Constructing a professional identity in an uncertain world


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Constructing a professional identity in an uncertain world an ethnographic study of novice special education teachers
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vi, 166 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Smith, Julie K
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Special Education thesis, Ph.D   ( lcsh )
Dissertations, Academic -- Special Education -- UF   ( lcsh )
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theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 2001.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 157-164).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Julie K. Smith.
General Note:
General Note:

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University of Florida
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aleph - 027755121
oclc - 48449371
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There were a number fellow travelers along this journey that I want to

recognize. Each of them provided some unique direction as I navigated the

many winding trails along the way. Some of them were willing, and some of

them were not-so-willing, sojourners for the duration of my journey. Others

walked with me along certain trails, while still others stood along the sidelines

and offered their unconditional support, even when they had no idea what I was

trying to do or what they were supporting.

The most obvious obligation is to my committee for teaching me hybrid

levels of humility, patience, and persistence. I am grateful for the lessons I

learned from my co-chairpersons, Dr. Vivian Correa and Dr. Diane Ryndak. I

learned the importance of encouraging and instructive feedback, and how quality

mentoring is linked to professionalism, understanding, and timely completion. I

am appreciative of the humor and encouragement Dr. Paul Sindelar brought to

the committee. Dr. Jim Doud, and his optimistic wife, Janet, provided invaluable

moral support throughout my journey. Without the Douds I would not have found

myself at the University of Florida. I am most indebted to Dr. Rodman Webb for

his perpetual wit, wisdom, guidance, and diplomacy. Those admirable qualities,

combined with trust and stability, helped me through the many times when it

seemed as though my professional place was some incomprehensible zone

between a house of mirrors and a house of cards.

Two other groups of professionals deserve my gratitude. First, my peers,

who walked the same walk, and were always ready for a support session; Linda

Gonzales, Kelly Worthington-Nelson, Cindy Malecki, and Jeff Dow. Secondly,

the teachers and school personnel that participated in my study. I learned so

much from them all. The countless hours we spent together over the three

years, and the spirit of sharing so much throughout that time made the study

more like pleasure and less like work. I am grateful for the hospitality I

experienced in every school and with every teacher along the way. I am also

grateful to Dr. Susan Stainback, who offered and provided immeasurable

support and encouragement throughout my entire doctoral experience.

My family had little understanding of what I was doing, and even less

appreciation for why. Still, they did their best to support my goals in whatever

ways they could. I am appreciative of the ongoing and unconditional support I

had, particularly from Matt, Ron and Shelley, Jill and Jon. Your patience and

accommodating spirit saw me through some stressful moments. Behind all this,

from the past, I must acknowledge Lucille. Her belief in me as a child gave me

confidence when it was most needed and those acts of kindness meant more to

me that she was aware of in her lifetime.

No acknowledgment would be reasonable for me without mentioning Ted.

He came into my life while I was writing the dissertation. His daily support, the

laugh breaks, the morale boosts, and just his presence made what was a very


lonely and isolated time of work tolerable. Although he did not understand one

word of what I wrote, and many times would have preferred I stop working and

play, he sat at my feet, under my desk, and never barked about it once.


ACKNOW LEDGMENTS ...................................... ii

ABSTRACT .................... .. ........................ viii


1 STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM ........................ 1

Introduction .............................................. 1
Purpose of the Study .................. ..................... 4
Research Questions and Objectives .......... .................... 4
Significance of the Study ....................................... 6
Definition of Terms ........................ ................ 7

2 REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE ............................... 9

Introduction ................................... .......... 9
Identity Construction ...................... .............. 10
School Context ....................... ................. 13
Special Education Context ................... .. ....... 15
Context of Dual Cultures ................................. 15
Current Context ............................ .......... 17
Teacher Socialization and the Construction of
Professional Identity ................................... 20
Context of the School-World and Teacher Identity Construction ..... 25
School Socialization Mechanisms and Teacher Identity Construction 29
Agents of Socialization .................................... 31

3 METHODOLOGY ................... ................... 37

Introduction ...................... ................ 37
Topic of Study and Background ............................. 38
Participants and School Settings ........................... 41
Com m unity Settings ................................... .. 44
D ata C collection ........................................ 46
Observations ................ ............. ..... ..... 47
Interviews .......................................... 48

Journals .............................. ........... 5 1
M em ber Checks ......................... ............ 52
Data Analysis Procedures ........................... 53
Trustworthiness ........ ............... ........... 57

4 FINDINGS ........... .................................. 59
Introduction ............. ........... ................ 59
General Characteristics of the Novice Special Educators .......... 60
Understanding the School World ....................... .61
Getting the School World to Understand Them .............. 63
Novice Special Education Teachers' Dual and
Conflicting Professional Identities ......................... 64
D ual Identities .......................... ............ 65
Conflicting Identities ............................... 66
Making Sense of Experiences and Roles within the School
Context .......................... .. ................ 69
M e nto rs .................................. ......... 7 3
Relationships Between General and Special Educators ........ 79
Relationships between general and special
educators in yearone ........................... 81
Relationships between general and special
educators in year two ........................... 87
Relationships between general and special
educators in year three .......................... 94
Relationships Among Special Educators ................... 95
Being Valued as a Special Education Teacher ................. 101
Support ........ .... ........... ... ........... 102
Human support .................. ............. 103
Material support ........... ..................... 110
Schedules ........... ......... ............... 113
Philosophical Awakenings ............................ 118
Summary ............... .......... ............. 122


Introduction ....................................... 124
Summary and Discussion of Findings ........................ 125
Novice Special Education Teachers' Professional Identities ... 126
Making Sense of Experiences and Roles in
School Relationships ............................. 129
Mentors ..................................... 132
Relationships between general and special educators .... 134
Relationships among special educators ................ 137
Professional Identity and Perceptions of Value ............. 140

Support ........ ..... .............. ......... 140
Schedules .......................... ......... 141
Professional Identity and Philosophical Awakening .......... 142
Summary Comments ................................. 144
Limitations ....... ............... .... ............ 147
Implications for Future Research ............................ 148
Implications for Practice .................................. 150
Understanding the School World ........................ 150
Relationships in the School World ....................... 151
Teacher Preparation .................................. 152
Final Thought ........................ .................. 156

REFERENCES .............. .......................... 157

APPENDIX ............................. ....... .. ......... 165

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................................... .. 166

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Julie K. Smith

August 2001

Chair: Dr. Vivian Correa
Major Department: Special Education

The purpose of this study was to investigate the professional identities that

four novice special education teachers constructed as they made sense of their

experiences and roles in schools, and established a sense of professional self.

Special education teachers graduate from their teacher preparation programs

and are quickly launched into school contexts to help reduce the shortage of

special education teachers in this country. Examining the sense these teachers

make of their experiences and roles, and how they situate their professional

selves within the context of schools provides a way of understanding the support

they need during the overwhelming first years of teaching. The study focused

on three guiding questions:

1. What meanings do novice special education teachers construct to make

sense of their experiences?

2. What meanings do novice special education teachers construct to make

sense of their roles?

3. What professional identities do novice special education teachers


Ethnographic research methods were used to collect an analyze data.

Periodic observations were made in each of the four participating novice special

education teachers' classrooms over the two-year and third-year follow-up of the

study. Individual and group interviews were done with each of the four teachers

during their first three years of teaching. Each participating teacher identified at

least one influential other in their school during each of their first three years.

Those influential others were also interviewed. Additionally, each of the

participating special education teachers kept a journal throughout their first three

years. Those journals were added to the data.

Data analysis was ongoing throughout the study, and proceeded through

several levels. The analysis revealed that novice special educators constructed

dual and conflicting professional identities; isolated and collegial. These

identities were supported by the way the novice special educators made sense

of their experiences and roles within relationships with others in their school

worlds, and by their perceptions of value. Likewise, the analysis revealed that

each of the participating teachers experienced a philosophical awakening at the

end of the third year. That phenomenon appeared linked to the professional

identities they constructed.

The study highlighted the complexities in the way four novice special

education teachers situated themselves in an educational context that generally

marginalized and devalued them as professionals within the school world. An

ongoing and critical shortage of special education teachers nationwide makes it

important that we better understand the experiences of these marginalized

teachers so we can better prepare and sustain them in the educational

community. The results suggested that novice special education teachers begin

their professional lives with little understanding of school context. The

relationships they form, and the sense of value they perceive, within the school

world become central to the identities they construct. The more workable and

satisfying their identities are, the more likely they are to continue as special

education teachers.



The central social-psychological problem facing new general and special

education teachers is establishing a sense of professional identity (Kagan, 1992;

Pugach, 1992). The publication of Lortie's School Teacher in 1975 sparked

interest in understanding the everyday realities of the teachers' world. Lortie

described the uncertain and the often frustrating professional plight of the

schoolteacher. The subsequent interest in the world of teachers yielded several

studies of novice teachers. Most of those studies investigated the professional

development and work of general education teachers during their first years of


New teachers are faced with more challenges than ever (Pugach &

Johnson, 1995). These challenges make novice years particularly difficult for

special education teachers. They are expected to successfully do all the work of

teachers from the time they begin teaching (Borko & Putnam, 1996). Teachers

are challenged to have sufficient command of subject knowledge, pedagogy,

technology, strategies, and discipline practices to meet effectively the diverse

needs of the students they now find in their classrooms (Pugach & Johnson).


Beginning teachers have limited knowledge of teaching and know still

less about their students, colleagues, and work environment. They lack

confidence in themselves (Burden, 1980; Kagan, 1992; McDonald, 1982; Yarger

& Mertens, 1980). Despite these challenges, administrators and colleagues

expect beginning teachers to perform the same tasks as veteran teachers, and

to do so with acceptable skill and grace (Borko & Putnam, 1996).

General education teachers, simply by having been a student of general

education teachers for 12 or more years, have an apprenticeship of observation

before they begin formal teacher preparation programs (Lortie, 1975). This

apprenticeship provides a notion and an image of what teachers do and who

teachers are. In essence, general education teachers have grown up with

models of teacher identities that they often emulate while becoming teachers


Novice special education teachers presumably lack the apprenticeship of

observation afforded general education teachers as an experiential background

for becoming a special education teacher (Pugach, 1992). Special education

teachers, in contrast to general education teachers, lack the background as

students growing up in special education classrooms (Pugach). Whether lack of

apprenticeship of observation for special education teachers is a benefit or a

burden is undetermined (Pugach). The lack of experiences as special education

students may influence the identity that novice special education teachers

construct because their experiences as students were in general education

settings. Yet these new special education teachers are now teaching in special


education classrooms within a special education culture with which they have

had little or no experience, except through their formal teacher preparation


Much of what we know about the professional identities and sense of

professional self that general education teachers construct and establish comes

from research in teacher development and teacher socialization. Socialization

literature reveals patterns, strategies, and processes in the professional

development of general education teachers. Central to the first-year teachers'

work is the construction of a professional identity that is personally satisfying and

publicly plausible. Creating a professional identity, like all identity constructions,

is an essentially social process. It involves the novice teacher and her students,

colleagues, mentors, and administrators. What these studies do not address,

however, is whether special education teachers experience the same patterns of

development and socialization that general education teachers experience.

Therefore, we know almost nothing about the professional identities constructed

by novice special education teachers.

Constructing a satisfying and plausible professional identity is difficult

work for all teachers (Kagan, 1992), but especially difficult for special education

teachers for two reasons. First, special education teachers are marginalized

within the school because of their status as new teachers. Second, they are

marginalized again because of their association with special education in

schools in which special education is not a high or visible priority (Charlton, 1998;

lano, 1986; Pugach, 1992).


Purpose of the Study

The purpose of my study was to investigate the professional identities that

novice special education teachers construct. In my study, I explored how four

beginning special education teachers navigated their first three years of

teaching, made sense of their experiences, and established a sense of

professional self. This study helps us better understand the world of beginning

special education teachers by asking what sense novice special education

teachers make of their teaching experiences, what roles they define for

themselves, and the way they find their place in the professional context of the


Research Questions and Objectives

Constructing a professional identity that is workable and satisfying is

difficult (Goffman, 1973). This difficulty applies to all new teachers (Kagan,

1992), but especially to novice special education teachers, given (a) their

devalued status as special education teachers, and (b) the uncertainties of

entering a system that largely ignores the problem of how new teachers make

sense of their experiences and find their places within the school (Friend & Cook,

1995; Fullan, 1991; Fullan & Hargraeves, 1991; Goodlad & Field, 1993; Pugach,


Traditional school structures discourage collegiality and natural support

for teachers (Barth, 1990) and that influences the construction of professional

identity (Pugach, 1992). Additionally, special education is not often perceived as

an important element in schools:


The degree to which principals and teachers see special education
as central to the goals of the school becomes an important variable
in teacher [identity construction] and can have a great effect on the
professional development choices teachers make. (Pugach, p. 194)

We know very little about the professional identities that teachers

construct. We know almost nothing about the meanings novice special

education teachers assign to their experiences or the roles they play in the

school world (Pugach, 1992). We know little about professional identities they

construct or the processes by which they construct these identities. Yet the

identities that teachers construct are important and they influence their growth

and their classroom performance (Kagan, 1992).

Among the many influences on teacher performance is professional

socialization (Heck & Wolcott, 1997; Pugach, 1992). Compared with other

organizations, schools traditionally leave socialization to chance and teachers

are not purposely drawn into shared systems of meaning (Deal & Chatman,

1989). Instead, new teachers in schools construct meaning primarily on their

own (Deal & Chatman), despite recent efforts to provide mentors for teachers

(Cole, 1991).

Context is an important factor in how teachers define their roles within

schools (Barth, 1990; Cole, 1991; Etheridge, 1989; Heck & Wolcott, 1997;

Lacey, 1977; Zeichner & Tabachnick, 1985) and certainly influences the

construction of professional identities. Several studies have documented how

general education teachers navigate the contextual variables within their school

contexts (e.g., Heck & Wolcott; Lacey; Little, 1990; Lortie, 1975; Zeichner &


Gore, 1990; Zeichner & Tabachnick). These studies examine socialization

strategies that general education teachers use to find their place in, or adjust to,

their school contexts, and the control mechanisms inherent in the school worlds

to socialize its members. No studies exist that specifically address or explain

how special education teachers navigate their school worlds and find a

professional place for themselves in their schools (Pugach, 1992). We know that

generally special education teachers are prepared to be teachers in ways that

are different from their general education counterparts (Pugach; Stainback &

Stainback, 1984), and we know that special education teachers do not share the

same status as general education teachers (Charlton, 1998; lano, 1986;


Questions remain about what sense novice special education teachers

make of their teaching experiences, how they define the roles they hold in

schools, and what professional identities they construct. Questions that are

central to my study are the following: What meanings do novice special

education teachers construct to make sense of their teaching experiences?

