Vol. 6. No. 3 — December 2002
Updrafts: Case studies in teacher renewal
Roy F. Fox, (Ed.) (2000)
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English
pp. xli, 194
A book that offers insights into achieving renewal can help teacher to move out of present paths before they become ruts or can reassure them that their struggles are not unique. Examining the renewal processes that literacy teachers, especially teachers recognized as excellent teachers, have gone through should provide some of the insights we seek. That the process proves more difficult than expected should not surprise. In the studies reviewed, renewal often comes after bottoming out or making a major change, but that does not have to be the case for everyone.
Roy F. Fox has compiled six case studies of teacher renewal by separate researchers, a personal essay of his journey toward renewal, along with the introduction and a conclusion that provides an interpretation of the case studies using a model for teacher renewal. This collection examines questions concerning how successful teachers renew themselves. Thematically each study focuses on four elements critical to understanding teacher renewal: social contexts, passion and flow, voice, and dual identities. The researcher in narrative style reveals how the teacher was chosen for their study then tells the teacher’s story.
In the introduction, subtitled Biographies of Passion and Self-Exile, Roy F. Fox lays out the framework for this study of teacher renewal. Fox provides the theoretical basis for the studies and provides the procedure and rationale for the book. Two basic research questions were addressed: What activities do the successful teachers use in order to generate energy for their teaching? And how do these teachers express their passions for these activities?
These questions grow out of the belief that “flow,” getting deeply involved in pleasurable but challenging activities, is the key element in renewal. This concept of flow comes from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A second key concept is the development of an individual identity and voice.
Teachers were chosen who met the criteria of successful teachers and involved in the research. The research design is described as an emergent design reflecting a need to adjust the design to the study to meet the complexity of the data gathered. The researchers interviewed the teachers and gathered additional data from class materials, interviews with colleagues, and from the teachers’ writing during the year. The researchers used the data to construct a version of the teachers’ stories through narratives. The narratives provide the social and personal context for understanding how the teachers achieved flow, how they dealt with their identities as teachers and how they found their voice. [-1-]
Lucy Stanovich describes Kate in the chapter, Making Myself Visible: Voice As Renewal. Kate’s story is one of finding voice through struggles with the silence that allowed her to get along as a student and youth. As a teacher she took the risks of giving her students voice through changing her classroom although her choices put her outside the preferred teaching style of the school. Kate got her voice through strong relationships with different people at different times in her life. Kate’s flow experience engages through conversation where she can lose herself in the talk and come away from the conversation renewed and confident. Conversation with different people in her life, teacher mentors during her first years of teaching, her brother until he died, and through her writing provided her flow experiences that enabled her to renew at different points in her life and career and gave her her distinctive voice.
Describing a colleague and mentor, Susan Baruffi tells Alex’s story in the chapter, The Woman Who Resurrected Words: Writing As Renewal. Alex found renewal through participating in a writing project and then redesigning her classroom according to the practices of the project. For Alex, the writing project proved key for her finding out she could do it: write and reach that core of truth central to good writing, teach the way she needed to inspire students to write to the best of their abilities, paint, and ultimately leave the classroom to become a media specialist. As a media specialist, Alex feels she will be able to continue her growth as an educator where she can influence both students and teachers.
Jill Weisner’s chapter, Collecting Dreams: Imagination As Renewal, introduces the reader to Carole. Carole’s story is framed by interaction with a former student who Carole motivated to achieve despite a history of failures. Carole meets the challenges and frustrations with imagination from imagining people in meetings as characters in movies, directing the school plays, or bringing her classroom to life with made up stories. Daydreaming and using drama as a model for teaching enable this teacher to renew her optimism and take control of her life.
Janet Alesup shows how her former ninth grade teacher, Kim Stover, used mundane activities as an opportunity for reflecting on teaching and thus a means for informal research in the chapter, Washing Dishes Or Doing Schoolwork? Reflective Action As Renewal. Kim started out as a high school teacher who was reassigned to middle school out of bureaucratic need, which caused bitterness in addition to the need to relearn how to teach. Through reflective teaching, Kim changed herself as a teacher from a problem-solver to one who follows her gut instincts. This change allowed her to adapt her curriculum to her students thus making her classroom one of trust and challenge. The chapter ends with the news that Kim had resigned as a teacher which does not negate her learning to trust her instincts, to allow herself to enjoy and like the young people, to set high expectations while making realistic demands.
