A Case for Success
When you put together a disparate group of people, you never know if the chemistry is going to work. The educators who gathered at the Ontario College of teachers' first case institute clicked from day one. The heartfelt teaching dilemmas they wrote about will help teachers deepen their understanding of the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession and the Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession.

By Helen Dolik

CASE 1: A father encourages his son
to punch, not shove, another boy in
the playground. After all, the punishment
is the same, and as far as this dad
is concerned, his son can do no wrong.
CASE 2: “But Mrs. T lets us do this!”
Two teachers differ on the expectations
of their students.
CASE 3: A teacher is asked to teach
a Special Education behaviour class.
How hard can that be? he thinks. Only
eight students.

How would you handle these cases? Teachers shared and wrote about these dilemmas at the Ontario College of Teachers’ inaugural case institute. A diverse group of 18 Ontario teachers, from fresh-faced new grads to experienced superintendents, attended the two-day workshop at the College to write cases and link their dilemma-based experiences to the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession. They tackled issues such as students with special education needs, school closures, supply teaching and combined grades. Their cases emphasize just how much teachers care about the education of children in this province

“There’s so much heart in them,” says Andrea Whittaker, a visiting professor and author from San José State University, who led the workshop.

The educators came from North Bay, Ottawa, Moosonee and the Toronto area for the two-session workshop in May and June. There were new teachers, experienced teachers, principals and supervisory officers.

Cases Make Standards Real

The workshop’s purpose was for the participants to develop a set of cases based on their own educationaldilemmas and map them back to standards of practice and the Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession. Whittaker led the discussion about the case genre and how to develop a case.

The College plans to use their work in a casebook that will be part of a standards of practice resource kit to be sent to school boards. The group of educators hopes that by sharing their dilemmas, they’ll touch other teachers’ lives.

These dilemmas will also provide a forum for teachers to discuss the standards, which encompass five key components: commitment to students and student learning, professional knowledge, teaching practice, leadership and community, and ongoing professional learning.

“We talk about teaching as a job, but it’s really a vocation,” says participant Carmela Vitale, a principal at York Catholic District School Board.

Enriching Experience

The participants viewed the case-writing workshop as an enriching experience.

Joe Totaro, an English teacher at North Toronto Collegiate Institute with extensive experience in theatre, was one of the participants. He was an actor at the Stratford Festival and was the head of drama programs at universities in the United States.

“When I read the standards, my first reaction was this is what really good teachers have done all the time,” he says. “What’s the big deal? The really important teachers in my life did this and I hope I reflect the good teaching I was exposed to. These standards reflect the dreams of a good teacher, of a dedicated teacher.

“To understand them is not as important as to be inspired by them, to be guided by them, to be reminded of them when the cacophony of detracting voices threatens to overcome your dedication to the profession. Then they become even more important. Then they should become a refuge. This is what they’re actually about.”

He says the case-writing workshop was important because it showed a connection between what teachers and the College do.

“It’s safe to say the majority of teachers still experience a disconnect between what they do and this body that was created by the government called the College the government called the College of Teachers,” he says. “What this experience has shown me is that this body called the College of Teachers, that I pay money for, is intended to look out for the best interests of teachers and the profession, and to enable us to become better.”

Share with Educators

Mary Simpson, a principal at St. Patrick Catholic School in Ajax, found the experience a positive and challenging one.

Simpson says the case workshop will help her in a number of ways, including how she’ll use the cases with her staff next year in terms of staff development.

She says it’s an effective way for teachers to better understand the standards.

“It’s taking those standards which are in idealized language and putting them into practical terms,” she says. “That makes them more meaningful and attainable for teachers.”

Better Understanding

Cilla Dale, French-language curriculum co-ordinator at Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board in North Bay, says she gained a better understanding of the case approach.

“I don’t think there’s a better way of getting into the standards because I would bet that almost every case, if not all the cases we’ve written, would touch every area of the standards of practice,” she says.

“As far as getting people’s heads into the document and raising their awareness of the standards and provoking discussion about the standards, it’s excellent.”

Wayne Bacon, Superintendent of Program and Schools for the Near North District School Board in North Bay, the workshop was a wonderful opportunity to review the standards and get some practical applications.

