Assumptions of Excellence: Staff's Perception of the Ideal UTS Student

by Rifaa Ali, Noah Merali, Amanda Morin, Reese O'Craven, Zoe Parshuram, Mia Sanders & Ashna Thaya

A. OVERVIEW

The overarching research question of UTS’ 2015-2016 yPAR project is: How do institutionalized forces - including merit - produce the ideal UTS student? We divided ourselves into three groups, each researching a respective aspect of the question: 1) the admissions process, 2) students’ perception of the ideal UTS student and 3) the staff’s perception. Our group approached the third aspect through the lens of the following  two questions: How do institutionalized forces produce the staff’s perception of the ideal UTS student? How does this perception influence students’ actions and attitudes?  

B. PROJECT RATIONALE AND RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

The rationale behind our yPAR project is to take steps towards altering the structures that influence how students move throughout UTS. Seeing this to fruition first requires an in-depth investigation of the current conditions of student life and the forces that shape them. The staff’s perception of UTS students - and any prejudices that inform them - deeply affect students, their perceptions of themselves, others, the world they live in, and the mindset they carry into their futures. For these reasons, our objective is to identify staff perceptions so that we can work towards eliminating any harmful elements within them in order to improve the overall well-being of UTS students.

C. LITERATURE REVIEW

Although there is literature on elite schools, it primarily focuses on elite post-secondary institutions, and not secondary schools. What research there is (Gaztambide-Fernandez), is often focused more on how students themselves internalize success, and not as much on the effects of staff action (or inaction) on student life and perceptions. Our study focused on both staff and students to find that although staff believe much of the ideas of students, primarily around pressure, come from themselves, students believe that it often comes from staff or other institutionalized pressures. 

Another major gap we attempted to fill was the understanding of the actual impact staff can have on students in elite schools. Much of the literature focuses on the difference between the ideals of students and staff, as opposed to how those ideals can change the ways staff interact with students. Our study focused on the practical consequences of the difference institutionalized ideas, and how students are then affected.

D. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

Within the theoretical framework of ageism, our research examines what happens to knowledge - i.e. how it is valued and transmitted - in the context of a generational power differential at UTS. The theme of obedience and its dominance in the staff-student relationship, and especially the teacher-student relationship, is at the fore of our investigation. Furthermore, obedience - and the North American education system that UTS belongs to - has roots in the Industrial Revolution and the “factory model” derived from it, tying in with our second theoretical framework.  

Our research can be conceptualized through the material and cultural lens of capitalism. UTS operates as a microcosm of capitalist society, producing a culture of competition whose ultimate objective is university admission, and, by extension, success in the workforce. This culture is built on the “tradition of excellence” that UTS seeks to uphold on an institutional and individual level. Our research looks at how this pervasive attitude towards success and failure influences students and staff both in and outside of the classroom.

E. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODs

Collection of data from students was limited to a focus group and an online Google forms survey. The purpose of these two specific methods was to produce contrasting forms of information: the focus group provided us with unfiltered, open-ended student experiences, whereas the survey resulted in shorter and more structured responses from a broader range of students.

The experiences of UTS teachers were documented using a Google forms survey that mirrored the student survey. The seventeen responses we received gave insight into the feelings and opinions held by teachers in regards to the ideal UTS student and the pressures that help to form this individual. This gave us a basis for understanding the manners in which teachers feel that they affect and shape the lives of their students, as well as where these ideas differ from those of their pupils.

In order to explore the impact of the guidance department on UTS students, we conducted a one-hour focus group comprised of all members of the guidance department, with two researchers facilitating. This group was used to provide an accurate understanding of the guidance departments’ perception of the research question, as well as of the assumptions of excellence prevailing over UTS as an institution.

F. PARTICIPANTS AND ETHICAL CONSENT

The participants were comprised of two groups: members of the UTS Staff and the student body. Teachers were sent a survey via an email from the principal, and a focus group was held for guidance staff. All involved staff members were thoroughly informed of the process and the inquiry our group was making.

The students were sent a survey via an email to a student forum, and were recruited via the school’s Google platform for a student focus group. Parents of the students signed forms consenting to their information being used in our research project. 

G. FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION

A prominent theme that emerged from our research was the power differential that exists between staff and students at UTS. Teachers, administration, and guidance counsellors all define student life in unique ways, yet can remain largely unaware of the implications of their roles on students’ actions and attitudes. For example, some desired traits students identified when asked what they think teachers look for in the ideal UTS student were ‘quiet’, ‘listens’, ‘respectful’, ‘raise their hand for everything’, ‘only speaks when asked’. This perceived desire for obedience can result in the teacher-student relationship being based on a student’s ability to adhere to the teacher’s behavioural preferences. In comparison, when asked about their perception of the ideal UTS student, teachers showed that their ideal student was a leader; someone who is capable of making their own decisions and taking charge. The contrast of the student understanding of the teacher’s ideal student, and what teachers desire to see, is conflicting and can even create a double standard, that places a lot of stress on the teacher-student relationship.

Unlike teachers, who have day to day interactions with students, administration’s primary area of visibility within the school, to students, is as a disciplinary force. While administration has many roles beyond discipline, student responses showed that the admin-student relationship was either non-existent or negative.

We also found a significant discrepancy in the view of co-curriculars in the life of an ‘Ideal UTS Student’. Teachers consistently remarked on students being overcommitted, or unable to perform their best in courses as a result of doing too much in their co-curriculars. Students, on the other hand, identified involvement and being an active member of the school community as an essential facet of the Ideal Student. While teachers emphasized the importance of having a clear balance in life, students highlighted the desire to be able to handle all aspects of being a good student.

In addition, teachers tended to cite co-curricular activities as sometimes being done for the improvement of resumes or applications. Instead of unnecessarily overloading themselves with too many activities, teachers displayed a desire for students to focus on a few that they are passionate about. Unfortunately, this view discards the possibility that many students greatly enjoy all the activities they are involved in, and ignores the institutionalized, university related factors that also influence students to take up a large amount of commitments.

While co-curriculars are not often considered a part of a teacher’s perception of the ideal student, UTS students are encouraged to participate in activities such as AP exams, contests, or competitions, areas in which the school has historically done well. In the student focus group, the perception of this situation that students expressed was one where they felt pushed to partake in activities in fields they excelled in, while not getting the same attention from teachers and admin if they did not immediately excel.

This creates a disparity where students who are identified as being immediately good at a certain activity are encouraged and helped, while those without the initial knowledge or skill are not given any of the same opportunities. This disparity can greatly exaggerate the extent of UTS’s student brilliance, and can set unrealistic expectations or examples for younger students to follow. The success that the school generates for itself through the perpetuation of the disparity however, helps maintain the reputation and prestige that we are known for.    

Another important theme discovered was the idea of the many subject hierarchies throughout UTS. There is a consistent hierarchy from both students and staff of mathematics and sciences coming before other academics, and arts coming last. This is perceived through students considering arts courses to be “easier” and staff highlighting achievements in maths and sciences and related competitions, before those of other subjects, co-curriculars, or societal achievements (ie, Classics or Day of Pink).

The disparity in student and teacher ideals, directly translates into a disparity in expectations of success. When teachers project their own perceptions, or misconceptions of student success on to students, students whose definitions of success do not align are then not receiving the support they need.  

H. ACTION AND KNOWLEDGE SHARING

The immediate impact of our work can be seen in the way researchers are able to implement their growing knowledge on staff and student relations,  into bettering the school environment. Many of our researchers are in central leadership positions at UTS and have the ability to enact cultural change. Three of the researchers are in the process of rewriting the UTS constitution, and have been able to shape the document while keeping our findings on student and staff relationships in mind. Subjects such as student representation, platforms for voicing concern, and diversity in staff were able to be implemented into the new constitution as a result of our research.

By the time the second cohort begins work, our findings will be able to provide a broad starting point of both staff and student perceptions, and the institutionalized factors that produce them. This will allow the cohort to dive deeper into factors and effects, and produce more specific data, which could be useful for more targeted action pieces. This will then allow the third cohort to either dive back into underlying factors or continue exploring how it shapes students. Hopefully 10 years from now, students will be taught by teachers who fully understand the impact they create on student life, and use that information to the benefit of the students they teach.

