What happens when a teacher shifts from an innovative school to a traditional school?

Dr Noeline Wright, University of Waikato

This post spotlights what happens when a teacher takes ideas and practices from one school to another. In this particular instance, a teacher shifts from teaching mathematics in a purpose-built innovative learning spaces (ILS) secondary school (School A), to an established, ‘ordinary’ school of single classrooms (School B).

The research context

The ILS secondary school (School A) has borrowed ideas from Hobsonville Point Secondary School’s ways of interpreting curriculum as a starting place, making adaptations for its own purposes and context. During the research (undertaken through a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project), teachers at the ILE school described what they were learning about creating a school from scratch. Interviewing both teachers and students has produced a rich seam of data from these two key perspectives.

What follows is a vignette of one of these teachers who later shifted from the innovative school (School A) to an ‘ordinary’ secondary school (School B). In making this decision, Annamarie (a pseudonym) wanted to ‘concentrate on the mathematics’ and not worry about, as she saw it,  ‘losing’ mathematics content in working with another subject (as was required within School A). The mathematics team there, she admitted, often found it difficult to find congruence with other subjects in planning modules.

Once Annamarie had begun teaching at School B, I asked if she was willing to share some reflections on what, if anything, influenced her mathematics teaching after teaching in School A. Graciously, she provided insight into  these influences. It is these reflections – fluid, contextual stories about her current teaching – that are shared and interpreted here, as she filters them through the lens of her prior school’s influences. The basic question I put to her was, to what extent have the practices of School A influenced your practices at School B? But first, it is timely to explore what value there may be in individual teacher narratives in research.

Valuing individual teacher narratives

By their nature, individual teachers’ ideas and experiences are subjective and filtered; they are what someone is willing to share, and be comfortable with. O’Grady, Clandinin and O’Toole (2018) suggest that such subjectivity is viewed as ‘fluid and contextual, constructed and reconstructed through the stories people tell themselves and others about who they are’ (p. 153). Contemporary theories of self, they argue, are about ways individuals have of seeing the world they inhabit, knowing and understanding what they experience, and explaining what they think and believe. Intimate views of a professional self are usually hidden and kept secret, whereas in official policy networks, quantitative data is sought to explain trends. Even though this loses individual experiences such analyses can affect people’s lives and professional careers through the policy directives that result. Individual stories can, however, enrich the evidence available to us, especially about teachers’ influences and beliefs.

Mathematics teachers’ beliefs

Handal (2003) argued that mathematics teachers’ beliefs about instruction are affected by how they themselves learned. While this concept can apply to multiple subjects, how schools enact perceived beliefs about what learning is and should look like, may serve to reinforce and reproduce set and traditional views. In Aotearoa NZ secondary school mathematics classrooms, for example, there appears to be a persistent desire by teachers to teach streamed classes. The streaming may result from the school’s own definitions of what to test and therefore what counts. Streamed mathematics classrooms have existed for generations, suggesting the pervasive nature of reproductive traditional educational practices and beliefs. Whether these practices and beliefs about mathematics teaching are borne out by any evidence of students’ overall mathematics skills and confidence, is another matter, and outside the scope of this blog post.

Teachers’ belief systems are likely to shape their pedagogical practices, regardless of subject. These beliefs are built on, among other things, views of learners, learning, schooling and knowledge.  Beliefs, Handal argues, ‘act as a filter through which teachers make their decisions’ (p. 47). Potentially, beliefs can override knowledge about learning theories or even curriculum intent to the point where teaching becomes the act of passing on information to others, rather than focusing on the needs of learners to develop understanding and confidence in a subject.  Can an individual mathematics teacher’s beliefs and practices help understand how they shape learning?

Being a mathematics teacher

What follows is a snapshot of how one mathematics teacher’s beliefs and practices have been modified by her immersion in School A. In School A, subjects are integrated and teachers work in teams. Has Annamarie applied these practices and experiences after moving to an ‘ordinary’ school context (School B)?  

