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Negotiating Place, Identity, and Role: First Experiences as a Teacher Leader


 Negotiating Place, Identity, and Role:

First Experiences as a Teacher Leader

(What is the Experience of a Teacher Moving into a Teacher Leadership Role?)

 Jeff Kuntz

Doctoral Candidate and Teacher Educator

University of Alberta

Edmonton, Alberta




In their respective positions as instructional coach, lead teacher, and consultant, teacher leaders are to implement and in many cases, lead educational reforms by modeling and encouraging changes in pedagogy and practice. This complex leadership role necessitates constant negotiation as teacher leaders gauge when and how they may encourage, direct, and support the teachers they work with. Further complicating this role is its non-supervisory nature; teacher leaders are not to evaluate their colleagues for employment purposes nor can they discipline or reprimand them. Instead, teacher leaders must rely on their credibility as experienced educators and their ability to encourage and support. Teachers who move into teacher leadership positions report that this transition is complicated by a need to balance collegial relationships while at the same time provide constructive criticism. This phenomenological inquiry, based upon lived experience descriptions from teacher leaders, examines two of the first interactions of newly appointed teacher leaders: meeting the staff and visiting the classroom. The paper provides insight into the negotiation process teacher leaders go through as they assert and define their role with their colleagues. Dimensions explored include entering new territory, being set apart, encountering skepticism, coming under fire, finding a place, providing feedback, considering the impact, and receiving validation.





teacher leadership, professional development, phenomenology, instructional coaching, consulting, school improvement, identity, role, relationships

Negotiating Place, Identity, and Role: First Experiences as a Teacher Leader.


(What is the Experience of a Teacher Moving into a Teacher Leadership Role?)

It is my first visit to a classroom in my new role as a teacher leader. At this point, I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. What is my role? Do I just sit at a desk in the back corner and take notes? Do I hover around the classroom? Should I actually jump into the lesson? Am I here to encourage, critique, or model? Am I really ready to become a mentor, or am I just pretending to be something I’m not?

With the current emphasis on school improvement, many teachers are being challenged to become “teacher leaders” in their schools and in their school districts. Taking on roles like instructional coach, lead teacher, and consultant, these educators are to implement and in many cases, lead educational reforms by modeling and encouraging changes in pedagogy and practice. However, it can be difficult to make the transition from working with children to working with adults. While these teachers may be comfortable in their own classrooms, they often have little experience in motivating adults, leading change, accessing research and providing support.

One very challenging factor in this transition from teacher to teacher leader is the teacher leader’s obligation to effect change: “It entails mobilizing and energizing others with the goal of improving the school’s performance of its critical responsibilities related to teaching and learning” (Danielson, 2006, p. 12). As Killion states: “Teacher leaders have a single guiding purpose – to build capacity in others. They use their talents to influence, shape, support, and catalyze change that results in increased student achievement. Their actions reveal their fundamental belief that they more they build capacity in others, the more they contribute to sustaining long-term, deep transformation that allows others to address today’s challenges and to be prepared for facing those that arise tomorrow (Killion, 2007, p. 11).

Providing effective teacher leadership is a tall task. Teacher leaders often find themselves “straddling the line” between colleague and coach, providing some teachers with a sympathetic ear and an open heart and others with a firm push to make meaningful changes in their practice and planning. Further complicating this charge is the fact that most teacher leaders are in non-supervisory roles; they are not to evaluate their colleagues for employment purposes nor are they able to discipline or reprimand them. These educators are to be teacher leaders, using their credibility and kinship as a teacher to lead through encouragement and support rather than through administrative coercion or demands.

As Danielson points out, “the role of teacher leader and the phenomenon of shifting from colleague to coach requires further attention. Teacher leaders are more than teachers, yet different from administrators. Such a concept of teacher leadership reflects an increasingly recognized hole in models of teacher professionalism that has not yet been fully explored in the professional literature” (Danielson, 2006, p.15). Just what is the lived experience of a teacher transitioning into a teacher leadership role? How do newly appointed teacher leaders encounter their new surroundings and adjust to their new situation? And what insights might we gain about their negotiation for space, identity and a meaningful role in the classrooms and schools they are to serve?

To further investigate these questions, four teacher leaders were asked to write first-hand accounts describing some of their early experiences as an instructional coach. These teacher leaders were assured their anonymity (through the use of pseudonyms) and were told that, for the purposes of this study, they were to focus on the “lived experience” of those initial interactions; I was looking for moment-by-moment recollections about the nature of these exchanges. The accounts were not to explain or rationalize the particular reform the teacher leaders may have been championing (e.g. best practices in assessment or differentiation), but were to capture the essence of the experience – focusing on individual and collective perception and response. What follows is a phenomenological analysis of these teacher leader accounts. In particular, we will examine accounts related to two significant events: the initial meeting of a teacher leader with the staff they are to work with, and one of the teacher leader’s first visits to a classroom. In both instances, these leadership accounts provide significant insight into a previously under-researched area of study: the delicate negotiation process teacher leaders go through as they assert and define their role with their colleagues.

Meeting the Staff

Entering “New Territory,” Facing New Challenges

I walk through the front doors of the school, which looks a little like a battlefield bunker – tons of concrete and very few windows, and I register at the office and introduce myself to the administrative staff. This is my first visit to the school and I am a little nervous, but at the same time I feel empowered. I do not know the teachers I will be working with and, as such, I feel I have nothing to lose. “Bring it on!” I think, “Today will be an adventure!”

At first glance, the simple act of entering the school, registering at the office, and making introductions may seem most inconsequential and ordinary, but it actually reinforces the fact that this coach is “out of place” and is entering new territory. This disorientation is evident as the teacher leader describes the moment as evoking both nervousness and a sense of empowerment. Entering new territory (as this teacher leader does) or even a familiar place but in a different role, we see and experience people and situations as if for the first time.

This new beginning causes the teacher leader to be especially conscious of feelings and impressions that he may usually take for granted. As the teacher leader adjusts to the new role, he notices the look and feel of the building, the disposition of the staff, and how quickly or slowly time elapses. Of course, each teacher leader will experience this newness in different ways based upon their life experience and outlook. Never the less, every teacher leader will experience some level of disorientation and the need to self-orient; to survey and assess their surroundings.

A new beginning may also bring with it physical effects. Some recently appointed teacher leaders experience a level of stress that comes with insecurity, second-guessing, and doubt. Others experience the opposite: the rush (positive stress) of facing a new challenge and the opportunity to show their leadership. What is common in this experience though, is anticipation and uncertainty. A new teacher leader may have adequately prepared themselves for this day by doing some planning, seeking clarity about their role from supervisors and friends, and trying to visualize how the first few months might unfold. However, until they meet the people with which they will be working there will always be a measure of apprehension, ambiguity, uncertainty and excitement.

Being Placed in a New Position; At the Front and Set Apart

It’s time to officially meet the staff. We walk into the library and I see a really large group spread out at different tables. They are just getting settled. I shake hands with the principal, introduce myself to the assistant principal and sit down at their table.

I am sitting right up front; I’d almost rather be in the back.

The first introduction of the teacher leader to the staff often happens a day or two before the school year starts. The teachers gather in the library or the cafeteria to listen to their new consultant or instructional coach. Many of the teachers would prefer to be in their classrooms preparing materials, realigning desks and setting up pin boards. They, like the new consultant, are feeling the anticipation of the new term and are impatient to get started. As they file into the gym or library, teachers will share some of their plans, recount summertime experiences, and rekindle relationships. There is a very visible camaraderie based on shared experiences and the promise of the new school year; it is a camaraderie that the new teacher leader is not part of.

Entering such an environment, the teacher leader may end up watching the staff rather than interacting with them. She may feel pressure to find a place within the culture the school. Will staff and students welcome her? Will she be validated and appreciated or meet with resentment or indifference? Here, the new instructional coach is uncomfortable with “sitting right up front.” The physical, spatial separation underlines, to the teacher leader, that she has been set apart. She has been given a special position. Instead of sitting with the teachers, as she was used to, she is now sitting with the administration, which indicates a power shift: an alignment with the management of the school and not with the staff. However, the teacher leader does not “fit” with the administration either. She is not responsible for the daily functioning of the school as the principal and assistant principal are. The teacher leader has a much narrower focus: that of supporting teachers and leading instructional reform.

Sitting with the administrators, facing the teachers and speaking to them (instead of conversing with them) tacitly sends out a message that can work against the goals of the teacher leader. This “apartness” is indicative of a relational and situational dilemma. On the one hand, the teacher leader wants to show that she is still very much a teacher and shares the concerns and pressures that teachers have. On the other hand, the teacher leader must demonstrate that she has expertise and can provide support that will lead to improved classroom practice, and she needs to do this without denigrating or demeaning current practices. The teacher leader has been set apart in a type of limbo. She is between two worlds: the world of the teacher (which she may be leaving behind if she moves to a full time coaching role) and the world of the administrator (a world that she may not ever choose to be part of). How she chooses to act from this position and how she builds connections with both teachers and management will determine how successful the teacher leader may be.

Making First Contact and Encountering Skepticism

As we go through the introductions, it is apparent that many of the teachers are skeptical. They don’t come right out and say it (especially in front of their principal), but their lack of enthusiasm and some of the offhand comments make it clear that they have reservations. I just need to get through my initial presentation. Not one person is smiling. In my nervousness, I actually say: “You can laugh, that was funny.” A few people smile, but only a couple.

I continue my presentation.

This teacher leader unexpectedly finds himself in a vulnerable position. There are unspoken assumptions, expectations, and perceptions with which to deal. No training and preparation could prepare him for the undercurrent of tension he is experiencing. His intention to establish collegial relations is quietly and quickly undone by his physical position in the room, his assumed alignment with administration, and his charge to “reform” practice. The teacher leader is vulnerable and exposed, susceptible to the disposition of the teachers as they listen and evaluate what he has to say. His attempts to lighten the mood and connect with the teachers only draw more attention to the fact that he is not one of them; he has been set apart.

Such isolation may result in feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. What makes it even more challenging is the public place in which the teacher leader has to wrestle with such skepticism. As he senses the apprehension of the staff, the teacher leader may even have begun to second-guess his decision to take on the position. For some teacher leaders, such an event might lead them to question their readiness, competency, and conviction. Fortunately, this teacher leader perseveres with his presentation.

First interactions with instructional staff are all about making connections. Teacher leaders must justify their position and prove to their colleagues that they have valuable skills and expertise. Fortunately, not all first experiences are as stiff and tense as the one above. Some schools and teachers are looking for support and welcome consultants, lead teachers and instructional coaches into their staffrooms and the classrooms.

Never the less, every time that a teacher leader meets a new staff, a negotiation process begins. Teacher leaders may have invested time and energy into assuming a new role and may have carefully visualized how they want to affect change, but their intentions can quickly butt up against reality. The teacher leader must now adjust as he or she works with the staff to develop a new, shared vision for embedded professional development. This negotiation of roles and vision involves consideration of the district goals, the willingness of the staff to take these goals on, and the various ways in which the teacher leader might support the teachers in this process. Factors that influence this negotiation process might include time, previous experiences with teacher leaders (and the effects thereof), allocation of resources, administrative support, staff relationships, and school politics. Effective negotiation may also depend upon whether or not the personality of the teacher leader meshes well with the personalities in the school.

Coming under Fire

As soon as the principal leaves, the questions start:

“Why are we really here?”

“How much time will this take?”

“Seriously, what does literacy have to do with Math?”

“Are you prepared to support French teachers?”

“My kids are hands-on learners. They come to the shop to get away from books and writing. Do you expect me to give them homework and readings in their CTS courses?”

I do my best to listen to their questions and answer them as directly and honestly as I can without seeming uncertain. It is a tricky process.

This is going to be much harder than I anticipated.

From the moment he arrives, this particular teacher leader is on inspection. The teacher leader finds himself in a new and very awkward position of authority – and under the microscope. Initially, he is somewhat protected from cross-examination by the presence of an authority figure, the principal. When the principal leaves the room, the teacher leader is quickly put on trial. There are very valid questions about purpose, legitimacy, relevance, and practicality. All of the questions have an undercurrent of skepticism and seem to ask, “Who are you to make assumptions about our classrooms and our practices?”

Feeling somewhat exposed and isolated, the teacher leader must now continue on his negotiation process. He has made his initial “sales pitch” but, in order to support these teachers, he must now try to understand their needs. It is obvious that many of the teachers he will work with have been “voluntold”; that is they have been strongly encouraged or even into the improvement initiative by their administration. It is a daunting task; the teacher leader cannot possibly know each of the teachers’ individual situations. He cannot be an expert in every subject and grade level in the school, nor should he be. That is not his role. Never the less, the teachers continue to grill him, testing his mettle and seeing how quickly he can adjust. The teachers are also letting him know that he cannot expect to advance his goals with a one-size-fits-all approach. Like the teacher leader, these teachers want respect for their experience and expertise, their commitment to their students and to providing quality education in very specific contexts. Most of all they want to be worked with and not upon.

When teacher leaders “come under fire,” like this one has, they are forced to adjust and redefine their role and identity. Experiencing challenges may compel the teacher leader to confront some very deep questions about their purpose and their person. Who am I, really? Am I an expert, a friend, a support, or the consultant that challenges teachers to make improvements and be reflective? How determined am I to seeing this role through? Moreover, what am I about to lose by taking on this identity of teacher leader?

Transitioning into the role of teacher leader requires a shift in orientation. Not only do teacher leaders need to reinterpret how they see themselves, they need to reinterpret how they see their colleagues. This shift happens when the new teacher leader begins to learn about the world of the colleagues they will be working with rather than simply make assumptions about it. In some ways, the confrontational experience related above is actually quite helpful; the teacher leader has immediately been made aware of many of the challenges he will face. The negotiation and bargaining process has begun in earnest; it is a critical moment in a personal and professional negotiation for space, identity, recognition, and validation.

Most often, this negotiation is not so public or confrontational. It happens during parking lot conversations, in quick classroom pop-ins, and while meeting with smaller groups of teachers in department groups or learning teams. Teacher leaders learn to address the concerns of the teachers they work with; concerns about time commitments, applicability, and levels of support. They make assurances about the lasting importance of the professional support they will provide and try to dissuade any notions of bandwagons or flavour-of-the-month professional development. Negotiation and bargaining happen when teacher leaders:

  • market themselves, selling the value of their expertise and the dividends of improved student achievement or reduced teacher workload;
  • distance themselves from administration and assure teachers that they are to support – not to report (tattle);
  • build inroads by providing materials and resources, designing lessons, working with individual students, or providing substitute coverage for teachers to attend workshops;
  • model particular teaching strategies and provide feedback, or demonstrate and explain why some traditional approaches don`t work; and
  • make connections, build relationships, share concerns and build trust.

Working with Teachers

Finding a Place without Upsetting the Climate

I arrive at the classroom just before the bell. Mr. Carson is greeting kids at the door and they are taking their seats in the classroom. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself so I settle into a desk near the back. Then a student comes in, hovers, and I immediately recognize that I am sitting in her seat. I blush, get up, and go to the back of the room to wait until all the places are taken. I try to look casual, leaning against the pin board, clutching my clipboard to my chest, pen in hand.