What meanings do novice special educators construct to make sense of their

roles? What professional identities do novice special education teachers


Significance of the Study

Because of the current teacher shortage in special education (Billingsley

1993; Brownell & Smith, 1992), universities are pushed to produce special


education teachers in record numbers (Singer, 1992). Other efforts are under

way to retain special educators already in schools (Brownell & Smith).

Understanding the professional identities that special education teachers

construct, the sense they make of their roles, and the sense they make of their

teaching experiences will help us understand how better to prepare special

educators for their critical first years of teaching. These hazardous first years of

teaching determine whether they will remain in teaching or leave (Singer, 1992)

and set the course for their professional growth (Barth, 1990; Borko & Putnam,

1996; Burden, 1980, 1990; Heck & Wolcott, 1997; Kagan, 1992; McDonald,

1982; Pugach, 1992; Renzaglia, Hutchins, & Lee, 1997; Yarger & Mertens,

1980). The degree to which special education teachers can identify themselves

within the broader context of teaching and learning, to expand their participation

in professional discourse, is a foundation for constructing professional identities

(Little, 1982; Pugach; Rosenholtz, 1989).

When we can understand what sense special education teachers make of

their experiences and roles, and what professional identities they construct

during their novice years, we can broaden the preparation of all teachers and

make recommendations for entry into the world of teaching that can facilitate the

construction of identities that are workable and satisfying. These suggestions

and recommendations may contribute to increased retention of special education

teachers as an essential educational resource.

Definition of Terms

The following definitions are used throughout this study:


Professional identity is a teacher's perceived sense of professional self, a
product of negotiated perceptions between the self and the school world. The
professional identity is based partly on how a teacher perceives him or herself in
the school world, and partly on how he or she thinks others in that school world
perceive her or him.

School world is the context, or sphere of experience, in which teachers
interact with objects and people to carry out the everyday work of teaching. It
includes the traditions, structures (both physical and functional), people within
the school, and the factors outside the school, all of which influence the school
and are influenced by the school.

Meaning is the result of significance ascribed by the self during the
interaction of the self with the world in which one finds him or herself. Meaning is
established through interpretation of experience.

Constructing meaning is the process in which one attaches significance to
knowledge, events, or other factors within one's world and therefore makes
sense of the world in which one finds him or herself.

Shared systems of meaning result from a collective understanding of what
is valued or expected within the world in which a group of persons find

Professional socialization is the process of bringing new people into the
valued ways and practices of the professional world.



The purpose of this chapter is to review relevant literature related to

novice special education teachers' identity constructions. First, the overall

process of identity construction will be presented. This process will provide a

theoretical and conceptual framework for discussing later the process of teacher

identity construction. Second, the contexts are described in which teacher

identities are constructed through negotiation. The school context is presented

first as a social structure in American education. Then context of special

education within schools is presented to provide understanding of the unique and

uncertain place special education teachers hold within the larger school context.

Third, although no studies exist that specifically describe or explain the

construction of novice special education teachers' identities, I reviewed the

literature on teacher socialization, a topic closely related to identity construction.

Transformational theory helps explain the ongoing, dynamic, interactive,

and negotiated process of identity construction. Teachers experience many

uncertainties as they enter school worlds, and special educators are faced with

more uncertainties than their peers. Understanding identity construction as

interplay or negotiation between novice special education teachers and the


context of schools and special education provides a framework for understanding

the professional identities teachers construct. My proposed study will help fill the

gap that currently exists between the literature on teaching identities and the

literature on the identity construction. It will focus on the professional identities

that novice special education teachers construct.

Identity Construction

"Identity is the product of an interplay of [social] identification and self-

identification" (Berger & Berger, 1972, p. 66). In other words, identity is a

situationally specific way of being and acting within specific contexts. Identity

construction is the negotiation between how an individual responds to social

context, and these contexts react to the individual (Perinbanayagam, 1985;

Strauss, 1969). The construction of identity may be thought of as a

transformation (Strauss), as we are never completely without identity. Rather,

we have a repertoire of identities for the various roles we hold (Berger & Berger).

We juggle these differential temporal identities, and that juggling suggests

ongoing challenges of self-legitimation and self-justification that can never be

fully or finally resolved because we are always moving on to new identities


We all carry multiple identities (e.g., daughter, sister, mother, wife,

neighbor, teacher, planter of petunias) at the same time (Berger & Berger, 1972),

and each identity may be at a different stage of stability or transition (Strauss,

1969). The transformation process is ongoing (Berger & Berger; Strauss).

Some identities are long held, some fade away, and others are new. All shift


constantly. Changes in, or transformations of, identity can be crucial phases in

our lives, allowing us "to move from one type of world, one type of identity, to a

new world and identity without causing an absolute break between past and

... present" (Strauss, p.129-130).

The literature about identity construction comes largely from sociology.

We situate our selves in relation to others, and by contrasting our selves with

what we are and are not, we form a self-image (Hewitt, 2000). When we are

situated in significant contrast to others in our worlds, we might consider our

selves, and be considered by others to be, "deviant." Hewitt describes the

phenomenon of deviance as:

Not merely a category of behavior defined as a breach of social
order, deviance also establishes a category of persons, viewed as
somehow not fully normal, not in possession of normal capabilities
or dispositions, and perhaps not even fully human .... Similarly,
deviants acquire negative essence because of their acts and the
way they are defined. Belief in their badness, ill will, corruption,
uncontrollability, and danger, however, are sustained as much by
public imputation as by anything they subsequently do. (pp. 233,

The sociological literature is replete with studies of so called "deviants" and the

social construction of "deviant" identities (e.g., Becker, 1963; Goffman, 1963)

within society; for example, mental patients (Goffman, 1959) people who are

gay; (Troiden, 1979; Reiss, 1961), criminals (Cameron, 1964; Shover, 1983) and

people with disabilities (Laslett & Warren, 1975; Petrunick & Shearing, 1983).

We have a rich, if less interesting, literature base describing the identity

construction within the everyday world of everyday folks such as salesmen,

clergy, soldiers, housewives, individuals who slip into and maintain new but


common roles and situations. The formulation of teacher identities is less clear

and unique identities that special education teachers formulate within the context

of schools is almost unknown (Pugach, 1992).

According to Strauss (1969), shifts in identity have been falsely

associated with progressions in development. Strauss points out that

progressions in development are commonly viewed either as (a) a deterministic

process whereby persons "attain" some perceived end, or (b) a set of basic

themes with sets of variations. In the attainment view, presumably there is some

beginning, middle, and end in development against which persons are

compared. In the basic themes view, people remain inherently the same,

although they may appear to change. According to Strauss, both the attainment

view and the basic themes view miss the interpretive and interactive core of

identity construction. Strauss suggests that identity development be thought of

as a "series of related transformations" (p. 91). This transformational view allows

us to better capture the open-ended, hesitant, experimental, interactive, and

problematic changes in identity construction (Strauss).

The identity of teacher, like all other identities, is negotiated (Berger &

Berger,1972; Perinbanayagam, 1985; Strauss, 1969), uncertain, and always in

flux (Berger, 1963; Strauss). Like other identities, a teacher's identity is not

constructed wholly alone, nor is it wholly assigned (Berger; Berger & Berger,

Goffman, 1961, 1963, 1973; Perinbanayagam; Strauss). Instead, the

professional identity of teachers is a negotiation between the self and the school

world. That school world is composed of various systemic conditions interacting


with various groups, including other teachers, students, parents, administrators,

and support personnel. The negotiation of identity is based partly on how a

teacher sees herself as a teacher, and how she thinks others see her. Because

a new teacher cannot be altogether privy to what others think about her, she

must intuit others' thoughts by their responses to her. The claims indicating that

resolution of professional identity is prerequisite to effective teaching (Cole,

1991; Kagan, 1992; Kuzmic, 1994) are in contrast to the general literature on

identity. That literature suggests that identity construction is a dynamic,

interactive, and ongoing process, rather than a prerequisite to effective

functioning within any given role.

School Context

Context is a critical partner in identity construction. For teachers, schools

provide the context for work and for professional identity construction. As a

human invention, schools influence, and are influenced by, the participants

within them (Feinberg & Soltis, 1998). American society values education in its

taken-for-granted institutional form (Goffman, 1961) partly because schools fulfill

American success criteria (Urban & Wagoner, 1996). The educational system,

with its formal and informal rules, roles, and relationships, provides a means for

upward mobility for both students and teachers (Ashton & Webb, 1986; Biklen,

1995). The system that brings people from traditionally blue-collar backgrounds

into the white-collar world is the same system that constrains the work of

teachers, their further professional advancement, and their sense of agency, or

voice, in decisions and destiny (Ashton & Webb; Biklen).


The bureaucratic structure of schools continues to reflect industrial

organization; routines, schedules, production, and standardization of

performance norms permeate school cultures and encourage conformity (Barth,

1990; Biklen, 1995; Dewey, 1930; Mills, 1951). Within these structures,

standardized norms of performance require teachers to teach to the social

criteria of success (Biklen; Mills). The generally low public status and low position

of teachers within the school hierarchy affect the way in which they view

themselves and their work within the bureaucratic structures of schools (Ashton

& Webb, 1986; Biklen). Legacies of teaching as "an ordinary job for ordinary

women" (Biklen, p. 10) still persist as an influence on teachers' constructions of

professional identity (Biklen). Like other white-collar workers, teachers do the

best they can within the traditionally disempowering structures of schools

(Ashton & Webb; Biklen).

The many layers of organizational regularities and cultural practices of

institutions (Goffman, 1961), such as schools, present challenges for teachers to

define their roles and to meet the increasingly diverse needs of their students

(Rosenfield & Gravois, 1996; Sleeter & Grant, 1994). Uncertainties inherent in

the school world make it particularly difficult for teachers to construct workable

and satisfying identities (Ashton & Webb, 1986). How teachers perceive the

school context (e.g.,formal and informal rules, roles, and relationships) and the

interactions between an individual and their context influences their identity

construction (Strauss, 1969).


Special Education Context

Public Law 94-142 formally sanctioned special education and brought with

it another layer of bureaucracy for teachers and schools to navigate, such as

special education teacher certification requirements designated by individual

states (Karagiannis, Stainback, & Stainback, 1996; Pugach, 1992). Teacher

preparation in special education was different from preparation in general

education (Pugach). The notion was that special education teachers had to be

different in order to teach these "different" students effectively (Schloss, 1992;

Stainback & Stainback, 1984, 1990). The historical views of persons with

disabilities helped maintain the dichotomy between general education and

special education.

Context of Dual Cultures

Pugach (1992) noted that both functionalist and interpretivist studies of

socialization neglected to consider the dual cultures of general education and

special education that might influence the socialization of special education

teachers. She suggested that socialization studies of novice special educators

consider that influences from both general and special education cultures must

be navigated by these novice special educators, and we know nothing of how

that is done or whether one culture exerts more influence than the other in the

socialization of special education teachers. That general education and special

education cultures are different is clear, and according to Pugach, the technical

knowledge base of special education is different from general education. These

differences may complicate the process of socialization and, thereby, also


complicate the identities that special education teachers construct in the


Not only do special and general education cultures work under different

sets of technical knowledge but also under different codes of morality (Renick,

1996; Skrtic, 1995). Because schools are public organizations, they respond to

the demands of society, and when the values and priorities of the social fabric

change, schools are also required to respond to these changes in society

(Skrtic). According to Skrtic, special education, as a separated system, was the

educational system's response to social demands:

From an organizational perspective, the special education
classroom served as a legitimating device, a means for schools to
signal the public that they had complied with the demand to serve a
wider range of students, while at the same time allowing the
schools to maintain their traditional paradigm of practice. Once
special education classrooms were created, they simply were
decoupled from the rest of the school organization, thus buffering
schools from the way they actually taught. (p. 215)

The relationship between general and special education that Skrtic describes as

decoupled keeps special education as a culture, or subculture, within schools

different and separate.

This decoupled relationship was supported in Renick's (1996) study of

preservice special education teachers who came to believe that general and

special education operated under different technical knowledge structures,

different teaching skills, and a different view of children with identified disabilities-

-in essence, a different morality. Renick did a qualitative case study of three

preservice special education teachers to understand the experiences of these


special educators in preparation. He found that preservice teachers maintained

an image of professional self as one who saves. As a result of these teachers'

interactions within their school environments, they extended that savior image to

one of advocacy for children with special needs by (a) empowering themselves

through a constant search for appropriate ways to teach; (b) establishing a

caring classroom; or (c) ensuring that special education students had access to

general education curriculum in the school environment by advocating for those


Renick (1996) also found that interactions with general education peers

revealed differences in the perceptions of general education and special

education teachers, highlighting the different morality bases of these two cultures

within the school. The teachers in Renick's study found that dominant culture,

general education, devalued special education and that affected the socialization

and identity constructions of novice special education teachers. The preservice

special education teachers in Renick's study separated themselves from the

general education culture and claimed membership in only the special education

culture of their respective schools.

Current Context

Fundamental assumptions about education and learning shared by both

special and general educators have not changed much since special education

materialized as a separate element in public education (Ferguson, 1995).

Culturally embedded in the educational system, those assumptions are

(a) that students are responsible for their own learning;


(b) that, when students don't learn, there must be something wrong
with them; and
(c) that the job of the schools is to determine what's wrong with as
much precision as possible, so that students can be directed to
tracks, curricula, teachers, and classrooms that match their
learning-ability profiles. (Ferguson, p. 282)

Ferguson maintains that these assumptions have persisted despite efforts to

include students with disabilities into the general classroom, and in fact, the

reform efforts have even reinforced these assumptions. According to Ferguson,

the notion of being included or integrated into the general classroom is

dependent on the notion of first being excluded or segregated. You cannot

come in if you have not first been out.

The ongoing argument over the contested terrain of the general

classroom is still being debated. Proponents of inclusion, to be fully included

within the full context of the general classroom, have the firm conviction that

these children will learn more academically and socially from an inclusionary

experience than from an exclusionary experience. Part of the foundation of their

argument is based in a civil rights framework disallowing discrimination

(Charlton, 1998; Ferguson, 1995). Opponents of full inclusion assert that

children with disabilities cannot learn as well within the general classroom that is

not prepared or equipped to meet their complex needs. Part of the foundation of

arguments against inclusion is based on the notion that inclusion is simply a

physical placement within the general education setting. This indicates

disagreement on what inclusion means (Zigmond & Baker, 1995), and perhaps

confuses the meaning of special education.

