Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  4

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Developing Teacher Efficacy through Shared Stories

 

Amanda N. Gulla, Lehman College, City University of New York

 

Amanda N. Gulla, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Middle and High School Education and the Coordinator of the English Education program

 

Abstract

For new teachers, learning to navigate the demands of standards and curricula while developing a classroom persona can be extremely challenging. The stories of mentor teachers can help novices envision ways to adopt new teaching strategies that can help them develop a successful practice. Effective stories emerge when a mentor listens to teachers’ concerns and finds matching stories from her own experience. When this occurs, the stories illuminate the embodiment of pedagogical theory, thus helping the novice teacher to locate and develop self-efficacy.

 

 

Introduction: I Could See Myself in Your Shoes

This article discusses teaching stories and their contribution to new teachers’ efficacy. Offering strategies in a narrative, non-authoritarian way allows teachers to insert themselves into the stories and imagine scenarios in which they are enacting the strategies described by a mentor. The narrative accounts of sharing stories with teachers presented here are drawn from interviews and qualitative field notes gathered as I documented my work as a staff developer in urban elementary schools. Woolfolk (1997) states her belief that “qualitative methods are appropriate for an exploration of factors that mediate efficacy development and cultural influences on the construction of efficacy beliefs.” (p. x) Some of the stories teachers described as being helpful in informing their practices were my own, while others were shared informally among teachers.

 

Method of Study

This work reports the results of an ethnographic self-study with a primary focus on staff development practices evaluated through the lens of teacher self-efficacy. I documented observations of and conversations with 36 teachers across four elementary schools with whom I worked as a district-based staff developer. I took notes on our conversations, wrote descriptions of their classrooms as well as detailed observations of their teaching and descriptions of teaching strategies I modeled in their classrooms. My role was to serve as a consultant, modeling reading and writing instruction, helping them to plan and reflect on their practice and helping them develop curriculum. Field notes were written immediately after rather than during meeting with or observing teachers so that I could be fully engaged in the encounter. In each case, permission to document was obtained, pseudonyms were created and identifying characteristics were masked.

 

In the second year of the study I chose five teachers in one school around whom I would shape the ethnographic study. Because these five teachers worked together I was able to document the teaching stories they told each other in my presence as well as those I shared with them. An added dimension of our work became the stories two of the teachers shared with the other three about the work I had done with them the previous year and how it had changed their approaches to teaching. One notable incident occurred when Darlene, a second year teacher told Ann, a first year teacher who was struggling with classroom management, “I used to cry every single day and Amanda would just walk me around the corner and listen to me as I cried and every single time she managed to talk me out of quitting.” The significance of this story and others like it was that Ann, who had been reluctant to accept help because (as she admitted later) she was afraid of appearing incompetent, gradually opened up and began to invite me into her classroom. As we began to work together, she in turn had stories to share with colleagues about teaching strategies we were working on together.

 

I conducted a series of interviews with the five teachers who formed the core of the ethnographic study. Each interview was taped, and each one ran between forty-five minutes and an hour long. In each case, I began with a single question: “As you reflect back on professional development experiences you’ve had this year, which ones would you describe as being helpful and which would you describe as not helpful?” I deliberately did not want to lead the teachers by mentioning stories, or any particular practice—or even asking about their work with me.

 

Data Analysis

All five teachers reported without any prompting that the stories of more experienced teachers had a profound impact on their practice. The stories helped them feel less alone, which contributed to their confidence. The fact that every one of the five teachers mentioned stories as an effective professional development practice without being prompted to do so struck me as a significant finding. In the course of data analysis I coded the five interview transcripts to determine the number of references teachers made to stories, the length of time they spent discussing them, and where in the interview the topic arose. These were some of the findings:

 

·        All five teachers mentioned stories among the first two professional development practices they described as being helpful.

·        Two of the teachers mentioned the stories I told them as being the most helpful professional development experience. 

·        A third teacher stated that the most helpful professional development experience for her was listening to the stories of more experienced teachers, and included me among these.

·        Two teachers who described stories as the second most helpful professional development experience, both saying that the most helpful element of their professional development was observing lessons that I modeled in their classrooms.