One of the students blurts “Hey, Mr C., who is that dude?” Mr. Carson explains that I am an instructional coach: here to observe and work with both the class and the teacher.

“So are we like, being evaluated? Or is he here to help you, Mr. C.?”

In this first visit to a particular classroom, the teacher leader is seeking to find a place in an already established order. While Mr. Carson greets the students and reconnects with them, the teacher leader is only an observer, watching and waiting for some kind of cue or acknowledgement that is late in coming. The newness of this situation for teacher leader is quite apparent in his uncertainty and tentativeness; he is unsure of where to sit or how to interact with the students. Choosing to blend in rather than stand out, the teacher leader opts to settle into a chair like a student. However, he is not a student and blending in is impossible. When the girl hovers by her desk, she politely reveals that there are certain developed patterns and expectations in this classroom. The teacher leader’s attempts to mask his confusion and disorientation by retreating to the back and by clinging to the clipboard further reinforce the awkwardness of the moment. At this point, another student draws attention to the teacher leader and confronts the artificiality of the situation. This student may simply be trying to tease his favorite teacher, show off for his classmates, or test the teacher leader. In any case, he reinforces the uncertainty and fluidity underlying every visit to a new classroom. The student also puts his finger on one of the central tensions associated with teacher leadership; the perceived role of the teacher leader and the various viewpoints associated with this role.

For the teacher leader, the first visit to the classroom of a colleague can feel otherworldly. A teacher leader will undoubtedly be someone who has a history of success as a classroom teacher – but this is not his or her classroom. The teacher leader did not work to build the environment, nor have they cultivated a relationship with the students in it. In their “new” context, they may be perceived as intruders; they rupture classroom routine and have immediate environmental impacts. This feeling of being “out of place” may affect a teacher leader in many ways. In terms of location and space, the coach must wait to see how the classroom operates, what kinds of routines have been set, and where in the classroom they can take up position. A teacher leader who moves immediately to the front of the classroom usurps the teacher’s authority in the classroom; a teacher leader who retreats to the back of the classroom may unconsciously imply that they are either here to evaluate from a distance or that they are of little consequence and can be ignored.

How teacher leaders choose to incorporate themselves into classrooms and routines varies greatly. Some teacher leaders will immediately introduce themselves, initiating conversations with students as they enter the classroom and asking them for assistance. Other teacher leaders will have discussed the situation with the teacher beforehand, working out a way to introduce the teacher leader to the students in appropriate manner. However, there may not always be the opportunity to do this kind of preparation, especially with a full slate of classrooms to visit. Again, this is where negotiation comes in. Teacher leaders must recognize the complexity of the classroom and integrate their work and presence into already established routines and relationships. This negotiation requires confidence, flexibility, sensitivity, and tact. The presence of another adult in a classroom could cause the students to act up or, alternatively, to go quiet. The students may purposely ignore the teacher leader or they may overwhelm him with questions and a need to be noticed and recognized. Teacher leaders must be prepared to clarify and work out their role every time they enter a new classroom.

Taking Note to Provide Concrete Feedback

I am observing Tanya’s class, a teacher in my school with whom I have become good friends over the years. In our school, each classroom has an observation room attached with a one-way glass. While I am an unobserved observer, Tanya knows that I am there. This is the first time that I will be giving Tanya written feedback.

I feel it is my duty to pass on some concrete ideas and suggestions for improvement. I note things like: The class is moving along quickly, very little “down time”; needs to make sure to wait long enough for students to respond; “make sure you don’t just give them nouns on their communication boards, they need action words, comment words, and questions.” After an hour’s observation, I go to my office to work on the report for Tanya, gathering more research to fill it up with all kinds of good ideas to improve her practice. Just before the end of the day, I pop “my report” into her mailbox….

Not all teacher leaders are assigned to new schools; some work in their home schools with colleagues that they have had a long history. No longer are they colleagues popping in to borrow the hole punch or to pass on a message from the office; they are now in a coaching role. The teacher leader hopes to assist his or her colleague to make changes or improvements and that might mean watching with a discerning eye: taking careful notes, making judgements, giving advice and asking for specific changes. Suggestions for change are always uncomfortable even when they are considered to be good or helpful changes; these suggestions can often evoke feelings of confusion, inadequacy, or resentment.

In the case above, the teacher leader does her best to focus on the task of providing support for her colleague. She is confident, embraces her new role, and feels empowered by it. Behind the glass, she is able to take notes without having to deal with the curious eyes and queries of the students. Like an anthropologist, she can see the classroom in its “natural” state and is able to make judgments based on her experience and research. For the teacher leader, it is an ideal situation. If she were to be in the classroom, her note taking would be distracting for the teacher and the students alike, people notice when you take notes. Because of her careful observation, the teacher leader can now give practical or “hard” feedback; specific suggestions, links to research, and cautions about oversights. The teacher leader’s work engrosses her, after an hour’s observation she is able to write a detailed report, one that no doubt will be appreciated for its thoroughness and tangibility.

Her emphasis on instructional improvement and on providing concrete suggestions has already affected the orientation of this teacher leader. The classroom reveals itself as a place to be noticed, studied, and critiqued and less of a place simply to live and interact in. This detachment, this critical observation, allows the teacher leader to look past her relationship with the teacher and students and zero in on how things might be improved. In doing so, she chooses not to re-affirm many of the successful practices in the classroom. Instead, she chooses to focus on growth areas, citing deficiencies like inappropriate pacing, inadequate wait time, and missed opportunities. Her careful attention to detail and her commitment to sharing expertise are admirable, but as we will see later on, this teacher leader fails to anticipate or gauge the response she would receive from her friend, Tanya.

Giving useful feedback is at the heart of the teacher leadership role and it is a very challenging task. Without “hard” feedback, visits from teacher leaders do little more than create goodwill. In some cases, these coaching visits are regarded as nuisances or interruptions that interfere with lesson sequencing and disrupt the classroom climate. Moreover, knowing what to look for and how and when to give critical but supportive feedback is art that can take years for teacher leaders to develop. Most teacher leaders work directly in the classroom where their note taking, facial expressions, and level of interaction with the students and teacher set off ripples of apprehension and nervousness. Both teacher and students are conscious of being watched and perhaps judged. For this very reason, many teacher leaders will choose to put away their clipboards and formulate their notes only after the lesson is completed.

Considering the Impact; The Scathing Report

The next morning I try to catch Tanya right away so we can have a chance to talk about my observations. As I come in, she walks right by me. She actually she storms by me, not saying hello or making eye contact. My stomach twitches. Hmm… that’s odd. I put my things in my office and go to her classroom. As is my usual practice I knock quickly and then enter with a “Hi, it’s me!” Stony silence. Now my stomach is really turning. Something is wrong. “Tanya, are you okay? Can we talk?”

She takes a long, deep breath before turning to face me. Then as she does, she says, “I am not sure I want to talk to you ever again.”

“What?” I say, clueless.

“I thought you liked what I was doing! I thought you believed I was a good teacher!” then, worst of all: “I thought you were my friend! I never want to have you in my classroom again!”

I feel sick: Tanya is one of the best teachers I know.

We spend the next hour reflecting not on Tanya’s class, but on my scathing evaluative observation. Tanya walks me through my “brilliant” report showing me the criticisms that she reads there. During this hour, we talk, we cry and I come to understand.

Any shift from a collegial, friendly relationship to one based upon “school and district goals” comes with overtones of evaluation, the politics of power, and the complexity of interpersonal relations. In this continuation of the last anecdote, the teacher leader encounters all of these pressures. When she dropped off her report for Tanya in the mailbox the day before, the teacher leader believed she had done her job, and done it well. Eager to talk about her observations and the work she had done, the teacher leader seeks out her colleague only to encounter tension. While some teachers may have tried to mask their disappointment, Tanya’s feelings are in open display. She “storms by” refusing to make eye contact or say hello. The signals are unmistakable and give evidence that more negotiation and bargaining need to take place. When the teacher leader pops in to Tanya’s classroom and tries to re-establish a collegial rapport, she meets with silence, resentment, and even anger. Tanya feels betrayed.

The result is a shock to the teacher leader. Once again, good intentions have met unanticipated but very real roadblocks. She did not envision her report as being scathing, only as constructive and purposeful. Faced with this sudden realization, the teacher leader is at a loss. She feels sick. Her physical and emotional state reveals just how important it is for her to maintain both her role as teacher leader (expert) and as colleague (friend). Rather than become defensive or haughty, the teacher leader chooses to try to understand Tanya’s reaction. This choice to listen and learn from the teacher she was to coach, ultimately brought about a restoration of the relationship, or perhaps the development of the relationship of a new relationship based upon their revised roles.

In this instance, removing the teacher leader to a spot behind a one-way glass may have assisted the teacher in being more at ease and forgetful of the ever-present eyes, but it also interfered with the subtle negotiation of roles that needs to happen when teacher leaders are in the classroom as participant observers. As the lesson transpires, both teacher and teacher leader will communicate in verbal and nonverbal ways, sharing understandings and sensing each other’s intentions. A one-way glass does not permit such a negotiation. In this instance, the one-way glass served as a physical and emotional barrier that interfered with rapport and relationship building. Because she was not engaged in the classroom, the teacher leader failed to notice the vulnerability of the teacher, and there was no friendly connection in the greeting or reassurance that she liked what she saw in the good bye. Moreover, when a teacher leader interacts in the classroom, she can disclose her own vulnerabilities, her humanness. Ironically, many teacher leaders have made the mistake of operating as if they are behind a one-way glass even when they are physically present in the classroom. In keeping quiet, making clinical observations and scribbling notes, they can put up barriers and miss relational subtleties and nuances while focusing only on instructional and procedural structures.

However, even the most experienced and sensitive teacher leaders can sometimes be blindsided by reactions to their well-meaning guidance. Despite best intentions and careful wording, constructive criticism can still provoke defensiveness, embarrassment, hurt feelings, and even anger. Written reports, however delivered, can sometimes burn – scorching relationships and damaging trust. The formality of any written report and the specificity of it, indicates a radical shift from a teacher-friend role to a more evaluative teacher leader role. Such a report also invites reciprocal action: the teacher-leader’s performance in their new role is also a source for evaluation. This tension around criticism is one of the paradoxes facing teacher leaders. It is difficult to build relationships while at the same time provide “hard feedback” (Mangin & Stoelinga, 2011, p.49). Teacher leaders may seek to provide concrete (hard) suggestions for improvement, but any suggestions that imply that the teacher is doing a less than optimal job are “hard” to hear.

Unlike the teacher leader singled out above, many teacher leaders actually choose to avoid giving feedback that is, in any way, critical or judgmental. Instead, they try to support their colleagues in more subtle ways (by co-teaching with them, supplying them with timely readings, and asking thought provoking questions about planning, practice and the nature of learning). These teacher leaders actually skirt around anything that might seem confrontational, often allowing ineffective practices to continue so they might still be welcome in the classrooms of their colleagues. For these teacher leaders, the leadership aspect of teacher leadership is less important to them than their need to remain collegial. They just want to be one of the teachers; they do not want to be seen as an evaluator or even as a coach, just as a supporter. The irony is that, in working so hard to build relationships and establish trust, these teacher leaders actually devalue their own work with the result being that staff members may conclude that the teacher leader really does not have much to offer as far as expertise or insight (Mangin & Stoelinga, 2011, p.49).

In order to give “hard feedback” teacher leaders must first address this issue directly by redefining peer relationships, the improvement process, and norms of teaching (Mangin & Stoelinga, 2011, p. 49). In addition, the teacher leader needs to read each situation and carefully consider the world of each of the teachers they work with. What constraints do they face in terms of time for planning, availability of resources, amount of training, and class composition? Moreover, the teacher leader must recognize the individuality of each teacher with which they work, doing more than just listening. They need to know their colleagues by working beside them and reading body language, level of eye contact, and tone of voice. When a situation gets difficult or miscommunications happen, the teacher leader will need to address the issues, not avoid them. Moreover, there will be times when a teacher leader might need to take their turn as the learner rather than as the leader, and acknowledge the wisdom and experience of the teachers they are working with.

Making a Difference, Receiving Validation

It was my second visit to this particular school. I was just heading down the hallway to check in with the principal to find out who I might be working with when I was intercepted by a young teacher in the hallway. She spied me from the end of the hallway and flagged me down.

“Hey Pete!” she called out, “got a minute?” I stopped in my tracks, I knew who she was, but I couldn’t remember her name. Frantically I started searching my memory; I had worked with her only a couple of weeks earlier! In seconds, she was upon me. “I just wanted to say thanks,” she said. “I tried several of the “call to order” techniques you suggested after your last visit with my 7Bs. It only took a few times for them to get it! Now my classes are quieter and I have enough voice to get through the day. You can come to my classes anytime!”

I wasn’t sure how to respond, but it didn’t matter. She said something about photocopying and headed off with some speed to the prep room. I remained standing in the hallway, processing the moment. It may have been a quick thank-you for her, but I would remember it for the rest of my life.

On this second visit, our last anecdote, we meet a teacher leader still finding his way in relatively new territory. Rather than popping by the staffroom, or checking in on teachers he may know, he conscientiously checks in at the office to gain direction from the principal. When confronted on his way by a teacher, uncertainty bubbles forth. The teacher leader is acutely aware that he has lost his colleague’s name. He feels exposed, he knows how important it is for each of the people he works with to feel acknowledged and valued. What makes the situation even more difficult is the fact that the teacher feels comfortable enough to address him by his first name. Pete has obviously built up a level of trust and familiarity; will he undermine this by admitting his momentary lapse or simply bluff his way through? Before Pete can pretend or come clean, the teacher startles our teacher leader in a second way; she pays the teacher leader a compliment. Pete is unsure as how to respond. In spite of its awkwardness, this is an important moment for both Pete and the teacher. For the teacher, it is an opportunity to say thank you and perhaps to show Pete that things are improving in her classroom. Thankfully, while this teacher makes a special trip down the hall to say thanks, she is kind enough not to linger. Perhaps she sensed Pete’s embarrassment or maybe she really did have photocopying to do. All the same, the teacher leaves Pete alone in the hallway to reflect upon this moment. For Pete, this simple “thank you” is even more important; it brings validation to his work.

Teacher leaders will receive feedback and validation in many different ways, through email, online and paper surveys, feedback from administrators, and conversations with the teachers. This feedback may positive and direct, like the “thank you” Pete received. Alternatively, it may be negative, in the form of unanswered emails, avoided interactions, and whispered conversations in the staffroom. Sometimes feedback can be disingenuous; intended only to flatter or hurt. When analyzing follow-up surveys, teacher leaders do well to sift through the comments and put aside their egos. They need to “read between the lines,” and find areas to improve on amid the kudos and the criticisms. Teacher leaders also need to look elsewhere for feedback; they need to study school achievement records and gauge the openness and disposition of the staff. If there are less behaviour issues, more engaged students and more invigorated teachers stepping into instructional leadership roles, it may reveal something about the effectiveness of the teacher leader.

