Teaching social studies in elementary schools
Byrd, Daniel Casey
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Educational policies, mandated curriculum standards, professional organizations, teacher education programs, school administrators, and teachers all potentially influence social studies instruction in elementary schools. However, curriculum standards coupled with high stakes testing have significantly shifted the balance of power so that school administrators and teachers are continually evaluated based on their adherence to federal and state mandates. This arrangement creates challenges which student teachers must negotiate as they begin learning about their mentor teachers, students, placement schools, and teaching in general. The perception of their success often depends on replicating what is currently emphasized in schools. With this in mind, I designed a qualitative study which investigated student teachers’ lived experiences of teaching elementary level social studies. Research questions for this study were: (a) what is it like to teach social studies in elementary schools as a student teacher? (b) what, if any, life experiences do student teachers feel shape their orientations towards teaching social studies? (c) what do student teachers see as the purpose of social studies in elementary schools? and (d) how do elementary student teachers process the concerns, ideas, and experiences they encounter around teaching social studies? This study used a phenomenological methodology, and included six participants who volunteered from a group of approximately 60 student teachers, all within the same university teacher education program. These six participants were placed in five elementary schools, which represented three county school districts. Each worked with a different mentor teacher, and the placements reflected four separate grade levels. Multiple transcript readings revealed seven themes and additional meanings of the student teachers’ experiences. These themes included: (a) expectations and purpose in social studies; (b) personal experiences and influences; (c) adherence to state standards; (d) scheduling and time constraints; (e) relationships with mentor and grade level teachers; (f) improving social studies education; and (g) reactions to the end of student teaching. Finally, conclusions from the four research questions were: (a) student teachers experience a continual process of prioritization and negotiation around elementary level social studies instruction; (b) the dominant influence on student teachers’ orientations towards elementary level social studies is their experience of the requirements and structure of student teaching; (c) purpose in social studies is generally conceived by student teachers as broad citizenship objectives but actual content coverage is tied to mandated curriculum standards; and (d) student teachers process their experiences of teaching social studies mostly through a reluctant acceptance of dominant narratives.