Research Articles and Papers from ASSC

"Don't Smile 'til Christmas:" Examining the Immersion of New Teachers into Existing Urban School Climates

John Shindler

Albert Jones

Clint Taylor

Herminia Cadenas

Charter College of Education
California State University, Los Angeles
KH A2041
Los Angeles, CA 90032

"Don't Smile 'til Christmas:" Examining the Immersion of New Teachers into Existing Urban School Climates

One of the problems that continues to confound those who prepare teachers is why so few beginners remain in teaching. The problem is most acute among the urban teacher population. In Los Angeles, more than fifty percent of first-year non-credentialed teachers leave the Los Angeles Unified School District after their first year. More distressing is that those who leave, in many cases, could have become excellent teachers. As a result, Los Angeles and other urban areas face deficits of both quantity and quality in their teacher forces.

While teacher education programs have responded to the high demand for teachers by increasing the number of graduates, the problem at the root of high attrition rates has not been well addressed (Bondy, 2002; Fox & Singletary, 1986). Improving the quality of teacher preparation has been a step in the right direction (Zeichener & Gore,1990). For example, at California State University, Los Angeles the addition of a Classroom Management course has improved the rate of new teacher survival, while providing them tools to improve their performance. This measure supports earlier findings by Clement (1998). Providing new teachers with mentors, coaches, and training has been another remedy that has helped ease the burden of induction (Cuddapah, 2002; Jordell, 1987; Zeichener & Gore, 1990).

However, too often the pedagogical paradigm the new candidate takes away from the university conflicts with the paradigms of the schools they enter (Angelle 2002). This disjuncture can create stress and cognitive dissonance in the new teacher and lead to their disillusionment (Bondy, 2002). This study examines the effects of existing school climates, university training, and principal interventions on beginning teachers as they assume their first full-time jobs.

An emergent qualitative design was used to examine the experience of seven new teachers trained at California State University, Los Angeles. Each of the participants was trained in pedagogical methods including progressive classroom management strategies. Each of the participants had taken a position in a local urban school. Participants were purposefully selected to reflect a range of perspectives and backgrounds. Four taught elementary school, two taught high school and one taught at a middle school. The participants reflected a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds; three were male and four female.

The participants took part in four focus group interview sessions of two hours each. Interviewers were secondary research team members and had never been former instructors of the participants. Additionally, a two-member research team interviewed seven principals from local urban and suburban schools independently.

Data from each set of interviews were transcribed and analyzed after each session. Emergent themes were developed using a grounded theory approach for data analysis. Analytic themes were triangulated by verification with other research members, previous research and ultimately the participants themselves. The result of the analysis produced a three-factor research framework used for interpreting and displaying data.

Analytic Framework
An organizing theme for the study arose from the implications of a statement repeatedly expressed by many of the participants, "That won't work in my school." This belief provided a multi-layered context for a holistic data analysis. In essence, the statement implied that what was taught at the university was neither effective nor acceptable in the schools where the beginning teachers worked.

Figure 1: Four-quadrant matrix of teaching style orientation and practice:
When the beginning teachers in the study exclaim "That Won't Work in My School," what does that mean? What is it that will not work in these schools?

In the area of classroom management, a common classifying system known as the Teacher Behavior Continuum is employed to categorize classroom management models from those most teacher-centered to those most student-centered (Edwards, 2000) The investigators, applying the rationale for this continuum and extending upon the work of Coloroso (1994) and Canter (1976), devised a four-cell matrix of teaching practice classification by inserting a y-axis across the continuum that ranges from productive and highly functional to dysfunctional and unproductive (see Figure 1). These quadrants can be assigned numbers from one to four and provide four distinct quadrants for classifying teacher behavior. According to this model, One schools are characterized by student-centered communities that feature self-directed learning and cast the teacher as a facilitator. Their climate could be inferred to be highly productive and functional. Two schools would also be classified as highly productive and functional climates, but these schools are teacher-centered places where teaching is well orchestrated and the teacher is conductor. Three and Four schools exhibit dysfunctional and unproductive climates in as much as they do not promote student motivation and/or emotional health. Three schools may be student-centered, but passive leadership and instruction prevail while students' efforts are self-centered. Four schools are teacher-centered where leadership aims to forge conformity by repression, which often gives rise to rebellion among the students.