Concluding Thoughts

While many educators believe that moving from a teacher to a teacher leader is an easy and natural transition, a closer examination of this conversion reveals that this is not necessarily the case. Even though teacher leaders may be motivated and passionate about their work, this passion may not be shared or even understood. The classroom is a complex place, fraught with tensions related to expectations, relationships, and power.

Teacher leaders are, by the nature of their position and charge, distanced from those that they would serve. These leaders feel obligated to provide solutions and facilitate change. This obligation often comes into conflict with the need to create trust and build relationships. As a result, from the very moment of their appointment, teacher leaders will spend their energies seeking to narrow this distance while at the same time working to earn respect and gain influence. Their complex role (colleague, coach and expert) necessitates constant negotiation as teacher leaders gauge when and how they may encourage, critique, advise, and support the teachers they work with.

Training can help, and in many school districts prospective teacher leaders are given some preparation for the roles they are about to take on. In some cases, teacher leaders might attend a weeklong retreat shortly before the school year begins to meet with their new colleagues (other teacher leaders), discuss expectations, and clarify their goals. But teacher leadership is learned minute by minute and situation by situation on the job. It is shaped and defined when teacher leaders make sense of their experiences, learn from them, and enact in response to their learning (Norris, 2010, p. 169). Experienced teacher leaders have related how they grew into their roles during the first few months on the job and that the lessons they learned are not in any “how to” manual or teacher research publication.

How newly appointed teacher leaders negotiate place, identity and role depends greatly on their level of expertise, their sensitivity, their willingness to be flexible and on the professional climate in which they have been placed. Throughout their careers, but especially in the first few months, teacher leaders need to regularly examine and consider their experiences and interactions. They need to reflect on their orientation, identity, and role and how they might balance personal, relational, and professional goals.

For the newly appointed teacher leader, opportunities present themselves in the form of teachers who open their classrooms and volunteer for consultation and collaboration. Dangers present themselves when teacher leaders fail to recognize the commitment, investment, and humanity of the teachers they work with. Teachers, as well as teacher leaders, take risks and invite criticism when they collaborate for school improvement. Both teacher and teacher leader have a need to be valued and validated as part of the school culture. Teacher leaders who are sensitive to this need and brave enough to share their vulnerabilities as well as their experiences and expertise will be able to negotiate a place, an identity and a fulfilling role within the fabric of the school.


Danielson, C. (2006). Teacher leadership that strengthens professional practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Killion, J. & Harrison, C. (2007). Ten roles for teacher leaders. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 74-77.

Mangin, M., & Stoelinga, S. (2011). Peer? Expert? Teacher leaders struggle to gain trust while establishing their expertise. Journal of Staff Development32(3), 48-51.

Norris, C. (2010). Living within reform: A phenomenological study of the lived experiences of teacher leaders in high schools (Doctoral dissertation). University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK. Retrieved from: http://library.usask.ca/theses/available/etd-09182010-220244/

Trauma Sensitive Classrooms


Trauma-sensitive Classrooms

Georgia Davies

Georgia Davies is a Grade 2 teacher at Abbott school in Edmonton, Alberta. She specializes in trauma-sensitive teaching practices and shares classroom strategies with co-workers and people across the district in Edmonton Public Schools. Georgia is currently a graduate student at the University of Alberta, working towards her master’s in Elementary Education.

Voices of Experience

Passing teaching wisdom from experienced teachers to new teachers is a cherished part of teacher professional learning. In this essay to young teachers – really to all of us – experienced elementary teacher Georgia Davies shares her experiences teaching children who have experienced trauma. We trust her insights can help all teachers create more hospitable classrooms so that all children may flourish.

Every day in classrooms across North America, children come to school from homes where they are neglected, abused, or may suffer violence. Emotionally in turmoil, anxious, frightened or angry, they are not ready to learn when they walk through the school door. A typical scenario:

Jay walks in late to class again. He is cold. His brown socks are ripped up to his ankles. He has his boots in his hand and I am taken aback when I realize he is holding rain boots. It is -35C today. Jay just walked to school in rain boots with torn socks. I ask him if his feet are cold, and immediately look up his mother’s phone number. Not to my surprise, her number is not in use. I am not able to contact her.

I ask Jay to hang up his things. He does as he is asked, and hangs up his old worn-out cheetah print coat. Yes, it is a girl’s coat, but it is all he has. He then hangs up his black and green backpack. It is worn out with a few holes and one broken zipper. Inside are the following:

  • his agenda
  • old newsletters
  • granola bar wrappers
  • a very old note from me
  • pencils
  • a few books

His agenda is used every day to remind him what he needs to do each night. Jay is responsible and does not forget his agenda. His agenda is never signed and notes to his parents are not read. Old newsletters are left in the front pocket. He has granola bar wrappers, pencils, and some books that were given to him from the school, as he expresses that he is often hungry and does not own any pencils or books at home.

Jay’s story is similar to those of perhaps millions of children in North America. These children cannot function well unless their school’s teachers and staff are attuned to the conditions they live in and the emotional states they bring to school. We call schools that are sensitive to these matters “trauma-sensitive.” Work in a trauma-sensitive school is intense, because a significant majority of children live with violence, neglect, and abuse. How does a teacher even begin to create a classroom environment that allows traumatized children to focus, thrive, and succeed in the classroom? In this essay, I hope to share a number of ideas that have worked successfully in my classroom and school.

Five strategies that work well include: (1) building strong relationships; (2) understanding children with trauma; (3) creating a structured, calming learning environment; (4) teaching through differentiation; and, (5) engaging children in daily lessons. Each strategy focuses on helping children who have experienced trauma in their home and can be used by any classroom teacher to help improve the community, relationships, and behaviors of children who have experienced trauma. They are also good strategies for “regular” kids.

  1. Building Strong Relationships

The teacher’s relationships with children and parents, as well as children’s relationships with each other, are key to optimum classroom success. Creating strong bonds where children feel safe and can have trusting relationships helps build a classroom where traumatized children can learn and grow. Getting to know each child, listening to them, and allowing them to have a voice in the classroom are all crucial to success.

It is important to understand that parents of at-risk children often shy away from being involved or even appearing at school, which is sometimes due to intimidation or fear of teacher confrontation. Either way, it is up to the teacher to welcome parents without approaching them in negative ways. Teachers must try to make school a safe and caring place for both children and their parents. Simple things like making phone calls home to give parents good news about their children can help form positive relationships.

  1. Understanding children with trauma

Traumatized children come to school without basic tools to self-regulate their feelings, get along with others, follow rules, and respect and listen to adults. They often experience strong power struggles where they fight to keep any sense of autonomy. In addition to these deep-rooted feelings, many children arrive hungry, angry, unfocused, and out of control. The result is that teachers must understand that, before positive learning can happen, they have to help children become ready to learn.

Obviously, creating a hospitable environment for learning works best when the whole school staff collaborates and coordinates efforts. For example, a school can put together a snack program to feed the children in the morning when they arrive. Some traumatized children might not have even eaten since lunch at school the day before. Obviously, hungry children find learning secondary to their irritating, gnawing stomachs. Allowing for a period of calmness where children eat a snack together while perhaps watching a tumble book (online story book) or something educational helps alleviate some of the most pressing issues.

Second, teachers can progress to a “feelings check.” A feelings check helps measure how children are feeling when they get to school. Feelings checks can be instituted school-wide as a way to help identify children who need help becoming emotionally regulated so they can learn. One by one, children will explain how they are feeling. If a child expresses anger, sadness, or fear, a teacher should ask that child to express one way she could be happy. Such expressions help children self-regulate, because their negative feelings can be replaced with positive ones.

Once a feelings check is completed, teachers will be more aware which children might need extra assistance, emotional help, or attention during the day. Teachers should share that information so that playground and lunch supervisors can reinforce the strategy. Such a process can help prevent outbreaks from occurring. By understanding the children’s emotional states and needs, teachers will know when to back off and let a child cool down.

Cooling down can take as long as 30 minutes if a traumatized child has been emotionally triggered. Cooling down requires a safe classroom space in which to calm body and mind. Teachers should take care to explain to children that this space is not a “timeout” place, but rather a safe place for when they feel emotionally upset or frustrated.

Over time, teachers can learn what triggers certain children’ emotions and what helps them become regulated again. The best way to learn children’s emotional needs is gentle directness – simply ask children what they need. They will most often come up with a better strategy than even the most sensitive teacher can devise. Understanding what we as teachers can do to help traumatized children is a first step to success in the trauma-sensitive classroom. Children will, in most cases, have the answers. The teacher must simply listen.

In my experience, children are brilliant at finding solutions and, when teachers adopt children’s ideas, children will be strengthened, relationships between children and teachers will grow, and children become calm. Establishing calm and trusting relationships is absolutely essential in creating environments where traumatized children can become productive children.

Traumatized children are sensitive to any signs of danger. Therefore, it is important that teachers remain calm in frustrating situations – and, in my experience, situations can become frustrating for everyone involved. Resisting anger is a key. Good teaching calls for calmly expressing exactly how, where, and why the frustration has emerged. Naming frustrations helps children understand that they are not in danger and that sometimes frustration is natural – but avoidable. Calmly discussing frustrations also helps children learn to better deal with their feelings. Ultimately, teachers can help reform how traumatized children perceive adults and teach children what positive, caring relationships look like between adults and children.

Teachers are never alone when engaging traumatized children. One source of help is other children. Specifically, children who grow up in stable homes, without violence, neglect, or abuse, are already equipped with tools to help treat others in accepting and loving ways. Often stable children come to school knowing the difference between right and wrong and knowing how to treat others respectfully.

Teachers should always avoid power struggles with children. Traumatized children do not always listen because teachers are adults and have authority. Sometimes, it might seem as if power – just stopping an action – is the most pragmatic way to alleviate difficulty; however, often power struggles steal the last thing many children can hold onto. A more effective solution is to allow children to retain power but to offer a choice of consequences, lessons, and projects.

  1. Create a structured and calm learning environment

All teachers know the importance of creating classroom rules and routines. In a trauma-sensitive classroom, rules and routines must be intentionally consistent so that classrooms have a high level of predictability. Predictability helps children begin to regulate their actions and thoughts throughout the day. Predictability in the classroom also creates stability and ease in the minds of children. Children like to know what the day will look like and how long certain activities will be.

Because the physical area of a classroom can help children remain calm, classrooms should be organized, clean, welcoming, and structured. Creating this environment should be a responsibility that children share. Having a designated slot each week for desk cleaning helps keep children’s spaces and minds organized. The more organized children are, the less frustration and confusion they experience. Classrooms should contain tools and activities children can use to calm their bodies and brains. Puzzles, Buddha boards, coloring books, lava lamps, etch-a-sketch, and play dough are amazingly successful. Some teachers argue that access to toys will lead to children excusing themselves from classroom learning. However, as children build relationships with their teachers and learn that these are calming tools, not toys, most will understand and respect this rule.

In extreme cases, children with severe behaviors will need more than just calming tools. Here’s a real-life example from my classroom:

In November of my first year of teaching, a lovely grade 3 girl named Lindsey had a stroke in my arms in the middle of class. She was bright, sensitive, and affectionate, although had difficulty expressing these positive traits. She was rushed to hospital and had emergency surgery. I visited her in the hospital and was told by the doctors that she had almost died, had to have two large tumors removed, and might never walk, talk, or think the same again.

Lindsey’s mother was advised to admit her little girl into the Glenrose Rehabilitation School for Children for one full year. However, a month later, when the school’s psychologist questioned Lindsey to see where they should place her, she refused to answer any questions. Lindsey never even made it into their education program because they could not elicit enough cooperation from her. However, she made a miraculous physical recovery, and so just two months after her stroke she was put back into my classroom.

This little nine-year-old girl came back into the classroom more terrified than before. She could barely stand without shaking, a large portion of her head was shaved from the surgery, and all she wanted to do was be at my side or just run away. I ended up teaching with her in my arms off and on for about one month. Lindsey was unable to sit and do any work. She was just so afraid.

By June, Lindsey was able to sit, play, walk, talk, and think like most grade 3 children. She even wrote her Provincial Achievemnt Test with the help of a scribe. Lindsey still had a phobia of people being sick, but in all other areas she was acting normally. How was this even possible? What support was given to her so that she could function in a classroom again? I believe Lindsey recovered because of her incredible inner strength, coupled with my strong relationship with her. She trusted me, and I listened to what she needed from me and gave that to her.

I also used several trauma-sensitive strategies that I believe helped significantly. When I found that Lindsey was coming back to our school, I knew I had to prepare for her successful re-entry into the classroom. I could not fail, so I had to take stock of what I knew and what I could do. I knew she loved animals. She often pretended to be a cat, and was constantly drawing them. Before her stroke, she continually asked me to get a hedgehog as a classroom pet. So, the week before her return, I bought a little albino hedgehog, a miniature tent, and a few big coloring books. I was determined to help Lindsey get her life back and learn to function in a classroom.

The hedgehog had a huge impact on her recovery. When Lindsey was not by my side, she would be coloring at her desk with the hedgehog sleeping in his little tent. The hedgehog had a profound calming effect on her. She was able to stay in her desk when the hedgehog was there. She could stay at school, participate, and learn. Between the hedgehog and I, Lindsey gradually quit being so frantic.

To my surprise, the little hog also helped many other struggling children as well. I became a firm believer in pet therapy and what animals can do to help the most severely-behaved children. As time went on, and I learned how effective the hedgehog was, I bought two frogs that swam around in a small movable tank. I mostly used them for a little boy who had severe test anxiety. He could not finish any test without crying, ripping the test, or running away. As soon as I put the frogs on his desk, his test anxiety faded away. He was able to finish tests without any outward behaviors. This therapy worked so well in the classroom that his parents ended up getting him frogs at home.

  1. Differentiation

In my experience, each child presents a different challenge and teachers know that every child has different learning needs. I believe teachers must be inquisitive, listen to what children communicate (verbally or otherwise), and be alert to the range of possible approaches that will help meet that challenge. Fair is not always equal, and in any classroom setting teachers must use their wisdom to ensure that children experience fairness. Different children will need different learning tools to achieve the same outcome. One of the best approaches for children who need different learning strategies is to simply listen and watch. A struggling child often expresses frustrations through body language. Sometimes teachers will be able to think of adaptations, but in many cases children are able to express what they need to do to achieve a certain learning goal. Simply watching and listening can be productive.

Another idea that works well is structuring a seating plan so children of different learning abilities sit beside each other. Restructuring opens opportunities for children to learn from each other and to build teamwork within the classroom. Some teachers may disagree with extrinsic rewards, but children differ. Some may need extrinsic rewards to reach a point where they can independently complete a task or achieve a behavioral goal. If so, provide these rewards but slowly decrease them until the outcome is accomplished, then celebrate with the child who no longer needs the extrinsic reward. Children usually respond well.

