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Challenging student teachers' images of teaching.


An increased knowledge of student teachers' prior beliefs about teaching allows teacher education programs to guide them in reflecting on, confronting, and challenging prior beliefs and values, if necessary. Autobiographies written by a cohort of preservice teachers were analyzed to uncover the self-reported images of teachers and images of teaching as an indicator of their implicit beliefs. The images have been organized along continuums of idealistic, incomplete, and silenced images to discuss implications for programs.

Introduction and Background

Lortie (1975) longed believed that predispositions developed through the "apprenticeship of observation" are central to one's process of learning to teach. However, he argued that what student teachers already "know" about teaching is more intuitive and imitative, rather than explicit or analytical and based on pedagogical principles. As a way of addressing the apprenticeship of observation, Feiman-Nemser (2001) has argued for preservice teachers to examine their beliefs critically in order to build a long-term vision of good teaching. If personal beliefs about teaching become obstacles to learning to teach, or prevent one from developing a healthy and lasting vision as a teaching professional, then it is imperative for teacher educators to pay attention to personal dispositions when designing programs. In particular, preservice teaching programs ought to provide multiple opportunities for student teachers to wrestle with their own preconceived and taken-for-granted beliefs about teaching and learning. Programs should also make room for student teachers' future learning and continued role development (Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Mahlios, 2002; Schoonmaker, 2002).

This article focuses on what can be learned about preservice teachers' beliefs from a cohort of 70 student teachers in a large, urban East Coast university graduate program. The program utilizes autobiographies as a platform for individual reflection when candidates enter the program. This qualitative study could help to review program efficacy by looking at how the inclusion of autobiographical reflection aids teacher induction and the development of a professional identity.

Substantial evidence in the literature supports the importance of beliefs and perceptions as determinants of teacher learning, change, and their instructional practices (e.g., Calderhead, 1996; Goodwin, 2002; Mahlios & Maxson, 1995; Mahlios, 2002; Nespor, 1987; Schoonmaker, 2002). The 2005 AERA panel on research and teacher education also presented a framework for teacher learning, acknowledging the importance of teacher dispositions in the development of visions of practice within learning communities (Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, Bransford, Berliner, Cochran-Smith, McDonald, et al., 2005). However, more literature is still needed to reveal and discuss specific beliefs or images of teaching (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Minor, Onweugbuzie, Witcher & James, 2002; Pajares, 1992) and how to address them in different teacher education programs and contexts.


In this study, we explored the beliefs of preservice teachers through a broad, inclusive concept of images. Having in mind Pajares' (1992) call to operationalize "beliefs," since it is an abstract and vague construct, we felt that perceiving beliefs as images (i.e. mental models) would make them easier to work with.

We analyzed the autobiographies of 70 student teachers enrolled in the graduate preservice teaching program of a large East Coast university serving an urban population, during the years 2001-2002. The autobiography is the initial assignment of the student teaching year, but is completed in the summer prior to students' entry into their placement classrooms.

Conversation with the director of the program indicates that the typical age of most student cohorts falls in the mid-to-late twenties range. There are usually a number of grant and financial aid applicants in every cohort although students generally come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. Nevertheless, the average student could be considered as "middle" or "upper middle class." Of this particular cohort in the study, many autobiographies reflected educationally privileged lives (e.g., well-resourced schools or reputable previous careers, opportunities to travel with family or as youth). None of the autobiographies indicated financial difficulties in their families that could have hindered their educational opportunities. The majority of the autobiographies mentioned positive experiences resulting from prior informal teaching experiences, as well as positive school experiences in generally homogeneous neighborhoods. Several students reflected on their initial encounters with students from "disadvantaged" family backgrounds in urban communities (e.g., through youth summer programs), or a few notable experiences with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds (mainly through travel or study-abroad opportunities). A handful of candidates talked about being passionate about teaching children with special needs.

