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The making of a teacher: A narrative study of the impact of an extended practicum on preservice teachers

Deborah M. Ingram
Edith Cowan University

Introduction

Personal experience, the knowledge and experience a teacher has had communicated to them by others, and the personal values and ideals that they aspire to, all contribute to making up that unique belief system, the practical theory, which guides the teacher's personal teaching practice (Handal & Lauvas, 1987, p. 9). Preservice or student teachers also bring to their teaching practice their own unique practical theory. While working with and supervising student teachers on their practicum, I had become intrigued by the changes in the student teachers as a result of their experience of their practicum, especially their extended practicum. How were student teachers learning about teaching while on their extended practicum? How was the extended practicum impacting on the student teachers' practical theories about teaching and how did the student teachers themselves interpret such changes? To answer these questions, I needed to 'get inside the student teachers' heads', to find some way to explore their beliefs and their understanding of their experiences. I chose to use narrative research because it seemed an appropriate method to use for this particular study and because of the growing interest by researchers in using stories and narratives to explore a teacher's beliefs and experiences (see, for example, Carter, 1993; Beattie, 1995; Casey, 1995; Clandinin, & Connelly, 1996).

Review of related literature

In his introduction to the Assistant Teacher Programme 1997 Guidelines for principals, teachers, assistant teachers, Bernard Harrison, Dean of the Faculty of Education, Edith Cowan University, states that the ATP "is recognised as a crucial aspect of the student teacher's preparation, and competent performance on ATP is a requirement for graduation" (Edith Cowan University, 1997, p.1). The ATP is a consequential experience for student teachers. As well as the final teaching mark being critical for the student teacher's future employment prospects, extended practicum experience is significant for learning to teach (Loughran, 1996, p. 55).

Descriptions of the differences between novices and experts can be found in recent accounts of the shift from novice to expert, but how these differences have occurred has not been examined (Desforges, 1995, p. 385). Little is known about how particular experiences as a student teacher contribute to the construction of knowledge about teaching by the student teacher (Jones & Vesilind, 1996, p. 92). Student teacher perspectives have been undervalued and under-researched (Kettle & Sellars, 1993) yet we need to know the student teachers' perspectives to:

Incorporating "the existential experiences of the participants themselves (i.e., their language, actions, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions)", researchers have described the development of student teachers' practical theories over an extended period of time noting the active role of the student in this development (Goodman, 1988, p. 122); the contribution of reflective thinking particularly in the context of peer reflection groups (Kettle & Sellars, 1993, p. 36); and the detrimental impact of the assessment based context of the practicum on "the trialing of ideas considered central to an individual's practical theory" (Kettle & Sellars, 1993. p. 36).

Other researchers have found that exposure to experience in the classroom is just as likely to lead to little restructuring occurring in a student teacher's practical theory as it is to the deep analysis which leads to the forging of new beliefs (Beach & Pearson, 1996, p. 11; Desforges, 1995, p. 389). A dilemma can develop for the student teacher when conflicts or tensions arise. A number of conflicts experienced by student teachers have been identified, along with variations in the willingness of student teachers to acknowledge and to learn from such conflict (Beach & Pearson, 1996, p. 11).

Choosing a methodology in which to conduct this study raised interesting issues. How can one know what is going on inside a student teacher's head? My reading pointed to the growing interest in and use of stories and narratives to explore a teacher's beliefs and experiences. My previous research had been predominantly in the empirical, quantitative mode yet narrative continued to grow in appeal as an appropriate method to use for this particular study.

