Teachers’ Experience of Working With Underachieving Students: A Comparative Phenomenological Study of Teachers in South Africa, Russia, and the United States

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Katherine H. Greenberg

Committee Members

Ralph G. Brockett, Howard R. Pollio, Mary F. Ziegler


This research project presents three phenomenological studies: (1) teachers’ experience of working with underachieving students in South Africa, (2) teachers’ experience of working with underachieving students in Russia, and (3) teachers’ experience of working with underachieving students in the United States. It also involves a comparative study of teachers’ experience of working with underachieving students in the three countries. All teacher participants in these studies were recommended as expert teachers who displayed qualities of teacher professionalism such as (1) commitment to learners; (2) the ability to make decisions in complex and ill-defined contexts; (3) reflective practice; and (4) a body of specialized knowledge (Ingersoll, 2003).

The first three studies employed an existential phenomenological research methodology for studying experience. This methodology gave an opportunity to identify the thematic structure of teachers’ experience for each country and to provide a non-dualistic description of the experience of teachers working with underachieving students. A comparison of the three thematic structures provided an opportunity to describe invariant themes of that experience.

Similarities identified in the thematic descriptions of teachers’ experience allowed the introduction of the concept culture of the classroom which included the following characteristics: (1) holistic approach to students; (2) creating a safe place for learning and taking time to establish a relationship with students; (3) teachers’ focus on students learning; (4) helping students become independent self-reliant individuals; (4) teachers’ involvement in students’ lives; (5) teachers and students growing and changing together; and (6) teacher knowledge in their respective disciplines and high sense of teacher efficacy.

Similarities in the lived experience identified among the three groups of participants can be explained by teachers’ expertise and mastery of the art and science of mediated learning described by Feuerstein (Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman, & Miller, 1980). The focus of existential phenomenology on the experience as it is lived by an individual allowed the identification of invariant themes of working with underachieving students across different cultures.

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