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CELEBRATE! profile: Kirby Sypek ‘10

It can be tough for new teachers when their expectations of life in the classroom collide with reality. What if there were additional ways for education majors to better learn from first year teachers about the job? Kirby Sypek ’10 approaches that question with work that is the third in a series of E-net profiles to showcase Elon undergraduate research during CELEBRATE! 2010.

Kirby Sypek '10

Sypek, an elementary education major from Canton, Ohio, interviewed 10 local teachers currently in their first year on the job. She asked them to describe “success” and what contributes to their feelings of accomplishment. They did so, in part, by writing narratives of their experience.

Those responses were then shown to a group of college students studying to be teachers, known in the School of Education as “preservice teachers.” Their reactions were analyzed for emerging themes, and Sypek presented her results Tuesday during the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.

Sypek, who serves as vice president of the Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honor society and is an active participant in club soccer, hopes to secure a teaching position near Washington, D.C., after graduation. The Honors Fellow sat down this month with the Office of University Relations to explain her work in greater detail.

Q: What led you to research the experience of first-year teachers?
A: I wanted to see if preservice teachers understood the stories of first year teachers, and I hoped that these stories would be meaningful to them and to help them think more about their future. My data suggests that preservice teachers did understand what first year teachers were trying to show to them in their stories. And they understood that first year teachers really were specific about the success they had. First-year teachers defined their success based on their relationships with one student.

Q: Why is your research important?
A: It’s important to me just because as a preservice teacher I was able to learn a lot about teacher development and teacher identity, which will help me in the future. And it’s important for teacher education programs to see that it might be beneficial to expose preservice teachers to the first-year teacher experience, and really help them see themselves as teachers, to understand what transitions and what struggles and successes they’ll have.

Q: What were some of the findings that surprised you when you were talking with first year teachers?
A: It was really interesting to me that first-year teachers spent a lot of time focusing on their interactions with parents, the administration and other colleagues. I thought they would spend more time talking about their favorite memories, or least favorite memories, with students. But they spent a lot of time talking about their positive, or negative, relations with others in the school community.

Q: Why was that a surprise?
A: I think in teacher education program you’re always focused on how to meet the student needs and you forget about the other responsibilities you have. These first- year teachers, clearly, when they went into the classroom, they were focused on their student needs but then the things that surprised them seemed to be the parents, the administration and the community.

Q: With the preservice teachers that you studied, was there anything that they reported that came as a surprise?
A: I know last year I was very naïve. You have this idea that you’ll go in to be a teacher, and things will all be pleasant, and you can define your success because 20 students will improve in class. Preservice teachers were able to say, well, that they may not all improve, but if you look at them emotionally or look at the students behaviorally, we can still define success in other ways. That shows a lot of growth on their part, which was exciting to see. It was also surprising, some of their comments about the stories. They said these are real stories and it’s good not to have a ‘superhero’ story, and that they really appreciate a real perspective from a real teacher that they can relate to.

Q: How do you hope your research will be used?
A: I hope teacher education programs will look at it as another avenue in which they can reach preservice teachers and help them prepare for their future. In my classes I’ve been able to interview first-year teachers in a panel setting, but I hope that maybe in the future preservice teachers can go to a first year teacher classroom and really see their struggles and observe what their successful with, and where teachers are not succeeding, so they can see themselves in that role.

Eric Townsend,
4/29/2010 8:43 AM