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Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as Teachers Teaching Teachers

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Teachers Teaching Teachers

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"Professional development" is one of those bits of jargon that gets more obscure the more you try to understand it.

"Professional development" is one of those bits of jargon that get more obscure as you try to figure out what they really mean. People who advocate professional development in public education today are often proposing yet another top-down solution to the problems in our schools. These "solutions" remind me of an experience I had years ago, when I worked as an ethnographer in an elementary school in a poor neighborhood in New York City.

One hot June afternoon, I joined the teachers for an in-service staff-development session in the school lunchroom. The speaker was a corporate executive, a woman in a fancy suit and heels. She delivered a packaged talk about the nature of organizational change that could have been given to absolutely any group of professionals. The talk was accompanied by a slick video about "paradigm shift" that made its point by illustrating the switch from numerical watches and clocks, with hands that circle their faces, to digital timepieces that flip from one number to the next. I remember thinking to myself, why is this professional development? How can this possibly help these overextended, disenchanted people become better teachers?

Since that afternoon, I've spent a lot of time in New York City public schools and given a lot of thought to what creates and sustains outstanding teachers. I've come to understand that outsiders, whether corporate executives or ethnographers or any number of other professional "experts," are not the solution to how people become better teachers. (One high school teacher I know tells of having taken up knitting just so she wouldn't lose her temper in workshops like the one with the clocks and watches.)

That workshop was based on the misguided belief that what stands in the way of better instruction is practitioners' reluctance to change, to shift paradigms. Instead, what teachers need is the opportunity to think and talk with each other on a sustained basis about the day-to-day life of their classrooms. They need to investigate and analyze questions that feel urgent, troubling, exciting, useful, or in some other way consequential to them, given the circumstances of their individual schools and students. Serious conversation about shared work is always a powerful resource for the people doing the work. We recognize the process of investigation and critical discussion in a community of colleagues as professional development in a host of other fields. Why not in education?

Urban planners and architects and artists are professionally active whenever they enter their work in competitions or exhibit what they have created. Doctors attend meetings where scientific research is presented by other doctors. Psychologists take part in supervision in which shared reflection on their clinical experiences is central. Academics like myself exchange ideas about our research in peer-reviewed journals and at professional conferences. Professionals of all sorts are recognized by being asked to comment on policy issues, or to contribute to political debate, or to demonstrate the usefulness of knowledge from their particular fields to a wide range of public concerns. We come together, in other words, in order to exchange our thinking about whatever it is we do.

The public school teachers I know best are doing their work in the thick of urban school reform. They teach in the small, learner-centered schools that are springing up in cities across the country. These new schools clearly require teachers to teach in new ways. This in turn requires strong staff development that is rooted in the schools. As Linda Darling-Hammond explains in The Right to Learn, "In particular, prior reform efforts have not been buttressed by the ongoing professional development needed to prepare teachers to teach in the complex ways that learner-centered practice demands." Professional development is thus one more of the responsibilities that educators in these path-breaking schools must reclaim and reinvent.

For almost three years, I have had the privilege of collaborating with teachers at three schools in the New York Networks for School Renewal, one of the reform projects supported by the national Annenberg Challenge, as they have pursued participatory school-based-inquiry projects. These teachers are teaching all of us important lessons about how research itself can contribute to new forms of professional development.

"Participatory" research in this context simply means that the inquiry has been designed and conducted by school practitioners, in collaboration with whatever outside researchers may be involved. "School based" research means that the whole staff or a significant group of teachers from a given school has identified questions that teachers want to explore. (This is in contrast to teacher research done, for instance, by individuals in the course of their graduate studies.) Examples of such questions are: Where are our graduates going to college and how are they faring? What is the significance of community service, seen from the students' perspectives? How is instruction at our high school affected by having the staff meet weekly in small groups? How can we teach a wonderful, rich literature curriculum and ensure that the students are also learning the skills on which they will be tested?

It is exciting to see teachers in schools that are pioneers in school reform generate researchable questions like these. The big surprise, however, has been the discovery that what teachers most want to do in the name of research is to share and analyze their experiences with each other, to reflect critically on classroom practice.

The most crucial "data" in these participatory-inquiry projects turn out to be the teachers' thinking as they formulate their questions, observe each others' classrooms, collect evidence, document and interpret their daily struggles and accomplishments.

The most crucial "data" in these participatory-inquiry projects turn out to be the teachers' thinking.

A group of teachers at Middle College High School in Queens, a well-established leader among small alternative schools in New York, researched and wrote evocative portraits that present the data gathered in response to their question: How is our school experienced by a diverse group of young people? Their portraits of Middle College students are based on in-depth interviewing of teenagers whom the teachers also know as students. Yet the heart of the project, the work that allows these professionals to write the students' stories and make them meaningful as research findings, is the close, analytic conversation about kids and classes that these teachers are engaged in on a regular basis. As their principal comments, "Of course participatory research is staff development. It increases the ability to think about the cause-and-effect relationships in school that you don't normally have time to think about."