For me, what I hoped to accomplish with my study determined my choice of narrative as a method. Because I was interested in how student teachers learn about teaching on an extended practicum and how the extended practicum impacts on their practical theory about teaching, I needed to 'get inside the student teachers' heads', to find some way to explore their beliefs and their understanding of their experiences. I assume, along with many researchers of teachers' knowledge, that the student teachers' words would represent their beliefs, as well as their thoughts and feelings about their experiences (see, for example, Freeman, 1996, p. 734; Marland & Osborne, 1990, p. 94; Clark & Peterson, 1986, pp. 259 - 260). Student teachers, in trying to make sense of their classroom experiences on practicum, focus on specific events and shape them as stories (Carter, 1993). This process, captured over the period of the ATP, gave insight into what the student teachers in my study were experiencing and how this changed over time. The student teachers' narratives are the student teachers' own interpretation of events within their particular context. Their narratives would help me to discovery their beliefs, perceptions, and experiences (Jalongo, Isenberg & Gerbracht, 1995, p. 77). By using narrative research, I would be able to use the narratives of student teachers to communicate a more holistic picture of their experience on an extended practicum.

Purpose of the study

This study set out to trace and describe five student teachers' experience of their ATP with a view to interpreting this for a wider audience while still preserving the student teachers' voices. The main purpose was to provide a resource whereby future student teachers could gain insight into the experience of being a student teacher on ATP and the ways in which these experiences impacted on the student teacher's practical theory of teaching. A secondary purpose was to provide the Faculty of Education with information so that the ATP, could be improved for the benefit of future student teachers' learning about teaching.

However, the nature of the stories the student teachers shared shifted the focus from one audience to another. The participants clearly hoped that their stories w ould contribute to the improvement of the practicum or at least reduce the difficulties some student teachers can experience. Much of what the student teachers shared had implications for the Faculty in preparing student teachers for their practicum experiences and for the placement, supervision and assessment of student teachers on practicum. The more I heard from the student teachers the more I became aware of a need to shift my thinking to seeing the Faculty of Education as my primary audience. My findings are, therefore, oriented to the Faculty of Education as a primary audience.

Participants

Five student teachers from the third year of the Bachelor of Arts (Educ.) course at Edith Cowan University, two males and three females, were asked to participate in the study. Rather than focus on the experiences of student teachers in a similar placement, I had wanted to gain a broader perspective and so I wanted to have student teachers who had been allocated to private and government schools, covering different socio-economic areas and year levels. The student teachers were suggested by the lecturer responsible for EDU3500 Education 5, the preparatory unit for the ATP. Because of a number of factors beyond my control, student teachers were experiencing considerable stress and those chosen were selected on the basis that they would be able to cope with the perceived added pressure of participating in a research study. Positively, I was able to offer the student teachers the opportunity to explore their ATP experience with someone who knew the ATP, who knew what it was like to be a student as well as a teacher, and who would not be assessing them in any way.

Three student teachers had work experience before entering the teacher education programme. Two student teachers had entered the programme straight from school. One student teacher was over forty years old. The remaining student teachers were in their early twenties. Two student teachers were in different Catholic primary schools while the remaining three students were in two government primary schools. One government school was in a middle to high socio-economic area, the other government school was a Priority Schools Programme (PSP) school.[1] Two student teachers had been allocated to a year 1 class. The other student teachers had been allocated to year 2, year 3 and year 4 classes (see figure 1).


John CraigCelineJodieChristina
Catholic X
X

Govt
PSP
PSPhigh socioeconomic
Year 43112

Figure 1: Participants' settings

Methodology

The teaching load of student teachers in the ATP is graded so that by week 3/4, after a gradual start, student teachers assumed fifty percent of the teaching load, by week 5/6/7 seventy five percent of the teaching load and by the final weeks the major responsibility for the class (see figure 2).

In order to track the changes or development of the practical theory of the student teachers over the ten weeks of the ATP, I conducted four interviews (see figure 2 for the interview schedule). Because changes are thought to occur mid-way through extended field placements an interview was included at that point (Jones & Vesilind, 1996, p. 113). My previous experience working with student teachers also pointed to important changes occurring during that time.