  1. Engagement

For the most part, engaged children do not behave inappropriately. Thus, engagement is especially important in trauma-sensitive classrooms where children are prone to daily displays of negative behaviors. Student engagement is especially important in a trauma-sensitive classroom because, for many children, doing well in school and learning how to enjoy learning is poorly supported at home. Teachers can engage children by presenting them with challenges. Challenges force all of us to problem-solve and find different ways to achieve goals.

Children are also social and love to talk and interact with their classmates. As teachers, we should reinforce learning through collaboration. Such sharing will also help create a strong community within the classroom. Forming safe bonds with each other – both children and adults – helps us more safely express our thoughts and ourselves. When children feel safe enough in the classroom to take risks without worrying about failure, we know we have created a safe learning environment. I have learned that, when children feel safe, have opportunities to work and share together, and can draft and challenge ideas, they learn.

Not every child learns or can be assessed in the same manner. As teachers, we must work to engage children in formative assessment so both teachers and children can see growth and improvement. Engaging children in learning helps create lifelong learners where children learn how to learn. These ideas to help engage children are always important, but especially in trauma-sensitive classrooms because children need the most support and encouragement to become internally motivated to continue to learn.

What I have learned as a beginning teacher in a trauma-sensitive school

Because I began my career in a trauma-sensitive classroom, I had little choice but to do what I could both to survive and then to thrive along with my children. The ideas outlined above are just a few of the many I’ve tried. My experience suggests that these ideas work to help all children succeed. Sadly, my children have shared horrible stories that no one, especially a child, deserves. I came to believe I had a responsibility to make school a special, happy, healthy, and safe learning space. Instead of seeing teaching as emotionally and physically challenging, I chose to come to work each day believing I was lucky to be a part of my children’s day. I knew that, for most children, I would be the most important and positive person in each of their lives that day. To me, that is an amazing gift, from them to me – not me to them.

The Standards Made Me Do It: Reculturing Teacher Education to Redeem the Curriculum

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The Standards Made Me Do It:

Reculturing Teacher Education to Redeem the Curriculum

Kevin M. Talbert; Assistant Professor, Education; The College of Idaho; ktalbert@collegeofidaho.edu

Terah R. Moore; Assistant Professor, Education; The College of Idaho; tmoore@collegeofidaho.edu



This article discusses a common lament heard from education students: “But that’s what the standards say we have to do!” This paper will address the need to create teacher education pedagogies that help teachers disentangle standards from curriculum.

Our students exemplify a technical mindset, one that supposes teaching is primarily the selection and implementation of best practices, therefore reducing curriculum to a synonym for standards.

We believe that education pedagogies rooted in the spirit of the liberal arts are needed, instead of those rooted in professional studies. Teacher education must be reimagined, a movement away from training and toward education (Eisner, 2002). The Foundations of Education provide an alternative metaphor: An approach that, “understands education as other than a technical enterprise of means-ends reasoning capable of being packaged as a consumer product” (Quantz, 2013, p. 177). The Foundations provide a conceptual scaffold for teacher education curriculum across disparate courses.


Crime Scene: The classroom was silent; a pin drop could be heard. Not a word escaped the victim’s mouths as they peered zombie-like at computer screens in front of them, mindlessly clicking buttons. Week in and week out, routine had become to sit in uncanny silence while completing practice test after practice test. Classroom teachers have become the surprising criminal in this setting, giving up precious class time for the sake of standardization—a sterile and drab environment. Teachable moments sacrificed for the sake of the extra point gain on standardized testing. Valuable resources and teaching time redirected, all for the sake of teaching to the test. Yellow crime scene tape had taken the form of generic computer print offs stating, “TESTING DO Not DISTURB!!” which consequently warned the unsuspecting passersby to leave the area undisturbed.

So many teachers, unaware, participate in this heinous and unmerited practice without even a hint of questioning. Scripted classroom curricula sold under the guise of being mapped to standards are placed in innocent teachers’ hands. Standardized testing, used to rank and sort, are required administered once a year and results are used to score teacher performance. Teachers resort to drill and kill techniques to teach the content encountered on these tests. They replace real classroom teaching with memorized and paced scripts with the hope of better student performance on the tests. Teaching becomes dummified, minimized to generic statements crafted by others, often by folks who have not spent time in classroom settings.

Teachers – when called out on their decision to relinquish their critical thinking rights to scripted curricula and an overabundance of standardization – cry, “But, that’s what the standards say we have to do!”

In our current roles as teacher educators, in response to our students’ lament, we ask: Why is it this way? Why is forming a pedagogy of critique so difficult? What factors are needed to catapult pre-service teachers into deep and critically thought provoking practice? How can we empower future teachers to resist committing educational crimes in the name of fulfilling standards? In what follows, we engage these questions further.

Effects and Causes

As teacher educators, we (the authors) hear the exasperated, “Standards made me do it” refrain regularly from our students. Our student teachers often exemplify what we believe is a common issue facing teachers in today’s standards-driven educational contexts: a technical mindset, one that supposes teaching is primarily, or what is more troubling, merely the selection and implementation of best practices, therefore, reducing curriculum to a synonym for standards. Indeed, this technical discourse is the governing discourse in education writ large, especially policy focused toward teacher education, in this era of accountability.

The result, in the lived reality of these interns’ classroom experience, is that their own education—including their preparation as teachers—has betrayed them. They often experience an existential dissonance when the techniques (classroom management, content strategies, or otherwise) they have been taught fail and when the standards they have attempted to directly teach are not met. The result is a sense of failure and a commensurate disempowerment. One can make a powerful argument that this is exactly the point of the current “reform” movement—to create a deskilled and deprofessionalized class of teachers, who are consequently inexpensive, interchangeable, and expendable. Current teachers worry about being fired and future teachers worry about never being hired if they dare to deviate from prescribed curricula. How might we teacher educators help our students (future teachers) to liberate the curriculum from standards, and in the process liberate teachers from the technicist discourse governing their teaching lives?

Teacher education programs are often complicit, unfortunately. Education theorist Richard Quantz argues,

At universities the education of teachers has been replaced by the training of teachers. Today, teachers are trained to take their place as educational engineers to monitor and modulate the progress of students from their given start to their given end…. [T]heir teachers have been trained as little more than technicians. (Quantz, 2013, p. 177)

In fact, our department even refers to student teachers as “interns,” evident of corporate professional discourse. Increasingly, licensure wags the dog. Nearly all the courses we offer in our education program—even at our liberal arts college—exist to fulfill state (and accreditor, i.e. “market”) mandates. And, we devote a great deal of time and energy as faculty to attending meetings to learn about policy projects for which we have neither input nor control. Even as we write this, our department faculty are engaged in hours of online “trainings” to certify our competence with the Danielson Framework for Evaluation, which of course detracts time we could devote to the actual observation and mentorship of student teachers. Frustratingly, we spend little of our time engaging questions about the true educational merits of our practices, never mind questions of ultimate significance (Purpel, 1989) one might expect a liberal arts college to engage.

David Purpel (1989) refers to the collapse of teaching into mere technique, along with neglect or evasion of sociocultural critique, as symbolic of the trivialization of education (p. 2-3). As Purpel argues, “it is techniques themselves that have come to be revered rather than that which has ultimate significance” (1989, p. 56). In our experience, teacher education students are rarely asked to consider issues of ultimate significance. On the contrary, teacher education typically demoralizes and depoliticizes—anesthetizes—its curriculum. Methods courses, assessment courses, and educational psychology courses dominate the curriculum alongside “rigorous” content mandates. Few, if any, of these classes have as even a secondary purpose to consider moral dimensions of education. Few would allow for any conception of the “sacred,” to borrow Purpel’s metaphor. Curriculum has been reduced to a commodity, a package, a “thing” to be used and consumed, rather than as something to be contemplated and deliberated. This commodity is embodied in the narrative that opens this article. How do we undo that?

A reculturing (Joseph, 2011) of curriculum is necessary. “[C]urriculum must be conceptualized as an undertaking that encompasses inquiry and introspection” and to “reflect on our beliefs and actions and to engage in a vigorous discourse about moral and social visions for education” (Joseph, 2011, p. 3). Joseph (2011) continues:

Educators who understand the moral purposes of their work think about curriculum as dynamic. They do not refer to curriculum as an object or commodity but understand curriculum as a process of creating a rich and meaningful course of study that integrates their knowledge of pedagogy, scholarship in the academic disciplines, educational research, and learners’ and families’ needs and interests. (p. 37)

Consequently, teacher education pedagogies rooted in the spirit of the liberal arts rather than professional studies are needed. We must redeem teacher education! Redemption (following Purpel’s “sacred” metaphor) means moving away from training and toward education (Eisner, 2002; Quantz, 2011) to liberate curriculum by disentangling curriculum from standards and privileging curriculum inquiry.

Redeeming Curriculum: Foundations as a Guiding Metaphor

The Foundations of Education provide an alternative metaphor by which to conceive curriculum: An approach that “understands education as other than a technical enterprise of means-ends reasoning capable of being packaged as a consumer product” (Quantz, 2013, p. 177). The Foundations provide a conceptual scaffold for teacher education that defies training. That is, it is not a class but an approach that privileges “reading the world” as a framing discourse—an ontology/epistemology for the teacher—and so a teacher education curriculum that embodies the Foundations across disparate courses. Additionally, Foundations as metaphor rejects an additive approach, which marginalizes foundational study to a mere class (or two). Rather, it privileges interpretive, normative, critical dispositions infused throughout (and foundation for) the teacher education curriculum (Council for Social Foundations of Education, 1996). In opposition to technical, skill-oriented teacher “training,” which focuses on narrow how-to and selection and application of best (most efficient) technique, foundations of education as metaphor requires a moral, political, critical orientation. To resist the hegemonic professional orthodoxy, “The education we offer our candidates should engage them in the best the liberal arts tradition has to offer: reflective self-discernment as well as critical cultural understanding” (Liston, Whitcomb, and Borko, 2009, p. 107).

Without the normative and critical imperative that Foundations provides, and which the liberal arts invigorates, we might merely be advocating a re-application of technical teaching. That is, there is the possibility that we simply replace one form of technical teaching—embodied by scripted curricula—with a slightly less constricted one that simply requires selecting from one technique over another. Even if the latter requires more “critical” thinking, in that it requires the discerning and selection from two possible alternatives, it does not inherently include the normative, that is, considerations of what ought to be. In short, what we advocate, and what foundations as metaphor requires, is curriculum wisdom. Henderson and Kesson describe curriculum wisdom as a “particular kind of educational decision making” that includes both this second, more complex technical, or practical, reasoning, and a normative decision making: “At this deeper level, the problem solving becomes infused with critical and imaginative insights. The search for a practical resolution is transformed into the aspiration to advance a critically informed moral vision” (Henderson and Kesson, 2004, p. 8).

Teacher-students (future teachers as well as current) must devote themselves to inquiry into pedagogy as a moral and political practice and to casting visions of (democratic) public life—in short, become transformative public intellectuals. They must critically construct representations of their teacher-selves. And the must understand and advocate for physical, political-economic, and social ecologies that empower their students’ learning.

Education Department Conceptual Framework

How do we, the authors, empower our students within the contexts of our own settings, given the aforementioned convictions? One thought is to begin with a close examination of practice, which moves into careful consideration of mission, value, and practice and then a critical alignment of these elements. It is our hope that our values under the umbrella of our education department and our teaching actions truly exemplify who we are and the desired outcome of liberated teaching professionals who practice a pedagogy of critique. The examination begins with an exploration of our mission and values. These are taken directly from our departmental handbook, which grounds who we are in the classroom.

The Education Department at The College of Idaho strives to be an educative learning community. The conceptual framework of our programs is one based on John Dewey’s understanding of educative experiences that encourage personal and community growth (Dewey & Archambault, 1964). In our community students are provided with a reflective, caring environment so that the process of becoming a teacher can be explored. It is a community where students are offered a vision of schooling that promotes and helps create to a more just and democratic society.

  • Community of Learners: An educative learning community counters the image of the teacher as a “technician” with one of the teacher as an active participant in issues that affect the larger educational community (Apple & Beane, 2007). Rather than avoid a discussion of values, this perspective advocates the necessity of such discussions, because teaching is, at its core, a value-laden enterprise (Goodland, Soder, & Sirotnik, 1990). The program, based upon students who learn and grow together, encourages ongoing conversations about meaningful issues central to a liberal arts education.
  • Critical and Caring Pedagogy: An educative learning community takes the position that a hopeful, democratic future depends upon educators committed to emancipatory education (Giroux, 1997). It reflects Landon Beyers’ description of an emancipatory curriculum in teacher education as one designed to emphasize the following: equal access to knowledge, images of human equality, development of a “critical consciousness,” self-reflectivity, creativity, cultural acceptance, moral responsibility, democratic empowerment, and a pedagogy of caring (Beyer & Apple, 1998). It affirms Nel Noddings’ belief that, for schools to be true centers of learning, they must embrace caring in all its forms—care for self, for intimate others, for associates and acquaintances, for distant others, for nonhuman animals, for plants and the physical environment, for the human-made world of objects and instruments, and for ideas (Noddings, 2005).
  • Constructivist Learning: An educative learning community takes a constructivist perspective toward classroom practice in which learning is seen as active, purposeful, and generated from within. This perspective, rooted in Piagetian principles of development and drawing on Vygotsky (Tryphon & Voneche, 1996), extends the notion of the construction of knowledge from one that is primarily an individualized and internal process to one that more comprehensively encompasses social foundations of thinking (Bruner, 1986). In this view, knowledge is not only embedded in socio-historical and socio-cultural elements, but is actually generated through shared interactions and individual internalization (Wertsch, 1991). (College of Idaho Education Department Handbook, 2014, pp. 4-5)

Education Department Program Structure

Students enrolled in teacher preparation at the College of Idaho have the following programmatic options:

  • Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies for Elementary Precertification Major.
  • Undergraduate Secondary Education Precertification Minor.

(Note that both undergraduate programs are pre-licensure. Students must complete the 5th year student teaching placement and coursework, and pass Praxis exams in two licensure areas, to earn the department’s Institutional Recommendation for Licensure).

  • The 5th Year Internship Teacher Certification program (elementary or secondary)
    • With the option to add The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT)
  • Bilingual/ENL endorsement programs
    • With the option to add The Master of Education: Curriculum & Instruction

(The conceptual framework and additional program details are available in the Education Department Handbook online at http://www.collegeofidaho.edu/education-handbook).

This structure aligns with our conceptual framework, college-wide curricular requirements, and state mandates; though we are mindful about whether and how the program meets the educational needs of our students as future teachers. The aforementioned mission, conceptual framework, and program offerings drive our process. Each member of our education department believes in these core values. We strive to live them out in our teaching practice. We believe that our programs, based in these elements, encourage teachers to think critically, to establish community, and teach using constructivist values. The conundrum we have encountered – despite such clarity in program and values – is that teachers, including us, fall prey to the devouring demise of the standards made me do it…. We have what we think is a good program structure, yet we are faced with graduates who struggle to negotiate standardization through a pedagogy of critique. We, in the role of teacher educators, need to double back and see if this is true across our curriculum. We need to assess our own practices in light of this metaphor and work to redeem teacher education curriculum.

