Emma is an English teacher and has taught in the South Wales valleys in a secondary school for the last five years. Emma was part of the first cohort of Masters in Educational Practice students and graduated in July 2016 with a Distinction.
It was not a decision to be taken lightly. Some felt that it would be a mistake to undertake a rigorous qualification in an already busy first year of teaching, during an inspection term.
On the other hand, I was already concerned about the transition between the research, support and network-rich environment of my PGCE, to the world of professional work. I knew that I wanted to continue sharing innovative practice and had enjoyed doing so as part of a tightly-knit cohort of student teachers. Thus, the Masters would allow for open, confidential and non-judgemental conversations about pedagogical concerns.
I felt as if I owed it to my pupils to ensure that I made opportunities for myself to develop my pedagogy and this is what the Masters in Educational Practice promised.
Below, are five reasons why I wholeheartedly recommend research whilst teaching.
1. It Saves Time
One of the main misconceptions I had about embarking on educational research, whilst simultaneously beginning a teaching career, was that one would hinder the other. However, teachers are natural researchers. Paradoxically, teaching is research. With every plan, every lesson and every conversation shared in the staff room, you are researching what works best for your pupils and what enhances and catalyses their progress. Although the MEP may have been more formal and intensive then simply reflecting on your lessons when the bell rings at the end of the school day, the principle was the same. You have to actively engage in reflection to be an effective teacher.
For example, I strongly missed the experienced teacher sitting at the back of the room during my training, who would point out why certain things did not go as well as I had hoped and how I could improve. I had become used to having a ‘critical friend’ and had almost begun to depend on their feedback for both development and reassurance.
Research taught me that I could be my own critical friend. The qualification gave me the autonomy to systematically reflect on my lessons and problem-solve in a more confident, objective, efficient and ethical way. To exemplify this, during the first year of the MEP, I taught a pupil who could become disruptive during the transition between tasks. Knowing that I would be able to systematically work through potential solutions to this issue when I got home meant that I could maintain a calm, confident and positive outlook in my classroom.
I also fully believe that the more intensive the research, the more meaningful the findings are. For example, my action inquiry project (dissertation) was a sustained and focused study into a ‘professional itch.’ I wanted to know why my Year 8 class were not engaging with my written feedback in relation to spelling. Over a period of six months, I put the issue into context. I examined barriers to learning such as engagement, perceived importance and the teacher’s relationship with the class as well as a number of other factors. I collected control data, tried three strategies to improve engagement and empowered my pupils by making them complicit in my ethical research. We worked together to look at how they learn effectively. As a result, they learnt and continue to learn more effectively.
I am very glad that I took that decision because it quickly became clear that the false logic that research would be ‘too much work’ was actually tautological. Ironically, research saved me from doing unnecessary work.
Another reason why I implore educational practitioners to undertake research is that the results are personalised to you. During my PGCE, I had become used to reading text books about ‘outstanding’ pedagogy which would often contradict each other or, in some cases, would seem ideal for the area I wished to examine. They would suddenly become less pertinent when I became aware that they were based on a different phase of education or even in a different country.
The research that I have carried out may not have broad, generalisable, repeatable conclusions that would stand up to rigorous statistical analysis across the world, but I think my results are of paramount significance and validity, because they illuminate something about my pupils.
Teacher research is unique in the way that the teacher inevitably and unavoidably has an influence over the results. Each child brings with them a unique set of circumstances and characteristics that may alter from day to day. However, perceiving my pupils as distinct beings rather than an experiment is what makes the research worthwhile and is far more important than proving a ‘one-size-fits-all’ hypothesis.
The research is also in accordance with the Welsh Government’s national priorities, namely improving standards in literacy, numeracy and closing the gap between poverty and attainment. It gave me a sense of great pride to be able to share my ideas on each of these areas in a departmental meeting, knowing I had already undertaken focused studies on each element within my employer school. I knew that I had tried and tested meaningful strategies that could be employed. One of my proudest achievements was being able to work closely with colleagues to edit and improve the cross-curricular whole-school marking policy. It now includes ‘Spelling Journals’ which I found significantly improved my pupils’ engagement with written feedback on spelling as previously mentioned.
I really valued the support of my fellow scholars on the MEP. Their practical and theoretical support continues to be invaluable in terms of reassurance and collaborative planning. I feel that I can be honest with them about inadequacies in my teaching because, unlike my employer school, they are not there to assess my performance. They are there to share excellent practice and alleviate concerns with in a confidential and constructive forum.
Additionally, educational research helps educationalists to see the larger picture when it comes to pupil progress. Schools run the risk of becoming insular and self-contained if links are not made between vested parties.
Through my experiences, I can see that education, like a child’s life, is a continuum which needs to be sustained during each milestone, no matter how small. For example, as a secondary teacher, I am fully aware that I am one piece of a puzzle which forms a child’s educational experience. I have a responsibility to find out what happens in feeder primary schools as well as the later phases of education. There is no better way to do that than to meet with teachers from different phases. Educational research forces you to liaise with practitioners in all areas, including support staff, parents and policy-makers, to ensure that a child’s needs are met at every stage and that stakeholders in education are in synchrony.
A theme which underpins each of the aforementioned reasons is improved confidence. Undertaking and engaging with research has ultimately meant that both my own and my pupils’ confidence has grown. I am safe in the knowledge that I can reflect effectively on issues and problem-solve in a meaningful way.
This assured attitude transcends research outcomes and manifests itself in content pupils who make progress in each and every lesson, and a teacher who delivers lessons with self-belief and self-reliance. This filters right through to my results, which I now see as merely a by-product of my instilled confidence.
5. Pupil Progress
There are countless ways in which my development has helped my pupils to progress; the aforementioned practical examples are just a small sample.
Some might argue that I would have learnt all of these notions sooner or later and that may be true. However, I do wonder what sort of teacher I would be if I had not. This uncertainty makes me want to continue researching: to determine what type of teacher I could be with further study. I do not think that teacher researchers should be regarded as self-seeking. I completed the MEP to improve outcomes, opportunities and the progress of my pupils and undoubtedly, this has been achieved over the last four years. I intend to continue to research whilst teaching; they are synonymous concepts after all.
Overall, I am thoroughly grateful to the Welsh Government for funding such a worthwhile qualification which continues to enhance my professional practice. I cannot recommend research alongside teaching enough. Although it is undoubtedly hard work, it would be a false economy not to partake in it because your pupils reap the rewards tenfold.