New teacher participants had previously developed a classroom management plan as part of their credential program. In many cases, these management plans described the practices of a One School teacher. Yet, when asked how they would classify the management style/culture in the schools they had entered, the participants suggested that their schools could be most accurately classified as at best, Two Schools. At worst, Four Schools. They said they did not see One or Three Schools in common use. They added:

Our schools are very strict, very Canter-centered (2 orientation). Everything is very external, very extrinsic.

Our school follows 'deanism' - kids that act out are sent to the dean.

Also, participants suggested that the discipline climate of the schools was driven primarily by the beliefs of the veteran teachers.

The younger teachers are more Two and the experienced teachers more Four. There is kind of a split between the new thinking and the old school thinking.

Some experienced teachers just don't care. Kids are going to write standards even if they go to training and learn that is a bad idea. (Writing standards is a common method of punishment in which the students write many times the rule that has been violated - well-known as "write-offs.")

When I ask my colleagues for advice, what I get are (Four school) suggestions like "just write names on the board and have them write standards."

In addition, participants reported the belief that the One school approaches would require their students to make a significant adjustment inasmuch as it would be so unfamiliar.

If the students came to a One classroom, they would not know what to do after 4 years of Four teaching.

I try to be more student-centered and the students get really uncomfortable. They look at me and say basically "just tell us what to do."

I want to see someone teach with a One style in an inner-city school and be successful.

The Principals' Perception:
When the principals were asked how many of their new teachers possess classroom management plans that reflect a philosophy of learning, all seven reported that few if any of their new teachers presented such plans. Furthermore, the principals observed that the teachers saw no connection between managing a classroom and promoting higher achievement among their students. One remarked, "My new teachers have tunnel vision about their work. They are hung up on trying the latest idea promoted in the teachers' lounge." When asked why, two of the principals reported that beginners are capricious and have not thought about how they view children and how their views influence their day-to-day work with students.

When asked what assistance they give their new teachers, most principals suggested offering help in the form of sending them to workshops such as the popular "assertive discipline" series. However, the principals believe most training to be superficial because it does not lead new teachers to the development of a philosophical rationale for their actions. One principal quipped, "New teachers don't know why they do what they do."

To support this contention, it appeared from the data that participants that lacked philosophical anchors more readily default to the school's existing climate or the culture as expressed by the veteran teachers. In LAUSD these existing climates seem to be heavily influenced by the approaches of Canter's Assertive Discipline Program (Canter, 1986). This was especially prevalent with elementary level participants. The Canter program could be said to produce what might be classified as Two-style practices.

The significance of veteran teachers in determining the school climate also hints at a broader problem uncovered through the interviews with principals. The principals themselves seldom possessed philosophies about the best means of managing classrooms to promote learning. As a result, the "folk wisdom" (however misguided or narrow-minded) expressed by veteran teachers became the accepted manner of dealing with students.

The Misperception of a Logical/Linear Path to New Teacher Induction
It might be inferred from the logic applied in teacher training that there is a linear relationship between the incoming values of the teacher, the university and the schools where they work. As a consequence, all learning leads in a developmental progression toward improved practice. However, the data in this study suggested that the values that drive new teachers and the values of the schools they enter are often at odds. Furthermore, the values of the school are at odds with those of the university where the teacher was trained. These conflicts became evident when the participants reported that they quickly jettisoned their management plans when they faced their first class of students.

Figure 2: New Teacher Interaction with Existing School Climate:
New Teacher Interaction with Existing School Climate
Interaction Effects The data suggest that it is common for new teachers to enter a school with certain values and beliefs but during their first year of teaching they are faced with the challenge of negotiating and reevaluating these values and beliefs to be consistent with the existing culture of the school (see Figure 2). While the new teachers' values may vary due to many factors including their university training, the participants in this study reported a willingness to adopt One School approaches and strategies. Yet because these new teachers have not seen One Schools in operation, their ability to replicate One School environments are not well-grounded.

The participants entered schools that exhibited a wide range and combination of practices, from One to Four, but most were Two and/or Four. For many of the beginners, this created an interaction problem. Their values clashed with those of their school. This conflict took the form of cognitive dissonance, job uncertainty, and disagreements with their mentors, administrators, or other veteran teachers. The participants reported that this conflict forced them to ask themselves whether they were willing to pay the price of disapproval to retain their emerging beliefs that they felt were best for their students.

They faced the choice of fitting in or being marginalized; to do what they thought made sense or to do what worked in their school; to ultimately align themselves with the culture of the university or the culture of the school in which they found themselves. This inner conflict appeared to feed uncertainty early in these beginning teachers' careers. And it may ultimately lead to burnout if these teachers felt there is no way to win. It could be inferred from these data that this condition may in turn lead to a diminished willingness on the part of these beginning teachers to remain in the profession. Moreover, this process of acculturation, and inner conflict resolution may produce the perception that university teacher education training does not provide "real world" experience and should be viewed as redundant.

The participants explained that the expectations that they had entering the school were not reinforced by the actions of the administration or the veteran teachers. First, these new teachers found behaviors among the veterans that placed their needs above the needs of the students.

The advice I got from many teachers is "don't smile 'til Christmas."

They asked the teachers to be there early and someone said, "that is not in our contract."

Secondly, the participants noticed an unwillingness of the veterans to create an environment in which all the stakeholders were respected.

Unless the students are empowered, I don't think it will work and I don't know how the culture will change.

There are not only physical practical barriers; there are emotional barriers that create separations in the school.

Thirdly, the participants found the administration ineffectual in changing the culture of the school defined heavily by the actions of the veteran teachers and the expectations of external forces

I think everyone has to buy in. I noticed that the administration has an expectation but everybody has to buy in.

I don't blame the administration (for not doing enough to change the situation). They have other things to worry about - all these standards and tests and ...standards to meet. All those assessments. They are not in a position to support us being (One School teachers).

How Principals' View of the Needs of Their New Teachers
When asked to cite key reasons for beginning teachers' failure to demonstrate a coherent and effective approach to their classroom management, the principals suggested that it was a result of poor lesson planning, a lack of instructional savvy, and a lack of time to properly prepare plans, with most identifying the absence of a personal philosophy about the best way to promote learning as the most notable cause of drift and disillusionment. The principals also stated that few if any beginners ask the principal for help. In fact many suggested that there seems to be a conspicuous avoidance of the principal during the first years of a teacher's work. The principals affirmed that beginners want to know about routine procedures, how to obtain supplies, how to deal with serious examples of misconduct and other "survival issues" as one principal characterized them. Another principal observed that most beginners didn't know what to ask, which compounds their isolation from the principal.

The principals suggested that few, if any, of the beginning teachers sought help from them. However, three of the seven principals required new teachers to meet with them. They reported holding regular (at least monthly) meetings with their new teachers to discuss their problems and concerns while shaping their vision of learning to match the principals. These principals embrace the opportunity to shape the views of their beginners, thereby building a common culture for productive learning. Cultivating this shared vision seemed to help promote a more intentional climate in the schools where it was practiced.

