Predictors of Success in Urban Teaching: Analyzing Two Paradovical Cases

Article excerpt

Preparing teachers forthe rigors of teaching in today's schools represents a formidable challenge for educators. Given the sometimes difficult conditions in our inner-cities, that challenge is in many ways compounded. Identifying the conditions that can foster effective teaching and learning in the urban school and with traditionally underrepresented student populations has emerged as an important issue for educators. In conjunction with this debate and as moves toward learner-centered or "constructivist" approaches to teaching have gained momentum in many schools, some have begun to question whether the teaching methods such as those associated with "whole language" and "process writing" are the most suitable or effective methods of teaching low-income, minority students (Delpit, 1988; Reyes, 1991).

Using case study methods (Yin, 1984), the research reported here compares two undergraduate teacher education students' performance in an urban field experience. Through an analysis of what the students did in those field experiences, the impact of their efforts on student learning, and the conditions they were working under, I will attempt to identify some of the factors that contributed to one student's successful teaching and another's frustration.

Data Sources and Methods

Data for this study consist of a variety of materials documenting an urban field experience completed by two undergraduate elementary education students attending a public, metropolitan university in New England. Background information gathered on the students, notes from observations and conferences, students' written work, evaluation materials from the course and field experience, and follow-up interviews constitute the data from which the case studies were developed.

The field experience was connected to a senior-level general teaching methods course and took place in a K-6 elementary school where these two teacher education students were placed in self-contained third-grade classrooms under my supervision as the instructor for the methods course. During the six-week field experience, three mornings a week the students observed, worked with third-grade students, assisted the cooperating teacher, and planned and taught lessons from a thematic unit they had developed. As their methods course instructor, I observed and conferenced with the students regularly, conducted seminars with the field experience students placed in the same school, evaluated their written work, and interacted with them frequently regarding their field placement work.

The Setting: Henry Barnard School

Housed in a physical plant that bore the ill effects of decreasing budgets caused by the economic decline of the late 1980s, Henry Barnard School served several hundred low SES students, most of whom were African American, and some from families that had come from the Caribbean. It was a "neighborhood school" where most students lived in single or multifamily homes, or in a large government subsidized housing project. Most of the staff, which was racially mixed, about half white and half African American, had been at the school for many years and were nearing retirement.

Instruction was generally traditional, with students in seated in rows, working under the direction of the teacher or individually for long periods of time each day. Maintaining order and achieving student compliance were major concerns for teachers in this overcrowded school. It was not uncommon to hear teachers yelling desperately at their students in an effort to restore order in the classroom.

Teachers were often frustrated in their efforts to teach, and as a result, in some classrooms, particularly in the upper grades, students appeared restless and bored. The primary grades evidenced less apparent antagonism between students and teachers.

In many respects, Henry Barnard was a typical urban school of the 1990s, facing the challenge of educating students from poor and, in some cases, troubled home backgrounds and social circumstances. …