Interpersonal perception in the classroom : students’ self-perceptions and interpretations of their teacher’s perception...


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Interpersonal perception in the classroom : students’ self-perceptions and interpretations of their teacher’s perceptions about them in two fourth-grade classes
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Zygouris-Coe, Vassiliki
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Copyright 1997


Vassiliki Zygouris-Coe

For my husband, Michael Douglas Coe, who is the wind
beneath my wings.


I am grateful for a first-rate dissertation committee,

my mentors, all dedicated educators and researchers. I

would like to thank the chair and my advisor, Regina Weade-

Lamme, whose intellectual insight, support, confidence in

me, and encouragement helped my research in general and

this dissertation in particular.

I am also grateful to Dr. Robert R. Sherman, whose

high standards and careful and specific feedback helped

make this dissertation a reality. I would also like to

thank Dr. Kristen M. Kemple, whose input and encouragement

helped me continue to explore children's perspectives, and

Dr. Jin-Wen Y. Hsu, whose insight helped shape the

questions and methodology in this study. I am grateful to

Dr. Jane Townsend, for her careful critique of my

dissertation and for her unfading smile.

I would also like to thank Ms. Naylor (pseudonym) and

Mrs. Cleary (pseudonym), who opened their classrooms to me

and welcomed me as a member. I am especially grateful to

the parents of all the fourth-grade students I worked with,

the students who shared their perspectives with me, and to

the school administration.

I am grateful to Dr. Mary Grace Kantowski, chair of

Instruction and Curriculum, for her genuine interest and

support in this study and in my personal growth. I am also

thankful to all the secretaries in our department who were

always willing to assist me.

I would also like to thank Dr. Edward Turner for

taking the time to talk to me, especially when it was

needed. His support and encouragement helped me deal with

the pressures of completing the dissertation process.

There are many friends and family members I would like

to thank for their help, encouragement, and understanding.

My utmost thanks go to my husband, Michael Coe, whose

patience, support, and understanding gave strength to

complete this project. I am blessed to be the mother of

Rebecca, whose smiles and hugs helped me carry on. I am

grateful to my parents, Ioanni and Evanthia Zygouris, for

their love and to my in-laws, Hazel and Wally Coe for their

moral and financial support, and for believing in me. My

thanks go also to my officemate, Susan Wegmann, who put up

with my piles of paper and long hours with a smile and a

kind word; and my sister-in-law, Demie Zygouris, for her

encouragement through the phone.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ......................................... iv

ABSTRACT ................................................ x

LIST OF TABLES ........................................... viii

LIST OF FIGURES ........................................... ix


1 INTRODUCTION .................................. 1

Statement of the Problem ...................... 3
Purpose of the Study and
Research Questions .......................... 7
Significance of the Study ..................... 8
Definition of Terms ........................... 12
Design of the Study ........................... 16

2 REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE .................. 18

Students' Perceptions in the Classroom ........ 19
Students' "Voices" in the Classroom ........... 30
Students' Meta-Perceptions .................... 36
Conclusion .................................... 41

3 METHODOLOGY ................................... 42

Introduction .................................. 46
The Setting ................................... 46
Description of Site ...................... 46
Selection of Site ........................ 46
Entry and Access ......................... 47
Participants ............................. 50
Classroom Organization ................... 52
Research Methods .............................. 61
Overview ................................. 61
Methods and Procedures ................... 65
Participant Observation .................. 67
Interviews ............................... 73
Free Responses ........................... 76

Methodological Limitations ................
Data Analysis ..................................
The Researcher's Role
and Biases ...................................
Issues of Validity and
Reliability ..................................

4 FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION ............................

Introduction .......................................
Students' Self-perceptions .........................
Students' Interpretations
of Teacher's Perceptions .........................
Information Students Used to
Construct Interpretations ........................
Classroom Interactions and
Student Interpretations ..........................
Discussion .........................................

5 CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS .......................

Limitations of the Results .........................
Relationship of Findings
to Previous Research .............................
Implications for Future
Research .........................................
Implications for Educational
Practice .........................................

APPENDICES .........................................

A IRB APPROVAL .............................

REFERENCES .........................................
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................................


















Table paae

3-1 Degrees of Participant Involvement ........... 70

3-2 Strict Inclusion Example ..................... 85

3-3 Domain Analysis Worksheet .................... 85

3-4 Research Questions, Data Collection,
and Analysis ................................. 88

4-1 Content Analysis Comparison: I Think I Am .... 98

4-2 Content Analysis Comparison:
I Think Teacher Thinks I Am .................. 102

4-3 Content Analysis Comparison:
Domain Occurrence ............................ 107

4-4 Content Analysis Comparison:
I Would Like To Know What My Teacher
Thinks Of Me When I .......................... 109

4-5 Sources Of Information Children Used
To Construct Interpretations ................. 113

4-6 Verbal Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 116

4-7 Written Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 119

4-8 Non-verbal Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 122

4-9 Information From Teacher's Practices
Students Used To Construct Interpretations... 125

4-10 Other Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 127

4-11 What Students Wanted The Teacher To Do ...... 129



1 Floor Plan of Classroom A.......................54

2 Floor Plan of Classroom B ..................... 55

3 Ethnographic Questions ........................ 63

4 Commnunity Bulletin Board Message .............. 153

5 School Rules .................................. 155

6 Teacher's Flag Rules .......................... 155

7 Rules To Play By .............................. 156

8 How Students Can Get What They Want
From The Teacher .............................. 156

9 What Does Not Work With The Teacher ........... 157

10 How To Treat Others ........................... 160

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



Vassiliki Zygouris-Coe

December 1997

Chair: Dr. Regina Weade-Lamme
Major Department: Instruction and Curriculum

The purpose of this study was to investigate how

children perceived themselves and interpreted their

teacher's perceptions about them in class. The researcher

assumed a social-interaction perspective that views the

development of self through social interactions. The study

focused on four questions:

1. What is the content of students' self-

2. What is the content of students' interpretations
of their teacher's perceptions about them in

3. What kinds of information did students use to
construct their interpretations?

4. What is the role of classroom interactions in
the construction of students' interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them in

Qualitative research methods were used to collect and

analyze the data. The researcher used a methodological

triangulation to better examine students' perceptions.

Students wrote free responses about themselves and what

their teacher thought of them. Formal and informal

interviews were conducted with 21 out of the 60

participating children. Classroom observations were

conducted over a period of five months.

Taxonomic and content analysis revealed the following:

1. Children perceived themselves differently
from what they thought their teacher thought of

2. Children lacked information in what their
teacher thought about them, especially in areas
in which they did not have feedback.

3. Children used their classroom interactions and
experiences with the teacher as the sources of
information for their interpretations.

The results suggested that in order for teachers to

create and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships in

their classrooms, they need to provide students with

specific feedback about their personal, social, and

academic progress.


When people interact with others, they see what

others do and hear what others say in various social

situations. People select, organize, and interpret

information about themselves and others; they construct and

co-construct perceptions and assign meanings. People

connect new information with previous knowledge, focus on

what and who interests them, and create new understandings

about themselves and others.

Interpersonal perception is largely an internal

process; people cognitively process socially constructed

roles and meanings. Interpersonal perception is a process

of individual meaning-making with its content, steps, and

outcomes varying within different individuals and contexts.

Human behavior is an outcome of how people see themselves

and their experiences. Although this may be seen as

obvious, the failure of people to understand it is

responsible for much human misunderstanding, conflict, and

even loneliness (Combs, Avila, & Purkey, 1978).

How students perceive, organize, and interpret their

classroom experiences with their teachers and the social

world in which they live is an integral part of the

learning process (Brookover, Thomas, & Patterson, 1964;

Andrade, 1995). Studying how experiences involving oneself

and others seem to a student through the "eyes" of that

student, and the intersubjective perspective of the

student's own experience, will help researchers and

educators to better understand the process of interpersonal

perception (Combs, Avila, & Purkey, 1978).

Through daily classroom interactions and school

experiences, as well as interactions with oneself, students

develop a conception of personal existence; next to the

home, schools probably have the single greatest influence

on how students perceive themselves and their abilities

(Purkey & Novak, 1996).

How adults--and children--perceive themselves and how

they think others perceive them may influence the views

they construct about themselves and, as a consequence,

their social interactions with others (Hansford, 1988).

The way people construct reality is fundamental to the way

they perceive themselves. What people think of each other

is a strong influence in virtually every area of their

lives (Mead, 1934). People often act in response to what

they believe is other people's attitude toward them and

often fall into the role they feel others assign to them.

Each person looks at an interpersonal relationship in two

ways: (a) how he/she perceives the relationship and (b) how

he/she thinks the other person sees the relationship.

This study adopted and adapted a symbolic

interactionist perspective. In this perspective, the

student is viewed not only as a knower of the social world

but also as an actor in it (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934).

Accordingly, in this study the student is viewed as not

only the perceiver of social reality but also as a co-

constructor of it. The student is seen as someone who not

only interprets and transforms social experiences but one

who is also transformed by them. Meaning is constructed

and negotiated in the interactions among the members. The

classroom setting is viewed as a culture in which members

construct common knowledge about ways of acting and

interacting with each other, about the social and material

artifacts of their experiences, and about the world around


Statement of the Problem

Research about students' perspectives is a relatively

recent phenomenon and has provided researchers and

educators with valuable information about the importance of

students' perceptions for their development of self,

learning, and overall achievement (Wittrock, 1986).

Students' perceptions have been viewed as mediators of

student learning (Purkey, 1981, 1991; Purkey & Novak, 1996;

Winne & Marx, 1980). Studies have shown that teaching can

be better understood and improved by knowing its effects

upon the learner's thoughts that mediate achievement

(Stipek, 1981).

Although investigations into the opinions and

perceptions of teachers hold a predominant place in

educational research (Cohen & Manion, 1981), how students

perceive their teacher's perceptions about them has tended

to be ignored. Much research evidence exists on what

students think about school (Woods, 1979), learning

(Weinstein, 1983), schoolwork (Woods, 1976b), teachers

(Prentiss, 1995), student teachers (Cortis & Grayson, 1976;

Prentiss, 1995), and others (Livesley & Bromley, 1973). On

the other hand, research evidence is missing on what may be

a vital factor in student learning--academic and social--

and teaching. Research is missing on students' "meta-

perceptions": on what children think their teacher thinks

of them as a student in the social setting of the


How students generate and construct meaning from

their experiences with the teacher in the social setting of

the classroom may mediate the development of students'

self-perceptions, identity, present and future classroom

interactions with the teacher, and students' learning and

success in school. These interpretations, referred to as

"meta-perceptions" (Kenny, 1994) or "reflected appraisals"

(Blumer, 1969) may function as a filter through which any

information about oneself, one's abilities, and learning is

processed. Such a filter may mediate students' personal,

interpersonal, academic, and social development.

If students entered the classroom as tabula rasas,

there would not be a need to invest time and energy

examining how they perceive their experiences with the

teacher in the classroom. However, students enter school

with well-defined perceptions of self, others, and school

life (Stipek & Hoffman, 1980b). In their daily

interactions with their teachers they define and redefine,

shape and reshape, reject old and construct new ideas about

oneself, others, and learning.

