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"Ive brought you a new playfellow," the Fairy said. "You must be very kind to him and teach him all he needs to know in Rabbitland. . . ."
"Run and play, little Rabbit!" she said.
And he found that he actually had hind legs! . . . He gave one leap and the joy
. . . was so great that he went springing about the turf . . . , jumping sideways and whirling round as the [other rabbits] did.
He was a Real Rabbit at last.
Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
The purpose of my study was to understand and describe what has shaped and continues to influence effective middle school teachers to choose classroom practices that are responsive to the developmental needs of young adolescents. I identified three questions to guide my research and will revisit these questions to summarize the study.
Though my study was limited to four participants, and I am asking the readers to determine whether it is applicable to their situation and lives (Eisner, 1998), I have some recommendations for middle school teachers, teacher educators, and suggestions for further study.
As I conducted the cross-case analysis for my study, I realized that I had indeed answered the original questions posed in chapter 1. I would now like to restate each question followed by conclusions from my study.
Question 1 asked: What life experiences have molded educators into effective middle school teachers?
The stories of the four effective middle school teachers shared in chapters 3-6 identify a number of experiences, both personal and professional, which the teachers observed as having shaped their lives. All of them referred to their childhood, both at home and at school; these are hardly new themes from the lives of those who have chosen to become teachers (Lortie, 1975). Debbie and Renae spoke more about their home lives as children than either Mark or Jack did; however, all four of the teachers spoke of the close relationships they have with their parents as adults. Debbie and Jack live in the same general area as their parents and have frequent contact with them; Mark and Renae maintain close, long-distance relationships with their parents.
All four participants spoke of adults who touched their lives positively and drew them toward teaching as a career. Debbie called her parents her "two main teachers" (Vol. I, p. 41) and mentioned several science teachers who "were just really dynamic and . . . fun and easy-going" (Vol. I, p. 29). Because Jack "felt that [he] never fit in" during his elementary school years (Vol. II, p. 127), the teachers he encountered in middle school who recognized his abilities and made his school experiences more positive had a tremendous impact on his success as an adult. Renae, similar to Debbie, credits her father for her passion for math and learning. Much like Jack, Mark spoke of the impact of his formal education and teachers who touched his life and showed him how to be a compassionate teacher. This could be attributed to the fact that Mark "came from a family that was not really involved in social settings and events in school and education" (Vol. IV, p. 95).
I was fascinated to discover that none of these teachers parents are college graduates. For three of the four participants, however, their parents made it very clear that going to college was to be part of their childrens experiences. This message was clear to Debbie, Jack, and Renae at a young age. Marks experience differed, but there were other significant adults in his life who guided him into higher education.
Each of these four teachers spoke of the way they have been influenced by "the practice of teaching itself" (Hansen, 1995, p. 129). Debbie grew from contact with "fellow mentoring-type . . . teachers" (Vol. I, p. 84) and "learned a lot about kids over the years" (Vol. I, p. 38). In Jacks story, his first principal suggested he take a look at himself as a person. He also grew professionally through his contact with educators outside of his district. When Renae came face-to-face with a classroom of seventh graders, she realized that the elementary teaching methods she had been using would not work with these students. She chose to stretch herself and learn how to teach middle schoolers effectively. Mark too continues to learn from his students. He looks to his students to keep his curriculum student-centered and openly seeks their input when planning learning activities. Debbie, Jack, Renae, and Mark have learned important lessons throughout their careers which impact the choices they make today.
I find it noteworthy that though each teacher values his or her experiences in higher education, little time was spent discussing what was learned through the curriculum. The stories I heard about college centered largely around the relationships with peers, interactions with K-12 students, and the influence of specific professors who touched their lives. This causes me to conclude that much of what has shaped these effective middle school teachers to teach in developmentally responsive ways stems from life events and reflection upon these events rather than concepts and principles learned in the college classroom. These teachers became Real in the classroom of life.
Question 2 asked: What curriculum and instruction are utilized by effective middle school teachers?
As I expected, the curriculum and instruction used by the teachers in my study is student- rather than curriculum-centered. What I find surprising and reassuring, however, is how well each of the teachers classroom practices fit into the theoretical framework drawn from Turning Points and This We Believe. Displaying evidence of how well these four teachers matched the ideal qualities was relatively easy though I specifically chose not to revisit the theoretical framework during data collection and analysis and while writing chapters 3-6.
Question 3 asked: What beliefs guide the practices of effective middle school teachers?
As I mentioned earlier, I did not rely on the theoretical framework during my data collection and writing of chapters 3-6; consequently, I identified different beliefs for each of the four participants in the study. My goal in describing Debbie, Jack, Renae, and Marks beliefs was to be as true to them and their ideas as possible, not to tailor their beliefs to fit my theoretical framework. I was successful in identifying beliefs which guide them as individuals based on the feedback given to me during member checks (Merriam, 1988). Each one of them indicated that I had indeed captured their lives and put their stories into print. I also requested and received input from the significant others in these teachers lives. Here again what I perceived to be the participants stories and beliefs was confirmed by those who know them best. In the process of striving for the goal of describing the four participants, I was also able to reach the goal of identifying beliefs which all of these teachers hold in common. Most of their beliefs have already been identified in the theoretical framework; however, I was also able to add a few additional ones as displayed in Table 10.
