Karen Hammerness with Deirdre Faughey

Dr. Karen Hammerness

Dr. Karen Hammerness

Karen Hammerness is the Director of Educational Research and Evaluation at the American Museum of Natural History. Most recently, she has been studying teacher education programs that focus on preparing teachers for particular contexts, such as urban public schools, and exploring the advantages of such focused preparation for new teachers, and their students—work that is collected in the recently released Inspiring Teaching: Preparing Teachers to Succeed in Mission-Driven Schools, published by Harvard Education Press. In this conversation, Hammerness delves into the concept of concept-specific teaching by sharing her thoughts on what it means to prepare teachers to teach in particular contexts, as well as the importance of recognizing that teacher education, and teaching, involves the development of a clearly defined vision for what good teaching is, as well as ideas for how to prepare teachers to enact this vision.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I wanted to start out by asking you about context-specific teaching. I’m interested in learning about what made you interested in context-specific teacher education. How do define context-specific teacher education, and why do you think the approach is valuable?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Maybe it would help to give history on the “Choosing to Teach” research project itself because that in turn shaped my thinking for context-specific teacher education and led to the development of the course at Bard with my colleague BC Craig. When we first started this project, ten years ago, we looked at programs that prepared teachers for Jewish Day schools, Catholic urban schools, and we hadn’t included yet the Chicago Public Schools program. When we first started, we were very interested in studying how teachers’ identities developed and programs addressed people’s personal commitments and personal identities as well as the kind of professional teaching. Over time, as we added the urban professional teacher education program in Chicago, we began to realize that the labels—of an urban teacher education program, or a Jewish teacher education program, or a Catholic teacher education program—really looked at context in a very nuanced way that was sort of masked by these more general labels. That led us to look at what these programs were doing to kind of frame and understand the contexts that they were preparing teachers for, and what it means to be preparing people for Chicago public schools, instead of urban schools. And what it means to prepare people for specific settings—the Jewish Day schools, the different types of Catholic schools. That led us to understand and begin to realize that there were layers to the contexts that people were addressing and that led to this notion and realization that they were preparing people in way that was targeted and specific and local. And that led to this notion of context-specific teacher education. So by context-specific we mean programs that really tailor themselves to the particular contexts that they’re aiming to help people understand more about. So in the case of the Chicago program, it’s the Chicago public schools.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Can you give an example of what a student would need to know about Chicago schools in particular in order to help them be able to teach there?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Well, what we understood as we began to study the program at the Chicago teacher education program at the University of Chicago is that the program really thought about the context as a set of layers. One of the things that they tried to help people understand is the broad Federal and State context for the Chicago Public Schools; to try to understand the racial and economic and cultural differences of children across the country; to understand the achievement gap, to understand the ways that Federal Policy is framing those issues. They treat context at a Federal and National level, but then they also treat context at a district level, to help people understand the history of Chicago, of the school district, of the governance of the city of Chicago and how that shapes Chicago Pubic Schools. They also treat context at a school or community level, so they try to help people understand the nature of the demographics of the schools and communities in the particular places in which they’ll be teaching. And then they also spend a lot of time helping people understand the nature of very particular kinds of school settings, because of course schools vary even within neighborhoods and communities. So they try to help people understand the nature and the aim and the vision and the purpose of the particular schools in which they’ll be teaching. It’s a layered approach to context at all of these different levels.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And would you say that you try to focus your class at Bard on these different layers?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Absolutely. One of the things that I’ve been doing over the course of the couple years prior to the development of the class is to look at what students are really understanding about the context. I’d been doing surveys and interviews and observing practicing teachers and one of the things that I learned was that teachers, once they graduated, felt like they really understood how to teach the discipline. There had been a lot of understanding about how to teach literature and history—what are the big ideas and how to develop curriculum—but there were still things that students felt they hadn’t had a chance to learn about. In particular, the nature of the communities in which they’d be working, the differences across schools, settings, contexts, and types of schools. For instance, when I interviewed one of the graduates of the program the new teacher said to me, “you know one of the things I didn’t really realize was the differences in philosophies of charter schools and public schools, and I didn’t really understand the differences between those types of schools. It would have helped to understand those things in order to find the job that was a good fit for me.” And one of the things I also found was that when new teachers went into the charter schools, some of whom had a more rigid behavioral philosophy, it was very hard for people who had been prepared at Bard, which has a quite liberal approach to teaching. They had a hard time adapting their instruction to be successful in those types of schools. So I realized that there were certain things the new teachers weren’t learning about the New York City setting, the types of schools that exist in New York, and about how to get to know neighborhoods and communities in a way that would enable them to understand the demographics of students, the affordances of communities. It was an area that we could prepare students much better around. That was what led to then the development of the course that BC and I designed.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Can you talk a little bit about what you did in particular in the course to help to teach to some of that?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

