How Teachers Experience Becoming Teachers: An Executive Summary of My PhD Dissertation

This is an executive summary of my dissertation How Teachers Experience Becoming Teachers: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study. The full document is available at

In phenomenological research, lived-experiences and how one views the phenomena being researched can act as prejudices. How I understand becoming a teacher and teaching is unique and singular to me. I took a different path than others i.e. coming into the profession later and shifting my focus away from my major, Physical Education. I wanted to understand how other teachers might understand becoming a teacher and their teaching. To this end, I gathered and explored the narratives of certain teachers.

Hermeneutic phenomenology gathers and interprets rich stories, anecdotes, and examples, using image-evoking language about the essence and meaning of a particular phenomenon. An aim of hermeneutic phenomenology is to reflect on and interpret meaning of particular phenomena emerging in each person’s lived-experiences, and themes emerge to educate and inform each person in practical ways (van Manen[i], 1990).

I interviewed six K-9 Edmonton, Alberta area teachers about their lived-experiences interacting with students, digital tools, and curriculum and how these might inform their becoming a teacher. The teachers represented a range of experience, subjects, and ages: two years to a recent retiree, French Immersion, core subjects, Physical Education, complementary courses, special needs, and a first year administrator. I asked each teacher “what is teaching?”

Henri described teaching as a “destiny, a passion.” He grew animated, saying “for me, the essence of teaching is sharing, helping students grow. It is inspiring a love and thirst for learning as they become better than me. Teaching is not about me writing on the board and students taking notes. I understand students as people capable of having a conversation about their learning.” The “essence” of teaching is indescribable; its “isness” flows from “the essence of who a teacher is and how they express their interest in others” (Aoki[ii] 1991/2005, p. 160). As it was for me, how Henri understood teaching was “singular” to him: relational and inspiring(van Manen[iii], 2014, p. 257).

During the research, Megan described how the study informed her practically as she prepared for a second job interview for the position she held the prior school year. She described the process as “ridiculous. You have three people sitting around the table with their little note pads and your whole contract is based on that.” She experienced feeling “betrayed [and] lacked confidence” and described the first interview as “probably the worst one I’ve ever done.” In a self-reflective moment, she wondered aloud, “do I want to go back? I think so. It will be different, but I think so.” She said it was “like they wanted me to tell them how great I was! I won’t sit and tell you how awesome I am. It just isn’t what I do.” She said she felt comfortable if others observed her, and she understood others as good teachers, but like the other participants, struggled to describe her teaching as exemplary. We are socialized to not refer to our teaching in glowing terms. We teach in isolation, receive little feedback, do not view ourselves teaching, and seek exemplars of good teaching externally.

I reminded her teaching is something “I live and breathe.” Megan read aloud selected anecdotes from our first interview, growing animated and evoking images of her teaching. She used ambiguous terms like “crawly things” that awakened multiple meanings. Using some of those anecdotes, Megan felt she had a better interview, but did not get a contract. She returned to substitute teaching, a role that made her feel she did not “belong [and] felt discouraged” about what the future held for her in teaching.

Theme 1: Teachers are historical beings with interests — Self and interest are two names for the same thing; the kind and amount of interest taken in people and things reveals and measures the quality of selfhood which exists (Dewey[iv], 1916/2004, p. 336).

Each teacher recounted particular life-long interests, lived-experiences, and teachers who taught them that informed their teaching i.e. volunteering for Paralympics, art, sports, language, trauma in their lives, resistance to entering the profession, a particular personality, etc.

Maria described a life-long interest in music that drew her and informed her teaching in the “Kindergarten world.” When a group of parents stayed each morning to sing, she wondered “are these people ever going to leave?” She turned to music and humour, adding “a verse to a song: ‘You say good-bye and I say good-bye.’” When informed of her pseudonym, it reminded her “of Maria in the Sound of Music. I’m not always compliant. She wasn’t a compliant nun. It’s creative disobedience.” She sang “how do you solve a problem like Maria” from the sound track.

While completing her Masters, Maria “read about how music supports literacy, language skills, and speech development” and designed a project for students and their families, involving sing-along picture books. Children learned songs, and as they read, they sang-along, turning pages, and feeling like they were reading. Parents wrote about how they used the books and in some families, “older children took part.” She said the project was one source that informed that what went home had to engage students and offer parents meaningful ways to help.

Each teacher described being interested in becoming “a good teacher,” understanding this was a life-long journey, unpredictable, and indescribable. Teaching is “becoming fraught with uncertainty [that] falls somewhere between a dress rehearsal and a [live] daily performance” (Britzman[v], 2003, pp. 3–9).