During our research celebration, we presented our theoretical framework, themes and specifics of our research brief. We brought to attention the adverse impacts ageism, capitalism and the ‘tradition of excellence’ have on UTS students and emphasized some of the commonalities present in the teacher surveys. We will also discuss possible solutions to this issue, such as workshops and presenting our findings at a staff meeting.

Our action component will include a workshop with UTS teachers to present our findings and the impacts that their actions and preconceptions have on students. This will allow them to see some of the factors influencing their own views, and realize the impact this can have on their students. It will also allow them to see other views students have (such as depth vs breadth in extra-curriculars), and why those perceptions exist.

Another potential area of focus is looking at how to use extracurriculars as a method of education and a part of our curriculum rather than being so heavily dependent on classroom courses. This would require a shift in how the school views education. Our ultimate goal is to reduce the gap between teachers and students and enable teachers to be more mindful of their students' needs. 

I. CONFLICTS, CHALLENGES, GAPS, QUESTIONS, AND FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES

A major challenge faced in our research was a lack of involvement from the student body. The survey was responded to by 30 students out of the ~650 that comprise the student body, and only six students participated in our focus group. While this small sample size influenced the data, the variety in participant age mitigated this effect. Due to our unfamiliarity with the process, we did not know which groups specifically to approach and how best to conduct our research amongst the groups. Comparing and connecting data between the groups of admin, teachers, guidance counselors, and students has proven to be fruitful in an often surprising manner. However, doing so between the two methods of focus groups and surveys has been complicated.

The largest gap in our research is the socioeconomic component that connects the aspects we researched to the factors we set out to study at the onset of our project. In the future, the data we collected can be used to further relate perceptions of the ideal UTS students to the culture of capitalism and the education system that spawned as a result of industrialism. We would explore any connections between a student’s socio-economic class and/or dependence on financial aid, their teachers’ ideals, and their own responses to those ideals.

j. closing

The ultimate goal of this research project was to investigate the differences in perceptions of an ‘ideal student’ between the students, teachers, and guidance counsellors of UTS and examine how these disparities affect student life and health.

Three overarching themes emerged from the beginning: Capitalism, Ageism, and Tradition of Excellence. As described on the school website, UTS is a ‘university prep school’ and its competitive environment mirrors the capitalist environment most students are assumed to enter upon graduation. ‘Tradition of Excellence’, the motto of the school, aggravates this issue, pressurizing students to perform better every year, and removing the possibility of failure. Lastly, ageism brings attention to the power disparity between students and teachers, stemming from archaic social expectations and standards.

Our findings largely supported our theoretical framework, demonstrating the discrepancy between students’ and teachers view of the ‘ideal student’. Students thought a teacher’s ideal student was obedient and quiet, while teachers seemed to specify and seek leaders and initiative. Teachers had an irritated attitude towards co-curricular activities, while students cited an ‘ideal student’ as well balanced and highly involved in co-curriculars. Themes of Capitalism and Tradition of Excellence also frequently emerged, further establishing the difference in perceptions between staff and students.

To mitigate this, we plan to conduct a workshop with the teachers and staff of UTS to share our findings and research. Demonstrating the huge effect staff have on students will hopefully enable them to see students’ perspectives on life at UTS, and dispose them to take actions that more positively impact students. 

K. Selected References

Gaztambide-Fernandez, R. A. (2009). The best of the best: Becoming elite at an American boarding school. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Harkness, S. (2007). Teachers' Ethnotheories of the 'Ideal Student' in Five Western Cultures. Comparative Education, 43(1, Special Issue (33): Western Psychological and Educational Theory and Practice in Diverse Contexts), 113-135. Retrieved May 18, 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/29727818?ref=search-gateway:ecddb9481c2c3e024cb2628f23a6d840

Whetstone, B. D. (1967). The Ideal Student as Perceived by Counselors and Teachers. The Journal of Educational Research, 61(3), 118-120. doi:10.1080/00220671.1967.10883608

Yourglich, A. (1955). Study on Correlations between College Teachers' and Students' Concepts of "Ideal-Student" and "Ideal-Teacher" The Journal of Educational Research, 49(1), 59-64. Retrieved May 18, 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/27529781?ref=search-gateway:bfb486a3ac6a0453006c8a21b1008a9f