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Virginia Journal of Education


My Journey as a Teacher Researcher


Taking ownership of your own professional development.


By Gail V. Ritchie, NBCT, PhD

As I enter my 25th year of teaching in Virginia and reflect upon my experiences as a teacher, a teacher leader and an instructional coach, I can still say: I am passionate about teacher research. Through changes in leadership, schools, initiatives and organizational structure, my core belief in inquiry-based, reflective practice has remained the foundation for my work. I’d like to share with you the highlights of my journey.

Since 1991, as a kindergarten/first grade teacher, a resource teacher and an instructional coach, I have routinely used the process of teacher research to help me “see what I would otherwise not see” about the teaching and learning in my classroom.

Teacher research gives me ownership of my own professional growth. I don't need to wait and hope for a conference opportunity or a district-sponsored workshop that may not match my personal learning needs. Because teacher research involves reflecting upon and systematically improving one’s practice, it allows me to learn about and improve my teaching all day, every day, all year long.

And it doesn’t take time away from instruction; the observations and documentation I would normally collect also serve as the data sources for a focused examination of my teaching practices and the effect of those practices on students and/or adult learners.

Many teachers—already overburdened with curriculum requirements, accountability requirements, and all the day-to-day pressures of keeping a classroom running—may question whether they have the time to become researchers. I can truthfully say that, for me, teacher research is not an add-on or extra chore; it is a way of being! Some examples of my research:

• In 1991, while working as a kindergarten instructional assistant, I noticed that the students rarely visited the classroom library during Free Choice/Center Time. I added some props to make the library more inviting and then observed the results; students responded positively to the opportunity to take on the role of librarian and read to one another.

• In 1994, a colleague and I created Multiple Intelligences stations for our students and studied the impact that had on health content learning. Our work, later published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, showed how our efforts to match classroom experiences with students’ needs/interests resulted in deeper student engagement with and acquisition of knowledge.

• From 1997-2012, I worked as an adjunct instructor for George Mason University.  The capstone project in every course I taught was an action research investigation of classroom practice. In the courses “How Young Children Learn,” “How Students Learn,” “Inquiry into Practice,” “Culture and Education,” “Research in Elementary Education” and “Research in Gifted Education,” teachers examined their teaching, implemented changes, and systematically studied the resulting impact on themselves and their students.  Overwhelmingly, teachers reported a heightened intentionality to their teaching, and a deeper understanding of the teaching/learning interactions in their K-12 contexts.

• In 1999, when I moved from teaching kindergarten to teaching K-1 multiage, I was concerned about maintaining a play-based classroom environment.  Participating in a teacher research group facilitated by Marian MacLean, one of the co-authors of Teacher Research for Better Schools, I provided hands-on/minds-on experiences for my students and tracked the impact on their learning.  My students were especially interested in “playing with” social studies concepts.  The timeline we co-created stretched across three sides of our classroom by the end of the year.

• In the 2000-2001 school year, when I noticed that my students and I were unhappy with Writers Workshop in our classroom, teacher research helped me uncover what was not working, as well as discover and implement what did work. 

• In 2001, I started a teacher researcher group at my own school. At the end of the year, when a colleague asked me, “What’s the difference between a good teacher and a teacher researcher?” I brought the question to my fellow researchers.  Together, we created a graphic that has been published in Taking Action: A Comprehensive Guide to Teacher Research and in The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research. We highlighted the intentionality of teacher research, the systematic investigation of practice, and the opportunity for collaboration that few classroom teachers experienced at that time. While leading this group, I also studied guided reading and math workshop in my own classroom. Partnering with my principal and another classroom teacher, I studied professional learning communities and Lesson Study implementation school-wide.

• In 2006, I published my dissertation study, Teacher Research as a Habit of Mind. While serving as a resource teacher from 2005-2007 for my district’s Department of Professional Learning and Training, I was the co-director of the Fairfax County Public Schools’ Teacher Researcher Network; in this role, I put the findings and recommendations from my study into practice district-wide. When I left that position, we had over 300 teacher researchers in 45 schools.

• In 2009, I started a teacher researcher group at my new school while serving as a K-6 instructional coach. I studied creativity and Leveled Literacy Intervention, as well as conducting a self-study of my coaching roles while facilitating and participating in this group. One of the benefits of group membership is a deeper understanding of not only my own topics of study, but also the topics that my fellow researchers are investigating. 

• During the 2013-2014 school year, I transferred to a new school, and I had the unique opportunity to participate in a district-wide research course. The group supported its members in converting our Teacher Evaluation SMARTR Goals into research questions so that we could systematically study our impact on teaching and learning. Since I was an experienced instructional coach new to my school, I formulated the research question:  What is the impact on student achievement when I support teacher/team growth along the Collaborative Team Cycle?

Having experienced the many benefits of a teacher research habit of mind, my dream is that a school district would actively support teachers in connecting their SMARTR Goals, School Improvement Goals, and teacher research as a district-wide way of engaging in professional learning that is ongoing and job-embedded. I would use Nancy Dana’s book Inquiry:  A Districtwide Approach to Staff and Student Learning as the framework for such an endeavor.

The goal of teacher research is to investigate, develop and implement high-quality practices in actual classrooms. It fits perfectly under Learning Forward’s definition of high quality professional development: It's ongoing, data-driven and job-embedded.

Thanks to teacher research and reflective practice, I have improved my teaching in all areas of the elementary curriculum. Every day, I expand the learning opportunities for students and adult learners. That's real teacher empowerment.

Ritchie (gvritchie@fcps.edu), a member of the Fairfax Education Association and the author of Teacher Research as a Habit of Mind, serves as an instructional coach at Cameron Elementary School. She invites interested readers to learn more about teacher research at http://gse.gmu.edu/research/tr/).

 


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