WILLA v5 - Tara's Story: The Feminist Teacher's Voice in the 'Student-Centered' Classroom

Volume 5
Fall 1996

Tara's Story: The Feminist Teacher's Voice in the "Student-Centered" Classroom

Sharon Shelton-Colangelo

What happens when a prospective teacher of English who describes herself as a feminist and progressive educator finds herself in a student teaching situation where she believes the males in her classroom might be sexually harassing the female students? This was a dilemma faced by Tara, who, even as a child in parochial school, showed a readiness to confront gender inequalities and stereotyping, but who as a student teacher expressed a reluctance to do so for fear of disempowering and dictating to those in her "student-centered" classroom.

Tara was part of a study conducted in the spring of 1991 by Dr. Lynn Becker Haber and me to determine what implications the examination of student teachers' early learning stories might have for their classroom practice. We chose a diverse group of six prospective English teachers, most of whom were female, in order to take a look at students traditionally marginalized in schools. We wanted to explore the effect of their schooling on their identity construction and their development of voice and critical thinking. Moreover, we were interested in ascertaining how their early experiences affected the student teachers' constructs of teaching and whether critically examining these stories might lead to progressive change in those constructs and in their teaching practice.

We carried out our research with what we called "two-with-one conversational interviews." These interviews were similar to the 'open-ended interviewee-guided investigation of a lived experience" described by Shulamit Reinharz (21). Our conversations, however, differed in that we had two interviewers. Lynn and I found that the presence of two researchers enabled at least one of us to be free to continuously reflect on our processes as the interviews were being carried out. That is, as one of us asked questions, the other might consider the impact of the question, whether the interviewee could fully answer without interruption, whether clarification was needed. Of course, sometimes we asked questions together or became so engaged in our conversations that we did not consciously reflect as much as we did other times. We believed, however, that having two interviewers did allow us to reflect in action, to use Donald Schon's words ( The Reflective Practitioner ), to a much greater extent than usually is the case.

Informing our study was the work of Henry Giroux and others on social reproduction, Stuart Hall and Kathleen Weiler on identity politics, and Deborah Britzman and other progressive educators on autobiographical reflection among teachers as a means of bringing about emancipatory change in classroom practice.

Reproduction Theory

Reproduction theory holds that social divisions such as gender inequity tend to be continuously reproduced in institutions such as schools. Among current day educational scholars who have explored this notion is Henry Giroux, who points out that schools are sites where dominant cultural values, identities, and practices are reproduced. This cultural reproduction manifests itself in what has been called the "hidden curriculum," that is, in the unstated norms and assumptions that shape students' identities and social relationships and prepare them for their future economic and social roles. Giroux points out that dominant assumptions may be resisted as well as internalized by students and teachers. As he explains in Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition .

While it is important to use the concept of the hidden curriculum as a heuristic tool to uncover the assumptions and interests that go unexamined in the discourse and materials that shape school experience, such a position does not go far enough. It is crucial that the notion of the hidden curriculum also be linked to a notion of liberation, grounded in the values of personal dignity and social justice. As such, the essence of the hidden curriculum would be established in the development of a theory of schooling concerned with both reproduction and transformation. (61)

In other words, Giroux sees schools as sites for the reproduction of social inequities, but also as places where dominant society can be critiqued and students and teachers can come to self-awareness and engage in "collective political struggle around the issues of power and social determination" (111).

Identity Politics

While what has become known as "identity politics" can be traced back to Erik Erikson's investigations of identity as fragmented and crisis ridden instead of stable or unified (16), Stuart Hall is perhaps the thinker most closely associated with the concept as we know it today. According to Hall, identity politics was constituted in practice during the struggles of the Sixties when marginalized peoples joined together to assert group identities and contest the homogeneous practices of the dominant culture that excluded them. As Hall explains:

There was a politics of identity in 1968 in which the various social movements tried to organize themselves politically within one identity. So the identity of being a woman was the subject of the feminist movement. The identity of being a Black person was the identity of the Black movement. And in that rather simpler universe there was one identity to each movement. While you were in it, you had one identity. Of course, even then, all of us moved between these so called stable identities. We were sampling these different identities, but we maintained the notion, the myth, the narrative that we were really all the same. That notion of essential forms of identity is no longer tenable. ("Ethnicity: Identity and Difference" 17)

Hall calls for a new notion of identity, one that affirms group identities, while recognizing that people are composed of multiple social identities, occupy multiple positions of marginality and subordination. Instead of speaking about ethnicity in a "narrow and essentialist way," Hall writes in one of his essays, "Ethnicity: Identity and Difference," that it is important to acknowledge that peoples are "neither all the same nor entirely different" (20).

