University of Illinois at Chicago

Exploring the Influence of Preservice Special Educators’ Mathematics Experiences on their Identities

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posted on 2022-12-01, 00:00 authored by Courtney Lynn Barcus
Educators come to the classroom with a range of prior experiences with mathematics and with teaching (Bullough, 1997; Horn et al., 2008; Lortie, 1975). In addition, research has shown that prior experience with mathematics can drastically impact educators’ feelings, beliefs, and views of themselves as math teachers (Graven & Lerman, 2018; Lutovac & Kaasila, 2018). These “self-perceptions” contribute to the shifting and changing of educators’ various identities (Beijaard et al., 2004). Identity is directly comprised of, and a product of, teachers’ actions and thereby has an impact on the instructional decisions that they make (Battey & Franke, 2008; Langer-Osuna & Esmond, 2017; Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Some scholars have theorized that the actions taken up by teachers in the classroom assert the accuracy of some knowledge over other knowledge (Gutiérrez, 2013). In this way, teachers’ mathematics associated identities can impact the experiences of students in their classrooms. Special educators’ mathematics experiences have been shown to be even more tenuous. While in preservice programs, special educators are often exposed to a limited amount of content-specific academic instructional coursework (Griffin et al., 2014; Humphrey & Hourcade, 2009), and even that is primarily focused on procedural teaching (Boyd & Bargerhuff, 2009). Procedural teaching has been linked to lower expectations and deficit-based thinking for educators (Lambert & Tan, 2019; Tan & Lambert, 2019). These limited experiences contribute to a lower confidence level (Carpenter, 1985; Fitzmaurice, 1980; Gagnon & Maccini, 2007; Griffin et al., 2014; Humphrey & Hourcade, 2009; Maccini & Gagnon, 2002, 2006) and often higher levels of anxiety or even math phobia for special education teachers (Eichhorn & Lacson, 2020; Humphrey & Hourcade, 2009). It is important that preparation programs go beyond procedural knowledge and support teachers in ways that develop their mathematical identities in positive ways (Beauchamp & Thomas, 2009). A positive math learner identity is necessary to enhance math instruction, thus preservice programs should provide opportunities for preservice teachers to reflect upon and build their mathematical identities in positive ways. There is presently a lack of research surrounding how preservice programs support students to build positive math identities. To begin this process, it is important to gain a better understanding of preservice teachers’ identity development. Thus, the purpose of this study is to explore the historical and current experiences of preservice special educators (PSE) surrounding mathematics, and to get a sense of how these experiences influence their math learner identity, their math educator identity, and their special educator identity. This phenomenological study explored PSEs’ prior and current experiences learning math and their current experiences in teacher preparation programs learning to be special education teachers. PSEs participated in an initial survey and focus group interviews to share these experiences and ideas. Thematic analysis revealed that PSEs’ math-related experiences directly impact the development of their math learner identity, their math educator identity, and their special educator identity, and tend to fall into three categories of factors: (1) internal factors, (2) interpersonal factors, and (3) structural factors. Within each category, various factors identified the ways these experiences influenced their current feelings and beliefs, and how these three identities intersect and influence each other. The results of this study are useful for researchers as we seek to define the professional identity of educators more clearly. They are also useful to preservice program leaders to consider the ways that identity development is supported through coursework, assignments, and reflection so that special education teachers are more readily able to see themselves as mathematics educators.



Tejero Hughes, Marie


Tejero Hughes, Marie


Special Education

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Maggin, Daniel M. Parker-Katz, Michelle B. Gregori, Emily Weisling, Nina F.

Submitted date

December 2022

Thesis type



  • en

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