 

 

The following is an excerpt from the interview I recorded with Ann. I chose to format this transcript excerpt as one would a poem because, as Daphne Patai explains, “Spoken narratives are better understood as ‘dramatic poetry’” (p. 149) because they contain breaths, pauses and emphasis which animate the speech on the written page. The italics represent my question; all other words are hers:

 

“Sharing stories…

I think that is sooooo important! So important!

So I know that I’m not the only one that this is happening to,

you know what I mean?

You don’t feel like you’re alone.”

Do the stories affect your teaching?

“They do, they really do.

When I was trying and trying to figure out

How to make independent reading work in my room

I was being so stubborn

I wouldn’t let anyone come in and show me

I wanted to figure it out myself!

But then you explained to me…

How you made it work

and the way you described moving around the room…

connecting with kids

I could just see myself in your shoes

I could see myself doing what you did

and it worked for me!

It changed the whole tone of my classroom

Because the way you told the story…

Let me make it my own.”

 

This teacher’s description of her experience suggests that receiving professional development as an informal narrative gives her ownership of the teaching strategies being conveyed. Schubert and Ayers (1992) support this finding thusly: “The notion of teacher lore confirms and affirms the necessity of dialogue among teachers as a way of creating and revising our knowledge about teaching and learning.” (p. 14)

 

Discourse analysis of the field logs reveal many occasions on which a struggling teacher was supported by the informally shared narrative experience of a colleague or mentor. One teacher summed it up this way:

 

“You know what the teacher goes through

You know what can happen…

how I should handle the students.

So, knowing that you had students similar to mine…

and that you struggled too but you figured it out…

It was a tremendous help, you know.

Especially knowing that I’m not here all by myself…

It helps me to hang in there…

To know I’m not alone.”

 

This teacher’s comments are consistent with Clandinin’s (1998) statement that when informal personal narratives are incorporated into teacher education, “Beginning teachers are able to think themselves into the story, imagine how it feels to be that teacher, and to identify possible alternative images for the self” (p. 136).

 

New Teachers’ Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy describes the extent to which one believes one is capable of fulfilling a certain task. It is a judgment of confidence in one’s abilities. Pajares and Schunk (2001) define self-efficacy as “a judgment of the confidence that one has in one’s abilities.” (p. 5)

 

For the novice teacher, Britzman (1991) notes that “their first culture shock may well occur with the realization of the overwhelming complexity of the teachers’ work.” (p. 4). New teachers must face the challenge of “balancing theory with practice acquired through experience.” (Onafowora, 2004) Learning to teach requires understanding the complexities of the teaching role while simultaneously enacting that role. This phenomenon has been likened to changing the tires on a car as it hurtles down the highway.

 

The extent to which a new teacher can imagine herself enacting the role of teacher effectively is a significant predictor of success. Tschannen-Moran and Hoy state that teachers with a strong sense of self-efficacy “tend to exhibit greater levels of planning and organization,” as well as “resistance in the face of setbacks.” (2001, p.1) A teacher with poor self-efficacy, for Bandura (1993), is likely to “visualize failure scenarios and dwell on the many things that can go wrong. It is difficult to achieve much while fighting self-doubt.” (p.118)

 

Stories Arise from a Listener’s Stance

In my work with teachers in urban schools I have relied a great deal upon my own teaching stories. Like Graves (1998), “Stories are an essential part of my life as a professional.” (p. 3) While the use of stories as a teaching tool is grounded in theory as described by Clandinin (2000) as narrative inquiry, it arose in my own practice in response to problematizing the notion of an expert teacher and questioning what qualified me to take on that role. Tapping into my own teaching stories, whether those of success or struggle helped me locate my own self-efficacy as a teacher educator. The stories I have used in my practice as a teacher educator arise from a listener’s stance. Once a teacher describes a difficulty she faces in her practice, a parallel story often emerges to serve as the springboard for envisioning new strategies the teacher might try to address the issue.

 

Nuggets of Theory Wrapped in Practice

While it is important to provide novice teachers with techniques they can immediately apply in their classrooms, an essential part of helping teachers build an effective practice is to ground these strategies in theory. For new teachers, however, it can be difficult to make the leap from a theoretical text to the daily workings of their own classrooms.