WkSchool term Timing of interviews

Last week of academic termInterview 1 (John, Christina, Celine)

School vacationInterview 1 (Jodie)

School vacation/student examsInterview 1 (Craig)
1First week of ATP
2
Interview 2 (All students except Christina)
3

450% teaching load
5
Interview 3 (John, Craig)
6
Interview 3 (Jodie, Celine, Christina)
775% teaching load
8

9Major responsibility for the class, c. 100% teaching load
10Last week of ATP

School vacationInterview 4 (All students)

Figure 2: Interview schedule

The approach I took to the interviewing drew strongly from the field of oral history. While the tapes of my participants were not intended to be accessible to other researchers, they were "a pool of raw material for ... interpretation" and as such I thought the theoretical standpoint of oral historians would best inform my interviewing technique (Douglas, Roberts & Thompson, 1988, p.3).

Interviews were transcribed from the audio tapes into written texts which became the raw material. As I transcribed the tapes I noted any recurring images or particular themes which arose. At the end of transcribing each set of interviews I grouped and regrouped these images and themes to develop broader themes and to find possible relationships both across the participants and individually. As the intention was that the research be data driven, initial theories, concepts and relationships developed from comparing these themes were contrasted to incoming material from successive interviews and modified or elaborated throughout the course of the study as recommended by Strauss and Corbin (1994).

Once all the tapes had been transcribed, common ideas were grouped and then sorted and ordered from general to specific. The themes which had been identified were divided into a number of categories and subcategories. The diagram built up from this process was then used as a basis for developing a tree index system for use in QSR NUD.IST 3.0[2] . All the interviews were used to create a document database for a NUD.IST project. Using NUD.IST, sections of each interview were coded into the various categories that had been developed. New categories were created if a section did not fit into an existing category and the index system was modified accordingly. The original index tree was modified and rearranged slightly and some extra categories added as material was coded. Generally though, the main categories remained stable. Rather than providing any new insight, this process confirmed the themes I had identified.

These broad themes were used to begin structuring the final nar ratives. I view time in a linear fashion and value the structure provided by the sequential development of a story. I experimented with various approaches to presenting the narratives, from presenting each of the stories of the five participants individually from beginning to end, to presenting all the stories of the participants together from interview one through to interview 4. I attempted to begin writing from each perspective to find a way into constructing my stories, but it was Gray (1996) who provided the key I was looking for. In her own research, Gray had used the repetition of similar stories by her participants as a culling device, a determinant of the level of importance of the stories (Gray, 1996, pp. 48, 193). I had kept repeating several key stories to others who had asked me about my research study. I realised that the broad themes of what I considered the most important aspects of my study were encapsulated in these stories and thus they provided the structure needed for the narratives.

Findings and recommendations

Three key factors were identified as impacting on the learning and experience of the participants on their extended practicum:

Critical incidents

Part of learning from the experience of the ATP was learning from the challenging, the unexpected, and the unusual. Jodie, John and Christina were exposed to some of the broader issues surrounding teaching through situations they faced on their ATP. Jodie's exposure to special needs children in the year one class she had been allocated to, in the special needs class in which she taught on the Monday afternoon, and in the playground provided the impetus for Jodie to examine the complexity surrounding the issue of mainstreaming special needs children in the regular school and classroom. The struggle John had with his relationship with his supervising teacher exposed John to some of the difficulties and dilemmas associated with maintaining professional relationships in teaching. With her supervising teacher absent, Christina was challenged to draw from her own personal experience when the mother of one of her students and a child from the school died suddenly and tragically in the same week and Christina had to explain this to her class. Such situations are representative of the types of critical incidents that cause student teachers, and experienced teachers, to stop and examine both their teaching practice and the practical theories, which drive their teaching practice. Jodie, John and Christina did not emerge from their ATP experience with clear cut answers to the difficulties and dilemmas they encountered, but they had gained greater insight into some of the complexities and ambiguities surrounding issues which arise in the teaching profession. They had begun to learn that teaching "is characterised by the need to determine courses of action in situations where knowledge is too limited for there to be a single or obvious 'right answer'." (Tripp, 1993, p. 125).

