Characterizing the human experience of reform in an urban middle-school context
CHERYL J. CRAIG
This narrative inquiry portrays the human experience of change by way of a situated account of a reform event. Three conceptualizations ground the analysis: the metaphor of the 'professional knowledge landscape'; the 'narrative authority' of teacher knowledge; and the notion that teachers have knowledge communities with whom they make sense of their teaching experiences. The paper shows how past and present forces conspired together in perplexing ways to shape the contours of what the teachers---and the researcher---came to know of the reform event.
[End of abstract]
Part I: The event
As part of the exploratory work that brought a $20m. grant---the second reform movement---to the city' schools, Brianne Larson was invited to participate in a principals' institute. Delighted with her initial experience of association with this possible second reform, and desirous of extending similar opportunities to YMS's faculty and staff, Larson arranged to have one study-group of practitioners begin in her school in the fall. She chose two assistant principals to lead the groups because she wanted them to have growth opportunities similar to the one she had experienced as principal. Brianne recognized that:
true reform not only involves new structures and new teaching and
learning strategies, but also new ways of being an administrator . . . [and]
that administrator professional development was also a critical piece of
the reform work.
Larson hoped the language and discussion skills the assistant principals would develop in their training would become something she and they could share with one another, and with the rest of the faculty. To that point, daily school routines had left them with little time to interact freely or reflect on school matters. Furthermore, their administrative lives had become separated by never-ending activity and contact with different initiatives and groups in the rambling, heavily populated school building. Brianne hoped that the study groups would spur lively discussions about school change among YMS's teachers, administrators, and herself. She wanted the collective conversations to lead to shared, transformative action that would enrich all students' learning experiences and life chances.
YMS's plan was to ask teachers to volunteer to participate in this new professional development opportunity. However, a collapsed timeline in the exploratory phase of the national reform, along with a fortuitous increase from 10 to 20 participants---from one to two experimental study groups---prohibited the school the luxury of self-selection. As a result, Brianne named who would facilitate the group meeting, and the two administrators selected the teachers who would participate. From the very beginning, the teachers chosen to participate were unsure why they had been selected. The reform movement's study-group application process, and the hasty decisions that subsequently followed, added to the discomfort the teachers felt about their 20 teaching colleagues who had been told they did not fit with the school's plan for the future (and had been asked not to return to the campus in the fall). These actions, which suggested that the removed teachers were good enough to instruct some
children---but not YMS children, were the direct result of the school district's charter in support of school reform.
In a sense, the scene took shape in a similar way for me as a researcher. Having negotiated research entry into the large middle school and been present on campus for less than 4 months, I also was selected to be a participant in both study groups. In the following journal excerpt, I recorded how the events unfolded for me:
As for the study groups, the administrators invited me to join. They
wanted my input as to how to select and order activities and how to
respond to emergent issues, particularly their conflicting roles as
evaluators and [colleagues].
From the outset, the difference between the administrators' discipline and curriculum management roles, as defined by the school district, and the new participatory leadership emphasis highlighted by the second reform movement was evident. It was visibly apparent to both teachers and administrators that the assistant principals' evaluation responsibilities could play havoc with their abilities to develop collegial relationships with the teachers in the study groups. The administrators hoped my presence and counsel from time to time might ease this aspect of their situations.
The administrators' invitation was, for me, totally unexpected. I had not planned to participate in the study-group activities but had wanted to devote attention to how the selected teachers storied their group experiences and what they were coming to know. I outlined my position this way:
I personally had no intention of attending the meetings . . . . However,
when the invitation was extended, I welcomed the opportunity because I
saw it as a chance for me to get to know the administrators and teachers
better . . . . I hoped to get a better sense of their views of the school
Focused on building relationship with the facilitators and teachers, I did not realize that neither the assistant principals nor the teachers had volunteered to be involved in the study groups. I also was unaware that the majority of the teachers had not been informed of my participation in the discussions. I assumed that this information had been passed on in routine school communications.
Two concurrent happenings in other places on the school landscape foreshadowed how the school reform event would play out, but I was alert to neither of them at that point. One hint came from a teacher who told me in an interview:
There are a group of teachers, very good teachers . . . . 'Are you not one
of "the 20?"', they question. Most of the members of the study groups
[associated with the second reform movement] are also part of the
[middle-school, interdisciplinary curriculum] reform initiative [supported
through the state by the first reform movement]. The teachers appear
élite, separate, better-than-the-rest. And it hurts . . . .
