Beginning Teachers' Stories

Dec. 13, 2016

Dr. Orna Schatz Oppenheimer holds a Ph.D in Educational Psychology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a lecturer in the Education Department in the Hebrew University, as well as teaching in the M.eD program at David Yellin Academic College. She's engaged in qualitative - narrative research in professional identities of beginning teachers.

Utilizing the story as a research tool enables the individual to make unique voice heard and provides information regarding identity. Since the story occurs in the dimensions of time and place, the context is significant for comprehending the unfolding story. In the education system, we study stories and place the emphasis on beginning teachers.

During recent years, hundreds of stories have been collected from teachers in their first year of teaching. The stories were collected by means of a "call" addressed to those individuals specializing in teaching to participate in a "story contest". The participants were requested to recount their "specialization story" in writing using approximately 3,000 words. The story contest, which has already been held for 12 years, is accompanied by a structured, orderly, and anonymous process of professional, academic – and pedagogical – refereeing. Five academic referees who hail from the fields of literature and education participate in the process. Each of them reads all the stories and selects 20 on the basis of two main criteria:

Literary criterion: A developing plot, meaningful characters, suitable writing from the linguistic and literary points of view.
Pedagogical criterion: The relevance of the story to the world of teachers in their first year of teaching.

The stories that are selected by each of the judges undergo a joint refereeing process, and following the selection of 30 stories, they are collated into a booklet titled Specializing Teachers Tell Their Stories. When the booklet is published, a prize-giving ceremony is held for the winners of the story contest.

As a result of the contest, we have collected thousands of stories, all of which enable us to examine the professional reality of beginning teachers in their first year of work. Two processes emerged: (1) the written stories describe and reflect the event that occurred in reality, and (2) the stories construct and shape reality. The processes of reflecting, constructing, and shaping are expressed on two levels: the individual level and the systemic-organizational level.

On the individual level, the writing process helps the writer transmit ideas, messages, thoughts, values, and desires from his/her own point of view. Writing enables the writer to examine his/her professional identity and reorganize his/her subjective reality. By means of the story, he/she includes the other person – the reader – who also produces a subjective interpretation. The exposure of the written story, which shifts from the personal, one-time space to the public space as well as to a universal reality, affords both writer and story existential validation. It creates a presence of reality and of concealed and occasionally even hushed-up occurrences – for instance, coping with discipline problems, working with parents, privately seeking a professional identity, and so on.
On the systemic-organizational level, the stories provide a "glimpse" into the education system. They serve as a type of X-ray of the educational reality as the latter is understood and perceived by the "new" teacher – for instance, the occurrences in the teachers' room, going on school trips, and so on.

Research on the thousands of stories that have been received, often featuring constantly-recurring topics, furnishes information about the beginning teacher's professional reality, the perceptions, thoughts, and values related to their inner world, and the functioning of the system in which he/she operates. These insights enable professional educational policy makers to shape their policy and influence what occurs in the field. These interrelationships – namely, the reflection and reshaping of reality – are made possible as a result of the study of beginning teachers' narratives.
In addition, it is important to remember that the stories written by the first-year teachers also serve as a pedagogical-narrative teaching tool for various courses during the stages of preparation and entry into the teaching profession, as well as for veteran teachers participating in in-service courses focusing on teacher instruction and various professional mentorships.

In conclusion, stories not only constitute a source of knowledge but also reveal perceptions, attitudes, and experiences. The story contests, during which thousands of teaching stories written by beginning teachers have been collected over the years, serve as a research and teaching tool.

Updated: Dec. 13, 2016