure, but nevertheless inescapable. This realization did not alter her opposition to assertive discipline, but changed the grounds of her complaint, as she claimed assertive discipline to be an ineffective mode.

P. [one of] the other [team teachers], said, “I dislike assertive discipline because it gives them permission to be bad three times.” That is my problem. As soon as I write a name on the board they say, “How many checks do we need by our name?” I think, . . . dammit, that’s not the point! It just pissed me off! So, I think I might as well write [the student’s] name, check, check, check! Right? That has really gotten on my nerves.

Her first compromise—accepting the necessity of policing—set the stage for a second compromise. She would use assertive discipline techniques but not in the same form used throughout the school.

You’ve noticed I’ve narrowed it down. I . . . say their names a couple of times. But, once their name is on the board they know the next time that’s it. The first time . . . I write it up there you move away from wherever you’re talking—that’s usually the problem.

On some occasions compromise was strictly one-sided; Kerrie simply had to do as she was told. For example, she found the school hall pass policy especially irritating, but complied begrudgingly:

I understand it but I dislike it. That . . . stupid hall pass business. If I want the kid to go to the bathroom, I want the kid to go to the bathroom! I don’t want to write him a note to go to the bathroom, to the library, to get paper, to get a drink!

Two additional examples of compromise deserve mention because of their impact on Kerrie—she felt guilt. The first example arose when she became overwhelmed with the work load and found it necessary to give up what she knew to be a desirable educational practice:

KERRIE: I expected them to do a report first of all in pencil. Have me check it off. Then, take it [rework it] and recopy it in ink.

INTERVIEWER: You read everything twice?

KERRIE: I started reading them all, then I immediately quit. It’s too mind boggling. Eight reports in two weeks! . . . I gave up on that. Finally, I just started checking them off if they were done.

At this moment Kerrie came face to face with the realization that she could not do all that she thought she should, or that was expected of her, which produced guilt feelings, especially toward students she felt were being neglected:

INTERVIEWER: You sound as though you feel guilty.

KERRIE: I do. I feel bad that I can’t motivate him . . . I don’t know how to reach him.

The second example came as a result of inadvertently buckling under to strong and persistent student pressure:

It always seems like I have an idea of what kind of work I want to get back from kids and they don’t seem to understand that that is exactly what I’m going to want. Like they don’t give me the quality that I’m asking for. Then I say, well, I guess they can’t do it and so . . . instead of grading them down, I lower my [standards] to them and give them higher grades than they really should get.

She felt bad about the situation once she recognized it and resolved to alter it, but changing student expectations proved to be very difficult, particularly since she had waffled during the early part of the year.


Obviously, development of a wide range of skills is essential to negotiating a professionally responsible and satisfying place within schools. If novice teachers do not learn how to manage students and how to design and present appropriate and stimulating lessons, the role and responsibilities of teacher, as institutionalized, will break them. Failure in this area results in arrested development; the beginning teacher may forever be condemned to the purgatory that is the survival stage of teaching. There are other necessary skills, which are frequently slighted in teacher education programs where the goal is more than survival. These are skills associated with maintaining and enhancing one’s sense of self as a worthwhile and contributing member of a profession, skills essential to becoming expert in more than a technical sense of teaching. Put negatively, these are skills associated with staying alive professionally and avoiding burnout. Three sets of skills bear mentioning at this point: One has to do with controlling the pace of work so as to enhance learning while simultaneously not overwhelming the teacher. A second has to do with being able to adjust to changing circumstances. A third has to do with setting reasonable expectations for self and for others.

One key to Kerrie’s eventual movement out of the survival stage of teaching was that she became more skilled as a planner, which is an important topic treated in teacher education but generally addressed in isolation of the problems of the first year of teaching. As she got to know her students and the content better, Kerrie started to overplan and to plan well in advance of teaching. For example, she began planning for winter term fully six weeks in advance and was always far enough ahead so that if something came up unexpectedly, it was but a minor disruption: “I plan well enough ahead that it’s not urgent if [something doesn’t] get done.” In planning she diverged dramatically from the systematic model she had been taught in her teacher education courses. In particular she paid little attention to goals and objectives, perhaps trusting that these were taken care of adequately by adopted texts, Her concern, rather, was with the selection and sequencing of teachable activities that would stimulate the students to learn and keep her interested.17 Activities were more or less interchangeable blocks of content and time that could be moved around in response to student interest or changes in her mood or that of her students. Consistent with this view, she mixed activities that demanded a great deal of teacher time and effort with activities that demanded little time and effort. By doing this she could catch up on grading or other unfinished tasks. For instance, during one class where the students were extremely busy she “graded a bunch of papers, did some policing. . . . It wasn’t very hard on me.” She could also build in psychological breaks. Quiet activities, for instance, were sprinkled in between noisy activities, and small-group with large-group and seat-work activities. By planning far in advance and with somewhat movable activities, Kerrie was able to better control the pace of work and the quality of her work life.