The dual system of general and special education was not directly

challenged until Stainback and Stainback (1984) proposed that the dichotomy of

education stop and that the systems merge. This created the catalyst for what

eventually would be known as inclusion in the 1990s. Based on human and civil

rights, many parents, educators, and researchers joined in advocating for

inclusive education. Others resisted the trends toward inclusion and actively

worked in direct opposition to the inclusion movement (Karagiannis et al., 1996).

Many states tied teacher certification to specific disability categories, and some

states have contradictory practices promoting both inclusion and segregation

concurrently (Karagiannis et al.).

Some opponents to inclusion have taken vehement public stands against

including students with disabilities in the general classroom setting. A prominent

educator in special education has spoken out recently regarding inclusion:

In subhuman social ecologies, the concept of the "natural"
order also applies. Dominance, pecking order, flocking, schooling,
and congregation into a closed group or segregation of individuals
from the group are typically merely observed by scientists, not
manipulated. Scientists worry that the very manipulation of
subhuman ecologies might upset the ecological balance. Another
important aspect of subhuman ecologies is that the individual is not
essential to ecological balance or to what is considered acceptable.
There are sacrificial lambs. We do not want to prevent the fox from
eating the mouse, nor do we want to prevent the harsh domination
of one primate by another in its natural environment. The
individual's life is expendable, and the individual's social standing in
the group is accepted, whether the individual is a despot or an
outcast... Unfortunately, the ideology of full inclusion ignores or
distorts the literature on social ecologies, and in so doing ignores or
distorts the realities our students and teachers must face daily. It
ignores or distorts the responsibilities we have to construct the
most habilitatively restrictive environments we can for our students.
(Kauffman, 1995, pp. 8-9, 14)


The arguments put forth by Kauffman, and others who share his beliefs about

inclusion, are reminiscent of the arguments that were popularized by Darwin and

Compte in the mid-1800s, in which those with disabilities were deemed unworthy

of full participation in the community of education. Within these opposing

paradigms of inclusion versus non- or limited inclusion, special education

teachers are caught in the ideological battle, complicating the construction of a

workable and satisfying identity in the uncertain world of schools. Teachers in

preparation increasingly are socialized into an some version of an inclusion

credo, but as they enter schools, they find themselves socialized into oftentimes

different realities.

Teacher Socialization and the Construction of Professional Identity

Characteristic of the literature on teachers are studies about what goes on

in teaching (e.g., teacher knowledge, teacher development, teacher socialization,

teacher competencies). Within this literature about teachers there are claims

about what may be going on in the teacher's construction of identity. For

example, Cole (1991), Kagan (1992), and Kuzmic (1994) suggest that teachers

need to resolve images of themselves as teachers before they can further

develop and effectively apply their teaching knowledge.

Cole (1991) studied 13 new general education teachers across four

schools using qualitative methods of interview and observation. Her purpose

was to determine with whom new teachers form professional relationships, the

nature and function of those relationships, the influence of those relationships on

professional development, and the role of context in both those relationships and


the development of teachers. In her findings, Cole points out that new teachers

need to establish their professional identities in order to develop as teachers,

and suggests that this process involves naturalistic, rather than contrived,

interactions with others in the school environment.

In an extensive review of the literature on teacher growth, Kagan (1992)

studied themes in prior studies to find common sequences in teacher

development. In the 40 learning-to-teach studies Kagan examined, 27 focused

on general education pre-service teacher development. Within these 27 studies,

Kagan found three that had findings indicating the importance of teachers'

professional identities as factors in developing teaching skills. Six of the 27

studies revealed that teachers' professional identities were requisite for growth

during preservice preparation, and five of the 27 studies' suggest that

professional identity is central and prerequisite for teacher growth to occur.

Kagan (1992) also examined 13 qualitative studies of novice general

education teachers' growth. She reported five common components of novice

teacher development: (a) metacognition increases in terms of awareness of what

they know and how their knowledge and beliefs are changing; (b) knowledge

acquired becomes reconstructed, and that modifies their image of self as

teacher; (c) as their image of self as teacher is resolved, attention shifts from self

to arranging instruction, and to student learning; (d) they develop standardized

routines integrating instruction and management, and these routines grow more

automated; and (e) thinking about solving classroom problems becomes more

discriminated, multidimensional, and context specific.


Based on the examination of the 40 studies, Kagan (1992) proposed a

model of teacher preparation that incorporates seven elements of what she

believes are important for the development of teachers. According to Kagan,

seven elements that preservice teachers need are: (a) procedural knowledge

and routines that integrate management and instruction; (b) reflection on their

behaviors, beliefs, and images of self as teachers before they can reflect on

implications of classroom practice; (c) extended, interactive experiences with

students and research projects within practice to better understand their beliefs

about teaching and to reconstruct their images of self as teachers; (d) cognitive

dissonance to confront their beliefs and acknowledge the need for adjustment;

(e) established routines and a resolution of their images as teachers, otherwise

they will be obsessed with classroom control; (f) counseling out of teacher

preparation if they are developmentally unprepared to acknowledge

dysfunctional characteristics in their images of self as teachers; and (g)

allowance to construct informal, personalized theories based on their personal

realities, rather than relying on formal theory. Four of the seven elements (i.e., b,

c, e, f) point to the importance of teachers resolving their professional identities

before they can grow to become effective teachers and apply their teaching


In a study of beginning general education teachers, Heck and Wolcott

(1997) explored socialization factors that might explain what helped teachers

successfully complete their probationary periods. They collected data on 155

first-year teachers' college grade point averages (GPA), National Teacher


Examination (NTE) scores, interview ratings, student teaching evaluations,

location of probationary assignments, probationary evaluations, and

demographics. The results of their study suggested that college GPA, student

teaching evaluation, NTE professional knowledge score, and location of received

degree were significant variables in professional socialization attributed to

success in the first year. Additionally, Heck and Wolcott found that professional

socialization significantly influenced the success of first-year teachers, noting

that teachers who were more socialized into the schools were more likely to

receive tenure after their probationary periods. Organizational factors that were

also significantly related to successful completion of the first year were student

behavioral problems, daily student absence rate, relatively inexperienced staff,

and lower math scores. These findings suggest that more difficult work

environments were related to unsuccessful performance of probationary

teachers, affect the socialization of novice teachers, and therefore influence the

construction of professional identity.

Kuzmic (1993) conducted an ethnographic case study of one first-year

teacher that was selected from a previous longitudinal study of 10 interns. Using

interviews and observations during the first semester of one general education

teacher's beginning year, Kuzmic explored the interactive socialization process,

with an interest in how preparation can help individual teachers become more

reflective. His findings suggest that teacher identity is a taken-for-granted image

of teaching that results from prior exposure to teachers. The degree to which


that image is developed and susceptible to change influences how reflective, and

therefore empowered, a teacher can be within the school context.

Kuzmic (1993) found that the first-year teacher in his case study

maintained the commitment and beliefs established in the preparation program,

but that the image of self as teacher was so resistant to change that it was

difficult for her to be reflective and critical about her teaching and her context.

The seemingly impermeable image of self as teacher interfered with her ability to

actualize the goals she had for herself within the context of school constraints.

The teacher in this study internalized the external constraints imposed by the

school context. Instead of recognizing the constraints as external and

dependent on the context of the school, the novice teacher perceived the

problems she was having as personal limitations. This perception conflicted with

her image of self as teacher, and resulted in frustration with herself, her

students, and her teaching. Kuzmic observed that over time this novice teacher

was able to develop an understanding of her own expectations, the realities she

encountered in her classroom, and that expectations and realities could be in

conflict with one another. As a result of these understandings, the novice

teacher was able to begin modifying her image of self as teacher and see herself

within the constraints of the school context. Her teacher identity became


Pugach (1992) agrees that teacher identity is important, but suggests that

special education teachers may not have the same professional identity as

general education teachers. Pugach examines the functionalist and interpretive


traditions in the teacher socialization literature. As previously noted, Pugach

pointed out the difference in cultures between special and general education

teachers, but she also questions the application of socialization patterns of

general education teachers to special education teachers. Despite Pugach's

recognition that special education teachers negotiate their place in the school

world within different experiential contexts from general education teachers, she

does not address what professional identities special education teachers might


Context of the School-World and Teacher Identity Construction

Although Cole (1991), Kagan (1992), and Kuzmic (1994) suggest that the

work of teacher development and effective teaching does not really begin until

the image of self as teacher is resolved, and that is problematic, they do

recognize along with several other authors, (e.g., Barth, 1990; Deal & Chatman,

1989; Etheridge, 1989; Lee, 1994; Pugach, 1992; Zeichner & Tabachnick, 1985)

that context is a central component of identity construction for any teacher.

In reflecting on his experiences in educational leadership, Barth (1990)

points out that central to teachers realizing their potential as dynamic and

continually growing and learning professionals are the interactions teachers have

with others in the school context. That context, according to Barth, is most

healthy for the construction of a positive professional identity when it is a

collegial context that values and encourages ongoing learning for all members of

the school community.


Deal and Chatman (1989) contrast the context and socialization process

of new general education teachers with the socialization that takes place in other

work environments in the business sector. From surveys of 100 teachers that

were new to a metropolitan school system, and interviews of novice and

experienced teachers new to a particular school, Deal and Chatman used

preliminary results of their study to present how socialization patterns affect

novice teachers. Among their findings is that schools isolate new teachers,

almost as a rite of passage, and this context leaves socialization to chance.

Instead, Deal and Chatman recommend that schools, like businesses, provide

time and structures for new teachers to orient to the organization of schools

through a process they call acculturation.

Etheridge's (1989) ethnographic study of general education teachers

explores how teachers adjust to their first year of teaching in schools.

Observations and interviews were conducted with 31 beginning teachers over a

three year period to determine the process of establishing teaching behaviors.

Etheridge's findings indicated that teachers use strategic adjustment to resolve

discrepancies between the expectations of their teacher preparation programs

and the contextual realities of schools. Teachers in this study used strategic

adjustment to react to their own perceptions of what is needed in the classroom

rather than simply yielding to school authority, recognizing that the adjustment

may or may not be congruent with school authority, but they rationalize the

adjusted practice in consideration of the circumstances of the school context.


Corley (1998) was also interested in the role context and school culture

played in the socialization of beginning general education teachers. Corley did a

bounded case study using a questionnaire, interviews, and observations of three

first-year teachers in one school during one school year. The findings of this

study suggested that: (a) new teachers felt isolated and lonely; (b) they realized

that their preparation was inadequate, to some degree, for the realities they

faced; (c) they wanted to be told what was expected from them; (d) they felt that

communication was lacking; (e) they were concerned about discipline; (f) they

wanted to fit in with, and be accepted by, fellow faculty; and, (g) they wanted

students to respect them as teachers. The quality of relationships within the

school influenced the success these teachers perceived and the identities they

constructed. Often the teachers they wanted to be did not match the image they

projected to match the school expectations, once those expectations were


Gratch (1998) also examined socialization of new general education

teachers, and the role that mentoring played in that process. Using qualitative

methods of interviews with 10 teachers in their first year, Gratch found that

teacher relationships with others in their respective schools and concerns of new

teachers were the greatest influences on socialization of new teachers. She

suggests that the sink or swim socialization mechanisms prevalent in schools

leaves first-year teachers feeling isolated, alone, and overwhelmed with new

responsibilities. But when these teachers established collegial relationships,

they felt less isolated and more confident.


The first-year teacher concerns, listed by Gratch (1998), were classroom

management and discipline, getting sufficient materials, organizing the

classroom, dealing with parents, daily scheduling and planning, paperwork,

motivating students, and meeting the needs of individual students. When the

teachers in Gratch's study established and maintained collegial relationships in

their school contexts, they felt more confident in addressing these concerns.

Context played an important role in Lee's (1994) case study of a

beginning teacher's perceptions of the technical culture of schools. Lee used

interviews, observations, and documents to collect data. He also interviewed

other teachers, administrators and support staff to better understand the school

context. Lee concluded that the teacher's perceptions (i.e., subjective reality) of

the school context--that is, the rules, the roles, and the relationships within the

school--determined the teacher's reality on which she based decisions and

acted. Additionally, the teacher's subjective reality differed from the actual

technical culture described in official school documents of teaching skills and

school handbooks. Lee suggests that socialization into a school culture is highly

contextual and complex, and that a uniform teaching culture into which all

teachers can be socialized is mythological.

Zeichner and Tabachnick (1985) point out the importance of considering

the individual contexts of schools, and teachers' interactions within those

contexts, in order to better understand the subtle processes of becoming a

teacher. In their two-year qualitative study of four beginning teachers'

development of teaching perspectives, Zeichner and Tabachnick examined


teachers' responses to their institutional contexts, and examined the nature of

the formal and informal control mechanisms within the teachers' schools. They

used interviews of teachers, selected students, and principals, as well as

classroom observations and documents such as curriculum guides and teacher

handbooks, to collect the data for their study. Zeichner and Tabachnick found

that how new teachers adapt to their school contexts cannot be taken for

granted. Instead, the interactive nature of socialization into schools--that is, how

the individual teacher negotiates between self and the school culture (and

subcultures)--determines the adjustments and responses to school context.

It is not just the physical or organizational contexts of the school that

influence the construction of identity; it is how teachers are perceived by their

multiple publics, including students (Deal & Chatman, 1989; Kagan, 1992),

parents and administrators, (Barth, 1990) and other teachers (Cole, 1991;

Kagan) as well. The inability to entirely know others' perceptions of us, except

for our perceptions of their outward behavior, complicates the negotiation of

identity construction (Berger, 1969; Berger & Berger, 1972; Goffman, 1961,

1963, 1973; Strauss, 1969). According to theorists such as Berger (1963),

Berger and Berger, (1972), and Goffman, how others perceive an individual

contributes to the identity others assign or attribute to the individual, and that

attribution may be communicated to the individual in direct or very subtle ways.

School Socialization Mechanisms and Teacher Identity Construction

Although socialization is related to the construction of identity (Pugach,

1992), the dimensions of this reciprocal relationship are not defined. The early


bias of socialization literature was based on a functionalist assumption that

society created the players it needed to fill the slots it created. Socialization was

the name we gave to that practice (Becker, 1964; Feinberg & Soltis, 1998;).

Feinberg and Soltis point out that in functionalism, the good of the total social

system is a primary requirement of social life. From a functionalist perspective,

All societies require that their members perform different tasks.
Selection, socialization, and training processes are needed to
assure jobs, even unpleasant or demanding ones, get done. Even
in primitive societies, role differentiation will be found as some
members hunt, others gather, and still others prepare food. .. In
highly complex, modern societies ... where roles change from one
generation to the next, a more formal structure is required to
assure that the education of the young takes place and that role
differentiation and group solidarity is achieved. A system of
universal, compulsory, public education is established to
accomplish this. (p. 16)

This structural functionalist assumption has fallen out of favor and the

concept of human agency is replacing it (Kuzmic, 1994). Human agency is

based on the assumption that things are not done just to people within a context,

but that people and context interact (Giroux & McLaren, 1986; Strauss, 1969).

