Inside A Beginning Immigrant Science Teacher’s Classroom: An Ethnographic Study

August 2012

Source: Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol. 18, No. 4, August 2012, 469–481
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this case study, the authors examine the ways in which one Asian immigrant teacher’s beliefs, experiences, understanding of his students, and school setting influenced his instructional decisions.

The participant is a 26-year-old immigrant. He was born in North Vietnam. His family immigrated to the USA when he was 10 years old.
He worked for several years as a chemical engineer before he decided to become a teacher. At a certain point he enrolled in a science education Masters program in a highly reputable teacher preparation program that would grant him initial licensure and an advanced degree. He says that the factor leading to his decision to teach was his desire to return to his old neighborhood to take care of his parents because of their diminishing health.

In this study, the authors used an ethnographic approach. They draw on 12 weekly classroom observations, 2 in-depth, and 12 weekly post-observation interviews from which they frame their interpretations and conclusions.

The findings reveal that the participant primarily attributes his success to hard work. He believes that working hard academically means mastering what is expected, learning the vocabulary, completing all the work, and depending on drill and practice to learn the facts, terms, and equations. He experienced a teacher-centered, didactic classroom both as a student in Vietnam and as an ELL student in the USA. His experiences have led him to recreate the academic environment that allowed him to be successful as a student.

As an immigrant, the participant recognized himself as an outsider and also as an assimilator to education in the USA. As a result, he has resorted to teacher-centered instructional strategies – his teaching involves a predominance of lecture to disseminate information and instruction practices that focus on speech patterns and vocabulary. However, the attitudes and behaviors that made Lok successful do not resonate with his immigrant students. His clashes with some of his immigrant students may be a product of their different cultures. He does not view his students in light of their unique cultures but through his lens as an Asian immigrant.
The authors argue that the participant's beliefs and experiences caused him to view his immigrant students through a single lens and inhibited his ability to create a classroom that recognized students’ individuality.

The findings reveal that immigrant teachers must be learners, too, and they must recognize and negotiate the unique social understandings students from other cultures bring to the classroom.

The findings suggest the participant is thoughtful about his practice and that he believes he knows what is best for immigrant students. His beliefs stem from his personal experiences as an immigrant student and this helps him shape how he teaches. He expects his students to work as hard as he did, and he provides them with the same highly structured learning environment that worked for him, both in Vietnam and in the USA. He believes if his students meet his high expectations they will become active and productive citizens.

As an Asian immigrant student, the participant fits the model minority stereotype. He knows there are different ethnic cultures but does not acknowledge cultural differences as confounding variables that can affect a student’s ability to adapt to the US educational system. He knows he is an immigrant and he relates to his immigrant students’ struggles with a single mindset. He seems to lack the insider knowledge that would allow him to help his students work hard and succeed.

The participant’s story serves as a call to all educators to be aware of and sensitive to the needs of all students. Educators can help their students to succeed by providing some basic guidelines and integrating inclusive and culturally safe learning environments into their classrooms.  

Updated: Feb. 06, 2018