Possibilities for using visual drawing with student-teachers: Linking childhood memories to future teaching selves

February 2022

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 110

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This is a study on childhood memories and the pedagogical perspectives and practices of 16 pre-service student-teachers enrolled at one large university in the northeastern corridor of the United States.
To better understand how traces of the past appear in the making of the imagined future teacher, drawings of childhood are analyzed alongside written narratives with a focus on the hidden complexities of childhood and its pedagogical significance to those learning to teach.

This research study uses childhood memories as a way to explore pre-service teachers’ perspectives on teaching.
Such an orientation values embodied knowledge for both its situatedness in “an unfolding life story” and for its capacity to inform reflection and action (Pithouse, 2011, p. 178).
With the assistance of a third-party doctoral student research assistant ,the author worked with drawings as she would other forms of qualitative data and underwent the development of interpretive codes and thematic categories, taking particular interest in emotional states, complex relationships, and the use of color and form (Pauwels, 2010).
Different from photography or object study, drawings were elicited as representations of childhood experiences, perhaps similar to research that includes concept maps (Prosser & Burke, 2011) or storyboards (Mitchell, de Lange & Molestane, 2011).
The content of their drawings, alongside brief narrative descriptions, became the main source of data and the focal point for her analysis.

This study was undertaken with pre-service teachers during their final semester of a two-year, master's degree program in childhood education in a large urban metropolis of the Northeastern United States.
The cohort under study comprised 18 student-teachers who ranged in age from 23 to 39 years.
This program was their first experience working in a public classroom setting.

The prompt & research activity
With permission from the course instructor, the research assistant recruited voluntary participants from one student teaching seminar, obtained consent, then gathered drawings and written narratives during a research activity conducted at a nearby school site away from the university campus.
Out of 18 students, 16 consented to participate.
The assistant asked student participants to draw a visual of their most formative childhood memories, including, if they chose, significant schooling or educational experiences, and to write a brief accompanying narrative describing the drawing and the ways it may or may not speak to their teaching experiences.
They created their images in familiar company with classmates they have known since the beginning of their program.
Although they began their drawings together at the research site, they were intentionally given one week to think carefully about which memories to include and could complete them independently (Keightley, 2010).

Data Analysis
From the analysis, formative childhood memories, as expressed by the participants, fell into three general categories:
1) six that revolved around intimate experiences with teachers,
2) six that drew from broader life circumstances of loss and trauma; and
3) four that spoke to the primacy of family and culture.
Each of these led to distinct modes of address through which participants translated their memories into their hopes as teachers, their empathy with students, and their relationship to diversity and parents.


Memories of our own teachers: from character to context
It may be unsurprising that childhood memories of pre-service teachers include a range of learning experiences that occur within the confines of school.
In the six memories that emphasize the role of the adult-teacher in their childhood memories, participants often created a curious oppositional split between the “good” and “bad.”
As argued by Ahmet Saban (2003), prospective elementary school teachers carry negative experiences with teachers long into their adult lives and often transform negative encounters into standards for how they themselves hope not to be as teachers.
In each of the drawings described, symbolic forms and written texts describe direct encounters with teachers, both positive and less so, as vital to the kinds of teachers they wish to be, or not to be, in the future.
The contrasting themes of the vulnerable child beholden to the decisions of their adult-teacher thread powerfully throughout their drawings and narratives.
Each student-teacher transformed their childhood memories of fear and confusion in school into a kind of vow to make children in their own classroom feel comfort and joy.
Certainly, the activity asks the student-teachers to recall themselves as children, and so the memories are told through this lens.
Yet there may also be a fruitful possibility in considering how the teacher figure is constructed in these memories of childhood, perhaps even encouraging a more empathetic stance that contextualizes the oft-times difficult work of teaching and draws connections between the challenges that might be shared between student-teachers and the teachers of their own childhoods.