The stakes are high. Teacher educators must, as Paulo Freire claims, “come to see how the domesticating power of the dominant ideology causes teachers to become ambiguous and indecisive, even in the face of blatant injustice” (Darder, 2002, p. 38).

To this extent, we, the authors, desire to be part of the action in our own work. This marks the beginning of our critical exploration of our own practices – this makes the place in which we seek to establish, support, change, align, refine, our practices as we work to prepare and support teachers in the spirit of a liberal arts education – an outcome that does not produce the status quo or cookie cutter teacher replicas who are a mere reflection of what is the current face of education. Rather, we seek teacher education as a pedagogy of critique – unique, impactful, and true to our mission!


Beyer, L. E., and Michael, W. A. (1998). Values and politics in the curriculum. New York: SUNY Press.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

College of Idaho Education Department Handbook. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.collegeofidaho.edu/education-handbook.

Council for Social Foundations of Education. (1996). Standards for academic and professional instruction in foundations of education, educational studies, and educational policy studies (2nd ed.). Council of Learned Societies in Education.

Darder, A. (2002). Reinventing Paulo Freire: A pedagogy of love. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Dewey, J. and Archambault, R. D. (Ed.). (1974). John Dewey, on education: Selected writing. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Eisner, E. W. (2002). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Henderson, J. G., and Kesson, K. R. (2004). Curriculum wisdom: Educational decisions in democratic societies. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Merrill/Prentice.

Giroux, H. A. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling, a critical reader. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Goodlad, J. I., Soder, R., and Sirotnik, K. A. (1990). The moral dimensions of teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Joseph, P. B. (Ed). (2011). Cultures of curriculum (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Liston, D., Whitcomb, J., and Borko, H. (2009). The end of education in teacher education: Thoughts on reclaiming the role of social foundations in teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education (60)2, 107-111.

Noddings, N. (2005). Caring in education. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved from http://infed.org/mobi/caring-in-education/

Purpel, D. (1989). The moral and spiritual crisis in education. New York: Bergin & Garvey.

Quantz, R. A. (2013). Backing in to the foundations. Critical Questions in Education, Special Issue, 4(2), 168-180.

Quantz, R. A. with Terry O’Connor and Peter Magolda. (2011). Rituals and student identity in education: Ritual critique for a new pedagogy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tryphon, A. and Voneche, J. (Eds.). (1996). Piaget-Vygotsky: The social genesis of thought. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

Wertsch, J. (1991) Voices of the mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




“Opening the Door to the Whirlwind” of British Gothic Literature: Exploring Risk-Taking Practices in the Preservice Classroom


Syndie Allen

University of Idaho




This study explores the connections, reflections, and risk-taking practices of elementary preservice teachers (n=15) enrolled in a Teaching Writing/Language Arts Methods course at a Pacific Northwest University as they engaged in a 4-week thematic unit focused on British Gothic Literature. The big questions asked about the connections and moves made both as student and beginning teacher. The study then looked at how new knowledge was infused into teaching practices. Inductive, phenomenological analysis of reading responses, informal quick-writing, narratives, lesson plans, reflections, and field notes reveal that the preservice teachers participated in the unit with enthusiasm and curiosity as students, arrived at cautious acceptance as future teachers, and then demonstrated nuanced risk-taking with the material as actual teachers.


At the intersection of beginning teacher and veteran student, preservice teachers wear both hats as they make the sometimes-challenging transition from primarily being taught to primarily teaching. They have a profound responsibility to their future students to send them into the world as thinking and empathetic members of our citizenry, an endeavor that requires a fair amount of risk as well as a healthy amount of willingness to make mistakes and even to outright fail. The college instructors that lead the preservice classroom are charged with the same responsibility, but as the more seasoned professionals should possess a variety of strategies and tools that provide preservice teachers space for taking chances in all areas of their academic and teaching lives.

The primary objectives of this study were to first explore preservice teacher experiences with a thematic unit focused on using unfamiliar literature, in this case British Gothic literature. And secondly, to examine how the resulting experiences shape and influence risk-taking activities as the students practice being teachers. In other words, the big research questions were (1) what are preservice teachers’ perceptions of, connections to, and experiences with a British Gothic literature-focused thematic unit that includes a variety of reading and writing activities? And (2) does engaging with a British Gothic literature-focused thematic unit prompt preservice teachers to implement this type and other types of literature into their teaching practice and if so, how?

The Power of Literature

Literature as an effective tool in the classroom is well supported. While some have argued more generally that the value of literature is intrinsic and therefore unquestionably belongs in every teacher’s toolkit (Kiefer, Hepler, & Hickman, 2007), there is also abundant evidence that using literature has specific and positive rewards. First and foremost, it influences perceptions of and attitudes toward reading (Eldredge & Butterfield,1986; Morrow, 2003;) and promotes reading achievement (Cohen, 1968; Galda & Cullinan, 2003). And because reading and writing are inextricably linked, literature has been shown to influence writing ability (DeFord, 1984; Lancia, 1997) and increase knowledge of written language and written linguistic features (Purcell-Gates, McIntyre, & Freppon, 1995). It has also been shown to deepen language development (Chomsky, 1972; Morrow, 1992) as well as understanding of and engagement with content (Bean, 2000).

In addition, literature can provide spaces where “readers encounter imaginative and compelling situations;” where they “discover stories of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, tales of faith, hope, and charity as well as narratives that depict pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust” and it is through these encounters that readers develop a more “differentiated grasp of life as well as a wider and more nuanced moral compass” (Roche, 2004, p. 21). Using literature in such a manner is not a new concept, in fact, there is a vast amount of rich and valuable research showing how multicultural education is dramatically and positively enhanced when students are introduced to ethnically unfamiliar texts.

For example, Christensen (2006) determined that students enrolled in a social studies class were more amenable to critical conversations after reading and discussing graphic novels about social conflicts in places such as Bosnia. Later, Burns (2009) discovered that first graders, after engaging with stories about war, were able to reflect on their own visions of what a peaceful world looks like. Such texts and the interactions with them offer readers new pathways into understanding their role in the perpetuation of stereotypes (Glenn, 2012), how systems rather than the individual influence society, (Williams, 2004), and the consequences of marginalization (George, 2002). Given the possibilities and history of literature use in the classroom, it is then reasonable to consider literature as a potential tool that might promote risk-taking in the teaching practices of preservice teachers.

Theoretical Framework

This project is rooted in experienced-based learning theories that argue knowledge is heavily shaped by life and worldly experiences (Foucault, 1989; Phillips, 1995) and in the sociocultural perspectives from Vygotsky (1978) and Dewey (1916) that maintain learners construct knowledge and make meaning through their social interactions with others. Additionally, it is grounded in adult learning theories (Knox, 1977) that argue adult learners have developed a frame of reference or “a coherent body of experience, associations, concepts, values, feelings, [and] conditioned responses that define their life world” (Mazirow, 1997, p. 5). The purpose of the resulting knowledge then is not to equip learners with the ability to describe a universal reality, but rather it is to help them function in the world (Dewey, 1929/1960; Rorty, 1979) and to complicate their established paradigms and morphing them into more inclusive and self-reflective spaces (Mazirow, 1997).

Learners become active participants as they interact with each other and with the instructor, articulating, clarifying, and reflecting on their ideas through classroom conversation and through their writing. Good classroom discussion, like writing, can “engage students in interactions to promote analysis, reflection, and critical thinking” (Goldenberg, 1993, p. 317) and provide the dialogic interaction necessary for learning to occur. Learners begin to recognize and critically think about myriad, and oftentimes conflicting, interpretations that exist around a particular text, after which they can make the move towards understanding how multiple analyses can exist together (Rosenblatt, 1978; Wells, 1999) and subsequently “monitor their construction and apply strategies to ameliorate misconstructions and misunderstandings when they occur” (Henderson & Buskist, 2011, p. 234).

Arriving at the Teaching Table

Preservice teachers coming to teacher education programs do not arrive as blank slates; rather they enter with countless experiences and a wealth of background knowledge about a wide variety of ideas. They also arrive with well-developed personal feelings, attitudes, and opinions about what it means to be a teacher, how a classroom should be managed, and how learning happens (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Borko & Putnam, 1996; Collinson 1996; Tomlinson, 1999). Some of these predetermined thoughts are formed in the later high school years and during the first few years of college (Yoo, 2005) and some are formed through interactions with other teachers along the way (Lortie, 2002). Because preservice teachers come well equipped with their own beliefs, their willingness to try something new may not be a priority let alone a primary goal.

Given their fixed notions about teaching, it is understandable that preservice teachers are inclined to teach the way they have been taught and the way they have observed other teachers teaching (Holt-Reynolds, 1992; Korthagen & Kessels, 1999) unless their preconceived ideas are directly addressed and challenged in their teacher education programs (Rath, 2001). There is also evidence pointing to the inability to change their minds and to promote risk-taking in their teaching practices (Zimpher, DeVoss, & Nott, 1980). It has also been argued that changing a preservice teacher’s mind is a daunting and sometimes insurmountable challenge (Bramald, Hardman, & Leat, 1995). Johnson (1994) asserts that “asking preservice teachers to test out alternative models of teaching means asking them to take major risks” (p. 451) and for many of them, this is asking too much as they repeatedly return to what feels comfortable. However, as preservice teacher instructors, we need to encourage them to venture outside of their comfort zones and accept a certain amount of risk. Without such daring moves, there is increased danger of stunted growth and underdeveloped learning in preservice teachers (Elliott & Calderhead, 1993; Stanulis & Russell, 1999), which could then be inherited by elementary and secondary students.

Returning to more secure materials –texts, methods, and the like- can partially be attributed to what has been traditionally privileged in the classroom. For example, canonical literature tends to take precedence (Glenn, 2013) and at times, functions as a failsafe for new teachers given that it is largely accepted as appropriate for use inside a P-12 class setting. It is also helpful that an abundance of supplemental materials exist for well-known texts. Looking for supporting material such as discussion questions, activities, or other teaching ideas for The Raven (Poe, 1845) or The Tale-Tell Heart (Poe, 1843) are much easier to locate than supplemental material for something written by Le Fanu or Polidori, even though most of the contexts and tools for the more traditional texts can be adapted to suit the unfamiliar and lesser-known texts.

A new teacher, perhaps anxious about staying ahead of their students and/or getting it right, may be more likely to use literature that comes ready to teach and has already proven “tried and true” in other classrooms by other teachers. The present study examines risk-taking activity on the part of preservice teachers, not merely as students, but also as future teachers in the field. During a Teaching Writing/Language Arts Methods course, preservice teachers were asked to take a chance and read, engage with, and implement literature most of them had never contemplated let alone experienced.


The study was conducted in a Writing and Language Arts Methods course at a rural, land-grant university in the Pacific Northwest. During the third month of the semester, the preservice teachers enrolled were introduced to a British Gothic Literature thematic unit designed to introduce them to new literature, and to provide them with new methods and tools with which to teach writing and language arts. Every Monday for three hours, during October 2013, 15 preservice teachers engaged and wrestled with Gothic short stories while participating in various discussions, writing, and teaching around unfamiliar and challenging texts.

The Thematic Unit

The thematic unit texts included three required short stories: The Vampyre (Poldori, 1819), The Sandman (Hoffmann, 1844), and Green Tea (Le Fanu, 2008). In addition, preservice teachers also participated in a literature circle where they read and presented on one additional story. The options for this assignment included The Old Nurse’s Story (Gaskell, 1852), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson, 1886), Fatal Jealousy (Anonymous, 1807), and Carmilla (Le Fanu, 2008). A small sampling of short stories and film excerpts that provided a brief but intense exploration of the many themes and conventions associated with British Gothic literature were included as part of in-class activities.

The readings were supplemented with formal reading responses where preservice teachers responded to questions about their experience with the text or with the activities. Three of the four days included short, informal quick writing about the day’s discussion or activities. The final piece of writing asked preservice teachers to take a significant moment in their lives and turn it into a mini Gothic short story. Their stories were accompanied by reflections on decisions made, risks taken, and usefulness of the assignment in both their writing and in their teaching. The final assignment required them to prepare one literature-focused writing lesson plan, with accompanying reflection detailing the specific choices made within the lesson plan. A second lesson plan with reflection was required as part of the course and was also collected as part of the study.

Before the unit officially began, the preservice teachers were given a copy of the thematic unit. Titled, “A Character of Malignity – Unfathomable Malignity,” it consisted of a rationale, goals, text list, daily lesson plans, grade scale, assignments, rubrics, discussion questions, a glossary of British Gothic themes and terms, an image cache, and a reference list. The Reading Response Prompts as well as the Narrative Assignment are included in the Appendix. The purpose for delivering a copy of the unit to the participants was to keep them apprised of the activities as well as to provide them with a model for their own thematic unit construction.


Eighteen elementary (K-8) preservice teachers registered for and completed the course, of which 15 signed and returned the consent form to participate in the study. There were 13 females and two males, and all identified as White. Thirteen arrived as Elementary Education Majors, and two as Early Childhood Majors doing a blended certificate. They were a mix of juniors and seniors within one year of entering into their student teaching, and they were simultaneously enrolled in Reading Methods, Arts Methods, and Field Work Practicum courses. The Elementary Majors were also enrolled in a Children’s Dance course.

The researcher was also the instructor of the course and had completed a graduate-level British Gothic Literature course the previous semester. The texts and several discussion threads appearing in the unit came from that course. The researcher also has an extensive background in literature, including a Master of Arts degree in English Literature. In addition, a fellow doctoral student attended each class session as a participant observer (Spradley, 1980). Each class day, for three hours, she observed and took field notes of the overall tenor of the classroom, the preservice teachers, and the instructor. The field notes, focused specifically on student engagement, participation, and questions, provided necessary context for each of the lessons listed in the unit.

Data Collection

To examine the preservice teachers’ perceptions, experiences, and connections with British Gothic literature, reading responses, narratives, reflections, quick-writes, and field notes were collected. To answer the question of how preservice teachers’ perceptions, experiences, and connections influenced and shaped teaching practices and risk-taking within those practices, lesson plans and reflections on the lesson plans were collected. Table 1 summarizes the type and amount of data collected. All data was scanned into the computer as images and subsequently returned to the preservice teachers after assessment and evaluation were completed. After data collection ended, names were removed, and each preservice teacher was assigned a unique alphanumeric code so as to be able to track them individually, if necessary.

Data Analysis

Using a phenomenological approach, data analysis was initially concerned with the lived experiences of the preservice teachers (Kvale, 1996; Greene, 1997; Maypole & Davies, 2001). During the first phase of analysis, the preservice teacher writings were read thoroughly two times. On the second read through, the pages were cut into paragraph-sized pieces since most of the paragraphs generally contained a single unit of thought. The pieces were then pasted the onto large index cards. Moments of summary, specific textual analysis, and literature circle attitudes were excluded because they were not indicative of perceptions, experiences, and connections. Instead, attention was paid to the reflective and narrative moments that addressed either British Gothic literature and/or literature in general, classroom use, choice justification, and personal anecdotes. This process yielded 352 cards.

