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Perceptions of Self and Other in the Elementary Classroom: From George Spindler’s “Roger Harker Story” to Today’s Classrooms


College of Charleston

Consistent with research conducted by George Spindler 60 years ago, teachers continue to perceive groups of students, typically students that differ from the teacher, as less capable of accomplishing meaningful tasks, belonging and contributing to social groups, and engaging actively in challeng- ing work. The bias is especially great for students who struggle to perform academically. The article reflects on the importance of teacher effects on students’ developing sense of self, especially in our accountability age. [George Spindler, self-concept, perceptual bias, accountability]

Throughout his career, George Spindler provided a unique view of schools and the teaching and learning process. Sixty years ago, he became one of the first anthropologists to make a U. S. elementary school classroom, Roger Harker’s classroom, a research site. He took up the challenge to make this very familiar venue strange, using a holistic approach to understanding the dynamics of a classroom culture. He not only observed the teacher and how he delivered lessons, but Spindler also focused on the social dynamic between the teacher and students and among the students. This research experience profoundly influenced his career and became a centerpiece of his courses and lectures for decades to follow. For the next 50 years, Spindler used the “Roger Harker story” to remind under- graduate and graduate students of the disconnections and challenges of teaching, and of the profound effect teachers have on students’ developing sense of self. George Spindler, and his partner, his wife Louise, were pioneers in turning an anthropological lens on education and in seeing schools and classrooms as more than venues for the transmission of information from adults to children. The Spindlers highlighted the influence of schools and classrooms on students’ developing sense of self (which Hoffman [1998] describes as a “pedagogy of selfhood”). This paper returns to the Roger Harker story and ties it to the Spindlers’ commitment to understanding the relationship between our sense of self and the schooling experience. In the article, I delve into the Spindlers’ concepts of self to identify the aspects of self that are critical to success in classrooms and suggest that, like Roger Harker, teachers today continue to favor students most like themselves. In addition, I extend the story and present the classroom as a venue in which teachers’ as well as students’ sense of self is confirmed or disconfirmed. I suggest that teachers rely on students’ academic performance to confirm their sense of self, resulting in a tendency to favor students with strong academic performance. I contend that this tendency is exacerbated by the current standards and accountability climate, especially in Title I schools.

The Roger Harker Story

In 1951, George Spindler spent six months studying an ethnically and socioeconomi- cally diverse fifth grade classroom in northern California as part of a Stanford University research project working with local schools. The teacher, Roger Harker, was a

Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 44, Issue 1, pp. 94–103, ISSN 0161-7761, online ISSN 1548-1492. © 2013 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.




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well-respected young man from a white middle-class family. Colleagues and supervisors saw him as fair, well organized, and capable. They believed he was a rising star destined to move into school administration. Roger shared their views, describing himself as “fair and just to all my pupils” and “playing no favorites” (Spindler and Spindler 1982:25). Using multiple research methods, including participate observation, rating scales, surveys, and interviews, Spindler came to a different perception of Roger. Despite his belief that he was fair, Spindler found that Roger was fair to only 40 percent of the class—those students most like him: white, achievement oriented, and middle class (McDermott and Erickson 2000). He also favored female over male students, which Spin- dler attributed to Roger’s alienation from his father. He consistently rated these students higher than the Mexican-American and Portuguese immigrant students on surveys of academic promise and social interactions; he spent more time with them in class, and he demanded more from them than he did of the other students. Surveys and interviews with students offered another perspective of Roger and the classroom in which he taught. When students described the social network in their class- room and their impression of their teacher, they gave positive ratings to peers whom Roger perceived as isolated and uninvolved, and they considered many of the students favored by the teacher as marginal. They also did not share the perception of Roger’s colleagues and supervisors that he was fair; they believed that he was unfair to some students and definitely had favorites. George and Louise Spindler, writing in 1982, 30 years later, concluded:

