June 1, 2015

Taking on the Color of Our Surroundings, Part 3

Continuing with the process I started on May 22…this is the final excerpt from Chapter 4 (on the visual culture inside the Philadelphia K-8 charter school. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.

Chapter 4: Taking on the color of our surroundings, part 3

Soreide (2007) has found through her research on teacher identity constructions that the development of visual culture within classrooms, with content generated and chosen by teachers, is a way of using narrative resources to construct autonomous, contextual identities. Creating and posting visual culture content is both a process and an act, a presentation of signs that reflect both the inner dialogues that teachers have with themselves and the dialogues teachers are engaged in within the culture of Pence. It is a way of expressing intersubjectivity and also individuality. Perinbanayagam (2000) puts this same idea in another light: “The self, it turns out, is not elusive nor is it mysterious” he writes, “rather the self is manifest in the acts, the individuated product of a mind, that the actors and others recognize and classify as the issue of an embodied identity…The self is not a static thought-way but a recursive sign or system of signs” (Perinbanayagam, p. 45).

Like every school, Pence as an organization provides teachers, students, visitors, and parents alike with signs and systems of signs that signify the organization’s “self,” the meanings of which can be interpreted broadly – in part because Pence is not a franchise of a larger chain of charter schools. Pence has not sold itself as a place that promotes the very visible feature of global citizenship and which also has, for the teachers, an invisible feature of implied autonomy, because the interpretation of meaning about visual content in the classroom and its relevance to teaching is perceived to be up the individual educator.

In interviews with Pence teachers this carried over into perceptions of independence about teaching practices, and how such practices impact students. As Teacher Sam (who has been teaching students with special needs for seven years, and working at Pence for the last two) described this, “I think that that is what people predominately see around here…they just kind of feel inspired by teachers who kind of decide what it is that they’re going to do with their classroom, and how they’re going to organize data, how it is that they’re going to teach their class…You go into a lot of different rooms, and you see that teachers have many different styles. It’s not that everyone’s doing the same objective. I do, we do, you do…And I think it’s great, because the kids get a pretty well-rounded education”(Teacher Sam, personal communication, March 12, 2014).

Teacher Karen taught at a charter school for four years before she came to Pence in 2013, and that school was operated by one of the key charter management organizations contracted to run multiple school sites in Philadelphia. Her experience there was of constraint. At Pence, she explains, it is of autonomy. “The central office [at her former charter school] micromanages the teachers, and the teachers are supposed to micromanage the children. So that didn’t give me a lot of room to try to grow as a professional and explore the things I wanted to explore and do the things that I knew create those rich, authentic learnings experiences. I definitely, within my building and with my colleagues, found some opportunities to do that, but was never really able to really meet my professional goals, because they’re just really rigid…Here you have autonomy and with that you have independence. And there’s absolutely collaboration, and there’s absolutely support, and there’s absolutely camaraderie…it’s a little more relational here…you as an educator need to build your relationships and find your collaborators where they’re going to resonate with you, and where you think they’ll be beneficial, and where you put the effort” (Teacher Karen, personal communication, April 10, 2014).

What became evident from my interviews and observations of teachers at Pence was best summarized by Karen: teachers at this school build, find, create, and engage in ways that help them to sustain themselves, because the school culture conveys to them that they have the autonomy to do so. The posters in the hallways and the school guidelines in classrooms serve a function but teachers did not describe feeling constrained by these signs and systems of signs. As Teacher Lisa (who is in her first year teaching English Language Arts to middle school grades at Pence) explained to me, “[The] school guidelines [poster] needs to be in your classroom. So there are some things…like, ‘every classroom needs to have those to continue to build as a community.’ And that thing? I never look…That means nothing to me”(Teacher Lisa, personal communication, April 29, 2014).

Embedded in this response is an aspect of professional self-identity. As Perinbanayagam notes, acts that help to define identity are individuated but also shared, and the meanings of acts are shared. The culture of Pence is one where teachers’ actions about visual culture, and choices about how and whether to engage with it, are enactments of not just their professional identities but also a reiteration of one of those features that seemingly differentiates Pence from other urban charters: teachers’ sense of autonomy. This is the shared perception about which Pence teachers express pride. But the perception of autonomy, or at minimum the ability to distance oneself from some of the ever-present signs and systems of signs in Pence’s visual culture by sarcastically referring to them (as Leah did) as “global citizenship proverbs,” is not actually professional autonomy or freedom. Just as the perception of empowerment or independence within the classroom is not the same as organizationally-sanctioned teacher empowerment/self-governance.