She also parceled out her energy, perhaps intuitively, choosing to focus on one or another student at different times, realizing she could not possibly respond to all during any given period. The negative side of this response was that she tended to respond most frequently to students with insistent problems and to those who showed good results comparatively quickly:

KERRIE: What I have done is, I take turns on who to focus on.

INTERVIEWER: Explain that.

KERRIE: OK. . . . I’ve given up on M. for now, he’s not doing anything. . . . I’m sure there is going to come a time when I’ll be ready to work with him again. But, I’m not now. He’s just wasting my time. I won’t have it.

INTERVIEWER: So, S. is your focus now?

KERRIE: Yes. Because there is progress.

The second set of skills has to do with the ability to adjust to changing circumstances. The tendency among novice teachers is to hold tightly to lesson plans, routines, and institutional rules and regulations. Kerrie was no different. For example, at the beginning of the year she held tightly to an inherited curriculum that at times proved less than satisfactory. It was only as she became more knowledgeable about the students, the content, and herself as a teacher and had succeeded in gaining a measure of control over her classes that she felt secure enough to make significant changes. On reflection, Kerrie regretted sticking so tightly to the units given to her at the beginning of the year, but saw no alternative: “I look back on the beginning of the year [and] think, ‘Oh Horrors!’ . . . I was just so unprepared for [the problems I faced] and I took other people’s, like [the team leader’s] word for how the first unit was going to go. I look back and I think, ‘What a waste of three weeks in social studies.’ ” There were, however, clearly limits to how flexible she could and would be. Early in the year, prior to the creation of acceptable routines, she was at times too flexible, too responsive to the students. She swung between extremes of rigidity and flexibility. By year’s end, her approach to instruction would best be characterized as controlled flexibility. Like expert teachers she was able to take advantage of serendipitous moments in the classroom; she became more of an “opportunistic planner.“18

The third set of skills has to do with the ability to maintain reasonable expectations of self and others, which was an ability that served Kerrie well. There is, of course, a danger here: Expectations can become so low that poor teaching may be justified or poor student performance excused. Kerrie expected some lessons to go badly, materials to be unavailable, and speakers to show up at the wrong times: “If you make mistakes, regroup and press forward,” which is precisely what she did. She also expected, being a mother, that young people would misbehave from time to time; after all, “they’re kids. Brats [but] . . . still kids.” In a related vein, she did not expect to know everything necessary to be an outstanding teacher her first year: “I see other [teachers] with [excellent teaching] skills but they didn’t start off with [them]. . . . That takes time to learn yourself.”

Despite these skills, however, Kerrie was at times overwhelmed by the problems she faced, with the result that occasionally she would forget to do something she had intended to do, or would ignore a problem, which then became worse. Fortunately these occurrences became progressively less frequent, indicating progress out of the survival stage of teaching.


While Kerrie had “desperate moments” that made her question the wisdom of teaching in a junior high school—“Sometimes I think I will not really be happy until I’m teaching high school”—for the most part she maintained throughout the year her ability to laugh at herself and with the students. For Kerrie, teaching was supposed to be fun and she worked hard to make it so for herself and the students: “First we read the magazine that you saw. We all sat on the floor and I assigned them parts. . . . It’s fun. They loved it. . . . It’s fun, it’s fun.” The ability to laugh and to have fun is of great importance for dealing with the problems of teaching at any stage but most especially the survival stage, where they are so personally threatening. Kerrie had this ability. Indeed, perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of my interviews with Kerrie is the frequent laughter. Laughter was common in the classroom as well. Clearly, she enjoyed what she was doing even while being unable to alter many of the aspects of the teaching role that caused her problems:

