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School reform and teacher emotions topic of research

Educational reforms often challenge how teachers view their purpose in a classroom. But a psychology professor at Elon who studied such reforms found instructors at one school, when given the resources to try new teaching methods, vastly improved student achievement and job satisfaction.

“I don’t think accountability is bad," said Alexa Darby, an assistant professor of psychology at Elon. "This (elementary) school never would have gotten the attention that it did had it not been for No Child Left Behind.”

Assistant professor Alexa Darby, whose professional interests include teacher psychology and teacher candidates' perspectives of high poverty schools, published the findings of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Georgia in the most recent edition of Teaching and Teacher Education.

Darby believes the importance of the research lies in a trend that troubles many schools systems nationwide: high turnover rates. Emotions affect job satisfaction, she said, and job satisfaction determines the willingness to remain in a school and in the teaching profession.

“It’s so amazing what they did, what the teachers did,” Darby said of her research findings. “I can’t put it into words. I wish more places could do this type of reform.”

The journal article tells of the emotions and identity crises experienced by teachers at a Georgia elementary school when the federal No Child Left Behind educational reform required the school to change its practices. Teachers self-reported feelings of fear and failure in 2003 when they learned from a literary coach that the school was “producing children who would be prepared for nothing but jail.” In this reform initiative teachers had to confront their weakness and ask for help.

The teachers at the school soon collaborated with professors at a local university and the schools math and literacy coach to adjust those methods. Teachers first felt apprehension and worry that the professors would judge their performance, though they realized that rather than being critiqued, most school staff formed working relationships that benefited students.

 “Teachers are doing the best they can. And, I’m including myself in this, we all need to be more involved in the school process,” Darby said in a recent interview. “Sometimes I think that judging ends the conversation. Collaboration starts the conversation and begins the problem-solving process.”

And problem-solve it did. In the span of months, students reading three years below grade level caught up with their peers, and the school – in danger of a state takeover because of poor performance – glowed as a positive example of reform. The problem that Darby sees is that not every school can forge those types of partnerships.

“When reforms are top-down, the likelihood of success is less. Change happens through collaboration,” Darby said. “Change doesn’t happen by saying, ‘You have to do this or be fired.’ No teacher goes into the profession for students to leave fifth grade on a second-grade reading level. They just have run out of ideas to improve student learning.”

“I don’t think accountability is bad. This school never would have gotten the attention that it did had it not been for No Child Left Behind.”

Darby and Richard Mihans, an assistant professor of education, and their undergraduate research students are currently studying first year teachers' emotions and job satisfaction. Their findings support literature that has found first-year teachers are more concerned with day-to-day success of their classroom than the implications of No Child Left Behind.

In January 2008, they will be presenting this research at the Hawaii International Conference on Education.

Eric Townsend,
1/2/2008 9:27 AM