Clearing the Fog:

A Novice’s Journey Toward Successful Retention


Margaret Schmidt

Arizona State Universtiy


This study followed the professional growth of Chris, a novice elementary string teacher who had shown little improvement for two years. His district supervisor told him that unless he made substantial improvements in his teaching over the next 12 months, he would not receive tenure. I sensed that Chris wanted desperately to teach. This study sought to identify elements that contributed to Chris’ initial difficulties, and to chronicle the interventions that ultimately helped him become a competent teacher.

Related literature. Studies have identified differences in novices’ and experts’ thinking and behaviors (Berliner, 1995). Experts more easily integrate knowledge from several domains: declarative (knowing what to teach), procedural (how to teach it), and contextual knowledge (when to teach it) (Marzano & Hutchins, 1985). While novices share many common concerns (Veenman, 1984), novices in music may experience additional problems (Frederickson & Neill, 2004; Haack, 2003). Several studies have examined the failure of novices (O’Sullivan, 1989; Schmidt & Knowles, 1995). Fewer have reported factors contributing to their success (Hebert & Worthy, 2001).

Method. For one year, I observed and video taped Chris’ elementary string classes and collected his written lesson plans. I transcribed my discussions with Chris and with David, Chris’ district supervisor. I analyzed the data for themes and critical incidents.

Findings. Initially, Chris could not understand what he needed to improve, and our suggestions only seemed to confuse him more. Chris had difficulty identifying students’ skill levels and choosing appropriate repertoire. He often failed to notice whether the students responded appropriately or followed his instructions. He could discuss teaching problems intelligently, yet often misinterpreted our suggestions as he attempted to apply them in his classroom. Gradually, David and I identified a constellation of concerns, but we still found it difficult to provide assistance that made a difference for Chris.

David and Chris both identified as a turning point a day that they sightread some student-level music together. David noticed that Chris responded to his phrase-leadings, and concluded Chris’ musicianship “wasn’t the problem.” However, he discovered that Chris had “no idea what a good elementary orchestra should sound like.” David and I eventually learned that Chris lacked even more basic pedagogical frameworks to guide his teaching practice. While Al, Chris’ supervisor for his first two years of teaching, had given Chris isolated bits of advice, David and I recognized Chris’ larger goals and offered both specific advice and broad pedagogical and philosophical principles. This provided Chris with opportunities to both select the specifics of his own teaching methods, and develop a more integrated framework of procedural, declarative, and contextual knowledge (Marzano & Hutchins, 1985) to guide his practice. At the end of the school year, while David recognized Chris’ need for continued improvement, he felt entirely comfortable recommending Chris for tenure.

Implications. Chris could easily have left or been forced out of the profession. Further research about elements that contribute to individual success may suggest ways to better support novices and preservice teachers, especially those who seem so confused that we are not sure where to begin or how to help.



Berliner, D.C. (1995). Teaching expertise. In L.W. Anderson (Ed.), International encyclopedia of teaching and teacher education (pp. 60-83). London: Cassell Educational Ltd.

Frederickson, W.E., & Neill, S. (2004). “Is it Friday yet?” (Perceptions of first-year music teachers). Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 161/162, 91-98.

Hebert, E., & Worthy, T. (2001). Does the first year of teaching have to be a bad one? A case study of success. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(8), 897-911.

Haack, P. (2003). Challenges faced by beginning music teachers. In C. Conway (Ed.), Great beginnings for music teachers: Mentoring and supporting new teachers (pp. 9-24). Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.

Marzano, R.J., & Hutchins, C.L. (1985). Thinking skills: A conceptual framework. A special issue of “Noteworthy.” Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED266436)

O’Sullivan, M. (1989). Failing gym is like failing lunch or recess: Two beginning teachers’ struggle for legitimacy. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 8, 227–242.

Schmidt, M., & Knowles, J.G. (1995). Four women’s stories of “failure” as beginning teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(5), 429-444.

Veenman, S. (1984). Perceived problems of beginning teachers. Review of Educational Research, 54(2), 143-178.