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Prospective English Teachers: Initial Experiences in Urban Classrooms

Chester H. Laine, Michaeline E. Laine, & Elizabeth A. Peavy

In this article we describe the reactions of prospective English teachers to initial teaching experiences in urban classrooms. We believe that the results have implications for the content and structure of teacher preparation programs.

Minorities in the United States comprise one-third of the population; in some metropolitan areas, African Americans and Hispanic Americans constitute a majority of the school-age population. Most urban schools, like the ones reflected in this study, enroll a majority of "minority" students, and very few American towns or villages will be homogeneous by the turn of the century. At the present time, minorities represent less than 12.5 percent of the nation's teaching force. The majority of prospective teachers are white females, which stands in sharp contrast to the backgrounds of the students they teach (Coballes-Vega, 1992). And the trend is not expected to change. The percentage of high school graduates entering college indicating education as their major field of study is declining. Clearly, Caucasian teachers are and will be teaching students of color.

As the instructors of these prospective English teachers, we aspire to prepare teachers who have attitudes that celebrate diversity. Among the guidelines that frame our work are those established by our professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English. We seek to prepare teachers who (1) a recognize that all students can learn and are worthy of a teacher's attention in the English language arts classroom, (2) desire to use the English language arts curriculum to help students become familiar with diverse peoples and cultures, and (3) respect and have enthusiasm for the individual language, dialect, bi-dialectal competence, and other language variations of each student (NCTE, 1996, p. 11).

However, many perspective teachers do not hold these attitudes. For example, when asked to describe what came to mind when hearing phrases such as "developing nation" or "emerging nation," Kissen (1989) found that prospective English teachers responded with predominately negative images. We also know that teachers often have low expectations of students who appear to be different from themselves, frequently misjudging students' language abilities (Delpit, 1995; Fraatz, 1987; Heath, 1983; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Rose, 1989; Taylor, 1991; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988).

Foster (1986) argues that the major source of problems in almost all of our schools is the breakdown in communication that results from differences in interpretation. Although this communication breakdown is common in many urban schools, the same problem now exists in other settings. Educators, familiar with suburban, middle class, Caucasian students, are now working with young men and women with whom they are unfamiliar and with whom they have little in common.

Dillon (1989) points out that the actions of teachers may diminish participation among minority students and build resentment because their actions are culturally incongruent. Borich (1994) states that cultural patterns that are unfamiliar to Caucasian teachers may provide misleading signs of involvement and uninvolvement. In addition, after years of examining the classroom behaviors of both students and teachers, Bowers and Flinders (1991) provide examples of how noise levels, use of classroom space, turn-taking, and negotiating vary across race, social class, and ethnicity.

Teachers of different cultures interpret disruptive behaviors of students differently. Bowers and Flinders (1991), Dillon (1989), and Tharp and Gallimore (1989) all present arguments that different cultures react differently to nonverbal and verbal classroom management cues. Eye contact, proximity control, verbal warnings, and classroom arrangement are interpreted differently by students from different cultures.

Knowing these differences is imperative for prospective teachers. Scholars urge awareness of "cultural congruence," the ways in which teachers alter their speech patterns, communication styles, and participation structures to resemble more closely those of the students' own culture (Lipka & Mohatt, 1998). Au and Jordan (1981) use the term "cultural appropriateness" to described the methods teachers use to work with native Hawaiian students to improve reading performance. The experience of the teacher is also a variable. In this study, we examine the perspectives of novice teachers entering urban settings. Swanson, O'Connor, and Cooney (1990) report that novice teachers tend to respond in ways that are less directive and obtrusive than their more experienced counterparts.

With this background in mind, we set out, over a two-year period (autumn of 1997 through spring of 1999), to document the perspectives and initial teaching experiences of prospective English teachers in urban classrooms.


Fifteen prospective English teachers were initially selected, the entire group in the 1997-1999 cohort group. From this group, six volunteered to participate in a more detailed study: two Caucasian women (Maxine and Karen), two Caucasian men (Holden and Steve), and two African American women (Catherine and Bonnie). They were all novice English teachers. One of the Caucasian women (Karen) was an undergraduate student at the beginning of the study, starting her senior year in college. The remaining five were older post-baccalaureate students who had pursued other careers before entering the teacher preparation program. Martha and Steve were journalists, Bonnie was a firefighter, Holden was a college teacher, and Catherine was a businesswoman.