Everything the teacher does as well as the manner in
which he does it invites the child to respond in some
way or another and each response tends to set the
child's attitude in some way or another. (Dewey, 1933,

Students use their perceptions and interpretations in

an unrelenting struggle to make sense of their world. These

perceptions influence their interpretations of and reaction

to classroom experiences. As long as students and teachers

have sufficient knowledge of each other's perceptions,

communication and interpersonal relationships take place

smoothly. However, an incongruity in perceived

perspectives may interfere with a student's personal

growth, classroom interactions, participation in classroom

activities, and overall learning. Incongruity between

teachers' and students' meanings is of immense importance

to the educational process (Sainsbury, 1992).

The problem this study addresses is the lack of

information about how students make sense out of their

classroom interactions with their teachers. Academic,

social, and interpersonal learning is not created in

isolation but through relationships, and students'

interpretations of what their teacher thinks of them could

affect their communication and interactions with the

teacher and their overall success in school. As a society,

we want our children to develop personally,

interpersonally, socially, and academically so they can

function as successful citizens. Of the 52 million children

enrolled in U.S. primary and secondary schools, millions

are at risk for failing to reach their educational

potential (Schneider, 1995). Not only does the U. S.

educational system fail to reach large numbers of American

children, but it fails to meet the needs of our nation (A

Nation at Risk, 1983). In order for children to grow and

learn successfully, they need to have enough information on

what their significant others think of them in various


If researchers and educators are to help all students

succeed, both academically and socially, in school, they

need to realize that it is necessary to understand

students' perceptual worlds and perspectives. Many times

the problems adults have with children stem from failing to

check children's perceptions (Karns, 1994). Students'

perspectives should not be disregarded: they supply the

bedrock for meaning, building of self, behavior, and

learning (Purkey, 1996; Taylor, 1993). Dewey (1938)

recommended that researchers and educators need to know

more about how students experience education and how they

reflect on that experience.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to identify how students

perceived themselves and how they perceived their teacher's

perceptions about them. This study used a symbolic

interactionist perspective that views the development of

self through daily emic, or intersubjective, social

interactions with significant others in our world. The

following research questions were examined:

1. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
themselves? What is the content of their self-

2. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
their teacher's perceptions about them? What is
the content of their interpretations?

3. What kind of information do fourth-grade
students use to form interpretations of their
teacher's perceptions about them in class?

4. What is the role of classroom interactions in
the construction of students' interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them in class?

Questions one and two reveal information about the

similarities or differences between students' self-

perceptions and their interpretations of the teacher's

perceptions about them. The third question provides

information about what elements students select from daily

classroom interactions with the teacher, how they organize

that information, and how they use it. The fourth question

offers insight about the ways students' interpretations

relate to their classroom interactions with the teacher.

Significance of the Study

Unlike much research in interpersonal perception that

focuses on children's self-perceptions, the focus of this

study was on how children perceive themselves and form

interpretations about what their teacher thinks of them in

actual, naturalistic classroom settings. The results of

the study may offer useful information about what elements

of their classroom experiences children select to form such

interpretations that in the long run could affect their

self-perceptions, behavior, and learning. A student's

perceptions of what the teacher might think of him/her will

not necessarily cause the student to misbehave in the

classroom, but they might serve as a reference point or an

anchoring perception, for his/her self-perceptions and

behavior (Marsh, 1986).

Classrooms are extremely complex and dynamic contexts

in which students and teachers construct and co-construct

perceptions about themselves and others. Better

understanding of how students perceive and interpret their

experiences with the teacher in the classroom may prove to

be a significant mediating variable that will help

educators understand a child's behavior--academic,

social--in the classroom.

The present study can yield a number of contributions

to both research and practice in the area of interpersonal

perception. Findings from this study could extend the body

of knowledge in children's interpersonal perceptions and

may support the usefulness of symbolic interactionism in

understanding children's interpersonal perceptions.

For researchers this study might have theoretical

significance in that it will illustrate in detail how nine-

to ten-year-old students perceive their experiences with a

significant other--their classroom teacher--in everyday

interactions. It could help develop a system for

explaining the processes by which children construct

interpretations of their teachers' perceptions by

specifying constructs and possible relationships between

and among those constructs.

The study of social processes in classrooms is

important because: (a) teacher-student relationships are

important mediators of the academic outcomes of schooling

(Hansford, 1988) and (b) the school experience itself may

have significant social outcomes that influence students'

self-perceptions and their interactions with others inside

and outside the school setting (Levine & Wang, 1983).

In addition, this study might show whether students

have a generalized or specific view of how the teacher sees

them and whether this view changes over time (Levine &

Wang, 1983). The results from this study could serve to

highlight variables that can stimulate further research by

researchers who are interested in developing ways that

educators can use to have a positive influence on the

personal, academic, and social development of their

students (Good & Brophy, 1994). Methodologically, this

study might illustrate the usefulness of qualitative

methods in the study of children's perceptions.

Understanding children's perceptions and interpretations of

their experiences with teachers might help us understand

children's responses to teachers and the formation of their

views of interpersonal relationships.

Findings from this study may also be of value to

practitioners. The detailed descriptions of the classroom

settings might increase teachers' awareness of the

importance and capability of students' interpretations of

their classroom experiences with their teachers. It could

also increase teachers' awareness of the need to study

students' views in order to better understand how they

select, organize, interpret, and use their social

experiences with their teachers. Attention to the

students' perceptions could lead to better instruction and

interactions, and even help correct and prevent

misunderstandings between students and their teacher in


Finally, it could help teachers to not underestimate

the immense potential of students to actively participate

in the construction of their own learning experiences.

This study may illustrate the importance of understanding

how experiences are seen from the student's perspective.

The results of this study might help teachers better

understand how their interactions with their students are

being received, interpreted and acted upon (Egan, 1990;

Gordon, 1974). Patterson and Purkey (1993) suggest that

such understanding should be a major goal of teacher

training programs.

In summary, this study could help improve our

understanding of the significance of interpersonal

relationships between students and teachers in elementary

classrooms. Some teachers claim that a major source of

difficulty in their work is relating to their students, and

that once this has been achieved, the academic issues are

relatively simple (Hall & Hall, 1988). Good interpersonal

relationships are "the major condition for learning"

(Patterson, 1973, p.98).

Definition of Terms

For the purpose of this study, the following terms

need to be defined: perception, interpersonal perception,

self-perception, "meta-perceptions" (or "reflected

appraisals"), and symbolic interactionism.

Perception is a fundamental aspect of interpersonal

relationships (Wilson et al., 1995). Perception gives

meaning and stability in our relationships because it is a

process through which we select, organize, and interpret

what is happening around us (Wilson et al., 1995).

Perception is an active, inductive process involving

attention, selection, organization, and interpretation

(Triandis, 1977). Perception refers not only to the

"seeing" but also to the "meaning" or personal significance

of classroom experiences for the student experiencing them.

A study of these meanings may reveal students, beliefs,

values, desires, and personal ways in which they perceive

themselves and what their teacher thinks of them in the

classroom (Combs, 1978).

Interpersonal perception is the process of perceiving

and evaluating others in a context in which people are

interacting (Kenny, 1994). It involves not only how people

perceive themselves and others in social interactions, but

also how people think others perceive them.

Self- Derceptions are thoughts, beliefs, and feelings

about self, others, and events. In the past, research in

this area was based predominantly on behavioral theories,

environmental stimuli, and reinforcement theory as

influences of behavior (Schunk & Meece, 1992). Current

cognitive theories of learning assume that students are

active rather than passive processors of information and

knowledge and that there is no automatic relation between

information presented and how it is perceived by students

(Schunk & Meece, 1992). Self-perceptions involve

perceptions of one's abilities, goals, efforts, interests,

attitudes, values, and emotions (Schunk & Meece, 1992).

Self-perceptions are a complex, continuously active system

of subjective beliefs about one's personal existence.

Self-perceptions guide one's behavior and choice of roles

in life (Purkey & Novak, 1996).

"Meta-perceptions" (Kenny, 1994)--or "reflected

appraisals,"--according to symbolic interactionists (e.g.,

Blumer, 1969)--are the perceptions of another person's

perception; they refer to people trying to "get into other

people's heads" (Kenny, 1994). In this study, students'

"meta-perceptions" will be examined through symbolic

interactionism (Blumer, 1969; Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934),

which proposes that our very selves are an outcome of

material components, our perceptions of how others view us,

and inner psychological mechanisms (Shrauger & Schoeneman,

1979). According to this perspective, the self is a social

product of a person's interactions with others. The self

is a function of a person's manipulation of the social

environment and a function of the way in which a person is

treated by others (Mead, 1934).

The premise of this perspective is that people care

about how they are viewed by significant others.

"Significant others" are people such as, parents, teachers,

coaches, and peers who are close to a person and whose

views and actions matter to him/her (Mead, 1934). Although

there are expected variations in the vigor of people's

desire to know what others think about them, symbolic

interactionists assume that meta-perceptions are usually


accurate (Kinch, 1963). Kinch (1963) suggested that a

symbolic interactionist self-theory involves the

interaction of four components: (a) one's self-concept; (b)

one's perceptions of others' attitudes and responses toward

the individual; (c) the actual attitudes and responses of

others toward the individual; and (d) one's actual


This study is not concerned with degree of accuracy in

children's "meta-perceptions"/Oreflected appraisals," but

rather with how children form "meta-perceptions" from and

in their daily classroom interactions with one of their

significant others--their teacher.

Symbolic interactionism supporters (e.g., Mead,

1934) would suggest that people's perceptions of

experiences depend on the meaning they assign to them.

Meaning is a product of social interaction. In order to

understand someone's reality, it is necessary to understand

the symbol system he/she uses and the meaning those symbols

have for the him or her. Reality in the classroom could be

seen as having three aspects: (a) the outside world (e.g.,

society); (b) the inner world (e.g., teachers' and

students' inner world); and (c) a shared symbolic world of

beliefs, experiences, and meanings constructed and

sustained through social interactions.

In order to understand the symbolic world of the

classroom, we should consider that teachers' and students'

actions are based on the meaning they assign to classroom

life. Meaning is fundamentally intersubjective; therefore,

in order for researchers to understand how students

perceive themselves and the teachers' perceptions of them

in class, their construction of meaning and their

perspectives need to be examined.

Design of the Study

Having received approval from the University of

Florida Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects, the

researcher established a monthly observation schedule with

the two fourth-grade teachers who had previously agreed to

have the study take place in their classrooms.

Observations began in September, 1996 and continued in the

classroom until the December vacation. Interviews were

completed in January, 1997. The researcher observed 190

hours of classroom activity in the two fourth-grade

classrooms. Observations were centered on how children

interacted with the teacher in their classroom, how they

behaved in and responded to classroom events, and comments

they made about themselves, the teacher, and classroom

events. All children in the participating classrooms wrote

free responses four times per month about their self-

perceptions and how they thought their teacher perceived

them in class.

