Theses Doctoral

Teaching and Learning With Self: Student Perspectives on Authenticity in Alternative Education

Blum-DeStefano, Jessica

In light of current, high-stakes debates about teacher quality, evaluation, and effectiveness, as well as the increased call for student voice in education reform, this qualitative dissertation explored how nineteen students in two alternative high schools described, understood, and experienced good teachers. More specifically, it considered the teacher qualities and characteristics that student participants named as most important and helpful, regardless of context, subject matter, or grade level. The study also considered how, if at all, participants' sharings could help adapt and extend a model for authenticity in teaching (Cranton & Carusetta, 2004) to the alternative education context.
Two in-depth, qualitative interviews with each of the nineteen participants (approximately 30 hours, transcribed verbatim) were the primary data source. Three focus groups (approximately 3 hours), extended observations (140 hours), and document analysis (e.g., program pamphlets and websites, newspaper articles, classroom handouts) provided additional data. Data analysis involved a number of iterative steps, including writing analytic notes and memos; reviewing, coding, and categorizing data to identify key themes within and across cases; and crafting narrative summaries.
Because participants were drawn to their alternative schools for a variety reasons (e.g., previous school failure, social anxiety/withdrawal, learning or behavioral challenges, etc.), and since participants experienced a wide range of educational environments prior to their current enrollments, this dissertation synthesized and brought together the ideas of a diverse group of students traditionally considered "at-risk." Despite their prior struggles, however, participants from both sites described powerful stories of re-engagement with school, which they attributed, at least in part, to their work with teachers in their alternative settings. Particularly, findings suggested that, for these nineteen participants, (1) feeling genuinely seen and valued by teachers (in the psychological sense), (2) seeing their teachers as "real" people, and (3) connecting authentically with teachers and others in their alternative school communities led to important academic, social, and personal gains. Given both historical and contemporary constructions of teaching as a selfless act--as one directed by or conducted for others, for instance--participants' overwhelming emphasis on mutual recognition and teacher selfhood was an especially important finding. Participants' reflections and descriptions likewise contributed to the literature on student-teacher relationships by offering a more nuanced, up-close portrait of these and other important school-based relationships in action.
Bringing these findings together, this dissertation presents an expanded, three-part model for authentic teaching in alternative schools that involves seeing students, teaching with self, and relating authentically--including pedagogical takeaways in each of these three domains. It also offers implications for the supports, conditions, and professional learning needed to support teacher growth and interconnectedness in the classroom--and for policies concerning teacher evaluation and retention.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Education Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Drago-Severson, Eleanor
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014