East Side Community High School, located on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, is a grades 7-12 school that graduated its second class of 12th graders last June. East Side is a school where a majority of staff members are dedicated, enthusiastic young people who have come to East Side as brand-new teachers. The action-research question they asked themselves was: How can we support and respond to the needs of our staff, talented but largely inexperienced young teachers who might easily burn out and turn to other professions? This dilemma is familiar to many schools, especially given the intense and competing demands that teachers are asked to juggle in the context of reform.

East Side's inquiry project has designed, documented, and assessed an ambitious in-house professional-development scheme. The staff now meets regularly in various groupings, such as cross-grade meetings of all humanities teachers—and math and science teachers—and small, self-selected inquiry groups that meet to investigate particular aspects of classroom learning, such as inclusion or teaching heterogeneous classes. The second year of the project already reflects revisions based on the feedback about the effectiveness of the first year. The East Side teachers' research literally embodies the process of professional development they are simultaneously constructing and experiencing.

At the School for Academic and Athletic Excellence, or SAAE, a middle school on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the teachers' group developed a format for reflection on practice along the lines that Donald Schon describes in The Reflective Practitioner (1983). SAAE's teachers have focused on profound questions, such as: How can we know whether the children are learning what we think we are teaching? What does intellectual rigor look like in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classrooms?

As SAAE's inquiry evolved, each staff member observed an individual student week by week and queried his or her findings with the group: What does this piece of student work tell you about this particular child? What changes have you noticed since the last time we met? What are you learning about yourself as a teacher in relation to this young person? SAAE's central question is crucial for all untracked schools that are committed to children's learning in heterogeneous classes: How can we help each child work to his or her fullest potential? These are tough questions that expressly link staff development to student achievement. This is tough teaching; there are no quick fixes or recipes for how to do this. Yet these middle school teachers are demonstrating what a difference it makes when practitioners tackle such questions together. As SAAE's principal observes, the evidence gathered in the research permits the participating teachers "to crack the assumptions that experts are people who drop from heaven who know more than I do about my own teaching!"

Each of these examples illustrates how school-based research constructs a scaffolding for the thinking that practitioners are uniquely positioned to do. Thinking together and challenging one another enables individual teachers to grow and change in their practice, just as good classroom discussion permits individual students to think and learn in ways they could not do alone. Conscious, reflective talk about teaching and learning on a regular basis strengthens a whole staff; a strong staff that is continually developing its classroom practice is the backbone of an intellectually vital, autonomous school.

Four dimensions of school-based inquiry demonstrate its usefulness as a strategy for professional development:

•Participatory research helps teachers to be responsible to themselves and their colleagues for the growth and learning of the students in their classes. This is a critical kind of accountability. For teachers to gather together around a table to explore the workings of good practice (why some lessons click and others don't, or why one student performs well on standardized tests and another student, just as able in the classroom, doesn't) marks a giant step away from blaming the students for whatever does not go well in public education. Teachers engaged in school-based research get to observe and listen to what's happening in other classrooms, which is a dramatic contrast to those school cultures in which teachers function in isolation, even the most accomplished of them pulling the curtains over the tiny windows in their classroom doors. Teacher knowledge, thus generated, further grounds a school's efforts at change.

•Teacher inquiry encourages professional development that "fits" the local school conditions. Different levels of staff experience and sophistication; commitments to the racial, ethnic, linguistic, and other identities of the students and their communities; and specific educational philosophies that inform a school's mission are only a few of the local conditions that determine whether staff development is useful to a particular group of teachers. Reflective discussion among practitioners is never formulaic; it encourages individuals to make their educational goals explicit. This is a far cry from packaged professional development, like the corporate video about clocks and watches.

•School-based research turns the traditional authority of research upside down. It positions practitioners as knowledgeable, thoughtful professionals who collect and analyze data and use their findings to improve their schools. It establishes that teachers are the primary authorities about what they and their students have done, can do, and should be urged to do next. Imagine how differently the research establishment might proceed if practitioners were—even sometimes—the ones to establish priorities and frame questions for research in education.

•Teacher inquiry sustains extraordinarily busy people who are hungry for intellectual exchange, for time to analyze what they are doing, to share ideas, observations, and articles, even as they balance an astonishing range of demands on their energies and talents. Unlike other models, often borrowed from the business world, staff development that incorporates school-based research projects can nourish the values and beliefs that have impelled teachers to work in education in the first place.

For schools to flourish, it is teachers, not outside "experts," who must ask and answer the most complex, important questions about what is happening in their classrooms. School-based research clearly goes against the grain of traditional school accountability to political and bureaucratic "bosses." Inquiry projects tackle and monitor fundamental issues in education that simply cannot be answered by external measurement, standardized testing in particular. Teachers teaching teachers is powerful professional development. Use this code:


Nancy Barnes is a professor of cultural anthropology at Lang College at the New School in New York City.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Pages 38,42

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