In her study of feminist teachers, Kathleen Weiler concurs with the view that identities are .multilayered" and even "contradictory." She elaborates that "the power of gender, class, or race may be employed to counter oppression suffered through another aspect of our being" (126). For example, she refers to the resistances of male students who might be trying to protect male privilege or might be acting out of a class culture that has different conceptions of gender and opposition to middle class feminism" (127). Weiler adds that it is therefore vital that feminist teachers openly discuss issues of power in the classroom.

Autobiographical Reflection

Another important strain of academic thought that affected this study was the notion of autobiographical reflection. I use this term to refer to the practice of thinking critically about both written and oral memory fragments or mini-stories in which the subject makes narrative meaning of his or her life by reconstituting the past from the viewpoint of present constructs. This effort becomes all the more important for teachers whose autobiographical experiences may shed light on how social inequities, values, and identities are constructed in school.

Although accounts of the use of autobiography as a means of reflection are relatively recent in the field of education, John Dewey's definition of education in Democracy and Education as the .reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience" (76) could be a description of the autobiographical method as it is discussed today. Dewey offers this definition in one of the book's sections entitled "Education as Reconstruction" in which he asserts that education may be thought of as a process whereby humans become aware of previously unperceived connections and thereby are enabled to predict the consequences of similar situations and thus carry out their intentions in the future. This definition has obvious parallels with the autobiographical method's emphasis on opening up past stories as a way of making connections and predictions for the future and with current discussions of reflective pedagogical practice.

Deborah Britzman is one of the pioneers in the use of autobiography with prospective teachers, who she suggests need reflection on their learning stories since they bring to teaching "their implicit institutional biographies-the cumulative experience of school lives-which in turn, inform their knowledge of the students' world, of school structure, and of curriculum" (443). Britzman says that the traditional apprenticeship model of teacher education, whereby students learn pedagogical theories and only later go into schools to practice, often results in students devaluing the progressive theories they have learned once they get into schools, She explains that in her own study of student teachers, she found they indiscriminately glorified the practical expertise of their cooperating teachers and concluded that the theories they learned in school were "a waste of time" (447).

To counter this trap, the author suggests that student teachers can be helped by means of autobiographical reflection to develop critical, reflective abilities, and thereby problematize the commonsense assumptions about teaching they may encounter. Specifically, Britzman recommends breaking down the cultural myths about teaching that students' life stories have fostered, namely, myths that teachers are rugged individuals, are self made, are experts on what counts as knowledge, and are agents of social control in the classroom. Failure to confront these myths through conscious reflection can lead to the unconscious reproduction of the school structure as it is.

The Interviews

At the time we first met her, Tara was a 27-yearold graduate student completing her Master's Degree in English Education at Edison University. Over the four-month period in which we conducted three 90-minute interviews with her, she was carrying out her student teaching at an alternative school in a poor neighborhood in a large metropolis. In these interviews, she told us many detailed stories about her early home life, her classes in parochial schools, her high school studies and extracurricular activities, her first college experience, her job in a daycare center, her return to a university to study education, and finally her student teaching. As she reminisced about events that stood out in her own educational history, we often asked her what implications her stories had for her current student teaching practice. During the later interviews as she explored some of the issues that were arising in her student teaching, we asked her to think back to her own school experiences to view the issues from the perspective of student needs.

From the outset, Tara frankly told us she considered herself a feminist. Furthermore, she explained that she first became interested in women's equality when she was an elementary student in parochial school. Tara attributed her feminist consciousness at such an early age to her family and to the general social climate of the Sixties which filtered into her life through television and through contact with older females at a summer camp she attended as a child.

Born into a large Irish family in Philadelphia, Tara lauded both of her parents as contributing to her early sense of self-confidence. Her mother, she explained, always "respected my point of view" and "took very seriously anything we had to say." Tara's father encouraged her to participate in sports and to challenge herself. She recalled:

My father would take us to throw a baseball or softball around. You know, on weekends he would take us to play, and I think he treated me very much the same as he treated my brother in terms of teaching us how to throw and how to hit, how to choke up on the bat. But my brother was allowed to play Little League and I was not.

Tara emphasized that she was also greatly influenced by her relationship with her older brother and felt a strong sense of injustice over any special privileges or opportunities he had that she did not. As she noted:

I think it was definitely influential in forming my feminist outlook, because he is two-and-a-half years older than I am, and I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to be able to do everything he could do, and I felt like I could do everything that he did. So it was jarring to me whenever a few situations did arise in which I was told he could do something because he was a boy.