I talk to someone about teaching and pretty soon I’m just like this, I’m smiling and laughing and tell them how wonderful it is, then how much fun it is, you can’t do anything but love it! It’s work, but my kind, I guess. Through trial and error, mainly, Kerrie managed to develop many of the skills necessary to function well within a large and complex bureaucracy. She not only survived the year, but in many respects she thrived, which is remarkable given the problems that confronted her and the limited amount of help she received in dealing with them. There is, however, a down side to her successful coping. In effect, she succeeded in making what was essentially a professionally stultifying environment tolerable. Indeed, it may be the case that the better she becomes at coping, the more expert she becomes within the confines of her own classroom, the less likely it is that the environment itself will become more educative professionally. Kerrie is not a resister.19 She is a person who will make the best of the situations within which she finds herself: the isolation, the constant surveillance, and the rest.

The contexts within which teachers work clearly either enhance or constrain opportunities to develop professionally. While Kerrie is well on her way to becoming expert in a variety of teaching skills—planning, classroom management, and so on—she accomplished this almost despite the structure within which she worked. Had she been a different kind of person, less dedicated or less intelligent, it is very easy to imagine that her trial-and-error approaches to problem solving and her necessary reliance on intuition might have resulted in the development of as many bad instructional habits as good ones—compromises that would result in the acceptance of poor-quality work or, through lack of acceptable routines, the wasting of tremendous amounts of instructional time.

Clearly some fundamental changes in teacher education programs and in school structure and relations are called for. For teacher educators a starting point is that we must begin to pay much greater attention programmatically to our students’ values. We ought to recognize and honor the idiosyncratic nature of teaching, not flee from it. Without question these values play a central role in the socialization process and can be ignored only at the cost of good education.20 Second, the content of teacher education should perhaps be expanded to include instruction in the skills necessary for institutional survival, skills like those Kerrie developed, but if so, they should be taught within a wider context of the development of the attitudes, skills, and concepts associated with the creation of a professional community of critical discourse—a community Kerrie will probably never see develop in Rocky Mountain Junior High as she and others withdraw from professional engagement within it. Fundamentally, our programs ought to reflect a dedication to and participation within such a community, not a dedication to coping, to institutional survival for its own sake.

Structurally, teacher education should extend into the first years of teaching by providing opportunities for beginning teachers to reflect on their practice in a collegial but professional environment. There is more to being a professional than technical expertise. Beginning teachers desperately need to talk about their work and receive feedback on what they are doing. Kerrie found a partial outlet for this need by attending in-service meetings and by talking with the author. Ironically, her team provided no such outlet. What happens to other first-year teachers can only be surmised from the large numbers—40 percent of those who leave do so within the first two years—who choose not to return after but short stints in the trenches.21 Moreover, first-year teachers need to be gently but persistently questioned about what values their decisions serve. As Berliner has noted, this is a link that novice teachers have particular difficulty making.22

For good or ill the struggle through the first year of teaching creates a pattern of behavior and understanding that is played out in subsequent years—habits develop, ideas harden. It is at this time more than any other that teachers need to be helped to think through their values in the light of the demands of the disciplines, the characteristics of young people, the social responsibilities of schooling, and the pressures of institutional life. It is only in this way that the view now prevalent that teaching is synonymous with instructing and managing classes—and little concerned with establishing the aims of education—can be challenged, which is essential to educational reform. It is this view, and the ideology that supports it, that makes invisible some of the most powerful influences on education such as, in Kerrie’s case, homogenous grouping. Kerrie did not clearly see the pernicious influence of homogenous grouping on her teaching practice because her role definition blinded her to it.

Finally, effort needs to be directed toward recreating the school context into which first-year teachers are thrown. They should have far fewer preparations in order to allow time for reflection and preparation, including time to talk with students, to get to know them. They should enjoy the assistance of a dedicated mentor—an expert teacher who can articulate the grounds of his or her expertise—who is given released time to work with the novice and whose function is to assist in professional development, but not to participate in formal performance evaluations. They should be linked with groups of teacher educators and teachers formed explicitly to study practice. These are the conditions necessary for the wider development of expertise among teachers. The aim is to help more novice teachers to survive, and more survivers to become expert.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 2, 1987, p. 219-237
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 531, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 7:05:44 PM

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