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Reflective practice groups in teacher induction: building professional community via experiential knowledge.

Introduction

Historically, the reality of classroom teaching in American schools has involved a single teacher placed in a classroom full of students. The teacher's job has been to move students through the curriculum and, to the highest extent possible, practice rugged individualism as challenges developed in that environment. When American education was a system largely based on one-room school houses spread across the countryside, no doubt other options were lacking. The unspoken culture of instruction, which is the legacy delivered from such a system, has for years viewed it as a sign of weakness for a teacher to step outside of that classroom for assistance. This system has forced a long line of teachers to face, totally alone, a swarm of perplexing classroom episodes and incidents.

Educators who have been a part of this tradition can relate that sometimes these classroom episodes linger in practitioners' minds. These struggles force teachers to assimilate and accommodate as they seek more effective classroom strategies. When teachers are successful in their classroom settings, they gain new experiential insights that build their professional knowledge base. When incidents are unresolved, they persist in the mind of the educator. During such experiences, teachers question their pedagogic abilities and efficacy. If honest, all teachers would admit that they have had such episodes. These unsettling attempts might involve an unruly student, an intimidating parent, or systemic challenges. The catalysts that confront professional confidence and efficacy are endless. For years neither time nor the work culture promoted the group processing of such teaching events.

New Expectations for Schools and Teachers

Teachers are no longer, with few exceptions, marms and masters isolated in their teaching practice. Now most work in expansive buildings with dozens of colleagues. The changing American culture, demographics, politics, and economics are creating a different type of school. Coupled with these changes, an expanding science of teaching and learning, a movement to elevate teaching to a true profession, and a growing demand for teacher accountability and assessment by national standards have combined to bring about new expectations for the postmodern educator. Today, even beginning teachers are expected to come to the classroom with knowledge, dispositions, and performance capabilities enabling them to reflect on their instructional strategies and interactions with students.

One significant component of the changes for professional educators is the heightened expectations for and emphasis on teacher reflection. The standard grows out of a body of literature that emerged during the 1980s and which describes the needs for, approaches to, and benefits from reflective practice. Reviews of this literature can be found in the work of Schon (1983, 1987), Tom (1985), Smyth (1988), Grimmet et al (1990), Richardson (1990), Sparks-Langer & Colton (1991), Wellington (1991) and Wilcox (1996). Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) and Pathwise[TM] teacher performance assessments formalize the expectations for teacher reflection.

Teacher reflection in a collaborative environment enhances professional development and planning. Teachers gain insight from the experiential knowledge of their colleagues as their practice is confirmed and honed. Professional community develops in a process of non-threatening, non-evaluative communication. Educational service to students is improved through higher level teacher effectiveness and increased teacher efficacy. The implementation of this standard leads to the professionalization of the educator's role.

Organizing Reflective Practice Groups

This article shares an experience with a first-year teacher induction research and development project. The Minnesota Board of Teaching funded seven pilot projects to investigate a variety of effective approaches for supporting first-year teachers. This project brought beginning teachers and teachers new to the school district together with veteran teachers, administrators, and teacher educators to reflect regularly and systematically on instruction and classroom issues.

The three authors participated with educators from a rapidly growing suburban school district during the initial planning phase of the grant. During this time the school district's beginning teachers expressed the wish to talk about teaching challenges with other teachers. The authors had previous experience in working with teaching triads and other methods of reflective practice, and they agreed to design and implement Reflective Practice Groups (RPGs) as a component of the induction-year activities. A Freirian model, which had been modified from a process established at the Interdisciplinary Program for Research in Education (Vera G., 1988), was chosen for implementation. This model surfaced through a Fulbright scholar exchange and had been studied in faculty and student teacher applications at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The induction grant project divided the 1996-97 beginning teachers in the school district into ten Reflective Practice Groups. Each group included several beginning teachers and their mentors, several experienced teachers, a district administrator, and a college faculty member (see Figure 1). The authors urged that RPGs include both elementary and secondary teachers because they believed that teachers would gain a broadened instructional perspective from hearing each other's unique challenges. The authors also believed that RPGs would become an affinity group for all participants and help beginning teachers make professional contacts beyond their own buildings.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Ten teacher education faculty members from the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities (Augsburg College, The College of St. Catherine, Macalester College, and The University of St. Thomas) received group facilitator's training in the Reflection Practice Group process. The college faculty were charged with the duty to initiate the process with each group and then, encourage facilitation by others in the group.

