“I Felt like My Practice Was Catching up with My Beliefs:” A Longitudinal Cognitive Study of Seven Early Career Literacy Teachers and Their Praxis

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Fall 2021

Source: Action in Teacher Education, 43:3, 285-300

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study followed seven successful elementary educators from the inception of their final preservice field experience through the first seven years of their independent teaching.
The authors’ goal was to understand their perceptions of the development of their literacy instructional practices over the course of their early teaching careers, paying particular attention to factors that influenced and impacted their instructional choices.
Thus, they examined the patterns of literacy beliefs and practices reported by these teachers over time, as well as the extent to which they internalized and used those beliefs and practices.
The research question, “What factors do successful elementary teachers identify as those that influence their literacy beliefs and practices early in their careers?” guided their work.
In this study, the authors chose to examine how teachers described their own cognitive changes over time, as well as what factors (e.g., classroom experiences and beliefs) influenced those changes.
They asked questions about their beliefs about best practices in literacy instruction as well as what practices they implemented in their real-life classrooms, and how those beliefs and practices changed over time.

Research Context and Methods
This case study includes participants teaching in different elementary schools, but within a bounded system (Merriam, 2009): a cohort of graduate teaching interns led by the same two instructors in a teacher education program at a large university in the southeastern United States.
This research is considered a multiple case study (Yin, 2009), allowing for examination of the data within and across each case.

Context
In the authors’ teacher preparation program, students seeking initial licensure complete a 25- credit-hour minor in elementary education and selected a major in the College of Arts and Science (history, English, psychology, etc.).
After completing their undergraduate degrees, the students remain in the program for a fifth-year, taking graduate level courses while concurrently completing a year-long teaching internship at a partnership public school site, co-teaching with an experienced mentor in an elementary classroom.
In other words, the teacher candidates complete a content-area undergraduate degree before beginning their field experience as teachers.

Sampling
Initially, ten teachers were invited to participate.
Seven of the ten teachers responded indicating their willingness to participate in the follow-up assessment, survey, and interview during their seventh year of independent teaching.

Data Sources
The primary data source for this research was the final interview, conducted during the fall and winter of the participants’ seventh year of teaching.
The Theoretical Orientation to Reading Profile (TORP) results and the open-ended responses collected previously served as secondary data sources.
Summaries of these results and responses were provided to the participants during the final interview as a tool to stimulate recollection of and reflection about changes in each teacher’s in beliefs and practices.

Survey Questions
Progress monitoring relied on a combination of instruments: open-ended survey questions and TORP “snapshots” taken twice over the course of the study.
The open-ended survey questions were designed to elicit further and more in-depth insights into self-reported teacher practices and beliefs.

Results and discussion
Based on the findings, the authors identified three themes related to the literacy practices and beliefs of early-career teachers.
Each is described in the paragraphs that follow.

Teacher Development May Benefit from Support in Navigating Organizational Structures and Cultures
These teachers explained that their literacy instruction was impacted by external factors beyond their control.
They often felt caught between their own knowledge and the models present and/or expected in their schools (Cooper & Olson, 1996).
While their beliefs remained relatively stable over time, which supports the findings of Parsons et al. (2017), the practices they used for effective reading instruction changed.
These teachers often reported feeling as though district or school expectations were keeping them from teaching in the way they preferred, though they each also acknowledged that they didn’t always follow the “rules.”
Five, in particular, spoke of starting their careers trying to do what everyone else was doing, but quickly turning to other options when frustrated by the fact that what they were doing failed to meet the needs of their students (Urmston & Pennington, 2008).
All seven spoke of doing things differently than others in their school, though with varying levels of pressure, and in one case, confrontation.
The authors’ findings also support the work of Kelchtermans and Ballet (2002), who suggest that understanding how to fit within organizational structures is as essential to beginning teacher success as actual classroom teaching.

