Emerging Role As a Teacher Researcher

As I progressed through the Urban Education doctoral program at CUNY, I was not quick to define myself as a researcher of any particular stripe, not wanting to limit my inquiry by that definition. I was more focused figuring out how to develop practices that will increase the chances of my students reaching their higher educational goals and developing their identities as emerging scholars and professionals. Yet, by being with and learning from both seasoned and emerging researchers, I grew comfortable with assuming the qualification of teacher researcher. It describes much of my goals for and positioning with my students in urban schools. So the label fits my activity, rather than me trying to conform my activity to a label.

The type of research I’ve conducted in my classroom can be viewed under the purview of qualitative research, and ethnography, while having a phenomenological and hermeneutical approach to inquiry. The overarching aim of this study has been to create culturally empowering learning spaces where interactive technologies are leveraged to enhance learning on the behalf of students, particularly African American and Latino students. The Yvonne Lincoln and Egon Guba research authenticity criteria (1989) have been used throughout my research. The research groups under the tutelage of Ken Tobin at CUNY, which I’ve been a part of, use it widely. The Lincoln and Guba authenticity criteria is a system for judging interpretive ethnographic research and overall, stresses that the importance of conducting research must benefit those who are involved. Nicole Grimes (Murphy and Scantlebury, 2010), a doctoral graduate of CUNY’s Urban Education program, summarized the Lincoln and Guba criteria as being:

[o]ntological, educative, catalytic, and tactical authenticity. Ontological authenticity refers to the ways in which participants enhance their own constructions of social life as it relates to what they have learned from a study. Educative authenticity represents the extent to which stakeholders, particularly those outside the research group, understand the implications and nuances that emerge from the study and the standpoints of key stakeholders. Catalytic authenticity relates to the obligation of the research and researchers to create ways to expand the agency and catalyze positive changes of all stakeholders involved in the research. Finally, tactical authenticity refers to the extent to which stakeholders have agency to bring about the change they desire and benefit from what has been learned from the research (p. 307).

In keeping with the Lincoln and Guba authenticity criteria, I view the merit and benefit of my study as being based on how well answers to the essential questions posed in this study can shed light on whether or not an empowering learning space has taken form. Ultimately the participants and stakeholders of the study must determine if this is so. The findings of my study would be available to help them make this determination. The rationale for posing the essential questions of this study is that students’ achievement must be assessed in relation to their developing identity, critical sense, knowledge construction towards self-relevant problems, and developing agency to achieve individual goals and community motives. A synthesis of ideas from the various cultural theories mentioned in this study will afford a deep understanding of the processes of meaning making, and growing agency of participants to appropriate resources (including interactive technologies) for the purpose of advancing the goals of students and the motives of the communities they come from. Below are the essential questions posed in this study along with the corresponding authenticity and validity checks used for them.

The first essential question is how, if at all, do these students’ discourses and authored products express the development of their ideological self, privileging their own “voices”; meaning their own ideas of what learning activities will benefit themselves and their identity groups? This question is meant to ascertain if students feel free to counter ideologies and structures that impinge on their agency in education. So the first authenticity check for this study is that students will experience an expansion of their own “voice” to express what knowledge and activities are beneficial for themselves. They will be less likely to accept and follow uncritically, ideas and practices that do not serve their own defined criteria for what benefits their self-defined goals.

The second essential question is how, if at all, do these students’ discourses and authored products express development of their affective identities as competent actors in their semiotic domain? This question builds on the first and tracks the students’ agency to proactively appropriate resources as needed to accomplish their individual goals. The second authenticity check for this study is, students will increasingly identify their constructed knowledge and activities as enhancing their math competency. Local stakeholders in the school and students’ communities will likewise identify the collective praxis of participants as establishing an educational paradigm that actually supports educational objectives aligned to the enduring best interests of students.

The third essential question is how, if at all, do these students’ discourses and authored products express that they identify their problem solving activities and goals as advancing the motives of their group and larger community? This question examines if students associate their individual agency with the goals of their wider group, family, and community. A third authenticity check for this study is that students’ constructed knowledge and activities actually serve to transform existing educational practice on not only local levels, such as classroom and school, but even on, meso levels such as district and region. The discourses and knowledge produced while using interactive technologies remain directly relevant or attuned to the common problems faced by the identity groups of the student and would have the potential to redress those problems. Furthermore, the established praxis captured by this study would serve as a model for transformative education on macro levels, as in urban education for minorities across districts, states and throughout the entire country. If this transformation does not occur after implementation across departments in a given school for several consecutive years, despite being fully resourced materially and by supportive ideological perspectives from educators, then the study must be reevaluated as to its benefit to students.