This young man, with the best of intentions, was confirming the negative hypotheses and predic- tions (as well as the positive ones) already made within the social system. He was informing Anglo middle-class children that they were capable, had bright futures, were socially acceptable, and were worth a lot of trouble. He was also informing lower-class and non-Anglo children that they were less capable, less socially acceptable, less worth the trouble. He was defeating his own declared educational goals. [1982:26]

Concepts of Self and Identity

These perception gaps concerned George Spindler because he saw the classroom as a venue for children’s construction of self. Spindler was influenced by the work of Charles Horton Cooley (1902) and George Herbert Mead (1934) who proposed that self is socially constructed, and that we form a sense of who we are through the reactions of others, especially significant others such as teachers. If self is socially constructed, classroom interactions become especially important for students because so much of their social interaction is in classrooms. Classroom interactions are also important for teachers because it is in the classroom that their sense of self as a professional develops. George and Louise Spindler provide an important distinction between the enduring self, the situated self, and the endangered self. They describe the enduring self as “that sense of continuity one has with one’s own past—a personal continuity of experience, meaning, and social identity” (Hallowell 1955 in Spindler and Spindler 1993:375). The situated self encompasses “those aspects of the person required to cope with the everyday exigencies of life. This self is situated and contextualized” (1993:375). The Spindlers go on to explain that the situated self is instrumental in that self-efficacy is tied to success or failure while the enduring self provides stability and continuity with the past. The enduring self is important to the Spindlers because with it “any given student or teacher will have a sense of self that is relatively independent of the situation one finds oneself in” (1993:376). Students and teachers create a “situated self” in each classroom they enter. Roger Harker likely felt little dissonance between his situated self as a teacher and his enduring self as a white middle-class man because his expectations for appropriate classroom


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interactions mirrored societal views of “normal” and “proper” behavior. In his classroom, most of the white, middle-class, achievement-oriented female students had little disso- nance between their situated and enduring selves. Their experiences outside the class- room, the meaning they gave to experiences, and their social identity were valued and built upon in Roger’s classroom. In contrast, the other students also created a situated self but one that probably differed from their enduring self and one that was not valued by Roger Harker. Not sharing experiences, values, language, and cultural/social identity

with Roger, their efforts to fit into his perception of a good student fell short. The Spindlers concluded that if the enduring self is violated too often or too severely in an effort to form

a situated self, the self may become an endangered self: “This

and youth of diverse cultural origins confront school cultures that are antagonistic to the premises and behavioral patterns of their own culture” (1993:376). The focus on self, enduring, situated, and endangered, has run a distant second in the educational literature to a focus on identity. Anthropologists have been instrumental in turning a research spotlight on how racial and ethnic identity is enacted in schools and classrooms. Much work, especially that influenced by John Ogbu, emphasizes students’ oppositional or conformist identities (Fordham 1988; Ogbu 1978). This body of work treats identity as rather fixed and leaves little room for variation within groups and within individuals (Gibson 1988; Hemmings 2000; Hoffman 1998). It does, however, highlight the racialized society in which we live and that ethnic and racial identities are as often placed on students as assumed by them (e.g., Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995; Monzó and Rueda


Other anthropological research, focusing primarily on race, class, and gender, portrays identity in a more fluid manner. One line of research emphasizes the “boundary work” needed to maintain multiple identities (e.g., Hemmings 2000; Phelan et al. 1998). This research examines how students adopt different identities to cross boundaries between home, peers, and school. Other research, rooted in the work of Vygotsky (1978) and Bakhtin (1981), emphasizes student agency in navigating multiple and changing identities that are shaped by cultural forces and by students’ internal “improvisions” and dialogues (e.g., Holland et al. 1998; Monzó and Rueda 2009; Schaffer and Skinner 2009). Diane Hoffman returns to the Spindlers’ focus on self and questions educational anthro- pologists’ focus on identity, calling for a better understanding of “self-other relatedness” (1998:326). She expresses concern that we make educational decisions based on a superficial understanding of how identities are created.According to Hoffman, we need to focus on the concept of self rather than identity because, “It is not reducible to the roles it plays, the groups it ‘belongs’ to, or to the identities it negotiates; it points, in sum, to something beyond identity” (1998:328). Hoffman describes the role of education in shaping students’ sense of self by asserting that education “shapes identity by shaping the patterns of self’s relations to others, the expectations that exist for conformity between ‘situated’ and ‘enduring’ selves, and patterns of orientation to change. It is, at heart, a pedagogy of selfhood—a mirror for as well as a model of culturally envisioned self” (1998:334).

