Student Teachers, the Morale Curve & Reconciling Theory and Practice

Featured image courtesy of Alan Levine

PDP Fall

“I can tell you with confidence when these dips in the morale curve will occur: six weeks, twelve weeks, six months, twelve months…”

 Kris Magnusson, paraphrased

Of oughts and ises

Six weeks into our yearlong teacher-education program, our student teachers have enjoyed a month’s honeymoon and visioning process on the SFU campus. There has been much talk about our best wishes for education, much discussion, reflection, and reading about how education might best serve society’s social, political, economic, and aesthetic purposes. There has been a lot of discussion about community, recognition, inclusion, and schooling as a social issue.

For all concerned, it has been an inspiring few weeks spent contemplating the possibilities of education and schooling. But it is important to recognize the different lenses on this experience  wielded by those involved in its discussion. Between student teachers, faculty associates, co-ordinators, and faculty members, different contexts of experience create vastly diverse emotional valences on the process of learning that is unfolding.

For my teaching partner, Donna, and I, it has been an inspiring opportunity: to reflect upon and share our hopes and experiences about the potential that exists in schools. We have each been on the “front lines” of education for long enough to know the contours and limitations of the system, and are each still deeply hopefully for the possibilities which exist in it. Our student teachers, on the other hand, have only known – to some extent – the framing of education and schooling as we have been recently discussing it.

In my last post I looked ahead with anticipation that the professional learning process was about to richly deepen as our student teachers stood perched before their initial school experiences. But even as many, if not all, have enjoyed the new glimpse that these early ventures into school have afforded them, there is a sense that a gulf between realities has been created. There is the world of theory, of ideals, and oughts, on the mountain at the university (to make the metaphor of the academic tower that much more dramatic, SFU resides at the summit of a local mountain), and the pragmatism and skeptical nature of the world in schools.

There is a sense, in some of my conversations back on campus, of frustration at the disconnect between this notion of ought, and is.

PDP Fall

Magnusson, Menninger, and the Morale Curve

In September, among other pearls of wisdom as we set out on this journey, our Dean of Education shared with us Menninger’s Morale Curve. It is apt to note that this experiential challenge arrives now: having moved beyond our initial elated expectations and introductory phase, we are faced now with the difficult work of reconciling theory and practice.

This, I have come to believe, is the work of teaching: engaging in a critical process that examines daily practices to create and nurture relational, emergent communities that might realize our values and beliefs as they evolve over time. It is an intellectual, and emotional labour, to accomplish this task. So as we consider the rigors of transformative learning and critical pedagogy, we must do so with a sensitivity to – and acknowledgement of – the fact that this work is hard. The hardest, even. It involves the constant confrontation with our own potential, as well as our limitations, both individually, as well as within our communities of practice.

Paulo Freire‘s description of the epoch can be seen to apply to the educational system our student teachers are now entering, and how the contrast and tension between schooling theory and in situ practice seem to be in constant opposition.

“An epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving toward plentitude. The concrete representations of many of these ideas, values, concepts, and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede the people’s full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch” (p. 101).

In the world of PDP, these the themes and discussions around education have been heretofore been created by the idealism of those called to this profession as apprentices (student teachers), and those engaged in a discussion of the best values and dispositions that might be employed in positively transforming the education system through mentorship (faculty associates and professors of education). Perhaps then it is not surprising that some of our student teachers would encounter more pragmatic, less idealistic representations of the school system in their first week of observations last week.

“These themes imply others which are opposing or even antithetical; they also indicate tasks to be carried out and fulfilled. Thus, historical themes are always interacting dialectically with their opposites.”

Freire speaks here of the larger thematic universe which constitutes reality, though it is a socially-constructed reality which impacts in micro-currents and localities the perception of the individual.

“Confronted by this ‘universe of themes,'” Freire continues.

“Persons take equally contradictory positions: some work to maintain the structures, others to change them. As antagonism deepens between themes which are an extension of reality, there is a tendency for the themes and for reality itself to be mythicized, establishing a climate of irrationality and sectarianism.”

Reconciling Theory & Practice

Thus we see in schools the confrontation between imagination, inclusion, and individuality, and accountability culture, testing, and competition: a critical, individualized pedagogy, and the banking model. We see teachers’ strikes, and government assessments turned over to right wing provocateurs. We have university instructors imploring young teachers to resist the gravity that draws us toward the status quo.


“This climate threatens to drain the themes of their deeper significance, and to deprive them of their characteristically dynamic aspect. In such a situation, myth-creating irrationality itself becomes a fundamental theme.”

Here, our student teachers descend on the morale curve as this gulf between theory and practice, and these two dialectical realities begins to take shape. What we are doing, learning, and planning for begins to have little to do with common practice: why aren’t we learning what to do? What to say? How to say it? 

These are the questions of frustration; they are the sweat of emotional labour.

But ours – and theirs, the student teachers – is not emotional labour alone: the intellectual task remains to explore opposing themes, and work to create the conditions for its emergence. Our critical faculties of critical and creative thinking must here be turned toward the task of recognizing this dialectical realtionship of themes, and creating in our mind’s eye an “opposing theme, the critical and dynamic view of the world [which] strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favour of the liberation of the people.”

Gregory Bateson describes this process of transformative learning as being compelled by “contraries” in existing experiences.

“The problem to which third-order learning is a ‘solution’ consists of systemic contradictions in experience” (Bredo).

An encounter with systemic contradictions in our experience is part of the nature of our work – not only of teacher-education and the dual realities of university and classroom, but of teaching itself. There are contradictions of theory and practice, of freedom and structure, of uniformity and diversity. These contradictions are an inevitable component of pluralist citizenship, as well, for which schools and teachers are meant to prepare students.

These lessons in citizenship are meant to induct individuals to a national community identity, and yet pluralist communities are themselves emergent: their defining parameters shift, expand, and collapse old structures. Their qualities continually change with the arrival and discovery and inclusion of further diverse members.

Far from an opportunity for frustration, then, this encounter with contradiction may be an emotional and intellectual challenge. But it may also be the central task of our work to overcome.