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Easier Said Than Done

Beth Langly, a first-year intern struggles with her "constructivist" philosophy and the demands of teaching high school science. Her supervising teacher, a 20-year veteran of the classroom, is not inclined to try new methods of instruction.


As 24-year-old Beth Langly entered classroom #16 at J. F .Kennedy High School, she felt the familiar tightening of her throat that she had begun to associate with teaching in this room. A first-year intern science teacher, Beth was shadowing Mike Brown, a teacher with 20 years experience who was also the head of the science department at Kennedy High School.

Beth had begun the school year with an educational background from a nationally acclaimed teacher education program and a "constructivist" teaching philosophy. She had high aspirations for teaching science in a diverse learning community. She wanted her classroom to include all learners, including regular and special education students, and she planned to include multiple modality teaching techniques that would be sensitive to many different types of learners. She believed that all students could learn in the appropriate environment and she was confident that she could deliver that environment. It was just a matter of applying the theories she had learned at the university to a population of motivated and cooperative students waiting to embrace her methods. She had not anticipated how difficult such an endeavor would be.

When Beth learned that Mike would be her supervising teacher, she was initially nervous and intimidated. She had heard that Mike, a veteran chemistry, biology, and physical science teacher, was trained in the old-school paradigm of authoritative, teacher-centered instruction. Although he acknowledged the concepts of multiple intelligences and constructivist teaching theory, his classroom teaching style was basically linguistic and factual. He spoon-fed his students facts, which they memorized and gave back to him in the form of a test. Beth felt that his methods did not allow students to "own" the information; they merely rented it briefly and returned it to him after the test, to be forgotten and never thought of again.

Beth wanted her students to learn and understand science on a deeper level. She had hoped to include more visual and spatial demonstrations and more hands-on discovery. However, Beth felt that neither Mike nor his students welcomed or valued these modifications of curriculum or instruction. The students were accustomed to Mike's authoritative lecture methods and were wary of the changes that Beth had attempted to incorporate into the subject units. Whereas Mike gave them facts, Beth asked deep questions that didn't have simple or definite answers. Because Beth didn't attempt to appear authoritative, the students seemed to lack trust in her. They weren't convinced that she knew what she was talking about. She was fighting for respect.

As Beth struggled to orient herself to Mike's classroom, she began to think that she could not institute all of these changes and still maintain credibility with him or the students. She was dismayed to discover that she was beginning to pattern her lessons and teaching methods after Mike's. Sharing teaching responsibilities with him every day in his classroom with his "established" style of instruction and classroom management, she was well aware that he determined her fate as a teacher. It wasn't only that they were two colleagues with different ideological philosophies; he would ultimately evaluate her performance. This year she would need to do it Mike's way to survive and to ensure a good recommendation 

Beth had also come to realize that even under ideal conditions, with her own classroom and her own students, she would still be struggling. She couldn't predict how long units would take to teach. How many additional activities could she add to the content and still finish all the units she was supposed to teach by the end of the year? She began to understand the challenge that traditional time frames create when teaching within a constructivist framework.

Beth didn't know the connections that an experienced teacher knew between different sections and units. Because she hadn't acquired a concept map for the year as a whole, she didn't know what pieces of information were important and would be needed later as a foundation for further concepts. It frustrated her that she was having to resort to a step-by-step, cookbook style of instruction.  That was all she could do at this point in her experience although it was not the way she thought she would be teaching when she began back in August. She realized that the theories she had learned in college were a lot harder to apply once she was in the thick of it. She had been vastly unrealistic when she anticipated how she would be teaching and what she could accomplish this first year.

Beth had expected the students, especially the special education students, to accept her style enthusiastically. They would surely appreciate the benefits immediately and instantly become model students-- more focused, motivated, and cooperative. It did not happen like that. She felt that some of the students had showed an increase in effort and interest, but too many remained disillusioned.  They continued to slouch in their desks with books closed and eyes downcast.  It became apparent to Beth that after years of frustration, failure, and boredom in traditional classes, these students were not going to be easily "won over." 

She had to come to terms with unmotivated and undisciplined students, in spite of instruction that was more sensitive to alternate learning styles. She had been forced to acknowledge that, even with more constructivist techniques, some students still earned poor grades. At some point her responsibility for teaching left off and their responsibility for learning took over. It happened for some, but not for all.

Beth wasn't sure about grading either. How do you measure someone's understanding of the concepts if not with written tests and assignments? Do you grade them by their performance on tests or their ability to understand and demonstrate concepts? It would be difficult to account for grades based on unwritten measures.

It would take more than one or two years of teaching to work out all these problems. No one said that constructivist teaching would be easy, but going in Beth had not comprehended what that meant. Still, she was not willing to give up on her vision of herself as a new paradigm teacher. It frustrated her that where she was as a teacher and where she wanted to be were oceans apart. She knew that if she couldn't get there that she did not wish to go on teaching. However, she was worried that she was not "up to the task." Had she expected too much from herself?


Discussion/Study Questions

List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.

What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

Is it confusing for students to have teachers with different "styles?"

Is Beth realistic in her expectations of herself and the students?

What methods could Beth use to monitor student progress within her "constructivist" teaching philosophy?


How can you stay true to your beliefs when your colleagues do not support them?

Knowing Beth's "constructivist" teaching philosophy, should Mike make more of an attempt to allow her to implement her strategies? Do you think Beth has taken every opportunity to promote her philosophy with Mike? Why or why not?

What methods or strategies could a teacher employ to overcome lack of motivation on the part of her students?


CEC Competences/Knowledge Areas Addressed In The Case

Major Areas:

Instruction and remedial methods, techniques, and curriculum materials.

Models, theories, and philosophies that provide the basis for special education practices.

Other Areas:

Research-based best practices for effective management of teaching and learning.

Methods for monitoring student progress.


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