Assessment

Each of the participants in this study had to come to terms with their personal aims for their assessment. Only Celine had been recommended for and had received an Outstanding. Jodie, John and Christina had been expected to be recommended for an Outstanding but were not. Craig was hoping for a pass and was both relieved and happy to receive a Competent.

As Jodie and Christina came to terms with and accepted that they would not be recommended for Outstanding, the focus of their teaching moved from being a performance for assessment to what the children themselves were actually learning. For Celine performing for the assessment continued to the very end of the ATP as she sought to gain an Outstanding mark. Although Celine was "annoyed and so angry because it's not about going out to impress someone on your ATP", nevertheless she stated "all your work you do is just for the assessment, whether you're going to get a good mark or not." There was not the clear switch to thinking about the learning of the children in the same way as occurred for Jodie and Christina. So, whereas Celine acts on her supervising teacher's recommendation to write a programme for the teacher's aide to teach the remedial children in order to enhance her assessment outcome, Christina, prompted by wanting to "help those kids who are falling behind", took the initiative and volunteered to do a programme for the ESL children in the class to help them progress and then taught the ESL children herself. For Christina and Jodie, moving beyond their concern with the assessment meant they were more conscious of thinking about the learning of the children and so more consciously able to test out and confirm or change their practical theory. Being recommended for an Outstanding, Celine remained primarily focused on her performance in teaching rather than on the children's learning.

The stories of Jodie, Christina and Celine provide a challenge to the Faculty of Education. Barry and King ( 1989) have observed "in order to teach effectively, teachers need to know how pupils learn" (p. xii). Once assessment was sidelined, Jodie and Christina focused on the children and what to do to facilitate the learning of the children in their classes. This shift did not occur for Celine who, having been recommended for Outstanding, remained focused on her performance as a teacher and did not make a similar shift to focusing on the learning of the children. The present assessment system, in the cases of Celine, Jodie and Christina, graded the student teacher who produced a good performance for the assessment as Outstanding and the student teachers who focused on the learning going on in the classroom as Highly Competent. The Faculty of Education would do well to consider the role of the assessment in the learning of student teachers. Is the current assessment focusing on the technical skills of teaching, as demonstrated by a good performance, rather than on the learning of the student teacher which encompasses the ability to think reflectively and critically as well as the ability to perform? Is the current assessment encouraging student teachers to focus on technical skills to the exclusion of reflective practice? Does it encourage student teachers to fit into, rather than think about or criticise, current patterns and practices in education? Alternative means for student teachers to demonstrate their learning as a result of their practicum experience need to be explored(see, for example, a study by Antonek, McCormick, & Donato, 1997, in which portfolios were used by two preservice teachers as a means of forming their identities as novice teachers).

Personal baggage

Craig's story raised the whole issue of the powerfulness of the past experience of a student teacher. As a mature age student, Craig brought a wide variety of experiences with him into his teacher education course. While one might think that such experience would broaden a student teacher's practical theory, in his final practicum, the ATP, Craig's own experiences as a student in school were more important in terms of their impact on his practical theory and his teaching practice than anything he had learned at university. Craig's story shows how strong the beliefs and practices of a student teacher can be and how strongly such beliefs filter experience to confirm the pre-existing beliefs about teaching of the student teacher. While resistance to change is compounded if there is no viable alternative to one's current practice, Craig, an honours student, was able to talk about and practice alternatives he had learned while at university. Such experimentation did not change Craig's practical theory but acted as proof for Craig that the way he had been taught as a child was still the better alternative. It is paradoxical that, as a school student, Craig had resisted the very methods which he decided were most appropriate.

Craig's story makes clear the impact the past experience of student teachers can have on their learning during the practicum and on their practi cal theory. Research has shown that people tend to resist changing their beliefs and practice (Desforges, 1995). Even with an initial desire to teach differently and a knowledge of alternative methods, Craig had reverted to the models of teaching he had experienced as a school student. Examining and reflecting on the impact of past experiences on teaching practice would be a helpful activity for student teachers before, during and after practicum experience.