BC and I used this layers of contexts approach to design the course. We tried to develop activities and assignments and experiences that would develop practices that we felt good urban teachers would need to be able to do. So for instances, we felt that one of the things that teachers would need to be able to do was to really learn about the different types of schools in the New York City context, because one of the things about the NYC policy context is that it allows for lots of different schools—there are charter schools that really range in terms of their philosophies, and public schools that really range in terms of their philosophies and visions, and also in terms of the kinds of professional developments they offer new teachers. We wanted them to be able to read the context of the school before they went into it. So we developed assignments that would help new teachers develop some of those abilities. One of the things we had them do was a school walk, or school observation, where we asked them to walk around and take note of the messages that were encrypted in the materials on the walls, in the ways that adults talked to one another, in the ways the desks were set up in classrooms. We wanted them to be able to begin to read some of these non-verbal signals that schools send that would help them to understand the messages about teaching and learning, the vision that the school might have about teaching and learning, the ways that the schools provide opportunities for children to learn. So we had a series of assignments designed to help new teachers understand the variations in schools and school settings.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And how did your students respond? Can you share your reflections on how the course went?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

I’m really interested to go and see what happens. My hope is that they’ll continue to use those skills when they go for job interviews and figure out what might be a good fit for them when they are ultimately taking new positions. One of the things that we did in the spring to prepare them to go to job interviews was to have them look at materials that schools had posted, look at the job descriptions, read the signals that the schools put forward. So, was there a lot of discussion about collecting data? Was there a lot of discussion about a progressive philosophy? What would be the cues that they could look for to see if that school was a good fit for them? We tried to cycle back to the original assignment that we had done at the beginning of the year to try to help shape their experiences. I think that for the most part this was probably the first class in which they had opportunities to really think about how what they learn directly affected the decisions they were going to make about where they wanted to teach. I believe that it began to shape how they were thinking about where they ultimately wanted to teach, and where would be a good fit for their vision about teaching and learning. I hope that people ended up in schools that were close to their vision because they had a chance to think about that and use those skills.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

It’s interesting how you mention their vision because I also wanted to ask you about your first book, which is related to that idea of a teacher’s vision. But before we move on from your most recent work, I wonder if you could explain the process that you went through to put together Inspiring Teaching.

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Inspiring TeachingWell it didn’t feel as overwhelming as I thought it might. Part of what’s really useful about the work of academics is that we often have chunks of ideas and papers that come out of research that sort of accumulates over time. For us, because we were working as a team, people were taking different slices of the project and began to take ownership of particular analyses that all built towards a broader set of ideas. So a group of us were looking at the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago, a group of us were looking at the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame, a group of us were looking at the Day School Leadership through Teaching program at Brandeis University, and it allowed us to do this is a way that didn’t feel like we all had to come together and write a book, but you know we had all been preparing conference presentations for years, we’d been trying to pull things through that would allow us to look specifically a the role of vision, or personality development, or the role of school settings, and so it was really a long process but it served us well for writing the book because we had all of these prior writing experiences that built towards something. I guess the best piece of advice I would give to people who were thinking about doing this is that if you think about it as small pieces that build towards something larger—whenever I write something for AERA I always think that the presentation is not the end, but that I hope it will end up somewhere in the future. I always think about where is this going to head, where is this going to end up. So presenting something at a conference is not just a place that it will land, but it will continue to build towards a bigger agenda, a larger set of understandings.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