Tending difficult life circumstances: refusing the innocence/experience binary
Six of the drawings express difficult life circumstances as a driver of teacher ambition.
In their study of pre-service teacher memory, Chang-Kredl and Sarah Kingsley (2014) find that personal and professional identities often merge in ways that make teaching a site for both fulfillment and vulnerability. As life histories become animated, a teacher's past, present, and hopeful future fold into professional and pedagogical beliefs in myriad ways.
An empathetic stance towards students may be accentuated as beginning teachers enter the familiar place of classrooms and teach children who remind them of themselves.
These drawings and narratives demonstrate that when pre-service teachers have experienced pain or trauma as young people, they may arrive at an awareness that children do indeed carry hardship in their lives. This is in contrast with early-childhood educators in particular, who tend to view childhood through the lens of innocence, failing to understand or acknowledge the intricate capacities and struggles that children may experience (Garlen et al., 2020).
Yet as Jonathan Silin (2013) shares, an imperative to remove loss, grief, and trauma from the lives of children is not only impossible, but may disengage us from seeing the ways that children use play, spoken language, and other means to find solace during moments of abandonment.
As he argues, learning lies at the heart of such loss and a swift move to protect the child may prevent them, as well as our adult selves, from confronting times when our hopes and ambitions are left unfulfilled. Difficult life circumstances can force us to face the vulnerabilities of our pain and to generate new and different kinds of re-engagements with the world and others.
In this subset of drawings and narratives, the participants resurrect their struggle with the real pain they experienced as young people and the lack of support they felt from the adults around them.
As with the other memories, this speaks to both the vulnerability of the child and the perceived power of adults.
In the stories here, there seems to be a great distance between the two; adults are seen as largely unaware of the angst the children are experiencing in their care.
In response, the student-teachers reproduce both the false myth of an innocence/experience binary (Garlen et al., 2020) and the role of the adult in regulating such experiences, particularly if they signal familiar forms of hardship and loss.
Such a commitment may reflect how our own needs for repair play out and are worked through the relationships made with children, as well as the child figure who is symbolic of our own hopes and desires.
Although it is hard to argue against an empathetic stance towards children, teacher education can make efforts to better examine the tension between the duality of protection and adversity, innocence and experience in childhood education, querying into the role of the teacher during times of loss and pain and the lessons learned from the vulnerabilities of these moments.

Family and cultural difference: from relationships to analysis
While some memories focused on formidable teachers or painful past lives, the remaining four spoke to the place of culture and family in shaping perspectives on teaching.
As frequently found in education, diversity is used in a myriad of ways that often describe a student population with less than noticeable white students.
Others see cultural activities and expectations through memories of their own families.
One participant writes about attending the same elementary school where her grandmother worked, “practicing reading and spelling words with my grandmother [as] one of the first memories related to my education.”
Other students recalled memories of “special time” or reading with and being read to by parents.
While for many beginning teachers the immediacy of classroom practice sits at the forefront of their concerns, these memories also show a need to push beyond the classroom into an analysis of why schools and neighborhoods are so racially segregated and how this impacts education and society at large.
Further possibilities for teacher education are to take such childhood memories and use them as analytical tools to construct a more critical understanding of school systems, race, and inequity
In this study, the focal point of childhood memories - whether they centered teachers, children, culture, or parents - can help teachers interrogate their pedagogical role in the lives of their students, cultivating awareness of how some aspects of teaching might be more privileged over others and to strike a balance among the multiple responsibilities that come with the work of teaching.
Juxtaposing multiple and diverse childhood memories and maps drawn by student-teachers can be a useful way to complicate and see what is hidden behind the common generalities of good and bad, serving as a catalyst to “resist confining cultural narratives and to write new narratives of teaching” (Ritchie & Wilson, 2018, p. 14).
Assignments that utilize visual drawings and written descriptions of childhood are pedagogical tools to excavate the very ideals to which we attach, serving as one method to explore the affective and emotional dimensions of responsibility, obligation, forgiveness, vulnerability, and the symbolic binds that hold teachers together with their students.

Chang-Kredl, S., & Kinglsey, S. (2014). Identity expectations in early childhood teacher education: Pre-service teachers' memories of prior experiences and reasons for entry into the profession. Teaching and Teacher Education, 43, 27-36.
Garlen, J., Chang-Kredl, S., Farley, L., & Sonu, D. (2020). Childhood innocence and experience: Memory, discourse and practice. Children & Society, 1-15.
Keightley, E. (2010). Remembering research: Memory and methodology in the social sciences. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 13(1), 55-70.
Mitchell, C., de Lange, N., & Molestane, R. (2011). Before the cameras roll: Drawing storyboards to address gendered poverty. In L. Theron, C. Mitchell, A. Smith, & J. Stuart (Eds.), Picturing research: Drawing as visual methodology (pp. 219-232). Sense Publishers.
Pauwels, L. (2010). Visual sociology reframed: An analytical synthesis and discussion of visual methods in social and cultural research. Sociological Methods & Research, 38(4), 545-581.
Pithouse, K. (2011). “The future of our young children lies in our hands”: Reenvisaging teacher authority through narrative self-study. In C. Mitchell, T. Strong-Wilson, K. Pithouse, & S. Allnutt (Eds.), Memory and pedagogy (pp. 177-190). Routledge.
Prosser, J., & Burke, C. (2011). Image-based educational research: Childlike perspectives. LEARNing Landscapes, 4(2), 257-273.
Ritchie, J., & Wilson, D. (2018). Teacher narrative as critical inquiry. Teachers College Press.
Saban, A. (2003). A Turkish profile of prospective elementary school teachers and their views of teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19(8), 829-846.
Silin, J. (2013). At a loss: Scared and excited. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 14(1), 16-23. 

Updated: Apr. 28, 2022