Theme 2: teaching is a calling and vocation. In the first interview with each teacher, I asked “What called you to teaching?” Vocation and voice are from the Latin, meaning to respond to one’s calling as something personal and spiritual. It offers each person a sense of purpose to overcome “aimlessness, capriciousness, [and] parasitic dependence” (Dewey[vi], 1916/2004, pp. 294–296). I understand vocation as responding to questions of awe and wonder about one’s life: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Oliver[vii], 1990, p. 60).

Each teacher said teaching is integral to their personal sense of selfhood and experiencing wholeness. They used words such as comfort, feeling at home, niche, confidence, a perfect fit, love, and passion. They each aspired to teach and contribute to making the world a better place by making indefinable differences. They informed and formed practical wisdom, prudence, and virtues (phrōnesis) to guide their particular teaching through a pedagogic thoughtfulness and mindfulness.

With two years towards a business degree, and realizing he would not be a professional baseball player, Dave recalled becoming a teacher as “an accident. When I look back, my Mom was a teacher; my Dad was a coach. I was at home and comfortable.” Dave described striving to be a better teacher, taking risks, and being creative. In teaching Phys Ed, he is not afraid to fail and teaches “atypical” units i.e. wheelchair basketball. When he does, he is “engaged, intrigued, and nervous. What are the rules? How can I get kids interested? Would I enjoy this?” He described how he wants each student to look forward to Phys Ed and the gym as a shared place where they can each experience success.

Theme 3: Teaching is Practical and Contextual. The practice and context of teaching is concrete and extends beyond being qualified and socialized into the profession. Each teacher I interviewed experienced teaching in the crucible of “everydayness.” They experienced good and bad days, where weaving connections with others resembles crossing a busy freeway, but they persevered (Palmer[viii], 2007, p. 18). There are technical and theoretical aspects, but what calls to each teacher are needs and relationships they encounter each day. Each teacher described reflecting on their teaching as they drove, taught part-time, did chores, and lay awake. With time, reflective practices became réflexive[ix], embodying something in reflective moments to close the gap between teaching and reflecting.

Through self-reflection and experience, teachers “discriminate, distinguish … between things that make a difference … They [learn] thoughtfulness and tact through the practice of teaching, but simply not by teaching itself. [They] come to embody tact by means of past experiences coupled with thoughtful reflection on these past experiences (van Manen[x], 1991, pp. 208–209).

Each of these teachers engaged students in discourse, inviting each student to be responsible for their learning. On an ongoing basis, they each formed tact, sensitivity, prudence, judgment, eloquence, and imagination to apply, exercise, realize, and practice ideas (praxis) with potential to transform, not control student learning. They paused, took a breath, and sensed “calm through the storm,” improvising when a “spider [entered] the classroom.”

It might be a myth to believe classrooms are digitally textured. These teachers each described using digital tools in thoughtful and practical ways i.e. mark attendance on the Smart Board and for virtual field trips. They spoke of challenges i.e. inadequate and untimely training to use software, vast change, top-down edicts, and how the Internet is not always safe.

Between the first and second interviews, Alberta’s Minister of Education announced a curriculum redesign. I asked what advice each teacher could offer. They suggested it be a broad framework to explore, allow teacher voice with fewer top-down edicts, ensure parents can help, make it meaningful for diverse student populations, and offer ideas to integrate digital tools. The teachers who experienced project-based learning described how they learned through those experiences as they interacted with colleagues.

A teacher authors authority from within, not blind obedience to external power, orders, interests, and techniques, but through their particular words and actions (Palmer[xi], 2007, p. 34).

Theme 4: Teaching is Relational and Communal. Community is “people … acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for [a] purpose, no matter where they [are]” (Arendt[xii], 1958, pp. 198–199).

Each teacher described community in immediate and distant ways: meeting a student on the Great Wall, staying in touch with a student who aged out of the group home their school served, playing basketball with older siblings enabling them to form relationships and communicate with non-English speaking parents, inviting staff to watch the culmination of the movement unit, staying in touch with colleagues from undergraduate classes, and attending events with a cohort of colleagues and discovering “you are in the right ball park; maybe a bit ahead of the curve.”

An aspect of community is belonging and making others feel welcome. The opposite is to not belong, and each teacher described how they felt when they felt others were disinterested in who they were, particularly early in their careers when they were alone, felt “anonymous” and “overwhelmed” as relationships came and went.

An essential phenomenon of community is communicating with others about something we have a passion for, as they grow to enjoy it, but not in identical ways to others. Diane recounted teaching Art to 12 special-needs students “in wheelchairs, blind, and with other disabilities. The experiences were gems. It freed me. It was great! What could they do? I didn’t know. They were [each] different. I was inventive, creative, and figured out different things. If a student couldn’t see, I put grass in the paint to feel it. Art was intuitive to them. I loved seeing their art and reflecting about their art. Their parents loved their children’s work! There was a sense of celebrating.”