Despite these shifts in thinking, both the literature on socialization

generally and the literature on socialization in education still contain remnants of

that old assumption (i.e., studies abound on how to make certain kinds of

teachers; for example, more reflective, more knowledgeable, more competent).

Although the current literature is more sophisticated than earlier work, and it

recognizes the interactive nature of teaching, the focus is still on creating, almost

deterministically, a certain kind of teacher or teaching quality (Pugach, 1992).

That focus continues to blur our vision of the complexities and the interactive


nature of the work of teaching and identity construction. Despite these

limitations in the literature on teacher socialization, there are elements that are

compatible with the literature on identity construction and that are useful in

studying the construction of professional identity in novice special education


Agents of Socialization

The interactive, negotiated nature of identity construction suggests that as

new teachers enter the context of schools, there is much work for them to do in

making sense of their working environment.

When the individual does move into a new position in society and
obtains a new part to perform, he is not likely to be told in full detail
how to conduct himself, nor will the facts of his new situation press
sufficiently on him from the start to determine his conduct without
his further giving thought to it. Ordinarily he will be given only a few
cues, hints, and stage directions, and it will be assumed that he
already has in his repertoire a large number of bits and pieces of
performances that will be required in the new setting. (Goffman,
1973, pp. 72-73)

How new teachers interact with others in their school worlds and how they

are socialized by the school as an organization, or institution, influences the

image that they create of self as teacher (Barth, 1990; Becker, 1970; Cole, 1991;

Deal & Chatman; Lacey, 1977; Kagan, 1992; Pugach; Zeichner & Tabachnick,

1985). Zeichner and Tabachnick determined that informal socialization was

more important than any formal institutional control mechanisms used by

schools. Zeichner and Tabachnick examined the influence of institutional control

mechanisms, developed by Edwards (1979), within schools and how these

mechanisms influenced beginning teachers. They found that of the formal


institutional control mechanisms used by schools, technical control (e.g., timing

of instruction, curriculum, materials, and instructional space), rather than either

personal or bureaucratic control, was the strongest factor affecting beginning

teachers' socialization.

Schools, like other organizations, use a variety of strategies to socialize

new members (Deal & Chatman, 1989). Wanous (1980) described five

strategies that organizations use to socialize their new members: (a) training; (b)

education; (c) apprenticeship; (d) debasement; and (e) cooptation or seduction.

Deal and Chatman found that of those five, schools use three strategies to

socialize new teachers as they enter. Schools use the "education" strategy

during orientation where the official information is presented to teachers. This

often is supplemented by more informal information about the way things are

really done. The second strategy schools use is "cooptation," where a new

teacher is quickly absorbed into the organization. Although an illusion of choice

is maintained in the use of "cooptation," teachers are absorbed into the school's

values by making choices so obvious that only one choice actually exists for the

new teacher. The third strategy is a form of debasement called "sink or swim"

where teachers are assigned their classroom with very little support or

information. The sink or swim strategy is the most common socialization

strategy that schools use (Deal & Chatman). Not only do organizations such as

schools make use of socialization strategies such as those described by

Edwards (1979) and Wanous (1980), but new teachers also use socialization

strategies to help negotiate their new environments.


According to Becker (1970), Lacey (1977), and Zeichner and Tabachnick

(1985), examination of the social strategies used by novice teachers to adjust to

their new school environments sheds light on the socialization process. Most

studies of teachers' social strategies emerged out of the work of both Becker and

Lacey. Lacey challenged Becker's (1964) early notions that socialization was a

deterministic process of becoming simply what the situation demanded of the

individual functionalismm). Later, Becker (1970) developed the concept of latent

culture and the interactive nature of the individual with the context of self

socialization from which Lacey described teacher's social strategies.

In two significant studies, Lacey (1977) and Etheridge (1989) identified

social strategies that teachers use in response to their new school environments.

Lacey used participant observation and questionnaires as data to understand the

socialization experiences of student teachers in Great Britain. Lacey described

three social strategies--internalized adjustment, strategic compliance, and

strategic redefinition--that teachers use to interact with their school contexts.

Internalized adjustment, as a social strategy, occurs when a teacher internalizes

the values and arguments of the authority. Strategic compliance occurs when

the teacher acquiesces to the authority or situational constraints, but retains

private reluctance about doing so. Finally, strategic redefinition as a socialization

strategy is used by teachers to cause the authority view to change or be

redefined, even though that teacher may not have the formal power to direct the

authority view.


Etheridge (1989) offers an alternative socialization strategy called

strategic adjustment. Strategic adjustment, according to Etheridge, is the result

of resolving discontinuities between workplace realities and the self and is "the

conscious selection and use of teaching practices that modify or replace initial

and preferred practices" (p. 32).

The socialization strategies of teachers offered by Lacey (1977) have

parallels to some of the adaptation strategies that Goffman (1961) presents

when discussing how inmates adapt to life in total institutions. Lacey's

internalized adjustment strategy is similar to Goffman's "conversion" mode of

adaptation where the inmate appears to adopt authority views and values. Like

the strategic redefinition strategy described by Lacey, Goffman's "intransigent

line" is an adaptive strategy that aims at transforming the authority view. The

parallels between the findings of both Lacey and Goffman may imply that novice

teachers perhaps initially negotiate their professional identities in ways that are

somewhat similar to inmates in total institutions.

Robinson (1998) studied models and common practices of new teacher

induction in three Indiana school systems. He compared the models and

practices, and based on current literature, extracted best practices from each to

form a model program. Robinson concluded that first-year teachers need to

establish relationships with students and staff; they need knowledge of routines

and procedures, as well as of content and instruction; and they need to know

and understand interrelated problems of classroom and school. Robinson

suggests that a good induction program not only meets those first-year needs,

but also facilitates: (a) a positive self-image as a teacher; (b) communication with

all school entities; (c) efficacy as a teacher; (d) creativity in teaching; (e) longevity

as a teacher; (f) views of teaching as a profession; (g) a clear sense of

expectations; (h) fewer discipline problems; (i) smooth assimilation; (j) less

apprehension about seeking help; (k) feeling accepted; and, (I) a sense of

success. A strong mentoring program was suggested as an important element

in successful induction, based on the notion that interpersonal relationships in

the school place were very influential for novice teachers.

An important socialization aspect of beginning teachers is the

interpersonal relationships that they form with others in the school (Barth, 1990;

Cole, 1991). Since teaching has historically been an isolated profession (Barth,

1990; Deal & Chatman, 1989; lano, 1986; Little, 1990; Lortie, 1975; Zeichner &

Tabachnick, 1985), the number of school personnel with whom new teachers

interact, in addition to the frequency of interactions, may be limited. This is

especially true of special education teachers who are typically more isolated than

their general education peers (Pugach, 1992). Unspoken norms of

noninterference discourage interaction (Ashton & Webb, 1986; Barth; lano,

1986), and, consequently, interaction between general and special educators is

particularly challenging (Ashton & Webb; Little, 1990; Webb & Sherman, 1983).

The study of novice special educators should grow out of the actual work

of teaching, should occur in natural settings, should focus on the problems and

tasks of teachers, and should make sense of the phenomena in teaching and

learning (Borko & Putnam; lano, 1986; Kagan, 1992; Pugach, 1992; Zeichner &


Gore, 1990). Better understanding the world of novice special education

teachers is best done through the use of qualitative inquiry (lano; Pugach, 1992;

Renzaglia, Hutchins, & Lee, 1997) because it has the potential to better capture

natural settings where teaching occurs, where teachers encounter problems and

make sense of their world. An ethnographic approach to studying how novice

special education teachers construct their professional identities is appropriate

because ethnography is naturalistic, focuses on the perceptions and tasks of the

participants, and makes sense of the phenomena that take place and gives

meaning in the worlds in which participants feel, think, and act.



This study has a threefold purpose: (a) to understand what meanings

novice special education teachers construct to make sense of their everyday

work experiences; (b) to understand what meanings novice special education

teachers construct to make sense of their roles; and (c) to understand what

professional identities novice special education teachers construct in the world of

schools. Understanding the complex realities of novice special education

teachers requires qualitative inquiry (lano, 1986; Kagan, 1992; Pugach, 1992).

The aim of all qualitative inquiry is to allow those who are studied to speak for

themselves (Sherman & Webb, 1997), to understand the participants'

perceptions and to understand the influence of context on individual behavior

and meaning (Smith & Glass, 1987). The realities of novice special education

teachers, like the realities of all individuals, are difficult to explain unless they are

based in the lived meanings individuals construct in everyday life (Schutz, 1967).

Ethnography, as a qualitative or naturalistic method, is well suited for this

study because the goal of ethnographic research is learning and understanding

the meanings of actions and events to the persons experiencing them (Spradley,

1979). According to Spradley,


Some of these meanings are directly expressed in language; many
are taken for granted and communicated only indirectly through
word and action. But in every society people make constant use of
these complex meaning systems to organize their behavior, to
understand themselves and others, and to make sense out of the
world in which they live. These systems of meaning constitute their
culture: ethnography always implies a theory of culture. (p. 5)

Ethnography provides empirical data about the experiences of persons in

specific situations, allows us to see other realities, and allows us to modify our

culture-bound theories of human behavior (Spradley). Using the tools of the

researcher's own senses, sensitivities, and abilities to communicate with

participants, the aim of ethnography is to report the culture studied in enough

breadth and depth to allow one who has not shared the experience to

understand it (Shimahara, 1997). Rather than verification of predetermined or

taken-for-granted ideas, qualitative research allows for discovery that leads to

new insights (Sherman & Webb, 1997).

Topic of Study and Background

A total of 22 students in a special education teacher preparation program

from a midwestern university experienced collaborative structures in their

practicum placements before student teaching/internship. The collaborative

practicum placements were part of a pilot program within the special education

department at that university. Faculty arranged for school placements that would

accommodate collaborative practice, and once sites were established, faculty

asked for students to volunteer to participate. Because placement sites were

limited and collaborative placement was beyond the program description, and

because an important component of effective collaboration is volunteerism


(Pugach & Johnson, 1995), faculty felt they could only assign collaborative

practice with students' willingness to participate.

The collaborative preservice preparation program involved two practicum

experiences before student teaching/internship. There were 10 students in the

first collaborative practicum, and 12 students in the second collaborative

practicum. Two students who participated in the first collaborative practicum

also participated in the second practicum. This was primarily due to scheduling

placements for the second collaborative practicum within classrooms serving

children within specific disability categories.

All students in the special education teacher preparation program at this

university were required to register for the same first practicum experience, a

tutorial practicum. In the second practicum, a small group practicum, students in

the preparation program selected and registered for an area of concentration.

Those areas of concentration included learning disabilities, mental disabilities,

and behavior disabilities. Students could also select either an elementary or

secondary focus within these areas of concentration.

Eight of the 10 students in the first collaborative practicum had registered

to do the second practicum in classrooms serving children with mental

disabilities, or children with behavior disabilities. The other two students had

registered to do the second practicum in classrooms serving children with mild

learning disabilities.

In the first practicum, a non-categorical tutorial, each of the 10 voluntary

teachers-in-preparation had a peer coach/partner and was assigned to teach one


child. While one practicum student taught, the peer coach/partner observed and

critiqued the lesson. After teaching was finished, the peer coach and the

practicum student who taught the lesson discussed strengths and weaknesses of

the lesson, as well as ideas for improvement in subsequent lessons. Then the

roles reversed and the student who had been the coach then taught a different

child while the student who had taught the first child took the role of coach and

observed and critiqued the lesson.

In the subsequent practicum, 12 teachers-in-preparation were each

assigned a peer-partner with whom they would team teach a small group of

students. The students were placed in classrooms in pairs, and together were

responsible for the assessment, planning and management of the children they

taught. When they taught, they had several options in team teaching the lesson.

For example, while some pairs took turns being lead teacher throughout parts of

the lesson, other pairs took turns being lead teacher for entire lessons. Those

roles were negotiated within the paired teams.

These experiences with collaborative structures during practice contrasted

with the traditional preservice placements in which students in the teacher

education program were singly placed in practice and solely responsible for

assessment and the design and delivery of lessons. As these preservice

teachers graduated and began taking teaching positions, I was curious about

how the collaborative practicum experiences would play out in the roles of these

novice teachers. Specifically, I wondered whether they would initiate

collaborative relationships with other teachers in their schools, whether they


would value collaborative structures over working alone, and whether they were

more successful in working with regular education teachers than their peers who

had experienced traditional practicum experiences.

The initial goal of my study was to learn how two special education

teachers who participated in collaborative practice, and two special education

teachers who participated in traditional practice, collaborated during their first year

of teaching. As the study got under way, the question of why these teachers may

or may not collaborate was added to the question of how they collaborated. By

the end of the first year of teaching, the data suggested that the preservice

experience (collaborative versus non-collaborative practice) did not appear to be a

critical factor in why these teachers either did or did not engage in collaborative

activities in their schools. Instead, what emerged from the first year data was that

these teachers attempted to make sense of their experiences and to construct a

professional identity that was workable, plausible, and satisfying within their

respective schools. The focus, therefore, of the second year of data collection

was modified to discovering what sense these teachers made of their experiences

(the meanings they constructed from these experiences), and roles, and what

professional identities these teachers constructed through their first three years of


Participants and School Settings

I selected four novice special education teachers to participate in my

study. Of the preservice teachers that participated in the collaborative practice

during their teacher preparation program at a midwestern university, two


participated in both the tutorial peer-coaching practicum and the small group

team-teaching practicum. Others who were involved with the collaborative

practice participated in either the tutorial peer-coaching practicum, or the small

group team-teaching practicum, but not both. The selection began with

purposeful sampling (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998) of the two newly graduated

teachers certified in special education who participated in both collaborative

practice in their teacher preparation program. Two other newly graduated

teachers certified in special education who went through the same program

simultaneously, but who did not participate in either of the collaborative practice,

also were purposefully selected to participate in my study. I chose the latter two

teachers to match the two teachers who had experienced the collaborative

practice during preservice for type of classroom and degree of disability identified

in students on their rosters during their first year of teaching.

I will call teachers who experienced the collaborative preservice practice

Carol and Celeste. For the duration of my study, Carol taught in a classroom

described as self-contained with integration. The students she taught were

identified with learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, and mental disabilities.

Carol was hired by a state special education agency and assigned to a

classroom that was housed in the public middle school in a community of

approximately 6,000 people. Her middle school employed 40 teachers, total,

four of whom were special education teachers, and had one principal and one

assistant principal. Carol was an Anglo-American the same age as her typical

college peers, unmarried, and she had no children.