In their autobiographies, the student teachers were not asked specifically to discuss the images they had brought into the program or their beliefs about teaching. Instead, they were given the opportunity to self-report these underlying beliefs and images in their written stories about their journey toward teaching. And because the candidates were already accepted into the program, the students were not under pressure to produce "correct" answers. These responses were also more spontaneous compared to other types of data sources such as surveys, questionnaires, or interviews that require participants to answer specific questions for specific purposes (Nettle, 1998; Haritos, 2004; Virta, 2002). Pinar (1981) reminds us of the potential of unearthing rich information embedded in autobiographical stories:

Our life histories are [...] the very preconditions for knowing. It is [...] the awareness of these stories which is the lamp illuminating the dark spots, the rough edges. (p. 184) Therefore, we value autobiographies as they illuminate for us preservice teachers' images about teaching. We hope to shed light on where the "dark spots" and "rough edges" are within the dispositions of preservice teachers so that we can in turn reflect on ourselves as teacher educators. As much as teachers need to continue learning about their own beliefs and practices, so do teacher educators.

Data Generation and Analysis

Realizing the limitations of using documents as our only data source, we were conscious of the interpretiveness of our analysis. To minimize this, in the initial stages we had five other critical friends (also interested in teacher education research but working on other projects) who coded several autobiographies with us, but from a different archived set of data. Within this group, we read the same autobiographies multiple times, comparing one another's codes for reliability and consistency. As a group, we agreed that much of the writing provided us with images of the role of the teacher; what teaching entails and what it offers. We then generated possible categories for the coded statements in the form of a matrix (e.g., images of teachers; what teachers do; what teaching offers). Later, these were clustered and organized into broad topics such as "teacher as nurturer" or "teacher as knowledge provider." In this article, we focus on the preservice teachers' images of teaching (i.e., what teaching offers) and images of teachers (i.e., what teachers ought to be like).

Findings: Evaluating Images

We need to clarify that the purpose of this study is not to criticize the preservice teachers for having the images that we have uncovered. Rather, the aim is to critically evaluate the images held by a cohort of preservice teachers, recognizing that the images stem from historical and socio-cultural roots within the society and communities in which we all live. Our purpose is to describe and organize these images so as to begin re-imagining ways that teacher educators can use these images as part of critical reflection throughout coursework and practicum modules in their programs. Many policies inadvertently stereotype or dehumanize and reduce teachers into technicians, so we need to pause and reflect on who a teacher really is, and how one ought to teach given the increasing mandates that tell teachers who they are and what their work should be about. In our analyses, we encountered a rich array of typical images of teachers and teaching. However, we have chosen to present broad categories of images in order to raise questions about how they can be challenged or improved. Acknowledging the existence of these images can support the development of a social justice agenda within teacher education programs. We do not, however, suggest that these images fall into clear-cut and rigid categories. Instead, we see them as spreading along a continuum of more or less idealistic, vague or incomplete, and silenced images with many possible overlaps within individual belief systems.

a) Idealistic images The types of images categorized as being more "idealistic" include many positive statements about good teachers that have nurtured them in the past, or images of themselves becoming "good" teachers who will do certain things, have certain skills, or possess a certain outlook. For instance, "be an inspiration to my students;" "impact a child's learning and development;" "to touch their lives;" "help them grow and learn;" "nurture a love for learning;" "help students feel safe and engaged in the classroom." Such images, although positive and common sense ideas of teachers, may lead easily to disillusionment of what teaching entails within the complex, political contexts of teaching and the reality of the classroom. Preservice teachers would benefit from being aware of the multiple demands of the teaching profession, as well as of the school cultures and structures that they will have to work within. Moreover, the student teachers should be better prepared for the struggles within communities that may not share their privileged middle-class cultures and worldview. The work of teaching in many school settings may also require teachers to be up against the pressure to

implement mandated curriculum and focus on test preparation to produce results; limited resources; isolation and stagnation in growth as a result of limited collaboration and exchange with other colleagues.

b) Vague or incomplete images This category of images includes cliched statements that can sound detached especially when under-elaborated. Some are almost like common slogans. For example, "teaching is learning;" "learners and teachers are a team;" "in the classroom, I want to be able to do both of these things: to be the teacher with patience and expertise who excites young minds and gives them space to grow independently." Once again, although these statements demonstrate positive attitudes toward teaching and have altruistic undertones, we want to question deeper: What exactly should teachers learn from their students7 Should one learn how to disseminate subject knowledge? Or learn about ones' cultural identity in relation to ones' students'? What does expertise consist of?. What does it mean to cultivate in students independence? Such vague images could imply taken-for-granted attitudes or fuzzy conceptions about what they think teaching is all about and what the role of the teacher should be. Above all, these images tell us that many individuals could have fixed and taken-for-granted notions about school knowledge and what students ought to learn despite their varied lived experiences as members of families/communities, as individual learners with a range of interests, dreams, and aspirations.

