The Meanings of Teaching from the Perspective of Exemplary and Experienced Teachers

Open Access
Smith, Janice Elaine
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Education
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 03, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Patricia Angelica Cranton, Dissertation Advisor
  • Patricia Angelica Cranton, Committee Chair
  • Edward W Taylor, Committee Member
  • Denise Gaspari Meister, Committee Member
  • Gina Brelsford, Committee Member
  • adult education
  • narrative inquiry
  • meaning-making
  • Kegan
  • constructive-developmental
  • teaching
  • teacher professional development
A qualitative narrative inquiry that explores the meaning of teaching and the development of that meaning throughout the career of exemplary and experienced teachers in kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade (K-12) public schools was conducted. Exemplary teachers were operationalized in this study as any of the 12 teachers chosen each year by the state of Pennsylvania as finalists for Teacher of the Year. The research questions that guided this narrative inquiry are: Which, if any, of Kegan’s (1982, 1994) developmental plateaus can be identified as current or prior meaning-making systems for these exemplary and experienced teachers? What are the current meanings of teaching for these exemplary and experienced teachers? If these meanings have changed, what was the process of change as the meanings of teaching changed throughout their career? Was this process of change developmental? What contextual influences have supported or hindered the teachers’ meaning-making? Literature that explores constructive-developmental theory, connects it to adult education, and advocates a context for learning with an appropriate mix of challenge and support is reviewed. The theoretical framework for this dissertation is Kegan’s (1982, 1994) constructive-developmental model. To contrast the recent application of constructive-developmental theory in K-12 teacher professional development to prior perspectives, five traditional and alternative lenses in the literature are reviewed: skill-acquisition, cognitive-developmental, life cycle, caring, and life history. The literature on exemplary teachers is explored, and the review finds a gap in the literature for a study that goes beneath the descriptions and behaviors of exemplary teachers and into the meanings of teaching and the ways of knowing of the teacher. Narrative inquiry within a qualitative research paradigm was the method of choice for this study. Narratives were compiled from the data collected (two interviews and application documents) from 21 participants. Each participant was one of the 12 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year finalists each year from the years 1999 through 2009. The individual narratives (not the reflections) were shared with the participants as a check on the validity of the narrative. A rubric was created and used in assessing each of the teacher participant’s meaning-making according to Kegan’s (1982, 1994) theory. Five meanings of teaching for the teacher participants were found: making a difference, learning within a community, learning for a lifetime, finding challenges in constraints, and receiving from teaching. This narrative inquiry with a retrospective look at prior events was not able to answer the question of the process of change in the five meanings of teaching or change in the meaning-making structure. The contextual influences on meaning-making viewed the professional context of the teacher in the day-to-day classroom environment and also from the perspective of the expectations of the local school and the state of Pennsylvania. Context was examined both from its characteristics and from its match or mismatch with the teacher’s developmental plateau. Implications and contributions from this study for Kegan’s (1982, 1994) constructive-developmental theory, for adult education, and for teacher professional development are proposed.