When I first began my doctoral program in 2015, my mind was swirling with questions of where I would fit in the world of research. I had been an educator for almost 10 years, and had finished both a Master’s and Specialist’s degree.
Closely crafting questions, reviewing data, making changes, engaging with open-ended questions were already all part of my daily work in the classroom. What was this ivory tower in which I was now suddenly finding myself? Who were these people with their magical robes?
It is arguable that, to be effective, all teachers engage in some form of research, closely getting to know a particular group of students. These steps include observations, note-taking, informal conversations, artefact examination – all pieces of the larger research puzzle. In this article, I will reflect on my own experience to further probe these connections.
Finding classroom narratives
One of the ways I have grown as a researcher is becoming acquainted with the range of paradigms that are possible. I simply did not know all of the tools available to me to support my inquiry process.
As a Master’s student, I knew about quantitative research and had begun to be exposed to some of the methods. From surveys to assessment data, this was a language I knew well from the classroom. Year after year, I grew in my ability to get to know best practices by reviewing numerical data and trends. Not bad work for someone who does not really engage with maths readily, and I was far from perfect in my process.
When I first learned of qualitative research methods, it felt as though I discovered an entirely new universe. From ethnography to case study, from interview studies to classroom observations, all of these ways of getting to know learning steps and best practices were a welcome discovery. I am a believer that each classroom, every course, has a story with a pretty well-defined beginning, middle, and end. Here were the narrative instruments I had been searching for.
Close noticing and detailed information gathering are part of the research process, as is crafting an awareness of one’s own biases. Thinking through the best way to relate to students, not arriving with assumptions, and co-constructing positive relationships all call for this kind of self-inquiry-based work.
Sharing ideas (widely)
From this careful noticing and detail gathering, another important step in research is reporting. The sharing or disseminating of knowledge is a valuable aspect of the process. Exploring the implications of what we come to learn in terms of additional research, crafting policy, and engaging in classroom practice.
The words of a classroom practitioner do not need to be filtered through the hive mind of academia, nor do they need to be complicated for the sake of an audience who might or might not actually have a clear idea of what happens in classroom work.
Along with this line of conversation, the work of research should not just be limited to storytellers who are actually no longer part of the unfolding narrative – professors and thinkers who have perhaps spent a little time or even considerable time in the classroom, but for whom regular engagement with classrooms is not always a reality. While I value the contributions and knowledge of those who work in this academic arena, I also recognise the value of the classroom teacher. Their voice is premium, and I wish there was more time for teachers to engage in further study and research as part of their regular teaching day.
Always learning more in community
Finally, I note the term ‘re-search’ in and of itself as a powerful link in teaching. We search and search again. We discard old methods, try new ones, and work with a range of populations to tailor these approaches across time (in research-speak, from a longitudinal perspective). If knowledge is a flow across time, classroom teachers are fording the raft, and getting splashed every day – in the best of all possible ways.
If it were possible to have all of the answers at this point in time for what works, in all cases and contexts, ever, little would still be conducted and produced in the world of research. Both researchers and practitioners would simply retell an age-old story. But this stream is ceaseless, and so the learning process is never completely done.
While all of this is intimidating, it is also part of the beauty of teaching.
I am a strong believer in advanced degrees and the pursuit of education and contend that teachers should earn degrees and achieve higher pay. Along with this, I believe that teachers have a valuable voice to contribute to the exchanges that take place in research, as well as in policy.
My own path to the PhD came a result of my continued interest in learning more. This was also a path that meant a great deal to me as a one-time high school dropout. I have mulled educational questions, including those that relate to my direct experiences, and earning a PhD has helped me hone my skills in my journey of inquiry. There are always more questions to answer.
As a final note, I will suggest that, even when reporting from a secondary position about classroom practices, the report should always ring true with experience, and the story that we tell should always reflect the reality of what happens in practice.