An Exploration of What it Means to be Struggling as a Secondary Teacher in England
Culshaw, Suzanne Yvette
This research emerged from a conversation with a teacher who expressed concerns about the impact of lesson observations on ‘struggling’ teachers. Struggling is a term found regularly in the literature and it has gained resonance in spite of the absence of an explicit definition of its core meaning. Notions of struggling have been associated with failing, under-performing and a lack of competence or quality. The dominant conceptualisations of struggling tend to view it as a deficit or they focus on the object or resolution of the struggle rather than the experience of struggling itself. I explored struggling as experienced by teachers with the aim of offering a theorisation of the experience of struggling which better reflects what it means and feels like to be struggling as a teacher. Such a theorisation provides for greater clarity about the experience of struggling itself as expressed by teachers. This study places the voices of teachers at its heart and, as such, helps fill the gap in the literature identified by Yariv and Kass (2017). Participants were established and experienced teachers and leaders in the secondary school system in England. Fourteen participants were recruited using an innovative strategy involving video and social media. The methodological approach taken used a mix of methods: loosely-structured interviews and an arts-based method, collage. Participants created a particular form of collage – where materials are placed rather than stuck – within the context of a research interview. Arts-based methods such as collage are gaining in popularity as they stimulate visual rather than linguistic thinking and offer the opportunity to express experiences as holistic, non-linear metaphors. Collage also has revelatory potential as it helps uncover that which participants cannot necessarily express in words alone. Rich data, comprising interviews and collages, were collected in a 5-month period in 2017. The analytical approach taken allowed the verbal and visual data to be intermingled (Grbich, 2007) and each teacher’s story is presented as an individual analytical summary. Analysis across the teachers’ stories of struggling then produced fifteen themes. Finally, a holistic interpretative approach allowed five key dimensions of the experience of struggling to be established. Together, these five dimensions form the basis of a new conceptualisation of struggling. Struggling was found to be experienced as a temporary fractured state. Struggling was also expressed by participants as heightened bodily symptoms and is associated with negative moods and emotions; struggling can also involve a damaged self-view, a reduced sense of controllability and may lead to impaired performance. This final point is, perhaps, of particular importance as it counters the prevailing view that impaired performance leads to struggling. Implications for policy and practice include a need for leaders to reconsider the support offered to teachers who identify as struggling, with the suggestion that any support is co-constructed with the teacher. Teachers want leaders to know them better and for their work environments to be more compassionate. A culture of ‘collective compassion capability’ (Lilius et al., 2011) can help alleviate struggling and even help improve a teacher’s effectiveness. Finally, stories of struggling could be used as the basis for early career mentoring support.
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