On the Edge: A Case Study and Resources for Mathematics Teachers

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Florida State University]On: 06 October 2014, At: 17:57Publisher: Taylor & FrancisInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    PRIMUS: Problems, Resources,and Issues in MathematicsUndergraduate StudiesPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/upri20

    On the Edge: A Case Study andResources for MathematicsTeachersDavid E. MeelPublished online: 28 Jul 2011.

    To cite this article: David E. Meel (2011) On the Edge: A Case Study and Resourcesfor Mathematics Teachers, PRIMUS: Problems, Resources, and Issues in MathematicsUndergraduate Studies, 21:6, 485-511, DOI: 10.1080/10511970903270309

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  • PRIMUS, 21(6): 485511, 2011Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1051-1970 print / 1935-4053 onlineDOI: 10.1080/10511970903270309

    On the Edge: A Case Study and Resourcesfor Mathematics Teachers

    David E. Meel

    Abstract: A single case study approach was used to provide an in-depth examina-tion of the special events that take place in the experiences of a graduate mathematicsteaching assistant (MTA) during adaptation to a variety of physical, emotional, and psy-chological issues. Through intervention by a faculty member, professional counselor,and medical doctor, the MTA eventually achieved positive coping and adaptation awayfrom suicidal ideations. In the context of attribution theory, we will look at the partic-ular stressors and the how their concomitant effect led the MTA to consider suicide.The case study documents the interactions between the MTA and the faculty memberas well as how the MTAs attributions impacted their tone and tenor. Drawing from thisaccount and others encountered by other MTAs, the second half of the paper presents acase story to help MTAs consider how to navigate situations that contribute to stress.

    Keywords: Graduate Teaching Assistants, suicide, attribution, coping, case story,mathematics.

    1. INTRODUCTION

    Teaching assistants (TAs) are an integral part of academic life at the collegiatelevel. Since TAs teach a significant share of introductory and developmen-tal courses at research universities, both TA orientation programs and facultypreparation programs have come under scrutiny [2, 22, 40, 52, 53, 69]. Thepursuit of excellence in higher education and quality undergraduate educationmakes the training of TAs to handle complex classroom situations of impor-tance to educational leaders [47, 69]. But what seems to be missing is a focuson the TAs themselves, and the thorny issues they encounter outside of theclassroom. Those issues, external to the classroom, can impact the demeanorof the TA in the classroom and as Bender pointed out:

    Address correspondence to David E. Meel, Department of Mathematics andStatistics, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403, USA. E-mail:meel@bgsu.edu

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  • 486 Meel

    . . . when graduate students fail in their teaching duties, undergraduatelearning suffers. A disorganized, ill-prepared, and ineffective class-room instructor can undermine the hopes of even the most dedicatedundergraduate to pursue the discipline in future semesters. [7, p. 267].

    Thus, a comprehensive TA training program needs to focus on content,pedagogical training, technology training, learning theory, diversity in theclassroom, and handling instructional issues as well as the thorny issues thatimpact a TA both inside and outside the classroom.

    Too often, TAs only experience the dry platitudes describing univer-sity policies and procedures that typically fill most mathematics TA trainingprograms, but these are insufficient preparation for mathematics teaching assis-tants (MTAs) to face the difficult challenges that lie ahead [10, 15, 28, 29,48, 76]. Unfortunately, many mathematics faculty, course coordinators, admin-istration, and MTA trainers discount the debilitating effects stress places onMTAs. Since they succeeded and overcame the stress, there is an underlyingbelief that the MTAs should be able to cope with those same stresses. In addi-tion, there seems to be a concern that faculty, administration, and MTA trainersare ill-equipped to address the more awkward issues because they lie outsidethe realm of their expertise.

    Additionally, the MTA training literature, such as Friedberg et al. [21] andRishel [56], fails to address the debilitating effects stress places on MTAsand how stress affects MTAs performance in the classroom. According toSelye, the father of stress research, stress can be defined generically as astate, manifested by a specific syndrome which consists of all the nonspecifi-cally induced changes within a biological system [62, p. 3]. Although such amechanistic, psychosomatic definition of stress is useful, it fails to address thepsychological and behavioral components created by the interaction of exter-nal and internal stressors and the resulting individual reactions to such stressors(i.e., any event or context that elicits a stress response [38]. Models such as theInteractional Model of stress [41] and the Cognitive-Appraisal Model [75]take these two components into account and consider stress to be the productof a persons cognitive appraisal of situations and events that might serve aspotential stressors when considered as threats to the psycho-social well-beingof the perceiving individual. Consequently, a stressor for one individual maynot be a stressor for another. However, some common stressors plague MTAsin academia: (1) TA as scholar and TA as teacher [7, 34, 44]; (2) financial status[12, 33, 74]; (3) interpersonal relationships [4, 11, 46, 70, 74] and (4) lack oftime [26, 32, 74] that pile on top of academic coursework, prelims and doctoralexams.

    Many TAs receive mixed messages concerning teaching and scholar-ship [7, 59]. In fact, Jennings poignantly characterized the conflict in thefollowing way:

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  • A Case Study and Resources for Mathematics Teachers 487

    Teaching assistants stand at the center of the enterprise in that theyplay such a multitude of these roles. They must respond to all the otherplayers, often in conflicting ways. TAs are simultaneously students andteachers, experts and beginners, inheritors of tradition and creators ofthe next generation of scholarship, amateurs, seasoned professionals, andmembers of a bewildering array of peer groups. . . . They may be lookedupon with respect or disdain, or an uncomfortable mixture of the two, byother members of the university community [34, p. 4].

    In fact, some advisors inform TAs that teaching undergraduates should beconsidered as a secondary, annoying responsibility [7, p. 265]. In contrast,undergraduate students expect the TA to be a teacher first and scholar second.This conflict in perspectives causes many TAs to stress over which role shouldbe dominant. Even though the TA position provides money and experience,Cryer warns TAs not to allow duties to detract from the goal of attaining thedegree and noted that, Some individuals find that a teaching session overshad-ows the complete day because they work themselves up for it and then needtime to unwind afterwards [17, pp. 105106]. Consequently, TAs face theexpectations to perform well as a scholar, progress in their program, completedegree requirements in a timely fashion, and search for a job while performingwell enough as a teaching assistant to not raise the ire of students or department[42, 65]. This continual conflict in roles, combined with a personal search fortheir academic niche, can magnify a MTAs stress [11, 20].

    Closely connected to the stress of being both a teacher and student arethe financial burdens typically encountered. Smallwood [63] reported that TAstipends vary from discipline to discipline, and degree-dependent differen-tial pay scales and minimal health insurance further exaggerates the burden.Unfortunately, many TA stipends, in comparison to those offered to ResearchFellows or assistants, are less lucrative (on average nearly $2,000 less) andesteemed [14, 67, 68]. Consequently, TAs can perceive that their contributionto academe is devalued. When taken into account necessities, the stipends donot provide considerable room for splurges. Closely tied to job and financialissues is that of interpersonal relationships of many TAs, since many TAs cometo the university either married or in some relationship.

    Another major source of potential stress for the TA are interpersonal rela-tionships that, according to a national study conducted by Brownson et al. [11],can contribute to suicidal feelings more than academic, financial, and familyproblems do. These relationships range from office mates to roommates andextend to familial relationships [4, 46, 70, 74]. Interactions with those aroundthe TA vie for a TAs time and attention whether it is with a significant other,spouse, child, extended family, or fellow TAs. For married graduate students,according to Nedleman [50], the greatest stressor is their relationship with theirspouse. This particular stressor exceeds that of work, finances, parenting, desire

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  • 488 Meel

    for recreation/leisure time, and lack of institutional support. Attempting to bal-ance family and scholarship can be extremely difficult for graduate studentsand is particularly acute for female graduate students [4, 70]. Moreover, grad-uate students feel pressured to place academic achievement ahead of all othervalues, including personal activities and personal relationships [74]. With thatsaid, interpersonal relationships also provide a support structure that alleviatesstress. For instance, a graduate student who is a wife, homemaker, and perhapsa mother may find these multiple roles to be both sources of stress and satisfac-tion, since they provide alternative bases for deriving self-esteem, competence,and support [25, 43].

    The final common stressor experienced by most TAs is a perceived lack oftime. As teaching, research, relationships, and leisure activities pull on the TA,the TA may begin to feel that he or she does not have the time to accomplish allof the tasks and navigate the tension between work and leisure. Consequently,the commitments incumbent upon a TA divide the day into an unmanageablemorass. However, Gmelch [26] has argued that a TAs lack of time results froma lack of organization rather than of time. Whether the feeling of a lack oftime is derived from mismanaged time that could have been used to attain pro-fessional, personal, and civic goals or not, the end result of such a feeling isincreased stress impinging upon the TAs overall goals.

    2. METHOD

    2.1. Study Design

    A single-case study design was selected to optimize the understanding of thecomplexities of the research question. The case study identifies the problem,context, issues, and the lessons learned. In this case study, the problem wasMathematics Teaching Assistant (MTA) stress from a subjective point of view;the context was a regional state university-level Ph.D. program in mathematics;the issue was stress-induced suicidal ideations; and the lessons learned werethe different stressors that led the particular MTA toward suicidal ideations.This case illustrates the complex situations that may result as stress produces adebilitating and downward spiral for a MTA. As a result, this extreme case ofan MTA working through suicidal ideations reaches well beyond the commonstressor already discussed, but helps characterize the complexities that a MTAmay experience and the careful interaction that is necessary when an MTA isunder such debilitating stress. The collected data focused on the writings andutterances of the particular MTA on whom the case study is framed. The datawere analyzed using attribution theory as the primary conceptual framework.

    Attribution theory was first proposed by Heider [31], and is used toguide this case study. Specifically, attribution theory looks at how individualsinterpret events and how this relates to their thinking and behavior. Underlying

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  • A Case Study and Resources for Mathematics Teachers 489

    this theory is the idea that people try to determine why people do what theydo, i.e., attribute causes to behavior. This framework looks at how peoplemake attributions in order to maintain order and predictability in their lives,thereby giving themselves some semblance of cognitive control over theirenvironment. Specifically, the work by Heider [31], Kelley [36], Jones et al.[35] and Weiner [7173] expanded the ideas of attributions belonging to justtwo categories: internal (focused on dispositions) and external (focused onsituations) to include multidimensions. For instance, the Kelley [36] covari-ational model focuses on conditions that lead a perceiver to attribute a causeto an external entity with which the person interacts, whereas the Weiner [73]model of achievement attributions examines an individuals casual attributionsof achievement and their linkage to subsequent achievement behaviors andmotivation, future achievement expectancies,...

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