Three formal interviews with 21 children (13 from one

classroom and eight from the other) and three formal and

several informal interviews with the two teachers were

conducted during the term of the study. Interviews with

students were used to further investigate the process of

meta-perception: how students perceived their teacher's

perceptions about them in class. Interviews with the two

teachers were used to investigate how they provided

information to their students about what they thought of

them in class. In addition, students' school records were


Data were analyzed for content and were organized into

domains (Spradley, 1980). Using data from across domains

helped to formulate taxonomies to represent patterns,

similarities, and differences in students' self-perceptions

and meta-perceptions.


Putting together a literature review about students'

self-perceptions and "meta-perceptions" is a continuing

challenge, for few researchers have focused on this

phenomenon, particularly as it evolves in classroom

settings. The following literature review offers necessary

background for the research questions raised in this study.

The review focuses on studies of students' perceptions in

the classroom, students' voices in the classroom, and

students' meta-perceptions.

Why do people behave in different ways? Combs (1962)

explains human behavior as a product of how people see

themselves, the situations they are involved in, and the

meaning or personal significance that situation has for the

person experiencing it. Meanings extend far beyond the

sensory experience and include such perceptions as beliefs,

desires, feelings, values, interests, and the personal ways

in which people "see" themselves and others around them

(Combs, 1962). Following this perceptual perspective,

Purkey (1981) explains that:

Each person is a conscious agent who considers,
constructs, interprets, and then acts. .. All
behavior is a function of the individual's perceived
world. .. A person's behavior makes sense from the
"internal' view of the experiencing person. (p.17)

To understand human behavior one must make sense of

how things appear from the unique point of the individual

at the moment of behaving (Purkey, 1996). Perceptions are

important in understanding human behavior as they refer to

the distinctions people are able to make in their personal

experiences (Purkey, 1996). Perceptions change over time.

Through daily encounters with others, and especially with

significant others, people construct certain essential

perceptions that serve as guiding filters for making sense

of the world. Purkey (1996) views perceptions as:

reference points for behavior. They influence the
memories people use to understand the past and plan
the future. They also affect the possibilities that
people can imagine and the goals they are willing to
work for. (p.23)

Students' Perceptions in the Classroom

Researchers recently have investigated student

perceptions to determine their relation to teaching and

student behaviors (Brophy & Good, 1986), but historically

student perceptions have received little research

attention. Lately, researchers and educators have been

making systematic efforts to understand students' role in

research. The problems associated with inviting students

to play a more focal role are authenticity, legitimacy, and

and authority (Denzin & Lincoln, 1993) and the ethical

relationships between researchers and their participants

(Lincoln, 1993).

The third edition of the Handbook of Research in

Teaching (Wittrock, 1986) contains a chapter on students'

thought processes, a new addition to this volume of

educational research. Research shows that student

perceptions can mediate the relationship of teacher

behaviors to student achievement. This chapter includes

many studies on students' thought processes that emphasize

the need for understanding how students learn how to learn

and how they can be taught to improve their thought

processes to facilitate knowledge acquisition, learning,

and memory.

The relevance of these studies to this topic lies in

Wittrock's (1986) proposition that "the learner's

perception of the teaching is the functional instruction

that influences student learning and achievement" (p.298).

For the purposes of this literature review, the following

studies were be examined: studies on children's academic

self-perceptions and expectations; self-perceptions of

ability and achievement; perceptions of schools, teachers,

and student teachers; perceptions of school tasks;

perceptions of teachers' communication style; and,

children's perceptions of cognitive processes in the


Numerous researchers (Darakjan, Michael, & Knapp-Lee,

1985; Hansford & Hattie, 1982; Harter, 1983; Hattie, 1992)

have demonstrated a modest but positive relationship

between children's self-perceptions and academic

achievement. Researchers consistently demonstrate that

there is a relationship between students' self-evaluations

and their level of academic achievement (Byrne, 1984, 1986;

Chapman, 1988; Harper & Purkey, 1993; Hoge & Renzulli,


From the early elementary school years, children

perceive their academic performance positively (Stipek,

1981). In the third or fourth-grade, the children's

perceived school performance begins to correlate positively

with their teacher's evaluations of their ability

(Nicholls, 1979). The feedback teachers offer to students

about their academic performance seems to be related to

students' self-perceptions of ability. Wittrock (1986)

suggests that children are not only capable of perceiving

feedback from the teacher about their academic performance,

but their perceptions of teacher feedback seem to influence

their expectations about their future school performances.

Livesley and Bromley (1973) focused on describing, by

means of free descriptions and content analysis, elementary

and adolescent children's perceptions of others. Three

hundred and twenty children (ages 7 to 15) were asked to

write free descriptions about eight people known to them--a

man; a woman; a boy and a girl they liked; and a man, a

woman, a boy and a girl they disliked. The changes in

content were greatest between the ages of 7 and 8 years.

Children under the age of 7 or 8 years described people in

terms of external, readily observable attributes (e.g.,

appearance, life history, and physical condition).

Between the ages of 8 and 12 years there was a rapid

growth in psychological vocabulary (e.g., mutual

interactions, social roles, evaluations, and specific

behavioral inconsistencies). Children's descriptions of

liked persons were less factual than those of disliked

people; more explanatory statements were made about

disliked people possibly because the children were trying

to justify their feelings (Livesley & Bromley, 1973).

This landmark study of children's perceptions of

others provided evidence of the developmental changes in

the way younger and older children perceive and "explain"

behavior. Even young children can explain simple forms of

behavior; it is not until the age of 9 or 10 years that

children are able to use motivational concepts to explain

their perceptions of others' behavior (Livesley & Bromley,


Another group of researchers (Brattesani, Weinstein, &

Marshall, 1984; Marshall & Weinstein, 1986; Weinstein,

Marshall, Brattesani & Middlestad, 1982; Weinstein,

Marshall, Sharp, & Botkin, 1987; Weinstein & Middlestadt,

1979) have been interested in how students perceive and

interpret teachers' behaviors toward different students in

the classroom. In Weinstein and her colleaques' empirical

work, children report that compared to high achievers, low

achievers receive more negative feedback and teacher

directness, and more messages related to a work and

classroom rule orientation.

Children perceived high achievers as receiving more

attention by the teacher, more opportunities and choice of

activities in the classroom, and higher expectations from

the teachers. One of the most impressive findings of these

studies is that even children in the early elementary

grades believe that teachers treat high and low achievers

differently (Weinstein et al., 1987). Weinstein &

Middlestadt (1979) found that there are differences among

younger (Grade 1-3) and older (Grade 4-6) students,

perceptions of teachers' differential treatment. Younger

students thought that teachers criticized high achievers

more, and older students thought teachers criticized low

achievers more.

The early development and socialization of children's

achievement perceptions have been studied by a number of

researchers (Eccles, Wigfield, Harold, & Blumenfeld, 1991;

Harold et al., 1989; Wigfield et al., 1990). Results from

a three-year cross-sectional study (Grades K, 1, and 3)

show that the relations between students' beliefs and

teachers' beliefs are stronger in the mathematics, reading,

and sports domains (especially at Grade 2 and Grade 4) than

in the social and music domains (Wingfield & Harold, 1992).

In Grade 4 children's beliefs in mathematics and

reading came closer to the teachers' beliefs in those areas

than in the other two grades. This finding verifies

Nicholls' (1979) findings that children's perceptions of

their reading attainment become increasingly highly

correlated with their school grades as they get older.

Wingfield & Harold (1992) suggest the above finding could

be attributed to the fact that teachers at Grade 3 or Grade

4 provide relatively consistent and realistic messages to

children about their performances and children may

incorporate them into their self-perceptions. Another

reason could be that teachers' beliefs have a stronger

impact at this grade level because of children's' shifting

beliefs about ability.

Nicholls (1979, 1984) suggested that children around

the age of ten start to view ability as being more stable

rather than modifiable. The combination of changes in the

nature of children's perceptions of ability, the stronger

relations between children's ability perceptions and actual

performance, and the increased focus on competitive

performance in school may make it likely for children to

internalize the teachers' perceptions and expectations of

them in the middle to upper elementary school years

(Wingfield & Harold, 1992).

Although there is evidence that suggests that

students' self-perceptions are influenced by teachers'

perceptions of them, the studies reported here are

correlational in nature, so causality cannot be implied.

What is needed is research on how students' interpret their

teachers' perceptions about them in daily classroom

interactions. Such research may reveal more information

about how students apply their understanding to a

situation or experience, which in turn may explain the way

they think their teacher thinks of them.

Sainsbury (1992) states that the individual's

perspective constitutes the fundamental prerequisites for

communication. She asserts that it is the responsibility

of the teacher to provide a learning environment in which

misunderstandings are minimized. According to Sainsbury

(1992), if the goal of education is "understanding on the

part of the students, it must be education by means of

meeting of perspectives." (p.114)

Darley and Fazio (1980) discussed how individuals

actively construct and interpret each other's behavior

based on their ongoing social interactions and on

information they might have about each other. They suggest

that individuals make personal or situational inferences to

interpret each other's behavior. If, for example, a

student accepts the teacher's beliefs about him/her, that

student might adjust his/her behavior to reflect the

teacher's beliefs. An interesting question here is "At

what point do children begin to make reasons for theirs and

their teachers' behavior?"

Wingfield and Harold's work (1992) and Weinstein's and

her colleaques' work (Weinstein 1985, 1989) suggest that

"relations between teacher beliefs and student self-

perceptions exist quite early on in elementary school, but

to date we know less about how students actually interpret

the messages they receive from teachers" (Wingfield &

Harold, 1992, p.114). A clearer understanding of the

participants in classroom research can eventually help

those participants to understand each other more fully

(Morine-Dershimer, 1985).

How students perceive their assigned school tasks

influences their motivation to learn and their perceptions

of themselves as learners (Ames, 1992). Marshall (1994),

in her study on children's understanding of academic tasks,

argues that a methodology that unfolds children's

understanding of classroom events (e.g., observations,

interviews) may provide researchers with a new perspective

of how students learn. Such a perspective might help

teachers reflect on their classroom practices (Marshall,

1992). Marshall (1994) calls for more studies of how

children understand their classroom world, more in-depth

studies with a greater number of students, in order to

document in detail potential changes in children's

understanding over time and contexts.

During the past two decades, researchers have paid

increasing attention to students' perceptions of schooling

as a means of evaluating educational efforts and programs

(Klein, Kantor, & Fernie, 1988; Levine & Wang, 1983;

Weinstein, 1983; Wittrock, 1986). Duke (1977) postulated

that students' perceptions of what happens to and around

them in school provide helpful information to researchers

and practitioners.

Lisa Wing (1995) used qualitative methods of

participant observation and in-depth interviews to explore

kindergarten, first and second-grade students' perceptions

of classroom activities such as work and play. Data

indicated that young children negotiate meaning from the

events, situations, and interactions in their classrooms,

and in doing so they form a framework around which they

understand what they do in school.

Wing (1995) observed children in their actual

classrooms for a year and conducted in-depth interviews

with 14 children from each classroom. Constant comparative

method and taxonomic analysis revealed information about

relationships among patterns in children's perceptions of

work and play. This study showed that children considered

activities to be work or play if the activities were

obligatory or not. Work involved any activities that were

designed or directed by teachers. Work also involved any

activities about which teachers had certain expectations of

the outcomes of the children's efforts. Any activity that

required no specific product as an outcome or that the

teacher was not directly involved in was considered to be

play. Any activity that could be abandoned at will was

characterized as play, but the need to finish an activity

was perceived as work.