Celeste was an Anglo-Native American, older than her peers in college,

and the mother of two children. During my study, Celeste was hired by a state

special education agency and taught in a self-contained classroom at a

residential facility operated by that state agency. Her students were primarily

middle-school students identified with severe behavioral disorders. The school

employed seven special education teachers, total, and one principal. This

school was in a community with a population of about 10,000.

Tara and Teresa experienced traditional preservice practice (i.e., no

assigned collaborative structures). During my study, Tara taught in a classroom

described as self-contained with integration within the only K-12 school in a

community of fewer than 800 people. The school employed 41 teachers, total,

six of whom were special education teachers, and it had one principal for the

elementary grades, one principal for the middle- and high-school grades, and

one superintendent whose office was also in the building. Tara was employed

by a state special education agency, and was placed in the public school within

the agency region. The students she taught were middle-school and high-school

students with identified learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, and mental

disabilities. She was an Anglo-American, the same age as her typical college

peers, although married at the time of graduation.

Teresa was an Anglo-American who was older than her typical peers in

college, and she was married with children. Teresa was hired by a state special

education agency and assigned to teach her first year in a self-contained

classroom for students with moderate-to-severe mental disabilities within a public


school. In her second year, she taught a variety of classes for students with and

without disabilities in the same school. In her third year, she returned to teaching

a self-contained class. Teresa taught at the same high school during all three

years in a community of approximately 75,000 people. The school employed 60

teachers total, 15 of whom were special education teachers, and it had one

principal and four assistants to the principal. The following table (Table 1)

illustrates the participants and their settings in brief.

Community Settings

For the duration of my study, both Tara and Carol taught in rural settings

while Celeste and Teresa taught in larger communities. Teresa and Tara lived

Tablel: Participating Teachers and Settings

Teacher & Type of college School & classroom Community
practice student setting setting
Carol traditional age, middle school, commutes 60
collaborative Anglo-American, 40 teachers, total, minutes
practice not married, 4 special ed. population
no children teachers, 6,000
1 principal,
1 assistant principal,
SCI, multi-
Celeste traditional age, middle school, Commutes 30
collaborative Anglo-Native- residential facility, minutes
practice American, 7 special ed. population
not married, teachers, total, > 10,000
had children 1 principal
SC, severe
___disabilities (BD),

Tara traditional age, K-12 school, lives in
non- Anglo-American 41 teachers, total, community
collaborative married, 6 special ed. population 800
practice no children teachers,
1 elementary
1 secondary
1 superintendent,
SCI, multi-
categorical for
middle high school
Teresa nontraditional high school, lives in
non- age, 60 teachers, total, community
collaborative Anglo-American, 15 special ed. population
pratica married, teachers, > 75,000
children 1 principal, 4 asst.
Year 1: SC,
moderate -severe
Year 2: various
classes for students
with and without
SCI = Self-contained with some integration.
SC = Self-contained.
BD= Behavioral Disorders
MD= Mental Disabilities

in the communities in which they taught. Celeste commuted approximately 30

minutes each way each day, and Carol commuted approximately 60 minutes

each way each school day. All four teachers signed contracts to teach in the

same settings and classrooms for their second year, the 1998-1999 school year

(although Teresa's classroom setting changed once the second year began),

and their third year, the 1999-2000 school year.


Data Collection

Since the core of ethnography is learning the meanings that participants

attach to actions and events, ethnographers must make inferences based on

what the participants say, actions in which the participants engage, and artifacts

the participants use (Spradley, 1979). I used ethnographic methods of

observation, interviews (including member checks), and document analysis for

data collection. A research chronology is included as Appendix A to show the

research activities along a time line of the three years of the study. After an

overview of the data collection procedures, a more thorough discussion of each

will be provided.

I made four full-day observations for each participant during year one, and

made two partial-day observations for each during year two. I recorded

observations in field notes. Additionally, I designed and conducted semi-

structured interviews with each participant after each observation, and I

interviewed others in the environment named by the teachers as influential or

supportive during their experiences.

In addition to the interviews and observations, the teachers each kept a

journal of their thoughts and reflections about their experience as novice

teachers for both year one and year two. Those journals were sent to me at the

conclusion of each school year.

Member checks were held with the group after first-year data collection

was completed and teacher interviews were analyzed. Another member check

was held after the second-year data collection was completed, added to all the


first-year data, and analyzed. Member check meetings, lasting from one-and-a-

half to two hours were recorded and transcribed. I presented my findings in the

form of a taxonomy and a paper that explained the taxonomy to each of the

participants before meeting them as a group for the member checks. During the

member check meetings, I discussed the taxonomy and findings with the

participants and received feedback from the participants regarding the findings.


After approval from Internal Review Board, I began observations for year

one in October 1997, and continued through December 1997, March 1998, and

May 1998. For each teacher during year one, an observation began at the start

of the teacher's school day, and ended at the end of the day when they left

school. Most teachers arrived at school 30 minutes before the time students

arrived and left 30 minutes after students were dismissed. During that time, I

followed the teachers through their day in the classroomss, attended meetings

with them, accompanied them on their school errands, and had lunch with them

in the teachers' lounges.

For year two, I conducted observations in October 1998, and April 1999.

During year two, I made partial-day observations that were scheduled according

to the teachers' preference of time. These observations were typically scheduled

around a time when the participant would have a block of time after the

observation to meet with me and do the interview. The total observation time for

both years one and two yielded approximately 124 hours of observation.


During observations, I took the role of passive participant-observer

(Spradley, 1980). This role, according to Spradley, is that of a spectator or

bystander who is not involved in the setting beyond watching and recording the

events and the setting, while physically being present in that setting. According

to Biklen (1995),

Participant observers spend time with the people they study
in order to understand how their informants make sense of their
world and how they attribute meanings. This kind of research is
interested in what people know about themselves, their situations,
and their place in the world, as well as what epistemological
strategies they engage to develop explanations and perspectives to
account for their situations How schoolteachers come to be
known, both to themselves and to others, depends on a number of
circumstances, some of which can be accessed by ethnographic
fieldwork. (p. 108)

Field notes were taken throughout the observations using a laptop

computer. I used the concrete principle of recording field notes (Spradley, 1980),

meaning that settings and events were described using concrete language in as

much objective detail as possible. When taking notes was not practical or

appropriate (e.g., during meetings with the principal; during lunch activities with

other teachers present), recollections of the activities were recorded in field

notes as soon as possible afterwards. Observations yielded approximately 745

pages of field notes.


According to Spradley (1979), language is not only a means of

communication, but also is the primary tool for constructing and transmitting

cultural realities. Spradley notes that constructions of cultural realities, both tacit


and explicit, are encoded and transmitted in native linguistic form, and "rather

than studying people, ethnography means learning from people" (p. 3, emphasis

in original) from their native point of view. Therefore, interviews become a

central part of ethnographic research to discover, from the participants, the fluid

cultural knowledge (Lipsitz, 1990) that they acquire and use to make sense of

their experiences (Spradley).

Interviews in my study were conducted with each novice special education

teacher after the classroom observations were made in year one and year two,

and at the convenience of each of the teachers during year three, since no

observations were done during year three follow-up. On occasion, teachers

requested doing at least part of the interview during their school day to conserve

their time, and when that request was made, I honored it as much as possible.

Most interviews, however, were conducted immediately after the school day

ended. Seven individual interviews were conducted with each of the four

teachers. Two group interviews with all four teachers, as member checks, were

also held. A total of approximately 38 hours of semi-structured interviews with

teachers took place during the two years of the study. Each teacher interview

was tape recorded and transcribed using the verbatim principle (Spradley, 1979),

generating a total of 1282 pages of teacher interview transcripts.

Interviews with others in the school identified as influential or supportive

by the novice special education teacher usually were planned and conducted at

a time during the school day when it was convenient for the interviewee.


Interviews were planned for influential others during each of my visits to each

school, but not all interviews with influential others were completed.

Only Tara identified the same person as her "influential other" over the

three years of the study (see Table 2). Additionally, this influential other

identified by Tara was the only influential other who was available and agreeable

to an interview during each of my visits throughout the duration of my study.

Celeste identified the same influential other during the first year (see Table 2),

and I was able to interview that person during each of the four visits during the

first year. By the second year, however, that person had transferred to another

school, and Celeste did not identify an alternate influential other at any time

during the second year.

Carol identified the same person as her influential other during the study,

but during year two, that person was on leave and unavailable for any interviews

(see Table 2). Teresa identified the same person as her influential other for the

first three of my visits in year one, but that person was unwilling to participate in

an interview (see Table 2). During the last visit of year one, Teresa identified a

different person as her influential other. That person maintained the role of

influential other for the remainder of the study, but was only available and willing

to participate in an interview in May 1998. The following chart illustrates the

chronology of interviews of influential others.

Totals of approximately 14 hours of interviews with influential others were

tape recorded and transcribed using the verbatim principle (Spradley, 1979),

Table 2: Teachers' Influential Others and Planned Interviews
Teacher October Decemb March May October May
'97 er'97 '98 '98 '98 '99
influen- influen- influen- influen- influen- influen-
tial other tial other tial other tial other tial other tial other
Celeste Bette Bette Bette Bette none none
Carol Marcia Marcia Marcia Marcia Marcia Marcia*
Teresa Jackie* Jackie* Jackie* Valerie Valerie* Valerie*
Tara Sue Sue Sue Sue Sue Sue
influential other unwilling or unable to interview

generating approximately 475 pages of transcripts. Thirteen of the 15 interviews

were face-to-face, although two were done by telephone because of scheduling

conflicts that prevented a face-to-face interview.


In addition to observations of the novice special education teachers and

interviews of both the novice teachers and those whom they designated as

influential within their schools, each of the teachers in my study kept a journal. In

these journals, I asked each participant to write about what was important to

them as they reflected on their experience as a novice special educator. No

length requirements were given, so the participants were free to write as much

as they felt necessary to convey their thoughts. I suggested that they each make

a journal entry at least weekly. The format was not specified, so the teachers

could hand-write, use a word-processor, or use whatever means that was most

convenient and comfortable for them to complete the journals. I asked each of


the teachers to submit their journals to me at the end of each school year during

the study. This nonrestrictive format allowed the teachers to address issues that

were important to them, rather than simply commenting or reflecting on what I

thought might be important for them, allowing the participants to speak for

themselves (Sherman & Webb, 1997).

Journals were included in data collection to provide an opportunity for

participants to share, on a more frequent basis, thoughts and reflections

grounded in their daily experiences. The journals were a means for the

participating teachers to record thoughts and reflections about experiences that

might not have become known during an interview, nor have been apparent

during my observations. Journals also (a) contributed to validity by assuring a

variety of data sources (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Smith & Glass, 1987); (b)

provided artifacts that, along with interviews and observations, added to the

documentation of the culture (Spradley, 1979) of novice special educators; and

(c) added richness to descriptions and analysis by contributing a cognitive

contextual condition to the study (Lincoln & Guba).

Member Checks

According to Lincoln and Guba (1985), member check is the phase of a

research study where the researcher presents a provisional report of findings to

the participants to establish the credibility of the report. The participants' role is

to provide feedback to the researcher about how accurately the findings reflect

the realities of the participants. The participants then amend, correct, or extend

the data analysis to make the findings credible (Lincoln & Guba).


During my study, in addition to ongoing clarification of prior data during

interviews with individual participants, I conducted two member checks with all

four of the novice special education teachers after they were presented with a

provisional report of the findings. These reports were distributed to each

participant at the conclusion of my last interview with each teacher participant,

approximately one week before the group meetings. The member check of the

first-year findings was done as a group in a location central to all participants,

and lasted approximately one and three-quarters hours. The second member

check was held in a location closer to the participant living farthest away from the

central location. It was a group effort to alleviate the distance required for that

one person. The discussions during the meetings were tape recorded with a

video recording back up for the first member check (Note: The videotape was

approved by each participant to be used for the sole purpose of assisting in the

transcription process and then destroyed) and the second member check was

only audio taped The member checks were transcribed using the verbatim

principle (Spradley, 1979) and added to the interview data base.

Data Analysis Procedures

The ethnographic analysis that Spradley (1979, 1980) suggested in a

developmental research sequence begins with domain analysis, and moves

through taxonomic, componential, and thematic analyses. These strategies for

analysis allowed me to search for order and understanding in a way that was

systematic and rigorous.


All interview transcripts, field notes, journals, and artifacts were analyzed

according to the ethnographic technique described by Spradley (1979, 1980).

Data were triangulated (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) so that as information came to

light, I was able to validate it against (a) another source of information, or (b)

additional data gathering from the same source. I completed a full ethnographic

analysis using the developmental research sequence (Spradley) on all

interviews, and used these same analysis procedures on select relevant data

from observations and documents. Data from observations and documents were

considered relevant if they provided either support, expansion, or contradiction to

the domains and themes that emerged from the primary data source of

interviews (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992).

Using Spradley's (1979, 1980) method, each segment of data is analyzed

and given a preliminary category in the search for cultural symbols and

relationships within the data. Spradley describes a relational theory of meaning

where symbols (i.e., native terms) refer to something in the culture but may

mean something else. That something else is called a referent. The goal

throughout analysis is to discover the relationship between the symbol and the

referent, and then identify the underlying rules of this native coding (Spradley).

A domain analysis is made of all incoming data as the first step. In a

domain analysis, semantic relationships between the native terms and their

meanings are discovered and documented. The process begins with selecting a

single semantic relationship and then documenting cover terms and included

terms that fit that relationship (Spradley, 1979, 1980). Table 3 illustrates how


native terms, described under the heading "included terms" have a semantic

relationship with the potential cover term as possible parts of a domain.

Table 3: Analysis
Included Terms Semantic Relationship
Cover Term

new kid on the block
bottom of the barrel Is a characteristic of Self as
novice teacher

In the domain analysis, I grouped the domains according to their meanings and

relationships to each other.

Once domain analysis is under way, a taxonomic analysis begins. A

taxonomic analysis makes an in-depth analysis of meaning for a few selected

domains (Spradley, 1979, 1980). Taxonomic analysis is based on the primary

semantic relationships of the domains while searching for broader, more

inclusive categories that might include as a subset the domains being analyzed.

The third phase of Spradley's (1979, 1980) ethnographic method is the

componential analysis. A componential analysis reveals contrasts among

categories that can be thought of as possible attributes or differential meanings

of a given term. The sorting and grouping of contrasts forms a paradigm that

clarifies the relationships among the categories.

The culminating phase in Spradley's (1979, 1980) ethnographic analysis

is discovering cultural themes. According to Spradley, a cultural theme is "any

cognitive principle, tacit or explicit, recurrent in a number of domains and serving

as a relationship among subsystems of cultural meaning" (1980, p. 141). This

phase expands the taxonomical analysis by examining the domains for multiple

relationships and connects those categories to a larger unit of thought within a

broader cultural system of meaning. Table 4 illustrates the analysis framework.

