Becoming an urban science teacher: How beginning teachers negotiate contradictory school contexts

January, 2020

Source: Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 57:1 p. 3–32.

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study contributes to the emerging literature on social justice in science education by examining how novice teachers negotiated the divide between preparation and their first year of teaching science for social justice in urban schools.
Toward this end, the authors utilized the frameworks of social justice, identity, and the structure‐agency dialectic from organizational studies to understand how novice teachers negotiated and enacted their political awareness of teaching science for social justice in urban schools.
The research questions guiding this analysis were:

1. How did pre‐service teachers incorporate and enact identities as science teachers for social justice?
• What pre‐service learning experiences shaped teachers' emerging identities?

2. How did these teachers negotiate their identities as science teachers for social justice in their first year of teaching?
• What urban school structures inhibited teachers' implementation of social justice science approaches in their first year of teaching?

The authors used a multi‐level explanatory case study design, with the Urban Science Teacher Preparation (USTP) program serving as a “critical case” (Yin, 2013) of well‐prepared urban science teachers.
As a second level of analysis, teachers who participated in the USTP program were treated as “embedded cases.”

USTP context
The authors focused on the USTP program, a 1‐year master's degree licensure program in secondary urban science teaching at a university in the northeastern United States.
The USTP program advanced a particular vision of teaching science in urban schools, combining a reform‐oriented approach to science teaching with a social justice mission.
USTP graduates received ongoing informal professional support for 2 years following graduation.

Participants and data sources
This study focused on the experiences of one cohort of the USTP program.
The four participants in this study included two men and two women.
Data were collected from the four teachers over 2 academic years (pre‐service preparation through the first year of teaching).
Instruments and data sources were intended to capture stories of their experiences teaching and learning to teach.
The primary sources of data were semi‐structured individual interviews, a focus group, and written reflections.
The goal of the research activities was to offer participants an opportunity to honestly and openly reflect on their experiences in the program and teaching.
A total of six semi‐structured individual interviews were conducted with each of the four participants over the 2 years of the study, for a total of 24 interviews.
The focus group allowed for group reflection on USTP, a strategy that encouraged participants to comment more honestly upon challenges in a shared setting than during individual conversations (Dodson & Schmalzbauer, 2005).
Teachers also submitted written reflections on their two most successful lessons.
Additionally, because the data from teachers were self‐reported, the authors collected and analyzed secondary data sources to triangulate findings and to support or refute personal reports from study participants (Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, 2014).

Data analysis
The authors note that the goal of analyzing data was to document the emerging and shifting identities of the four teachers, the structural barriers they encountered in their schools, and how they negotiated their practice to enact their identities as social justice science teachers.
The authors then analyzed the teachers' experiences learning to teach, from individual interviews, written reflections, and the focus group, based upon the theoretical frameworks to construct cases for each teacher.
To address the research questions, the authors note that the focus of analysis in the pre‐service interviews was on identifying evidence of their emerging understandings of teaching for social justice.
In contrast, for the first year of teaching, analysis focused on identifying identity negotiations in which they encountered difficulty enacting their vision of good urban science teaching, specifically through stories they shared illustrating dilemmas of practice, challenges, and successes.
Negotiations were identified in descriptions reflecting low agency and offer insights into their developing political analysis of the context.

Overall, findings indicate these four teachers expressed an identity of teaching science for social justice that reflected the mission of USTP; yet, as first year teachers, they encountered school structures that restricted their ability to teach for social justice.
The authors present the findings in two parts.
First, they describe the identities these pre‐service teachers expressed during pre‐service preparation, tracing the ways in which the USTP program advanced and nurtured these identities.
For the first year of teaching, these findings are then presented as four separate cases, each covering an individual teacher's experiences in their particular school contexts that resulted in very different negotiations of their practice as science teachers for social justice.

USTP: Learning to teach science for social justice
By the end of USTP, the four teachers expressed and enacted identities aligned with the values and priorities advanced by the program.
Notably, they prioritized and implemented practice‐based strategies to science teaching and internalized a social justice mission reflecting the individual and structural components of teaching science for social justice.

First year of teaching: A process of identity negotiation
The authors then describe how these teachers negotiated their identities as they encountered contradictory school structures in their first year of teaching.
Findings for teacher identity negotiations are presented in the study as individual cases describing the experiences and school structures that shaped teaching identities.
Negotiation occurs when teachers are confronted with organizational structures that restrict their pedagogical freedom (Coldron & Smith, 1999). Specifically, identity negotiations highlight key aspects of novice teachers taking political action in challenging school‐based inequities in science learning:
(a) deconstructing school structures (social justice);
(b) socially positioning themselves within and against these structures (identity); and
(c) enacting their identities (structure‐agency).
While the four participants taught in very different urban school contexts and encountered different challenges, all experienced a similar process.
Cases summarizing the individual experiences of these teachers are provided in the study.
In each, the authors present how teachers negotiated the school structures that inhibited their science teaching through these three related processes.
Overall, all four teachers encountered school structures that impacted the enactment of their identities nurtured in USTP.
Their response to these school structures reflected a structural orientation toward teaching science for social justice (Chubbuck, 2010).
These teachers acknowledged the school or district structures that limited their ability to teach science, and their students' abilities to learn.
Restrictive structures identified by these first‐year teachers included the allocation of scarce resources, such as physical materials or time, or policies that shaped the type of teaching and learning that could occur.
Despite these challenges, these teachers used their identities as science teachers for social justice to deconstruct their contexts, specifically identifying the routines, policies, and procedures that served as barriers to their instruction, positioning themselves within this context, and making intentional decisions about how and when to challenge these structures and enact their preferred teaching identities.

Conclusion and Implications
The authors conclude that the findings of this study indicate that an essential part of becoming an urban science teacher depends on how successfully one negotiates urban school structures.
Findings highlight the importance of pre‐service preparation programs in providing novice teachers with a foundation for effectively teaching science for social justice: political clarity and sustained induction support.
Both are essential to preparing science teachers who can effectively negotiate the contradictory contexts of urban schools.
The findings of this study illustrate the personal and relational dimensions of teaching for social justice, as well as the unique challenges urban science teachers face.
The authors emphasize that teacher education programs with a social justice mission must provide pre‐service teachers with opportunities to develop a political understanding of schools, school systems, and urban education through courses focused on social and educational inequality and providing ongoing sustained induction support.
Urban science teaching would benefit from future research that continues to differentiate between the personal and political dimensions of teaching science for social justice in longitudinal studies.
Additionally, research exploring the relationships between teachers' political activity and pedagogical practices in teaching for social justice suggests promising long‐term benefits to urban schools.

Chubbuck, S. M. (2010). Individual and structural orientations in socially just teaching: Conceptualization, implementation, and collaborative effort. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 197–210.
Coldron, J. & Smith, R. (1999). Active location in teachers' construction of their professional identities. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(6), 711–726.
Dodson, L., & Schmalzbauer, L. (2005). Poor mothers and habits of hiding: Participatory methods in poverty research. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(4), 949–959.
Miles, M. B., Huberman, M. A., & Saldana, J. (2014). Drawing and verifying conclusions. Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Yin, R. K. (2013). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

Updated: May. 26, 2020


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