Prior to beginning the process many of the participants observed a Reflective Practice Group demonstration session held during the district's beginning teacher workshop. This session involved an authentic episode told by one of the beginning teachers from the previous year.

Each of the ten groups set their own schedule to meet once a month for eight months. The meetings were held at the end of the school day in various district school buildings. All RPG participants were encouraged to maintain confidentiality about student names and building issues discussed in their groups. While facilitators kept a written record of each session, they also respected this confidentiality.

Methodology

The Reflective Practice Group process followed ten steps (see Table 1), which could be completed in one and a half to two hours. Participants were asked to share a difficult situation involving students and life in classrooms. The process attempted to accomplish two primary goals. The first was to unburden teachers from their unsettling dilemmas in a supportive environment focused on professional growth. A second goal was to probe and reflect on the following professional practice issues suggested by Smyth (1988):

1 What are my teaching practices?

2 What are the teaching theories which drive these practices?

3 How did I come to teach this way?

4 What are my options to better assist students?

Table 1 A ten-step process for reflective practice groups
The reflection process includes the following steps:

1. Convene the small group.
2. Each participant takes 2-3 minutes to share a personal situation
   which occurred in the school setting where the individual did
   not know quite how to handle matters. The episode should include
   students.
3. The group chooses one episode for an in-depth discussion.
4. The episode is retold in detail by the originator. The person
   tells the objective facts as well as the personal emotions
   which were associated with the episode. The other participants
   ask for further details when the person finishes.
5. The participants take five minutes to think and write hypotheses
   for the rationality behind the action the teller took the
   hypotheses are concise statements which include psychosocial,
   pedagogical, and institutional factors. The statements might
   begin, "A teacher in such a situation might feel frustrated
   because..."
6. The participants share the hypotheses that were written. This
   begins to suggest the teaching theory behind the episode.
7. The episode teller responds to the hypotheses and attempts to
   relate them to the experience which was told. The teller begins
   to uncover some of the internalized knowledge, practice, and
   self awareness associated with the episode.
8. The group begins a discussion about how a teacher in such an
   episode has effects on students. The group asks, "What did the
   students learn from this?"
9. The group discusses how things could have been handled in a
   different manner. What benefits would result from an alternative
   approach? Why am I doing things the way I do?
10. The group summarizes and debriefs.


The authors also wanted to compare existing research about first-year teacher induction (Moir and Stobbe, 1995) with the data gathered from the RPGs.

After each Reflective Practice Group meeting, the college faculty person wrote a summary of the group's activities using a standard reporting format. This resulted in over three hundred mini-case studies. At the conclusion of the academic year, all of the case studies were collected and analyzed. The analysis was both quantitative and qualitative in nature with each perspective surfacing different insights.

First, the incidents (cases) were categorized according to month of occurrence by using the following codes:

* student behaviors

* academic problems with student/s

* student-to-student conflicts

* parent and teacher relationships

* student and teacher clashes

* teacher roles and responsibilities

* teacher and teacher conflicts

* systemic problems/issues

* student family issues

* outside (personal) pressures for the teacher

At the same time, a running list of the groups' reflective comments was compiled. Then the coded cases were arranged on a chart displaying rate of incidence. The chart helped to determine whether any patterns existed (see Table 2).

Table 2 Case Study Analysis Chart
                                      September        October
Student behavior                         45.9           31.16
Academic problems with students          18.9           18.18
Student-student conflicts
Parent-teacher relationship               5.4           10.38
Student-teacher clash                    12.16          11.68
Teacher roles and responsibilities       17.5           16.88
Teacher-teacher conflict                                 2.59
Systematic problems/issues                               7.79
Family issues                                            1.29
Personal pressures

                                        SURVIVAL    DISILLUSIONMENT

                                        November       December
Student behavior                         52.08          36.17
Academic problems with students          12.5           25.53
Student-student conflicts                 4.16           2.12
Parent-teacher relationship               6.25           2.12
Student-teacher clash                     2.08           8.51
Teacher roles and responsibilities       14.58          14.89
Teacher-teacher conflict                  2.8
Systematic problems/issues                6.25          10.63
Family issues
Personal pressures

                                            DISILLUSIONMENT

                                        January        February
Student behavior                         16.6           45.71
Academic problems with students          22.2           28.57
Student-student conflicts
Parent-teacher relationship               5.55           5.71
Student-teacher clash
Teacher roles and responsibilities       38.88          20
Teacher-teacher conflict
Systematic problems/issues               16.66
Family issues
Personal pressures