Teacher Preparation Program

The Secondary Education Program in which these prospective English teachers are enrolled is framed by eight themes: (1) learning, (2) instruction, (3) content, (4) curriculum, (5) context, (6) professional growth and development, (7) grounded theory and knowledge, and (8) collaboration. The theme of context--that learning and teaching are inevitably embedded in multiple contexts encompassing socio-cultural, functional, structural, and temporal dimensions of school life--is most directly related to the central focus of this study: teaching in urban settings.

The five-year teacher preparation program in which these prospective English teachers were enrolled features a baccalaureate degree in English, a baccalaureate degree in Education, and field experiences in urban Professional Practice Schools, including a year-long paid teaching internship. The prospective English teachers in this study were enrolled jointly in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the College of Education.

The English component includes course work in linguistics, literature, and writing. The professional education component includes the study of methods, young adult literature, reading, and the impact of individual, cultural, and socioeconomic influences on student achievement. The teacher preparation program also includes seven field experiences in five urban professional practice schools. A team of public school teachers and university faculty is established in each of the five sites.

Undergraduates earn a degree from the Department of English and Comparative Literature. Post-baccalaureate students are expected to have an equivalent background and degree. During the first three years of the program, undergraduate students study primarily, although not exclusively, within the areas of general education and English. During what is typically the senior year for undergraduates, students undertake their professional studies, while completing their arts and sciences degree. This year is known as the professional year. Post-baccalaureate students begin their program with this professional year of study.

Like all prospective students in this program, the six prospective English teachers in this study completed seven field experiences, one in a college developmental classroom, and five in junior high and high school English classrooms. The final experience is a year-long internship in a high school or middle school English classroom. The data in this study were gathered while the prospective English teachers participated in these field experiences.


The research setting included classrooms and offices on the urban university campus, as well as in the urban public schools where these prospective English teachers participated in field experiences and internships.


We gathered data beginning in January of 1998 and continuing through March 1999 when the six prospective English teachers completed their yearlong internships, the culmination of their certification program.

Data Sources/Data Gathering

To capture the voices of the novice teachers in these urban classrooms, the following data sources were used: surveys, journal entries, extant program documents, and field notes. More specifically,

·        Prospective English teachers completed open-ended questionnaires in January 1998 and again in October 1998.

·        Prospective English teachers' journal entries, related to the teaching of urban students, were gathered throughout the year.

·        Prospective English teachers were interviewed mid-way through their yearlong internship.

Data Analysis

The survey and interview questions were adapted from questions developed by Ladson-Billings (1994). Following are the adapted questions: (1) Tell me something about your background? Describe the community where you grew up and the schools you attended? (2) Can you think of any characteristics that African American young people bring to the classroom? (3) How much of what you know about teaching African American young people did you learn from the teacher preparation program at the university? How much did you learn from actually teaching in the college developmental setting or in your public school placements? (4) How do you handle discipline? Are there special things that teachers of African American students should know about discipline? (5) If you could revamp the teacher education program at the university so that teachers would be more effective with African American students, what changes would you make? (6) How do you think that the schooling experiences of the students you teach differ from that of white students in middle class communities?

Survey and interview questions were open-ended and were analyzed using content analysis techniques established by Holsti (1969) and Viney (1983). A coding system was devised that raters used to quantify the information in the documents.


After coding and sub-coding journal entries, portfolio entries, and interview and survey data, several themes emerged: (1) The value of continuous contact with students, (2) the candid nature of the urban students, (3) a focus on myself as a teacher or on the students, (4) spunk and energy, and (5) the irrelevance of coursework.

The Value of Continuous Contact with Students

The first teaching experiences for these prospective English teachers were in developmental reading, writing, and study skills classrooms in the urban, on-campus, two-year, open-access college. Each novice teacher completed a 60-clock hour experience working with under prepared college students in racially, culturally, and socio-economically diverse classes. Due to the fact that these developmental reading and writing classes were offered on the university campus at time intervals compatible with those of their own classes, these prospective English teachers were in class with their students every day.