“At the beginning of the session I was overwhelmed with the onerous nature of the task,” he says. “However, as the workshop unfolded, the expectations became more clear and the support was excellent. At the end of my career, I continue to be reminded that I am a lifelong learner and new opportunities for learning never cease.”

Step Inside Their Shoes

Margaret Feiner, 24, is a new teacher graduate and the workshop is helping her along in her budding career.

“When you hear other people’s cases, it’s a way to step inside their shoes and see a situation from their perspective,” she says. “As a teacher, that’s something you have to do a lot.”

“It helps, because in a few days, I’ve heard all these first-hand experiences—difficult experiences these teachers have had. It’s comforting because I’m sure I’ll find myself in these situations and I’ll be able to draw on these discussions to help me with my cases.”

Feiner says the atmosphere is welcoming and friendly, and praised Whittaker for her handling of the group.

“She really did create a community in that class,” Feiner says. “I came here smiling and I left smiling.”

How can cases help teachers?

Andrea Whittaker, an author and San José State University professor who led the case-writing workshop at the Ontario College of Teachers, shares her views on the subject.

• Reading a case and discussing a case with colleagues is a form of professional development.

When you share a text that reveals the complexities of teaching, you can examine your own practice. You can use it as a mirror into your practice. If the case is very compelling and very rich, then you can have a dialogue with colleagues and ask, “How is my practice like this person’s? What would I have done differently? How does reading this case and talking about it help me re-examine what I would do?” It’s a way to promote reflection about personal growth.

• The cases can make something abstract concrete.

The abstract thing is the standardsof practice. They’re a bunch of words. But when you have a case that can be examined through the standards as a lens, then that makes the standards real, concrete, contextual and something meaningful that the teachers can take a look at. The cases can be used to teach people about the standards, to make the standards real and meaningful rather than abstract.

• The whole act of case writing

The teachers who came here today now have a way to reflect on their practice through writing and to be in a community with other people doing the same thing that supports them to become better teachers. They’re putting their practice out there publicly and are saying that “This is my dilemma, I’m writing about my teaching to share it with others, and as a result, I’m going to learn something more about what I do.”

Case Method

Whittaker put the group at ease with her cordial style and respect for the participants. Her comfort and familiarity with the case-writing teaching approach shone through. She also has ties to Canada. She was born in Barrie and moved to California in the second grade.

Whittaker is an assistant professor of education at San José State University, where she teaches courses in foundations, literacy and assessment to teacher candidates. She uses case discussions and case writing as a form of inquiry with beginning and experienced teachers. Her research interests include the evaluation of professional development programs for educators, teacher inquiry and educational equity in K-12 classrooms.

She co-authored Using Assessments To Teach For Understanding: A Casebook for Educators, and its companion Facilitator's Guide, with Judith H. Shulman and Michele Lew. The casebook presents 15 cases designed to help teachers cope with the challenges of assessments to improve teaching and learning.

In the preface to their book, the authors define what they mean by a case: “Cases are candid, dramatic, highly readable accounts of teaching events or a series of events. They offer a problem-based snapshot of an on-the-job dilemma. Read on one’s own, cases offer the vicarious experience of walking in another’s shoes. In group discussion, they are especially powerful, allowing differing points of view to be aired and examined. For that reason, cases are consciously designed to provoke discussion that is engaging, demanding, and intellectually exciting.”

Broaden Awareness

Introducing the standards in the form of a case can work brilliantly to broaden awareness and deepen understanding of them, Whittaker says.

“The standards are all she says. “Teaching is an organic and holistic set of events. It’s not piecemeal. I think cases can help to represent that for people.”

The foundations classes Whittaker teaches are mostly theoretical. To make theory real, it needs to become concrete, practical and contextualized, she says. What’s the best way to do that? It’s through cases, she says. She uses them frequently. “Cases reveal the complexity of teaching and they provide a meaningful context for reflecting on how standards can guide improved practice.”

The College is planning a second case-writing workshop for January.

The Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession and the Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession can be found on the College web site at www.oct.ca/standards.asp. These resources are available in the College library: Teaching Exceptional Children and Adolescents: A Canadian Casebook by Nancy L. Hutchinson and Quality in the Classroom: Learning About Teaching Through Case Studies by William Louden


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