Reading from the bottom to the top, it shows the possible connection of domains

to larger, more inclusive categories, arranged by contrasts according to the

componential analysis within a taxonomy connected to a potential cultural theme.

Table 4: Analysis Framework
Potential Cultural Theme:
Identity Construction within the Social/Cultural Context of Schools
Componential Analysis (contrasting columns) within a partial Taxonomic
Collegial Identity Isolated Identity
Sample Potential
Domains as Sunsets:
Interpersonal Activities Interpersonal Activities
-sharing perceptions -covering/hiding competence
of competence
-seeking information -not seeking information
-sharing materials, ideas, -retreating

The components of Spradley's (1979, 1980) ethnographic analysis are

not linear, but more a circular or spiral process. The process begins with

domain analysis of incoming data, but taxonomic, componential, and thematic

relationships are continuously updated in the analysis as new data are added.

The method of ethnography has no standardized procedures that every

ethnographer uses (Shimahara, 1997) but the process described by Spradley


contains the general components used by most ethnographers that ensure rigor.


Validity and reliability, or "trustworthiness" (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), is a

concern for all researchers. According to Erickson (1986), the basic validity

criteria of qualitative methods are the immediate and local meanings of

behaviors as defined by the participant. The crucial pieces of ethnographic

validity are the way the 'story' is told and evidence for its authenticity provided

through the combination of richness of data and the interpretive perspective

(Erickson, 1986).

The three-year length of time in the field, access to and use of multiple

sources of data (i.e., interviews, observations, documents), and the triangulation

of data with member checks all contributed to the validity (Lincoln & Guba, 1985;

Smith & Glass, 1987) of my study. Additionally, the collection and partial

analysis of documents such as teacher journals and other materials, add to the

depth of data and contribute to the validity of the study (Kirk & Miller, 1986; Yin,

1994). Validity is achieved when the researcher understands and reports the

participants' way of "making sense of their experiences in a language that

transcends the culture-specific experience of the world of either the native or the

readers" (Kirk & Miller, p. 38).

The consistent use of data collection procedures (Lincoln & Guba, 1985),

such as the use of the concrete principle in detailed field notes, and the verbatim

principle in recording interview data, contributed to enhanced reliability (Kirk &

Miller, 1986; Spradley, 1979). Reliability also was demonstrated by a full


description of procedures, including any researcher biases (Kirk & Miller). My

biases and subjectivities will be discussed in a future chapter within a section on

limitations to the present study.



The central social-psychological problem facing new special education

teachers is establishing a sense of professional identity that helps them make

sense of their experiences and provides a sense of professional worth and

competence. The purpose of my study was to understand what sense four

special education teachers made of their roles and experiences and what

professional identities they constructed. Like all novice professionals, new

special education teachers must construct a viable professional identity that is

psychologically and socially sustaining. Constructing that identity in an

environment that largely ignores, isolates, and marginalizes them is difficult for

all teachers, but particularly challenging for special education teachers.

In this chapter, I will present the findings of the composite professional

identities that the four teachers constructed over the first three years of teaching.

Because they are so intertwined, I will present the sense that they made of their

experiences and their roles together through their first three years as special

education teachers.

The preservice experience of these teachers is likely to have influenced

the way they approached their teaching careers. Their first three years of


experience will probably influence their future experiences. The focus of my

study, however, was on the initial three years of teaching. The findings indicate

that: (a) these novice special education teachers' constructed dual and

conflicting professional identities; (b) the dual identities they constructed

influenced, and were influenced by, the sense they made of their experiences

and roles within their respective school worlds; and (c) these teachers

experienced a "philosophical awakening" at the end of their third year of


Four newly graduated special education teachers participated in the

study. All four participants graduated with Bachelors' Degrees in Elementary

and Special Education from the same midwestern university in the spring of

1997. Subsequently, all four were hired as special education teachers. They

each accepted teaching positions in different schools in the same state for the

1997-1998 school year. Celeste, Carol, and Tara graduated with special

education certifications in elementary learning disabilities and behavioral

disorders. Teresa graduated with certification in moderate/severe mental

disabilities (K-12). The same respective schools gave all four teachers contracts

for the subsequent 1998-1999, and 1999-2000 school years, so each teacher

spent her first three years in the same school.

General Characteristics of the Novice Special Educators

These four special education teachers experienced a significant

adjustment from the circumscribed and supported university-student world to the

more nebulous world of being teachers in schools. The leap from being emerging


teachers with university support to being first-year teachers in a school was a

considerable change. That change was fraught with uncertainty and concerns

about the demands of being a teacher. Once these novice special education

teachers left the security of their teacher preparation programs and entered the

work force, the daily tasks of teaching overwhelmed them. They did not feel

prepared to do the work they were asked to do. Celeste provided perspective:

I've learned so much in school, yet feel like I haven't learned
anything ... I mean, I've written papers and I've studied. I've
learned how to teach this and how to teach that. But when I have
to think about this individual student, and this individual student,
and this individual student .... [W]e all have this point where this
IEP says [this is where] we need to be .... [H]ow exactly do I get
there? WHAT do I teach? What do I leave out? Do I go from A to
Z in some [text] book, which I know I don't want to do. ....? But [if I
don't] I'm afraid I [will] leave out something important.... It's kind
of scary because ... [these students will] never get this year back!
... I can learn and do better next year, but I need to do the best I
can right now. I am doing the best I can, but it's really important to
me that I [give students] the information they need. (C1: 12-13,

Not only did these teachers struggle with the tasks of teaching, but they

also struggled to understand the school world. They needed to understand the

school world in their first year so that they could situate themselves as teachers

in their respective school contexts.

Understanding the School World

Making sense of the many demanding, foreign elements (e.g., the school,

the students, the teaching experiences, the roles, and the relationships) that

faced these teachers was a daunting task during the first year. Tara described

entering the school world in her first year as the new special education teacher


as "being the only alien on the planet" (MC1:93;2030). Their primary focus was

on their classrooms and students, and what they were doing as special

education teachers. They tried to understand what others in their respective

schools and special education agencies expected from them. They had little

focus on issues outside their immediate classrooms and their students during

that first year. The newness of their environment, the newness of their roles,

and the breadth of their responsibilities overwhelmed these novice teachers in

their first few weeks of work. An early interview with Carol discussed this


I... feel that teachers who have been here for years and
years ... try to see how much I really know and how much I really
don't know. [Many of them] come and check on me. (K1: 3, 46-

These teachers recognized their limitations and also recognized that other

teachers held them in low esteem, as little more than babysitters for the general

education teachers. The four beginning special education teachers in my study

did not know how things worked in their schools. They did not know where

things were. They did not know who made decisions, or even how to get the

information they were lacking. Tara explained:

I feel so unorganized .... I'm still the outsider... right
now ... [and] I feel like I get tested daily. It's like a test for [the
teachers in the school] and a test for me because they want to
know how they've educated me ... I'm trying to prove myself to
them. ... I don't think I have a lot of say on .. who gets what, or
anything like that. I feel like I'm at the bottom of the barrel and [I]
don't think many [resources are] shared evenly. (B1:7,139-
142;14,297-298;4, 75-79)


Their immediate classrooms still consumed these novice special

education teachers in their second and third years. Although they did not lose

that classroom focus, they generally expanded that focus to see themselves as

members of a somewhat larger group. These teachers better understood their

students and other teachers in the school in the second and third years. Despite

that understanding, they grappled more in the second and third years with

making sense of their experiences from within the systemss. Teresa illustrated

how she struggled to make sense of her place in her school:

Because I don't know any differently, and don't particularly
care to, I feel that I'm just a part of a bureaucracy that is serving the
needs of the students. I feel a little bit of that separation between
special ed and general ed. I don't know if that's something that
I have in my own mind because of the stigma. .. but it's just [my]
thought. (KH6:10;208-214)

The ways that these teachers made sense of their places in their school

worlds were based on their understanding of the school world as they struggled

to find a satisfying place for themselves in their new careers. They understood

that as new special educators, they were generally ignored, isolated, and

marginalized. What they found in their second and third years, however, was

that the school world did not understand them.

Getting the School World to Understand Them

These teachers' first-year quest to understand the school world,

particularly general educators, turned to second- and third-year efforts to get

others in the school world to understand special education, and them as special

educators. They still did not see themselves as integral parts in the big picture of


the whole school, or how the whole was greater than the individual parts. But

they no longer focused almost solely on their classrooms. They came to realize

that they could become better teachers by involvement beyond their classrooms.

In an early interview, Tara's mentor described the shift in focus that occurred

after the first year of teaching:

I think teachers evolve. The beliefs I had when I started
centered around what I can do directly with the students all the
time. And as I got a little more experience, I realized that no matter
how much I do with my students in the room, there are things that
are going to influence it from the outside that I have no control over
unless I get to be a part of that. You have to hit a balance of "I
want to do as much as I can for them in here, but I also want to hit
some of those outside things that can also influence them for the
best education they can have." At first I don't think you can see
that. I think you have tunnel vision. .. You think "I can change
them by just being in here and trying my darndest to do everything I
can, and the heck with what's going on outside of it."
But as you get older, you realize that's not the case. You
can't change everything that goes on outside of that classroom
unless you get involved with it and try to make some decisions that
will influence the kids and make it better for everyone. (T1:9;181-

In addition to primarily maintaining a focus on the immediate classroom,

the beginning teachers in my study described themselves as the outsider in the

school world, the new kid on the block, the bottom of the barrel, the fledgling, as

they started work as special educators. They carried this perception of

themselves throughout their first years of teaching as they struggled to create a

satisfying professional identity.

Novice Special Education Teachers' Dual and Conflicting Professional Identities

The identities these four novice special education teachers constructed

were dual and conflicting. Each constructed two co-existing identities; one


collegial and the other isolated. Their dual identities were not fixed. Instead,

they fluctuated between collegial and isolated depending on the school situation.

The identities were never wholly collegial nor wholly isolated, but instead shifted

toward one or the other depending on the circumstances.

Dual Identities

Changing conditions demanded different definitions of self, and the

teachers had difficulty establishing their professional identities. Celeste reflected

the caution with which she approached her new school world:

When you're new, whether you're teaching or whatever job
[you have], there's that period where you get to know [the people
and the situations]. You're just kind of standoffish until you ... feel
people out and feel the situation out (C2:2;26-29). [My identity] is
situational because sometimes I'm not so intimidated ... but then
other times I wouldn't say boo if you gave me a hundred bucks.
(C4:36; 790-792)

In their second and third years of teaching, these novice special education

teachers became more aware of their dual identities. They also became aware

that the way in which others perceived them influenced the way in which they

perceived themselves. Teresa illustrated how perceptions of others in her school

world affected her dual identity:

I am the special ed teacher that other special ed teachers
wonder [about. They wonder] what [my] role is .... I get a two-
pronged feeling. I get the feeling that some of them admire me
because they think "Oh, look at her, she can do! She can adapt!"
And then I get the feeling from others that, "What is she doing?
What is her whole thing?" (KH6:40; 871-876)

The novice special education teachers in the second year of my study

were still riddled with confusion about their identities as special educators in their

schools. They frequently pondered how they would meet the unknown

expectations of others. Celeste provided a representative illustration of how self-

perceptions and the perceptions of others influenced the identity constructions:

I'm not sure what my identity is ... It's confusing. I'm not
always sure who I'm supposed to be. Because ... I realize how
important it is that we try to do everything. I just feel that if you're
going to do it, do it right. I'm not saying that what I always do is
right, and what I always do is not always the easy way. Sometimes
I do things the hardest way humanly possible, but I still just feel like
my commitment to what I'm doing is different from everyone else's.

Not only did these perceptions of self and the perceptions of others influence

identity constructions, they also complicated the identities by making them more

conflicted. These teachers wanted to be collegial, and in some cases they were

successful. The school conditions, however, made it difficult to maintain the

collegial identity; so these teachers found themselves constructing an isolated

identity to match the school expectations. The isolated identity was in direct

conflict with the collegial identity, thereby complicating the professional identity


Conflicting Identities

Although the these teachers constructed dual identities that were at times

confusing, they became aware that they had dual identities. Those identities

shifted, sometimes rapidly. In a group interview at the end of year two, Teresa

theorized about why they maintain dual identities in their respective school


Sometimes you're in one identity mode and you have to turn
just like this [snapping fingers]. Why? What keeps those two


[identities] together? It's administration. That keeps policy. It's
policy that keeps those two things going at the same time.

Whether or not administration bound the two identities together through

administration keeping policy did not bear out in that group discussion or from

these data.

Both the collegial identity and the isolated identity co-existed and caused

conflict for these teachers. They maintained a more collegial identity with some

people in their schools or in situations in which the collegial identity was workable

and satisfying. They maintained a more isolated identity in situations or with

other people in the school where the isolated identity was workable and

satisfying. Maintaining these dual and conflicting identities challenged these

teachers. They all wanted to be collegial, yet the school conditions made that

difficult. Instead, when they failed to maintain collegial identities, they became

more isolated.

By the end of the third year, except for Tara, these teachers became more

isolated. Celeste, Carol, and Teresa found they were more isolated than

collegial by the end of their third year. Carol and Celeste best illustrated this

point. First Carol:

Carol: I feel more isolationist still. (K7:6;130)
I think I'm always grouped with my [special education]
students rather than grouped with [general education
teachers]. Or [I'm] associated with "those" students. Let's
keep her out of the [general education], too.

Interviewer: Who is 'her'?


Carol: Me ... they always say "Those are 'Carol's Kids.'
How many 'Carol's Kids' do you have on your roster?"
Which is not good. I don't find it flattering. (K7:7;153-165)

And from Celeste:

I think now I'm more of an isolationist. I go in, I do my
job with the kids. That's it. (C7:9-12;177-251)

In contrast, Tara explained that she maintained a balance of collegial and

isolated identities: "I still step into each [identity] at different times. It's not like

you're always one. I feel real balanced (B7:31-32;681-686)." Tara shifted

toward a more balanced identity, while Carol, Celeste, and Teresa shifted toward

more isolated identities. By the end of the third year, Carol was very content with

her more isolated identity, stating "It's an escape," (K7:11;277) that she found

workable, plausible, and satisfying.

Celeste and Teresa also became decidedly more isolated in their third

years. Teresa experienced a different teaching role in each of her three years in

the same school, and in a sense, had a purgatory of first year experiences over

three years. Each year for Teresa was frustrating because she wanted to be

more collegial, but found that the isolated identity was more workable: "I'm still

[feeling like] the isolationist. It's just amazing. I am still .. exactly that [way].