Teacher Development Is Non-linear
As these seven teachers told their stories, it was clear that their journeys were not linear.
Rather, when faced with challenges (e.g., moving to a new school, changing grade levels, being held accountable for new assessments), these teachers reported changing to more traditional practices—those practices that were “acceptable” in the new setting until they became more comfortable again.
This kind of behavior is not uncommon in beginning teachers (Flores, 2006; Urmston & Pennington, 2008), but the authors’ work suggests that teachers across stages of development may regress in some ways when faced with a significant contextual change.
As these seven teachers told their stories, it was clear that their journeys were not linear.
Rather, when faced with challenges (e.g., moving to a new school, changing grade levels, being held accountable for new assessments), these teachers reported changing to more traditional practices—those practices that were “acceptable” in the new setting until they became more comfortable again.
This kind of behavior is not uncommon in beginning teachers (Flores, 2006; Urmston & Pennington, 2008), but the authors’ work suggests that teachers across stages of development may regress in some ways when faced with a significant contextual change.
None of the teachers, however, were comfortable with how their practice changed within these new contexts, and as a result, they made intentional efforts to continue examining their practices (Kang & Cheng, 2014).
Specifically, the participants tried to keep their beliefs about literacy aligned with their literacy instructional practices and continue learning through meaningful professional development.
However, they acknowledged that stressors such as changes in context (i.e., school, grade), curriculum changes and mandates, and the lack of instructional autonomy pulled them away from their central beliefs about literacy.
This kind of development can be viewed as somewhat cyclical in nature, as was the case in the model of student teaching development proposed by Piland and Anglin (1993).
Their work also acknowledged that the rate of student teachers’ progress through the stages of fear and uncertainty to autonomy and affirmation varied according to individual and situation.

Teacher Development Is Long-term, Gradual, and Influenced by Beliefs and Experience
Five of the seven teachers talked specifically of an increased focus on understanding how to make their instructional practices match their beliefs over time, and the other two spoke about their frustration with mandates which they believed, at least to some extent, prohibited them from implementing practices that followed their beliefs.
These experiences support the work of Howe (2006) and Freeman and Johnson (1998), who found that acculturation to the teaching profession is gradual, long-term, and developmental.
These seven teachers remained relatively stable in their beliefs over time, as supported by survey and interview data, at least regarding what they believed to be the central tenets of reading instruction.
Although the tenets varied from teacher to teacher, five of the seven specifically spoke about practices becoming more aligned with their beliefs over time.
This supports the research that suggests beliefs, in general, are resistant to change (Parsons et al., 2017; Risko et al., 2008).

References
Cooper, K., & Olson, M. R. (1996). The multiple I’s of teacher identity. In M. Kompf, W. R. Bond, D. Dworet, & R. T. Boak (Eds.), Changing research and practice: Teachers’ professionalism, identities, and knowledge (pp. 78–89). London, UK: Falmer Press.
Flores, M. A. (2006). Being a novice teacher in two different settings: Struggles, continuities, and discontinuities. Teachers College Record, 108(10), 2021–2052.
Freeman, D., & Johnson, K. E. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 32(3), 397–417.
Howe, E. R. (2006). Exemplary teacher induction: An international review. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 38(3), 287–297.
Kang, Y., & Cheng, X. (2014). Teacher learning in the workplace: A study of the relationship between a novice EFL teacher’s classroom practices and cognition development. Language Teaching Research, 18(2), 169–186
Kelchtermans, G., & Ballet, K. (2002). The micropolitics of teacher induction. A narrative-biographical study on teacher socialisation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18(1), 105–120.
Merriam, S. B. (2009). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Parsons, S. A., Vaughn, M., Malloy, J. A., & Pierczynski, M. (2017). The development of teachers’ visions from pre-service to their first years teaching: A longitudinal study. Teaching and Teacher Education, 64, 12–25
Piland, D. E., & Anglin, J. M. (1993). It is only a stage they are going through: The development of student teachers. Action in Teacher Education, 15(3), 19–26.
Risko, V., Roller, C. M., Cummins, C., Bean, R., Block, C. C., Anders, P. L., & Flood, J. (2008). A critical analysis of research on reading teacher education. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(3), 252–288
Urmston, A., & Pennington, M. C. (2008). The beliefs and practices of novice teachers in Hong Kong: Change and resistance to change in an Asian teaching context. In T. S. C. Farrell (Ed.), Novice language teachers: Insights and perspectives for the first year (pp. 89–103). London, UK: Equinox.
Yin, R. (2009). Case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Updated: Nov. 18, 2021
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