What is a Teacher-Researcher, Anyway?
The teacher is the chief learner in the classroom.
Donald Graves (quoted in Nonfiction Matters)
When I was in my first (and second, third, and fourth!) year at Opal School, I wondered what it meant to be a teacher-researcher. For me, the term evoked images of data collection and analysis, statistics and percentages. These ideas didn’t really match up with what I noticed my colleagues doing – they did not seem to be collecting empirical data, conducting replicable experiments with test groups and control groups, or creating graphs revealing their findings. I was left with not only my question, but also a deeply rooted fear that if I did not know what a teacher-researcher was, there was certainly no way I could be one.
Over time, I began to develop somewhat of a sense of this work. Initially, I was struck by the thoughtfulness and curiosity with which my colleagues reflected on what they noticed and then used those reflections to construct curriculum, questions, and shared experiences, all of which were then reflected on again. These experiences were shared through in meetings and conversations and in blog posts and presentations. While my image of research shifted and grew, I still wondered how I might begin to do this work. I could see that having and pursuing questions was at the heart of this research, but wondered how I might develop or land on a question worth pursuing, especially as a new teacher when my questions reflected survival mode (How do I make copies? What do we do in a fire drill? What needs to be done for conferences?) rather than being questions that I was either truly curious about or that might make a difference to anyone but me. I had no idea what I was supposed to be researching or what I might have wanted to find out.
I also wondered: Who am I to do and to share anything that might live up to the name of research? We are in an age of education with efforts to “teacher-proof” teaching through scripted curriculum, a huge emphasis on standardized tests, and a lack of investment or ability to see children as creative, capable, and competent. Given this culture, who might I be – or any teacher for that matter – to make a claim about what I’m noticing and wondering about as I spend a year with a group of students in a classroom. My colleague, Matt, helped me see that teachers are exactly the people who should do that, because of all that we see and because we are the ones who are there to see. We see learning being constructed before our eyes, we see children find and offer solutions to problems big and small, we see children being brave, emotional, honest, empathetic, challenged, and more. And, we use what we see – our observations and reflections begin our research which then drives the research further as observations lead to wonderings which lead to experiences which led to more observations. Giovanna Cagliari describes observation as “essential to every knowledge-building process,“ and “not just an end unto itself, but also a way to share with others.”
This fall, I returned for my fifth year at Opal, now more comfortable with the term “teacher-researcher,” but still searching for what to research. Before school started, teachers gathered for our annual retreat and as we often do, we were discussing and reflecting our goals and expectations and our principles and values. Suddenly, I had one of those a-ha moments that offered such clarity that I truly wondered why I had not been able to figure it out before. Our goals and expectations and principles and values are our guidelines – what we turn to again and again as we teach – with wonderings, for inspiration, as anchors – are also what drives our research. It seems to me that what we are really trying to figure out is what it means to live and teach and learn by these pillars and beliefs. In some way, all of the questions that we ever ask are connected to these values. And, because the values are a starting place rather than an ending place, we are constantly returning to these ideas as we try to figure this out. What I mean by starting place is that they inspire, ground, and guide our work, and they give us something to connect back to as much as they give us something to strive for. As we work to create conditions to grow and explore these ideas as a whole school community, we wonder what might happen if….? What can we do with this in light of our values? How can I think about this problem, question, experience through the frame of our values?
At last year’s Opal School Summer Symposium, Tiziana Filippini, a renowned educator and pedagogista from Reggio Emilia, described a Reggio-inspired education as an approach rather than a style because the approach is continuously responding to and reflecting on what is happening in the classroom, the school community, and the world. To me, this describes not only an approach but also how I now think of research for teachers and students together as co-researchers – continuously finding new intrigue, continuously responding to change, continuously working to make sense of the world around us together. In Moira Nicolosi’s words, research is “a spiral of learning and knowledge that returns with new questions and new elements – learning that is never finished.”
What about you?
- What is a teacher-researcher to you?
- What are you wondering as you start the school year?
- What values ground and inspire your wonderings?