My Journey from Teacher to Researcher, And Why You Should Join Me

by Thomas Courtney

Though I’ve taught fifth grade for twenty years, I’ve only recently made what may be the most important discovery of my career: that my own research can be a part of my practice. My experience with conducting research on K-12 education practices began several months ago when I joined a cohort of teacher-leaders and prepared a research proposal about student note taking. The concept of research intrigued me because, for much of my career, bettering my instruction has been an exercise in listening and applying, as opposed to trying and sharing.  

Over my two decades of classroom teaching, I had never considered myself or my colleagues as researchers—but I was wrong. Research is, and always has been, a natural part of our teaching practice, whether we realize it or not. Here’s how I learned to embrace and actively pursue my role as a teacher-researcher, and why you should join me. 

How to Begin: Developing a Proposal 

Classroom teachers are conducting research all the time. I am a guide teacher, and every lesson is a chance for my student teacher and I to collect data, informally assess, and apply what we’ve learned to better our practice. Every day and in every school, teachers are trying out new methods and lesson plans, taking note of what works and what doesn’t, tweaking their practice accordingly, and sharing their results with their colleagues. What I didn’t know is how meaningful this research can be when it is done intentionally and with fidelity. 

In a professional development mini-course based on understanding the process of actual research, I learned that true research begins with an unbiased hypothesis, and that various methods of quantifying and qualifying data are more appropriate than others given the context.  Armed with this new understanding, I sat down to begin a research proposal, and in minutes realized the hard part would be choosing only one. 

In the end, I decided to concentrate on note taking. Specifically, I wanted to know whether giving students a choice of note-taking procedure (versus demonstrating only one procedure) improved learning outcomes for reading comprehension. I’m dubbing the concept “flexible note-taking.” I had noticed that kids often thought there was one best system, based on whatever method their teacher had taught them, though they were aware of others. I also noticed in conversations with students that they were often unable to disassociate a learning system from a learning objective. For example, when I used a Venn Diagram only to teach compare and contrast, I noticed that a) without the Venn Diagram students could not seem to set up compare and contrast work, and b) students often saw a Venn Diagram as “The Way” to compare and contrast, when in fact it is merely one of many systems created to arrive at an understanding. 

This made me wonder: What if we taught students how to take notes in at least two or three ways, and thus separated the note-taking methodology from the particular assignment? What would happen to their comprehension, to their motivation, to their interest in responding and participating if they could utilize more than one strategy to organize their thoughts around a text? How would it compare to a group of comparably proficient students given only one note-taking scaffold? Would we see differences in subgroups such as students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), ELLs (English Language Learners), or GATE (gifted and talented education) students? 

Preliminary Findings 

Although I am still analyzing my results, I have much to think about—and more questions now! For starters, in my subgroups I found a statistically relevant difference in student comprehension when my students were given a choice in their note-taking method, as opposed to being told to do it one way. This margin of increase for flexible note takers was present despite whether students were ELLs, had IEPs, or were advanced learners. Furthermore, regardless of whether the questions were deeply analytical or simple “read and find,” students were clearly understanding the text better when allowed to choose from multiple note-taking strategies. These findings have brought up even more questions for me, and I’m now considering further research around note taking.

The Case for Teacher Researchers 

Around the same time that I was preparing my research proposal, I began to read Linda Darling-Hammond’s book The Flat World and Education, written over ten years ago. In it, she notes that countries like Korea and Singapore have cohorts of teachers who conduct and even write about their research findings. Darling-Hammond is not the only one who has been making the case for teacher-researchers either. In her book Reign of Error, Dr. Diane Ravitch notes how other countries don’t just allow this exploration to try out best practices but encourage it. 

And finally, in her best-selling book Teacher Wars, Diane Goldstein reveals the troubled history of our segregated schools and how, time and time again, when the innovative work of teacher-led practice was removed, teacher efficacy and student achievement plummeted. 

Each best-selling author notes the same need: a change in our policy, a change in how we train teachers, and a change in how we collaborate in our schools. 

And it just so happens that teacher-research is a firm foundation for all three. 

It’s Time for a Shift 

 If you weren’t in the classroom prior to NCLB’s implementation in 2001—that is, before the massive shift that asked us to be nothing more than implementers of “best practices”—you may not be aware that research used to be embedded in the fabric of our jobs. Currently, there is a push for teachers to resume a now unfamiliar role as teacher-leaders and teacher-researchers. Here in California, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing is currently revising their Standards for the Teaching Profession. As a member of the CSTP Refresh Committee, I see the shift coming. In six standards, teachers are not just required to implement, they are required to understand, evaluate, and maintain. And those powerful verbs are not applied by NCLB tacticians or by test-teaching automatons; they are applied by professionals who look for what works through a pedagogy of reflection. This understanding of what makes a teacher a teacher should include knowledge of how to conduct research, and how to evaluate it so as to grow in those standards! 

Policy that asks teachers to consider best practices that they’ve unearthed themselves necessitates training. It is this component that, in my experience, is most sorely lacking. Multiple-subject-credentialed teachers in particular, like myself, are most often graduates with a BA degree, not a BS. Research requires scientific approaches. We teachers often say we love data, but that data also needs to be interpreted in a scientific manner and we ourselves must learn to separate our own biases. We must train teachers to become better researchers with scientifically minded principles like those I have learned, and district leaders should invest in that type of training. 

Finally, a shift towards creating professional learning communities in our schools must go beyond weekly meetings to collect data for an instructional leader. For example, as I have begun to record my findings about note taking, I am aware of my own biases and my ability to misunderstand the data. This is why scholarly work is peer-reviewed. Teachers have plenty of peers, we just need to provide the time, opportunity, and safe spaces for educators to share their results, and empower them to do so. This is the piece that concerns me the most as an educator, because empowering teachers during a regime of high-stakes testing is often seen as counter-productive, or at odds with administrative norms. But what if the administrative norms included gathering data properly, then analyzing and digesting and acting on that data in a scientific and professional way ourselves? 

As Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, and other researchers have pointed out again and again, empowering teachers to also be researchers is an approach that is working for the world’s most elite school systems. I’m learning too that it’s time to trust teachers to be trained in, to practice with, and to share that work.  Teachers are professionals, and research is, always has been, and must always be, part of our practice. 

Thomas Courtney is a fifth-grade teacher, Senior Policy Fellow with Teach Plus, Ca., and was selected as SDUSD’s District Teacher of the Year in 2021. He serves as a guide teacher with SDSU and writes about his classroom experiences in order to empower students, families, and teachers themselves. 

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