Tara told us that in many ways she competed with her brother, but that the competition was not destructive, but "stimulating."

Tara's first school experience was in a public kindergarten, and she remembered vividly several incidents in which her kindergarten teacher gave her the same kind of respect and freedom she had gotten at home from her parents. One of Tara's stories involved an attempt by her kindergarten teacher to show the class how to tie their shoelaces. Tara affirmed that she, unlike the other students, did not need to learn how to tie her shoelaces, but "just to learn to untie them without knotting them."

Her teacher, whom Tara described as "wonderful," listened to her and respected her needs and her autonomy by allowing her to articulate and have control over what she needed to know, and Tara learned how to untie her shoelaces.

After kindergarten, Tara enrolled in a parochial school where her experiences were less empowering. Her first grade teacher, Sister Martha, arranged the desks in rows, Tara asserted, and centered all eyes on herself. One particularly painful experience in Sister Martha's class involved math speed drills. Tara was a slow worker and had been daydreaming and thus had not completed her work. When she saw that Sister Martha was coming around to check her work, she tried to hide her paper with her hand. "I'll never forget the fear, the feeling in my stomach when she asked me to move my hand," Tara mused. "I felt like I was a bad student."

Despite these disempowering experiences, Tara remembered speaking out against what she saw as inequalities in her classes. She was upset that her brother got to be an altar boy, while she was not allowed to be one. Moreover, in her eyes, the boys in her school had more freedom of dress.

Tara also recounted gendered differences in classroom responsibilities. Noting that these differences were based on an assumption that females were not able to handle physical work, she protested:

Girls might be sent to bring a note to Sister Mary next door or to the principal's office. But boys would be allowed to move some equipment and I kind of resented that because I felt that I could do anything my brother, for example, could do, and I felt maybe this is in part because of my father taking me to play baseball, taking me sledding, and doing all those things with my brother.

One of the strong influences on Tara during her years in school was a summer camp that she attended. There she met a group of young women counselors "who I would consider to be feminists." She did not recall any outright conversations about feminism, but nevertheless said she enjoyed the camp, played sports there, and appreciated knowing strong, older female role models.

Tara left parochial school in seventh grade for a high school, which she described as "elite" and "traditional." There her grades began to suffer because of her admitted disinterest in rote memorization and homework. Yet not all of Tara's high school experiences were disempowering ones. As she had in parochial school, she found some of the classes in high school to be both enjoyable and interesting. She especially remembered with pleasure Mr. Graham's Ancient History class, a class in which students were encouraged to articulate, debate, and defend their own ideas. In one such debate, Tara recalled arguing that Greek women were not satisfied with their roles but wanted to "participate as equals in the democracy." Another time in this same class, Tara said she argued with the teacher over his rejection of her use of the word "humankind" in an essay. She related:

Mr. Graham wrote on my paper, "No such word." There was no such word. And I came into class the next day, and this was really I think what an obnoxious brat I was, but I came into class with three dictionaries and showed the word "humankind" in the dictionary. And he said, "Well, okay."

She added that it was "really very important, very important" that she had been made to feel that she could freely disagree with her teacher and defend her own ideas and that as a result, she had "learned a lot" in Mr. Graham's class.

The experience with perhaps the greatest impact in high school, however, occurred outside the classroom in her drama club. Part of what made this club so special to Tara and the other students who joined it was the freedom they enjoyed in determining what they would do.

In this atmosphere, she reflected, "there was a lot of learning going on," and she noted that this learning was the kind that those involved in progressive education "typically think we want students to have in terms of reading and speaking and listening." That is, the club incorporated narrative and ways of knowing that she considered valuable, not only for her own learning and growth, but for that of her students as well.

When Tara went away to college, she majored in Educational Theater, largely, she noted, because of her positive experiences in the drama club. Once out of school, she got a job at a preschool day care center, but then moved on to work in a large securities firm before re-enrolling in school to study English Education. In her teacher education classes at Edison, she said she first began to develop a strong philosophy of teaching that incorporated her youthful desire for autonomy and the "student-centered" education that her teacher education program espoused. In her classes, students were encouraged to break into small collaborative discussion groups, to write response papers to literature, and to actively take charge of their learning. These processes were aimed at building democracy in the classroom, and, according to Tara, became an important part of her emergent teaching philosophy.