Having identified characteristics and beliefs of effective middle school teachers, the question concerning how to develop these characteristics and beliefs in other teachers remains. When one speaks of developing certain characteristics, one automatically addresses a continuing receptivity to growth. What supports this characteristic?
While the four teachers in my study had a keen sense that they were impacting their students positively, they also spoke of the need they had to continue learning how to improve the teaching and learning which occurred in their classrooms. Marks comment, "I want to stay in teaching as long as
[my growth] continues. When I begin to feel everything Ive done Im doing over again and there isnt anything better to do, then its probably time to retire" (Vol. IV, p. 101) are sentiments echoed by the other participants. The desire for continuing growth "to make the classroom more alive" (Vol. II, p. 122) is fueled by networking with other educators and only possible when one has an adequate emotional well from which to draw. Becoming Real is a process built on ones receptivity to growth.
Debbie, Jack, Renae, and Mark all emphasized the value of networking in their lives. One aspect of each teaching assignment Debbie has had which she values highly is personal relationships with other teachers. She commented, "Somebody that you can vent to is really important in the teaching profession . . . even venting about things that are going on in your personal life" (Vol. I, p. 84). One of the things Debbie lamented was the loss of these relationships each time she moved to another district. During our last interview she expressed disappointment that she had not been able to develop deeper relationships with her new colleagues during this school year.
Jack was driven to reach outside of his district for professional nourishment and he sees himself as the product of associations with many other people:
Im proud of the fact that I have been fortunate to work with so many wonderful teachers and principals and that I have been able to hear leaders in research or practice and share their knowledge, share their enthusiasm. Really, what I am is a collection of 27 years of being in teaching. . . . I really believe . . . you [do] not become the person you are unless you venture beyond your four walls. (Vol. II, pp. 129-130)
Networking with others and learning from them has been crucial in shaping Jack into the person and professional he is today.
The opportunity to team teach with her husband, Ken, has been an asset to Renae. Their strengths complement each other and allow them to create an outstanding math and science program in their small school. Throughout the years in whatever setting Renae found herself, she was constantly looking for things she could learn through her relationships with others. When she assumed her current position, she recognized the need for changing her teaching style and turned to the ISD where she found other educators who supported her and helped her grow.
I quickly recognized how important networking and colleagial relationships are to Mark. Finding support and being able to brainstorm with other educators while adopting a problem-solving approach to teaching and learning was essential in becoming comfortable with this dramatic change. When Mark came to his current school, he was delighted to have two math teachers in the high school with whom he could work in sharpening his teaching skills and learning more about mathematical concepts. Mark, similar to Jack, commented,
I cannot give enough credit to the people that helped me. . . . As I look back . . . my life . . . has been [one] where I have been helped. Ive never gotten anywhere on my own energy. . . . There . . . need to be other people who stand alongside of you. (Vol. IV, p. 98)
Other middle school teachers would benefit from following the example of these four participants. Networking with others stimulates ones thoughts and provides support for changes one is making. While there is risk involved in opening up ones life to others and discomfort precedes growth, these four teachers have shown that it is profitable and worth the risk and uneasiness. Not all of these four teachers find taking risks easy; Mark and Debbie are at very different places on the continuum. Mark identifies himself as a "cautious risk taker" (Vol. IV, p. 100) while Debbie responded with an emphatic "Oh, yeah!" (Vol. I, p. 31) to my query about being a risk taker. Colleagial relationships help make change easier since one learns from others and benefits from feeling supported.
Replenishment of Emotional Well
Effectively teaching middle school students requires a great deal of energy, time, and personal stamina (Mills, 1997). In order to meet the needs of their students, middle school teachers need to have a spring by which their emotional well is fed. Debbie alluded to this when she said, "I have a good marriage . . . [which] helps me be a more energetic and good teacher because Im not bringing issues from home or having any kind of personal [crisis]" (Vol. I, p. 44). Some of Jacks thoughts support what Debbie said, but they were spoken from the vantage point of recalling a time in his life when he was "in a wounded state" (Vol. II, p. 124). Jack remarked,
Its probably good that I was out of the classroom for those few years. . . . It put me in limited contact with kids, but . . . when I did [have contact] I could be really focused for a short period of time and then go back to the paper work. (Vol. II, p. 127)
Each of the participants in my study indicated that they found emotional strength through treasured relationships in their lives. Had we continued our conversations, I may have discovered other ways they restore their souls before entering the classroom to meet its many demands. The issue at stake is that effective teachers, as Jack said, "work real hard during . . . school then . . . play real hard" (Vol. II, p. 59).
