Professional Development Opinion

Becoming a Teacher-Researcher

By Urban Education Contributor — April 05, 2018 5 min read
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This post is by former teacher Rebecca Smith (@rebeccaadsmith), now Instructor of Education at the University of Portland (@UPortland).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: Here’s What Works Best in Teacher Professional Development.

The Journey

When I became a doctoral research fellow with the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research at the University of Portland four years ago, I didn’t realize that I would be taking on a new identity. Conducting district-driven research with university faculty members was a new experience for me. My previous life as a teacher had been just that — teaching. I did not realize that I had actually been a researcher of sorts that whole time, too! Becoming a researcher in my Ed.D. program at the University of Portland meant learning a new language, new skills, and engaging with educational issues from new perspectives, but all the while my teaching background and personal teaching experiences were also shaping my research. My three years as a fellow included dedicated mentorship from faculty members, collaboration with my cohort and other doctoral fellows, and hours of revisions. Many of our district reports involved ten or more edited versions, which is a feat in perseverance for a budding research-scholar. However, these experiences shaped me into the teacher-researcher I am today.

As a teacher-researcher, I am aware that I am always collecting and analyzing data on my students that informs my planning, instruction, and assessment. These data might include formal quantitative data from assignments and assessments, or they may simply be reading the body language of the students during a lesson or having students engage in self-reflection or peer feedback sessions. The recognition that all teachers are researchers has helped me own my new identity with confidence and allows me to more effectively educate our teacher candidates with this same awareness, which can make them stronger teacher-researchers as well.

Rebecca presents her research

How Teaching Informed My Research

Upon entering my Ed.D. program, I saw my professional path ahead take shape as one involving teacher mentorship. I had previously been moving around the country and the world, with an undergraduate degree in secondary education, to teach in many different contexts. These experiences of consistently being “new” to school communities developed in me a deep compassion for those who are the outsider, longing to fit in. Thus, I endeavored to welcome new teachers and students with an open and inclusive spirit. This led to professional opportunities as an official mentor and professional development provider for new teachers.

My experiences both as a new teacher and as a mentor to new teachers led to an interest in research about teacher professional development. As I pursued an EdD at the University of Portland, I also served as a doctoral fellow, which allowed me to explore my interest in teacher professional learning through numerous district-based research projects. One of these projects was discussed in Monday’s blog post.

Another formative project for me surrounded one district’s implementation of an innovative conference approach to their beginning-of-the-year professional development days. We were tasked with examining the self-perceived short-term and long-term effects on teachers and teacher learning based on this model, which allowed teachers the freedom to choose conference sessions to attend. This mixed-methods study analyzed quantitative and qualitative survey data from teachers following two years of conference attendance. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with 94% of participants agreeing that the content they learned at the conference would benefit their students, and 76% of participants who participated for two consecutive years stating that they applied information from the first year’s conference to their teaching practice.

The combination of these two projects grounded me in research on professional development, including adult learning theory, which formed a foundation that would eventually inform my own dissertation research. I conducted a mixed-methods study that investigated the professional learning experiences of secondary school educators and compared these experiences to national learning standards. Participants in this research included 223 educators from four high schools who took the 50-item Standards Assessment Inventory (SAI), which was grouped into seven Professional Learning Standards: learning communities, leadership, resources, data, learning designs, implementation, and outcomes.

Results of the quantitative data analysis revealed that the Leadership standard was statistically significantly higher than all other standards, suggesting that participants in this study thought their administrators prioritized professional learning and were collaborative participants in the school’s learning communities. The Data standard was statistically significantly lower than all other standards, indicating a lack of teacher knowledge on if or how data are used to drive professional learning practices in their schools. This finding draws attention to the need for teachers to gain confidence with using data as an integrated part of their practice. Qualitative feedback from focus group interviews and open-ended survey items suggested that adult learners feel empowered when being able to make choices surrounding their own learning experiences.

How My Research Informs My Teaching

The successful completion of my dissertation research is thanks in a large part to my experience within the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research. The experience of learning to be a researcher by analyzing actual district data and solving real-life problems of practice made my own adult learning relevant and meaningful. The expertise and knowledge I gained from researching adult learning, in addition to my prior teaching experiences, led me to my current position as a faculty member in the University of Portland’s teacher preparation programs. I now teach research and methods courses to student teacher candidates, and I am able to apply both the skills and the knowledge of my own experiences within the learning communities I share with my students.

A New Identity

As a teacher-researcher, I am a more effective educator. I am constantly gathering data to inform my practice. I strive to help my Education students own this identity as well, so they begin their teaching careers already recognizing the importance of data-driven learning. My professional journey has been largely shaped (p < .05) by my fellowship work analyzing district data, and I am living proof (n = 1) that a district-university partnership model for creating practitioner-researchers is an effective means for educating teacher-researchers.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.