certainly occurs as children

Aspects of Self: Sense of Accomplishment, Belonging, and Engagement

I first heard the Roger Harker story as a Stanford graduate student in the late 1970s and always wondered what Roger Harker thought made white, middle-class, achievement- oriented, female students superior to their peers. I suggest that Roger thought that these students had more potential or capacity to accomplish great things, belong in and con- tribute to society, and engage in tasks requiring a serious personal investment. In other words, he perceived these students to have a higher capacity for accomplishment, belong- ing, and engagement than their peers. I hold that our sense of accomplishment, belonging,


Self and Other


and engagement are critical aspects of our sense of self. All three manifest themselves in our enduring and situated selves and are heavily influenced by the social context. This focus on accomplishment, belonging, and engagement as key components of self grew out of research, literature reviews, and conversations with colleagues on the inter-

section of school and classroom context with students’ and teachers’ sense of self. I thought that it was important to specify the aspects of self that lead to success in school. As I examined research and reflected on my experiences in classrooms, I saw that for some students the classroom experience confirms or builds their belief that they are capable of accomplishing challenging tasks, contributing to and being part of a group, and engaging in meaningful activities, while the classroom experience teaches other students a more discouraging lesson (Finnan 2009; Finnan and Kombe 2011). As I continue to work with this framework I realize that to truly understand the effect of the classroom context on students, we also need to examine its effect on teachers’ sense of self. As students look to their teacher for confirmation of their sense of self, teachers look to their students for confirmation of their teaching effectiveness. As a component of self, a sense of accomplishment describes our confidence in our ability to do what is culturally required and valued. We have all experienced a sense of accomplishment, whether by capturing the essence of the subject in a painting, making the game-winning point in basketball, or participating in a meaningful conversation in another language. As teachers, we gain a sense of accomplishment when we “see the light go on” in students’ eyes or receive a note of thanks from a former student. A sense of accomplishment is at its most intense when we succeed at something we find challenging. This usually involves persisting at tasks that we were not sure we could successfully master. A sense of accomplishment requires “instrumental competence,” the cultural understanding of how to perform the activities that are tied to acquisition of possessions, recognition, power, status, or satisfaction (Spindler and Spindler 1989). The task must also be deemed “challenging” within the social and cultural context. For example, if a teacher tells the class a math activity is easy, students who struggle to complete it will not experience a sense of accomplishment even though it was challenging for them. A sense of accomplishment also requires confidence, what Alfred Bandura describes as self-efficacy, the belief in one’s capacity to accomplish tasks (1977). We experience a sense of accom- plishment most intensely when successful completion of a task confirms our competence and builds confidence that had previously been tentative. A sense of accomplishment is not synonymous with academic achievement, because people of all ability levels vary in their sense of accomplishment; many highly gifted people lack a sense of accomplishment because tasks are too easy.

A sense of belonging, another critical dimension of self, describes our confidence in

ourselves as social beings and in our ability to make and contribute to relationships with others. In Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” belonging is next in importance after physi- ological and safety needs (1943). It is typically seen as an aspect of identity, as in belonging as a member of a group. It invokes questions about place (e.g., Do I belong in this place? Who controls this place?) (Erickson and Mohatt 1982); of inclusion and exclusion or “us versus them” (e.g., If I belong in this group, can I also belong in other groups and who else can belong in this group?) (Warriner 2007), and the power and politics underlying deter- minations of the cultural knowledge and behaviors needed to belong (e.g., What do group members need to know and be able to do to be treated as members of the group?). These questions arise for both students and teachers.

