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Articles

The Evolution of a Teacher



By Dr. Mark Littleton and Dr. Pam Littleton, Tarleton State University


It is unreasonable to expect teacher preparatory programs to produce excellent teachers when the teachers have little to no classroom experience. Yet, this expectation pervades American public opinion. Novice teachers are expected to exit preparatory programs with all of the skills necessary to perform flawlessly during the genesis of their professional careers.

Non-educators, and many educators, must understand that excellence is a "becoming" process. Anyone who has objectively observed the initial years of a teacher can pinpoint events, incidents, and trends that add to the shaping of that teacher. This "shaping," or development, occurs gradually, through experience, and is accompanied by varying amounts of grief and stress. All of which is important, if not necessary, in the teacher's development and subsequent emergence into excellence.

Thoughtful researchers have categorized the development of teachers in many different phases. Ryan (1986) cites Frances Fuller that this growth occurs in stages. These stages include the fantasy stage, survival stage, mastery stage, and the impact stage. Glickman (1985), on the other hand identifies teacher development on a continuum that includes the teacher dropout, unfocused worker, analytic observer, and professional. Most of what is described below combines the thoughts of these two educators, but for the most part, utilizes alternative terminology. Although linear in nature, the phases, as presented, are not necessarily cumulative; an individual may be experiencing characteristics evidenced by two or more phases at any one time. There is no definite beginning and ending point to any phase -- the lines of demarcation are not blatantly obvious.


Fantasy Phase

At the instant an individual chooses to become a teacher, a mental picture of the individual as a teacher is developed. This picture includes the concepts of:
  • What a teacher is.

  • How a teacher is perceived by others.

  • How much influence a teacher has upon the lives of the students.

  • What rewards are associated with teaching.

Let's look at this from the perspective of a six year-old child that engages in "playing school." The pretend teacher is the center of the classroom and possesses total authority and control over the actions within the context of the classroom. The rewards are obvious--the esteem and admiration of the pupils. As this six year-old develops into an adolescent advancing through the secondary school, the concept of the teacher's authoritative control and the subsequent adulation from the students remains relatively constant. It is interesting that the basic perception of this teacher remain with the individual throughout his/her educational career even though the classroom dynamics may change considerably. (It is a powerful "Picture" that is established by the teachers of the youngest students in our schools!) If the desire to teach remains with the person as he/she advances through structured education and into a teacher preparatory program, the conceptual shift during the teacher preparation classes remains slight.

Until this individual experiences the "act" of teaching, all expectations are essentially, a fantasy. During this "fantasy" phase, the prospective teacher experiences some anxiety as the actual professional teaching act grows closer to realization, but, for the most part, the fantasies remain unrealistic and extremely pleasant. The "fantasy" teacher perceives that teachers (or, at least, the teacher she/he will be) are loved by all, and have a great deal of short-term and long-term influence. This teacher has adequate time to prepare for his/her classes and is able to teach gracefully even under the most adverse climates. This teacher may not acquire large sums of money, but the pay is more than adequate for an 8:00 am to 3:30 pm job that lasts only nine months. Add to that...this teacher gets two weeks of paid vacation in December and another week of paid vacation during the spring, as well as free admission to the football, basketball, baseball and soccer games! To the "fantasy" teacher, even the prospect of being Cheerleader Sponsor is attractive.

Teacher educators can easily identify the "fantasy" phase teacher because it is difficult to establish relevancy of education theories and practices in the "fantasy" classroom. For example, discussion about classroom management and desist strategies are of little relevance to an individual who is not going to have any such problems in the classroom. The traditional pre-service teacher (approximately 20-24 years of age) knows how it is to be a student, understands the needs of students, and is going to be liked and respected by his/her students. Therefore, classroom management, discipline, desist strategies, etc., are of little consequence or importance. In essence, the "fantasy" teacher is a legend in his/her own mind. The "fantasy" phase lasts through the pre-service program, through student teaching, the summer months prior to the school year, and the in-service activities before the classes begin. The "fantasy" usually comes to an end within the first few days of experience in the classroom.


