Portrait of Professional Growth: Reflections from a Fifth-Sixth Grade Science Teacher

Aug 8th, 2019 | Category: Columns, Elementary/Middle School Education
By Della Weaver

It is through the role of literacy coaching that I have come to know the participant interviewed for this article. This teacher’s warmth and friendliness is evident as soon as you enter her classroom. Occasionally, a soft, but firm reprimand wafts through the room when a student is persistently off-task, disruptive, or shows a confrontational attitude. After working with this teacher as a literacy coach for the past four years, I felt it incumbent upon me to understand and interpret her story in a way that would enable the reader to make a connection with her personality, character, intrigue with science, and with teaching science, especially to middle-grade students.

The participant has made several transitions in her tenure as an elementary schoolteacher. Each transition has provided her with valuable insight about teaching, pedagogy and learning as she resolves to touch the lives of her students. However, her tenure does not include a certification in science. Initially, she taught special education in a special day school setting for five years. After that, she taught special education in a public school setting for fifteen years. Then she served students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in a Lutheran school setting. When a position became available in the PreK-Kindergarten program at this Lutheran school, she was offered and accepted the position. Now, for the past three years, she is staffed at the school as the fifth and sixth grade teacher for English language arts, health, Christian education, and the departmental science teacher for 3rd-8th grades.

Before seeking to interview this practicing teacher, I shared the goal of the work and received verbal permission for her participation. The interviews were carried out over a three-day period. The first session lasted approximately thirty minutes. The second session lasted over thirty minutes and the final session lasted almost an hour. I shared the videotapes with the teacher. In order to ensure privacy, original copies shall be destroyed.

These open-ended questions framed this inquiry:

1.  What is your perception of the role that background and education play in classroom practice?

2.  How do you perceive experiences with teaching science to middle school students?

Portraiture Methodology

Portraiture supports data collections best captured with interviews as described by researchers such as Merriam (1998), and Creswell (2007). Cope, Jones, and Hendricks (2014) state that portraiture enables the lived experiences of real people in real settings to be illuminated through the ‘painting’ of their stories. Brooks (2017) believes portraiture research takes into consideration the social and cultural context and perspectives of the people with whom the researcher is collaborating. Then, “research portraits” are shaped through dialogue between the researcher and the participant in order to capture an “authentic” voice through the researcher’s “articulation.” According to Brooks (2017), portraiture methodology calls for close attention to context because it is an important tool in the interpretation of meaning. Research portraits are shaped through dialogue between the researcher and the participant, a focus on history and context, and on participant observation. Further, Brooks (2017) states that portraiture methodology makes a connection between the participant’s “life history, biography, and fieldwork.” (p. 2235). As suggested by Brooks, I used theory to help me think “with” the data. In striving to achieve the purpose of this article, I will use the methodological framework from the perspectives of the above researchers.


One practicing middle school teacher participated in this exploration. The teacher’s tenure is 25 years. Presently, the teacher is staffed as a homeroom teacher for middle-school language arts, health and Christian education, and the departmental science teacher for grades 3 through 8.

Data Analysis Procedure

Dilley (2004) surmises that interviewing in qualitative methods involves constant attention to the “heard data” in order to understand the meaning that the participants make through their interaction with the context of the phenomena. The process of data analysis in qualitative research is not an isolated process, but is interrelated and can be completed simultaneously with data collection and writing of results (Creswell, 2007; Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1995). The first step in the procedure for data reduction is data management (Creswell & Merriam, 1998). During this step, data are organized for analysis and reflected upon in order to glean an understanding of the categories. Category construction is crucial to qualitative data analysis (Mayan, 2009; Merriam, 1998; Silverman, 2010). At this stage of analysis, Creswell (2007) states the data are coded in order to begin describing, classifying, and interpreting the findings.

Here, the data can undergo what Creswell (2007) refers to as “winnowing” because not all information collected has the same importance to the study. The goal of winnowing is to develop a “short list of tentative codes that match text segments, regardless of the length of the database” (p. 152). Merriam’s (1998) earlier research supports Creswell’s position that “the fewer the categories, the greater the level of abstraction, and the greater ease with which you can communicate your findings to others. A large number of categories is likely to reflect an analysis too lodged in concrete description” (p. 185). After coding the information, the researcher reduces and combines the categories into themes that are used to write the results. To accomplish the task of data analysis relevant to developing themes, I followed the procedures outlined by the researchers above.