In most American classrooms, belonging typically calls for assimilation to middle-class,

white expectations (Suarez-Orozco 1987; Hemmings 2000; Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995); for many students, this requires the creation of a classroom-situated self that is appropriate for these expectations but that differs from the enduring self. Where a sense of belonging


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is fostered in classrooms, differences between the enduring self and situated self are not large and are never problematic; all students are accepted for who they are, are needed for what they can contribute, and are encouraged to contribute diverse ideas and ways of thinking.

A sense of engagement is another key dimension of self that helps us believe that we

can do and enjoy the things that are valued in society. While a sense of accomplishment is oriented toward an outcome, a sense of engagement is oriented toward the act of doing or

learning. A sense of engagement exists within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD; 1978) and resembles Csikszentmihalyi’s flow (1997, 2000). Within the ZDP, a state of engagement, or flow, involves doing something that challenges, pushes, or stretches the person. Like accomplishment, engagement necessitates balancing competence and chal- lenge, but with a sense of engagement we believe that we will enjoy the experience of challenging ourselves. We focus less on the outcome and more on the process. A sense of engagement involves positive emotions of “enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest” (Skinner and Belmont 1993:572). These same qualities describe teachers’ engagement in the content and process of teaching (Staton and Hunt 1992). For students to develop a sense of engagement, they need more than interest and minimal competence in the task or subject; they also need the “interactional competence” to be able to communicate and interpret in culturally appropriate ways (Erickson 1997; Mehan 1980). They need to make sense of the task and see its value in their lives. To develop a sense of engagement in classroom activities, students need to read the teacher’s cultural messages and display culturally appropriate responses.

In summary, these dimensions of self, accomplishment, belonging, and engagement,

help to operationalize how we conceptualize self within a social and academic context and provide a vehicle for better understanding the interconnections between teachers’ and students’ sense of self. They help to clarify how we define ourselves and how others perceive us. Although Spindler did not explicitly examine differences between Roger and his students in terms of their perceived capacity for accomplishment, belonging, and, engagement, he did find that Roger and the children had very different views of who was “liked or disliked and by whom, who was ‘respected,’ who was maladjusted, who was succeeding and who wasn’t, who was known for being fun, hardworking, or mean, etc.” (Spindler and Spindler 1982:30).

Self-Other Perception Sixty Years Later

Given the changes in schools and society since the 1950s the Roger Harker story should seem like a quaint reminder of a time when white, middle-class, male superiority was unquestioned by most of the mainstream. With Brown v. Board of Education; the Civil Rights Movement; and efforts to celebrate cultural, linguistic, and gender differences, and to train and support reflective practitioners, we should no longer see the biases Roger displayed. However, decades of subsequent research document the resilience of the dynamic played out in Roger Harker’s classroom (e.g., Ferguson 2001; Fine 1991; Lareau 2003; McDermott 1987; Ogbu 1978; Schaffer and Skinner 2009; Suarez-Orozco 1987). Too often, whether knowingly or unknowingly, teachers favor students more like themselves and misread the assumptions, actions, and aspirations of students who are different. Efforts to close the achievement gap, most notably through provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act, that draw attention to student performance by race, socioeconomic status, language, and disability only exacerbate this tendency. I was drawn back to the Roger Harker story when I began analyzing some data I collected in four Title I elementary schools. 1 I have worked with these schools for many years in different capacities. I know that most of the teachers are committed to improving


