Research corner

6th March 2015 at 00:00

` "They kicked him out": teachers' student stories as counterstories' by Downey, C A, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 461: 1-18, January 2015 (Council on Anthropology and Education)

Most teachers tell stories about their students. C Aiden Downey's research explores how they do so and what that says about their professional identity.

The paper is based on three years of research at an anonymous US high school. Because of its low standardised test scores and high dropout rate, the school was ranked as one of the worst in its city and was branded as "failing".

When teachers talk about badly behaved students, Downey notes the way they "may shield their own identities by focusing their account almost exclusively on students and their actions". This, he argues, is a rhetorical ploy - by removing themselves from the anecdote, they evade the suggestion that they could be held responsible for a student's poor behaviour.

On the flip side, teachers who feel that they have succeeded in "turning around" a difficult pupil give themselves a more prominent role. Downey wonders, "Could teachers' presence in their stories about successful students serve to attribute the success to them?"

He says the ways in which staff identify themselves are important in the context of a "failing" school because they highlight the struggle against the perception, right or wrong, that flaws in the system are teachers' fault. Emphasising where their interventions have made a difference counters the blanket assumption that bad schools are full of bad teachers.

"Teachers' stories can work as counterstories when they repudiate or push back on larger cultural or master narratives that may impinge or infringe upon teachers' identities," Downey says.

Alexander Tyndall

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