Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Urban Education


Kenneth Tobin

Committee Members

Stephan Brumberg

Gillian Bayne

Mitchell Bleier

Subject Categories

Junior High, Intermediate, Middle School Education and Teaching | Secondary Education


Cogenerative Dialogue, Radical Listening, Hermeneutic phenomenology, Hegemony, Polysemia, Polyphonia


In this dissertation I seek to examine and expose the world of teaching, and particularly the world of teaching mathematics in public middle schools and high schools in New York City. These schools are administered by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) which each year is responsible for the education of over one million students. In this research I aim to help participants and connected others better understand the work that teachers do in these schools. I also intend to make meaning from watching, working with, and listening to the people who work there. I examine what teachers do, including the instruction, their evaluation, curriculum changes, and pathways for students. When the work that they do and the challenges that they face are understood, then teachers and those of us in a position to make decisions that impact the work of teachers, can make more informed choices. Teaching is a grave responsibility. The lives of our children are impacted every day by the work our teachers do.

This dissertation is participant research. All participants including the researcher have an impact on the study as they do on the practice of teaching. The methodology is hermeneutic phenomenology – making sense of what’s going on. I designed the research to be emergent so the direction and focus of the research are contingent on what is found during this event oriented inquiry. I am not aiming to prove a hypothesis or some other predetermined outcome. My aim is to learn about individuals and the work that they do. It is not an aim to converge on a single conclusion. I hope that participants will reevaluate and modify some of their axiologies and ontologies as they better understand their profession both through their own eyes and the eyes of others.

I also designed the research to combine the experiences of professional educators through their eyes and through mine. I selected people serially and contingently. Some were selected because they broke the rules, and some were selected because they didn’t fit. Some were selected because they differed in a number of ways from previously selected participants. Differences include age, gender, race, experience, reputation, and attitude. Differences also include the way that participants teach.

Data collection involves a number of methods including observing, listening, taking part in cogenerative dialogues, and recalling my own experiences since I began this work in 2003. While this research mostly focuses on the work of mathematics teachers, my work also involves spending some time with administrators. This provides a valuable insight into aspects of teaching from an administrator’s standpoint and helps me understand this work from a more balanced perspective.

This research is an opportunity to understand important concepts and theories as they apply in a school setting. Methods such as radical listening and cogenerative dialogue have helped me to reevaluate how I do my job, and how I see the work of teachers. It is also important that we understanding the challenges imposed by hegemonic practices resulting in embedded crypto positivism throughout the system. The frustrations that result from a system that often adheres to a single approach to instruction, classroom management, or planning can prove detrimental to a teacher’s efficacy, and could impact their self-esteem and ultimately their willingness to stay in the job.

There are very few professions that lose members at the rate teaching does. Teaching in an urban setting can be stressful, but it can also be rewarding. Anecdotally, teachers often say that they are not treated like professionals. Many feel that their judgment is not respected, and that they find it hard to use initiative because it does not always reflect current ‘policy’. There does not appear to be a great deal of trust between the tiers of authority and teachers are often subject to a ‘gotcha’ mentality.

The NYCDOE prides itself on the diversity that is central to its student and teacher population. Diversity adds a quality and a richness to a community that is hard to measure. It would make sense to establish pathways that cater to a wide range of needs and abilities. Students learn at different rates and start at different levels but the idea that all students should go to college is the current mindset. A few decades back, the vocational education schools were phased out, and as a consequence, a range of important pathways were lost. Vocational education where it is available is still seen as a pathway for lower performing students rather than a desirable and equally valued alternative to a college pathway.

Finally, the message of diversity is everywhere, but the practices of embracing and catering to diversity are harder to find. The dominant mindset is one size fits all. All students are expected to graduate at a given age. Schools have for years been penalized if students don’t reach the required level, and until recently, schools were not rewarded for progress particularly in lower performing students. There are many talented and hardworking teachers working in our urban schools, and many of these are successful despite the barriers that abound.

It is also important to note that an understanding of important historical facts will assist will help us to understand current practices. Organizations such as the NYCDOE have an enormous, challenging, and many-faceted job to do, and in many cases change is needed. Such change can be slow and incomplete, as any major change requires training and acceptance by all participants. Changes might involve curriculum, assessment, teacher evaluation, policy on vocational education, school closure and downsizing, to name a few.