The second phase of analysis involved re-reading and re-viewing the data and assigning a code that appropriately described the writing of the preservice teachers. Common codes that began to appear included “Text-to-Text Connection” and “Personal Anecdote.” The second phase of analysis yielded 139 cards. The third and final phase of analysis separated the cards into three general categories: Student Practice, Possible Teacher Practice, and Actual Teacher Practice. Student Practice is here defined as the moves and risks taken as a student/preservice teacher inside the teacher education program. Possible Teacher Practice is defined as what the preservice teachers, still operating on some level as students, assume they will do in the classroom regarding literature and the teaching of such. And finally, Actual Teacher Practice is taken from the two lesson plans preservice teachers crafted while participating in the unit and the course in general.


Three overarching themes emerged from the data set. The first theme included the practices of the preservice teachers as they engaged with the unit as a student. The second theme was their possible teacher practices as they reflected on how they might use this type of literature in the classroom. The third, and final theme was their actual teacher practices as they crafted two lesson plans. (1) As students, they generally enjoyed their encounter with something new, (2) as possible teachers, they mostly considered the use of such literature fine as long as it was adapted, and (3), when acting as actual teachers, they largely reverted to safer content and did not include Gothic literature in their lesson plans.

Student Practice

The time period for the required texts is the 19th century, and they, therefore, contain language that is not as familiar to these particular preservice teachers as texts with more modern language might be. As the unit progressed, and the reading embarked upon, the preservice teachers found the literature difficult to read and digest. When describing the readings, they used descriptors such as “wordy,” “long,” “boring,” “tough,” and “thick.” One student lamented in a quick write how they wished they could have “selected their own literature circle book” due to the difficulty of The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde (Stevenson, 1886). However, even though they found the language challenging and unfamiliar, they were still amenable to fully participating with the thematic unit.

Overall, through their quick writing, narrative reflections, and reading responses the preservice teachers enjoyed participating in the unit for many reasons. The quick writes revealed many comments about loving the exposure to a new and unfamiliar genre of literature. All of them said they had either never heard of or thought about British Gothic Literature, and although a few claimed they were familiar with Edgar Allen Poe and even fewer with Flannery O’Connor, they had little to no experience with anything outside of American Gothic writers. They were, however, eager to learn more. The final quick write revealed that many found the exploration of British Gothic literature “interesting,” “exciting,” and according to one student, “fabulous.”

In the reflections on their narratives, most were pleased with not only the assignment, but with their ability to navigate and complete it successfully. Although there were two preservice teachers who did not find the assignment purposeful, the majority were pleased with the creative freedom the assignment allowed and found it purposeful for various reasons such as that it allowed them to “think outside the box” and to “tell their own story.” One student in particular said they thought that “the door was wide open and that they were ready to go through.” Another student claimed they “surprised themselves” with their creativity. Still others found space to revise and edit their work and to practice writing in general. The narratives themselves demonstrated knowledge of British Gothic elements (such as castles, labyrinths, frightful weather, omens, vampires, and so forth) discussed and used in class. The assessments, which were based on a predetermined rubric, showed successful convention implementation across the board.

According to their reading responses asking them about the specific texts, all were able to find a pathway to and connect with the stories. The Vampyre (Polidori, 1819) sparked interest and memories as they remembered that they did “like vampire stories” and most of them made connections to other authors such as Stephanie Meyers and Anne Rice, and to other texts such as Dracula (Stoker, 1897) and even the old television show Dark Shadows (Costello, 1966). Two reminisced about Halloweens past and “hanging out with family members who loved everything Gothic and dark.” After reading The Sandman (Hoffmann, 1844), they pondered over whom they empathized with, Nathaniel or Klara, making connections to our present love of technology as well as to negative experiences with former significant others. In addition, following our discussions of Green Tea (Le Fanu, 2008) where poor Reverend Jennings is menaced by an evil monkey, every student had a story about a time when either they or someone they knew were terrorized by an animal, be it a dog, cat, crow, or squirrel.

The final reading response asked them to talk about their experiences and connections in terms of the overall unit. The same words appeared repeatedly and included descriptors such as “exciting,” “rewarding,” “educational,” “beautiful,” “spectacular,” and “intriguing.” Although there was an Early Childhood major who claimed they did not find the unit “super helpful,” most wrote statements like “I developed an appreciation of Gothic Literature,” “I want to read more,” “It actually wasn’t that bad,” and one student even lamented their birth in this time period claiming, “I was born in the wrong era. I feel I would fit in better in 18th/19th century London.” Clearly, the preservice teachers, in regard to their own personal learning as students, were deepening their understanding of and engagement with the content of the unit.

Possible Teacher Practice

As the teachers they think themselves to be, the preservice teachers considered how their learning during the unit impacted their future teaching practices. In the final quick write, many addressed the possible use of British Gothic literature in the classroom. They wrote sentiments such as “it was so fun and will be great to bring into the classroom with some adaptations of course.” Three thought that Halloween was a great time to talk about this kind of literature and one student “really thought it was useful for students to get at their own stories.” Not everyone was pleased with the unit activities. There were two who decided the unit was “not applicable in any way to their own future teaching” and that “religious beliefs and risk of parent offense would never allow them to bring this kind of literature into their classroom.”

In the final reading response, they were asked about the possibility of bringing literature into the classroom and all but three were enthusiastic about the possibility of teaching with literature, saying not only that it was “possible” but also “desirable.” The reasons for such a move included “important messages,” “building vocabulary,” “contributing to a student’s well-rounding,” “building a love of reading,” ”sparking interest in new things,” “connecting to the lives of students,” and “introducing students to new perspectives and cultures.” Most attached qualifying statements to their affirmative answers. For example, they added statements such as “if it is age-appropriate,” “but it would have to adapted,” or “but it is more appropriate in the upper grades.”

There was also concern about future students’ attitudes about English and literature. Some of them remembered the boring classes they took in middle school and high school and vowed to remedy this issue in their own classrooms, claiming that early exposure to literature and more specifically, unfamiliar literature that connects to students’ lives, will help decrease the “dread” and “boredom” that kept them from loving and understanding older stories and other texts. Two did not share the above sentiments, and as Early Childhood majors they disapproved of most literature in the classroom because it had too high a potential of being too mature or too complex for children. They cited fear of “angry parents,” “developmental issues,” and an anecdote about a scary story heard in a first-grade classroom that did not go well.

According to field notes from the first day’s discussion, much excitement was generated over the possibility of using age-appropriate scary stories in their lesson plans. One student claimed that teachers “need to teach them about real life.” However, subsequent writings suggest a reconsideration as well as a demonstration of a deep anxiety around the type of literature and the age of the students- ideas that may have been already firmly implanted as they entered the course and the unit, as researchers such as Borko & Putnam (1996), Calderhead & Robson (1991) and Tomlinson (1999) have argued.

Actual Teacher Practice

Of the 30 lesson plans collected, 21 plans included the use of literature to teach a writing concept. Nine plans did not and instead, implemented other tools such as technology and drawing. Of the 21 that included the use of literature, four included a type of Gothic literature while the remaining 17 chose to include other types of reading. One of the Gothic-focused lessons used an unnamed Edward Gorey image that was part of a larger exhibit, “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey,” held in Boston, 2011. The second one brought in a grade school-friendly video adaptation of Frankenstein (Vaughn, 2010). The clip is part of a YouTube series titled Speakaboos, where readers tell truncated versions of popular stories and poems. Their mission, according to their Facebook page is to “inspire a love of reading in children through storytelling,” and Frankenstein is one of many clips available.

Of the remaining lesson plans that employed a type of literature, Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature were the most often used types. The fairy tales included unspecified selections such as “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and a few paragraphs from the original version of The Little Mermaid (Anderson, 1837). There were also other stories that might be considered more fable than fairy tale such as unspecified versions of “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Princess and the Pea.” A few preservice teachers also selected from Fractured Fairy Tales (Scieszka, 1996) as companion pieces. The Children’s Literature category included Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business (1993), and Flying Over Brooklyn (2003) as well as selections from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1990) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) appropriate for elementary school children. One preservice teacher created a lesson that used Anansi the Spider (2009), a children’s book about a West African trickster deity.

Of the three who chose poetry, two used selections from Shel Silverstein (2000/2006)- Hug-O-War and Noise Day– and one used Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones (Schachner, 2007). For the Young Adult literature, select passages from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling, 2009) appeared. In the “Other” category, the texts were small samples from the U.S. Constitutionand Pride and Prejudice (Austen, 1813), as well as the unnamed “popular stories in multiple genres.” In addition, one preservice teacher used the science fiction short story, There Will Come Soft Rains (Bradbury, 1950).

The reflections that accompanied the lesson plans revealed preservice teachers’ insights about their specific literature choices and overall ideas about using literature in their teaching. There were several who did not provide reasoning and justification for their text selection, but many indicated they had selected their texts because of either their or their student’s previous use or knowledge of the texts, as the following responses indicate.

Emily:             “I love Shel Silverstein’s poems. They are fun and entertaining and most students are aware of him.”

Catherine:        “I am using fairy tales because students love fairy tales.”

Isabella:           “I picked Anasi because I have used it before and I knew what I could do with it and had seen good ways and not so good ways to approach it.”

Jonathan:         “Last semester, I had the opportunity to read Frankenstein in one of my classes. Frankenstein is a classic and was a fun read. The obvious hurdle was the difficult language to read and length of the writing. I found a YouTube video that addressed both concerns.”

Manfred:         “The constitution is something that most people are familiar, but most students don’t understand how powerful the writing is.”

It would appear that although a few beginning teachers reverted to more familiar literature, there were moves being made that demonstrate more careful thinking about its inclusion.

Also present was commentary about literature in general and its place in the classroom. Most responses included descriptors such as “fun,” “balance,” “imagination,” and “well-rounded” as well as phrases such as “building on what the student already knows,” “capturing interest,” and “inspiring creativity.” The following responses capture the pervasive positive attitude that appeared in the reflections.

Agnes:             “By teaching a lesson using fiction, where the students can use their favorite characters, I am hoping to develop a love for writing.”

Antonia:          “With all of my new found knowledge on how to teach literature I can honestly say I am extremely excited. When I have my own class I will definitely be creative when teaching literature. There is so much that I can do with it and so many genres that I would like to cover. When I was in school I can’t remember ever going over sci-fi or horror. These two genres were always fascinating to me and I assume [would be] interesting to other students. I want my students to have the opportunity to learn about a variety of genres, so that when they go to the library they will have a richer understanding of what to look for and what they like.”

Based on their lesson plan reflections, most of these particular preservice teachers were heading in the right direction with the overall, big idea of incorporating literature into their teaching practices.


It is important to note that while only two future teachers used British Gothic literature in their lesson plans, most of their discussion and teaching practices were indicative of deep thinking in two areas: (1) how to bring literature into the classroom and (2) how their own experiences compared to the experiences they wish for their future students. They engaged in and at times, wrestled with British Gothic literature, writing about their insights and struggles along the way. They watched trailers for scary movies and felt comfortable to share what scares them, all while reading some admittedly dense prose. They made strong connections between the presented material and their authentic, lived experiences and then made beginning moves to incorporate similar material into their own teaching practices.

This work is just a small piece of the picture wherein preservice teachers connected on a personal level, which is demonstrative of their open and curious minds. In addition, these particular preservice teachers are beginning to develop an understanding of and appreciation for trying something new. Being aware of their own past as well as their less positive, or “boring,” experiences in the classroom has put them in a position to think critically about and analyze what they want for their own students.

Pratt (2002) argues for places of “social and intellectual spaces where groups can constitute themselves as horizontal, homogeneous, sovereign communities with high degrees of trust, shared understandings, and temporary protection from legacies of oppression” (p. 17). Expanding on Pratt’s thinking, Gomes and Carter (2010) suggest that an awareness of stereotypes has to exist before critical discussion can occur. As a parallel, awareness of their own pasts might need to be more thoroughly developed in the preservice teachers before they can take risks with different genres and writing activities. The following students (names have been changed) concisely sum up the awareness that developed:

Emilia:             “I think that if we were exposed to more literature, we would have a betterattitude about it later.”

Julia:                “It’s important to get students out of their comfort zones. Later in life,

students will be reading and analyzing all sorts of things so in order to prepare them, I want to expose them to all types of reading. Reading a variety of material also allows students to see different perspectives. I want my students to understand that the world is seen through different eyes in different ways.”

Some of the attitudes and comments could be attributed to the researcher’s own background and experience with the subject. Five students wrote that their favorite part was the “passion for and knowledge of the subject.” The second researcher noted at least once per class session that “students looked engaged” and “students seemed receptive” as they moved through each three-hour session of literature and methods. When asked to define “engaged” and “receptive,” the second researcher explained that students looked alert, were making eye contact, and endeavored to include their own connections and insights into the discussion. She also noted on the second day that the instructor “sounded very knowledgeable about the topic” as they were provided examples and specific details about related texts.

Their text selections can be attributed to a variety of reasons. As referenced above, some picked what they liked or what they or their students were or might be comfortable with. The abundance of fairy-tale themed lessons may have been the result of their concurrent Children’s Literature course where they were fully enmeshed in various versions of fairy tales and their fractured offspring. Connecting and adapting course material to fit different needs is a good use of time for busy beginning teachers. The science fiction loving preservice teacher who was so excited to “finally introduce Ray Bradbury,” has since been the researcher’s office to breathlessly explain how she is not only taking a British Literature course but has received permission from the course professor to craft and present a thematic unit as her final project. As she turned to leave, she happily exclaimed, “And I’m totally using Gothic Literature!”

British Gothic literature presented these future teachers with a scaffolded space with which to work through unfamiliarity- both in language and in content, a skill they may be able to transfer to their reading of and reflection on more diverse and multicultural texts. There were certainly a few who were relieved to have the unit come to a close and who plan on never using this type or any type of literature in the future. Such reactions were expected, and through self-reflection, a level of comfort was reached with the fact that not everyone has to be as enamored of the material as the instructor is. Nevertheless, the rest of the future teachers provided good evidence that they have come to a more nuanced understanding and that they have expanded their thinking as well as their repertoire of strategies for their future classrooms.

Future Directions

One month of instruction does not a risk-taking teacher make and, as Johnson (2011) argues, if “teachers seek to change students’ initial negative perceptions about classroom materials, [then] they must offer them in-depth, repeated experiences that contradict their misconceptions” (p. 218) and it is reasonable to suggest that the same holds true for preservice teachers. Regardless, one month provided a good starting point, although in the future, it may be better idea to more fully embed such instruction rather than having it stand alone as an isolated and rather stark unit of instruction.

