The Faculty of Continuing Education and Extension is proud to sponsor the prestigious Kappa Delta Pi conference at Mount Royal University this October. Kappa Delta Pi is the International Honor Society in Education and the conference is on Learning, Leadership and Practice: Educating Global Citizens.
Dr. Jody Nickel, Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Education at Mount Royal University, is one of the featured speakers at the conference. She will be presenting the research she is conducting with Dr. Jim Zimmer, Dean of MRU’s Faculty of Teaching and Learning, on The Emergence of Professional Identity among the first students in MRU’s Bachelor of Education – Elementary degree program.
The longitudinal study is collecting data from the first cohort of 68 teacher candidates over the four years of the degree program. They graduate in June 2015. The research traces the emergence of their professional identities as teachers, moving from the idealism of their first year through their experiences in the realities of the classroom environment.
The attrition rate among new teachers in Alberta is almost 40 percent within the first five years of practice. Nickel and Zimmer were curious whether developing a strong sense of professional identity would strengthen the students’ commitment to the profession as they evolved from student to teacher.
Nickel says, “In the first two years we collected survey data and analyzed their teaching portfolios where they wrote about their teaching philosophies and goals. They used a lot of platitudes; they wanted to ‘make learning fun’ and ‘put children first.’ They didn’t have a lot of legs on their ideals so we were curious about how that would shift through practicum. At the conference I’ll mainly be talking about what they said in interviews following practicum. I have to say the shift was very encouraging. They have a much deeper understanding of their role as teachers and a tremendous amount of confidence.”
Dr. Nickel says, “There are four themes that I will be talking about at the conference.
- First of all, the idea of relationships. The teacher candidates have moved beyond the simple idea of ‘I need to be a friend to these kids’ to ‘how does knowing them well enhance my ability to teach them effectively?’
- The next is the idea of flexibility: really learning how to think on their feet. One teacher candidate described an occasion where the children were bored by her fraction lesson: “So finally I looked around and I was like, ‘Okay, everyone stand up,’ and they all stood up and I got them to organize themselves into fractions – I got them moving – and it was so much better than what I had planned for the rest of the lesson!”
- The third theme describes the sense of the serious responsibility that they’re facing as teachers. One teacher candidate regretfully described a lesson that did not go well: ‘They were just so happy when the bell rang. That was probably the most discouraging day, just realizing I wasted an entire block of time because I wasn’t doing my job and the kids weren’t doing theirs.‘
- The last one is empowerment. One teacher candidate said, ‘This is who I am, and if I wasn’t teaching I don’t know what else I would be doing. I loved being with the kids, so I think that just really helped push through any challenges that I had. Another described how when teaching multiplication to grade fours, some children started crying and she herself was close to tears. Her mentor teacher was at the back of the room signaling for her to keep it together. My mentor said, ‘You are all in. You are not going to have someone jumping in for you.’ She reflected, ‘At first I sort of wish she had jumped in for me but I had to learn for myself.’
Dr. Nickel believes that some of the attrition among new teachers can be traced to the dissonance they experience when their actions in the classroom are out of alignment with their core beliefs about themselves as teachers.
“Professional identity focuses on how one sees oneself as a teacher. Nickel says. “When I was a new teacher, I believed it was important to help children to feel confident and empowered. Then when I lost patience with them, I’d get down on myself because I was acting in ways that were contrary to my ideals. I talked myself into a tailspin. That negative self-talk is a real concern for teachers – new teachers in particular.”
She points to the “core reflection model” of F.A.J. Korthagen, who believes that at a teacher’s core is their sense of mission. This informs everything from the teacher’s identity and beliefs to their competencies and behaviour in the classroom.
Korthagen asks teachers to consider, “What inspires you? What gives meaning and significance to your work and your life?” Identity can include negative self-concepts but tapping into mission helps teachers make meaning of negative experiences by returning to those ideals that drew them to the profession in the first place.
Nickel shares a quote from her interviews that shows how one teacher candidate moved beyond frustration with challenging behaviour to a richer understanding of her role in the lives of her students.
“It’s really hard to differentiate for them if you don’t know where they’re coming from. We had a few students who, honestly, you would think it’s their life goal to ruin your life every day! Because just they would do things, like they would throw pipe cleaners around the room, or they would just sit there and they wouldn’t do their work! I mean they were six, so fair enough, but at the same time it was like day in, day out. Then you learn things like their parents are homeless, or they might be coded for ADHD. It makes it less personal and you can really start getting to the heart of the matter and figure out, okay, which teaching do I need to put on for so-and-so to get them through this math lesson? Like, do I need to be that mother or do I need to be that drill sergeant today?”
Watch a video about the teacher professional identity:
– by Karen McCarthy