Teachers in children’s story books: narrative texts serve as ‘mirrors and windows’

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The public text of ‘teacher’

I just enjoyed a study of the representation of teachers in picture story books aimed at children about to start school. There are several aspects to it that could be extended to a study of adolescent fiction (in particular, the framework they borrow from Triplett and Ash around teachers’ relationships with children, and the way in which they consider the monocultural presentation of education in these books).

The authors explain: “It has been argued that narrative texts serve as ‘mirrors and windows’ (Cullinan & Galda, 1998) and that ‘children’s perceptions of the teaching profession are subtly shaped’ by what they encounter in books about school (Trousdale, 1994, p. 213). Several studies have investigated the representation of teachers and schools in children’s literature. Notable among these are Greenway’s (1993) focus on negative images of school; Barone, Meyerson and Mallette’s (1995) identification of positive and negative images of teachers; Radencich and Harrison’s (1997) images of principals; and Trousdale’s (1994) analysis of teachers in picture books.” (p.34)

“One of the few teachers who asked a lot of questions….” (p.39 Dockett et al.)

Concluding their study, the authors write that: “the overall image of teachers from the current study was of a relatively bland, caring person, who made sure that the environment was set up and ready for children, greeted children and parents, provided directions, encouraged children to play without necessarily engaging in play themselves, and who generally ensured that children were happy and comfortable. In short, many teachers seemed to be ‘nice ladies who loved children’ (Stonehouse, 1994).” (p.39)

“One of the sources of children’s knowledge about school is popular culture, which can provide a resource for children to learn about specific communities (such as school) and their roles and relationships within these communities (Haas Dyson, 1997). Weber and Mitchell (1995, p. 2) note the pervasiveness of popular culture images of school: ‘Even before children begin school, they have already been exposed to a myriad of images of teachers, classrooms and schools which have made strong and lasting impressions on them’. Once they start school, children’s own experiences of education, along with those encountered through popular culture (Hickey & Austin, 2006) contribute to the public text of ‘teacher’ (Mockler, 2004).” (p.33) [I like this phrase – the public text of teacher!]

“When children are engaged in multiple readings and ongoing conversations with others about schools and teachers, they are likely to build up specific expectations that incorporate some of these readings and conversations. Weber and Mitchell (1995; 1999) refer to this as a process of constructing cumulative cultural texts, where images from the past (such as those of parents, siblings, friends) are combined with those of the present (including those in popular culture) to ‘give members of a society a common frame of reference and a shared pool of expressive images to [-p.34] use’ that ‘blend seamlessly and often undetected into our familiar, unquestioned everyday knowledge’ (Weber & Mitchell, 1999, p. 168). Children starting school encounter and engage with a variety of popular culture images of teachers. These images can help shape how children think about teachers at school and their own identity as school students, influencing ‘relations and representations of self with and within the wider community’ (Beavis, 2000, p. 1).” (pp.33-34)

Diversity

There were two really interesting points made by the authors of this study. Their interest in diversity as it is represented (and might impact on young readers) and their interest in the fact that fictional teachers generally did not change or learn suggests potential for further study. On the topic of diversity, they write: “As in other analyses of children’s books, there is a general lack of cultural and linguistic diversity represented across these teachers (Gemma, 2001; Smith-D’Arezzo, 2003). Seventy-five per cent (n = 140) of teachers reflected a white, Anglo-Celtic background. The names attributed to teachers confirm this predominance. Of major concern here is the representation of teachers as largely monocultural, where mainstream culture prevails and tensions do not arise. Gemma (2001) reports a similar finding in her analysis of North American books, noting that few ‘address many important linguistic, religious, and cultural issues and questions faced by children and teachers’ (p. 75). The omission of specific groups of people from picture storybooks, particularly in the powerful role of teacher, generates messages about who belongs at school and who is likely to succeed at school (Mendoza & Reese, 2002). One of the books that reflects and celebrates diversity among both teachers and children is Cleversticks (Ashley, 1992).” (p.38)

In their conclusion, Dockett, Perry and Whitton add: “given that many of these books about starting school are featured in transition programs and used with the purpose of familiarising children with school, it is important to consider the nature of the images and the interactions that occur around these. Sandefur and Moore (2004, p. 42) note that these books have ‘power not just in teaching children and their parents about the culture of schooling, but in shaping it as well’. For many children, the monocultural characters in books and the stereotypical representation of teachers and teachers’ work may make identification with either characters or place problematic.” (p.39)

Teachers as learners

Dockett, Perry and Whitton pose a number of questions, but two I particularly like are:

– “Is there evidence of change in the teacher within the book?” (p.35)

– and “Are teachers presented as learners?” (p.35)

In the majority of books, teachers were represented as the keepers of knowledge. This was conveyed through images of teachers leading reading activities, providing [-p.39] directions and assisting children as they undertake tasks. Only on rare occasions was the teacher represented as a learner.” (pp.38-39) Similarly, the authors found that the teachers were not often engaging children in critical thinking, though they suggested that this could be because so many of these books were set on the first day of school when “the sense of comforting and reassuring new children predominates.” (p.39)

Abstract

Children learn a great deal about school, what happens at school, and the people they will meet at school as they engage with popular culture, such as television, games and books. One of the issues raised by many children as they contemplate starting school concerns what their teacher will be like. Children’s expectations about teachers are important contributors to the relationships that develop between teachers and children. Such relationships are themselves a critical factor in children’s school engagement. Examining some of the information that contributes to children’s expectations about teachers supports a focus on children’s experiences as they start school.

This article reports a study of the images of teachers within children’s picture storybooks—an accessible form of popular culture about school. A collection of 164 English language picture storybooks spanning 1967–2007 was analysed to explore the representations of teachers in schools. Three areas of analysis were undertaken: how teachers are represented; the dominant images of teachers; and the images that are omitted. The analysis demonstrates the generally benign images of teachers and questions the understandings the books promote about teachers and the roles of teachers in schools.” (p.33) …I do like the methodology of this paper – and the questions they looked at…

I disagree, though, with their apparent disapproval of teachers in books not ‘resolving conflicts’. Such an approach presumes children to be incapable of solving their own conflicts – which I see them to be. Of course, I suspect the fictional teachers looked at in this study are equally not supporting children to resolve conflicts by themselves either…

Ref: Sue Dockett, Bob Perry, and Diana Whitton (2010) What will my teacher be like? Picture storybooks about starting school Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 35(3)September: pp.33-41

Reference is made to:

Cullinan, B. E., & Galda, L. (1998). Literature and the child (Fourth edn). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
Greenway, B. (1993). ‘Creeping like a snail unwillingly to school’: Negative images of school in children’s literature. The New Advocate, 6(2), 105–114.
Haas Dyson, A. (1997). Writing superheroes: Contemporarychildhood, popular culture and classroom literacy. Columbia, NY: Teachers College Press.
Radencich, M. C., & Harrison, M. (1997). Images of principals in children’s and young adult literature. The New Advocate, 10(4), 335–348.
Triplett, C. F., & Ash, G. E. (2000). Reflecting on the portrayal of teacher–student relationships in children’s literature. The New Advocate, 13(3), 241–257.
Trousdale, A. M. (1994). Teacher as gatekeeper. In P. B. Joseph & G. E. Burnaford (Eds), Images of schoolteachers in twentieth century America (pp. 195–214). New York: St Martins Press.
Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1995). ‘That’s funny, you don’t look like a teacher’. Interrogating images and identity in popular culture. London: Falmer Press.
Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1999). Reinventing ourselves as teachers: Beyond nostalgia. London: Falmer Press.

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