Validity in Qualitative Methods

To determine whether the results of this work relate to other contexts and are consistent in other contexts, I sought to enhance its validity. Within interpretative research, validation is “a judgment of the trustworthiness or goodness of a piece of research” (Creswell, 2007, p. 205). According to Creswell (2007), as well as Kvale and Brinkmann (2009), ethical validation means that all research agendas must question their underlying moral assumptions, their political and ethical implications, and the equitable treatment of diverse voices that experience a phenomenon while also providing practical answers to questions. Since the validity of this work focused on data obtained from interviews, my validation concerns revolved around credible reporting of the participant’s narrative.

Reliability in Qualitative Methods

Reliability pertains to how consistent and trustworthy research findings are construed to be. Reliability is problematic when applied to qualitative research methods because human behavior is dynamic, ever-changing, and cannot be isolated (Merriam, 1998). However, despite the controversy over the issue of reliability relevant to qualitative study, researchers in this field have offered several techniques to ensure the dependability of results in their studies. Among these techniques are investigator’s position, triangulation, and audit trail.

Findings and Discussion

Speaking of Background and Educational Experiences

The participant began with sharing the joy of living directly across the street from a large park. Two of her most memorable experiences during childhood were going to the park and roller skating. Going to the park was memorable because “There was horseback riding in the summer. I was excited and scared of horseback riding. I was also fascinated by the stories the keeper and trainer in charge of the particular horse I rode would tell. He would talk about the horse’s care, habits and personality. He was responsible and caring.” She spent most of her summer days “roaming through the park with friends looking at nature,” and attributes this experience with helping to develop her love of science today.

This participant attributed her Catholic elementary and high school education with providing “the foundational skills I needed to succeed in life.” Experience in elementary school was described as strict because, “The nuns had tight discipline. They wore habits at this time. The demeanor of some of them was very stern and they were firm. They were committed and dedicated to our education. We were taught the principles of Christian Education. The curriculum required us to attend Mass on Sundays. It was mandatory.”

Recalling her experience at an all girls’ high school, the participant stated, “Yes, high school had turbulence, but it was not tragic. The faculty were mainly lay teachers in high school, rather than nuns. Each of the teachers made a personal investment in my future. They were always willing to give you a chance. They were always willing to work with you if you didn’t understand something. They didn’t leave you just hanging. I guess seeing all the types of examples of how people help and how people work together helped me.” Her view of her high school teachers’ commitment and dedication was summed up as “Like it takes a village to raise the whole child. They never made fun of you. They never belittled or ridiculed you. But, they were stern. They were firm. They instilled a mindset of ‘Don’t give up’ and taught the students important life skills that are still appropriate and valuable in my outlook on life today.” She credited her high school teachers with instilling in her the mantra “I tried” instead of the more negative and common “I can’t.” The participant credited her high school teachers for shaping her attitude of respect, caring, humbleness and integrity as she explained “Yes, we all had problems, but we were taught how to show kindness, and humbleness. Our teachers took time to help and encourage every student and they had wisdom. Often I was asked, ‘How can I help you?’ I felt that the teachers always wanted to include me in decision-making when I was trying to solve a problem. The end result, I came out to be a beautiful person because of that.”

It was during high school that this participant made the choice to become an elementary school teacher. She said that her decision was largely because of how her high school teachers worked with the students. This participant continued, “There were high expectations for scholastic excellence, and respect among the teachers toward each other and the students. When I was in Catholic school, all the teachers worked together to ensure that the kids learned.”

Undergraduate education was a time of reflection. “Well, I started my college career at Harold Washington because I was kind of scared of being on my own. While in the junior college setting, she took a Social Science class with a teacher she described as one who “spoke in parables, was very intelligent, and told a joke before his lesson to loosen us up. He knew a lot about politics and inspired young people to get involved and listen to what was going on in their city. He talked about the issues of the day.” That Social Studies teacher further influenced the decision to become an elementary school teacher.

The participant enrolled in a four-year institution and reflected on a teaching career, the rigor of a dual major, and support. “Attending a four-year institution really opened my eyes to a career in education, but the workload was heavy. I often talked to the professors about my coursework and sought their help.” Although undergraduate support was available, the participant felt “My challenges were still hard because of my dual major of regular and special education. There was so much to learn and to complete. The practicum was difficult because most of the time I felt on my own to complete so much work.”