Self and Other


the life chances for all of their students, but they are frustrated that their students fail to make the progress demanded by our accountability age. As part of a larger research project, I began examining classroom environments to see if the classrooms encourage students to develop a positive sense of accomplishment, belonging, and engagement. As part of this examination I asked third through fifth grade teachers to rate each of their students on several dimensions of accomplishment (welcomes challenges, takes respon- sibility for actions), belonging (maintains positive social relationships, displays respectful behavior), and engagement (actively participates, is motivated and interested) and asked students to rate themselves on similar dimensions. I wanted to see how teachers’ percep- tions of students compared to students’ self-perceptions. Not surprisingly, students’ self- ratings were higher than teacher ratings on most dimensions. To examine the Roger Harker phenomena, I disaggregated students’ self-ratings and teachers’ rating of students by students’ gender, race/ethnicity, free/reduced price lunch, and reading ability (as measured by the Measures of Academic Progress test). Teachers consistently rated certain groups of students (those eligible for free/reduced price lunch, blacks, boys, and struggling readers) lower than their counterparts (students paying for lunch, white/Hispanic students, girls, and average/high readers). In contrast, the student self-ratings showed little difference across demographic groups. In other words, teachers indicated that certain groups of students were less likely than their counterparts to welcome challenges, take responsibility for their actions, develop positive social relation- ships, display respectful behavior, participate actively in class, and exhibit motivation and interest in learning. These findings are quite similar to what George Spindler found with Roger Harker. An interesting finding from my research adds a new wrinkle to the Roger Harker story and has led me to want to look more closely at the interconnections between students’ and teachers’ sense of self within the classroom. Although my findings look very similar to Spindler’s, I can see something Spindler could not by disaggregating teacher and student responses by demographic groups. In doing this, I found that the group of students that teachers overwhelmingly see as least apt to demonstrate accomplishment, belonging, and engagement are the students falling into the lowest group of readers. Teachers rated the vast majority of struggling readers (those falling into the lowest group) considerably lower than their peers on all dimensions: welcoming challenges, being responsible for their actions, having positive social relationships, displaying respectful behavior, actively par- ticipating in class, and being motivated and interested in learning. In contrast, there is little difference in how struggling readers and more proficient readers rated themselves; from a student perspective, reading proficiency has little effect on perceptions of accomplish- ment, belonging, and engagement. Why do teachers view struggling readers’ capability across all of these dimensions so negatively? I posit that teachers’ sense of self is also supported or challenged within the classroom and that, in an age of accountability for student learning, teachers are likely to perceive struggling readers more negatively than other groups of students. It is difficult for teachers to feel a sense of accomplishment when their students continue to struggle to read; out of frustration with themselves, the stu- dents, or accountability demands, they attribute negative characteristics to those students who challenge their sense of effectiveness as teachers.


Sixty years ago George and Louise Spindler initiated a strand of anthropological research on the effect of teacher perceptions on children. This focus remains as important today as it was when George Spindler worked with Roger Harker to examine his percep- tions and address the damage they inflicted on many of his students. Although many of