One very overt example of this distinction is a story Leah shared with me about how the Pence administration responded to missing their AYP goal last year. “[T]here was a genuine concern. And the administration addressed that concern by moving towards something that I definitely disagreed with, which was every six weeks we did testing. And we were supposed to write these tests and then use the data to analyze what the kids needed. I mean, there was best practices involved in it, and I could see the good in it, but I have a hard time figuring out how to discretely test English Language Arts concepts anyway on a multiple choice test. I see it as an art, and so it was kind of making me crazy. And I felt like every six weeks we couldn’t get the – the administration helped a lot that they got a Scantron machine, and they gave us time outside of class to write the tests or put the tests together. But all of that time I would’ve been rather creating the next project the kids could work on. And so it did feel like it took time that I would rather have been doing something else. And I didn’t see that it was helping the kids all that much”(Teacher Leah, personal communication, March 31, 2014).

By the end of the year, the administration relented and the testing pressure eased. Leah perceived this as a win; “to me, the administration tried something, it didn’t work, we all talked about it, and we changed” (Teacher Leah, personal communication, March 31, 2014). The teachers also suggested that the school integrate after-school tutoring into their early dismissal Wednesdays, then developed the structure to provide this tutoring and worked it into their own schedules for the 2013-14 school year. In Leah’s description of this experience, the administration of Pence was responding to teachers’ voices. Teachers did not feel the supplemental testing was useful or effective, and asked to change the newly implemented policy. The change that occurred was teacher-driven, and Leah conveyed a feeling of pride about that in her discussion with me. But the need for change was predicated on an organizational decision that did not include teacher voices at the outset, which reflects an organizational ethic.

That the Pence teachers saw copious testing as disruptive and ineffective and it took a full school year for the administration to concur (or to gather enough data on test scores to find the policy ineffectual) reflects the reality that their perspectives on the policy’s effectiveness were not considered when the policy was being developed. The teachers’ response to being forced to implement the policy was to find a way to meet the needs of students with minimal disruption in the classroom, but which disrupted teachers’ schedules, an action which reflects the teachers’ view of their ethical obligation to students. The Pence administration did not find the ideal solution to AYP panic, but Pence teachers did, and in the process developed the structure for an ongoing tutoring program that serves those students most in need of support. The solution has so far been effective. But Pence teachers were not empowered agents through this process, because the choice was made for teachers by the administration about the organization’s response to missing the AYP for the first time. That choice amplified a problem, and the solution to that problem then had to be developed by the teachers.

Feeling autonomous and empowered at Pence, as Karen and others explained, means to act on one’s own to make connections that are professionally sustaining, or to post messages in one’s own classroom that are self-sustaining, or to feel free to be creative with how you implement the required curriculum. The fact that Lisa can and does ignore the signs in her classroom, and Tina posts them too high for any student in or visitors to her classroom to even see – these are individual acts in individuated spaces within the school culture. But this does not mean teachers can autonomously self-govern, or have a seat at the table when policies that directly impact the business are devised and implemented.

For much of its existence, Pence was led by one CEO, who was also one of the school’s founders. Her vision for the school’s identity is conveyed in the school guideline statements in each classroom, the listings of acceptable behavior posted in the stairwells and hallways, and in the ubiquitous posters on what it means to be a member of the Pence community. The legacy of her vision is what every teacher is responding to, both in terms of visual culture content, in terms of how the school administration forms policies and makes decisions, and in the school’s curricular focus. The former CEO and the founding parents sought to promote global citizenship as a school theme and supported this theme with a firm commitment to the idea that all students would be taught a second language, ideally with an immersive approach. But like Leah’s AYP example above, this commitment did not involve teacher voice at the outset. And the implementation of this idea has had a fundamentally disruptive effect (explored more in Chapter 5) on teachers and students alike, and which Pence teachers are now being tasked with changing.

Pence (as a workplace) clearly promotes the idea that the teachers who take on the responsibility for changing some aspect of the school culture should perceive it as personally empowering, and as a reflection of their autonomy, which is something many teachers who have worked at other charters have never experienced. Because this is a charter, however, the teachers in this organization are tasked with finding solutions that both align with Pence’s business ethics and are reflective of thinking about future growth strategies predicated on product differentiation in an ever-growing urban market. And this is a job they have not been trained for. As educators they have instead been trained to attend to the tangible needs of any and all students, and to engage in the most effective pedagogical practices to meet those needs, in the here and now.

Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

No comments: