December 1994, Vol.1, No.2

A Series of Brief Reports


Destreaming and Teacher Confidence
By John A Ross, Sharon McKeiver, and Anne Hogaboam-Gray
Teacher confidence matters. Teachers who are confident about their teaching abilities are more likely to be successful in the classroom: Student achievement is higher in their classes. Confident teachers set high standards of performance for themselves, accept responsibility if the standards are not met, and respond to failure with renewed effort. They are willing to try new ideas, use instructional strategies which are powerful but difficult to acquire, and involve parents in school activities. Confident teachers set high standards for pupils and persist until they are met.


This qualitative study involved four grade 9 math teachers from Northumberland-Clarington, Peterborough, and Victoria Boards of Education. Each was an effective teacher who had prepared for destreaming. Each teacher was interviewed (6X), observed in the classroom (4X), and completed a teacher confidence instrument (3X). The data collection focused on what they found challenging about destreaming and the coping strategies they developed.


At first, destreaming had a negative effect on confidence. Teachers had strategies for meeting the needs of students in the advanced course and a comparable set for general/basic courses. Integrating these strategies to teach a mixed-ability class in a subject in which learning was sequential proved to be difficult. "We're not slick enough yet at having the two moving at different paces and different topics." Balancing the needs of students led to "frustration in the classroom...the middle group is comfortable; it's the ones on both ends that aren't."

As teachers developed mixed-ability teaching strategies and found they worked, their confidence increased. The most frequently used teaching strategies were modifications of approaches developed for general classes. Confidence increased as teachers accumulated evidence that students at the upper and lower ends of the ability spectrum were more successful than teachers had anticipated. Evidence came from regular tests, end of year/semester exams, student comments ("I always got in the sixties, I can't believe I'm getting eighty percent"), attendance, observations of classroom performance ("to see that a lot of the `B' students are achieving at the advanced level"), homework, student journals, and observing friendships that cut across ability groups.

It gave me self see students are achieving. forget the political agenda and... you just sit down and
work with this nice bunch of kids.

Collaboration with other teachers was a major contributor to the resurgence of confidence. Collaboration was especially important for young teachers ("The guidance is fantastic...they give you an idea of things you have to cover"). Comparing achievement results with other teachers reduced anxiety and contributed to feelings of success ("It gave me self see students are achieving just as well as the other teachers'").

For experienced teachers, peer meetings provided emotional support and new ideas. "If a teacher has a frustration it's brought out...We get to discuss it, look at things fresh...get some other ideas." Departments avoided duplication of effort by devising common tests and exchanging ideas about which topics to teach and how to teach them. The sharing was reciprocal but not compulsory. Teachers did not feel obliged to take advice. They had the support of their colleagues but success was attributed to their own efforts. "You...take it all in and then you still go back and analyze it and decide what works best for you."

In-school administrators had an indirect effect on teacher confidence by creating opportunities for collaboration. School administrators made it easier for teachers to learn from one another by arranging for them to have common prep periods and giving them release time for joint planning and funds for visits to other schools. This support communicated to the teachers the importance of the work they were doing and reduced obstacles to its completion.

It reinforced their belief in the worth of trying new ideas, conferred increased status on their teams and validated their enthusiasm.

Controlling emotional states was a key factor in the resurgence of teacher confidence. In the first interview teachers expressed a host of negative feelings about the demands of destreaming on workload and its appropriateness for students. As they implemented it they put aside their resentment ("To grumble about it is unproductive") and directed their mental energies to productive outlets. One strategy for displacing negative feelings was to concentrate on the students. "When you close the door, you forget the political agenda and the lack of...valid evaluations of pilots and so on. You just sit down and work with this nice bunch of kids."

Certainty about personal goals indirectly contributed to the resurgence of confidence. Despite the initial decline in confidence, the teachers never wavered in their certainty about their overall purposes. Each teacher had a different vision to which they were deeply committed: teaching students specific skills needed for daily life, communicating a vision about mathematics as a form of communication or promoting a particular form of pedagogy. The teachers' belief that they were engaged in meaningful work enabled them to persist until their new teaching strategies began to bear fruit.

The impact of destreaming on teacher confidence was affected by teachers' stages of career development. The most experienced teacher in the sample had been through restructuring before and knew what to expect. He predicted difficulty and found it. But he believed that skill deterioration would be temporary. He defined "effectiveness as something inside of me, my qualities as a teacher" that would continue despite the stress of restructuring. Experience gave him flexibility which enabled him to respond quickly to classroom surprises. Destreaming forced him to change his routines but he was able to retain his effective student management techniques.

The least experienced teacher had fewer strategies to draw upon and throughout the year was coming to grips with a fundamental dilemma: striking a balance between covering course content and teaching for understanding. What helped her was advice from other teachers ("I would approach somebody else and ask them, 'How do you do this' or 'What do you think of this' because I was just starting"), especially the close mentoring relationship she had with a colleague ("[she] has been my resource...I've always discussed a lot with her...even with the other courses that she wasn't teaching"). Her lack of experience made it difficult to develop strategies for the destreamed classroom but mentoring compensated.

Destreaming had a negative impact on the confidence of exemplary teachers but the effects did not last. The inquiry shed light on the recovery mechanisms through which teachers regained their confidence. The upward bounce was related to organizational factors (collaboration and leadership support) and to personal characteristics (experience, vision and emotional control).

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John A. Ross is Professor in the Department of Curriculum,.Teaching, and Learning, OISE/UT and Head of the Trent Valley Centre, Field Division, OISE/UT.

Sharon McKeiver is currently a teacher with the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB. At the time of this article, Sharon was a vice-principal in Northumberland-Clarington (now KPRDSB) and a doctoral candidate at OISE/UT.

Anne Hogaboam-Gray is Senior Research Officer at the Trent Valley Centre and currently completing her Ph.D at OISE/UT.

For more information about these research reports and other activities of the Trent Valley Centre contact:

OISE/UT Trent Valley Centre
Box 719, 1994 Fisher Drive,
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada K9J 7A1

Tel: (705) 742-9773, Ext. 2293
Fax: (705) 742-5104

Return to Index of Research in Ontario Secondary Schools: Series of Brief Reports