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us have worked with teachers to understand themselves as culture-bearers (Scram 1994), the disconnect between teachers and students remains a serious problem in our schools and in our wider society. Over six decades of research exposes aspects of our society that most white, middle-class, educated people do not want to acknowledge: we all make judgments of ourselves and others based on deeply held attitudes and assumptions usually based on indicators of gender, race or ethnicity, social class, and education level (Hill 2008). Many of us present our research findings to teachers who participated in our research, to preservice teachers in our education classes, and in meetings of teachers and principals. Typically, they are appalled and uncomfortable with the findings. They do not like to see themselves as unfair and biased. Essentially, teachers today are much like Roger Harker was in the 1950s; they want to believe they are unbiased and fair, but they make judgments of children based on cultur- ally formed perceptions. In addition, I suggest that their views of students are influenced by their own need to see themselves as effective teachers. Their sense of self, both enduring and situated, is also influenced by dynamics in the classroom. This was undoubtedly true of Roger Harker as well, but it is more problematic today as teachers are bombarded by data and are held accountable for, and potentially compensated based on, students’ per- formance on high-stakes tests. It is not surprising that their perceptions of students are colored by the students’ academic performance. George and Louise Spindler moved beyond researching the self-other relationship in schools and developed strategies they described as “cultural therapy” (Spindler and Spindler 1994). George Spindler’s first attempt at cultural therapy was when he presented his findings to Roger Harker; he turned Roger’s initial denial and anger into a therapeutic opportunity. Through cultural therapy, Spindler was able to help Roger better understand his cultural biases and work more effectively with all children. George and Louise Spin- dler continued to develop cultural therapy throughout their careers, but they recognized that it has limitations because it only works when “patients” seek therapy and are willing to carefully examine the gender, cultural, class, and achievement-oriented biases they bring to interactions with children (1994). Given the scale and persistence of perception gaps, we need to create processes similar to cultural therapy that can be taken to scale in both the training of future teachers and professional development of current teachers. These processes need to address perception gaps between teachers and students by recognizing the interplay and interdependence within a classroom of teachers’ and stu- dents’ sense of self. George and Louise Spindler encouraged many educational anthropologists to examine school and classroom effects on a student’s situated and enduring self. My work builds on this tradition, focusing on the dynamic that occurs in teachers’ classrooms that encourage the development of a positive sense of accomplishment, belonging, and engagement. Students look to their teachers for reassurance that they are capable of mastering the required curriculum, that they belong in and contribute to the classroom community, and that they have the capacity to fully engage in demanding lessons. Without meaning to, too many teachers send a message to some of their students that they doubt their ability to do so. This is understandable in the current climate of high-stakes testing and accountability. Struggling students challenge teachers’ sense of accomplishment and engagement. Out of frustration, by orders from administrators, or because of self-doubt, many teachers are reluctant to take time to build the relationships with students that ultimately will support both students’ and teachers’ positive sense of self. As educational anthropologists we have an obligation to stand up for students who are negatively affected by current policies and practices and for teachers who struggle to develop and retain a sense of professional pride (McDermott 2007; Sloan 2007). The focus on accountability and testing has made all schools, but especially schools serving our most


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vulnerable students, unlikely places to foster a positive, enduring self in too many stu- dents and teachers. Students are constantly tested and drilled in a narrow curriculum and are reminded of their academic weaknesses. Teachers are under pressure to show results and to ensure that all of their students meet goals that for many are unrealistic. This pressure on teachers has a profound effect on how teachers perceive their struggling students, themselves, and the content they teach (McDermott 2007; Sloan 2007). Addi- tional research focused on how teachers develop a sense of professionalism as part of a reciprocal exchange with students is needed to better understand this process. It is impor- tant for us to turn our eyes and anthropological sensibilities toward examining the unan- ticipated consequences of policies on teachers and students. Anthropological research can have a profound effect on our understanding of school and classroom dynamics as George Spindler’s Roger Harker story exemplifies. It is a story of only one teacher and one classroom, but it illustrates the power of a story well researched and well told. Multiple stories of multiple teachers and classrooms will add depth to the educational debate.

Christine Finnan is a professor with a joint appointment in the Sociology and Anthro- pology Department and Teacher Education Department at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina.


Acknowledgements . I want to thank George Spindler for his mentorship and friendship and for his profound influence on our field. This paper is in honor of the 60th anniversary of his Roger Harker story. I also extend thanks to Lorin W. Anderson for highlighting the importance of accomplishment, belonging, and engagement as components of self and to the journal’s anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. 1. Thirty teachers and 288 students participated in the study. The teacher demographics are 93 percent female; 83 percent white, 10 percent black, and 6 percent Hispanic. The student demographics are 50 percent female; 64 percent black, 8 percent white, and 8 percent Hispanic; 84 percent eligible for free/reduced price lunch. On a test of reading ability (Measures of Academic Progress—MAP), 37 percent of the students scored in the lowest third, 35 percent in the middle third, and 27 percent in the highest third compared to a national database of test takers.


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