Older children characterized activities "in between"

working and playing (Wing, 1995). Children's perceptions

were not entirely consistent with those of the researchers

and teachers. Play was not work. Children were able to

pick up subtle messages from the classroom teacher and

context in constructing their views of work and play.

"Work is what you want, play is what I want." (Wing, 1995,


Bruno (1995) examined at-risk high school students'

perceptions of school. He found that the students who

participated in his study did not perceive themselves as

being connected to school or society, and that they

perceived their time in school as "doing time" in the

classroom. The findings in his study indicated that at-

risk students preferred nondirected, time-consuming

activities (i.e., hanging out, video games, watching TV,

etc.). An interesting finding in this study is that the

at-risk students showed a lack of recognition and

connectedness between past, present, and future events in

their lives. Students' perceptions of school (i.e., "doing

time") affected not only their attitudes toward school, but

carried implications for their success in school, learning,

and future.

Levy, Wubbels, and Brekelmans (1992) examined the

relationship between characteristics of students and

teachers and their perceptions of teacher communication

style. There was a wide discrepancy between students' and

teachers' perceptions of teacher communication style. In

addition, there was a wide discrepancy between both

students' and teachers' view of reality and teachers'

ideals. Although this study is not directly related to

students' self-perceptions and meta-perceptions, its

findings carry implications about discrepancies between

teacher and student perceptions. These findings stress the

need for studying students' perspectives and including them

as part of teachers' reflective practice.

The studies reviewed in this section have contributed

to our knowledge of the role of students' perceptions in

the classroom. Despite these valuable contributions, and

their view of students' perceptions mediating students'

achievement, there remain questions about the ways in which

students define and assign meaning to their classroom

experiences and their definitions of self and others.

Students' "Voices" in the Classroom

Studies about students' construction of meaning in the

classroom are reviewed in the following section. Evidence

will be presented about students' understanding of gender,

schooling, reading and writing, language and literacy, and


Sociolinguists (Cook-Gumperz 1986; Green & Allexsaht-

Snider, 1990; Green & Bloome, 1983; Green, Kantor, &

Rogers, 1991; Green & Wallat, 1981a; Green & Weade, 1987,

1990; Weade & Green, 1986) have described the complexities

of language and culture in the classroom and have shown

that little is known about how the child as listener

interprets the language of the classroom culture, how

personhood and identity are constructed within and across

particular cultural groups.

Kantor, Davies, Fernie, & Murray (1994) investigated,

both in America and Australia, how children understand what

it means to be gendered, as they also try to fit in the

cultural role of student and peer in preschool classrooms.

Using multiple ethnographic methods (i.e., field notes,

video recordings, and interviews) they found that children

were capable of negotiating their memberships as students,

peers, and gendered persons within their classroom


Children became gendered students and peers through

interpreting the "fine print" of daily discourse and

interaction and by the positions made available and taken

up by both adults and children. They were collaborative

and constructive in creating their social worlds (Kantor,

et al., 1994).

The ethnographic approach--adopted and adapted by all

of the above researchers--to the study of students'

perspectives reveal that knowledge in schools is personally

and socially constructed and that learning is fundamentally

a matter of inquiry and interpretation rather than

memorization of facts (Yeager, Floriani, & Green, 1995).

The above studies share a common interest in

understanding students' emic, or insider, views of

schooling and understandings of their worlds (Andrade &

Moll, 1993) and recognize that children's interpretations

of their experiences are valid in and of themselves

(Andrade, 1995). Andrade (1995), in her study of life in

elementary schools, recommends the use of participant

observation and dialogue journals for researchers who wish

to learn from people (Spradley, 1980). She advocates that

children are active agents in the creation of their social

world and states that

we cannot understand adult-child relationships within
the home, school, and community without understanding
the children's community (Andrade, 1995, p.176).

Dahl (1995) observed, listened to, and analyzed inner-

city children's reading and writing in kindergarten and

first grade classrooms in her efforts to understand young

children's early reading and writing experiences in school.

The results of her studies (Dahl, 1993; Dahl & Freppon,

1994; Dahl, Purcell-Gates, & McIntyre, 1989; Purcell-Gates

& Dahl, 1991) show that children connect what they

experience in school with who they think they are: i.e.,

their efforts, knowledge, and things they are interested

in. Her work suggests that researchers and educators

become attentive to what children value as learners and

carefully consider their perspectives "if we are to

genuinely support their learning." (Dahl, 1995).

The Santa Barbara Discourse Group (1992) studied how

students and teachers construct their social worlds in the

classroom. They argue that there is a need for unique

research methodologies that are developed specifically to

address the nature of students' learning processes in the

classroom process. Although their work has focused in the

use of language, literacy, social construction of student

and teacher roles and identity, their efforts to explore

students' "voices" have stimulated research in students'

perspectives of classroom life. The definitions of self

and others that students and teachers construct are

reflected in the process and content of their interactions,

the access to classroom resources, and the goals of the

participants within the interactions (Green, Kantor, &

Rogers, 1990; Collins & Green, 1990).

Denny Taylor (1993) advocates that in order to

construct effective evaluation programs for students and

schools, more research needs to be done to understand

students' perspectives:

To evaluate, we need to build descriptions of children
as they participate in the social construction of
their own environments. The ways in which we develop
our explanations should be analytic and well trained
(Taylor, 1993, p.171).

Taylor (1993) examined a number of elementary school

age children's points of view through participant

observations, children's written stories and analysis of

literature, children's journals, and interviews. She

viewed a child's point of view as a source of knowledge for

key educational decision-making. Her rich observations and

ethnographic portraits of the learners' world provide

support for her argument that designing appropriate

curriculum, instruction, and assessment requires that we

understand the complex ways children construct their own

literacy and learning environments in their everyday

classroom lives.

Taylor (1993) stresses the need to view students as

informants and to intimately know the environments in which

their knowledge is constructed. She calls for inviting

students' perspectives to shape our evaluations of their

performance and education in general and highlights the

point that when examining students' perceptions,

researchers should be concerned not only with how closely

students come to their teacher's actual perceptions of

them, but should be more concerned with how they construct

their perceptions and how they formulate meaningful

classroom experiences.

Lytle and Cochran-Smith (1992) state that it is the

teachers' expertise that creates significant ways of

knowing the particular complexities of their students'

everyday classroom experiences, the ways students

participate in problem solving situations, and how their

students' learning can be supported in school. Through

their social interactions, teachers and students construct

classroom life and opportunities for academic and

interpersonal learning (Bloome & Greene, 1984; Cochran-

Smith, 1984).

Students and teachers negotiate what counts as

knowledge--subject, interpersonal, social--in the classroom

and how knowledge is generated, challenged, and evaluated

(Cochran-Smith, 1993). If researchers and educators are to

better understand how students' ideas about self, others,

and learning are constructed in school, they need to be

examining students' learning and their social world from

within and across the student's individual and shared

perspectives (Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1992; Taylor, 1991,


An interesting question arises as a result of the

above perspective and findings: "How is a researcher

supposed to intimately know the perspective and world of a

learner unless that researcher observes, participates in,

and asks the learner to express--verbally or in written

form--his/her view of the everyday classroom world?"

Taylor (1991) states that "If we really want to know about

the children in our classrooms, ethnographic observations

in classrooms can tell us more than any test." (p.18)

Sociolinguistic research has helped make visible the

ways that communities of learners socially construct

understandings. The above research has shown that learning

from students' voices is not just a matter of handing a

student a survey and asking him/her to fill it in.

Learning from our student voices--in the fullest
sense-- requires major shifts on the part of teachers,
students, and researchers in the ways of thinking and
feeling about the issues of knowledge, language, and
power (Oldfather, 1995, p.87).

The studies reviewed in this section have contributed

to our knowledge of children's construction of meaning and

knowledge and have directed and stimulated much needed

naturalistic research on students' perspectives. Despite

their valuable contributions, there remain some gaps in our

understanding of how students assign meaning and interpret

their daily classroom experiences with their teachers.

Students' Meta-Perceptions

A final group of recent --and some not so recent--

studies are reviewed in this section to address the issue

of students' interpretations of their teachers' perceptions

of them. Evidence is presented about studies of students'

perceptions of teachers' feelings about them, students'

perceptions of teachers' evaluations and teachers' actual

evaluations, and students' self-concept of ability and

perceived evaluations of others.

What do others think of us? How do we know? When

people form an opinion about what others think of them, are

they likely to be right? How do their interpretations of

others' perceptions relate to their own self-perceptions?

The question of whether people know how others view them

has been of importance in clinical psychology, personality

psychology, social psychology, and sociology (Kenny, 1994).

In sociology, the symbolic interactionist approach

(Cooley 1902; Mead, 1934) proposes that our very selves are

an outcome of our perceptions of how others view us.

Cooley (1902) introduced the term "looking-glass self" to

describe the process by which a person looks into the eyes

and minds of significant others and imagines how they view


Symbolic interactionists assume that "meta-

perceptions"-- or "reflected appraisals"--are usually

accurate (Kenny, 1994). Evidence from clinical psychology

shows that depressed individuals are "right on target" with

their insistence that others do not like them (Lewinsohn et

al., 1980). Pozo, Carver, Wellens, & Scheier, (1991) have

shown that socially anxious people think that others take

an especially dim view of them.

When examining meta-perceptions, it is important to

consider that what others think of us is not always

available or clear. In sharing our views of others with

others, sometimes people are reluctant to convey bad news

(Swann, Stein-Seroussi & McNulty, 1992) or good news

(Felson, 1980). Moreover, some people may wish to see in

others what makes them feel good about themselves (Swann,


Given the difficulty of monitoring and accurately

assessing others' views of people in social interactions,

people may use other sources of information to form "meta-

perceptions". Felson (1981, 1992) has suggested that

people may observe their own behavior, form their own

judgments about their own behavior, and assume that others

would judge that behavior as they do.

Kenny and DePaulo's study (1990) showed that there was

a strong positive correlation between how subjects viewed

themselves and how they thought others saw them. This

implies that people's perceptions of how others perceive

them are based primarily on their self-perceptions. This

is opposite of what the symbolic interactionists suggest.

They postulate that self-perceptions are products of the

beliefs about how the self is viewed by significant others;

self-perceptions are the reflection of what one "sees" in

other people's eyes.

The above studies suggest that people form

interpretations about others' views about them by depending

very little on feedback from others. Instead, they

directly observe their behavior and infer from it what

others might be thinking of them. According to Kenny

(1995), "symbolic interactionists have the direction of

causality exactly wrong, at least for adults." (p.176)

What are the implications of the above studies for

children and their meta-perception process? How about the

role of significant others and their views of children on

children's development of self? To take it a step farther,

how are self-perceptions developed? Are they developed in

isolation? Should researchers be more concerned with

accuracy rather than identifying the ways in which children

view others' perceptions of them and the implications of

their meta-perceptions for their personal, interpersonal,

academic, and social development?

