JITE v40n1 - At Issue - From Technician to Reflective Practitioner

Volume 40, Number 1
Fall 2002

From Technician to Reflective Practitioner

Janet Z. Burns
Karen Schaefer
Georgia State University

Trade and industrial education (T&I) teachers are unique in that they typically are technically skilled experts in their content field before entering a teacher education program. However, like other teachers, they are not solely technicians applying a narrow body of subject-matter expertise in the classroom. Teachers of all subjects bring cultural and sociopolitical perspectives into their relationships with students. And pupil behavior and learning are impacted by an instructor's reasoning, biography, and biases (Behar-Horenstein & Morgan, as cited in Lakes & Burns, 2001 ). Additionally, curriculum delivery, in part, is derived from the interpretive frames teachers use to decipher their relationships with students in school.

The competencies required for success in the teaching profession paint a full and complex portrait. Merryfield (1994 , 1998 ) suggested that while all teachers must interpret the curriculum for their students, outstanding teachers demonstrated an awareness of student characteristics and varied lessons based upon the class composition. Additionally, contextual factors such as the racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and class backgrounds of students, influence the curricular decisions of planned instruction.

When the complexities of today's schools are added to the competencies required for success, the image of a teacher as simply a technician seems even less descriptive. Consequently, T&I teacher educators must broaden the scope of what to include in teacher education programs in order for new teachers to cope and survive. In fact, the new scholarship on teacher education, primarily qualitative in methodology, identifies teacher thinking as integral in assessing the nature of school-based work, including analyses of instructional strategies, approaches to student learning, questioning techniques, and professed educational philosophies, among other factors ( Zeichner, 1999 ).

Therefore, it is important that T&I teacher educators recognize their responsibility for developing and making use of pedagogic tactics which will actively promote students' dispositions to reflect upon practice while focusing on specific problems the new teachers encounter. The development of reflective thinking can be especially challenging in the area of T&I teacher education. One reason is that many T&I teacher education programs are alternative programs, and time constraints make the time available for reflection lean. Lynch (1997) pointed out that T&I teachers had an average of 17 years occupational or technical experience, but 45% of T&I teachers had less than a bachelor's degree. Further, these teacher candidates came from previous careers requiring a great deal of technical thinking. McNamara (1990) , in referring to teachers, pointed out that the way people behave within social contexts, especially when they are challenged or threatened, was dependent upon their personality and general disposition. While they will typically be able to give rational accounts of their actions after an event, we cannot assume that the actions will have been based upon extensive deliberation. Additional data reveals that when compared with teachers of other subjects, 45% of industrial education teachers reported the personality type of ISTJ or ESTJ, as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ( Lawrence, 1993 ). This data suggests that the strength of these types would be logical thought and order; however, a "blind spot" may be impatience with the confused situations they encounter in their new profession.

The need of T&I teachers to associate thought with action appears to be paramount, especially in the area of puzzling out their struggles while taking on new professional identities. Turning technicians into teachers is both a challenge and a responsibility for teacher educators in T&I. The concept of reflective practice, introduced by Schon in 1987, is one method that has been embraced. Reflective practice has been described as an important process in improving performance in a specific discipline. It involves thoughtfully considering one's own experiences in applying knowledge to practice while being coached by professionals in the discipline ( Schon, 1996 ).

Incorporating Reflective Problem Solving Into T&I Instructor Practice

Reflective teaching can take a variety of forms and is incorporated into practice employing a variety of methods at different levels. Journaling, problem-solving activities, case studies, critical incident activities, coaching, and reflective portfolios are some of the components included in the reflective teaching model.

As a culminating problem-solving activity at the close of a year-long practicum, new T&I teachers develop "survival advice" memos during a seminar at Georgia State University's New Teacher Institute. The provisionally certified teachers reflect on their year and consider what "most important" words of advice they would give an inexperienced teacher stepping into their shoes for the very first time. This activity, adapted from Brookfield (1995) , helps the teachers discover the assumptions that most influence their thinking as well as the foundational knowledge they consider most important. This activity also provides information to teacher educators by pointing to areas that may need to be stressed in order to keep the certification program relevant to the contexts and constraints of today's social setting of the classroom.

The Survival Advice Activity

The survival advice activity requires the teachers to weigh the many skills and insights they have acquired over their practicum year, and to select those they consider most essential. The activity contains the following three parts.

Part 1: Work by yourself on this section.

Imagine that it's your last day in your current job. Your replacement is coming in tomorrow to begin work, but you will already have left the building by the time she/he arrives. You want, as much as possible, to help your replacement avoid the pain and stress you endured as you learned your practice. So you decide to write a memo to your successor, outlining your most essential survival advice. This memo contains your best take on the following.

  • What a teacher needs to know to survive in this job
  • What she/he needs to be able to do to stay afloat
  • What you know now that you wish someone had told you as you began your work in this position
  • Things your successor must make sure he/she avoids thinking, doing, or assuming.

Write the memo as honestly as you can. Since you have just won a $10 million lottery, you have no worries about anything you write coming back later to harm your career.

Now choose what you think is the most important piece of advice you have offered. How do you know your advice is good advice? Write down the most convincing evidence you can think of in support of what you're telling your successor to do or not do, think or not think. What has happened in your own experience to make you believe that your advice is well grounded? What's the "best example" you can come up with of your advice working well in action?

Part 2: Work in groups of four teachers. As a group, decide upon a timekeeper, recorder, reporter and facilitator.