Arriving at her own theory as to how the study groups were organized and how the members were chosen, she made it clear that teachers not included in the group were just as concerned by their exclusion as teachers inside the group were puzzled by their inclusion. A second clue came when another teacher, a member of a study group, approached me, urging me to find a location other than the school-district offices in which to meet. I did so. Only in the aftermath of the
event did I realize she had access to information concerning my attendance not known by most of the other teachers.
The day prior to the study-group meeting I received an e-mail message from one of the administrators. It seemed the other assistant principal/facilitator had spoken with one or two faculty members who were 'somewhat
uncomfortable' with my attendance. Knowing how important comfort and safety are to members of study groups, I insisted that my presence not be forced on the teachers. I assured the assistant principals that I would not be hurt or disappointed if I did not participate. The administrators, however, restated their desire to have me attend. Finding ourselves positioned in an awkward situation and not wanting to insult one another, we sought a middle-ground solution. They would discuss the matter with the teachers in the morning and I would time my arrival at the noon hour. We would work through emergent issues from there.
The meeting resumed shortly after lunch. Rather than continuing with the planned agenda, an open discussion occurred. The teachers posed questions that I answered as candidly as possible. I carefully explained that:
. . . I enter a school landscape as a participant-observer and seek to
understand school life and the roles people play. I do not critique people
but attempt to contextualize situations and try to figure out what prompts
people to act in the ways they do. The view I take of educators . . .
creates amazing double-jeopardy situations for me. Some academic
critics occasionally critique my research for its practitioner focus while
some practitioner-critics fear I will act like some of the academic critics of
which I speak.
In the discussion that ensued, I listened intently to what the teachers had to say. I felt heard by them, even though a full spectrum of response was evident in their
body language. For example, I could not help but notice the female teacher whose eyes never made contact with mine. I also took note of a male teacher, an individual whose support I did not expect, who gave me his fullest attention. On the whole, though:
. . . I felt the confidence of the majority of the people . . . . I underlined
the fact that I was not attached to any reform initiative. My focus was on
how reform initiatives influence students' lives, teachers' lives, and school
The discussion brought our meeting to a close. Immediately following the session, the administrators shared how 'enormously relieved' everyone was after the conversation. A similar sentiment was expressed personally to me by several teachers.
Part II: Re-storying the story of reform/reform story
Once the professional development day activities ended, I found myself filled with a great sense of 'So what was that all about?' Realizing I had experienced an up-close and personal view of YMS's professional knowledge landscape, I wondered what meaning the collective experience held for the individual teachers who were involved. Using my understanding of teachers' knowledge communities and my sense of how to enter into them, I seized the uncomfortable situation as a 'commonplace of experience' (Lane 1988) around which to try to develop relationships with the educators through which to revisit the event. I hoped to uncover how they narrated the reform experience from their positions on the school landscape. I wanted their personal and collective knowledge to rise to the fore through creating spaces for them to express with me their narrative authority concerning what had happened in community.
As it turned out, some teachers sought me out, others I approached, and for still others, it was a tie as to whether they or I made the first move. In most cases, the exchanges were verbal, although I corresponded with some. In our close interactions over time, I was introduced to multiple ways of knowing the study-group event and many other school situations. These interactions introduced me to a complex web of social, historical, and professional relationships at YMS. The ongoing conversations helped me to more fully understand the subtle nuances of YMS as a storied place within which teachers' storied lives became lived and told.
The first person who approached me was an individual with whom I had worked closely in the school, a teacher with whom I had already engaged in frank conversations. She re-told the story in a way that was totally outside the borders of my experience. Explaining her African-American colleague's behaviour, she said: 'You have to understand our history. We [black people] have to be suspicious of everyone . . . . She [the teacher who would not give you eye contact] will be fine once [it is apparent] that people like me trust you'. Her carefully worded statement---which avoided terms like 'black' and 'white'---subtly alerted me to the idea that the history of race relations continued to mark the knowing of YMS educators. Her comment tactfully reminded me that I represented an additional white, adult face in a student population that was close to being racially balanced: one-third African-American, one-third Caucasian and Asian-American, one third Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant. Her remark cautiously let me know that I increased the imbalance between white and minority educators on the campus.
