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Using Descriptive Inquiry to Support Teachers

Teachers often face difficult situations, and the collaborative process of descriptive inquiry can help them both find solutions and manage the stress.

September 9, 2021
Illustration of people walking over bridge of joined hands.
James Fryer / TheiSpot

Six-year-old Diane (a pseudonym with identifying details modified) always sits up close to her teacher, Cara, with her shoulders hunched and her hood pulled over her face. Diane often faces away from Cara. When Diane’s face is visible, her brow is furrowed and her jaw is tight. She peppers Cara with questions and requests constantly in a staccato voice but seems resistant to any response. Cara dreads coming to work to face what feels like an immobile block of hostility. She needs strategies to try and also commiseration. What can Cara do?

As teachers return to classes in the fall, they’ll inevitably face situations like this that are both perplexing and upsetting. The losses of the past year will exacerbate challenges while depleting the energy to face them. Policy makers, principals, and even teachers themselves tend to treat teachers’ emotional health as separate from helping teachers improve their efficacy and as something teachers need to work on independent of the demands of school.

We, Cara and Cecelia, find that teachers benefit when the community develops and sustains new practices while attending to the teachers’ social and emotional needs. In other words, teachers need supportive communities to sustain their well-being and help them to creatively respond to their students.

We argue that this teacher needs both emotional support and help problem-solving. Without this support, the teacher will not be effective or happy. Descriptive inquiry supports these efforts by providing a collection of processes that vary in focus and purpose and center around descriptive language that’s as precise as possible and avoids judgments. Here we showcase how these processes can help a teacher with a student like Diane.

Descriptive inquiry typically begins with the teacher meeting with a department chair, a position that Cecelia often held. During this meeting, the teacher—Cara, in this example—shares a little bit about the situation, and together they settle on an open-ended question to focus the inquiry and the process or processes they’ll use to guide their inquiry.

The teacher and chair then bring the inquiry to a group—in this case, Cara’s colleagues at school. After Cara shares her question and the descriptive presentation, her colleagues analyze and weigh in with their thoughts, with both Cara and her colleagues benefiting from their ideas. Cara is then able to determine how she intends to go forward.

Using Descriptive Inquiry to Support Teachers

The Reflection on a Word: This stage focuses on an idea central to an issue or concern at hand and aims to both center a group’s thinking and expand on the meaning they bring to the word or idea. The chair helps the teacher determine a word that resonates with the teacher’s question. Reflecting on a word like alone could help Cara consider Diane’s physical removal from others. 

The Recollection: The recollection is a descriptive story related to the question that the teacher develops with the chair. Each person draws on their experience to tell a story (usually 6 to 10 minutes long), and the group explores how the issue at hand affects people’s lives. A recollection of a time when participants felt like someone didn’t understand the questions they were asking could help Cara and her colleagues tease out misunderstandings that lead to challenges in communication.

The Descriptive Review of the Child: This work aims to develop a holistic picture of a person using five headings—Physical Presence and Gesture, Disposition and Temperament, Relationships with Others, Interests and Preferences, Modes of Thinking and Learning—and asks the observing teacher to say what they see as descriptively as possible. It’s a strength-based process that centers on the focus question.

Going back to the example of Diane, in writing a review, Cara noted the way Diane faced away from her and the rigidity in Diane’s pose. Cara mentioned the somber tone she perceived Diane brought to class, that she always sat with the same students but didn’t play with them at recess, her passion for small animals, and that she often asked questions but never seemed satisfied with the answers.

The Descriptive Review of Work: Here the focus is on visual or written work. This process asks participating teachers to first literally identify what they find in an artwork or other piece and then move to a more interpretive exploration. Cara might look at one of Diane’s drawings—noticing how her work flows across the page, offering a useful contrast to the rigidity of her movement and voice.

The Descriptive Review of Practice: This is an opportunity for a teacher to explore an issue or question important to their work. The teacher develops a description having to do with a question they developed with the chair. Perhaps Cara might note that Diane sought out her peers in the classroom but then played alone at recess. Cara’s focus question might have to do with what social interaction looks like in her daily schedule and curriculum. She might explore when children get adult-facilitated support or if the interactions are guided by resources such as a math game versus child-directed activities, where the child initiates and controls the interaction. Having done this review, Cara might decide that her students would benefit from more open-ended time so they could work through social interactions more independently.

Ultimately, Cara opted to present a descriptive review of Diane to her colleagues guided by the question, “How can I better hear what Diane is trying to communicate to help her feel more at ease and successful in school?” A number of practical ideas emerged. From the review, Cara saw Diane’s facing away as trying to connect with peers rather than expressing anger at her. Diane’s constant questions seemed to stem from struggles with processing and not resistance to instruction.

Yet, something else happened after the review. Cara no longer felt alone in her struggles. As her colleagues warmly listened and responded, Cara felt that they appreciated her efforts with Diane. As colleagues commiserated, she also worked through the hurt feelings she had felt while working with Diane.

Cara left the review feeling recharged with ideas that helped her and Diane develop a close and productive relationship. Teachers like Cara need both practical and emotional support this fall. Descriptive inquiry offers one form of professional development well suited to provide both.

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