What are the larger understandings that you’ve come to now that you’ve spent all of this time on the research and the book has come out. What would you say you have learned at this point from all of this work?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Well, I think there are a lot of things that I’ve learned. Having looked at vision at a personal level—the role that vision plays for teachers in terms of shaping their identities, their commitments, their professional futures… I was very interested in teachers individual visions, and I think now that I see the importance of a program having a vision. But I also understand the idea that in many cases in the United States, teacher education programs have many different visions. I think of some alternative programs, for instance, in which teaching is framed as service—something that you do for a short period of time and then move on to something else. But I think that the programs that we looked at that were really powerful and ended up retaining people in teaching were the programs that had a vision of teaching as professional practice. Something that can be developed and learned over time, and can prepare people to enact those kinds of practices. But I think I also realized through this work the importance of not only having a program vision, but also the importance of having opportunities to learn about the vision and to actually practice the vision. So now there’s this really interesting work in teacher education around core practices and high leverage practices. Coming out of work with Deborah Ball and Pam Grossman and a number of scholars that are looking at how new teachers are prepared, and I think one of the things that we make the argument around in this book is that its not only important to have a powerful vision in a program, but that student teachers need to have opportunities to enact the vision and actually do it. So one of the most powerful findings of the work around core practices is that there’s been this concern about teacher education that new teachers often read a lot about teaching but they don’t get very many opportunities to craft teaching, to learn how to run a classroom discussion and to get feedback on it within university courses. So they might get student teaching, but within university courses and methods course there isn’t really an opportunity to rehearse or practice or construct real teaching. And one of the things that we found in our research is that programs that have a really powerful vision also need to provide opportunities to practice that vision in the context of university-based courses. So in the methods courses, looking at examples of student work and practicing giving kids feedback—those things actually allow teachers to have a powerful vision of what they want to accomplish, but to also try out doing those kinds of things, they have an opportunity to enact that vision. So they need not only the vision, but the opportunity to enact it.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And for many teachers that practice doesn’t happen until their first year of teaching, right?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Right. And our findings are that the programs that do offer those opportunities, the programs that really do offer those opportunities are the programs that plan to have teachers stay in teaching, that have a clear sense of what they want to accomplish in the classrooms. When I looked at the interviews of the people who had graduated from the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago, those teachers were extremely clear about the kinds of things that they imagined themselves doing in the classroom. And then when we actually observed them, years after they graduated from the program, they really were actually doing those things in the classroom.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And once they were in the context, did they have to change their vision?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

I think it helped clarify. I think at times, in teacher education, the teachers have the sense that there is an exciting, compelling vision, but they don’t know what it looks like in practice. So I think what’s powerful about a program like the University of Chicago’s program is that they not only have this very far-reaching vision of making social change and culturally relevant teaching practice, but they also teach people what that could look like in the classroom in very practical ways, so that people aren’t feeling like there’s this great gap between the very broad and powerful vision, that it’s too broad for them to ever enact in the classroom. They’re actually learning how to enact the vision that they’re learning about. And I don’t know if their vision changed over time in the program, I think many of them came in already with an interest in making a commitment in social justice. I think not all of them really understood what that might mean, or some of the institutional racism that the program helps students become much more aware of, and I think they begin to understand a lot more of what that looks like, but I think their visions probably develop in a much more smaller-grain-sized way that they really can say what this looks like, as opposed to having an ideological vision that’s not as well developed.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

In my experience teaching new teachers, they seem so hungry for those specific examples so that they can understand the strategies that go along with a philosophy or vision for teaching, because it seems that they can understand the philosophy but it’s harder to see what it would look like in the classroom.

KAREN HAMMERNESS

And I think that is the biggest challenge of having a program that has a powerful reform-based vision around teaching practice, or around social justice. If the program doesn’t offer opportunities to really enact it and ask questions like: What does it mean to have culturally relevant material? What does it mean to have dialogue with kids in a way that builds upon and addresses the values that they might bring, or their cultural background? What does that actually look like? They may become discouraged when they try to do it in practice because they haven’t really realized what it actually means to enact it.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I really looking forward to reading this book once it comes out next month.

KAREN HAMMERNESS

I’m very excited about it. We’ve learned so much and I’m proud of the book.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Seeing Through Teachers EyesI wanted to ask also, quickly, about your first book, Seeing Through Teachers’ Eyes, which seems relevant to the work you are still doing. Did that book come out of your dissertation?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Yes, that was really the substance of my dissertation. I developed it a little bit because after I finished my dissertation I continued to follow the teachers, so the book reflects a little bit of additional data collection. I interviewed the teachers every year for about seven years, so the book includes that, but it’s for the most part the basis for my dissertation and the main findings. That work came out of this idea that teachers have visions—a set of goals, a set of ideas, a commitment to a broader set of purpose and a sense of the ideal classroom they are striving for—and I’m committed to the idea, and excited about the idea, that most teachers do have a vision and I’m interested in how they shape their identities and their personal choices and their career choices. I’ve seen, at least in the book and in the sample of people that I’ve looked at, that there are really powerful ways in which vision shaped their experiences. I became interested over time in what it means, and what it looks like, when programs have vision. Programs are trying to prepare people to enact certain kinds of practices, to achieve certain kinds of goals, and I think most teacher educators have visions and are trying to accomplish things, personally and through programs. I became more and more interested in this institutional vision. What are the variations of vision? How do they impact the vision of the teachers who go through the program? How do they help sustain people’s commitments, and their practices. What does it mean to have a set of goals and purposes and how do you enact those in practice? Those are questions that I’ve been really interested in for most of my career.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

So what are you working on next?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

I’m still very interested in those ideas and they’re continuing to shape the work that I’m doing so now I’m in the midst of an international study of teacher education and we’re looking at the kinds of visions the programs in different countries have. It’s interesting, in the U.S. we found that programs have these very different kinds of visions of good teaching, from good teaching as service, to good teaching as a form of professional practice, to good teaching as social justice. Not all the programs fit neatly in those areas, and programs like Chicago really had a vision of good teaching as social justice but also as professional practice. The DeLeT program also had a blend of visions. But I’m interested in what the visions of teacher education programs in Finland have. What are they trying to accomplish? What’s important to those programs? I’m also interested in opportunities to learn about practice, and do these programs really give people an opportunity to enact vision. In our current study we’re looking at the kinds of opportunities that student teachers have to practice aspects of good teaching. We’ve developed a survey and a set of questions about teaching practice that help us to identify the kinds of opportunities student teachers have to kind of practice good teaching.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And what countries are you looking at?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

The U.S., Norway, Finland, Sweden, Chile, and Cuba.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And where have you conducted research so far?

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Well, an international study is complicated. The way that we’ve done it is we’ve hired research assistants in each country to collect the data. We’re working at a program level, it’s just a couple of programs in each country. It’s more about looking at sample programs in these different countries. So we’re trying not to talk about what the visions are of different countries, but of programs in different countries, and we’re about half-way through the data collection and we’ve been doing observations in the methods classes of each of these programs. So it’s 8-10 different programs we’re looking at in all of these different countries, because in some cases there might only be one program. And we’re looking at the mathematics and the language arts methods classes and trying to identify to what degree are teachers learning to look at samples of student work. To what degree are students having the opportunity to simulate teaching, practice running a class discussion, or practice orchestrating small groups. To what degree are they having opportunities to look at videotapes of real classroom teaching and talk about it? So, we’re trying to look at ways in which practice is enacted at the university level within the course, so not their student teaching experiences, but the methods courses at the university.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

That sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to hear more about it.

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Yeah, so far we’re seeing a lot of similar patterns and one of the things that we’re finding is that student teachers don’t have a lot of opportunities to look at student work and to analyze student work, which is kind of interesting. Not a lot of opportunities to look at videos of classroom practice, or to enact practice. So the initial findings are suggesting that they have some opportunities in some areas, but in some ways it’s not surprising considering some of the work that Pam Grossman and Deborah Ball have done about finding few opportunities to enact practice in teacher education so far.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

These questions also make me think about some of the push towards private teacher education, with programs like the new Relay Graduate School, and in the UK there’s been a discussion about moving away from university-based teacher education to more school-based preparation. I wonder if you have noticed this issue as important to any of the work that you’ve done so far.

KAREN HAMMERNESS

Well we haven’t looked at any programs that are straight alternative programs. I would say that some of the programs are more of a hybrid program, so they’re not particularly university-based but they’re also not straight alternative in a way, and that’s typical of a lot of programs in the United States these days. There’s such a range of university-based and alternative programs. The labels are almost misleading in getting us away from what’s really important, which is whether a program has a really powerful vision of teaching and learning and to some degree thinking about vision as a professional practice is really important. Programs that have teaching as service, which suggests that teachers could do it for a short amount of time and move on, doesn’t necessarily contribute to a teaching workforce that imagines a strong commitment to teaching as something that is an intellectual practice. What I’m less interested in is whether programs are alternative or traditional, or whatever the label is, but the kind of vision they have of teaching and whether the program is giving students the opportunity to enact those practices and that they are tied to a powerful vision of teaching and learning.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Well thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really appreciate your taking the time!

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey (Founding Editor, Publisher) is a doctoral student in the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teachers CollegeColumbia University. Deirdre completed a Masters degree in the Teaching of English from Teachers College, and a Bachelors degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College. She is also the Managing Editor of International Ed Newsa Research Assistant for the National Center for the Restructuring Education, Schools & Teaching (NCREST), and has taught Masters-level Literacy courses at Hunter College.
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