c) Silenced images Finally, the images we have considered as "silenced" are the unacknowledged ways of viewing teachers and teaching. For example, some of these silenced images are related to multicultural social justice issues. Many autobiographies did not mention students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. And most autobiographies discussed teaching endeavors as if they take place independent of local and global systems (i.e., focus is only on individual teacher-student relationship) with scant acknowledgement of the need for community and home-school partnerships. There was also no mention of how teachers need to come to terms with ethical issues and "-isms" involving race, ethnicity, class, and gender, or homophobia (Ayers, 2004). Furthermore, there was no mention of teachers as life-long inquirers or of teaching as a dialogic process between students and teachers, and among teachers, in the exchange of knowledge about the world(s) in which they live (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001; Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Schoonmaker, 2002). Many images also revealed teachers as the experts who "help," "guide," and "lead" children to an ideal place or state of being. Such images tend to discount the power of children as independent learners and agents, and at the same time, displace learners from the learning communities they are already in (e.g., home, neighborhood) (Goodwin, 2002).

Implications for Teacher Education

Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, Bransford, Berliner, Cochran-Smith, McDonald, et al. (2005) suggest that teachers need to grow in learning communities, so as to develop a vision for their practice, deepen their understanding, develop dispositions about "teaching, children and the role of the teacher" (p. 387), as well as develop tools and practices. Our findings have shown that the exploration of student teachers' images help us rethink ways of further challenging existing teaching dispositions (i.e., habits of thinking). We hope that student teachers can start shifting idealistic images towards more realistic ones, fill in the gaps within the vague and incomplete images, as well as question the kinds of images that are currently missing in their mindsets when they begin to consider teaching as a complex, socio-historical and political endeavor.

Despite the fact that these candidates are graduate level students, and some have switched careers, many of the images uncovered are rather uniform--stereotypical and idealistic images of teachers and teaching. These rosy images are very much disconnected from the sociopolitical realities within which many schools operate. There is hardly any mention of teachers' work within the school structure or larger social systems. Many of the images of teaching are described in terms of only one teacher transforming the world of one student at a time, without acknowledging the world that has already shaped students' lives. Perhaps student teachers need to be liberated from their own altruistic visions (e.g., of building "safe" classrooms and becoming Samaritan-like teachers) in order to develop a tenacity, resilience, and relevance that would allow them to connect better with their future students. They need to understand the interrelated nature of socio-historical, cultural, economic, and spiritual contexts that often define and could hinder individual lives (Ayers, 2004). And yet, the paradox we recognize here is that idealistic images of teaching have played a part in attracting many people into the teaching profession; although these images are not necessarily false images, they are like half-truths that need to be balanced out so that student teachers are made aware of the realities of teaching while in their programs.

To sustain themselves in the profession, beginning teachers ought to develop a long-term vision of teaching. To do so, they need to acknowledge with humility the many struggles and negotiations they have to encounter throughout their career in order to actually make a difference to the lives of the children they teach and the school communities they work in. As Freire (1998) puts it, "humility helps [us] avoid being entrenched in the circuit of [our] own truth[s]" (p. 40). Learning to teach is a life-long journey that continues even after a student teacher graduates from a program. The journey of reconstructing common-sense ideas and personal knowledge into professional knowledge ought to begin as early as possible (Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Goodwin, 2002; Schoonmaker, 2002). We suggest that within the larger framework suggested by Hammerness et al. (2005), teacher education programs could consider an integrated three-prong approach to developing dispositions, in particular: a) to surface and challenge existing beliefs about the teaching profession and identity of teachers, b) enable student teachers to juxtapose their implicit ideals against classroom and social realities within different contexts through coursework and practicum, and c) provide opportunities for candid sharing of existing and evolving images while building a lasting community of teacher-learners as advocates for themselves and for their students.


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S. M. Lim, Teachers College, Columbia University

A. Ieridou, Teachers College, Columbia University

A. L. Goodwin, Teachers College, Columbia University

S.M. Lim and A. Ieridou are EdD candidates who share an interest in teacher learning and development. A. L. Goodwin is the Associate Dean of Teacher Education at Teachers College.
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Author:Goodwin, A.L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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