Using critical incidents to investigate teacher preparation: A narrative inquiry

August, 2020

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 26:5-6, 460-474

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The data shared in this article is related to several critical incidents that occurred during a summer literacy programme where tutors worked with elementary age students in a university literacy centre (2019).
Each incident adds to learning by Pre-Service Teachers (PSTs) on professional behaviour.
The paper is thematically organised across four critical incidents.
The first two involved conflict between three tutors, broadly.
In one, a student was involved as the tutors engaged in personal conflict.
In the second, the tutors alone were involved, however, the escalation of the situation occurred quite quickly.
In the third narrative, the authors re-story a critical incident that involved the researchers and one of the teacher candidates across multiple moments in the programme.
In the final narrative, model behaviour by two tutors was exhibited when handling mandated reporting.
For this study, these stories can help readers understand how pre-service teachers make sense of their own experiences in working with children and other adults in a summer literacy programme.
PSTs and other tutors (undergraduate students from other majors) worked for four weeks in the summer with elementary age students.
The two PSTs who were the lead teachers in the programme designed and carried out the curriculum.
The tutors in the programme were there to serve as small group leaders and to guide some of the group activities.
Elementary age students who participated in the summer were students who were identified as struggling with reading (performing two or more grade levels below).
They also qualified for free or reduced lunch.
The two faculty researchers act as mentors and facilitators, guiding and debriefing as needed and on call to ensure the safety of all of the students and PSTs.
Faculty researchers and others also provided training for the tutors at the beginning of the programme.

This study investigates two research questions: what do the stories of critical incidents tell us about the needs of PSTs and what approaches to critical incidents can faculty take to best develop the professional skills of PSTs? The stories of the participants are of the utmost importance to the researchers, both of whom approach research from a transformative worldview.
This meant that narrative inquiry was the most appropriate research method for this study.

Data collection
Data for this project was collected from multiple sources following institutional review board approval.
The candidates were interviewed at an orientation to get to know each other; that data was transcribed.
The candidates spoke publicly and were observed by the faculty researchers, who took field notes during the summer programme.
There was also email documentation in several of these critical incidents that were included. The Institutional Review Board covered all documents included in the Protecting Minors protocols which included communications with the tutors, interviews, observations, and field notes.
Member checking was performed following data analysis.
Narrative inquiry was the methodology as well as the data analysis format used for this research. ‘A narrative communicates the narrator’s point of view, including why the narrative is worth telling in the first place’ (Chase, 2003).
The re-storying included as findings below communicate how critical incidents unfolded in multiple phases of a summer programme.
This shaping of the reality of the four week summer programme, which was researched from a week prior to k-6th grade children attending and for a week following the conclusion of the programme, allows readers to live the experiences of critical incidents (Chase, 2003).

Findings and discussion
The narratives provided through email and conversation with students were added to the observation journals and field notes of the researchers.
Those data points allowed for the re-storying necessary for narrative inquiry (Chase, 2003).

What re-storying tells us about the needs of PSTs
First and foremost, the need of all pre-service teachers was hands-on and immediate guidance.
This is a critical component of most field experiences (Bacharach et al., 2010; Sorensen, 2014), but the authors found that this demands more than the ability to reflect at the end of the day.
Several times per day, the PSTs have questions ranging from a simple technique (as in Angela’s case) to truly complex questions about the well-being of their students (in Debbie’s case).
Additionally, there are questions that arise about how to handle parents and other adults; we see this in Debbie’s story about reporting and we see this across David, Jonda, and Angela’s conflict.
This supplemental field experience is a microcosm of a school.
In their professional lives, each PST will need the tools to convey important, often critical, information to parents while protecting the children in their care (Toom et al., 2019).
Each PST will also enter a workplace full of different personalities, and conflict will often be part of the landscape.

What re-storying tells us about implications for faculty
There were multiple questions that arose from these critical incidents that require thought and discussion among faculty researchers.
First, the fact that David was a clear favourite with students appeared to be part of Angela’s dislike for him.
Additionally, her jealousy over the attention he gave Jonda in the first two days of the programme was clear to all of the PSTs.
Once there was a conversation about flirting and appropriate behaviour, none of that continued.
However, Angela’s dislike for David never waned, and it became a constant stressor for the researchers.
Countless hours were spent working on how she could better lead without treating him unfairly.
The data included nearly a dozen emails to her working on the debriefing techniques and respect requirements clearly outlined in the handbook.
In response, her emails were never apologetic and no change was detected.
In attempting to re-story, the researchers were interested in trying to get to the truth of the stories (Leggo, 2004).
What was Angela’s truth?
That was not clear from the pages of transcripts of conversations with her, email transcripts, or stories of other PSTs.
What can faculty do when a PST seems unprepared to handle students without undermining her peers?
Globally speaking, good teachers are caring, and they invest much of their energy in the love they feel for their career and their students (Ladson-Billings, 1995, 2014; Warren, 2018).
What can faculty researchers do to protect PSTs from the pain of an event like Debbie experienced? These questions indicate that supplemental field experiences allow the PSTs to adopt the lens used by professionals outside of their school and context.
This allows for the literature to be applied to the situations as opposed to only receiving context from others in the same community; teachers can become jaded by these experiences over time (Hargreaves, 2005; Luet & Shealey, 2018).

In this study, the authors found that critical incidents that occurred in a summer programme provided powerful learning opportunities for the PSTs and the faculty.
The lead teachers and the tutors who were a part of this study not only learned about teaching elementary students, but they also had opportunities to experience the everyday tensions that are faced by teachers.
Navigating the challenges of the teachers’ lounge was as challenging as navigating the work with children, and the PSTs needed support as they learned to behave as professionals.
While teacher preparation programmes globally assess professionalism and professional dispositions, this model allows for the explicit instruction on professionalism and ethics as problems arise (Toom et al., 2019).
The importance of on-site faculty as mentors was a key component of what was learned from the study.
The necessity of having a faculty mentor in the space with the tutors was immediately apparent; the learning process was cyclical and ongoing.
This has been found in studies internationally (Toom et al., 2019).
The tutors and lead teachers had access to and were able to seek input from faculty members.
What is critical in this programme is that the relationship between faculty and university students was well developed.
Both faculty had taken the time to get to know the lead teachers and the tutors who were working in the summer programme.

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Updated: Oct. 14, 2021