One of her teachers especially, Tara related, not only believed in democracy for students, but enacted in her own classroom an especially democratic, caring philosophy. This teacher, Andrea Roberts, became a powerful role model who influenced the way that Tara approached her own student teaching. Tara entered her student teaching with a sense of being respected as a student and as a prospective teacher and also with a determination to recreate this respect, this reciprocity, as a participant in her own classroom.

When Tara eventually obtained a student teaching placement at the James Street School, she said she tried hard to implement what she had learned in her teacher education program, particularly the conception of teacher-as-participant that she saw modeled by Andrea Roberts. At the same time, she explained, she tried to make her students aware of feminist issues, though this effort was "tricky" for her, because she did not want to overstep her self-chosen role as facilitator in the classroom. She did recall one instance in which she questioned the role of the women in Little Red Riding Hood as the class was rewriting the tale.

As a participant in the class, especially as a conscious feminist participant, Tara explained that she felt she had a responsibility to speak up to empower the students. Tara used the occasion to show that this story could be rewritten from one that portrayed females as helpless to one that showed the power of women to do something about their condition. She said she asked her students:

Why couldn't Little Red Riding Hood get the grandmother out of the closet? And maybe the grandmother could help hold off the wolf or help, you know, they could get help, they could solve the problem, they could either tie the wolf up or call 911 or they could do something. And they didn't have to be completely lacking in power because of being female, because of being old. You know, just because the grandmother is a little old lady doesn't mean she isn't capable of hitting the wolf with her cane if she needs to come to Little Red Riding Hood's defense. So I couldn't contain myself ...

Tara reflected that perhaps it was because the group was all female that day, reducing the likelihood that male students would feel threatened by her intervention, that she did not withhold her opinions.

There were other occasions, she hastened to point out, when she did not speak up out of feelings that to do so would be to contradict her student-centered classroom values. For example, she did not like to recognize students by calling on them

and thereby controlling the discussion, but she noticed that sometimes classroom talk was "kind of male dominated" to the point that the young men were directly addressing one another. This was a question she had raised in her student teaching seminar, she related, but other students did not necessarily notice the same dynamic in their own classrooms. Still, she suggested that perhaps there is a widespread perception that females talk more in forums like classrooms than is actually the case. Alluding to studies in which feminist teachers have been surprised to learn from transcripts of discussions in their own classrooms that women students are speaking much less than they thought, Tara considered:

I wonder if generally all of us, male and female, somehow perceive female students talking 40%, we perceive that as 60%. Wow, they're really taking over! When they're not really. They're not supposed to take up as much space. So if they take up 40%, we really feel they're taking up much more and then we're so shocked to see a transcript. I wonder if this is what it is ... They weren't dominating, they weren't taking over. They were just being participants in the class, equal participants. Now I really feel I need to research my own class, tape my own classes and make transcripts!

During our last interview, Tara disclosed that it had occurred to her that she had witnessed a disturbing situation in her classroom. She explained that she felt that the males in her class might have been harassing the females. She said she noticed that they were making "a lot of asides" and "comments about the physical appearance of the young women." Still, she had not spoken out. Part of the problem, she revealed, was her worry that she might be overstepping her bounds and exercising undue power in the classroom. She observed:

It can be difficult because sometimes in my attempts to facilitate in the classroom, I am reluctant to make any statements about my beliefs and part of that is because I don't think that my telling the students how they should act or what the roles of women should be versus the roles of men or should they be the same, I don't think my telling them that is really necessarily going to make a difference.

Another reason that she had not taken action, she explained, was that she did not want to speak for the women in the class who might have felt embarrassed that the teacher was coming to their defense and who additionally needed to learn to exercise their own voices on their own behalf. As she pointed out:

Sometimes it's very difficult to know how to step in, because I feel that if I come to the defense of the female student, that that may in some way disempower her. The end result may not be what I hope it to be, because students at this age, adolescents, are very self-conscious and sometimes the teacher acting as a person coming to one's defense, the teacher stepping in to be the protector, can have the reverse effect on making that student feel even more attention is drawn to him or her.

Tara soon began considering how she could intervene in such a way that both the males and females would learn from the situation. She pondered:

Maybe what I need to do, and it seems almost obvious now that we're talking about it-this is one of the things about having these interviews with you, I'm really dealing with some of these issues that may not have come up in other discussions about my student teaching practice. But one thing that occurs to me now is that I could go into the classroom at a time when this isn't happening and bring it up, raise the discussion in a general way so that no one person is the focus of the attention or is the momentary victim, so to speak.

