Narrated Beginnings of Teacher Professional Development Trajectories: From a qualitative life-narrative analysis of teaching in the 21st Century

Seann Dikkers

University of Wisconsin – Madison


Advisors: Kurt Squire and Richard Halverson

Theme 2: Narrated Beginnings

Beginning Narratives

As award winning teachers in 2010 and 2011, all of the participants in the study knew they were being recognized for practices that the larger community saw as relevant. Each of these teachers had developed over time, however. These practices weren’t new that year, but developed on a trajectory of professional development (PD) over time. In theme one, I reviewed where participants reported the relevant sources that set them on this trajectory of PD. In theme two, I’ll share narrative themes relating to where the participants perceived the beginning point of their learning. In a life-narrative study, these starting points, or self-identified ‘beginnings’ show relevance on the part of the speaker. Across cases, we can begin to identify types of narratives that inform future research. Participants are asked in various ways, where they learned, how they found out, and what influenced decisions – in order to capture beginnings and sources of trajectory changes.

In the review of professional development literature, I noted that the prevailing PD model is for change to happen following initial training and experience.  Well-trained teachers are receptive of ongoing PD that leads to learning, with guidance, in a generative context. In these cases, after an increase in knowledge, skills, and beliefs (PD), teachers increase the use of this knowledge, skills, and confirm beliefs toward effective practices.  Theme 2 finds this model is confirmed alongside three other PD beginning narratives.

Context of Discovery

In the initial round of interviews, teachers were asked if they remembered how this trajectory began or if they remember a starting point for their current practices. How did they first learn about, think of, or start on a path that would eventually lead them to recognition? In a life-narrative analysis (McAdams, 2011), this preliminary question is intentionally designed to have the participant build a context for their practice so they become comfortable with storytelling. Re-collection of thought helps to spur memories of significant events and gives areas to probe for more detail. During the first phase (context of discovery), participants narrate their own stories. These are specifically noted and used to develop questions for phase two (context of justification). This generally targets key themes with direct questions, but also seeks to see if patterns in phase one continue to appear in the larger sample of phase two. All beginning narratives are then organized during analysis to capture distinct types for future study. 

In this study, four types of beginning narratives are identified in the narrative analysis. No one precludes or excludes another, however when a teacher named one as important, it was categorized as such in the analysis. I’ll call them 1) Positive Predisposition, 2) Progressive Predisposition/change, 3) Sudden Realization, and 4) External Influence. 

Positive Predisposition

Traditional wisdom claims that during the certification process, teachers experience and see what ‘good teaching’ looks like and have a strong mental model to follow over time towards it. They enter their first job with the attributes they credit to enabling future PD. I’ll call this a Positive Predisposition. For these teachers, they grew progressively over time towards what they perceived as “good teaching”, leveraging attitudes and skills gained before they started. These teachers are predisposed with positive models, attributes, or personality characteristics. None of the phase one participants fit this beginning narrative, however it did appear in phase two. These narratives generally fit the following:

“I have always taught the way I do now but I try to constantly try to find new ways and innovative ways to teach so, I'm a constant learner myself. I like to try new things.”

These teachers often had examples that they were trying to follow.

“I remember another elementary teacher who was very active and action oriented. She would act something out every day… I think that is the person I am trying to emulate.”

By entering the profession with a clear example of what they considered excellent teaching, growth over time started by a constant comparative analysis of teaching against their role-model. In these cases, new ideas or PD experiences could be filtered by asking if a particular practice would aid them in being more like this model of excellence. Excellent teachers train excellent teachers.

We would expect that all training programs have excellent teachers, or at least hope for as much. As 15% of the expert sample shared these beginning narratives, where did the other 85% of beginning narratives reside and how were they different?

Progressive Predisposition

A progressive predisposition shares the quality of growing over time. Also like positive predispositions, progressive predispositions are based on a mental model. Only in these narratives, there is no clear positive role-model. Instead teachers recall negative learning settings that they believe they can remake in a better way - they can design progressively forward models of teaching. A single phrase one teacher recalled that,

“Even in my early teaching, I was looking for a different approach towards teaching and learning.”

A progressive predisposition is equally powerful as a starting point for PD on the part of these teachers. However, lacking actual models, they often feel pressure from ‘the system’ and look outside the profession for new models.

“Again, because there is still a lot of pressure for the test and just getting things done.”

In year three, for instance, one teacher was “exhausted” and took a leave of absence. Upon returning, he reported re-connecting to, “The stuff I enjoy doing outside of school…” Refreshed, he was “always learning something new.”

