This post was written by NCTE member Erin Nerlino.
As teachers of writing, we are constantly at work helping students find their voices and make their points. In the wake of the accountability era, however, when everyone has something to say about schools, policies, best practices and teachers, it’s easy for teachers’ own voices to get lost in the fray.
Between the day-to-day responsibilities of teaching, enacting the newest top-down mandates, and managing the many competing demands within a school, it becomes all too easy for teachers to put their own inquiries, questions, thoughts and ideas on the backburner. All too often, when time, tight scheduling, and the hectic business of a day overbear our voices, we lose touch with the urgency and value of putting our own thoughts to paper. How can we teach our students voice without exercising it ourselves?
Teacher research, defined by Cochran-Smith & Lytle as “the inquiries of K–12 teachers . . . who work in inquiry communities to examine their own assumptions, develop local knowledge by posing questions and gathering data” (25), embodies one means for teachers to employ their voices.
In fact, a great deal of educational literature posits that teacher research constitutes an invaluable inlet into the nuanced complexities of classroom teaching that positively benefits school policy and the larger conversation about education (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 43).
Emphasizing inquiry stance and reflective practice, teacher research provides teachers with an opportunity to choose their own questions, determine appropriate data methods, execute action steps, glean findings, adjust practice accordingly, and perhaps share findings with other colleagues.
Teacher agency grounds teacher research at each stage in the process, enabling teachers to select what intrigues them, study it, and articulate it. On a school level, teacher research also provides authentic and ongoing means for teachers to grow and develop, encourages collaboration with other teachers and researchers, and promotes a school culture of organic teacher learning.
While teacher research brims with potential to reinvigorate teachers, Smiles and Short document the challenges teachers face at various stages of the teacher research process but particularly in the writing and publishing stages.
They note that “writing offers many professional benefits for teacher researchers and the broader educational community”; however, “the journey from writing to actual publication is a daunting” because “teachers’ lack of familiarity with the publication process leaves them uncertain about publishing their work, thus opening it up to scrutiny by the public, their colleagues, and their students” (135).
Making the research known and heard is an integral part of the process and a reclamation of voice that benefits teachers, students and many facets of the educational community.
So, the question is: how to find time and space for teachers to rediscover, refine, and engage with their own voices?
The answers to this question will inevitably look different in varying, individual school contexts. While it may seem counterintuitive to answer a question with more questions, perhaps the following can serve as a guide for teachers to think about the answers and opportunities available in their own particular school settings.
Questions for Teachers
- How might teachers within a school aggregate already existing teacher research resources so that teachers interested in conducting teacher research can begin the process without having to reinvent the wheel?
- How might teachers within a school connect with other teachers that are interested in conducting teacher research to troubleshoot common problems and act as collaborators or supporters?
- How might teachers go about asking for opportunities to conduct teacher research as part of their workday?
Questions for District Administrators
- How can we provide teachers with time, space and resources within the workday to engage in teacher research?
- Is it possible to reduce teaching loads for certain amounts of time to enable teachers to engage with this work that benefits not only their professional skills and classrooms but the education community as a whole?
- Is it possible for schools to bring in teacher research experts from local universities or other schools to provide quality training on a consistent basis for all stages of the process?
Questions for Policymakers
- How can policymakers better value teacher voice through teacher research and create implementation means on a systemic level?
- How can resources be procured for districts to be able to support teachers to conduct teacher research, share the findings with the greater community, improve practice and policy and repeat the process?
- We all get lost in keeping up with the daily shuffle; but when we do for too long, we lose touch with why we believe in writing and articulating thoughts in the first place. As English teachers and lifelong students of writing, we can lead the charge to advocate for forums that fulfill this need.
Cochran-Smith, M., Lytle, S. L. Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press, 1993. Print.
Cochran-Smith, M., Lytle, Susan L. “Everything’s Ethics: Practitioner Inquiry and University Culture.” An Ethical Approach to Practitioner Research. Ed. Campbell, Ann, Groundwater-Smith, Susan. New York: Routledge, 2007. 24-41. Print.
Smiles, T.L., Short, K.G. “Transforming Teacher Voice through Writing for Publication.” Teacher Education Quarterly. 33.3 (2006): 133-147. Google Scholar. 15 December 2019.
Erin Nerlino is a high school English teacher at public school in Massachusetts and a doctoral student in Boston University’s Curriculum & Teaching program with a specialization in English education. Twitter: @enerlino