Source: Professional Development in Education, Vol. 40, No. 1, 147–163, 2014
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
The main purpose of this research was to explore the cultural issues and challenges that Teach First (TF) trainees face in their first year of teaching, from the perspective of the teachers. The exploration of these differences allowed the emergence of coping strategies as a major finding to emerge from what was initially a more open-ended investigation.
The group totalled five, teaching subjects including biology, information and communication technology, English, French and physics. They were all recent graduates with an age range of 22–32, three male and two female teachers, and all but one had graduated with at least upper-second-class degrees from leading universities.
A multi-method, mainly qualitative approach was chosen for this research.
Qualitative data came from the surveys, classroom observations, interviews with the professional mentor in school and a final focus group with the participants following up on the survey responses. Primary data analysis then came from the survey data and the focus group findings.
Three main themes emerge from the data.
1. Cultural challenges and strategies for dealing with them
Firstly, there is evidence from all datasets that cultural challenges exist for the participants, and that they have developed strategies for overcoming them during the course of the year.
Data from the case studies and the focus group introduces numerous examples of the cultural challenges faced by the participants, and the different strategies they have used to overcome them. During their transition from new to more experienced teachers, the trainees are caught up in, and have to cope with, a milieu of engagement in classrooms with pupils, familiarisation with other adults and what is expected of them, and a lack of knowledge about the school and the systems within it.
In terms of preparation for teaching, some participants pointed out that they could have been better prepared for the cultural differences they encountered, commenting that the cultural framework of the pupils was very narrow and limiting, and that possibly the reason for this was their (the pupils’) lack of experience of the outside world.
2. The cultural curriculum gap
Secondly, the cultural gap is not necessarily seen as one between staff and pupils, but exists more between curriculum and pupils.
The curriculum gap was one that was observed across all of the subjects taught by the participants in this study, and, as such, is arguably a school-wide issue, and perhaps one that should be addressed as such.
In this study here, the perspective of communities of practice affects educational practice along an internal dimension, that of organising educational experience and as such it should be possible for the whole school to learn from their practice through participation in communities around subject matters; that is, from the different subject departments in which each participant is placed. Indeed, evidence suggests that teachers benefit from participating in the culture of teaching, and by learning about teaching by participating in a community of practice where content is encountered in the context in which it can be applied. Such learning can only be strengthened when it is embedded within a broad community of practitioners as would exist within the whole school.
3. Coping with whole-school cultural issues
Thirdly, while cultural differences have caused problems for the participants, they have come to recognise that although they cannot change the whole culture of the school and its pupils, they can make a difference in class, and have learnt that it is okay for this to be so.
Indeed, as the school mentor commented in his interview, the overall culture of the pupils in school was one of immaturity compared with their behaviour outside school, and this was felt to be a great disadvantage to the teaching staff in school.
The study has shown that trainees developed adaptations to the cultural issues they faced, arguably, by internalising their experiences in class, and as a result were able to better bond with the pupils they were teaching. This internalisation of such higher mental processes, such as reflection and analysis, may also have allowed their pupils to develop with them, allowing them to see culturally appropriate and more effective ways of dealing with the world.
The Bourdieuian cultural lens provided ideas to better prepare future trainees for this type of situation in schools, and also added to a growing body of knowledge in this area.
The significance of this study lies in the evidence it presents for adaptation in challenging circumstances, shaping teacher learning and practice, and which can be viewed through a cultural lens. It has added to the literature on research into culturally diverse classrooms, and has, like other studies, included elements of classroom practice to illustrate how trainees make sense of the cultural diversity they are faced with in their practice.
The findings have shown that teachers were frequently able to use the cultural resources of their pupils to develop themselves and their practice. The study indicates that it would be useful to introduce trainees to cultural diversity studies before and while they practise in their schools, as part of their teacher education programme in order to raise awareness.
This research has tried to show, overall, that teacher educators may need to see culture differently than they have previously done, and the awareness of their trainees to the issues that might arise in situations like the one described here. Having done so they may then need to rethink the preparation they give them in order that they might embrace and rise to the challenges ahead, seeing them as new learning experiences rather than obstacles to be overcome.