The results of the preceding studies are not

generalizable to elementary school settings, for the

subjects in the reported studies were college

undergraduates. Work with other populations in a variety

of contexts may help researchers to learn if people know

what kinds of perceptions others form of them. Children

rely on parents, teachers, and others for feedback and

direction. How children interpret their significant

others' perceptions of them may help us improve student

learning and help students create positive identities.

Davidson and Lang (1960) examined the relationship

between fourth-grade through sixth-grade students'

perceptions of their teachers' feelings toward them and

students' self-perception, academic achievement, and

classroom behavior. A significant positive relationship

(r=.82) between children's perceptions of their teachers'

feelings towards them and their self-perceptions was

reported. Phillips (1963) reported a close correspondence

between third-through sixth-grade students' perceptions of

their teachers' evaluations about them and the students'

self-evaluations (there was no correspondence for third

grade students and r=.57 for sixth grade students).

Brookover, Thomas, and Patterson (1964) showed that

students' self-concept of ability was significantly and

positively related with students' perceived evaluations of

their teachers perceptions about them.

On the other hand, another set of studies (Miyamoto &

Dornbush, 1956; Orpen & Bush, 1974; Quarantelli & Cooper,

1966; Sherwood, 1965; Walhood & Klopfer, 1971) suggest that

there is a minimum association between one's self-

perceptions and perceptions of others' evaluations because

people do not perceive others' perceptions accurately.

Calsyn and Kenny (1973) examined the relationship between

self-concept of ability and perceived evaluations of

others. They reported that there is no evidence that

perceived evaluations of others are causally predominant

over self-concept of ability. Instead, the actual

evaluations made by teachers are causally predominant over

perceived evaluations of others, self-concept of ability,

educational plans, and aspirations.


Although the studies reviewed in this chapter provide

evidence about the role of students' interpretations of

their teachers' perceptions about them for students' self-

perceptions, there are a number of questions that still

remain unanswered. How do students construct their

interpretations of the teacher's perceptions about them?

What elements from their daily classroom interactions do

they select and how do they organize them to form an

interpretation? Do their interpretations affect their

classroom interactions with the teacher? If yes, how do

students' interpretations relate to their interactions with

the teacher in the social setting of the classroom?

The present study attempts to answer some of the above

questions by examining how fourth-grade students perceive

themselves and interpret their teachers' perceptions about

them in the class.



If one wishes to understand the term holy water,
one should not study the properties of water,
but rather the assumptions and beliefs of the
people who use it. That is, water derives its
meaning from those who attribute a special
essence to it.
Thomas S. Szasz, Ceremonial Chemistry (in
Krawthwohl, 1993, p. 311)

The word qualitative implies an emphasis on processes

and meanings that are not strictly examined or measured (if

measured at all) in terms of quantity, frequency, or

intensity. Qualitative research involves an interpretive,

naturalistic approach to understanding phenomena,

experiences, and meanings in individuals' lives (Denzin &

Lincoln, 1994; LeCompte, Millroy, & Preissle, 1992).

Qualitative researchers study things in their natural

settings, attempting to interpret phenomena in terms of the

meanings people bring to them. They pursue answers to

questions that emphasize how people's social experiences

are created and assigned meaning. This is in contrast to

quantitative research which stresses the measurement and

analysis of causal relationships between variables, not

processes (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994).

Guba (1990) argues that reality can never be

adequately understood or captured, only approximated

through multiple methods and well-developed evaluation

criteria. This kind of research is naturalistic,

observational, descriptive, open-ended, and in-depth

research. Why do such research to investigate students'

self-perceptions and interpretations of their teachers'

perceptions about them in the social setting of the

classroom? Such research will enable the researcher to

examine the inner experiences, perspectives, perceptions,

and interpretations of fourth-grade children, from the

point of view of the children, in their actual social

classroom settings.

In this study the researcher adopted and adapted a

symbolic interactionist perspective grounded in Blumer's

(1969) symbolic interactionism theory. Mead's work (1934)

was made popular by Blumer, who first constructed the term

"symbolic interactionism" in 1937. Blumer (1969) stated

three main principles: (a) people act toward things on the

basis of the meanings that those things have for them, (b)

the attribution of meaning to objects through symbols

(i.e., signs, language, gestures, or anything that conveys

meaning) is a continuous process, and (c) meaning is

of human lived experience, and posits that lived experience

is rooted in people's shared, intersubjective meanings,

interpretations, actions, and interactions (Blumer, 1969;

Mead, 1934; Prus, 1996).

Central to this approach is the notion that human life

is community life; it is intersubjective life in essence,

and it cannot be understood apart from the community or

context in which people live and operate on a daily basis

(Prus, 1996). People's intersubjective realities are

constructed in social interactions through the individuals'

actions, perceptions, interpretations, and symbolic

meanings. People become reflective through interaction

with others and by taking the viewpoint of others with

respect to oneself (Prus, 1996).

Following Janesick's (1994) criteria for qualitative

design, this study was qualitative in the following ways:

(1) It was holistic: it looked at the larger picture

(children's personal and interpersonal development in

school) and started with a search for understanding of the

whole (child-school). (2) It looked at relationships within

the social setting of the classroom (e.g., students' self-

perceptions and their interpretations of teacher's

perceptions about them). (3) It focused on the personal,

face-to-face experiences (i.e., children's personal

interpretations of their daily classroom interactions with

the teacher). (4) It focused on understanding (rather than

predicting about) the social setting of two fourth-grade

classrooms. (5) It demanded the study of settings and their

participants over time. (6) It required equal amounts of

time and effort spent in the field and on analyzing the

data. (7) It required the researcher to become the research

instrument by observing and interviewing the participants.

(8) It incorporated ethical principles and informed consent

decisions. (9) It required ongoing analyses of the data.

(10) It required the researcher to acknowledge her role,

personal biases, and ideological preferences.

The primary focus of this study was to learn from

fourth-grade students how they perceive themselves and how

they interpret their teacher's perceptions about them in

class. In order to learn from them, the researcher

observed what they did (cultural behavior), listened to

what they said (cultural knowledge), collected their

written free responses (cultural artifacts), and went

beyond all these to discover what meaning they assigned to

their classroom experiences with the teacher (Spradley,


The Setting

Description of Site

The study was conducted in two fourth-grade elementary

classrooms in a fairly large city in Florida. The school

was established in 1934 and was located in a working class

area. The 334 member student body was 69% Caucasian, 21%

African-American, 7% Hispanic, and 3% other. The school

population represented families from the lower to the upper

socio-economic groups.

In the school there were two classrooms each for

grades three through five, five for primary grades (first

grade and second grade combined), two for kindergarten, and

one pre-kindergarten classroom. Aside from self-contained

classroom teachers, there were also an art teacher, a music

teacher, a counselor, a curriculum specialist, a gifted and

academic resource teacher, a science teacher, a physical

education teacher, and a speech therapist. In addition to

classrooms, the physical facilities included a gymnasium;

an auditorium; a library; an art, music, and science room;

and a lunchroom/cafeteria.

Selection of Site

This study was conducted in two fourth-grade

classrooms. The selection of the classrooms was guided by

several criteria that reflected this project's objectives.

The criteria for classroom selection were as follows: (a)

two fourth-grade classrooms were chosen for purposes of

comparison. Also, children at the fourth-grade level can

handle abstract information more easily than at earlier

ages (Flavell, et. al, 1968; Piaget, 1970), are able to

take the perspective of the other (Damon, 1977, 1981;

Selman, 1980), have well-developed vocabulary, can go

beyond the information given (Damon, 1977, 1981; Selman,

1980), and the teacher is still an important socialization

agent in their lives (Higgins & Parsons, 1983). (b)

Classrooms in which students would have opportunities to

interact with the teacher in a number of ways throughout

the school day. (c) Teachers who would be comfortable

having a researcher in their classroom for an extensive

amount of time. No preexisting relationship or

acquaintance existed between the researcher and the two

participating teachers.

Entry and Access

Certain ethical research principles were considered in

order to insure the research was conducted in an ethical

manner. These principles involved protection of

participants, especially minors, confidentiality, and

participants' rights and obligations.

The researcher's first step prior to school entry was to

seek approval of the project from the University of Florida

Institutional Review Board. The form along with a copy of

the Teacher Consent Form, Parent Consent Form, and the

Child Assent Script were submitted in June, 1996 to the

Board (see Appendix A). After approval of the project by

the Board, in July 1996, the researcher contacted the

participating school's principal to set an appointment for

an initial meeting.

The meeting took place in August, 1996 at the school.

During the meeting an outline of the project (including a

description, purpose, significance, design, methods,

procedures, and a timeline) were presented to the

principal. In addition to the above, the researcher

explained her reasons for selecting fourth-grade and her

role in the classroom. The principal stated that she would

like both teachers to participate because they work as a

team. The principal was interested in the project and

showed great appreciation for the topic and the proposed

research. The researcher assured the principal that she

and the teachers, as well as the parents of the

participating students, would have access to the study's


The next step involved the completion and submission

of a similar form developed by the participating elementary

school for official approval of the project. The principal

wished to present the project to the two fourth-grade

teachers herself, and she gave the researcher her informal

permission to conduct the study in the school. The

principal contacted the researcher the following day and

informed her that the teachers were interested in the

project and were willing to have the study take place in

their classrooms. The researcher submitted the proposal

and other paperwork to the school's research office and

made arrangements to meet with each teacher individually.

During the meeting with the teachers the researcher

reviewed the project, its purpose, methodology, and

timeline. The researcher established that she would

observe each classroom for 10 hours each week until the

December holiday and that she would need to do interviews

with some of the children and the teachers. In addition,

the idea of free responses was introduced, and the teachers

suggested that the writing be done during the regular

journal writing time. It was agreed that the free

responses would start toward the end of September and would

end before the December holiday. A tentative schedule was

put together by the researcher, and a detailed monthly

schedule was given to both teachers during the first week

of observations. Teacher consent forms were given to the

teachers. In addition, parent consent letters were given

to the teachers, who sent them home the same week, and

observations began the following week. The teachers

provided the researcher with a weekly classroom schedule.


Sixty fourth-grade students and two fourth-grade

teachers were the participants in this study. The main

focus of this study was on the students' self-perceptions

and their interpretations of the teachers' perceptions

about them in class. The teachers were also used as

"informants" because of their classroom interactions with

the students and their knowledge of the classroom dynamics.

According to Spradley, "Informants are a source of

information. [Tihe ethnographer [also] hopes to learn to

use the native language in the way the informants do"

(1979, p.25). The teachers provided information on how

they interacted with students and the means they used to

inform the students about their perceptions of them in


The student body of this school reflects the

population of the state of Florida in terms of racial,

ethnic, and income distribution. All 60 students enrolled

in fourth-grade participated in this study. There were 15

girls and 15 boys in each class. There were 18 children

identified as "gifted" who were distributed across the two

classes (10 from class A--seven girls, and three boys, and

eight from class B--three girls and five boys). One boy

from class B received language, speech, and Title 1

services. One boy from class A and two girls from class B

received services for severe learning disabilities, and

four children--a boy and a girl from each class--received

help with remedial work. The above information was

provided by the school's office and was based on results

from standardized testing, intelligence testing, and

diagnostic testing.