 

The stories I share as part of my practice provide teaching and management strategies in a theoretical context, while also containing messages about a pedagogy of caring and respect. The caring message is conveyed both in the content of the stories and in the act of telling them. Noddings (1991) explains how teacher educators who recall their own classroom experience respond empathetically to teachers because, “We respond most effectively as carers when we understand what the other needs and the history of this need.” (p. 23) Furthermore, the act of engaging teachers in dialogue about mutual experiences confirms for the new teacher a sense that they are not alone. For Noddings, “When we confirm someone, we spot a better self and encourage its development.” (p. 25)  Acknowledging a teacher’s efforts to master new teaching strategies implies an acceptance of the notion that the process of learning to teach is gradual and recursive, rather than a command performance. Despite the exigencies of reform efforts, there is no effective way to rush this process. By sending a message that skilled, experienced teachers have overcome difficulties in their own work, teaching stories strengthen the novice teachers’ efficacy by affirming their willingness to take risks.

 

“It Just Might Work for Me,” a Teaching Story

Such was the case when Rose, a first grade teacher described the trouble she was having understanding how to reach a child named Mickey. According to Rose, Mickey refused to participate in any group activities. He hit children, hid under his desk, and did just about anything he could to resist Rose’s authority. One day when I was observing Rose’s early morning routine, I saw Mickey calmly sitting at a table by himself with a picture book, making up a story which he recited softly to himself. The other children were reading independently as well. Rose rang a small bell she had on her desk to call the children to order. While the rest of the class went to their desks fairly quickly and took out their books, Mickey ignored her. When Rose insisted repeatedly, he began to run around the room emitting a high pitched scream. When I observed Mickey in action, I was struck by how much he reminded me of Tommy. If I had not had the experience of Tommy exhibiting similar behavior in my kindergarten class, I might not have known how to help Rose. I picked up the book that Mickey had been reading and sat down at a table in the back of the room, reading it to myself the way he had been doing. Mickey stopped running around the room and sat down next to me, then he asked me to read the book to him.

 

Later that day I told Rose about Tommy, and all the failed attempts I had made to cajole him into participating in group lessons or activities. “What did you do when you were alone in your classroom?” she asked, “I can’t just sit down and read to him with 25 other kids who need my attention.” I explained that it was Tommy who taught me to choose my battles. Of course, every teacher has her agenda in the classroom, but sometimes our agenda will bump up against the child’s agenda and if we try to force the issue, usually no good will come of it. Instead, when it was time for a group lesson, I always had a small table set up with few books and puzzles, and Tommy understood that if he felt the need, he could sit at that table and work quietly by himself for a while. Eventually, Tommy joined group activities sooner and stayed longer because he knew that he had choices.

 

At the end of the school year Rose had this to say: “Knowing that you had similar experiences in your own teaching background gave me the courage to try a different approach with Mickey. I figured if it worked for you, it just might work for me.” A year later in our taped interview, Rose revealed that she had carried the effects of the story about Tommy with her. “You know what a teacher goes through,” she said to me, “I feel better and more confident in my teaching because you showed me that I’m not alone.” This teacher’s response to teaching narratives demonstrates how stories shared by a caring mentor empowered her to try new strategies.

 

Conclusion

Informally sharing teaching narratives is effective because it gives teachers access to strategies that are most suited to their particular needs. Often, embedding practice in a story mirrors the very strategy the story describes. For McLean: “As the focus shifts from another story to one’s own, it is as if the frame around a portrait of a teacher gradually is transformed into the frame of a mirror.” (1999, p. 81) That stories shared in the context of working with a mentor can contribute to teachers’ efficacy is borne out by their own statements. In addition to offering contextualized teaching strategies, stories send a message that the struggling new teacher is not alone.

 

Teachers who have a strong sense of self-efficacy can see themselves as capable of engaging in struggle with a productive outcome. When teachers feel less alone, they can approach their work with a sense of joy and confidence that can only make them stronger and more effective practitioners.

 

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