Experiences of a Teacher-Researcher
Not so long ago I used to say that I was an experienced teacher and a novice researcher; now I consider myself a teacher-researcher. Similar to other teachers, during my undergraduate teacher preparation program, I was not taught to believe that I could do research in my classroom. Research was intimidating and a foreign concept. Before graduate school, nobody told me that by revising curriculum, improving my work environment, criticizing my practice, and implementing and testing theory in my classroom, I was doing research. Unfortunately, my experience, like many others, has been that “…neither the on-the-job socializing forces of schooling nor in-service education are committed to the cultivation of the teacher’s role as researcher” (Kincheloe, 2003, p. 37). The purpose of this essay is to share my learning experiences becoming a teacher-researcher and to encourage other practitioners to do research in their classrooms and to share their findings with others.
I prepare the lessons, and I go to class expecting to see what works well, to do it again, or to improve it if it does not work. We, teachers, know that the lesson plan looks great on paper, but when delivering it in the classroom, unexpected events come up, teachable moments arise, and we are compelled to make decisions on the spot. As teachers, we possess expert practical knowledge about our classrooms that nobody else does. Practical knowledge “encompasses all a teacher does in her setting… includes all that the teacher brings of herself to the moment of teaching - beliefs, attitudes, feelings, reflection, gestures, temperament, and personal history” (Wein, 1995, p. 12). This practical knowledge is of great value when attempting to do classroom-based research or when implementing theory in our classroom. Teachers need to become aware of the expertise they have of their own classroom. They need to establish the connection between the inquiry they do and the essence of doing research.
Conducting teaching-research in your classroom can be intimidating but so is teaching when you first start. It is necessary to learn how to keep calm and in control when things do not go as planned. Use your practical knowledge as a resource when you face a challenge. “…A teacher-researcher can react to unexpected events with immediate changes to the new practice…often his/her reaction must be immediate" (Loughran, 2002, p. 259), but teachers do this all the time. Experienced teachers plan for the unexpected; they know about the dynamic nature of the classroom (e.g., students’ motivation changes, technology fails, attendance is low, or they need to substitute for another instructor). Teacher-research focuses on problems identified by teachers, and it provides a means of enabling teachers to reflect on their own practice (Ellis, 1997). However, doing research goes beyond reflecting on one’s teaching practice. It is important to have a plan, collect data, analyze and report findings; it is a process.
Find a focus for doing research. What is your passion? What intrigues you? What problem or question do you see as important to resolve? Usually, when teachers investigate their practice, they want to implement some change, or they want to improve a particular aspect of their teaching. For example, in the intermediate ESL (English as a second language) class I was teaching at an adult literacy center in Central Texas, I realized that there was a lack of emphasis on the development of writing. In general, the writing the students did was short sentences and fill in the blank exercises. I wanted to provide them with the opportunity to experiment with the written language and to write for authentic communication. This was my motivation to implement dialogue journals (DJ). However, I did not have experience implementing DJ, and I realized that other ESL instructors could benefit if I documented this experience. I collected data, analyzed the students’ response to implementing the DJ, and then shared my findings by publishing them (See Larrotta, 2008).
Educators and researchers are constantly pointing out the need to establish the connection between theory and practice; this is precisely what teaching research is about. In teaching research, teachers use their practical knowledge about the setting, the community, the students’ learning needs, identities, and culture in order to make theory work. Finally, it is important to point out that effective teacher-researchers make time to read the research that has already been done in their area of interest, and they learn from other researchers’ experiences. Teaching research makes more sense when we consult our colleagues and share the results of our research efforts with them. Personally, I will continue conducting classroom-based research because teaching makes more sense that way. Reflecting on one’s teaching practice becomes an essential part of one’s daily routine as a teacher-researcher. Sharing your findings about the inquiries you pursue is equally important.
Ellis, R. (1997). SLA research and language teaching. Great Claredon Street, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kincheloe, J. L. (2003). Teachers as researchers: Qualitative inquiry as a path to empowerment. 2nd ed. London: Routledge-Falmer.
Larrotta, C. (2008). Written conversations with Hispanic adults developing English literacy. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal, 2(1), 13-23.
Loughran, J. (2002). Improving teacher education practice through self-study. London: Routledge-Falmer.
Wein, C.A. (1995). Developmentally appropriate practice in ‘Real Life’: Stories of teacher practical knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.
Clarena Larrotta is Assistant Professor at Texas State University-San Marcos in the Adult, Professional, and Community Education Ph.D. Program.Sisters Push Each Other to Do the Extra Lap by Dora Espericueta The most rewarding teaching experience that I have had was the opportunity to teach two sisters that enrolled at the Pharr Adult Learning Center. While both sisters started at the pre-lit level, I did not start working with them until they were at the Pre-GED level. I started working with Elia first. She came to the Center with a very low self-esteem. She could barely make eye contact with me or anyone else. She was very soft spoken and shy. As her GED instructor, I was able to work with her on a one to one basis. Elia was able to express herself through her essays providing me the opportunity to feel her pain and depression. As time went by, it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gaining inner confidence. Her way of dressing, communicating, and physical appearance was so visible that you could see the metamorphosis from a cocoon to a beautiful butterfly. Her written thoughts and ideas helped me understand her more and allowed me to interact with her more freely. Working with her individually, allowed her to feel more comfortable in speaking or asking questions. Once she overcame her shyness, she became very determined to get her GED and set a goal to further her education. Eventually, Elia encountered transportation problems. Her only ride to class was her sister. Elia motivated Veronica to enroll so that she wouldn’t waste gas needlessly. By both of them attending, they could benefit from the program and better themselves at the same time. When her sister was promoted from the Pre-GED class to my GED class, I felt like this gave Elia more of an initiative or more self confidence. When her sister, Veronica, came into my writing class, it was like lighting a flame under both of them. I could see that they would work together and encourage and motivate each other. It was apparent to me that Veronica was different from Elia in many ways. She was more interactive, more sociable, and more approachable. This allowed me to use Veronica’s attributes to make Elia a stronger person. It was exciting to see that no matter what obstacles came their way, they both showed determination and dedication. Veronica was Elia’s only means of transportation and it was wonderful to see the family unity when it came to them having each other for support. I can honestly say that these two young ladies had to make many sacrifices and overcome many obstacles to achieve what they had set as their goal, to obtain their GED and enroll at South Texas College. Through perseverance they were able to achieve what they had both set out to do. They are both currently in their third semester at South Texas College and are well on their way to successful careers in Nursing and Education. About the Author Dora Espericueta is a native of Monte Alto, Texas. She is married to Robert and has three children. She has taught all areas of the adult education program. She holds a certification in Interdisciplinary Studies and Generic Special Education and has taught adult education for thirteen years. She is currently the Lead Instructor for the Pharr Adult Learning Center. Her passion is working with adults and motivating them to succeed.