                                            REJUVENATION

                                         March          April
Student behavior                         41.66           7.69
Academic problems with students           8.33
Student-student conflicts
Parent-teacher relationship              20.83
Student-teacher clash
Teacher roles and responsibilities       20.83          15.38
Teacher-teacher conflict
Systematic problems/issues                8.33          69.23
Family issues                                            7.69
Personal pressures

                                      REJUVENATION    REFLECTION


Reflection Supports Teacher Growth

In an earlier study, Moir and Stubbe (1995) found that new teachers move through quite predictable stages of growth and development of teaching. Those five phases are: anticipation (which occurs during student teaching and just prior to the first year of teaching), survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, and reflection. The experiences of the Reflective Practice Group participants produced a pattern similar to phases two through five, even though the RPGs were comprised of both experienced and new teachers. This result seems to indicate that the phases repeat themselves with greater or lesser intensity throughout the teaching career.

During the survival phase (September) most of the participants were concerned about student behaviors. Almost 40% of all the incidents shared by the group members involved some form of student behavior. The concerns ranged from quite serious problems of substance abuse to rather common adolescent behaviors such as found in the following example shared at a first meeting in September.

A middle school boy is disruptive in

class. He talks with his friend regardless

of the friend's physical

proximity to him. This is a constant

problem for the class.

Throughout the year, the teachers consistently used the group process to help them problem solve issues related to student behaviors. September, November, and February were the peak months with 46%, 52%, and 46% of all cases involving student behavior. Also during the survival phase participants expressed concern about dealing with students who were already experiencing academic problems, with clashes between students and the teacher, and about their roles and responsibilities as a teacher. To a lesser degree they worried about their relationships with parents. During the survival phase, everyone was expending a lot of energy in an effort to establish a reasonable classroom/school climate and to define boundaries.

Moir and Stubbe (1995) identified this first phase of the school year as a time when most new teachers feel overwhelmed and are functioning at a reactive level with little time for reflection. However, due to their participation in a Reflective Practice Group, all participants immediately and eagerly became engaged in the reflective process. In fact, the opportunity for regular and shared reflection was most appreciated by group participants. Presumably, participation alleviated some of the tension usually found during the survival phase.

The debriefing notes of the college facilitators indicate that even in September the participants openly identified problematic incidents from their teaching. Participants whose incidents were analyzed by the group felt "great relief and support." From the outset, the Reflective Practice Group process gave the participants an opportunity to engage with each other on two distinct but overlapping levels. The participants revealed examples of classroom events/interactions in which the teacher often appeared vulnerable or unsure. The group participants then helped each other as they analyzed the incident. The incident quickly took on the qualities of a shared event in which participants drew from personal past experiences in an attempt to support and assist a colleague. The reciprocity of the process added to the depth of the experience and increased the benefits to all.

The second level of reflection probed the connections between theory and practice. Consistently, the facilitators' notes indicated a reluctance to engage in theoretical discussion. Participants cited a lack of understanding of educational theory; therefore, they could not discuss the theoretical underpinnings of their practice. This was true of teachers, administrators, and teacher educators.

Moir and Stubbe (1995) next identified a disillusionment phase in which the extensive time commitment and the rigor of the job leads to low teacher morale. During the disillusionment phase (October, November, December), the number of coded categories increased by 50%. The participants' concerns spanned a much broader range of issues including territorial conflicts between teachers and challenges to the district's policies and procedures. The complexity of the teacher's role moved from rhetoric to reality.

It was during the disillusionment phase that many new teachers requested their incident be discussed by the Reflective Practice Group; they were anxious to receive the group's input about their teaching dilemma. It was also during this phase that many groups insisted on adding a step to the RPG process. They wanted to follow-up on the previous month's incident. The participants were very anxious to find out if the reflective process was helping. Many groups began their subsequent meetings with an update session.

The third phase Moir and Stubbe (1995) identified is called the rejuvenation phase. After the winter break, most teachers feel energized and excited about moving into the final months of the school year. However, based on the experiences of the Reflective Practice Group participants, the rejuvenation phase is also fraught with recurring stresses. Although the number of coded categories decreased, the intensity of previous concerns such as student behaviors and the teacher's roles and responsibilities once again increased.