Grouping and differentiation

School B streams students, unlike School A (the ILE school), where students opt into specific modules three times a year. In School A, teachers must manage three different combinations of students. After moving to School B, Annamarie, instead of being the subject guide for a wide range of learners as she was in School A, teaches classes that remain intact for a whole school year. These students, she says,  

“really want to be told/instructed/taught what to do.”

This suggests a degree of passivity that is different from the agentic behaviours students exhibited in School A. This passivity may be an influence on her current practice of more regularly teaching from the front, where she is

“… able to model to them the necessary maths skills and know that they all saw it … If there’s a video they need to watch, I show the video and … pause it where necessary and check for understanding, or I can emphasise something from the video. It does help that the classes here are streamed – so students in the class have a similar ability.”

The comment about ‘similar ability’ perhaps implies a persistent view of homogeneity across mathematical learning and among students. On the other hand, Annamarie is also noticing that she is

forever trying to find ways to do activities with my classes that are interesting and meaningful for them….something I’ve learnt from my time at [School A].”

She realised that there are benefits in

“offering students real choices”

in what they learn on particular days. When Annamarie offers students at School B three options as their choices, they

“seem to be really grateful.”

She notices that choices allow

“some students to extend themselves at the high-end, and other students to grasp the basics more fully”.

She also admits that it is unlikely that her practice would have included offering choices, if she hadn’t previously taught at School A.

There is some inconsistency between Annamarie saying her streamed classes are of ‘similar ability’, and the latter comment about students having differing abilities or learning needs. The comment may refer to a narrow set of learning needs, or it may highlight possible issues with the mechanism used to create the streamed classes. Either way, homogeneity in the class is not altogether achieved, and points to a need for mathematics teachers to address differentiation.

Learning design

From being in School A, and experiencing its learning principles, Annamarie admitted she has greater awareness of how she now designs her learning. She is conscious, for example, of

presenting information in various forms as well as giving students the opportunity to show their learning in more than one way.”

To illustrate this, she says the following of a student with a specific learning disability:

“I know he’s intelligent but he can’t express it in the maths year level written tests after each unit. At the end of one unit, I had the class take a test digitally which was multichoice. The student scored 80% instead of scoring 12% as he had done in previous tests [when he had to use pen and paper].”

By retaining principles and practices from the ILE context and using these (with positive results) even within the more traditional school context, Annamarie has learned ways of addressing students’ needs. Over the long term, it may be that her learners will increase their mathematics confidence through such attention to lesson design.

Assessment practices

Annamarie desires to develop assessments that

“are meaningful to students.”

She gives the example of an NCEA standard on Making an Inference, wondering whether students would be more interested if they could use data they had generated themselves, perhaps through surveying peers about school issue. Annamarie’s comment suggests the value of having a context other than mathematics to help create authentic learning opportunities, as she did at the previous school. This level of authenticity has been lost upon moving to School B, since Annamarie is no longer planning and teaching in teams combining at least two subject topics and curriculum objectives.

Takeaway thoughts

Given Annamarie’s responses about her practices and influences, I wonder if we don’t yet know enough about how teachers use what they learn when shifting secondary schools. Even in this sample of one teacher, her experience raises ideas to pursue further. So how do teachers shape their practices and pedagogical understanding over time, especially when they shift schools? Perhaps listening to teachers more often about what they take from school to school might inform school leaders. It may help them to use new staff’s expertise and experiences for the good of the school. And perhaps we need to better understand what drives mathematics teachers to desire streamed classes, and how this structure fits with beliefs about who learners are and who mathematics teachers are.

What teachers do in classrooms ultimately affects the confidence and achievement of their learners.


Noeline squareNoeline Wright is a teacher educator at the University of Waikato. She spent 20 years teaching in secondary schools and has since been involved in research centred on digital technologies and pedagogy in secondary schools, initial teacher education and the role of digitally enabled pedagogy. Noeline is currently involved in two funded research projects: A Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) investigating how teachers and students learn to find their identity in a brand new school; and a Netsafe-funded small project focused on helping a secondary school develop its Digital Citizenship programme in relation to the Harmful Digital Communications Act (2015). She is also general editor of  the Waikato Journal of Education.

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