Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Tensions in Learning to Teach: Accommodation and the Development of a Teaching Identity

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Tensions in Learning to Teach: Accommodation and the Development of a Teaching Identity

Article excerpt

   What I am concerned about is I think that throughout
   this semester, being with my [cooperating]
   teacher as opposed to being at [the university], I just
   hope that I don't totally switch to her side.

Sharon made this remark 1 month into her student teaching in a third-grade classroom at a public elementary school. She was concerned that the values and mentoring approach of Catherine, her cooperating teacher at Warren G. Harding Elementary School, provided her with little opportunity to practice the constructivist teaching approach she had learned in her university program.

In this article, we explore how Sharon negotiated the different conceptions of teaching that framed instructional expectations in her university and Harding Elementary. We focus in particular on the ways in which her effort to reconcile the different belief systems affected the development of her identity as a teacher. For the analysis, we rely on tenets of activity theory, a framework that focuses on the settings of human development and the ways in which social practices within those contexts promote development toward a particular ideal (see Grossman, Smagorinsky, & Valencia, 1999). The two key settings we discuss in Sharon's experience are (a) the university program, which emphasized what the faculty called constructivist beliefs about teaching, and (b) her third-grade class at Harding Elementary, particularly as overseen by Catherine in what Sharon and others characterized as a "traditional" teaching approach.

Activity theory assumes that human development--in this case, a teacher's construction of a teaching identity--is a function of action within social settings whose values embody the settings' cultural histories (Cole, 1996; Smagorinsky, 1995, 2001; Vygotsky, 1978, 1934/ 1987; Wertsch, 1981, 1985, 1991). This emphasis on settings distinguishes activity theory from theoretical perspectives that assume that teaching is a solitary profession, shifting attention instead to the ways in which contexts provide tools, constraints, and practices that channel people toward particular ends. With this more social focus, activity theory provides a way to analyze how early-career teachers are guided toward particular beliefs about teaching and learning through practices that put these beliefs into action. The teacher, in this conception, is not so solitary, instead being part of a larger social system that includes the broad educational policy context, a community's vision of education, a school's mission toward realizing it, a curriculum through which to implement it, administrators invested in enforcing it, colleagues who help to establish it, students who have been socialized to participate in it, and other relationships.

The tension Sharon experienced between the university and school settings illustrates what Feiman-Nemser and Buchmann (1985) called the "two-worlds" pitfall, straddled by student teachers who find themselves torn between demands of the university that assigns their grade and the school that structures their first teaching experiences. From an activity theory standpoint, these two settings are responsive to different constituents, have different overriding motives, respond to different ideals, and consequently emphasize different values and practices, with the university setting more concerned with ideals and schools with their gritty application.

Activity theory is predicated on Vygotsky's (1978, 1934/1987) notion that the origins of human consciousness are found first in culture, that is, people enter and interact within cultures whose frameworks for thinking they then internalize. Activity theorists then try to understand the nature of particular cultures and how people within them appropriate their surrounding culture's conceptions through mediating tools (Engestrom, Miettinen, & Punamaki, 1999; Leont'ev, 1981; Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989). Of particular concern in Sharon's case are the ways in which she was urged to appropriate different sets of pedagogical tools in each of the two key settings she straddled during student teaching. …

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