Although the level of support in undergraduate school was substantially lower than it was in high school, it did contribute to increased learning because the participant explained “It helped me to become an observer who looked at how the professors taught and interacted with us as students in order to glean some idea about delivering instruction.”

This is Personal: Teaching Middle School Science

Despite the participant’s love for science, the first experience with actually teaching science came after a twenty-year tenure in public education through a position in a summer school S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) program for primary students.

In order to deliver science instruction, the participant explained “You need professional development. You need the endorsements to stay up with what’s going on in science. Science is evolving every day. So, in order for me to stay on top of it, I need to be doing research in order to help myself. There are three disciplines in science. They’re life, earth and physical. I need to know how to deliver the lesson. Whatever I’m doing, I need the background information.”

Experiences with teaching are explained as “I have been in departmental, this is the third year. In terms of working with departmental, I’m still learning. I need to know how to make sure that they understand the concepts of science. I have my ups. I have my downs. As a teacher, everything is not going to be perfect. You have those teachable moments when everybody is learning. Everybody is cooperating.” In expressing the desire to expand the students’ understanding the participant said, “As a science teacher, I have to make myself aware of what’s happening globally, not just in the community. I need to invest. Talk about scientists. Find people in the sciences to come in to talk to the students. It takes time. It takes research. It takes scheduling. Just being a science (sic) teacher is challenging. Coming to work knowing you have a purpose.”

Perception of assessments was described as “And, that’s a challenge because sometimes kids will tell you that they know it and they don’t when you give them the test. Sometimes kids cheat. Sometimes they say ‘Well, I didn’t study. I just kind of guessed’. But, you want them to know.”

Emergent Themes

Two themes emerged from the participant’s descriptions and explanations of her background and educational experiences, and perceptions with teaching science to middle school students. Based on the interview data, I identified the following two themes:

1.  Effect of Teacher’s Social-Emotional Learning on Practice

2.  Teacher’s Awareness of Efficacy

The participant’s voice provided the kind of “thick descriptions” (Geertz, 1973, p. 6) of lived experiences with background and educational experiences and teaching middle grade science that Geertz (1973) states are needed to capture and interpret the significance of cultural milieu.

The theme emerging from the participant’s responses about background and educational experiences focused on the social-emotional skills associated with character development; i.e. caring, kindness, respect, responsibility, and integrity. Salovey and Sluyter (1997), state that understanding emotional development is useful to educators. These researchers describe emotional development as a necessary intelligence that guides our ability to monitor and discriminate among our own as well as others’ feelings and emotions. Then this information is used to make reasonable choices in thought processes and actions. This participant believed that her elementary and high school teachers mentored her social-emotional development.

The theme that emerged from this teacher’s perception of teaching science to middle school students was efficacy. Glackin and Hohenstein (2018) state that researchers traditionally use quantitative methodology to investigate teacher efficacy, but this theory could be studied more effectively through triangulation. However, these two researchers’ meta-analysis argues that qualitative data sources might be able to capture a more comprehensive picture of teacher efficacy. Self-efficacy is framed in social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1977), and defined as the capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life (Bandura, 2001).

According to Bandura (2001), intentionality and forethought are components of direct personal agency, which help us to operate within a broad network of socio-structural influences. That is, people are producers and products of the social systems (Bandura, 2001) they experience. Classrooms are examples of sociocultural constructs. Therefore, teachers are producers as well as products of social systems.


Although this one practicing teacher did not frame the descriptions and explanations of lived experiences with background and education as social-emotional development, or perceptions of experiences with teaching middle grade science as efficacy, the stories evolved as such. The participant’s stories demonstrated that a teacher can actively engage in the conversation on teaching and learning from the perspective of the influence that her background and educational experiences have on practice. The participant’s stories also demonstrated awareness of and reflections on self-efficacy. LEJ


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Dr. Della Weaver is serving her fifth year as St. Paul School’s Literacy Coach and teacher, having previously served as a CPS educator. Dr. Weaver’s mission, built on her belief that every child can achieve academically, emotionally, and socially, is to encourage a lifelong love of learning in children, especially those at St. Paul School.