During the rejuvenation phase, the teachers regularly struggled with self doubt especially when it concerned their roles and responsibilities. Their questions often were in the nature of "Is it OK to...?" or "Should I?" This incident was discussed by a Reflective Practice Group that met in February 1997:

As a support teacher, I question my

role in disciplining students. How

firm can I be? I need to provide

encouragement yet student behaviors

are not the best. I see students

once a week. These students come

from unstable families. I meet with

six students in friendship groups

once a week for 30 minutes. We

work on study skills and social skills.

How can I be firm? Students are normally

the ones who interrupt in the

regular class. Students get into

groups through parental request or

student choice (with parental permission).

The purpose of our

services is to build recovery. We

need to create an appropriate atmosphere

in order to discuss sensitive

issues. If the environment is too

strict, the students are less willing

to share.

The facilitator's notes indicated that the group members wanted to give this support teacher special attention because in previous meetings she had shared a concern but it had never been chosen as the focus incident for the group. Their discussion reflected a sense of caring, candor and empathy for all members of the school staff. They truly viewed themselves as a collaborative unit working together toward the same end. In a survey that was distributed to RPGs, participants cited the interdisciplinary make-up of the groups as greatly adding value to the process.

The final phase that Moir and Stubbe (1995) identified was reflection. At the conclusion of the school year, Moir and Stubbe found that most new teachers spend time looking back over the year and assessing the experience. This phase was heightened by the nature of the groups' participation in Reflective Practice Groups. At a final meeting of one RPG, the participants took time to write down a few thoughts about the RPG process.

New teacher:

I found the Reflective Practice

Groups very beneficial! Meeting

with a diverse group of people to

discuss topics of interest, academic

challenges or personal challenges

was fantastic! I felt like I had my

very own sounding board or cheering

section. I found this to be

extremely positive and rewarding.

Experienced teacher:

This has been a very interesting and

worthwhile experience. I have

enjoyed meeting new people in my

profession and hearing their thoughts

on issues relevant to all of us. The

group experience was a very

thoughtful and open one, which led

to greater balance. I found the entire

process very enlightening and positive.

Thank you.

Administrator:

The group was valuable as a means

for me to stay connected to what

was/is most important for teachers

and learners. The dedication

expressed by experienced mentors and

"brand new" staff is encouraging.

The assistance that we provided

to one another, I believe, made a positive

difference for the teachers and

ultimately the learners. I was very

happy to be included.

Teacher educator:

I really appreciated talking with the

group members each month. I regularly

referred to the case studies in

my educational methods class. It was

thrilling to see the level of commitment

and dedication of each of these

teachers.

It is evident from participants' comments that the opportunity to connect with others in their profession added to their feelings of professionalism and sense of well-being. In January, a Reflective Practice Group participant survey was administered to all participants. When asked if their RPG had helped them to feel more connected and supported by their district, 76% gave a positive response. Further evidence of this is provided by the responses new teachers gave to a year-end survey. When asked if they "consistently reflect on your teaching practice and seek out opportunities for professional growth," 65% of the respondents gave this the highest rating. In areas of job satisfaction and professional efficacy, 94% responded to the most positive category.

As the year progressed, there was increased concern about systemic problems/issues that lie outside of the teachers' purview. At the last meeting in April about 69% of all cases focused on concern about issues related to "the system." This may be due to the pro forma termination notices given to several members of Reflective Practice Groups.

The four phases of growth and development that were defined by Moir and Stubbe (1995) provided a viable framework to examine the Reflective Practice Group experience. The constant emphasis on reflection supplied collegial scaffolding at all phases throughout the year. While the RPG process did not eliminate any of the issues connected with life in the classroom, it did provide a vehicle for processing experiences and minimizing the negative impacts.

The Reflective Practice Group process produced some interesting insights about the value of regular and shared reflection. Without exception, all of the groups quickly embraced the reflective process. The participants seemed to welcome the opportunity for professional conversation and sharing. While it was more challenging to design groups that represented all levels of instruction and disciplines, the results were well worth the effort. Most participants cited the interdisciplinary nature of the groups as a major contributor to the group's success. They felt that they now had a better understanding of the "big picture" and had gained an appreciation for the work of other staff members. Expanding further on the value of interdisciplinary groups, the participants felt that their self efficacy and also their respect and appreciation for their co-workers had increased. The process of analysis embedded in the function of the Reflective Practice Groups naturally led to action research. In an informal way, the participants collected and analyzed classroom data and then shared their findings. An interesting next step would be to formalize this aspect of the process. Finally, the RPGs developed leadership skills among its participants. Through shared reflection and shared group facilitation, participants were encouraged to take active roles in the group's management and direction. Most importantly, the participants felt that the RPG had increased their ability to meet the needs of their students.