The continuous nature of this initial teaching experience with underprepared college students permitted more meaningful relationships between novice teachers and their students. However, survey and interview results suggest that later, more traditional, field experiences in the public schools did not. Relationships were difficult to establish because of the intermittent and limited contact possible in the two 60-clock-hour field experiences that the novice teachers completed in the winter and spring quarters. Novice teachers had to leave the university campus and visit local urban schools. Due to their other university classes, usually offered in a Tuesday-Thursday sequence or a Monday-Wednesday-Friday sequence, novice teachers seldom were able to see their students on consecutive days. Moreover, the winter and spring field experiences took place in the middle and at the end of the public school year, after relationships had already been established between the master teacher and the students. One novice teacher explained that the "real relationships" were between the regular teacher and the kids: "I was just sort of thrown in halfway during the year. They [the young adults in these public school classrooms] knew that I was temporary and that my opinion did not matter in the end.”

Finally, again, in the yearlong internship, when the prospective English teachers were full time teachers, they had continuous contact with their students. This final culminating experience was viewed as the most realistic and most meaningful aspect of the program.

The Candid Nature of the Urban Students

Sheets and Gay (1996) note that Caucasian students regard teaching abilities and classroom management skills as the basis for determining whether a teacher is likable and whether they should conform to classroom procedures. African American students, on the other hand, are less likely than other ethnic groups to concede to teachers' authority and directives when they feel unjustly accused or have not been given ample opportunity to state their case.

Some novice teachers, as they entered their final yearlong internship, became aware of these unique interaction styles. Holden, for example, a Caucasian who had attended urban elementary and secondary schools, taught in a predominately African American urban high school in his yearlong internship. He described his students as "demonstrative."

I think that they're more vocal and they want their feelings to be expressed at that moment in front of everyone. Sort of like a performance. If there is a conflict with students they want it taken care of right then, so they will raise their voices and shout and yell and try to settle any difference they have. I don't mean shout and yell in a negative way. It's just that they're very demonstrative.

Holden found this demonstrativeness helpful.

In some ways that's what makes them easier to deal with for me. I don't have to sift through a lot of mystery. Yeah, I guess that is what I mean by demonstrative. In some ways that demonstrative nature is tied to honesty and you really get an honest take on them, like there's no mystery.

A Focus on Myself as a Teacher or on the Students

Although several novice teachers worried about their safety as they entered their first public school field experience, most simply felt out of place. One novice teacher said that she was struck by seeing "so many white teachers and so few black teachers and all of these black students." I am worried, said another, "that students will feel that I don't understand their urban outlook or life." Another was concerned about "how these black students will react to me, a white teacher." Upon entering a nearly all-black high school setting, one novice teacher explained that he was told by his school-based mentor that there was "no way for me to understand the backgrounds of my students."

Some of the prospective teachers were simply uncomfortable being among young people. Others were still facing anxiety about speaking in front of large groups of teenagers. One explained that "I am worried that they will not value education." Another explained that she wanted "respect not just because I am the authority figure." Racial, cultural, linguistic, and cultural differences were more obvious to the prospective teachers in their first field experience than in their final internship. In October of the internship year, one prospective teacher explained that "poverty and neglect are bigger issues than race." Another explained that "it doesn't really have much to do with race. I think that it is all about class."

      The novice teachers in this study who focused on their students rather than on themselves had more meaningful interactions inside and outside the classroom. This was evident in their first field experience. Course evaluation data revealed that the college developmental students viewed some of the prospective teachers as "real." For example, when Holden asked them about their high school experiences and shared some of his, the students viewed him as "cool." Holden wrote, "They respected me and felt that I could be cool with them. It seems that I had a positive relationship with them."

Similarly, Karen was able to share something of herself with the college students in her first field experience. She copied drafts of papers she had written in high school and shared them with the college students she was teaching. She took some risks, revealed something of her own struggles as a writer, and helped these basic writers better understand the drafting process. In Karen’s survey, she wrote "I interacted with these students by attempting to demonstrate a genuine concern and interest in their thoughts and knowledge."

Other prospective teachers kept their distance. In the developmental writing class, Martha announced, "I am the teacher and you are the student.” For teachers like Martha, personal interactions with students were infrequent. These novice teachers viewed teaching as one-way communication and were often convinced that the students "just didn't get it!" Steve, another prospective teacher in this college developmental setting, was not sure how to connect with his students. In a case study of one of his students, he wrote, "I profiled one black male. There was some uneasiness between us, but I can't say if it was from race or the new student-teacher relationship." Even though Steve was with his college developmental students for the entire ten-week academic quarter, he was unable to establish the type of relationship that Holden and Karen had established. His focus was on himself rather than on his students.

Like most beginning teachers, classroom control dominated the thinking of these six novice teachers. The fact that they were in unfamiliar urban settings only served to increase their concerns. Grossman (1995) states that students from different ethnic backgrounds often come to school with dissimilar expectations and preferences for disciplinary styles because people from different cultures have their own standards of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For example, in many cases, Caucasian teachers experience difficulty disciplining African American children because they do not "connect" culturally. The teachers do not behave as African American children expect authority figures to behave. It seems that when Caucasian teachers practice the discipline techniques they are usually taught in college, African American children often "run over them" (Baumrind, 1971; Kelley, Power, & Wimbush, 1992; Kelley, Sanchez-Hucles, & Walker, 1993; Nweke, 1994).

      As novice teachers, both the Caucasian and the African American teachers in our study struggled with classroom control. However, some focused on themselves while others focused on the students. In her very first field experience, Martha, a Caucasian teacher, encountered an interpersonal barrier. She wrote: "I didn't really 'know' any students more personally than others." Catherine, on the other hand, felt that being an African American and growing up in an African American community helped her understand the interactions she observed. "I think that is probably the advantage that African American teachers have when teaching African American children. We've grown up in the community."

      Catherine, an upper middle class African American teacher with teenagers in a neighboring suburban school district, is teaching in an urban high school. She explains,

I think that the parents in middle class districts hold teachers accountable for their kids, what they learn, what they get on that test. It is not their child; it is you and what you are teaching. Because parents hold those teachers accountable, the teachers hold the kids accountable. When I go into a parent conference, I'm the same way. The few inner city parents I have seen at conferences basically want to know how's he doing, how's she doing. They're concerned if they're being good in class, you know, that their behavior is good, that kind of thing. Whereas, I think that people in upper class neighborhoods are more interested in grades. They value that grade. They know that 'As' lead to Harvard and 'Cs' do not. Urban parents want their kinds to get out of high school. If it's a 'C,' it's okay. They just want to get them out of high school and I think that is the difference. I really do.

      In another example, near the end of his preparation program, during his year-long internship in a predominately African American urban high school, Holden was able to focus on his students rather than on himself.

One difference I see is that punishment is different for these kids. The suburban white kids, they lose a lot of privileges and they lose a lot of material things because of their behavior. 'If you do this, I'll take this away from you.' So, they're sort of conditioned at an early age and I was kind of that way. If you're gonna do something, you are going to do it to get away with it. The urban kids that I work with, a lot of them don't have that, that threat that they're going to get a lot of material goods taken away. A lot of them don't have many material things. These kids can be just as devious, but I don't think there's that sort of secretiveness of I am going to do all these things and get away with it.

Spunk, Energy and Orality

The novice teachers who established the most effective relationships often referred to the "spunk and energy" of their urban African American students. For example, during the first college developmental field experience, Bonnie, one of the African American teachers wrote: "African American students bring a special spunk into the classroom. I like spunk." Karen provided another insight when she wrote: "African American students were a lot of fun, had energy, and talent." Some prospective English teachers seemed to draw vitality from the energy of their students. Karen, for example, said,

I felt an immediate relationship with several of the students. There were two students, one male and one female, both African American, with whom I just clicked. These two exemplify the reasons I want to teach. They brought out an energy that I really like about myself.

      Later in the yearlong internships, the prospective teachers spoke of the rich oral language of the African American students. When asked if African American children bring anything unique to the classroom, Catherine, an African American teacher, exclaimed,

Oh God, they bring a lot to the classroom. They are so verbal, so oral. I think that they are just super sensitive kids. They're really sensitive, really aware of their immediate environment. They're talkative and have a lot to say. And, that's cool. All of them are so different, but all of them have a lot to say.

      Holden, a Caucasian teacher, describes a setting where he was drawn to the unique oral culture of his African American high school students.

You know we took a field trip last week, two weeks ago, to the zoo and within five minutes, you know, the kids were singing on the bus, bur not camp fire style. One side of the bus would sing. It was all black kids in the back of the bus. It was our freshman class, which is like ninety-five percent black. And, one side of the bus would sing a lyric real quick and the other side would respond to it and it would be organized in like seconds, you know, it didn't take anything at all. They sang the whole way to the zoo. It was incredible. It was really good time.

Holden described a similar love of oral language in the classroom. When reading Romeo and Juliet or when writing poetry, his students begged him to allow them to get up in front of the class.

You know, when I had them write poems, they wanted to read to the class. They didn't just want to turn them in. I know that I was shy about reading things and still am to people, but when I collected their poems and I let them read them the first thing they said was, "Are we going to do this again?" They liked that performance, getting up and presenting what they know orally.

The Irrelevance of Coursework

There was little evidence that these novice teachers perceived that college course work helped them create effective pedagogy for urban African American students. Some, when pressed in the interview, remembered course work devoted to varieties of English and Black English vernacular. Others recalled being asked to read poetry and prose written by African American authors. However, as one novice teacher explained in the fourth month of her year-long internship: "You know, you take from this class what you need, but for the most part you get it in your practical experience." Holden, near the conclusion of his yearlong internship explained "I think you either have it or you don't, you know, and that you can't be taught how to teach in this kind of setting." He explains that most suburban teachers do not really have an understanding of urban settings and they can't expect to be taught that in a college classroom. "You can't walk into a class and say, 'Teach me about Black people.' But people expect that."

Conclusions and Implications

      We believe that the results have implications for the content and structure of teacher preparation programs.

Increase the quantity and quality of field experiences

All of prospective teachers found the field experiences, especially the yearlong internships, to be of the greatest value, although the lack of continuity in some of the earlier field experiences was often frustrating. Coursework, in general, was perceived to be unrelated to the real work of teaching.

Have prospective teachers become involved in the communities where they will teach

When asked how the teacher preparation program could be improved, Catherine suggested that all prospective teachers spend time in the communities where they will be teaching.

I don't know how you would do it. Of course, any time you get to know people you can learn to appreciate them for who they are and what they bring to the table. Without that you only have what you know to go on, good, bad, or indifferent. Teachers should work in community centers with teenagers as a recreation coordinator or something that exposes them to the language, exposes them to the attitudes.

Varied and continuous experiences in urban settings will help prospective teachers grasp the complexity of the lives of the urban students they teach

During two years of field experiences in urban settings, most of these prospective English teachers grew to focus less on themselves and more on their students. The racial differences became less obvious and issues of poverty and class became more conspicuous. As Holden asserts at the end of his interview, "Well, urban kids don't have the same resources, which is immoral. The fact that each of my kids doesn't have a computer is terrible." Like many of his fellow interns, Holden believed that there were lower expectations as well. In general, most of these prospective teachers, by the spring of their internship year, recognized the complexity of these urban settings and the unique qualities that urban students bring to the classroom.

Through varied and continuous field experiences, prospective teachers can come to view the unique cultural qualities of urban children differently

Many of these prospective teachers found that their notions of urban students changed as a result of their immersion in urban classrooms. Many who observed a "love of language," "spunk and energy," and "an awareness of their awareness of their immediate environment" relinquished long held stereotypes. After two years in varied urban settings, these prospective teachers, who once saw only lack of self-control, now saw honesty, energy, and talent. Some even spoke of the professional vitality they drew from the energy of their students. The most talented of these prospective English teachers drew on these strengths to help them write poetry and introduce them to Shakespeare's plays. This can only be achieved through extensive field experiences in urban settings.





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