Incorporating different literary genres also provides a place for future direction and would also allow spaces for preservice teachers to connect their personal experiences with the material. For example, Contemporary Literature could also be embedded into a course to open spaces for discussions about marginalized voices or Historical Fiction where students entertain alternative interpretations and constructions of historical events and figures. The student, who was excited about bringing in Science Fiction, connected her work with her own passion about literature with futuristic settings and time travel. And finally, it is difficult to draw solid, long-term conclusions about a specific set of preservice teachers after a few short weeks of interaction. Tracking and talking with them as well as collecting artifacts and interviews as they move into their student teaching and beyond would help provide a bigger, more accurate picture of their risk-taking activities as far as literature is concerned.


Ruminating on the subject of risk-taking, the vampire Lestat tells readers “very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds — justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind” (Rice, 2004, p. 380). What an eloquent phrase for precisely what teacher educators want from their preservice teachers as they embark on their own teaching journey where it is imperative that they foster creativity and innovation in themselves and in their own students.


Additional Texts and Materials

 Reading Response Prompts

  1. What do you know about vampires? Are they something you have ever been or currently are interested in? Polidori’s The Vampyre is considered the first literary vampire story. Do you like it? Why or why not? This is considered the first vampire novel. What is it doing and why might it be considered “gothic”? How does Lord Ruthvayne compare to other vampires you know of? Would you have done what Aubrey did? Why or why not?
  2. What major themes do you see at work in this text? Pick one and expand on how Hoffman explores this theme. Weigh in on how effective Hoffman is at this task. Who do you, if at all, feel bad for in this story? What makes it scary? Or not? Does it have relevance to contemporary issues? Does this story remind you of any other tales you’ve heard?
  3. Thus far, we have read three stories and watched a few movie clips. What is your take thus far on the British Gothic tradition? Why do you think this way? Do you think that all types of literature can be integrated into a P-12 classroom? Why or why not? What types of benefits or limitations do you foresee by attempting this move?
  4. Does this story remind you of anything you have read before? If so, what and why? If not, how is this text similar and different from the texts we have read thus far? Why do you think this? The monkey in this story is quite menacing. Can you think of a time when you were menaced by an animal? If not, what about someone you know? How did you react? How did the scene play out?

Gothic Narrative Assignment

Narrative is a significant way in which humans interact with each other and make meaning or sense out of their lived or personal experience. Stories shape our identities and while often told for entertainment, they can also create a sense of shared history, linking people together; they can provide psychological healing. Reading or listening to the narrative of someone who faced a life crisis similar to one you are experiencing can help you through the crisis. They can also help the writer deal with the crisis they can provide insight, facilitating the discovery of values, the exploration of options, and the examination of motives. Whatever the reasons, one of the worst reasons is to fulfill an assignment, so take care in selecting the period for this one so that you are not merely “doing your assignment.” This space is for you to demonstrate your knowledge of gothic conventions and to write about a day in your life that you found especially moving, challenging, enlightening, troublesome, etc.

Assignment: Think of one day that was especially interesting or eventful and turn it into a 500-word Gothic short story. Make use of the themes and conventions we have discussed in class, borrowing the language and tone of the novels and texts we have encountered during this unit. Be specific and concrete and include sensory detail. The story should have a clear purpose and only span the course of one day or less.

Reflection: Spend some time re-reading your narrative when it is all finished and ready for submission. Why did you pick the day you did? Were there other days you considered? Why didn’t you pick them? What strategies did you use to complete this assignment and why? Was this assignment purposeful to you? Why or why not? This section should be 400-600 words.

Table 1

Collected Data

Type Amount
300-word Reading Responses 60 (4 per participant)
100-word Quick-Writes 45 (3 per participant)
500-word Gothic Narrative 15 (1 per participant)
300-word Gothic Narrative Reflection 15 (1 per participant)
Lesson Plan 30 (2 per participant)
300-word Lesson Plan Reflection 30 (1 per participant)



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NEW NJTE ARTICLE – A Portrait of Hope

A new article, entitled A Portrait of Hope by Kathleen M. Cowin has been added to  NJTE ONLINE.

A Portrait of Hope: A Beginning Teacher Learns about Community


Kathleen M. Cowin

Assistant Professor

Teacher and Counselor Education

Oregon State University – Cascades Campus

Bend, Oregon




A question listed in the call for this issue was: What are the sources and examples of hope for teachers, school leaders, and students as experienced and gained through learning,…, [and] community connections? This portrait of a beginning teacher’s experiences learning about community as she navigates her first year of teaching provides a way for readers to think about how to develop community within a classroom and school, the roles members of a school community play in community development, and how mentoring may influence community building. Through portraiture methodology (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) the reader will glimpse a deeper view of Maria in her first year of teaching and as a veteran teacher. Maria’s approach to the tragic death of several parents in her school community helped both children and adults experience a sense of community, renewal, and hope in a very difficult time.


I will tell the story of a beginning teacher who, through her experiences in a time of death and loss, was able to create hope for herself, her students, and her school community. This portrait of Maria, interwoven with examples of mentorship by her supportive principal and mentor teacher, may offer insights into how one teacher created a community in her classroom and school during a difficult time, and how her mentors helped her integrate into the school community during her first year of teaching. This portrait also explores how relationships developed within the context of community helped create a supportive and learning-filled community to help both children and adults make sense of the happenings of their lives.

Portraiture Methodology Overview

Portraiture methodology (Lightfoot, 1983; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) was used to create this view of Maria (a pseudonym) and a series of events that occurred during her first year as a teacher. The portrait presented here is excerpted from a longer portrait due to its length. A word portrait is shaped by a dialogue between the researcher (portraitist) and the participant (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 3). As the portraitist of this study, I used the essential elements of portraiture: context, voice, and relationship as lenses through which the emergent themes came into view. The aesthetic whole, the portrait that is written, gives the participant and the reader of the research an opportunity to step into the story of the participant as well as the researcher. In portraiture the researcher’s voice is present through her or his own understanding of the setting. Producing “a full picture of an event or person that tells as much about the subject as it does the researcher, or portraitist” (Chapman, 2007, p. 157) and makes the research presented through portraiture applicable to those from a variety of areas of interest – not only practitioners and scholars. Portraiture is a methodology that seeks to “combine systematic, empirical description with aesthetic expression, blending art and science, humanistic sensibilities and scientific rigor” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 3).

The search for what Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) call “goodness” (p. 9) is in contrast to research methodologies documenting failures that can often evoke a feeling of hopelessness. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis explain goodness in portraiture in this way:

Portraiture resists this tradition-laden effort to document failure. It is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections. The researcher who asks first “what is good here?” is likely to absorb a very different reality than the one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure. But it is also important to say that portraits are not designed to be documents of idealization or celebration. In examining the dimensionality and complexity of goodness there will, of course, be ample evidence of vulnerability and weakness. (p. 9)

Critiques of portraiture (English, 2000; Hackmann, 2002) may offer points for further dialogue in the exploration of paradox in the methodology in such themes as truth-seeking, goodness, or stance of the researcher. These themes are important considerations in learning more about the methodology and are welcomed dialogue by this researcher. Hackmann (2002) makes the point in his critique, citing the work of Fullan and Miles (1992), that “reform initiatives fail when educators act on incomplete information, misunderstand the change process, or simply refuse to change” (p. 58). The challenge that Hackmann offers in his critique of portraiture is for practitioners to “see themselves” in the research, otherwise change is unlikely and the research “will merely sit on a shelf, collecting dust” (p. 58). I invite practitioners and researchers alike into a view, through this portrait, of many educational issues. Each one viewing the portrait may come away with different ideas but this is what I believe portraiture can do: invite the dialogue about our views.

Portraiture Process

This portrait was taken from a larger study of 10 candidates who participated in a study about their beginning mentoring and teaching experiences. I interviewed Maria several times based on prepared questions and follow-up probes. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed by the researcher. Participant checks were conducted to ensure the accuracy of the data. I also conducted site visits to Maria’s classroom and school. Each time I interacted with Maria in her classroom and school, I made notes in what Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) call the “Impressionistic Record” (p.188). I recorded my ongoing observations and reflections from my interviews and interactions as they were happening, and as I transcribed and listened to the tape recordings, on multiple occasions. Often, as I observed or listened to the tape recordings I would note a tone of voice, or repeated phrase, or a question to follow-up on at a future meeting. The reflections made in my recording of my Impressionistic Record would often help me plan for future visits with Maria and highlight additional themes to review in greater detail.

Listening to the tape recordings of the interviews while making the transcription of the tape recorded interviews, rereading the transcriptions as I listened to the tape recordings, and referring to my notes in my Impressionistic Record and from site visits, I began to construct the word portrait of Maria. I used multiple interchanging aspects of each of the lenses – context, voice and relationship – allowing for an initial shaping of the emergent themes of Maria’s portrait. After multiple readings and editing of Maria’s portrait, I sent the portrait to Maria for her review and then scheduled a meeting to discuss her feedback. Her feedback and our dialogue was noted and used in shaping the final portrait. It is through the layering of all these components that triangulation occurs in portraiture.

In the next section I will discuss the definition of “community” as used in this article, and present related literature.

Definitions of Community and Supporting Literature

The definition of classroom and/or school based community used in this article is based on a developmental model. Schaps and Solomon, writing in 1990, described the first step in promoting community as taking into consideration the “prosocial development” of and among children, focusing on interpersonal awareness and the ability to balance one’s own needs with the needs of others as well as on kindness and consideration for others (p. 39). I echo this developmental approach in my own definition of community, stressing as a primary value the ethic of care for everyone, and extending this ethic of care approach to taking responsibility for our actions and how our actions affect not only ourselves but others and the environment of the classroom and school. The type of community described in this article is not just a group of children and adults banded together by proximity or purpose alone. It is also demonstrated in how the children and adults treat each other and how they think and feel about each other.

This is the type of community I have always strived to form in my classrooms or the schools I have led. Combining an ethic of care with personal responsibility can create an opening for a reciprocal type of care to begin to flourish. From this type of reciprocal care for each other and our environment, I have found that the value of respect can grow and be experienced. Caring and respect, present in action and observable among a group of people in relation to one another – this defines community for me.

A definition of community can also be shaped by what it is not. Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996), citing the work of Palmer (1986), define caring in the classroom as:

A learning space needs to be hospitable, not to make learning painless but to make the painful things possible . . . things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypotheses, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought. [None of these] can happen in an atmosphere where people feel threatened or judged. (p. 21)

An environment in which caring and respect is not present can make it difficult to maintain the vulnerability which is needed to learn.

Another definition by Schaps and Lewis (1999) in a study of The Child Development Project, defines community “as a student’s experience of being a valued, influential member of a group committed to everyone’s growth and welfare” (p. 216). The concepts of being committed to not only one’s own growth but to those of the other members of the community are a central component of this definition of community.

Creating Community within Schools

Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996) named five principles of practice for schools to become “caring communities of learners”: (a) warm, supportive, stable relationships; (b) constructive learning; (c) an important, challenging curriculum; (d) intrinsic motivation; and (e) attention to social and ethical dimensions of learning (pp. 17-20).

Schaps and Lewis (1999) continued their work with the Child Development Project and outlined five areas that educators interested in creating community should consider. The first is “‘caring’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’” (p. 216). The authors expand on this theme by contrasting the fine line educators must walk with their students to make the academic component of school challenging while creating an environment in which students feel safe to express themselves and everyone is supporting each other’s academic successes (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 216). Second, “teachers are still central in the student-centered classroom” (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). The role a teacher takes in the delicate balance between acting as facilitator of learning, and taking an expert role not only with consideration of the content of the curriculum but in pedagogy/instructional practices used in the classroom, is vital (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). Third, “schoolwide change is essential” (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). Interestingly, in their study, in the schools in which change was embraced by less than half of the faculty, students faced a sing-song effect of going between classrooms where building community was a primary agenda and classrooms that were impersonal and in which community was not a focus. The authors determined this was more harmful to the students than trying to build community in the first place. A fourth area was “school values must be examined” (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). The content of those values were central to this component of building community and this relates directly back to the teacher’s role in the classroom. For example, the teacher’s authority and use of extrinsic classroom based rewards were discussed as potential issues that could cloud school values. Lastly, “assessment must be aligned philosophically with instruction” was a component of community building outlined by Schaps and Lewis (1999, p. 217). For example, if state based assessments are given based on individualized, competitive processes, and the students have not previously experienced this type of assessment, the results from the assessment may not demonstrate what the children truly know and have mastered.

Others, writing on the development of the concept of professional learning communities (DuFour, 2004, 2007; DuFour, DuFour & Eaker, 2008; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker & Many, 2010; DuFour & Eaker, 1998; Eaker, DuFour & DuFour, 2002; Hord, 1997; Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace & Thomas, 2006) offer a foundation for the continued study of community within the school. What I have been thinking about is how these writers focusing on professional learning communities, along with others in the area of educational leadership (Bolman & Deal, 2001; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008; Fullan, 1998, 2005; Hargreaves & Fink, 2006; Palmer, 1993,1998, 2007; Senge, 1990; Sergiovanni, 1994; Wheatley, 1992, 1999, 2005) might come together with educational researchers, policy analysts, politicians, teacher educators and practitioners to examine how the formation of community may be at the heart of the work we all do.

With these definitions of community and learning communities in mind, I present Maria’s portrait.

A Portrait of Maria

The fall leaves were turning beautiful shades of orange, yellow, and red as I drove to Maria’s school. The view of the mountains was breathtaking. The area has a rural feel but it is not far from the hustle and fast-paced life of the city or suburbs. The small change in the altitude makes the air crisp and clean smelling as I walk across the parking lot to check in at the main office. The main building has a familiar feel with busy kids moving in and out past the office as I check in and wait for the principal to receive me. After the principal gives me a tour of the main building she walks me out to the darling little house which is Maria’s classroom (Impressionistic Record).

This former home has been reconfigured to accommodate a classroom with work areas for science, and lots of storage for curriculum and materials. Every inch of the main classroom space clearly evidences a project in progress and screams, “This is a place where learning is going on.” The seventh grade students sitting at the tables are actively engaged in a discussion from an earlier presentation and are just about to begin the hands-on project. The students accept me with an air of being used to having adults come and go through their classroom space. The bulletin boards are bright and cheery with all available display space being used. Even the restrooms’ walls have been decorated by these middle school students. The girls’ restroom reminds you that “girls are cool” and to “watch out for girl power!” I move around the classroom watching as the students work on the hands-on project. Maria moves around the room answering questions, offering suggestions and feedback to her students. The students are making a paper box from one sheet of paper. There is a feeling tone that spills from the classroom that says this is a fun project! It is a project in which creativity comes out through drawing and which also allows students to let off a little steam by moving around. The students soon find, though, that it is a challenging project, and the noise level rises as they talk with each other and offer help and suggestions (Impressionistic Record).