The teachers were two females, each with a Master's

degree in Education and four years of teaching experience.

They worked as a team; they planned and developed their

instructional objectives together, wrote parent letters

together, discussed their ideas together, decided on what

books to order and use for literature or mathematics and

borrowed and shared materials and supplies. They were also

actively involved with conferences, curriculum committees,

and presentations.

Their relationship with the researcher was one of

warmth, openness, and trust. The teachers welcomed the

researcher in their classrooms, invited her to come, stay,

or go as she pleased. They made the researcher feel

welcome from the beginning of the study. Many times they

asked the researcher her opinion about things like

welcome from the beginning of the study. Many times they

asked the researcher her opinion about things like

teaching, education in general, or what she thought about

classroom activities. Occasionally, the teachers allowed

the researcher to assist them by copying materials for them

or helping out with classroom parties and festivities.

A full-time female intern was in each class until

November 15. The interns were not asked to participate in

this study because the focus of the study was on what the

students thought their regular classroom thought of them.

The teachers were in charge of their classrooms, and were

present when the interns were teaching. The teachers made

all curriculum and instructional decisions.

Classroom OrQanization

The studied classrooms were adjacent. A small office

separated the two classrooms. This office was used by both

fourth-grade teachers, as well as by the reading specialist

and speech therapist when needed. A telephone, desks, a

computer, and many planning materials were located in that

room. Teachers and academic resource personnel had access

to each fourth-grade classroom through that room. Children

and adults (academic resources personnel, high school and

college student volunteers) frequently passed from one

classroom to the next. Small groups of children who needed

The fourth-grade classrooms were similar in size and

arrangement. For the purposes of this study the researcher

refers to the two social settings as classroom A and

classroom B. As shown in Figures 1 and 2 (see pages 54 and

55), the classrooms were typical of many elementary rooms.

A large dry erase board lined two-thirds of one long wall;

the remainder of the wall was lined by a regular chalkboard

used for posting key information from class discussions

during writer's workshop and Florida history, and graphic

organizers (i.e., KWLs (a type of graphic organizer),

summary grids) on units they studied as a class during

literature time. Both teachers used the dry erase board

for announcements, daily schedules, homework, class goals,

and teaching. Individual cubbie-holes lined both halves of

another wall, while cupboards used to store books, rewards,

and supplies, lined the other half.

One large bulletin board, on which children's work

(e.g., stories, art, literature illustrations) was

displayed, lined half of the third wall in each room. In

classroom A there was a very large world map next to the

bulletin board, and in classroom B, there was a chalkboard

that was used for displaying a Florida state map and

colorful, motivating posters reading. The North side of

each room consisted of large windows. Children sat at

Figure 1. Floor Plan of Classroom A.

Figure 2. Floor Plan of Classroom B.

individual desks, the organization of which was shifted

many times during the first half of the school year.

The teachers' preferred seating plan consisted of two

to four (Teacher A) and four to six (Teacher B) desks

pushed together to form a rectangular surface. Some

students' desks were grouped and others' desks (seven to

nine) formed a long horseshoe arrangement. Both teachers

used a mixture of seating arrangements to accommodate

individual student needs. The seating arrangements were

determined by group dynamics and teacher and student needs.

The groups were heterogeneously formed in terms of gender,

race, or ability. Their structure was flexible which

allowed the teacher to move students as needed. The

seating plans in both rooms facilitated interactions among

the students.

Although students spent much of their day at their

desks, they worked at other locations too. Students were

placed in different groups (ranging from four to six per

group) for language arts, mathematics, social studies,

games, and art. Sometimes students were allowed to work

outside at the picnic table. Two large, adult size, tables

(one circular and one rectangular) were in the back of each

room. Those tables served as work stations for different

groups or for students who were sent by the teacher to work

alone because of misbehavior.

The aforementioned area of the classroom was known as

the "outer circle," a place where a student could "cool

down," and put himself/herself together before re-joining

the regular class activities. While in "outer circle," a

student would at times take his/her work and complete it

alone. Students at times would complete their work, take

tests, and follow along from those tables; at other times

some students would just sit at the table. The teacher

decided when a student would move from "outer circle" back

to his/her desk and vice versa. At other times children

would go to that area to select a book from the classroom

library, and during recess that area was also used for some

students to catch up with their homework.

In addition, parent volunteers used the "outer circle"

to file students' work and school/teacher announcements in

the student folders. This was usually done on Fridays.

Student volunteers also used it occasionally to work with

children who needed help with their work. The researcher

also was seated in that area of the classroom and moved

only when children needed to use the tables for group work.

In each classroom there was a "time-out" desk located

in the back of the room, approximately six feet behind the

"outer-circle" area, by the back door. Students were sent

to the "time-out" to isolate themselves from the rest of

the class, to think about their behavior, and to write a

letter or apology to whoever else was involved in the

event. A computer station, with three computers and one

printer, was located on one side each classroom. Students

used the computers during writer's workshop to publish

their work, and during recess to play games. Teachers used

the computers to write their own tests, outlines, handouts,

parent letters, for bulletin board messages, and so forth.

Commercially-produced posters and book covers from

different children's books were taped on cupboard doors.

Posters of different sport teams were taped on the windows.

The inside of each room's front door was decorated with

student names and motivational messages in classroom A, and

student names with sports messages in classroom B.

The classroom atmosphere in both rooms was comfortable

and positive. Children were encouraged to interact with

each other, go to the back and work alone when others were

distracting them, pick a book from their classroom

"library" when they had extra time, or help a student in

need. Children were also involved in classroom activities.

They collected or passed out papers, helped the teacher

grade the class's "Mad Minute" sheets (timed mathematics

facts exercises); helped clean the board, hamster cage, and

the classroom; run copies of papers, passed out rewards,

helped others with work; delivered papers to the office;

led the line to the cafeteria, art, music, science,

physical education, and back; took notes about who talked

or misbehaved in line; and, helped run the class meetings.

These job roles and responsibilities were welcomed by the

children who seemed to execute their jobs and

responsibilities carefully. Parents and parent and student

volunteers visited the classrooms from time to time.

To better acquaint the reader with the classrooms'

schedule, a typical day is summarized. The teachers

arrived at school at 7:00 a.m. and from that time until the

children came in at 8:00 a.m., they would talk with each

other, copy papers, work on the computer, and take care of

other school responsibilities. The children lined up

according to grade in the ramp (where most parents dropped

them off) and walked to the classrooms as a group. School

supervision was provided. Many mornings the teachers went

up to the ramp and walked back with their classes.

The daily schedule along with a challenge

(mathematics, language, or geography) were always on the

board prior to the children's arrival. Once students

arrived in class, they put their backpacks in their cubbie-

holes and put their homework assignment sheets along with

their homework in the designated trays behind the teachers'

desks. The teachers took daily attendance and hot lunch

count. The folders were picked up by school personnel.

After the daily school announcements, which were sometimes

broadcast over the loud speaker and other times through

television, the pledge to the flag, and the daily

challenge, the regular class activities begun.

Mathematics was taught on a daily basis, with

mathematics games on Fridays. Social studies was taught on

Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:20 a.m.

Art was taught on Friday, physical education in Tuesday and

Thursday, and Music on Wednesday. Fourth-grade had

Language Arts (Spelling, Reading--Literature Groups--,

Writing Workshop) for two and a half hours every day except

Wednesday. Library visits and class meetings were held on

Wednesday, as needed. Little Buddies, an organizational

format in which fourth-graders were paired with younger

children to read a book, took place every other week.

Lunch was from 10:55 a.m. to 11:25 a.m., followed by

recesses (11:25 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.). The children were

dismissed at 2:30 p.m. and the teachers, usually, did not

leave until 5:00 p.m..

Research Methods


Students' self-perceptions and interpretations of

their teacher's perceptions about them were explored

through a qualitative and naturalistic research approach.

Spradley (1980) has developed a systematic set of

procedures designed specifically for the exploration of

meaning, called the Developmental Research Seauence. This

particular model follows a cyclical pattern of

investigation: the researcher selects a project, raises

questions, collects data, makes a record, analyzes data,

and writes the report. The sequence of questioning,

collecting, recording and analyzing was repeated throughout

the study. Data analysis was an integral part of the

research cycle.

Questions are the fundamental element of this pattern

of investigation as they direct the process of data

collection. In this study, not only were questions posed

prior to the study, but new questions were formulated

throughout the research period. The researcher began the

study without any precise hypotheses about degree of

relationships, or cause-effect relationships between

students' self-perceptions and their interpretations of

their teacher's perceptions about them in class. Instead,

the researcher formulated some "foreshadowed questions"

(Wolcott, 1987) to direct her investigation. The following

research questions were an outcome of the researcher's

interests, experiences, and theory (Erickson, 1986):

1. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
themselves? What is the content of their self-

2. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
their teacher's perceptions about them? What is
the content of their interpretations?

3. What kind of information do fourth-grade
students use to form interpretations of their
teacher's perceptions about them in class?

4. What is the role of classroom interactions in
the construction of students' interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them in class?

While these questions guided the overall direction of

this study, other questions also were asked during the

course of the research. Descriptive, structural, and

contrast questions led to different kinds of data in the

field. These questions can be thought of as a funnel (see

Figure 3).

Descriptive questions were broad questions used to get

an overview of the classroom settings and what went on in

those settings: i.e., "Who are the children in this

classroom, What do they do, How is the classroom set up?".

These questions enabled the researcher to get an overview

of the two unfamiliar settings.



















.................. Contrast

Structural Questions


--- - - - -

Figure 3. Ethnographic Questions (Spradley 1980,



Structural questions followed after an initial data

analysis to add more depth and focus to previously

identified actions, interactions, patterns of behavior, and

events in the classrooms. For instance, it was found that

some students asked more questions of the teacher during

classroom discussions. A structural question posed by the

researcher was, "How do students get information from the

teacher which they may in turn use to form interpretations

about the teacher's perceptions of them in class?" The

researcher also observed that some children were called on

by the teacher more often than others to participate in

classroom discussions. As a result, the following

structural question was formed "Which students get called

on more often to participate in classroom discussions?".

These and other structural questions were constructed

repeatedly and the search for supporting evidence helped

form even more focused observations, which in turn helped

discover the specifics of every classroom.

After further analysis and repeated observations in

the field, the researcher was able to narrow her

investigation even further to make more selective

observations. Contrast questions were the vehicle for such

observations; they enabled the researcher to look for the

existence of any differences among specific categories.

According to Spradley (1980), this is the stage where

discovered differences are and more focused observations or

talk to informants about these differences is required.

Questions such as "What do you think about my story," or

"Why do I have to re-write this," led to selective

observations in which the researcher analyzed her field

notes and conducted additional observations for differences

in the kinds of information students received from the

teacher when asking the above two questions.

Methods and Procedures

The researcher's goal was to examine and describe (a)

how fourth-grade students perceived themselves, (b) how

they interpreted their teacher's perceptions about them in

class, (c) the kinds of information they used to construct

their perceptions and interpretations, and (d) the nature

of student-teacher classroom interactions. Perceptions are

mental processes and thus are not directly assessed or

easily observed as tangible behaviors. "In-the-head"

analysis of human behavior is beyond our capability

(Taylor, 1993). Because the meanings that individuals

construct are never directly observable, researchers may

infer meanings from observing the behavior of participants

or interview participants directly about the meanings they

ascribe to events or people (McDermott & Roth, 1978;

Morine-Dershimer, 1985).

