“The False Promise of Group Harmony”: The Centrality of Challenging Practices in Teachers’ Professional Development
- Miriam Raider-Roth, Vicki Stieha, Mark Kohan, Carrie Turpin
This inquiry research builds on the theory of presence in teaching (Rodgers & Raider-Roth, 2006) adding nuanced understandings of how school contexts play into teachers’ abilities to support students’ learning. Findings are drawn from multiple interviews with five veteran middle school teachers, teachers’ written work, and field observations. Illustrating these findings is the compelling story of an exemplary teacher’s negotiations of her practice in response to the school’s relational environment. Our findings point to the teacher’s sense of isolation and vulnerability–indicators of the relational context in the school as a threat to undermining her presence. They also create a compelling argument for the importance of a healthy relational context to support teachers’ most powerful teaching, hence students’ learning. “I just...I do feel like sometimes that I am like in a little boat alone. And I’m not sinking. I’m rowing just fine, but I’m rowing really hard. And a little wind in my sails wouldn’t be unwelcome. You know.” (Tamar, 3/2009) Meet Tamar, a seasoned and skilled teacher who is actively seeking feedback on her teaching. She hopes that she might gain “a little wind in her sails” if the school principal would come to her classroom, observe her teaching, “make a useful comment” or perhaps to “be another set of eyes.” This simple desire is embedded in a complex relational web that makes fulfilling this need difficult. This brief vignette represents the essential question guiding this study: How does the relational web of school shape teachers’ capacities to implement innovative practice? To address the question, this article reports on a sub-set of findings from a two year research study which followed the trajectory of five veteran middle school teachers’ thinking about their teaching and explores the ways that the relationships and contexts of the school can support and undermine teachers’ practice (Stieha, 2010). Picking up their story almost two years after the teachers were engaged in a week-long Summer Teachers Institute (Institute), the study focused primarily on stories of teachers’ practice. Considered in the contexts that hold them—a small independent Jewish day school–the participants’ narratives present a compelling argument for the importance of a healthy relational context to support teachers’ most powerful teaching, hence students’ learning. To illustrate the workings of the relational web in school, this article focuses on Tamar, one of the five teachers involved in the study. 2 We build this analysis using Patton’s notion of a “critical case” (Patton, 2002) to exemplify the findings. Although all of the teachers’ stories are compelling, Tamar’s story is especially rich in detailing the dynamics of relationship that impact her practice. Inspired by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (1997), we trace our findings through a singular storyline permitting us illuminate “resonant universal themes” by focusing on the particular (p. 14). Internationally, the public discourse of educational policy focuses on standards, accountability, standardized curricula and shifting expectations for teachers while highlighting teacher learning as essential to student learning outcomes (Darling-Hammond et al., 2003; Fitz, 2003; Koshoreck, 2004; Lam, 2005; Timperley & Phillips, 2003). This conversation, however, tends to ignore the centrality of teaching-learning relationships. Yet, it is clear that both 1 All identifiers in this paper have been replaced by pseudonyms. 2 The larger study, Understanding the Place of Collaborative Text Study in Teachers Learning and Practice has included three teacher cohorts to date (2007, 2009, and 2010). The 2007 cohort data informs this study.