I'm wondering if I'm always going to be that way" (KH7:17;446-447).

While Teresa was frustrated with her more isolated identity, Celeste was

more pragmatic in her assessment of why her identity had shifted toward a more

isolated construction, simply saying, "It's what I needed to do to see myself

through this journey" (C7:25;542-543). Each of the novice special educators in


my study constructed professional identities that helped them through their three-

year journey. At the end of that journey, only Tara felt she balanced her collegial

and isolated identities. The other teachers felt the isolated identity was more

prominent, workable, and satisfying in their current school world. Carol, Celeste,

and Teresa all felt the more isolated identity was the best match between

themselves and their respective school worlds. They also felt that they would

not fare better with the less prominent, collegial identity. The match between

professional identity and the school world was influenced by the sense these

teachers made of their experiences and roles within their school contexts.

Making Sense of Experiences and Roles within the School Context

The professional identities these teachers constructed within their respective

school worlds influenced, and were influenced by, the sense they made of their

experiences and roles. Those experiences and roles centered around the

relationships they formed with others in their respective schools. In turn, those

relationships were influenced by the culture of the school world.

A central feature in these teachers' identity constructions was to reconcile

the teacher they saw themselves to be when they left the university with the

teacher they perceived that others saw within their current school world.

Reconciling those perceptions required understanding. While they maintained a

focus on their immediate classroom throughout the study, a primary goal for

these teachers in their first year was to understand the school world. In that way,

they could begin to find a satisfying fit for themselves within the school context.


These novice teachers' perceptions of their professional relationships

changed over the three years. In the first year, they perceived themselves as

more collegial, despite the few opportunities they had to interact with others.

Their attempts to be more collegial were guided by their pursuit to understand

their school worlds.

By the second year, they felt they understood the school world, and they

tried to expand their collegial identity. They then wanted the school world to

understand them. When these teachers failed to get others to understand them,

they generally became more isolated.

One way for these teachers to resolve their identity uncertainties and find

a place for themselves within their respective schools was by making sense of

their experiences and roles through relationships with others in their school

worlds, especially other teachers. These relationships were difficult, however,

because school conditions did not provide opportunities for teachers to talk with

one another about teaching issues. In an early interview, Celeste commented on

the desire and the challenges of developing relationships within her school:

I'd like to be more comfortable with the staff. Being the new
kid on the block, I'm still trying to figure out... how to work with them
and not be an isolate. From what I see, it's really easy in [this]
building to become [isolated].... It's hard to collaborate with
someone when you don't see them. And when you do see
them ... sometimes you're lucky [to have] 2 or 3 minutes. [T]hat's
even stretching it sometimes. The only time we all see each
other is at a staff meeting. Once in awhile, you'll see somebody
come in and get their mail in the morning and it's a "hello" and
"goodbye." You really don't have the chance to sit down and talk
about teaching issues. (C1: 12, 248-252; C2: 35, 743-746; 42,


Celeste had a desire to collaborate with other teachers in her school, but she

was unable to do so to the degree that she wanted. These teachers ordinarily

had very limited contact with other teachers in their schools. Because of this

limited contact, opportunities to work with others did not match the need or


These beginning special education teachers entered their first year of

teaching with cautious, yet persistent, enthusiasm for establishing themselves as

professionals that others would like, and with whom they would like to work on

issues of teaching. They assumed, without an understanding of their schools

and how they worked, that others in the school would be receptive to them and

their enthusiasm. Their initial and immediate audience on which to make a

positive impression was the group of students in their respective classrooms. A

positive relationship with students validated that these teachers were likeable,

competent professionals. Tara illustrated how she worked to build a positive

relationship with her students:

I try to tell [the students] all the time that I enjoy being [their
teacher] and that they're nice kids like when Ben was talking
about the trucking thing. He's a wonderful kid to talk to! I try to
catch a positive that's happened ... It's important to validate that
[relationship]. (B2:14-15; 302-317)

Tara, like the other novice special education teachers in my study, tied their

competence as new teachers, at least in part, to the relationships they had with

the students in their classrooms. Students were the one group within the school

world to whom they had consistent access for interaction. Rapport with students

became an accomplishment of which these teachers were very proud. When


students liked the new special educator, these teachers perceived it as a

validation of their professional worth.

Relationships with students were important for all these novice special

educators because they helped to make sense of their experiences and roles as

teachers and influenced their professional identities. In the first year, however, it

also was very important to the teachers in my study that other teachers saw

them as competent. As they began to feel more competent and perceived

success as teachers, they began to let go of perceptions of being new and less

competent than other teachers in the school.

The beginning teachers in my study, initially were very sensitive to the

idea that someone might think they were not doing a good job meeting their

students' needs. These teachers worried a great deal about how others in the

school perceived them, but they also began to realize that few others cared what

happened in the special education classroom. Tara explained:

The math teacher [asked me] ... how it [was] going. I
guess I was waiting for an opinion of what he had heard ... But. .
I said "I think it's going fine." [Yet] I always think ... maybe
somebody thinks I'm doing ... awful. [The math teacher said] "I
don't know how you do it. I was in [your classroom for] 10 minutes
with your computer and I had to leave and come back to do it after
I don't know if he meant that my tolerance level was so great
I don't know! Sometimes I think I must have a high tolerance, or
I'm not seeing what somebody else does. I don't know! It's been
half a year now, [and maybe] that's put me enough out of the loop
of normalcy that I don't even realize that the [students] really are
being nasty? But I do ... feel like nobody cares what I do in here,
because they don't have to deal with [the students]. (B2:18-19;383-


The need to feel competent was important to these novice special

education teachers. Making sense of experiences and roles that gave

themselves a sense of competence helped them make connections with other

teachers that facilitated greater access to their school worlds. Greater access to

the school world helped these teachers better understand their respective school

worlds, and who they were within that world during their first year. Gaining initial

access into the school world was key for these teachers in their first year, and,

for each of these novice teachers, much of that access came through a mentor



All the novice special education teachers in my study were connected in

some way to at least one mentor in their first year. Some were connected to

their mentors as the school year began, while others found mentors during the

school year. Some teachers changed mentors during the school year. The

novice special education teachers in my study perceived this mentorship as a

confirmation of their professional worth and the school's tangible investment in

their professional growth. These mentoring relationships sometimes became a

friendship in the workplace. Mentors, then, contributed to the new teachers'

personal satisfaction and the construction of a collegial professional identity.

Quality mentors were those who knew what the teacher most needed to

know. Mentors knew the system, the students and the staff. They knew where

materials could be found, and how the administration worked. They were willing

to share experience and information with the novice teachers. The new teachers


respected and learned from the mentor, and the mentor benefitted from the

connection to novice teachers. The mentors and the novice special educators

shared commonalities within the school, such as students, programs, interests,

or personal experiences. In most cases, the mentor teachers I studied initiated

the contact with novice special educators with a casual offer of assistance. As

Carol's mentor asked herself:

When I first came here, what would I have [wanted] ... from
somebody?" I didn't have ... a support person [when I came to
this school] .... I tried to leave it real open: If you have any
questions, please ask me .... I tried to [explain] how things
worked at this school .... Just a few key points in the beginning;
"Be sure you do this, this, and this, with all the teachers." And at
the team meeting [I told her] what to expect.
I tried to leave it... real open; "Please approach me. I
didn't want to come across as this "How-you-do-it ... know-it-all." I
tried to tell her that I would like her help, and I really did ... mean
that. I think I can get some new ideas from her on a few things.
Seeing somebody else in action just as a support ... is really nice.
Just somebody that you can go to and trust that you can confide in
them, and don't have to worry about them going down the hall
saying "You know what she said?" (L1:15;312-327)

In all cases of mentor relationships, the mentor saw something of herself

in the new teacher that strengthened her commitment to mentor the new

teacher. As Carol's mentor explained, "I guess I see us being similar. I think

that helps a lot. It's just nice" (L1:15;328). Typically, the mentors not only wanted

to encourage the new teachers, but they also wanted the new teachers to avoid

some of the pitfalls the mentors had experienced. Tara's mentor illustrated the

intent of mentoring:

Mentor: I think one of the main things I've wanted to do is help
[Tara] keep her priorities in place .... Down the road, that
will keep her teaching so she doesn't burn out... quite so


quickly. I hope I helped ... to be positive about special ed .
.. that it's a good place to be, and that you do make a
difference .... If you can make just one little gain during the
whole year, then it's [all] worth it. You go days and you think
you're not doing anything, and then something will happen
and you realize that you're in the right place for the right
reasons. That's what I've tried to instill in Tara.

Interviewer: As you've been doing that, have you been seeing the
fruits of your labor?

Mentor: Yeah. I think she'll be a lot better teacher than I've
been. I just admire her a lot. I think she's done really, really

Interviewer: Why do you say you think she'll be a better teacher
than you were?

Mentor: To be honest with you, Julie, I see a lot of me in her.
I'm not related to her... but we really do a lot of things
the same. Maybe that's why we're drawn to each other. But
we really do have the same style. .. I just think that
[teaching] comes [easily] to her.... Maybe I struggle a little
more with it.
[Staff and administration are] always a little easier on
those first-year teachers. I found years three and four to be
more difficult than years one and two. I bet she will too.
[Now] she's afraid to say something, she's afraid to do
something, she's afraid to ruffle any feathers. As she hits
year three and four [she won't be] so afraid.

Interviewer: What do you think she's afraid of?

Mentor: It's that you're cautious. ... .Tara tries to [be assertive]
but she .. is very "if it's ok with you. ." But that's ok. I
don't think it's bad. ... Maybe if she keeps that, she'll ease
into things a little easier. But I don't think she'll keep it. .. I
know her nature well enough to know she won't stay that

Interviewer: You know yourself?

Mentor: I know myself (laughing)! I see myself in her, and I
know that's the way I was the first year too. I know a lot of
teachers are that way the first year. They want to succeed,


and they want everybody to like them because that's a sign
of success that you had a good year. ... But she will see, as
she gets down the road a little bit. Maybe I've somewhat
protected her from [some challenges] because I've ... gone
to bat [for her] on some issues that she would have had to
[deal with] if I had not been there to say something. (T4:22-
25; 463-530)

All four of the teachers in my study typically had at least one mentor with

whom they were very comfortable in that first year. The mentors and the new

teachers engaged in at least some collaborative activities that were meaningful

to the novice teacher. Although limited in opportunity, the collaborative

relationships between these new teachers and their mentors thrived in that first

year. This was primarily because the mentors had professional and personal

qualities that the new teachers found helpful and that they appreciated. Mentors

had high expectations for the new teachers. They also were sensitive to the

professional and emotional needs of new special educators. Mentors

acknowledged the efforts and contributions these new teachers made.

The new teachers quickly trusted their respective mentors. The mentor's

knowledge about students, about teaching, and about managing classrooms was

invaluable to these beginning special educators. These new teachers altered

their classroom practices based on the information given to them by their


Mentors served as trusted "life preservers" that kept these beginning

teachers afloat and made them more able to perform as the teachers they

wanted to be. With quality mentors, both the mentor and the novice teacher

benefitted from the relationship, sometimes in personal as well as professional


ways. The teachers in my study did not all find useful mentors. In every case,

new teachers without mentors felt isolated and defined themselves and their

work in individualistic terms. Without quality mentors, they had difficulty verifying

their professional value or seeing themselves as effective teachers. They had

difficulty forming positive relationships with peers in the school. Teresa's former

mentor did not provide the same satisfying mentoring quality that the other

teachers in my study enjoyed. As a result, the relationship between Teresa and

this initial mentor became toxic. She explained:

This is sort of personal. First of all ... for me, it's
learning how not [to] say certain things. I have a problem with the
reason I was hired, which was so I could work with [another
special education teacher who was to mentor me]. [My
mentor's] comment when he found out that I would be teaching
was "Wonderful, it's somebody I know that I can get along with." I
thought to myself, "Yes, it's somebody you ... think you can
control ... As a matter of fact, he introduced me the first day as
his [paraprofessional]. ... I didn't want to believe [he would
discredit me] until a few things [like that]. .. surfaced. (KK1:25,
529-532; 27, 587-592; 27-28, 593-596)

Unsupportive mentoring made it difficult for Teresa to maintain a collegial

identity with her mentor and to gain access to the school world as a valued

teacher. Lack of quality mentoring contributed to the construction of a more

isolated identity when the rest of the school was more difficult to access. When

this happened, the new teacher had to navigate the school world alone.

Although Tara remained both professionally and personally close with her

mentor, none of the other teachers named a specific person who was solely

influential as a mentor for them in their second and third years. All of these

teachers commented that after their first year, they looked to more than just one


person for support and guidance. Even Tara expanded her network of

connections, despite her continued closeness with her mentor. Her expanded

connections facilitated her collegial identity, and gave her a sense of satisfaction.

This allowed her to both gain and share perspectives.

Like Tara and the other novice special education teachers in my study,

Carol also expanded her network of connections in the school. And like Celeste

and Teresa, Carol no longer maintained a close relationship with her mentor, and

found support from more peers in her building. As these teachers expanded

their networks, they discovered that losing dependence on the mentor was a

positive experience in some ways. Carol stated:

The first month it was hard for me to get used to [my mentor]
not being here, but I think it was good thing because I [became]
more independent... The curriculum came in and I had to double
check and make sure we got the right supplies .... [If my mentor
had been here], I'd have gone to her and said, "Well ... what do I
do?" All I had to do was look at the forms and it tells me what to do
instead of asking her, so that's good. (K5:10;201-208)
Without [my mentor] here, I go ... to other teachers that I
know ... I'm talking with them. When it's time to do IEPs, I go to
the special ed director with questions and concerns about kids. I
go to whoever works with them. I don't go to one person. That's
been good for me. It's helping me talk to other people. I was shy
last year. (K5:13-14;279-287)

These expanded networks were teacher-initiated in the building, and not

mandated by any school policy. This teacher-initiated networking suggests that

these relationships formed naturally, and helped these teachers maintain a

collegial identity. That collegial identity also helped these teachers expand their



At times, however, the lack of mentoring facilitated a more isolated identity

construction, despite these teachers' overall expanded networks within their

respective schools. The networks of connections within the school world were

insufficient to meet all the needs of the novice teachers, and the teachers in my

study also found themselves becoming more self-reliant. That self-reliance, in

turn, perpetuated a more isolated construction of professional identity.

The novice teachers had a sense of accomplishment in becoming more

self-reliant. Much of this self-reliance served to strengthen these teachers'

sense of competence and independence, making the more isolated identity

workable and satisfying. They viewed this self-reliance as a step forward in their

growth as teachers, especially when they encountered less than positive

attitudes about the relationships between general and special educators.