Meanwhile, a second African-American teacher recast the challenge in a different history: the history of the magnet programme. At first, I could not comprehend the connection between the issue that emerged in the study group
and the existence of the regular and magnet programmes in the school. Then he explained:
The root source of the problem is mistrust . . . . The fascinating thing is
what causes this mistrust . . . . The magnet concept thrives on making
distinctions between people. It highlights differences, not similarities.
The teacher went on to say that my university position added further dimensions of mistrust to school relations. My background challenged the hierarchy of position already in place in the school, not only from an administrative point of view, but also from a magnet-teacher perspective. This individual named the hierarchy of position as setting the horizons of how some educators entered into situations in the particular school milieu.
The fact that I actively conduct field-based research studies further complicated matters for still others. 'Teachers here have been flat suspicious of researchers for the past 20 years', one individual boldly observed. The prevailing quantitative approach to research and evaluation in the mid-southern USA---with its associated emphasis on deficit and blame---along with the largely unsituated work of ivory-tower critical theorists (which only served to stir the pot) offered scant ground-level support to teachers in their face-to-face work with students. Furthermore, the traditional theory-practice split which cast researchers of all methodological and ideological persuasions on the high ground of knowing and teachers on the low ground of having to be told what to do (Schön 1983), did precious little to support my or any other researcher's welcome at YMS.
Another individual also picked up on the same point, but developed it in a different direction. That teacher considered the naming of the administrators as facilitators, along with my inclusion as a researcher in both groups, as new forms of 'regulation'. She wondered when teachers' professionalism would be
recognized. Her reconstruction of the story assumed that the administrators and I would enact our historically and institutionally given roles, even though the story of reform presented new plot-lines to live by for everyone---teachers, administrators, and researchers alike.
For other individuals, it was the hierarchy of power and the use of influence that largely shaped how the reform event unfolded, how the groups were formed, who was chosen to lead, who was expected to follow, and who was invited to attend. In revisiting the episode, one teacher situated the difficulty in 'processes that were instituted and corrupted [through the negation of personal choice]' while another posed the question: 'Who in the group had the power to cause the confusion?' While some detected awkwardness in facilitation, others focused on the underlying motivations of group members. One teacher observed in hindsight: 'There are always a few who like to add poison to the school stew by tossing influence around indiscriminately . . .'.
Still other individuals, males of two races, associated the perplexing situation with gender issues. They were quick to note that the one or two individuals expressing concerns were females---not males who were equally represented in the study groups. In their minds, these individuals have ongoing difficulties working with other females. This gendered reading of the event represented quite a different way of knowing the situation and the YMS landscape---for everyone involved.
The most commonly expounded theme, however, threaded back to one outstanding and one emergent concern. The outstanding issue was that the teachers were uncomfortable and uninformed as to why they had been organized in study groups led by the assistant principals in the aftermath of several faculty members being asked to leave the school as a result of the school-district charter. The educators were very worried that teachers had become interchangeable parts
in stories of reform that could be arbitrarily assigned to activities or removed from classrooms.
As for the emergent problem, a concern was raised that a few teachers were entitled to information that, in the view of many others, should have been universally known. This latter issue surprisingly had nothing to do with my direct presence. Rather, prior knowledge of my participation publicly revealed---in an in-your-face kind of way---a few faculty members' privileged status. One teacher summed up the vexing discovery in the following way:
Most of the teachers did not know you were going to be involved so
would have no reason to register complaints in advance of you being
present. Their immediate question was: 'Why did a few teachers have
information before the rest of us?'
The first-hand evidence that discussions had taken place behind the scenes at YMS---but only for selected teachers---was enormously troubling to some.
This revisitation of Part I of the story of reform/reform story in Part II provides additional details that further contextualize YMS's school landscape. This re-storying clearly illustrates the personal, interpersonal, temporal, situational, and institutional influences on educators' knowing---and on my knowledge and how I subsequently made sense of the situation. I now offer a reflective turn (Schön 1991) of what this characterization of YMS shows and tells about the debris present on school landscapes and how it shapes teachers' knowledge developments and relationships in context.
A reflective turn . . .
. . . On YMS's story of school/school story