Survival Phase

Shortly after classes begin, the novice teacher suddenly realizes that pacing is a problem. There is not enough time during the regular school day to teach class, grade papers, and prepare for class the next day. As a result, the novice plans for more paperwork which, in turn, requires additional grading, which takes away from preparation, and so on. Consequently, the "fantasy" day of 8:00 to 3:30 is replaced by the realistic day of 7:00 to 5:00. Additionally, creative teachers, as fantasized, develop elaborate presentations which consume much of the novice's evening. Hence, the novice lives each day simply to "survive." The "survivalist" teacher is easily identifiable, also. This teacher moves swiftly through lessons (the students do not ask questions so the students must be learning), uses a vocabulary more appropriate to college classrooms than public school classrooms, and is either exceptionally permissive or exceptionally rigid. Astute observers notice that these teachers take home an excessive amount of work, frequently appear to be hurried, and often exhibit characteristics of exhaustion. Depending upon the assigned class load, the survival phase generally replaces the fantasy phase within the first two weeks of school. The operation of the classroom begins to "smooth out" within two to three weeks after the "survivalist" teacher asks questions such as "How do you grade all of those papers without taking them home?" If the "survivalist" is not perceptive enough to pick up the "tricks of the trade," and/or s/he fails to seek assistance from a fellow teacher, the novice teacher's career is usually quite short. On the other hand, the astute novice will begin to juggle the work load so that the routine becomes more palatable within five to seven months.

This phase is why it is so important to have an assigned veteran teacher within the school act as a mentor to the new teacher. This person can answer the questions and be supportive of the new teacher during this difficult time. We lose so many quality teachers during this phase of their teaching because they do not know where to turn and are often AFRAID to ask veteran teachers and/or administrators with whom they are not familiar. The mentor becomes their lifeline. Otherwise the new teacher is very often in a "sink or swim" situation as described here in this article.


Disenchantment Phase

The disenchantment phase begins when the novice teacher receives his/her first paycheck. Although the two events generally occur at approximately the same time, the actual cause for disenchantment is considerably more complex. Recall, if you will, some of the characteristics of the "fantasy" teacher--popular with the parents, students, colleagues, and administration, highly effective, bereft of discipline problems, and extremely influential. After a period of four to five weeks in the classroom, the novice teacher begins to become aware of various apparent failures. First, popularity is a fleeting concept. The gentle administrator that lauded the academic accomplishments of the novice transforms into a hideous being that begins to question the novice's ability to control a classroom. Parents that mysteriously appear at the classroom door generally do so only to question the novice's fairness and/or competence. Students, that once cared, have metamorphosed into an uncaring conglomeration of "hormones in sneakers," and are far dumber than when the novice "was in school." And, to make matters worse, the apparent failure of the novice is quite visible to his/her colleagues as well as to him/herself.

Once again, a reason why new teachers often do not ask necessary questions!

Second, the obvious brilliance of the novice evidenced by the large amount of material covered during the first few weeks of school becomes tarnished. Notwithstanding an unfamiliar vocabulary and far too abstract concepts, the "dumb" students fail the first examination miserably. Unknowingly, the novice taught at the knowledge and comprehension levels and tested at the synthesis level. Or, because it is easier to "get by" when you do not ask questions, the students failed to respond to the novice's "Any questions?...good, now let's move on."

Third, discipline problems do exist. The inability to keep the attention of the students, failure to use the "teacher voice," and poor classroom management encourage student misbehavior in the classroom. To perpetuate the problem, the novice's inexperience with managing misbehavior only serves to stimulate further misbehavior of resentment. The classroom climate is subsumed with a confrontational aura. All of these complications, which ensure the novice that s/he has little or no influence, serve as a catalyst to propel the novice to become disenchanted with the entire profession. Quite often, unable to accept the fact that s/he is incapable of directing a group of students, the novice shifts the blame to the "dumb" students, and the administrator that doesn't know what it's like in the classroom, poor training from a university that is out-of-touch with the "real world," or an excessively bureaucratic system.