Julia White has earned teaching awards and garnered praise through her success as a teacher built around her strategy of asking questions. In Marilyn Schultz’s recounting of her story in the chapter, “Miss White Will Not Be Here Today”: Feedback As Renewal, helps the reader get to know an accomplished teacher who struggled through not knowing what to do and thus would cancel classes in her first years of teaching. Her growth came through finding her voice through mastering a questioning strategy in teaching, which enabled her to make the literature classes exploratory and helped her develop strong relationships with her students.
The fifth teacher subject traveled a different path to literacy education. Marilyn Richardson’s chapter, “Logic And Sermons Never Convince”: Maternal Thinking As Renewal, details the path of Pat who traveled from being a high school physical education teacher to a college teacher of reading and writing, general education, and cultural diversity classes. The renewal for Pat came through a reading education class that challenged her with the whole language approach. This approach fit her past experiences, frustrations, and an emerging personal educational philosophy. Flow comes for Pat when her classes take her in new directions and are engaged enough to take control of the class. [-2-]
Chapter seven, Finding Her Way: Searching As Renewal, acquaints the reader with Tish Spencer, colleague of the chapter’s author, Patrick Shaw. He tells her story as she moves from a small private high school to a larger public high school and then into college teaching. Tish’s moves reflect growing understanding of herself as she tries to answer the question of “Is this it?” She moved from super professional dressed for each occasion to a self-assured teacher sporting the informal dress of a horse owner. This chapter shows less about the teacher’s classroom persona and more about her personal struggles to become the confident professional.
Roy Fox takes over in the last two chapters. In chapter eight, he discusses a pivotal move for him that led to his own renewal. This chapter shifts the tone from previous chapters. Fox tell his personal story in first person and is more self-consciously literary as it recreates the move from Idaho to Missouri and professional move to a job that would enable him to teach more. While it deals with the details of the move and personal frustrations, it does not allow the reader the depth of understanding that the case studies provide.
In the final chapter, Fox consolidates the collection by proposing a four-part theory of teacher renewal. His theory involves four elements: social contexts, passion and flow experiences, voice, and the dual identities of adult and childlike selves of the individuals. Using these processes, Fox explains teacher renewal as a process of increasing complexity and integrating this complexity within the person through a process of differentiation, we are different from the other people, and integration, but we are part of a community. This renewal process occurs when the teacher experiences conflict in life or in teaching and finds some new experience or relationship that proves enabling through the person becoming better integrated, in other words, the complexity caused by the conflict leads to a new understanding that the person incorporates in their lives. He concludes with seven recommendations for teacher renewal. These suggestions range from individual activities to institutional support. He notes finally that renewal may not be as dramatic as some of the individuals portrayed in the case studies and that they will be unique for each teacher.
This book provides a better understanding of the renewal process that teachers go through. It enables readers to understand the different teachers who find their own ways of renewing their spirits. The researchers tell the teacher’s stories with clarity because the stories are of people they respect and sometimes count as friends and/or colleagues. In other words, they care about their subjects, and this care translates into respect for the truths of the teachers’ experiences.
The strength of the case study approach lies in its ability to capture the stories of individuals studied. The case study approach involved substantial data collection though it does not intrude on the stories. In fact, the researchers often fit the information seamlessly into the narrative, unlike other approaches that highlight the different types of information gathered. The editor serves an important role as he offers an additional interpretation of the stories. However, the reader may decide on a different interpretation.
Still, the research process often leads the researchers in different directions than expected or planned for. It is doubtful that the researchers expected two of the excellent teachers portrayed to leave teaching. In addition, the researchers make no claims of the generalizability; however, Fox does extract some generalizations in his last chapter. This closeness between subject and researcher at times fronts the researcher without helping us understand the teacher. While it may be important to know the initial relationship between the two, we don’t need to know about the researchers’ difficulties in writing or how the researcher felt when car-pooling with the teacher. [-3-]
This book is aimed at teachers passionate about teaching but perhaps feeling themselves. The very human stories of teachers struggling to be the teachers they want to be make the book very readable. New teachers may find little guidance for their situations except perhaps for the reassurance that they can survive initial difficult situations or encouragement to have confidence in finding their own voices. Experienced teachers should be able to identify with some teachers’ stories, gain insights that can reassure, or understand their own situations better. Managers and administrators may find possibilities for their teachers’ renewal. Finally, if you are a teacher who feels the need for renewal the different approaches described may help in finding a workable solution.
John M. Graney
Santa Fe Community College
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