Crucial to the effectiveness of the middle school movement is effective teachers specifically trained to meet the needs of middle schoolers. It is interesting to note that the lack of teachers specifically trained for the junior high schools resulted in the original goals never being met (Alexander et al., 1968; DeVita, Pumerantz, & Wilklow, 1970; Moss, 1969). Since its inception, leaders in the middle school movement have again been calling for teachers with special preparation in teaching young adolescents in order to sustain the movement and promote continuing growth and development (Howard & Stoumbis, 1970; Lounsbury, 1992). According to DeVita et al. (1970) and Lounsbury (1996), this requires teachers who have adopted a middle school philosophy which guides the atmosphere, curriculum, and instruction in the classroom and school.
When I looked at the suggested components of a middle school teacher preparation program, I found these aspects: A sound liberal arts education, understanding of human growth and development as it relates to young adolescents, learning theories, curriculum and instruction suitable for middle grade students, philosophy of middle school education, strong academic background in at least two content areas, ways to involve families and communities, and field experiences in exemplary middle schools with effective teachers (Harnett, 1991; McEwin, Dickinson, Erb, & Scales, 1995; Moss, 1969; Scales & McEwin, 1994; Swaim, 1993; Tibbles, Dickinson, & McEwin, 1991). While this body of knowledge is extremely important in being an effective middle school teacher, I see a lack of developing personal characteristics which enable a teacher to implement the learned knowledge and skills. Swaim (1993) does include a personal quality when he points out that preservice middle school teachers need to learn to work collaboratively since many middle schools expect teachers to become part of an interdisciplinary team. Is this the only personal quality effective middle school teachers need?
While I believe the results of my study confirm the importance of including the aspects mentioned above in a middle school teacher preparation program, my results also lead me to believe that middle school teacher educators need to address personal characteristics of effective middle school teachers. Knowing that a middle school teacher needs to build relationships with his or her students is different from being able to relate well and gain the trust of middle schoolers. Preservice middle school teachers should have an opportunity to explore what a positive classroom climate is and how one creates it. They need to consider questions such as how one takes advantage of learning opportunities for continued growth. The fact that teachers bring themselves and their personal lives into their professional sphere is important to recognize and explore. During their teacher training program, preservice teachers should be encouraged to pay attention to and replenish their emotional wells.
The middle school movement could benefit from additional studies concerning common characteristics of effective middle school teachers (NMSA, 1997) and other intangible issues connected to effective middle school teachers (Strahan, 1992). My study was limited to four teachers in the Michiana area and may or may not be typical of other effective middle school teachers.
One of the values in narrative case studies such as mine is that middle school teachers can read about the practices of effective teachers and restory their own classroom practices. Others who read how the four participants dealt with opportunities, obstacles, and challenges in life may be motivated to look at their own lives through new eyes. Teachers learning about other teachers successes and foibles can be a powerful tool in shaping practices. Middle school teachers would benefit from additional narrative research studies which would allow them to enter into effective middle school teachers classrooms and lives.
As I spoke with other educators who did not share my interest in middle school education, I was repeatedly asked how effective middle school teachers differ from their counterparts in elementary and high schools. An obvious answer lies with the body of knowledge teachers assimilate as either elementary, middle, or high school teachers; however, that seems like a shallow response. These reflections caused me to ask questions beyond the scope of my study which other studies could include: Are there personal characteristics which differentiate middle school teachers from their colleagues in elementary and high schools? Are the characteristics I found running through the four participants lives that make them Real unique to middle school teachers? If there are differing characteristics which reside in effective elementary, middle, and high school teachers, how do teacher educators identify these and encourage preservice teachers to prepare for teaching in these respective areas? If certain qualities are representative of all effective teachers, how can these be developed in preservice teachers?
Another question forced its way into my thoughts as I conducted my study. All four teachers in my study have been in education for more than 10 years and their ages range from the mid-30s to the mid-50s. Are the characteristics which make them Real the result of increased maturity or specifically cultivated qualities?
Becoming Real is a process that occurs over time, often in several stages. Loving and being loved are integral to this process, which only occurs to resilient people who are willing to open their lives to feeling pain and enduring discomfort. Real people know when they are needed and give unselfishly of themselves to others. Though they are already Real, they recognize that they are still in the process of becoming Real and open themselves to continue learning from those around them and from life itself.
As I spent time with the four teacher participants in my study, I could not shake the strong impression that each of these teachers is Real. This belief has only grown stronger as our relationships deepened, as I read and reread the data, and as I wrote their stories. These four teachers love and give of themselves freely and unselfishly to their students and others around them. They have opened their lives and experienced growing pains, but they allowed pain to mold and shape their lives. Students who know these teachers love them in return, enjoy being with them, and feel safe and secure in their classrooms. All four of these teachers continue to open themselves to grow both personally and professionally as they journey through life.