Figure 3: Comparison of Intentional and Accidental School Climates:
While the principal participants typically viewed the school climate at their schools as well-defined and conducive to professional growth, the experience of the teacher participants was not often consistent with this characterization. Participants suggested that in most cases the climates in which they found themselves were more accidental than intentional (see Figure 3). Moreover the degree of intentionality seemed to have a positive relationship with the participants' confidence in their ability to successfully navigate the demands of the job early on. Participants recognized that in the absence of an intentional climate, the resulting disintegration led to more apathetic and uncritical practice school-wide. This high level of awareness related to the type of climate at their school was expressed by participants in the following comments.

There is no collective/intentional culture or set of expectation. We do not create the culture, it just happens, and when we just let it happen then (the culture) is just this accident. What is produced is something that we are not very proud of... I think that mission statements and vision statement are great, but without the school having a collective sense of what they are about... The staff needs to have buy in.

At my school (right now) there is virtually no time to work with anyone else. The meetings are always business-oriented. There is not really any governance for the teachers right now. We are working on a way for teachers to have input. I just think it would be so much more powerful if I/we could work collaboratively during the day.

The development of an intentional school climate was shown to be essential in the success of these novice teachers, supporting earlier research (Bondy, 2002: Clement, 1998; Hope, 1999). Through both the principal interviews and the focus group findings, it is seen that the creation of an intentional climate aids in the development and retention of beginning teachers. One participant put it this way:

So new teachers who see things getting better will stay in a school as they see progress and the bad teachers will leave as they see their style becoming inconsistent with the emerging culture. Likewise, the new teacher will get burned out because they see that nothing is changing and they feel like the culture is unfriendly to their values, and so they quit.

It appears from the data that school climate may be a significant variable in the new teachers thoughts and feelings related to their first year. While training and support were useful, a school with a sense of purpose that was defined by a critical reflection of practice was more welcoming to the new teacher than a school with no such sense of purpose. As the new teacher participants suggested when there is no sense of purpose, the climate defaults to one defined by accidental and haphazard practices. These practices are often the result of less critical reflection and a less student-centered mindset. Principals who promoted a more intentional climate seemed to reap a more thoughtful brand of practice, practices that are more consistent with what is considered "best practice" at most universities. Consequently, the effort to promote a more intentional climate seems to produce both better teaching and a more comfortable adjustment for new teachers.

Implications for Teacher Preparation/Induction
  1. New teacher acculturation does not appear to be within the exclusive control of any single stakeholder within the chain of the teacher preparation/induction system. Thus issues affecting retention can be positively or negatively affected by any link in the chain, and coordination among members appears necessary for successful teacher preparation/induction.
  2. School Climate cannot be viewed as homogenous. Nor can teacher immersion be viewed as a common experience. The interaction of the teacher's beliefs and training with those of the school climate that they enter can produce multiple results.
  3. Institutions of higher education might consider preparing their candidates with skills for cultural immersion as well as for best practice.
  4. K-12 schools that make an effort toward cultivating an intentional school climate will likely be better equipped to help new teachers face the substantial demands related to the social, psychological, and pedagogical transitions into teaching.
  5. The principal appears to be the stakeholder who is in the best position to create the intentional climate that will promote a sound and coherent induction climate. In the absence of administrative leadership the most powerful teacher constituency will dictate the climate.
It is often the case that new teacher candidates graduate from institutions of higher education with idealistic views related to classroom management and the job of teaching. Constructivist and progressive, learner-centered approaches are frequently advocated by university faculty. While this trend is encouraging in many respects, it often puts the new teacher in a difficult position when they find that those same values are not shared by those in their school. New teachers are often torn between fitting in and doing what they see as most noble; survival versus long-term gains; doing what seems to work versus what they feel makes the most sense. Principals are often unaware that this conflict is taking place. However those administrators that are able to take an intentional approach to constructing a school climate/culture may find that new teacher acculturation is less accidental and therefore less uncertain. While this research sheds new light on the dynamics between Institutions of Higher Education and K-12, it is clear from the alarming rate of teacher dropout in our urban schools that more emphasis must be placed on effective teacher induction.

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