The length of time spent in disenchantment is critical. If the novice remains in this phase for a prolonged period of time, s/he will soon leave the profession. If other careers are not an option, the novice becomes bitter and constantly assassinates the character of parents, students, colleagues, and denigrates education in general.

Most experienced teachers have been able to overcome the disenchantment. However, a teacher may remain in the disenchantment phase for many years and perform a disservice to the profession and students, alike. This long-term disenchanted teacher may proclaim to "have taught thirty years," but can more adequately be described as having "taught one year thirty times."

This phase is another important reason why Teacher Mentors are so important. One important role of the mentor is to help the new teacher grow as a professional by sharing ideas and occasionally, when needed, giving a little "kick in the rear" to help the new teacher get out of this self-defeating attitude.

Also, resources like Survival Kit for New Teachers and other practical guides for beginning educators provide help by sharing "tricks of the trade" as well as effective teaching strategies in an easy to read format. These resources often provide a source of practical advice to help the new teacher when the mentor is unavailable.


Competence

After a period of time (usually a period of 12-18 months, but sometimes a period of multiple years), the novice teacher has learned some of the "tricks of the trade," how to balance his/her social and professional life, and understands that student attitudes should not always be taken as a personal attack. The novice develops a "thick skin" and becomes adept at manipulating his/her professional life to operate in concert with his/her personal life.

The balancing of the personal and professional life is critical. On one hand, the novice does not want to lose the innate characteristics that are most often associated with great teachers-concern, caring, enthusiasm, etc. On the other hand, the novice must learn that allowing school associated problems to intrude too deeply into the social domain will often prolong disenchantment as well as encourage emotional and, possibly, physical distress. In other words, the novice that exhibits desirable teacher characteristics can allow these characteristics to destroy the very fabric that is desired!

Nevertheless, the competent teacher has arrived. This arrival is signaled by a subdued, yet noticeable change. The competent teacher has fewer discipline problems, takes home less paperwork, interacts with students on a more personal level, and exhibits fewer characteristics associated with fatigue.

Please do not let it be misunderstood -- competent teachers do have discipline problems, take work home, and become fatigued. The difference is the number and severity of discipline problems, the amount and degree of the fatigue.

What one event propels a disenchanted teacher into the phase of competence? As a general rule, there is none. Typically, experience gained through constant interaction with the administration, the faculty, and the students, combined with small observable victories, assists the novice's move toward competence. There is, however, one event in the professional life of experienced teachers that is often associated with the motivation to continue in the profession. This event, indelibly etched in the mind of the teacher, may be a hug from a second grader, a "thank you" from an English student, or simply a smile that communicates appreciation. The common factor in these events is the human element of the student and teacher recognition of worthiness.

The Mentor along with involvement on the part of the administrator can go a long way to helping move a new teacher from the disenchantment phase to the competence phase. That little note of "I saw what you did in the classroom; keep up the good work" goes a long way to helping a new teacher feel valued.

Typically, all teachers will pass through these various phases. The velocity through which any particular individual moves from the fantasy phase to competency is dependent upon numerous factors. The author posits that competence can be reached more quickly and with less emotional harm when administrators and colleagues are cognizant of the novice's affective needs. Staff development programs such as peer coaching are being developed and delivered which can be of great assistance to the novice teacher.

Teacher preparatory programs cannot adequately provide these experiences, nor should they be expected to. Teacher development is a lifelong process that requires a dedicated effort from universities, school administrators, and colleagues.


References

Glickman, Car D. 1985. Supervision of Instruction: A Developmental Approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Ryan, Kevin. 1986. "The Introduction of New Teachers." Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Fastback Series #237


View a graph of "Phases of First Year Teaching".

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