The process of becoming a teacher is dialogic in that teaching is about negotiating the multiple identities that people possess within the system of schooling. These multiple identities are complex and shape who people are as educators and individuals; they shape beliefs about students and the teaching and learning process. Beliefs are the representations of reality and experience that guide one’s thoughts and behaviors; they are the judgments or evaluations people make of their world, others, and themselves. They are also the best indicators of decisions that individuals make throughout their lives.
A considerable body of research demonstrates that teachers’ beliefs have a strong impact on the treatment of students and the instructional decisions that teachers make about teaching and learning. In that event, teachers’ practice will be improved if they have an opportunity to engage in reflection about their beliefs. In particular, if teacher education programs incorporate reflection as part of their curriculum, prospective teachers will have practice with reflecting and understanding how beliefs affect student learning. When teachers have opportunities to critically reflect and discuss how their experiences have shaped beliefs that may differ from others, they can better understand and counter practices that reproduce inequity and marginalization. This entry examines how beliefs influence teachers, how this can lead to inequities, and what measures could ameliorate this impact.
How Beliefs Operate
A review of educational research suggests that the individual teacher’s beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives about his or her work guide pedagogy, instructional planning, and classroom practice. Moreover, beliefs also play an important role in the decisions that teachers make about students in general because they guide how the learner is perceived. Beliefs become the lens through which teachers interpret behavior. As a result, if a teacher believes that a student cannot achieve, then the behavior of the student will be interpreted or perceived through that lens, even when the student behaves in ways contrary to the belief. Similarly, if a teacher believes that a program works, even when it fails, the teacher will attend to the aspects of the program that preserve the belief in the program.
Teachers’ beliefs operate independently from the cognition associated with developing knowledge and skills. Frank Pajares emphasized the importance of understanding the four characteristic features of teachers’ beliefs: (1) existential presumptions, (2) affective and evaluative aspects, (3) alternativity, and (4) episodic nature. Existential presumptions address the origin of one’s beliefs and how these are the reflection of individuals’ presumptions about certain truths that they deem applicable to everyone. The affective and evaluative aspects of beliefs relate to the experiences that individuals have had and how these have contributed to forming perceptions regarding specific issues. Because they are deeply personal, beliefs can often exist beyond the individual’s control or knowledge and become immutable. The alternativity characteristic of beliefs provides ways through which individuals can recreate situations that they perceive to be ideal. For example, pre-service teachers who have a negative schooling experience may describe their beliefs about teaching effectiveness as a reflection of everything contrary to how they experienced learning. Finally, the episodic nature of beliefs influences the ways in which teachers apply their knowledge to specific classroom situations. That is, teachers may have guiding images from past events that they apply to dealing with similar situations. With this in mind, it is essential that teacher preparation programs address teachers’ beliefs and take measures to dialogue about previous experience that influences what teachers believe.
Teachers may have the necessary knowledge and skills to assist students in achieving academically, but their beliefs determine how to teach in different ways and translate knowledge into practice when working with students. Based on teachers’ individual belief systems, learning is accommodated in a way that makes the most sense to them. During the student teaching experience, pre-service teachers experience the realities of teaching and accommodate the knowledge that they have acquired throughout their careers. At this time, dialogue and reflection are required to understand the relationship between teachers’ beliefs and the knowledge, skills, and behaviors in the classroom.
Students from racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse backgrounds continue to experience the pervasive problem of academic failure, inappropriate referral, disproportionate representation in special education, and high dropout and retention rates. At the same time, diverse students continue to be taught by mostly White, middle-class, monolingual English speaking females. The “underachievement” of diverse learners has been attributed in part to the cultural and linguistic discontinuities that result from the demographic differences between students and teachers.
Research points out that most White teachers have not had the opportunity to think about themselves in terms of having a racial identity or a culture. As a result, White educators often have not examined the complex relationship of students’ racial and political identities and how this affects student behavior. Thus, the need to self-actualize and understand personal culture and its influences on the way one behaves and interacts with the world and to validate others’ experiences can be seen as a necessary component of teacher education.
Having a better understanding of the rationale behind teachers’ actions can lead to further examination of the role of teachers as decision makers. Many teacher preparation programs equip prospective teachers with knowledge and skills to work with an increasingly diverse student population but do not examine the complex social context of schooling. As a result, teachers may lack awareness of systemic, societal, and institutional contributions to the perceived academic failure of culturally and linguistically diverse students with and without disabilities. Teaching and learning are situated in contexts that are influenced by social, cultural, cognitive, and emotional factors. Research on the impact of beliefs suggests that teachers who work with diverse students not only must be prepared with knowledge and skills but also must examine their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about people who are different from them because these will influence their instructional practices.
In addition to its influence on individual experiences, professional preparation in teacher education programs also influences the views that teachers hold about teaching certain academic content. When the many factors that can affect students’ learning are not fully understood, cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic differences may be viewed as student deficits in need of remediation.
The literature suggests that reflective journaling is one way for teachers to become more culturally sensitive and aware through critically examining their classroom practice and identifying alternative ways of responding to diversity in schools. It is important for educators to recognize and understand the sociocultural context within which they work. To understand teachers’ beliefs, one must examine the sociocultural contexts that they experience in the past, present, and future.
Teacher education programs preparing teachers to work with culturally and linguistically diverse students must provide opportunities for pre-service teachers’ reflection and dialogue about their beliefs about students who come from backgrounds and have experiences different from their own. As the student population continues to become increasingly diverse and the teaching force continues to be largely monocultural, it is also critical for teachers to understand the influence of culture and language on academic performance. Teacher preparation programs must encourage prospective teachers to question and discuss how their own cultural backgrounds, values, and beliefs can influence their view of students from diverse backgrounds, expectations for these students, and instructional strategies used in working with them.
- Britzman, D. (2003). Practice makes practice: A critical study of learning to teach (Rev. ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for a democratic classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Pajares, F. M. (1992). Teachers’ beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, 62(3), 307–332.
- Pugach, M. C., & Seidl, B. L. (1998). Responsible linkages between diversity and disability: A challenge for special education. Teacher Education and Special Education, 21(4), 319–333.
- Yero, J. L. (2002). Teaching in mind: How teacher thinking shapes education. Hamilton, MT: MindFlight.
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