Mitigating the apprenticeship of observation

December, 2020

Source: Teaching Education, 31:4, 404-423

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

While most recent research on the apprenticeship of observation has been conducted with preservice teachers in teacher preparation programs with a focus on content learning, this study differs in two ways:
First, it examines the experiences of first-year teachers rather than preservice teachers and in so doing, offers a more accurate assessment of whether beginning teachers do indeed enact the same practices they experienced as children once they are full-time teachers in their own classrooms.
Second, this study differs from prior studies in that it explores the decisions first-year teachers made about classroom management systems rather than their decisions about content pedagogy.
The primary research question driving this research is:
How do beginning teachers navigate competing perspectives on what makes for effective, fair, and equitable learning environments?
More specifically, this study explores the factors that influence first-year teachers’ decisions about classroom management systems and how closely their classroom management systems align with their own childhood experiences.
To accomplish the goals of this study, a comparison was made between the self-reported negative experiences the participants had in regard to classroom management practices during elementary school and their current classroom management practices to gauge whether those negative experiences were replicated, altered, or completely replaced with different systems.
Using a responsive interviewing framework (Rubin & Rubin, 2005), semi-scripted hour-long interviews were conducted with first-year teachers and data were coded using a process of open and axial coding.
This coding process revealed the ways in which the first-year teachers implemented practices that both echoed and pushed back against their childhood experiences with classroom management.

Participants and context
Each participant in this two-year study graduated from a small liberal arts university in the Midwest of the United States, which housed a teacher preparation program founded upon social justice.
Given the small size of the program, the author of this study taught each of the participants in at least two prior courses and supervised the full-time student teaching practicum for five of the participants during the fall of their senior year.
All participants were likewise enrolled in the author’s seminar that accompanied their student teaching practicum.

After students graduated from the university, received their teaching licenses, and began teaching full time in their own classrooms, the author contacted each of them and made plans to visit them for a semi-scripted interview designed to explore their decision-making process when it came to classroom management.
She was able to visit each classroom or, for those out of state, conduct the interviews via video chat or a phone call.
Each interview lasted from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half and when combined, totaled slightly less than fifteen hours of interview time.
Once each of the interviews was completed, she took brief field notes on the overall experience to capture her initial thoughts and to record her observations as a supplement to the audio recordings.
The audio files from the interviews were then transcribed verbatim, which allowed her to capture the verbal nuances of each participant’s responses.
The first question posed in the interviews was:
‘What do you remember about how your own elementary school teachers managed your classroom?’
Two follow-up questions were also posed:
‘What kinds of rewards or consequences were used during your elementary school years?’
and ‘How did those strategies work for you as a student?’
These questions were drawn from the research questions guiding this study and were ‘low-key and open-ended’ enough to allow for participants to pursue those topics most salient to them (Rubin & Rubin, 2005, p. 33).

Results and discussion
Korthagen (2010) noted ‘that beginning teachers struggle for control, and experience feelings of frustration, anger, and bewilderment.
The process they go through is more one of survival than of learning from experiences’ (p. 409).
This survival mode experienced during the first few years of teaching was evident in the interview data collected for this study.
The experiences of the first-year teachers in this study indicate that even though they took measures not to replicate exactly the negative experiences of their childhood elementary classrooms, many of them still adopted classroom management systems that in some ways mimicked those very public and incentive systems that ‘scarred’ and ‘devastated’ them as students.
Yet, the classroom management systems used by the participants in this study were not so much replication of their prior childhood experiences, but rather hybrids that included echoes of what they experienced as schoolchildren, what their teacher preparation program advanced as an alternative approach, and what other teachers in their buildings used.
In this way, the apprenticeship of observation was both present and absent.
This study highlights the need for reflection and robust discussion within teacher education programs between teacher educators and student teachers.
These discussions can equip beginning teachers to be thoughtful and intentional about their classroom decisions.
But there is more:
The results of this study also indicate that, given the ways in which beginning teachers tended to replicate their own experiences or those of the faculty and staff in their schools, it is highly beneficial for teacher preparation programs to help their graduates critique their own practices after they leave the teacher education program and arrive in their first classroom.
This critique of their own practice moves beyond reflection on their own childhood experiences;
this critique of their own practice engages first-year teachers with questions like those posed earlier:
‘Who was advantaged or disadvantaged by the systems I use?’; ‘Who maintained power and control?’;
‘What level of autonomy do students have or need?’;
‘What other factors influence the effectiveness of the systems I use?’;
‘How do my own experiences prevent me from understanding the experiences of students who are not like who I was as a student?’;
‘What are my ultimate goals for my classroom environment, and are my present practices accomplishing those goals?’
These questions become all the more relevant when posed to first-year teachers who are fully responsible for their own classrooms.
It may not be possible for all teacher preparation programs to follow their graduates into the classroom for continued mentoring and support, but this study certainly points to the benefits of doing so or at least remaining in contact with the graduates to reiterate what was learned through the program and thus mitigate the effects of the apprenticeship of observation.
It is not until first-year teachers are solely responsible for their own classrooms that they are in a position to critically analyze their own teaching.
If the cycle of the apprenticeship of observation is to be disrupted or at least mitigated, it may take more than reflection during the teacher preparation program.
It may take an extra step of those teacher preparation programs following their graduates into their first classroom to continue the conversations that began in the program.
To wit, the author has heard from a number of participants who have commented that the interviews conducted during this study influenced their recent classroom management decisions.
As these first-year teachers indicated, the continued contact with their teacher preparation program helped them consider more intentionally what they were doing in their classrooms.
Additionally, this continued contact with all participants allowed the author to push back against the apprenticeship of observation and support first-year teachers through the difficult induction process.
More globally, this study allowed for the echoes of a more progressive pedagogy to be reinforced before other more administratively efficient pedagogies and dispositions were solidified through the repeated practice of daily instruction.

Korthagen, F. A. J. (2010). How teacher education can make a difference. Journal of Education for Teaching, 36(4), 407–423.
Rubin, H. J., & Rubin, I. S. (2005). Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Updated: May. 11, 2021


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