Future research includes interviewing teachers outside my professional and personal networks, which is where these teachers came from. Foci might include how teachers understand teaching i.e. job and calling, teachers not entering the profession, and why they leave. Longitudinal research with teachers who transition from undergraduate programs into the profession might provide insights into what draws teachers into the profession, what keeps them coming back each day, and how induction practices affect long-term retention of teachers. In this study, one teacher (17%) was unable to get a contract. Does this extrapolate? This might include quantitative and mixed methodologies. There are part-time teachers holding down other jobs. How do they understand teaching? Does this change over time?

How Does this Research Inform Policy — I begin by understanding each teacher expresses an interest in teaching certain subjects, is responsible, and has broader interests i.e. computers, music, art, etc. How do we engage people in meaningful ways in their particular teaching and learning? How can they help schools become more humane and just? Ask. Begin conversations. Keep each teacher in the loop. They each have a voice. Don’t assume. As a millennial-aged teacher, Sue resented how others assumed she was a tech-savvy. Who are the squeaky wheels and outliers who do things differently with success? How can they share? What is taken-for-granted? Make risk-taking more than talk. Too often, decisions in schools are made by a few supposed experts, often furthest from the classrooms, planning perfect inputs and outputs for teaching and learning. School administrators, central office managers, and government policy-makers should talk less, write fewer memos, come out of ivory towers, roll up their sleeves, and go into classrooms. These external experts and consultants are supposed to have wisdom. When were you last in a classroom in a meaningful way? We now have consultants who have not been in classrooms. Pair veteran teachers with less experienced teachers. My guess is their learning might be reciprocal i.e. what has worked and what is new. Team teach, which might increase class size, but there are classes with 35–40 students now. In some situations, small class sizes might be in order. This is not a shell game where money is hidden by central office and school managers for “pet projects.” Spend it on teaching and learning for the students that money is designated for, which is what is supposed to happen.

Make learning relevant at all stages of each teacher’s careers, let them have their voice, and offer choices appropriate for their context and students. Bring teachers together around curriculum and policy to share in professional conversations.

Ensure tools are proper and teachers are provided with timely and ongoing professional support. This does not always mean going outside of a school. There may be capable people in a school. For example, Henri has a degree in computer sciences and experiments with digital applications and games in his teaching.

How teachers, administrators, and policy makers understand leadership is essential. Leadership in school veers towards management and being transactional, not servant-led, transforming, adaptive, and mindful. Schools are not businesses and do not have bottom lines, predictable or otherwise. Stop talking like they do. I worked in private industry for more than a decade and there are significant differences.

Higher Education Implications — Professors communicate directly with their students. Can we have smaller classes? Some schools do. How do we modify? Put question on PPT slide, have students form small groups for conversation, share understandings with other groups, and come back to the larger group. This is like World Café and other forms of participatory leadership.

Let student-teachers observe, plan with teachers in schools, ask questions and converse. In this study, teachers reflected, but only one journaled. Introduce reflective writing processes to tap into each teacher’s and aspiring teacher’s aspirations and lived-experiences. How each teacher interprets the context, pretext, and subtexts of their situation is subjective and can be informed by questions like “would I like this? and “what am I leaving out worth teaching?” What is consistent and inconsistent between each teacher’s learning and teaching? University faculties are hard to get into, they acts as political and ideological silos. Bring in new voices, experiences from the field, and differing views on teaching.

Teach, observe, give feedback. Teaching is not theory, technical, and abstract. It is practical and concrete. When were some professors in K-12 classrooms in meaningful ways? There are professors who go into classrooms.

How Did This Inform Me? I learned about myself and some of what I took-for-granted about my teaching throughout the process, and continue to learn each time I reflect on my dissertation. Like my co-researchers, I had moments when I said, “I forgot about that. That is an interesting question. I had not thought about it that way.” An aim of research is for each person, including the researcher, to grow to understand themselves and their practices in new and transformative ways.

[i] Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experiences: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[ii] Aoki,T. T. (1991/2005). Teaching as an indwelling between two curriculum worlds. In W. Pinar & R. L. Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a New Key: The collected works of Ted T. Aoki. (pp. 159–165). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[iii] Van Manen, M. (2014). Phenomenology of practice: Meaning-giving methods in phenomenological research and writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

[iv] Dewey, J. (1916/2004). Democracy and education. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[v] Britzman, D. P. (2003). Practice makes practice: A critical study of learning to teach. (2nd ed.). Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

[vi] ibid

[vii] Oliver, M. (1990). House of light: Poems by Mary Oliver. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

[viii] Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[ix] In French, réflexive is reflecting and acting. Ricoeur (200) proposed humans try to decrease the gap between the two, understanding it can never be fully closed (p. 1).

[x] Van Manen, M. (1991). The tact of teaching: The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[xi] ibid.

[xii] Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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