  • Each person takes 10 minutes to report what her/his memo contains.
  • Then, as a group, spend 15 minutes trying to categorize the different kinds of advice that were offered. Write it either on a transparency or a flip chart. Was the advice about emotional survival (how to avoid getting burned out, sucked in, and so on), about political survival (how to do good creative work without being sabotaged by politics), about instrumental survival (how to accomplish the specific tasks associated with the job), or about other kinds of survival?

Part 3: The teachers reconvene as a large group to debrief. Each group reporter summarizes the small group findings to the large group.


Approximately 50 memorandums were written over a three-year time period from 1999 to 2001. The survival advice was divided into three categories using Brookfield's (1995) classification system: those suggestions that deal with pedagogic and classroom management skills (instrumental advice), those that offer hints for maintaining personal emotional equilibrium (emotional advice), and those that recommend methods for successful interactions with school staff and administration (political advice). Within these three main categories, the new teachers' statements were grouped by common themes.

During their year on the job, the teachers made similar discoveries about what worked to sustain a smoothly running classroom, what it took to maintain themselves on an even keel, and what created headaches and stumbling blocks with students or administration. These similarities made it possible to compile and summarize the teachers' statements.

Instrumental Advice

While instrumental advice tips ranged from admonitions not to "give" grades to suggestions on assisting special needs students, the teachers' comments centered on knowledge of the subject area, preparation, organization, and classroom management.

To succeed in their teaching fields, the teachers agreed that a new, inexperienced teacher must come into the education profession with subject-area expertise. One teacher summed up the importance of knowing the subject area with the succinct comment, "Know your stuff."

In their survival advice memos, teachers also stressed the importance of planning-planning for lessons, planning for efficient use of time, and planning for labs, as well as planning for those inevitable days when even the best-laid plans go awry.

In conjunction with lesson planning, the teachers emphasized the need to devise an organized system to cope with the unavoidable mounds of paperwork. To keep abreast of the myriad of clerical duties, teachers prescribed the practical and efficient use of all and every spare moment of time.

The teachers offered a great deal of advice on managing a classroom. This included the setting of classroom rules, as well as establishing an atmosphere of fairness, respect, and caring.

Emotional Advice

Although lesson preparation, paperwork management, and the establishment of a respectful classroom aided the teachers in personal as well as pedagogical ways, teachers shared in their memos additional tips for balancing the stresses of their jobs with the sanctity of their private lives. In particular, many recommended finding a friend or mentor at school to talk to and to look to for advice.

Besides finding a trustworthy friend, teachers found that setting priorities and having reasonable expectations of themselves as well as their students went a long way to alleviate stress.

In the short time the teachers had been in the classroom, they discerned that a teacher plays many different roles that require many different sensibilities. The teachers discovered that, above all, teaching requires cultivating the personal traits of patience, flexibility, and composure.

Political Advice

How to survive politically inside the school community comprised a third area of advice that the teachers addressed. Many of the teachers passed along cautionary tales of do's and don'ts for avoiding conflict with school and system administrators, as well as school staff. They forewarned an incoming teacher of the importance of knowing the school policies-both those policies that are overtly stated, as well as those that are part of a more subtle but equally significant hidden curriculum.

The teachers warned their hypothetical replacements that it is also vital to long-term political survival to keep fair and accurate documentation.

Conclusion and Implications

Although teacher educators often conduct structured or unstructured observations, it is difficult to ascertain how teachers think. Teacher educators need ways of making sense of what teachers think. Incorporating reflective practice can provide knowledge about the mental lives of teachers derived directly from descriptions of the reality of teaching. Employing reflective practice provides the potential for making teaching and teacher education more rewarding and thoughtful, as well as more demanding. For example, if teaching necessarily involves coping with uncertainty and managing dilemmas, then we as teacher-educators ought to think about how to expose this dynamic in teacher preparation experiences.

Several common themes arose among the survival tips and comments collected from the three years of teachers' reflective memos. The suggestions that the teachers offered to an inexperienced teacher reveal the issues and dilemmas that confronted them as new teachers themselves. Knowing what information teachers recognize as essential to their professional survival provides teacher educators with a glimpse of how to update and design programs that address the issues that face their students. Tackling these real-world difficulties and concerns will, in turn, increase the relevance and practicality of teacher training programs.


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Lakes, R. D., & Burns, J. Z. (2001) . "It's like their culture:" Resistant boys in the new vocationalism. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 38(4), 25-40.

Lawrence, G. D. (1993) . People types and tiger stripes. (3 rd ed.). Gainesville, FL: Center for Application of Psychological Type.

Lynch, R. L. (1997) . Designing vocational and technical teacher education for the 21 st century: Implications from the reform literature. Columbus, OH: Center for Education and training for Employment. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 405499)

McNamara, D. (1990) . Research on teachers' thinking: Its contribution to educating student teachers to think critically. Journal of Education for Teaching , 16(2), 147-160.

Merryfield, M. (1994) . Shaping the curriculum on global education: The influence of student characteristics on teacher decision making. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision , 9(3), 233-249.

Merryfield, M. (1998) . Pedagogy for global perspectives in education: Studies of teachers' thinking and practice. Theory and Research in Social Education , 26(3), 342-379.

Self, M. J. C. (2001) On retention of secondary trade and industrial education teachers: Voices from the field. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 38(4), 41-61.

Schon, D. A. (1996) . Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Zeichner, K. (1999, December) . The new scholarship in teacher education. Educational Researcher , 28(9), 4-15.

Burns is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle-Secondary Education and Instructional Technology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Burns can be reached at jburns@gsu.edu .