Conclusion

The narratives were indicative of the types of experiences some student teachers encountered on an extended practicum. As I recounted some of the stories to significant others interested in my research they provoked interest and concern. The listener would make judgements and would often tell their own stories of incidents or situations of a similar nature to the ones I had shared. However, the success of the study for me personally was summed up in the comments of Celine after she had read her narratives, "that's just what it's like" and that "student teachers would benefit from it, just to know others think the same things."

References

Barry, K., & King, L. (1989). Beginning teaching. Australia: Social Science Press.

Beach, R., & Pearson, D. (1996, April). The role of conflicts and tension in the development of personal theories of preservice teachers. Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Education Research Association, New York.

Beattie, M. (1995). New prospects for teacher education: Narrative ways of knowing teaching and teacher learning. Education Research, 37(1), 53-70.

Carter, K. (1993). The place of story in the study of teaching and teacher education. Educational Researcher, 22(1), 5 - 12.

Casey, K. (1995). The new narrative research in education. Review of Research in Education, 21, 211-253.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (1991). Narrative and story in practice and research. In D. A. Schon (Ed.), The reflective turn: Case studies in and on educational practice (pp. 258 - 281). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Clark, C. M., & Peterson, P. L. (1986). Teachers' thought processes. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (pp. 255-96). New York: Macmillan.

Desforges, C. (1995). How does experience affect theoretical knowledge for teaching? Learning and Instruction, 5, 385-400.

Douglas, L., Roberts, A. & Thompson, R. (1988). Oral history: A handbook. Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Edith Cowan University (1997). Assistant teacher programme 1997: Guidelines for principals, teachers, assistant teachers. Perth, W. A.: Author

Freeman, D. (1996). "To take them at their word": Language data in the study of teachers' knowledge. Harvard Educational Review, 66(4), 732-761.

Goodman, J. (1988). Constructing a practical philosophy of teaching: A study of preservice teachers professional perspectives. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(2), 121-137.

Gray, J. (1996). Use of Section 20 of the Education Act 1928: The study of a contemporary issue using the narrative form. Unpublished masters thesis, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia.

Handal, G., & Lauvas, P. (1987). Promoting reflective teaching: Supervision in action. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press.

Jalongo, M. R., Isenberg, J. P., with Gerbracht, G. (1995). Teachers' stories: From personal narrative to professional insight. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Jones, M. G. & Vesilind, E. M. (1996). Putting practice into theory: Changes in the organisation of preservice teachers' pedagogical knowledge. American Education Research Journal, 33(1), 91-117.

Kettle, B., & Sellars, N. (1993, 11-14 July). An exploration of student teachers' practical theory of teaching. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Australian Teacher Education Association, Fremantle, WA, Australia.

Loughran, J. (1996). Learning about teaching: A longitudinal study of beginning teachers. The Australian Educational Researcher, 23(2), 55-77.

Marland, P., & Osborne, B. (1990). Classroom theory, thinking and action. Teaching and Teacher Education, 6(1), 93-109.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1994.). Grounded theory methodology: An overview. In N. K. Denzin & G. C. Leder (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research. London: Sage.

Tripp, D. (1993). Critical incidents in teaching. London: Routledge.

Endnotes

  1. The Priority School Programme (PSP) is the WA terminology for the Commonwealth Disadvantaged Schools Programme. Teachers in PSP schools are faced with challenging situations. Within PSP schools, Commonwealth money is frequently spent on staffing in a wide range of areas which support the regular teaching staff, children, families and curriculum. Social workers, Aboriginal Education Workers, and parenting programmes are examples of some of the support provided in these schools.

  2. A computer package, QSR NUD.IST 3.0 stands for Qualitative Solutions and Research Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching and Theorising. It was designed and developed by researchers at La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia, to aid in the analysis of non-numerical and unstructured data such as interviews, journals and field notes.

Please cite as: Ingram, D. M. (1998). The making of a teacher: A narrative study of the impact of an extended practicum on preservice teachers. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1998. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1998/ingram.html


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