In this case, the teacher grew over time, but instead of a positive internal model of teaching, this teacher knew what traditional teaching he didn’t want (a counter-model) and held to new models of learning he did want.  Progressive change defined a different sort of narrative in these cases. In phase two, this narrative recurs.

The key difference between the first two narratives was whether or not they were growing away from or towards a way of teaching. In the following two narratives, participants also grew away or toward an experience they had after years of practice.

Table 1: Beginning Narrative Themes

External Influence

Beginning narratives weren’t always reported as a predisposition. In five of the six preliminary interviews, teachers could recall a moment or experience that changed their practice distinctly. In these cases, teachers would also either grow away or towards a past practice or experience.

When teachers were presented a new way of thinking or practicing, some reported the external influence as critical to their PD trajectory. For instance, in the preliminary phase, a single teacher credited their social network:

Developing networking early on… Just sharing ideas, the basic web 2.0 type practices, ideas, tips, software with other educators within my state and increasing abroad. Shortly thereafter, within a year or so, I began to look at integration of video games and video technology into the classroom.” 

In this case, his social network was credited as the agent of change. Contact with other educators, inside and outside of his local community of practice, fostered a mindset that prepared the teacher to look at their hobbies as sources of inspiration.

Because of the diversity of sources and the number of those that shared narratives of external influence, in Theme 3 these external influences are broken down and sorted further. In this study teachers credit their trajectory of practice to the influence of an administrator, community, policy, program, workshop, class, friend, or other external influence. They weren’t necessarily predisposed to figure out their innovative practice, instead they report changing trajectory mid-career. 

Sudden Realization

Of those five, the remaining four reported a beginning narrative that was a particular moment that changed their practice. The participants reported a “sudden realization” that defines their career path. The moment was more significant than their predisposition or outside influences because it connected to a cognitive dissonance (Senge, 1990) they were already having. These teachers self-report a frustration with their practice. For example: 

“I remember crashing and burning real bad on what I would consider traditional lectures.”

“We all love our field, it's so horrible to feel like you are torturing someone with the things you are passionate about.”

“I wasn't bold and brazen, I was naive.”

“I had the moment where I realized I was teaching the same way my teachers taught me in high school and I was bored then and I was looking at some of my students who I knew were bright and energetic, lively kids and I could tell they were bored.”

These narratives start with a realization that current practices weren’t sufficient. Teachers realized the flaw in their practice and it led to a pursuit of new tools and ideas for teaching and learning. Contrary to progressive predispositions, these teachers didn’t enter the profession with a mission to change, they engaged in practice the way they had been taught and converted in an “ooh-aah moment”, a realization, and/or a “big horrible mess” in their classrooms that caused them to seek out PD in any form. They often actually used the word “realize” in these narratives, in short,

“I began to realize this isn't working, I'm going to have to do something different…”

After the preliminary interviews the alternative beginning narratives were interesting enough to follow up on in the larger sample. Are all four represented in the larger sample? Are any of the beginning narratives outliers or predominant?  Finally, are there other narratives that weren’t captured in the smaller sample?

Context of Justification

Because these were significant to the teachers, questions were designed for phase two that followed up on ‘Narrated Beginnings’. Across a larger sample set (n=39), all four narratives did appear regularly. In one case, external influence, there was enough diversity of narratives to break it down further (theme 3). In the other three narratives, the stories held consistently to the models above.

All four of the above beginning narratives were represented in the larger sample set of (n=39) teachers. There was some differences between the number of teachers that mentioned or referred to a beginning narrative and the ones that named a narrative as formative in their PD.

Because teachers often noted a primary beginning point for their practice and later would “mention” other important influences, both were tallied in the context of justification. In all narratives, more trajectory beginnings were mentioned than singled out as primary indicating the importance of one or more for each teacher. 

A positive predisposition was the least common (n=6) in both cases. 15% of the sample claimed that they were trained and have always taught the way they do now with growing competency and a clear vision of good teaching.  28% of the sample entered the profession with a clear goal of progressive change of practice. Together, 43% of the sample set reported starting teaching with a disposition of practice that led them toward exemplary practices. 

The other 57% of teachers reported changing their practices at some point during their career due to an external influence or sudden realization. Where an external influence (23% of the sample) was the second leading narrative account, it was first overall (29%) of those mentioned elsewhere in the interview.

Overall, there was no conclusive pattern to the type of beginning narrative expressed by the teachers - with relative balance between the four beginning narratives reported as primary. 

Also, all beginning narratives were mentioned more than they were highlighted as primary. Meaning, for example, that a sudden change in practice could have been preceded or followed up by an external influence, but the teacher credited the moment as the primary influence on their PD trajectory. Participants regarded both as important, so this data reflects the teachers narratives also. These were captured and sorted using ‘primary’ and ‘mentioned’ as categories.

Expanded analysis of the interviews beyond this component would increase the tally of ‘mentioned’ further.  For now, it is enough to note that the beginning narratives were not exclusive of each other.


The life-narrative analysis suggests that there are four beginning narratives among the expert practitioners interviewed for the study. This type of study and analysis does not conclude or show causation of any sort - that is not what it is designed to do. What it does show is that it cannot be assumed that:

  1. A)all teachers learn, (or begin trajectories of PD), the same way,

  2. B)all teachers have a clear and positive model of practice,

  3. C)nor do they necessarily need one, and

  4. D)there are beginning narratives that we have very little empirical knowledge of that are leading to expert practice.

This type of study seeks to root quality questions for future research and in this case we have many. Instead of one beginning narrative, there are four, relatively balanced ones that each are important enough to these teachers that they tell these narratives to explain how they started on a journey to excellence. These need much more investigation beyond a life-narrative analysis study. 

Other ways to break down the data include looking at the number of narratives that were predisposed (43%) compared to those that started transformations due to an experience (57%). This speaks to both teacher training and PD programming in that slightly more of the participants did not come into the profession with a predisposition that served them. This would imply that teachers can and will willingly change and that innovative practices can come out of mid-career PD. Also, this raises the stakes for school administrators to think deeply about what experiences are relevant and have the potential to present new positive models of practice to teachers (Theme 3).

Another split on the data is to look at those that had internal representations of practice and those that encountered external influences on their mental models. For 23% of the participants, someone or something caught their eye and made them consider practice, then change practice, to the point that they are now considered experts. PD was relevant for these teacher, a starting point, prior to an internal decision to change. Engaging teachers in PD can therefore be extremely important. I’m not sure if this confirms mandatory PD however, further examination of these narratives is needed (again, theme 3).

For the other 77% of teachers this was an internal process. Ongoing PD was relevant to these teachers after they made internal decisions either prior to entering the profession (43%) as a predisposition toward practice or because they had a revelatory moment themselves and resolved to change (33%). Here PD was relevant, but only based on an internal filter already in place. If teachers know what they want, or don’t want, then PD based on teacher choice, among valid options, is further reinforced by this study. 

If one beginning narrative stood out, it would suggest future study of how to create similar narratives for more teachers and measure both the productivity of the teacher and student learning. Within the scope of this study, none did, so we can ask further: Are there learning ‘types’ that need future study?  Are singular PD models effective for ‘types’ of learners, and do school leaders need to design customized learning plans to meet the needs of a variety of learning styles - for teachers? This data indicates that one size PD does not fit all adult learners’ needs. 

Also, teacher preparation programs, for these teachers, were as likely to present a positive model of teaching as they were to present a contrary model of teaching. Either programs were purposefully presenting a critical education model (Apple & Beane, 2007) or were unintentionally providing training that these teachers rejected – yet the negative role-model inspired expert practice due to internal goal setting on the part of the teacher. These particular teachers wanted “something” better, and found it outside of traditional PD, then worked over time for integration solutions.

Many other questions grow from these narratives: What do these narratives look like on a much larger scale? What do they look like among other targeted populations of teachers? Are their patterns based on types of schools, ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic status? Do those that enter the profession with one trajectory path benefit from workshops in the same way as those the entered the profession with another? If some teachers can change in a momentary realization, can all teachers change the same way?  What conditions facilitate and inform PD designs? What external influences matter, which don’t? Where did teachers go looking for PD? Where do they report finding relevant PD that helped them progress as teachers? Finally, a question we address in the following theme, What do these teachers report as the relevant resources and PD influences that aided their trajectory of practice?

New methods and analysis would be needed for these questions. This analysis of the data only shows four distinct narrative paths, reason to believe that they are equally relevant for developing expertise, and suggests PD courses that address each beginning narrative.


Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (2007). Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. New York, NY: Doubleday Currency.


The 21st Century Teaching Project


Seann Dikkers’ dissertation project at the University of Wisconsin - Madison

The Challenge21CTP_Updates/Entries/2011/11/23_Blue_bird_day.html


Future Study

21CTP Study

Will update as completed

Theme Three

Impact of Leadership

Theme Four

Refining Practice

Theme Five


Analyzing Data21CTP_Analysis.html
Theme One
Teacher Preparation21CTP_1.html
Source Data21CTP_1_Data_2.html21CTP_1_Data_2.html21CTP_1_Data_2.htmlshapeimage_16_link_0shapeimage_16_link_1
Literature Review21CTP_Lit_Review.html