We have to allow children to become our informants,

get to know them in their actual settings, build adequate

descriptions of their environments, and focus on children's

everyday experiences as they are expressed by the children

themselves (Taylor, 1993).

One of the most challenging tasks in doing research is

the selection of appropriate methods. Choosing methods that

will enable researchers to deal with their problem and

questions effectively is "an act of judgment" (Shulman

1981, p.12). Three methods were used in this study to

collect data: participant observation, interviews, and free

responses. Multiple methods were chosen because they

allowed the researcher to: (a) ask a range of questions

about the participants' perspectives in their actual

classroom settings, (b) examine how students formed

interpersonal perceptions, and (c) not impose restrictions

on the form and expressiveness of the participants'


Denzin (1970) advocated the use of multiple methods,

or triangulation, which is defined as the "combination of

methodologies in the study of the same phenomena" (Denzin

1970, p.279). The use of multiple methods of data

collection reduces threats to validity in that weaknesses

of one method are offset by strength of another.

Triangulation enables the researcher to collect data that

of one method are offset by strength of another.

Triangulation enables the researcher to collect data that

may explain why data are different or contradictory from

different sources about the same phenomenon. Data

triangulation (the use of a variety of data sources in a

study) and methodological triangulation (the use of

multiple methods to study a phenomenon) were used in this


Participant Observation

Participant observation is the most common data

collection method in qualitative studies. It enables one

to describe what goes on in a setting, who or what is

involved, when, where, and why things happen in social

situations. Jorgensen (1989) states that participant

observation is excellent for studying processes,

relationships among people and events, organization of

events and continuities and patterns in social contexts.

One of the greatest strengths of this method is the ease

through which researchers can gain entree to settings.

Because of its relative unobtrusiveness observation can be

conducted inconspicuously (Webb et al., 1966). Another

strength of participant observation is the minimal

potential for generating observer effects because of the

naturalness of the observer's role and the lack of

noticeably obtrusive of all research techniques (Phillips,


Participant observation is especially appropriate

when: (a) little is known about a phenomenon; (b) the

research problem is concerned with human meanings and

interactions viewed from the insider's perspective (i.e.,

students' self-perceptions and interpretations of teacher's

perceptions about them in class); (c) the researcher is

able to gain access to an appropriate setting; and (d) the

research problem can be addressed by qualitative data

collected by direct observation and other means relevant to

the studied setting (Jorgensen, 1989).

People make sense of the world around them in their

daily interactions; they give meaning to their experiences

and interact on the basis of these assigned meanings

(Blumer, 1969; Denzin, 1978; Schutz, 1967). The insider's

perspectives are not directly accessible to outsiders, or

non members of a particular social setting. Thus, it is

impossible for a researcher to obtain a well-developed and

elaborate understanding of the participants' perspectives

until the researcher understands the culture in which

meanings are constructed (Hall, 1976; Spradley, 1980).

Participant observation aims to understand, uncover, and

reveal the meanings people use to make sense out of their

everyday lives in their everyday, natural environments.

The methodology of participant observation requires

that the researcher become directly involved in the

participants' lives in order to understand their world from

the standpoint of an insider. Human meaning and

interaction is approached through sympathetic introspection

(Cooley [1930] 1969). Participant involvement may range

from a marginal role to the performance of an insider role.

In this study the researcher's role was overt (with the

knowledge of participants). Blumer (1982) states that the

use of covert (without insider knowledge) observation as a

method is "neither ethically justified, nor practically

necessary" (p.217), and more attention should be given to

access as "overt insider."

Both teachers in this study were aware of the

researcher's purposes, and the students were told, by the

researcher and the teachers, that the researcher wanted to

determine how children think and what are the things they

do in fourth-grade. The researcher's role was described to

the students as "the lady who asks questions and who writes

a lot." Many times during the study the students had to

reminded of the researcher's role and purpose in their

classroom, especially when children would ask the

researcher to help them on assignments. Toward the end of

the study, the teachers occasionally asked the researcher

to help some students, always at the back of the room in

"outer circle," with spelling or homework. Children

usually asked the researcher for help with assignments

during recess and not during the regular classroom


The researcher's degree of involvement varied both

with participants and classroom activities. Spradley

(1980) has proposed five types of participation that range

along a continuum of involvement (see Table 3-1):

Table 3-1

Degrees of Participant Involvement.

Non- Passive Moderate Active Complete
Participation Participation Participation Participation Participation
o Researcher Researcher o Researcher Researcher o Researcher
has no does not seeks to seeks to do becomes an
involvement participate balance what other ordinary
with the or interact between being people are participant.
people or the with other an insider doing in
activities people to a and an order to
studied, great extent. outsider, better
Observes and understand
records the culture.
what's going
on (Low
_Involvement). I

The researcher's participation in the two studied

settings was passive (Spradley, 1980). During the first

month of the project, the researcher rarely interacted with

students inside or outside the classroom. She was

stationed by the teachers in the classrooms' "outer circle"

--the outskirts of the room--where she recorded observed


Participant observers usually keep a log of activities

and experiences, and also written records or tape-record

observations while in the field or shortly after

observations have been completed (Jorgensen, 1989). Action

in the field has been recorded by way of audio, video,

photographic equipment or computers. Researchers have also

used questionnaires, formal or informal interviews, and

document collection along with direct observations (e.g.,

Fine, 1987; Hochschild, 1983; Wallis, 1977). In this

study, the researcher used an audio tape-recorder and hand-

written field notes to record observed activities. She

also used formal and informal interviews and free responses

in order to better understand the participants' perceptions

and interpretations. These strategies will be discussed in

a subsequent section.

Each entry included a date, time, event, setting, and

a detailed description of the activity and the participants

involved. Field notes were kept in a field notebook which

also included the researcher's comments (theoretical,

methodological, personal notes) and reactions to observed

events. Field notes or audio tapes were not shared with

the participants.

The researcher avoided any verbal or non-verbal

communication with the children and ignored those who tried

to get her attention by either staring, smiling at her, or

trying to talk to her while in the classroom. As the study

progressed, the interactions between students and the

researcher increased and the researcher alternated between

remaining at a fixed location and moving around the


Although the earliest observations were targeted

toward a general description of the classrooms and the

participants, the majority of the observations were

directed toward student-teacher interactions and

activities. Although the children were observed

interacting with other teachers (i.e., science teacher, art

teacher, physical education teacher, reading specialist),

the sole focus of the observations was on the interactions

and events involving the "regular" classroom teacher and

the students in their "regular" classroom settings.

The researcher observed (and tape-recorded) 190 hours

of classroom activity over a four-month period in the Fall

of 1996. Each classroom was observed for half a day twice

a week (approximately 10 hours per week) for four months.

The researcher provided the teachers with a monthly

schedule--developed with the teachers--of her visits,

planned activities, and interview schedules. Field notes

were analyzed by the researcher.


Formal and informal interviews were used in this study

to get a deeper understanding of the participants'

perspectives (Spradley, 1980). All interviews were audio-

taped and occurred with students and the two teachers.

Eight children from class A (two boys and six girls) and

thirteen children from class B (five boys and 10 girls)

were interviewed. The researcher worked out a schedule

that met each parent's schedule, and the children were

interviewed at three different times (November, December

1996, and January 1997). Interviews with the children were

held during after-school hours in the school library

conference room. Teachers also were interviewed three

times in their respective classrooms after school hours.

Formal interviews employ a structured schedule of

questions that allows the researcher to ask specific

questions in exactly the same way with different

participants. Formal interviews produce a highly uniform

set of data (Jorgensen, 1989). The researcher allowed a

certain flexibility in her interviews in order to allow

children and teachers to clarify, elaborate on their

answers, and even talk about events or things they were

interested in. The interviews took the form of "guided

conversations" (see Lofland, 1971). Interviewees spoke

freely and in their own words about their perspectives and

even volunteered unanticipated information (see Appendices

E and F).

Informal interviews are casual, free flowing

conversations that allow the researcher to interview

participants without asking the same questions in the same

manner. Informal interviews were recorded by paper and

pencil, and they occurred when the researcher asked

questions of the children during the course of participant

observation. For instance, when children moved to form

temporary work groups the researcher asked, "What are you

doing?", "What do you think about this activity?" The

informal interviews with the teacher took place during

periods when the students were not in the room (i.e., lunch

break, after school). The teachers talked eagerly about

classroom activities, frequently asked the researcher what

she thought about an observed event, and talked about

children's progress or specific reactions to classroom

events. These questions were elicited by an observed event

and were useful for discerning different viewpoints held by

the participants.

Audio-recordings are excellent for taking and making

notes, for recording verbal interaction and interviews.

Recorders are readily available, come in different sizes,

are relatively inexpensive, and easy to operate. On the

other hand, they are obtrusive especially at the early

stages of entry in a setting. In this study, a tape-

recorder was used three weeks after observations had

started. The researcher wanted to get first familiar with

the setting and allow the participants to get used to her

presence in the classroom. A small tape-recorder was used

in this study and it was placed by the researcher's

notebook on the "outer circle" table. Some children

occasionally visited the researcher in the back of the room

and spoke right in front of the tape-recorder, but other

than that the presence of the tape-recorder was normalized.

Students and teachers forgot after a brief period that the

recorder was running; they took its presence for granted.

In spite of the advantages of recorders for making

notes, ultimately the tapes demand hours of transcription

for analysis. Tapes were transcribed and analyzed by the

researcher. The results of the analysis are discussed in

the following chapter.

Free Responses

Free response is a projective technique that has been

used extensively in personality and clinical research

(Chandler & Johnson, 1991). A person's productions

(verbal, written, or artistic) reflect his/her inner view

of the world, and a systematic examination of those

productions may help researchers learn something of the

individual's needs, desires, and interests, as well as

his/her perceptions of the significant others in his/her

world. An analysis of such productions may lead to a

better understanding of the individual (Chandler & Johnson,


Free response or sentence completion tasks employ a

set of sentence stems to elicit oral or written responses.

They are particularly useful devices for getting

information on developmental aspects, interpersonal

relations, needs, and threats. Free responses are brief,

non threatening, and not different from other school-type

tasks with which children are familiar (Chandler & Johnson,

1991). They are especially useful with older children

(pre-adolescents and adolescents), "as children are often

suspicious and defensive in testing situations, and often

resist the more intensive methods of assessment." (Chandler

& Johnson, 1991, p.36).

All fourth-grade students were asked to write their

own free responses to the following stems:

1. NI Think I Am. ..

2. "1I Think Mrs./Ms. Thinks I Am. ..

3. "I Would Like To Know What Mrs./Ms. Thinks
About Me When I. .N

Students were given one stem per week, repeated for

three months (October, November, December). The repetition

of the writings enabled the researcher to discover insights

and patterns and changes in the children's responses. The

writing took place usually on Fridays during students'

journal time. This activity was presented to students as a

time where they could share their personal thoughts about

themselves with the researcher and what they thought their

teacher thought of them in class. Children were encouraged

to write freely, not to worry about correct spelling of

words, and to ask the researcher if they had any questions.