Epistemological Stance and Methodologies of  a Teacher Researcher

I’m coming to the increasing awareness that there are traditions and communities of teacher researchers. Marilyn Cochran and Susan Lytle (1999) identifies major conceptual frameworks that have emerged in the 90’s that continue to shape teacher researcher methodologies and methods today. I see my research as correlating strongly with two of them: teacher research as social inquiry and teacher research as ways of knowing. These conceptual frameworks are not mutually exclusive. The two have shared implications for educational practices, particularly for those in schools with underprivileged students. Cochran & Lytle (1999) says of teacher research as a social inquiry concept, “The emphasis here is on professional education that is about posing, not just answering, questions, interrogating one’s own and other’s practices and assumptions, and making classrooms sites for inquiry – that is, learning how to teach and improve one’s teaching by collecting and analyzing the “data” of daily life in schools.” (p. 17) The questions I’ve posed in my research are to be answered by interrogating the impact of leveraging interactive technologies to achieve student’s goals. For me, this advances my role of teacher to that of an agent for change.

Teacher as Agent for Students’ Educational Goals and Social Change

Referring to the emergent trend of action research of the 90’s, Cochran & Lytle (1999) says, “This work is grounded in critical social theory and aimed explicitly at social change …The emphasis is on transforming educational theory and practice toward emancipatory ends and thus raising fundamental questions about curriculum, teacher’s roles, and the ends as well as the means of schooling.” (p. 18) I see my role of teacher researcher in this vein. In my role as teacher researcher, I am seeking to change existing practices and power relations that constrain student’s lifeworlds. I advocate for social change, raising students’ awareness of unequal power relations and encouraging them to analyze structures that reproduce their subordinate roles in society. Doing so, I think, teaches students how not to become complicit in their own subordination. The teacher researcher for me is not devoid of an activist stance as an agent for change. The canonical content knowledge I expose my students to is always presented as a resource that students can use to solve problems that are relevant to their lifeworlds. Math content knowledge is not offered up as an abstraction from students’ own experience. This requires an active negotiation the teacher researcher to continually make to canonical math relevant to students’ lifeworld. It is not enough to claim to be an objective observer who has an insider track on an experiment involving students. This would not be in keeping with my activist stance and authenticity criterion. Rather classroom research for me, must have as a goal outcomes that will directly benefit my students.

Alignment of Goals

It is important for teacher researchers to have a reflexive disposition to manage and balance the goals of teachers VS those of students. Students don’t always know how to go about achieving what is best for them, but they will always know what is best for themselves when they see it. the students. Students may not be aware of the wider implications of their actions and how their action may make them complicit with constraining structures. The teacher must encourage students’ authorial voice and co-construct knowledge rather than simply repeat existing knowledge that is abstracted from students’ lifeworlds. The teacher must guide students to realized their individual and collective goals.

For many disciplines taught in schools, there is a plethora of interactive technology tools that can be used to enhance learning. These ways have a lot in common with how students use virtual social media to develop their social lives. Students’ social media competencies can be leveraged to help them reach their higher educational goals. My larger argument is that the cultural practices in classrooms should not be abstracted from students’ lifeworlds. Rather, the cultural competencies students bring from fields outside of the classroom, should be incorporated and leveraged to attaining students’ educational goals. The validity of my research is in the actualization of the this overarching goal as a teacher researcher. These goals are consistent with what Cochran & Lytle (1999)  has laid out as a “larger argument for social inquiry as a new paradigm that aims frontally to transform rather than describe school or classroom settings as do classic ethnography and some other branches of qualitative research.” (p. 18)

