Case study Understanding the Classroom

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Imagine entering a school. What do you see? What do you hear the teachers and other staff members saying? What do the bulletin boards look like? How easy was it to enter the school? What are the children saying and doing? How noisy is it? Do you feel welcome or afraid? What is the general "feel" of the environment? All these questions and more pertain to the underlying stream of values and rituals that pervade schools. This underlying stream is the culture of that particular school. Culture is the stream of "norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals built up over time" (Smambaugh & Magliaro 2006). It is a set of tacit expectations and assumptions that direct the activities of school personnel and students.

In teaching, new entrants, fresh out of professional training, assume the exact same responsibilities as 20-year veterans. In doing so, they are also undertaking a remarkably complex endeavor, involving as it does the simultaneous management of multiple variables, including student behavior, intellectual engagement, student interaction, materials, physical space, and time. While many novice teachers have had terrific intellectual preparation and an outstanding student teaching experience, their limited experience generally yields an equally limited repertoire of classroom strategies.

The first years of teaching are especially stressful as beginning teachers face the emotional challenges of adapting to a new workplace and new colleagues - from simply figuring out where things are located to learning policies and procedures, finding kindred spirits, and, generally speaking, getting the lay of the land. Fatigue is another constant for new teachers. "Free" time during their official workday is scarce, and planning and other preparation invariably spills over into their personal time. The effort of planning every lesson from scratch, teaching with unfamiliar materials, and, often, teaching at an unfamiliar grade level drains even the most energetic new teachers.

Compounding all this is the inherent isolation of individual teachers sequestered in their individual classrooms. At this emotionally challenging time, more experienced colleagues can play an important role, serving as a sounding board and assuring beginners that their experience is normal, offering sympathy and perspective, and providing advice to help reduce the inevitable stress. While this type of support does little to directly improve teaching performance, it does much to promote beginning teachers' personal and professional well-being and to transmit the culture of teaching. In the process, such support also improves the likelihood that new teachers will stay the course long enough to have the opportunity to become more effective teachers Beginning teachers also need help in knowing how to approach new tasks and in solving specific problems that crop up in their teaching.

They are usually undertaking even the most basic teaching tasks for the very first time: developing lesson plans, planning what to say at back-to-school night, deciding what goes in the grade book to determine grades at the end of nine weeks, and structuring parent-teacher conferences. Seasoned teachers can guide beginners in planning and accomplishing these tasks effectively; with the help of a veteran teacher, the beginner doesn't have to reinvent the wheel for such standard activities. Veterans can also share the sometimes unwritten expectations associated with such tasks in a given school, district, or state.

In similar fashion, attentive mentors can alert new teachers to the customs of the broader school community - everything from expectations about how quiet the corridors should be when students pass between classes to the prevailing expectations of local parents regarding parent participation in the classroom. For example, in one school, teachers might consider the faculty lounge completely off-limits to parents, while at another the lounge might double as a meeting room for parent-teacher conferences. While such conventions might not be "make-or-break" issues for new teachers, understanding them can go a long way toward making life easier. Beginning teachers also need help in dealing with teaching challenges specific to their own students.

In light of the No Child Left Behind law and the need for "highly qualified" teachers, state departments of education, institutions of higher learning, and school districts around the country are struggling to set criteria that designates educators as highly qualified. In a meta-analysis that focuses on empirical studies of teacher quality and qualifications, Berry (2006) found five broad categories of teacher attributes that appear to contribute to teacher quality: "(1) experience, (2) preparation programs and degrees, (3) type of certification, (4) coursework taken in preparation for the profession, and (5) teachers' own test scores. Berry, B. (2006) also targeted teacher quality in their analysis of studies that examined the characteristics of effective teachers and their link to student effectiveness. Similar to Barry, Bettencourt, 2003, examined ratings of teachers' undergraduate institutions, teachers' test scores, degrees and coursework, and certification status. They concluded that "students learn more from teachers with certain characteristics….Teachers differ greatly in their effectiveness, but teachers with and without different qualifications differ only a little" (p. 100-101). Berry (2002) posits that while these teacher qualities are indeed important they appear to have a "singular focus on content knowledge" (p.1). Highly qualified teachers must also know "how to organize and teach their lessons in ways that assure diverse students can learn those subjects…Highly qualified teachers don't just teach well-designed, standards-based lessons: They know how and why their students learn…" (p.2).

The literature on teacher characteristics makes a strong case for highly qualified teachers. Having numerous years of teaching experience among them, the authors of this book found supporting data in a very unassuming place-from students. At the beginning of each semester, we have asked our students one very important question: What is it about your favorite teacher that made them teachers from whom you were able to learn? The answers are not surprising. The surprise is the consistency in the answers over time. Semester after semester, we collected data from students enrolled in our classes. At the beginning of a new semester, we engaged our students, all teacher candidates, in a discussion of what characterizes good teaching and they consistently recalled the very same characteristics year after year. These characteristics of teachers uniformly affect students in a positive way. After analyzing the data over time, twelve themes emerged. In my readings and reflections about preparing teachers to create unique classrooms where students find success, we began to see how student's responses followed the growing body of research about effective teaching. What researchers have spent years discovering and writing about, our students knew already. Borich (2000) define effective teaching:

Most people would agree that good teachers are caring, supportive, concerned about the welfare of students, knowledgeable about their subject matter, able to get along with parents…and genuinely excited about the work that they do….Effective teachers are able to help students learn (p. 329).

In conclusion conversations with students over the years have provided valuable data for every teaching professional to consider. Students have consistently recounted stories about teachers who exhibit similar characteristics. These twelve characteristics- displaying fairness, having a positive outlook, being prepared, using a personal touch, possessing a sense of humor, possessing creativity, admitting mistakes, being forgiving, respecting students, maintaining high expectations, showing compassion, and developing a sense of belonging for students- center around the theme of caring. When demonstrated by classroom teachers, our students remembered school in a positive way.

Data supporting the twelve characteristics of favorite teachers correlate with recent research data as to the characteristics effective teachers possess. These traits have proven to increase student achievement. Whether one is new to the teaching profession or a seasoned professional, working to include these traits into everyday teaching routines or fine-tuning those already in use, will ensure that students have a positive school experience as well as a successful one.

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