Theses Doctoral

Teachers' Conceptions of Improving Their Practice: A Developmental Approach

Coniff, Jennifer Frawley

Recent efforts to help teachers improve have centered on teacher evaluation. This qualitative dissertation explored how eight teachers from one middle school described and understood improving their practice Additionally, this study used purposeful developmental sampling to explore how, if at all, participants’ way of knowing (meaning their internal cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities), as assessed by an expert developmental psychologist who employed the Subject-Object Interview (a reliable developmental assessment tool), might help with understanding how they teachers themselves describe and make sense of improving their practice. The participant’s way of knowing influenced their conceptions of improvement, as well as the supports and challenges they encountered.

This study has implications for teachers themselves, as well as school districts and district leaders, as they work to improve teacher practice. This study is unique in that it focuses on the experiences and understandings of teachers, all of whom work within one middle school, as they strive to improve their practice. The research was set in a district with a unique teacher evaluation system through which teachers participate in setting evaluation goals and evaluations were not at all tied to standardized test scores. I recruited an expert developmental psychologist to conduct Subject-Object Interviews in order to develop a purposeful sample of eight participants with a developmental range from socializing to self-authoring way of knowing.

Eight Subject-Object interviews and 24 in-depth, qualitative interviews (approximately 36 hours, transcribed verbatim) were the primary data source. Data analysis involved several iterative steps, including writing analytic notes and memos; reviewing, coding, categorizing data to identify key themes within and across cases; and crafting narrative summaries. For each of the connected dimensions of understanding improvement conceiving, recognizing, and supporting improvement participants’ way of knowing was intimately tied to how they described how they improved their practice. The key difference between the dominant socializing knowers and the dominant self-authoring knowers emerged that the socializing knowers were subject to external authorities and factors, while the dominant self-authoring knowers relied on their internal values and judgment.

In describing their understanding of what it meant to improve, all of the participants described how they sought to improve their practice by deepening their PCK and improving rapport with students (8 of 8), with the dominant socializing knowers relying on external authorities and providing their descriptions from within their own experiences. The dominant self-authoring knowers had strong internal systems from which they evaluated external information to evaluate its relevance to their improvement. Participants also discussed their uncertainty recognizing improvement (8 of 8). For the fully socializing knowers, they were uncertain about their own improvement because of changeable external forces. Those participants who were dominant socializing knowers with full capacity for self-authoring ways of knowing, they expressed uncertainty in themselves, so the source was internal.

The dominant self-authoring knowers had their own theories of the inherent uncertainties of measuring improving their practice, yet also described ways that they could gauge improvement. Almost all participants named both observing others (7 of 8) and time to meet with colleagues (7 of 8) as practices that supported improvement. The dominant socializing knowers valued time to observe others and to meet with colleagues as opportunities to take in ideas from external sources to help them improve their practice. In contrast, the dominant self-authoring knowers appreciated time to meet with and to observe colleagues so that they could problem-solve, evaluate ideas, and build community.

In sharing their understanding of district initiatives and teacher evaluation plan, how participants described supports and obstacles for their improvement were qualitatively different based on their way of knowing. Some participants described district initiatives as helpful (3 of 8) for their improvement, but that all participants (8 of 8) said that the high volume and short life span of the initiatives created obstacles to their improvement.

For the dominant socializing knowers, they described feeling judged and that they had to “keep up” with new initiatives. The dominant self-authoring knowers discussed initiatives as distractions from their self-determined improvement path. Importantly, the dominant socializing knowers in leadership roles expressed increased anxiety in having to represent new initiatives to colleagues. All participants (8 of 8) identified features of the teacher evaluation plan that were helpful for their improvement. For the dominant socializing knowers, they valued the external authority of guiding documents, whereas the dominant self-authoring knowers valued the time to discuss and evaluate their work with their evaluator. Most participants (7 of 8) also described ways in which the teacher evaluation plan created obstacles in their efforts to improve. For the dominant socializing knowers, they were concerned about feeling inadequate in their improvement, while most of the dominant self-authoring knowers expressed that the evaluation plan took away time and focus from how they thought they could best improve their practice.

According to my research, teachers benefit from time to meet with and to observe their colleagues as well as transparency as to how to reconcile past and present initiatives. Additionally, to support teachers who are dominantly socializing in their way of knowing, my research shows that they profit from clearly delineated written guidance and affirmative discussion with evaluators.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Curriculum and Teaching
Thesis Advisors
Drago-Severson, Ellie
Hatch, Thomas
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
November 9, 2022