Inquiry as Ways of Knowing

Another major researcher trend of the 90’s that Cochran & Lytle (1999)  summarizes is teacher research as ways of knowing, which “pays particular attention to the discourse of learning communities, the conjoined efforts of teachers and students as inquirers … The emphasis here is on blurring the boundaries of research and practice and on conceptualizing practice as a critical and theory-building process.” (p. 18) My epistemological stance is that teaching must be aimed at not only covering content knowledge or formal knowledge, but also on discovering ways of applying that knowledge to solving problems relevant to students lifeworlds. The goal is to help students develop new dispositions, competencies and practices that are relevant and applicable to their lifeworlds. There has to be a mindfulness of the existing structures that tend to reproduce outcomes that limit student life chances. These structures are not necessarily external to students or teachers. They have become internalized and become the habitus of both students and teachers. Critical to the role of teacher researcher who has these agentic goal, is to frequently reflect on existing practices, and evaluate how existing practices either aid or hinder helping students reach their individual and collective goals. Many of these limiting cultural practices are enacted in unconscious ways that tends to reproduce dominating structures. It is a critical step to change that internal disposition, or habitus, embodied by both students and teachers. For teacher researchers this must be an active, purposeful and, mindful activity. This is not easy, because these old dispositions have been positively reinforced or sanctioned by powerful forces that can seem beyond the teacher’s sphere of control. However, there will always be available a third space, between the dominant structures, that are opportunities to develop different practices that flow from a different conditioning. While it may be true that we do not always control what others do and the production of limiting structures at play in schools, we always can control how we respond to them as willful human beings. It is a matter of mindfulness of how we choose to respond. The constructive changes in teacher dispositions will inevitably reflect in constructive changes in students’ dispositions, and that is essential for building a movement for better education from the ground up.

Stake Holder Solidarity

For me an important aspect of my practice is that it does not remain local. I seek to have an influence on not only the other teachers in my department, but also teachers in the entire school and district.  In addition, I am trying to not only enable students to increase their math fluency in this class, but I hope the dispositions that they develop to succeed in math, will carry over to all the fields of their lives; and they that students will in turn help elevate their communities.  This is a larger goal I am striving for as a teacher researcher. How can I co-create enduring practices that cascade beyond my classroom that help students researcher their goals and competently support the wider motives of their communities?

One of the roles of a teacher researcher is to expand his/her reach beyond the classroom by working with other stakeholders who are vested critically to train students to reach their self-defined goals and circumvent constraining structures. As Cochran & Lytle (1999)  puts it, “The larger goal is to create classrooms and schools where rich learning opportunities increase students’ life chances and to alter the culture of teaching by altering the relations of power in schools and universities.” Teachers should be aware of practices that are adaptable / transferable into wider context and can be adapted in ways that are meaningful in specific circumstances. This becomes a basis of a theoretical framework and methodologies for teachers in urban schools. So what becomes the object of teacher researcher is not only the culture enacted by students in interplay with other students and the teacher, but also of the teacher researcher in interplay between the culture of students and the culture of the administrative structure as well as the structures of the wider society that the school is embedded in. The catalog of knowledge produced from teacher researchers acting in solidarity becomes a resource for a larger movement of social change. As Cochran & Lytle (1999)  puts it, “Fundamental to our notion of inquiry as stance is the idea that the work of inquiry communities is both social and political – that is, it involves making problematic the current arrangements of schooling; the ways knowledge is constructed, evaluated, and used; and teachers’ individual and collective roles in bringing about change.”

The teacher researcher does not remain localized in his/her awareness and aims.  This scope of awareness places the teacher researcher in a wider field, particularly when the teacher researcher becomes associated with other stakeholders who are of like mind and like goals. The teacher researcher’s methodologies, methods and practices become structures that are useful to a wider community of members who are interested in transforming education for students in ways that help them reach their individually self defined goals and wider collective motives. In my research on using interactive technologies to enhance student learning, I have managed to generate a higher interest in this approach not only in my math department, but also in other schools in my district. It is important to ensure not only the use of interactive technologies in wider organizational units, but to use them for the purpose of increasing student co-authorship and authorial voice, for building student competencies that are aligned with their individual and collective goals.

Cochran, M. & Lytle, S. (1999). The Teacher Researcher Movement: A Decade Later. Educational Researcher; 28(7), 15-25.

Guba, E. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1989). Fourth generation evaluation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. hooks, bl. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Murphy, C. and Scantlebury, K. (Jun., 2010). “Coteaching in international contexts” Cultural Studies of Science Education, 1.

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