“So what are you going to do with that?” A dream job proposal in honor of #beyondprof

I’m soon to graduate with my PhD, but I’m not on the academic job market. You might be wondering about the same question that this book is asking:

So what are you going to do with that?

So in the spirit of the currently ongoing Beyond the Professoriate virtual conference (#beyondprof on Twitter), here’s one thing I’d love to do. It’s a role I see for myself in K–12 education that builds on my teaching experience, as well as the knowledge of ethnography and other qualitative research methods that I’ve gained through my doctoral coursework and research.

I believe research and professional development can be transformative, if they’re used as tools by teachers, for teachers.

There’s a common belief that most professional development for teachers is useless. Typically, PD is delivered by visiting experts who are brought in to do one-off workshops, but by definition, a guest lecturer doesn’t know your classroom, they don’t know the problems that you’re facing, and they’re not going to be around long enough to help you implement solutions. And often, researchers are even worse than teacher trainers: as I’ve written before, teachers often (justifiably) see them as creatures of the ivory tower who can’t relate to real problems of practice.

The first problem with typical PD is that the trainers just come in to give a single workshop. I envision a professional learning experience that takes place over months, if not years.

The second problem is that teachers are treated as units that are insulated from one another, to be educated separately. Sometimes teachers are even ranked according to a scale of “quality” or “effectiveness,” and because of limited resources, instructional coaching is targeted at the “lowest performers.” I envision a professional learning community in which teachers serve as resources for one another: you are each other’s best resources; none of us is as smart as all of us.

Finally, the problem that I felt most viscerally when I was on the receiving end of PD workshops: they don’t acknowledge or respect the expertise that each teacher has with respect to their own students and classroom context. I envision an inquiry-based approach to professional development in which teachers ask the questions and set the agenda.

How will this happen? What’s my role?

More than an instructional coach — a facilitator and methodologist in teacher professional learning communities

The tools that I bring to this project are the research methods of ethnography, and of the highly focused descriptive analysis of video-recorded interaction that Fred Erickson calls “microethnography.” My proposal is to guide teachers through the process as they turn an ethnographic eye to their own classrooms and their own teaching practice.

It begins with autoethnography, a process by which a participant becomes a participant-observer, gaining a new awareness of the social spaces they inhabit by describing and interpreting them in a principled way. Autoethnography makes space for reflective practice and leads teachers to see the effects of their own identity on their teaching. It’s an orientation that opens up the possibility of professional learning.

Just as I’ve used videos of classroom interaction as an outside researcher, teachers have also used video to help them understand their own teaching. You can’t possibly pay attention to a fraction of what happens in your classroom, much less take the time to understand it, but video allows you to see it when you have time to really look at it, to hear the words, plot the gestures, watch it over and over again. Even better is the opportunity to watch your video together with a group of peers in a non-judgmental setting; this can lead to real breakthroughs in understanding. (Grace A. Chen has written about this recently, and Raymond Johnson reminded me about this foundational research by Elizabeth van Es and Miriam Sherin.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Autoethnography and video clubs are a form of teacher research, and as Donald Freeman writes, teacher research is cyclical: each observation prompts new research questions. If you come to understand your classroom in a new way, what will you do with that understanding? Maybe you want to change something that you’re doing; what effect do you think it’ll have, and how will you know if it’s working the way you want it to?

My role in all of this is to help teachers make observations and interpretations of video, of their teaching, and of themselves. Or more accurately, to provide a little education in interpretive methods, which will give us something to talk about, and then to foster the growth of a community where this kind of conversation can happen among peers. The school would have to provide time and space for it, and the teachers would have to buy in and commit to it on top of their existing workload, and I recognize that that’s a lot. But the payoff would be liberation from two-hour workshop trainers, alternatives to narrowly focused researchers, and a remaking of both professional development and research to give the power to classroom teachers.

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