Relationships Between General and Special Educators

The novice special education teachers in my study felt they were different

from the other teachers, not just because they were new to the teaching

profession, but also because they were special education teachers. Thus, they

felt twice marginalized within their schools. They were the new teachers who did

not know the ropes, and special education teachers who did not enjoy the

respect of their general education and more experienced colleagues.

These teachers' beliefs and attitudes about school relationships

influenced how they approached their roles and functioned as special educators

within their respective schools. Positive attitudes about working with other staff

members in the school community helped these beginning teachers to construct


a collegial identity. These attitudes were mediated by experiences. In the cases

of Celeste and Carol, their collaborative preservice experiences influenced their

desire to work with other teachers. Both of these teachers expressed the

benefits of working with others when conditions allowed. Celeste talked about

how her preservice experience influenced her attitudes about collaborating as a

new teacher:

Because of the [preservice] experience I had, I really wanted
to [collaborate]. It [also] kept me ... more open-minded to
suggestions from other teachers. I think that if you never
collaborate with anybody, taking advice from someone else is really
hard .... I think a lot of people who haven't had the opportunity to
work with someone else and share ideas ... feel ... "Well, I can
do it. I can do this on my own." I think those people are really
missing out because a lot of people have better ideas. .. [or] they
can add to [your ideas] .... I think because of the [collaborative
preservice] experience, it just really made me more open to the
idea. (C4: 42, 898-916)

Tara and Teresa did not have the same collaborative preservice

experiences as Carol and Celeste. But in the first year, Tara and Teresa also

saw collaboration as a way to expand their ideas. Tara illustrated how she

valued collaborative experiences as helpful to her as a teacher:

Any collaboration has to be helpful. ... I know if I was
[always] in this room, never left, and never talked to anybody but
the kids in this room, I would not have the same opinions that I
have now, being able to talk with others. (B4: 34, 727-731)

Opportunities for collaborative experiences influenced attitudes about

others in the school and strengthened the collegial identities for the novice

special educators in my study. Some of the collaborative experiences were

initiated solely by the teachers involved in the interaction. At other times,


collaborative activities were the results of the structures in the school that

brought teachers together for specific purposes. Most of the arranged activities

and structures for working together in these teachers' schools were in the form of

faculty or team meetings for these teachers.

Relationships between general and special educators in year one.

Interaction opportunities were limited for these special education teachers;

however, they took advantage of whatever low-risk interactions they found

available during their first year. Those collaborative activities that were satisfying

perpetuated a more collegial identity for the teachers in my study. At the same

time, a more collegial identity perpetuated more willingness to engage in

collaborative activities. Taking advantage of collaborative opportunities, and

expressing a desire to engage in collaborative activities reflected the collegial

identities that these teachers struggled to maintain. These teachers struggled to

maintain the collegial identity because they hoped for positive relationships with

general educators.

The overall relationships between general educators and special

educators had a significant influence on the identities these novice special

education teachers constructed. These teachers found that general education

was the dominant force in their public schools, encompassing the majority of

students and staff, and setting the standards by which most special education

students were compared. Special education served general education in that it

took on the primary responsibility for educating the students who were not

independently successful in the general education settings. Often this difference

in status resulted in tensions between general and special education teachers.

These special education teachers felt as though they were subservient to

general education masters. General educators felt that it was not their job to

teach special education students. Carol illustrated the tensions between general

and special educators:

One [of the general education teachers] told me his views of
special ed .... I just sat there and he said "I don't think you're
understanding." I said "Oh, I understand, I just don't agree." He
was trying to play me as he knows more.
He's almost ready to retire. He's on the end of his career
and I'm starting mine. I'm the special educator and he's [the
general educator]. ... He has a [special education] student [on his
roster] ... but I have the IEP because [the student] has very
severe behavior. [The student is in general education classes] the
whole time... [The teacher] is having a problem with [the student]
because [the student] doesn't like people in his face. [The general
education teacher's] way of dealing with behavior is to get in the
student's face.
Friday I saw this [same] kid out [repeatedly] in the hall ...
So this [same general education] teacher comes with this kid to my
door, opens the door (and I have students in here when this is
happening) and yells "Get in there!" His face is bright red and he's
screaming at this kid, "Get in there!" to my room as a punishment.
And the kid says "I'm not a retard! I'm not going into a retard
room!" My [other students] are in here [and] the room goes silent.
[My students] stopped what they were doing and they ... all stared
at the carpet the entire time. [The general education teacher] went
back to his classroom. .. And that student went back [to the rear of
my classroom], cried a little bit and started doing his work. (K2:2-

The strain between general and special education teachers quickly

became apparent; however, the novice special education teachers in my study

continued to serve general education teachers. They honored the general

educators' requests to assist them in meeting special education students' needs.

When harmony did exist between general and special educators and


relationships were good, the special education teachers in my study were more

collegial. They became more willing and able to approach other teachers in their

buildings about having special education students in general education


Most of the successful collaborative experiences that took place between

general and special education teachers happened as a result of positive

attitudes about special education students. The expectations that general

education teachers held for special education students were an important

element in how these special education teachers defined themselves.

Sometimes, because the novice special educators perceived resistance to

special education students from general education teachers, these positive

attitudes came as suspicious, yet pleasant, surprises. Tara explained:

This morning, I was really shocked that the English
teacher came down and [asked] ... two [of my] students to go to
the class meeting. Usually Maria goes, but I was just surprised that
she offered for Ted to go ... because [I thought] she had no
tolerance for kids who do not excel. I don't know if she's really
[changing her attitude]. It was just really strange to me. But I'm
glad to see it. (B2:20;423-33)

Tara, like the other beginning special education teachers in my study who

interacted with general education teachers, was surprised by the general

education teacher's responses because she had previously detected negative

attitudes about special education students from this general education teacher.

When generally positive responses came from general education teachers, the

novice special education teachers became more collegial. Their collegial identity

also helped to perpetuate more positive attitudes about special education. This


was evidenced by these teachers successfully sustaining special education

students in general education classrooms.

All four of the special education teachers in my study experienced some

positive interactions and relationships with general education teachers. Those

experiences strengthened the more collegial identity. However, the systemic

school conditions that provided opportunities for the construction of the more

collegial identity were not commonplace. Instead, there were many more

conditions that offered opportunities to strengthen the isolated identity. General

education teachers' negative attitudes about collaboration with special educators

deflated the confidence and sense of value that these beginning teachers were

trying to develop in themselves and portray to others. Systemic conditions, such

as norms of noninterference that limited teacher interactions resulted in an

unwillingness to participate in collaborative activities.

Not only did these teachers' respective schools maintain norms of

noninterference that inhibited collaborative activities in general, but those norms

made collegial relationships between special and general educators particularly

challenging. Tara illustrated the challenge of working with general educators:

Things [are] not smooth [between general and special
education teachers]. There's not a lot of communication between
teachers .... We don't meet!
I know [collaborating with the general educators] can work if
they work with me, but... these [general education] teachers have
been here a long time and they're set in their ways. They're always
afraid something [will] take more time. It's always time ... .They
see it as a time-taker-upper and not [something] for the good of the
whole. (B1: 2, 42-46; 17, 356-363)


Although this teacher spoke of the good of the whole, the primary focus of

these new teachers in their first year was their classroom. In maintaining that

focus, they at least passively conformed to the norms of noninterference. That

conformity perpetuated identity constructions that were more isolated than

collegial, despite the collegial desires.

The more the novice special education teachers in my study experienced

the negativity in their general education peers, the more they reflected those

negative attitudes and an unwillingness to work with others. The negative

attitudes and unwillingness to collaborate became reciprocal and made the

isolated identity more workable and satisfying, because it buffered them from

others' negativity.

When tensions or animosity existed between general educators and

special educators, these novice special education teachers often shifted to the

more isolated identity. Teresa discussed how tensions between the general and

special education factions caused resentment in her school:

I think there [are] a lot of bad feelings [between general and
special education]. It's almost a political thing. People see that...
some people are being treated special. Maybe they're getting
some special funding, allowed some special privileges .... Let's cut
some of the bullshit in some of this stuff.
It's the pettiness [that bothers me]. Not everybody is this
way, but there are people who are so afraid that somebody is going
to get something ... say more money or a better classroom ... It's
a competition thing. It's that they're not going to get something that
they want. It's like somebody's going to get a bigger piece of the
cake. Then right away they're going to yell "Well, that's unfair, I
want it too!". Even though they don't need it, they want it too!


Teresa's description of the tensions between general and special educators was

representative of each of the teachers in my study, except for Celeste who

worked in an all special education school, and consequently had more limited

interactions with the public schools and general education teachers.

The beginning special education teachers in my study frequently

encountered negative attitudes from general education teachers about special

education students. Despite some positive experiences with general educators,

these special education teachers generally thought it would be impossible to

have special education students successfully participate in a general education

classrooms. They became familiar with the general educators' negative attitudes

about special education students and believed including special students in

classrooms where they would not be welcomed was too lofty a goal.

Negative attitudes about special education students were communicated

in a variety of ways. Carol discussed her understanding of general educators'

perceptions of special education:

Carol: I think we can try all we want, but I don't think
[positive attitudes about special education] are ever going to
be there. Maybe this new way of having the [general
education teachers] in the IEP process will help. The
[general educators] just see special ed as ... the bad kids,
and [they] don't want them in [their] rooms. That's all they
see. I'm the person in charge of those kids ... [so] just stick
them with [me], let's get them out of [general educators']

Interviewer: So do you feel pushed away from the gen ed folks?

Carol: Yes. [But not] more than I pull back. I think it's both..
I don't think [general educators] feel [they] need to be
associated with us .... Maybe that's the problem. There's


no need for them to be associated with us. Maybe because
they don't want to be ... is [why I] pull back from them. ...
I'd say 60% [of it is] them pulling away, because they don't
want those kids in their room. And if we (special education)
see [general education teachers] as accommodating more,
we're going to put [special students] in their room! (K4:81-
82;1775- 1800)

Carol illustrated the reciprocal relationship between identity construction

and teachers' relationships within schools. These teachers perceived that

general education teachers felt that special education students were not worthy

of general education classes. When these special education teachers perceived

those negative attitudes, they found the isolated identity more workable and

satisfying. In turn, expressing the isolated identity furthered the lack of

understanding, illustrating the reciprocal dynamic between relationships in the

school world and identity construction.

Relationships between general and special educators in year two. In the

second year, these teachers felt they had gained a sufficient understanding of

the school world to know that the school world did not understand them. The

second year was characterized by these teachers attempting to make the school

world understand them.

These teachers ventured into this quest with a collegial approach to

advocating understanding of special education and the students they served.

This was not easy for these novice special education teachers. Because they

felt that general education teachers did not understand special education, they

became frustrated. Despite that frustration, however, these special educators

did advocate for understanding of special education more in their second year.


All four of the new teachers in my study felt that, despite the challenges, it was

important for them to help others understand special education.

They expected their advocacy to heighten general education teachers'

understanding of special education, and therefore, better meet the needs of

special education students. These new teachers also hoped that their advocacy

would increase collegial relationships with general educators. Sometimes they

were at least partially successful. Tara illustrated how advocacy led to better

understanding and better relations with general educators:

I have some gen ed people in my group. And they're the
people that take my special ed kids. ... .They still have their
opinions about [general] ed, but they're kind of willing to see [a]
little ... of what you need for special ed. They're the more flexible
... of the gen ed bunch that will ... be friends with you.

Not only did the novice special educators in my study feel that successful

advocacy led to increased and better collegial relationships, but also that it

helped them feel more successful as teachers. Collegial relationships facilitated

a more collegial identity. In turn, the stronger collegial identity facilitated better

collegial relations, as well as more attempts to develop collegial relationships

with more peers.

In their second year, because these teachers already felt they knew their

general education peers, they did not expend as much energy attempting to get

familiar with others in the school. The established familiarity with students and

staff within their respective buildings made it easier for them to be part of the

school. That same familiarity gave these teachers a sense of knowledge.


Knowledge was essential for making sense of their experiences as novice

special education teachers. Sometimes that knowledge was the realization that

these new teachers didn't know, and didn't need to know, everything at once.

That knowledge facilitated a comfort level for them in dealing with other teachers

in the building:

I feel very comfortable this year. More comfortable than last
year. I know where my place is. I'm not trying to know everything
and know everything now. I'm just kind of going with the flow.
I think the biggest difference this year is that I know how to
deal with the teachers that bothered me last year. I feel more on
an even keel with them, rather than they're above me .... I think
it's because I'm more mature. I'm not thinking of what [others]
think of me. I'm thinking of what needs to be done. (K5:3;51-65)

Part of what these teachers felt needed to be done was to integrate

special education students into general education. These novice special

education teachers found placing special education students in general

education classrooms a constant challenge. None of the teachers in my study

worked in schools that practiced full inclusion, and all of these teachers in some

way began to realize the daunting challenge of getting the school world to

understand them as special educators who wanted to work toward inclusion.

Carol illustrated:

There's a big battle going on right now at school with the
special ed. [Another special education teacher] and I were just
[saying] maybe we just want to keep all [the special education
students in special education rooms]. That's not helping the child,
but it would be easier to just keep them in our rooms all day. ...
Some [general education] teachers have the philosophy [that] if
[special education students] are going be in [general education
classrooms, they] don't care if the [special students] just sit and
take up room, as long as they don't say anything or do anything.
They don't expect the [special education students] to work. Other


[general education teachers] are really good about [making
accommodations for students to] try the work. (K6:30-31;655-667)

Even though it remained difficult to do, the novice special education

teachers in my study maintained that at least some of their students should

experience their education within a general education classroom. That

allegiance was difficult to maintain with the challenges that existed in maintaining

collegial relationships with the general education teachers.

The tensions between general and special educators did not dissipate

after the first year for these teachers. When general educators had problems

with special education students, they expected the special educators to handle

the problems. After placating the general educators' requests for them to deal

with special education student challenges in the general education classroom,

the special educators in my study grew more assertive. They began to risk

speaking their minds to make others understand them. In the second year, they

took risks in how others perceived them because they hoped that other teachers

would gain respect for, and work more effectively with, them in the best interests

on the students. Carol stated:

[A particular special education student] had an assignment
notebook ... all folded up. He wasn't supposed to have it folded
up. So the gen ed teacher had asked him not to fold it up.
The [ general education teacher] brought the problem to me
and said "You have him unfold it." I worked ... all day trying to get
[the student] to unfold it, and he would not do it. I didn't care if it
was unfolded or not (laughing). He was using it! That was a big
goal for him, just to use it. .. It was just one of those days I had
everybody in here. I said "I don't have time to deal with you." [So] I
took [the student] down to study hall, and I said "Mr. S., you are the
one who wants him to [unfold the assignment book], would you

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