As the students work it is clear that collaboration is valued within this group of students. As the students clean up, I help out with recycling paper left over from the project, and note how the students work together cooperatively and help each other with the project, offering positive suggestions to each other. This is a very familiar scene for me. It is the middle schooler dance of give and take, with some showing off for each other, others teasing and pushing the limits, but Maria is not bothered at all and plays along seamlessly with the verbal give and take. She has danced this dance many times before and handles it like the seasoned veteran she is. One student really pushes the limits and finally gets a caution from Maria and immediately draws back a bit. There is a settled feeling in her class; one in which most students know the limits and expectations and adhere to them. Maria’s classroom procedures are clearly defined, and exemplified by how the students clean up after the project and get ready to change classes. As the class period ends, the eighth graders who have home room in this space wait patiently outside the entry door until the seventh graders pack up and leave. They too enter the classroom and get packed up for the end of the day in an efficient manner, but still with the enthusiastic give and take of teenagers. Maria calls the students to their closing activities for the day and reminders for tomorrow. Her ability to relate to each individual student is evidenced by her personalized reminders and remarks to many of the students as they leave for the day. She seems to enjoy the banter with them as they ask the last few remaining questions of the day (Impressionistic Record).

Maria invites me to sit at one of the tables and walks over to the kitchen area to make coffee. With her coffee mug in her hand she begins describing her first year of teaching as being welcomed into a community atmosphere at the school which began during her interview process for the position. Maria describes her experience as “being pulled into community” and given “a ton of support” (Personal Communication). Maria mentions that she had two mentors during her first year who really helped her understand the importance of community at the school. One mentor was Rosa, a teacher from another grade level, who had invited Maria to enter into a mentoring relationship, and whose class was assigned to partner with Maria’s class for school-wide activities. Maria’s other mentor was her principal, Pat.

Maria explained that her principal, Pat, did not “sugar coat things” but that she appreciated this “as you knew where you stood with her” (Personal Communication). Maria’s principal gave her small, accomplishable tasks, concrete things to do and compliments along the way. Maria explained how from the first time Pat assigned her to work on a faculty committee, she encouraged Maria by offering a balance of both positive and thoughtful, critical critique. Pat was also very supportive in Maria’s formal teaching evaluations. “It was not like she didn’t offer insights or areas to improve on, but she always had a compliment about a lesson she observed or work you did” (Personal Communication).

Maria stresses that Pat provided leadership in making the establishment of community within the school a priority. Without the establishment of time to go for out for drinks and snacks after school, and celebrating with parties during the holidays, there would not have been opportunities for relationships and community to grow. Maria recalls that during her interview she was asked by the interview panel how she would feel about going out after school together to socialize and attending parties to celebrate at holidays. Her memory of that interview over 20 years ago is still very vivid and her face is animated as she speaks (Impressionistic Record). She said, “Sounds like fun!” (Personal Communication) and states that this is one reason she felt pulled into her new community from the very beginning.

Maria explains that her principal, Pat, also valued making time for mentoring to occur. Pat balanced such things as time for meeting formally, such as faculty meetings, with ensuring that as a beginning teacher, Maria had time without other duties to talk with her mentor teacher, Rosa. Maria reiterates that she felt invited into her school community, and this invitation and acceptance was the form the effective mentoring she received took.

Maria described how her mentor teacher, Rosa, would stop in at the end of every day to ask how Maria’s day had gone, and to share the events of her own day. This dailyritual of stopping in and sharing how the day went continued not only in the beginning years but every year Maria worked at the school. The story Maria tells to illuminate this daily stopping in to share revolves around a particularly sad grouping of events within the community, involving the deaths of several parents of students in the school. Though the school community had faced the death of one parent from a long illness and a sudden death of another due to an accident, two other deaths of parents in the school community were due to suicide.

During one of her after school chats with her mentor teacher, Rosa, Maria shared her concern about searching for a way to help her students cope during this difficult time. Maria felt the students’ questions about what had happened and the deaths should not be brushed off or the subject changed. Maria expressed that she needed to do something more than she was doing for her students to promote “healing” (Personal Communication).

From this initial chat her mentor teacher, Rosa, shared a story about her own experiences with a death that had occurred in the school community years before. Rosa shared how she worked with her principal to prepare lessons on topics related to death and dying and then to also include parents in the lesson planning process and in the lessons. Maria’s mentor teacher told her how she and other faculty members had used community activities to honor those in the school community who had died by planting a rose bush and a tree, but how as time passed the rose bush and tree had been forgotten and other plants had grown over them and they were no longer a focal point in the school landscape.

This initial chat grew into extended conversations and discussions after school. Soon the discussions became planning sessions for lessons and activities. Later that school year a new garden was being planned. A community garden renovation project was initiated by Maria, her mentor teacher, and their students. The students studied not only about gardening but about dying, death, community service, outreach, and most importantly about empathy for their fellow classmates who had experienced the death of a loved one.

The students, with the support of their teachers, the principal, parents, and community businesses, also learned about gardening, and designing a garden, and then came together with their parents and the entire school community to work, plant, and make a beautiful garden space to honor all those in their school community who had died. The students in Maria’s and Rosa’s classes led a commemoration ceremony to open the garden and the whole school community came together to celebrate the learning and work in creating the garden and honoring the families named in the garden project. Maria, Rosa, and their current and future students committed to a long-term service project maintaining the garden.

From a small after school chat, and time given by her mentor teacher to listen and share, and with the support of her principal, a community was given an opportunity for healing, and the focus on community building in her classroom and school flourishes and is vital and life giving today. As we took a walk to the garden, Maria was oddly silent. Then as the garden came into view and we took in the scene together, she said in a quiet, but firm voice, “I was welcomed into a community and they kept me centered” (Personal Communication). Maria created a community within her classroom and school then, and she continues to do that today. I reflect as I leave the garden that it seems the legacy of community that was shared with Maria is continuing to be shared – those are lucky students to be in her care (Impressionistic Record).

Analysis of the Portrait

In the following sections, I will examine several emergent themes the portrait of Maria illuminates relating to different aspects of community including leadership of her principal, teacher relationships, mentoring relationships, time for mentoring, and aspects of community development among students, parents, guardians, and the greater community in which the school was situated.

Community Connections

Maria’s portrait demonstrates a community building process that is aligned with the definitions and descriptions of community in the work of Schaps and Solomon (1990), Schaps and Lewis (1999), and Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996) in that Maria and her mentor teacher, Rosa, focused on the interpersonal needs of the children in their care and also worked to balance their own feelings about the deaths that had occurred. The sensitivity required to even begin to approach the topic of death with elementary-aged students was an area in which Maria believed she needed complete support from her mentor teacher and principal. She wanted to be thoughtfully prepared to lead discussions or answer questions raised by her students as well as learn how, as a beginning teacher, to address topics such as death with her students’ parents and guardians.

The need for caring and respect in approaching a topic of which students all have different levels of understanding or experience is aligned with the work by Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996) who posit that learning is not made painless in a community but the differences each individual within the community brings are respected and other members of the community are encouraged to be mindful of the differences in a way that does not compete or hold others’ views up in a competitive manner. This type of caring and respect can be fostered by a sense of community.

Intrinsic motivation for the garden project was evident throughout the project as students sought to work together on all aspects of the project from planning, to acquiring community and business support for the needed materials, to the physical labor of installing the garden, to the leadership capacities in bringing the whole school community together including parents, guardians, and community members to the opening garden ceremony. Much of the project was led by what the students wanted to do and were able to do.

Maria balanced the need to be directly in charge of the project with the need for student involvement, and used a shared leadership approach which is aligned with Schaps and Lewis’ (1999) approaches to community as “teachers are still central in the student-centered classroom” (p. 217). For example, Maria allowed for a great deal of student input into the garden project but she was always looking for ways to align the children’s interests with curriculum requirements. Both Maria’s principal and her mentor teacher, Rosa, were instrumental in providing feedback on this alignment process as well as assuring the garden project was curriculum rich and assessable. Maria also balanced direct instruction with the questions that the children had, particularly in the areas of the project that focused on the psycho-social environment of the classroom, and when questions about dying and death arose. Maria also balanced her direct leadership of the project with Rosa, and with the children in Rosa’s class, again aligning with Schaps and Lewis’ conclusion that even within student-centered classrooms – teachers are the leaders.

Community Fostered by School Leadership

Maria described the feeling of being “pulled into community” from the beginning of her association with this school as there were questions she remembered from the interview about her willingness to be involved in social events with the faculty. Maria also commented on the leadership of her principal, Pat, who purposefully created an opening for community to develop by allowing for, and scheduling, time to meet with her. Pat also set up specific times for Maria to meet with her mentor teacher, Rosa. Pat had structured the master schedule and duty roster in a way to allow Maria and Rosa joint planning time and time to work together in the daily duties of teachers – such as playground supervision or supervising the end of the day release of students. Maria also described her principal releasing her from some typical extra duties and asked her to use that time to meet with her mentor teacher. Maria described this time as a time to “chat” and how these chats developed into deeper conversations and discussions and were the opening that allowed her to explore the issues she saw coming up with her students around the deaths that had occurred in the school community. Maria underscored that these chats did not feel forced but were very comfortable and conversational. In earlier research I found the theme of providing time for mentoring was a key component of successful mentoring relationships (Cowin, 2013). Pat is an example of a principal who understood how to structure time for mentoring to occur.

The principal’s leadership also provided experiences for Maria to get to know the other faculty through Friday afternoon get-togethers and holiday events, as well as through her step by step mentorship on a curriculum committee. Maria commented that her principal gave her positive feedback that helped her gain a voice in her work on a faculty committee. She described how her principal gave her both positive feedback and critical critique of her work on the committee. It was this balance of affirming and critical critique that Maria said made her feel “pulled into the community” as there was a balance and she did not believe she was being given just the “good news” or having her work “sugar-coated.” Cherkowski (2012) described how “the impact of emotions in leadership is highlighted as an important consideration for fostering conditions for sustaining learning communities” (p. 56) and Maria’s principal is an example of the type of leader who took time to make connections with her teachers daily – especially her beginning teachers.

Community Building among Teachers

Parsons (2013) describes current research findings in which teachers describe the importance of relationship building among teachers to their own teaching and learning success (p. 11). Five key attributes of professional learning were expanded upon: supportive and shared leadership, collective creativity, shared vision and values, supportive communities, and shared personal experience (Parsons, pp. 12-14). When teachers in a particular school come together these are the seeds of community formation that could go on to grow and develop as demonstrated in the portrait of Maria and her mentor teacher, Rosa. Without Rosa’s invitation to Maria to form a mentoring relationship there would have been no relationship. The ability of the mentor to offer an invitation to be in a relationship without it seeming forced relies on many interpersonal dynamics. Cowin (2013) described one quality as an openness to the possibility that the mentee/protégé may not willingly enter into relationship and thus a relationship may not happen. Not forcing a mentoring relationship to happen is key. Maria describes this in her portrait as the relationship being formed by mutual interactions, and being “comfortable and conversational” (Personal Communications).

Seeking to discover the effects of operating a classroom as a learning community, Watkins (2005) reviewed three areas of research on classrooms as learning communities: classrooms as communities, classrooms as communities of learners, and classrooms as learning communities seeking to discover what the effects of operating a classroom as learning community were. Watkins reviewed work by Marzano (1998) which was an analysis of over a million learners from combined studies, and found that “metacognition” and “how the classroom engages learners’ beliefs and learners’ control is crucial” (p. 47). Watkins posits that classrooms as learning communities seek to “embrace both of these conclusions” (p. 47). Studies like these may help us to more fully understand how community enhances learning of all members within a school and provide two additional lenses through which to view individual learning by members in a classroom or school community.

Community Fostered by the Gift of Time

Maria was very clear that her mentor teacher, Rosa, made time for her every day. She was also very clear that the time was not given with a glance at the clock, but was given generously from the perspective of a veteran teacher who knows what the first years of teaching are like. Maria stated that she felt her questions were welcomed and that feeling of welcome was central to not believing the mentorship was something they both had to do as a matter of school policy or duty. Maria stated that she never had the feeling that she was alone. The themes of being invited into a community, time, and scheduling to create space for community to grow, and the leadership of the principal in structuring the mentorship process in a way that allowed their schedules to align, gave them a joint perspective on their work and roles.

Maria was very clear in her description that her principal saw the time for her to meet with her mentor teacher to have worth to the whole school community in that those teachers who were not serving as mentors had to take on extra duties, such as dismissal after school, to allow Maria and her mentor teacher the time to meet together. This mentoring time was viewed as equally valuable to the entire school community as completing any other duty (Personal Communication).

Community Fostered among the Students

In this school there was a built-in process for community building in that students in primary grades were partnered with upper elementary-aged students with opportunities to work together across the grade levels. This cross-grade level time that was built into the school schedule allowed for the collaboration among the students in both Maria’s and Rosa’s classes to grow. The work on the garden project also gave students in both classes many opportunities to form relationships and for community to grow.

Community Fostered among the Parents, Guardians, and the Greater Community

The garden that Maria’s and Rosa’s students built with the support of the students’ parents, guardians, and the school and greater community still stands today. The upper elementary-aged students take great pride in their work with their buddy grade primary-aged students at the school. This tradition has grown and is a positive characteristic that is recognized within the school district and local community where the school was located. There have been other deaths within the community of students and their family members over the years and within the district and Maria’s work has served as a model for other school communities. This is a community where events at the school are well attended and supported not only in a financial manner but in the way community members hold their local school in high esteem as seen on billboards, posters and other public notices that are displayed publically and in private businesses (Impressionist Record).


I presented this portrait of community building influenced by themes of caring, compassion, empathy, sympathy, and mentoring as an example of hope for all who read it. I believe this portrait offers insights into how community interacts with mentoring themes such as how to extend an invitation to be in a mentoring relationship, welcome, time, and adept mentoring practices by both a principal and veteran teacher serving as a mentor to a beginning teacher. The portrait and its analysis may offer other readers insights into the importance of community as a component of educational practice that could be discussed with inservice teachers who serve as mentors for beginning teachers, and may serve as the basis for continuing dialogue among teacher educators who work with pre-service teachers, their cooperating teachers, and school leaders. There is also potential for this portrait with its intersection of community and mentoring to provide insight to both beginning and inservice school leaders and those who mentor them. This portrait also demonstrates in action benefits to the children in Maria’s and Rosa’s classrooms on many levels. For example, the students learned about science and mathematics curriculum topics related to the gardening project, and also incorporated language arts and design elements as well as leadership and service learning topics to make connections to business community partners for the needed gardening materials. Then there are the topics related to the psycho-social issues of life, dying and death, not only for those children directly affected by their parents’ deaths but also for the children and adults who may respond to others experiencing the turmoil that death brings. Topics such as compassion, caring, empathy, and sympathy were central themes to the students’ curriculum that year, but this curriculum also drew in the parents and guardians and eventually the entire school community to a greater awareness of these issues that may not be directly stated in the curriculum, but are components of classroom and school life. My greatest hope is that this portrait may offer educative examples of how community can be lived out in classrooms and schools.


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NEW NJTE ARTICLE – Images of Exclusion

A new article, entitled Images of Exclusion: A Phenomenological Examination of Teacher Dress Codes by Alan Jeans has been added to  NJTE ONLINE.