It was emphasized that whatever students wrote was

confidential and private, and they were assured that their

teacher or any other teacher would not see their responses.

During this activity the teachers worked at their desks,

the computer, or sometimes were outside the classroom

taking care of administrative school matters. The teachers

never suggested what the children should write nor did they

help children with spelling or anything else having to do

with this activity.

Manila folders were provided in order to prevent the

sharing of ideas. Writing paper was inserted in each

folder. Children wrote their names on the folder,

decorated it, and some even wrote "Confidential

Information," or "Private: Stay out of it," or "My Personal

Folder" on the outside. Each stem was written on the board

by the researcher who also read it aloud and then asked the

children to copy it on their paper. This activity lasted

for 10 to 15 minutes. No child was forced to write,

although the teachers encouraged all students to do so.

The amount and nature of responses varied from child to

child, with some children writing a word or two to others

writing a paragraph or two, and some others writing a page

or two.

Free writing allowed children to express their

personal thoughts in their own way; it allowed them to

"speak" for themselves. This technique provided the

researcher with information about the content, process, and

sources of information children used to form self-

perceptions and interpretations about their teacher's

perceptions of them in class.

Methodoloaical Limitations

There are some inherent problems in participant

observation that have to be addressed in order for the

researcher to have confidence in the quality of the data

collected. The issue of validity and reliability

constitutes one of the chief criticisms against participant

observation (Adler & Adler, 1992). Observers whose

research is solely based on their observations and do not

have the participants' quotes to enrich and confirm the

researchers' analyses are susceptible to more biases from

subjective interpretations of situations (Denzin, 1989;

Webb et al., 1966).

Observations conducted systematically and repeatedly

over time are more credible than those gathered according

to personal patterns (Denzin, 1989). In this study, the

researcher conducted lengthy observations in the two

classroom settings and also investigated the participants'

perspectives on various situations. Direct observation

when added to other research can yield depth and breadth,

and it can enhance a study's consistency and validity

(Adler & Adler, 1992).

Other problems inherent in participant observation

are: (a) effects of the observer's presence or activities

on the phenomenon being observed; (b) effects from the

the inability of the observer to fully witness and record

all relevant aspects of the studied phenomenon (McCall &

Simmons, 1969). Bogdan and Biklen (1982) state that

"qualitative researchers attempt. . to objectively study

the subjective states of their subjects" (p.42). The

qualitative researcher's main goal is to add knowledge and

not to pass judgment on a phenomenon or setting.

Qualitative researchers seek to limit the observer's

biases, since all researchers are affected by observers'

bias (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982).

The researcher guarded against her own biases by

recording numerous lengthy field notes and by including the

participants themselves in the study of this phenomenon.

The researcher also worked with participants who were

accustomed to having observers and visitors in their rooms,

such as parent volunteers, student teachers, student

volunteers, and aids. The fact that the participants were

familiar with having other people in their classroom made

the researcher's presence less intimidating. In addition,

the lengthy observation period (September to December)

enabled the researcher to become part of the classroom.

After the last interviews were completed, in January, the

children asked the researcher if she was planning to come

back and if they would ever see her again.

The fact that the researcher was stationed in each

classroom's "outer circle" and that her role and activities

were made clear to the children, made it easy for the

children to not see her as another teacher. The children

talked to other students, violated classroom rules, argued

with the teacher, got into arguments with other students,

sent notes to other students, and did a lot of the

"regular" things children do in class in her presence.

There were instances where some children "showed-off" for

the researcher; for instance, one girl in classroom B read

the ballad she had written at home to the researcher and

asked her if she would like to keep it in her notes. The

researcher's casual conversations with the teachers also

confirmed her recording and perceptions of the classroom


The researcher dealt with her personal interests,

remarks, and biases about the studied phenomenon through

bracketing (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982). The researcher's role

and biases will be discussed in a subsequent section.

Lastly, the researcher's inability to observe and

record all classroom events related to children's

interpersonal perceptions was dealt with in three ways: (a)

by doing lengthy observations in the classrooms the

researcher was confident that she captured a representative

description of relevant events, activities, and

interactions related to the studied phenomenon; (b) the

teachers acted as valuable informants for events that had

not been directly observed; (c) the researcher's use of a

tape-recorder, interviews, and free-responses filled in

gaps in observational data.

The interviews took place a month and a half after

observations began, allowing time for the researcher and

the participants to become familiar with one another. The

researcher always asked for the children's permission to

"talk" with them and reminded them that whatever they

shared with her would be confidential. At times, some

children were eager to talk with her because of something

that had happened at school that day. Interview data was

compared with written data (free responses) and with

observational data.

Free responses were used because of their

appropriateness in allowing children to share their own

perceptions and interpretations. One limitation of this

method is that some children wrote more or better than

others; some wrote in complete sentences and others just

listed single words. All three sources of data provided a

means whereby the researcher could make a more

comprehensive evaluation of the data collected.

Data Analysis

The data collected through observations, interviews,

and free-responses were in written form. Written records

included field notes, a research journal, transcribed

interviews, and children's free-responses.

In this study, the researcher's goal was to examine

how children perceived themselves and interpreted their

teacher's perceptions of them in two fourth-grade

classrooms. The choice of analysis methods was determined

by the purpose of the research, the nature of the

questions, and the theoretical perspective adopted and

adapted by the researcher (LeCompte et al., 1992).

The data analysis was an ongoing process that

consisted of analyzing and synthesizing information across

data sources and data collection methods. The analyses

carried out for this study make visible the construction of

students' (a) self-perceptions and (b) interpretations of

what their teacher thought about them in class (see Table

3-2). Analysis of this kind involves a way of "looking" at

or thinking about data. It refers to the systematic and

strategic examination of a phenomenon to discover its

parts, the relationships among parts, and their

relationship to the whole.

In this analysis, the researcher (a) described social

situations (activities carried out by participants in a

particular place) and (b) discovered culture (the patterns

of participants' behavior and they meanings they assign to

activities), (Spradley, 1980). The phases of analysis for

this study are described below (Spradley 1980):

a. Domain analysis helped to identify broad domains

such as "Things the Teacher Talked About in Class, Things

Students Talked About in Class, Things Students Talked

About Themselves."

b. Taxonomic analysis helped to identify how

domains were organized. The researcher also attempted to

find out how domains were related. For example, within the

domain "Feedback Teacher Gave to Students," there was

"Verbal Feedback and Written Feedback".

c. Componential analysis helped the researcher to

look for units of meaning participants assigned to their

specific cultural categories.

d. Theme analysis involved the search for a theme

that would tie together the identified parts of the

participants' perspectives. It focused the search for

meanings across domains.

The analysis of data helped locate particular patterns

of experiences that represent how students make sense of

their everyday classroom experiences with the teacher. The

main type of relationship in the domain analysis was strict

inclusion (see Table 3-2).

Table 3-2

Strict Inclusion Example

Table 3-3 shows the type of worksheet used to help

visualize the structure of each domain:

Table 3-3

Domain Analysis Worksheet


Strict Inclusion -4 X is a kind of Y -4 Playing the guitar
(is a kind of
extra curricular

1. Semantic Relationship: strict inclusion

2. Form: X is a kind of y

3. Example: Being good in science (is a kind of) ability

Included terms Semantic Relationship Cove
Being good in writing

Being good in reading }-4 is a kind of -4 abil:
Being good in math

r Term


The researcher analyzed and counted each student's

written statements. Statements were grouped according to

content, and broad categories were formed. Finally, broad

categories were grouped to form specific categories. The

content and domain analyses were interweaved. The

reseacher took a frequency count of students' statements in

order to explore differences in quality as well as quantity

of students' responses. Students' verbal statements were

analyzed for content.

The researcher coded students' written and oral

reports by assigning pseudonyms and numbers. For example,

(BF21.2) means: this statement came from a female (F)

student in class (B); the student's assigned number was 21;

and she gave this statement at time two. This coding

system made it easy for the researcher to maintain the

students' confidentiality, readily retrieve information

from data, and study patterns in students' responses over

time. Teachers were also given pseudonyms. Teacher A was

called Ms. Naylor, and Teacher B was called Mrs. Cleary.

Audio-taped classroom observations were transcribed.

The transcription involved three phases: (a) description of

events, (b) interpretation of events, and (c) extension of

events. The following transcript conventions were used:

(2, 3, or 4s)= number of seconds without verbal discourse
Sx= unidentified student
SS= more than one student speaking, all unidentified
XXX= inaudible

The three-phased analysis of the verbatim transcripts

showed how everyday classroom interactions between students

and their teacher provided opportunities for students to

co-construct interpretations about their teacher's

perceptions about them in class. Findings from the

transcription data were triangulated with findings from

students artifacts and interview data to validate and

expand on how students formed their interpersonal

perceptions. Field notes were used to give additional

background information about classroom interactions. Table

3-4 (see p. 88) summarizes the research questions, data

collection, and analysis in this study.

The Researcher's Role and Biases

The qualitative researcher is the key research

instrument in qualitative research. The researcher's

biases, methods, and training may influence data collection

and analysis. Wolcott (1975) stated that a researcher must

be flexible, sensitive, a keen observer, sociable,

sensitive to and perceptive of the participants' needs, be

Table 3-4

Research Ouestions, Data Collection, and Analysis


1. In what manner do fourth- Student artifacts Domain, taxonomic
grade students perceive (i.e., free responses) analysis
themselves? What is the content Interviews Content analysis
of their self-perceptions?

2. In what manner do fourth- Student artifacts Domain, taxonomic
grade students perceive their (i.e., free responses) analysis
teacher's perceptions about Interviews Content analysis
them? What is the content of
their interpretations?

3. What kind of information do 0 Interviews Content analysis
fourth-grade students use to
form interpretations of their
teacher's perceptions about them
in class?

4. What is the role of Classroom Transcription of
classroom interactions in the observations recorded classroom
construction of students' (i.e., field notes, interactions
interpretations of their audio-taped classroom
teacher's perceptions about them interactions)
in class?

able to "tell" his/her story effectively, and have

experience conducting fieldwork.

Whether a researcher chooses to be a full participant

or fully a non-participant, he or she must put himself or

herself into the research and interpret what he/she sees,

hears, or is told to by others (Woods, 1992). By

observing, taking notes, tape-recording, talking to

participants, reflecting on data, and some initial

analysis, the researcher makes indications, attributes

meanings, and interprets symbols continually. How a

researcher does this depends on the self he/she brings to

the situation and its' interpretation: the experiences,

interests, values, "theories", training, attitudes toward

the participants, and commitment to research (Woods, 1992).

A standard problem for qualitative researchers is the

one between involvement and increased familiarity on the

one hand and distance and objectivity on the other. The

demands of qualitative research create a tension between

"getting inside" and "being outside", and "knowing nothing,

to knowing some things, to knowing too much" about the

participants and their world. Involvement and objectivity

are both ingredients of scientific appraisal, but "too much

of a good thing" may interfere with the "healthy"

progress of one's research. Woods (1992) suggests that

researchers can guard against these dangers by maintaining