Conclusions

The collaboration between the district and the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities produced critical insights about the value of the reflective process in a first-year teacher induction program. The Reflective Practice Groups (RPGs) provided a systematic way to process classroom events in a supportive environment focused on professional growth. The data strongly point out the need for shared reflection as an accepted norm within the profession. The district's expectation that all new teachers and their mentors participate gave credibility to the process. Also the involvement of administrators and experienced teachers underscored the district's commitment to reflection at all levels and at all stages of professional development. The ten-step process established a democratic model for discussing teaching episodes and created a predictable and fair routine embraced by the entire group membership. The purposefully diverse representation within each group added to the participants' repertoire of experiences and understandings.

Secondly, the data demonstrate that Reflective Practice Groups provide a structure by which to probe and reflect on professional practice for all educators--new teachers, veteran teachers, administrators, and teacher educators. The RPG process can build on and extend the preservice development in teacher reflection (Pathwise[TM] Domain D) and develops professional insights that strengthen and support effective instruction planning (Pathwise[TM] Domain A). Probing helps teachers increase their sense of efficacy and leads to teacher empowerment. Based on the data, the structured reflective process contributed to greater job satisfaction. The ten-step process pushed participants to examine epistemological issues related to their practice. Although discussions about theory frequently bogged down, teachers were challenged to think critically; this ability to link theory and practice is a critical measure of teacher professionalism.

Lastly, the Reflective Practice Groups confirmed that most first-year teachers go through developmental phases. The RPGs also demonstrated that experienced teachers do, too. The five phases as identified by Moir and Stubbe (1995) are valid but create a rather incomplete perspective of a very dynamic experience. The case studies generated by the RPGs reflect the very particular needs and concerns of the district's teaching staff. Over time, the accumulation of case studies will provide a wealthy resource that will inform the district's staff development for both new and experienced teachers. By incorporating systematic reflective practice into first-year teacher induction, new teachers immediately benefit from the scaffolding afforded by shared reflection and higher order professional thinking.

The research conducted by the district and the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities clearly indicates that Reflective Practice Groups are an important and productive process for first-year teacher induction and for school staff at all phases of their development. RPGs may be a way to increase both teacher effectiveness and professional satisfaction.

References

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (1991, March). The reflective educator. Educational Leadership 48 (6).

Educational Testing Service. (1995). The Pathwise orientation guide. Princeton: Educational Testing Service.

Grimmet, P. , Mackinnon, A. M., Erickson, G. L., & Riecken, T. J. (1991). The evolution of reflective practice in teaching and teacher education. In R. Clift, W. Houston, and M. Pugach (Eds.), Encountering reflective practice in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium. (1992). Model standards for beginning teacher licensing and development: A resource for state dialogue (working draft). Washington, D. C.: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Moir, E. & Stubbe, C. (1995, Fall). Professional growth for new teachers: Support and assessment through collegial partnerships. Teacher Education Quarterly, 22 (4), 83-91.

Richardson, V. (1990). "The evolution of reflective practice in teaching and teacher education." In R. Clift, W. Houston, and M. Pugach (Eds.), Encountering reflective practice in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Schon, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Sparks-Langer, G. M. & Colton, A. B. (1991). Synthesis of research on teachers' reflective thinking. Educational Leadership, 48 (6), 37-44.

Smyth, J. (1988, Winter). Teachers theorizing their practice as a form of empowerment. The Educational Administrator, 30: 27-37.

Tom, A. (1985). Inquiring into inquiry-oriented teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education 36 (5), 35-44.

Vera G., R. (1988). Methodologias de investigacion docente: La investigacion protagonica. Santiago, Chile: Programa Interdisciplinario de Investigacion en Educacion.

Wellington, B. (1991). The promise of reflective practice. Educational Leadership 48 (6), 4-5.

Wilcox, B. (1996). Smart portfolios for teachers in training. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 40 (3), 176-177.

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Author:Cady, Joan M.; Distad, Linda Schaak; Germundsen, Richard A.
Publication:Education
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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