And maybe another thing I can do when I see students becoming the victims, for lack of a better word, of the kind of teasing and these kind of comments, maybe there's a way I can speak to them individually at another time or speak to a group of girls and ask them about how they feel about hearing these kinds of comments and what they can do to empower themselves so that they might know that they have some support from me ...

It is important that the realization that Tara needed to take steps to counter sexual harassment in her classroom occurred to her in the process of examining her teaching practice in light of her own childhood experiences. She had portrayed herself as a student who actively protested gender inequalities and said that talking about herself as a student as she discussed her student teaching made her realize that she had been more outspoken on questions of gender as a student than she was as a teacher. She also reflected that as a student she would have appreciated teacher intervention.


Through autobiographical reflection, Tara was able to articulate her emergent teaching philosophy, exploring the roots of the value she placed on teachers' cultivating and respecting students' voices, supporting their freedom, enabling them to take charge of their own learning, allowing for their differences in pace, challenging them, and helping them develop a critical consciousness. Successful teachers she viewed as facilitators for student learning, as role models, and, finally, as participants in the learning process who neither wield power over students nor give up their own. Tara's final realization of the importance of the teacher's voice was a construct that at the beginning of our interviews she did not mention as holding or learning in her teacher education classes, but which seemed to develop out of her reflections on what to do about the sexual harassment she saw in her classroom.

In her journey toward becoming a strong, conscious, reflective teacher, Tara realized that

acknowledging her authority as a woman and as a classroom facilitator did not necessarily involve either negating or abusing her power, but creatively using it to break down hierarchical relations. In other words, Tara discovered that joining with students as an active participant in the learning process instead of withholding her self and her values could be a way of realigning and democratizing power in the classroom, since her values embraced democratic relations.

While Tara showed she had been well prepared by her teacher education program to be conscious of traditional power inequities between teachers and students, it took an internal struggle on her part to develop the added insight that power is not distributed only between teachers and students, but is also distributed unequally among students (males and females, for example) and that even in student-centered classrooms, feminist teachers have a crucial role to play as conscious, critical participants in the learning process. Accordingly, teacher education programs, especially progressive ones, might do well to bring to the surface complex questions of power distribution in the classroom instead of reducing them to simple notions of generalized student disempowerment. Otherwise, prospective teachers, like Tara, could find themselves in contradictory situations wherein not to assert themselves would be to disempower students and to contribute through silence to the reproduction of values that silence them.

Tara's stories suggest that autobiographical reflection can indeed furnish the basis for the transformation of teaching practice. By telling and retelling her stories as a learner, Tara was able to make links between what she had needed as a marginalized student and what she believed her own female students needed from her as a teacher. Moreover, she was able to begin to take concrete steps to assert her voice as a feminist teacher to protect and empower the female students in her class and possibly to educate the males about sexism. Tara's experience therefore confirms the value of incorporating autobiography in college education programs, particularly during the crucial time of student teaching, as a way of preparing prospective teachers to actively intervene as agents of social change in disrupting the cycle of the reproduction of gender and other inequalities in schools.

Works Cited

Becker, Lynn, and Sharon Colangelo. "Project Rationale." Unpublished Study of Teachers' Life Stories, 1991.

Britzman, Deborah. "Cultural Myths in the Making of a Teacher: Biography and Social Structure in Teacher Education." Harvard Educational Review 56 (1986): 442-55.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education . New York: MacMillan, 1916.

-----. Experience and Education . New York: Collier, 1963.

Giroux, Henry. Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition . New York: Bergin and Garvey, 1983.

-----. Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education . New York: Routledge, 1992.

-----. Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies . New York: Routledge, 1994.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora. Identity, Community, Culture, Difference . Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222-237.

-----."Ethnicity: Identity and Difference." Radical America 23 (1989): 9-20.

-----. "Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities," Culture, Globalization and the World System . Ed. Alexander King. Binghamton: Department of Art and Art History, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1991. 41-68.

Reinharz, Shulamit. Feminist Methods in Social Research . New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Weiler, Kathleen. Women Teaching for Change: Gender, Class, & Power. New York: Bergin & Garvey, 1988.

Sharon Shelton-Colangelo is an Assistant Professor of secondary English in the Department of Administration, Curriculum, and Instruction at Jersey City State College. She is editor of the LEARN Newsletter, a publication produced by a grass-roots organization of English and Language Arts teachers. She has a doctorate in English Education and certification in Women's Studies from New York University.

© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Shelton-Colangelo, Sharon. (1996). "Tara's Story: The Feminist Teacher's Voice in the 'Student-Centered' Classroom." WILLA , Volume V, pp. 24-29.