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Teacher as Researcher: The Ultimate Professional Development

Dorothy Suskind

Director of Middle School
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Teacher researchers pause each morning as they walk into their classrooms and ask, "What will my students teach me today?" To answer that question, they listen to and watch their students engage in authentic work; collect work samples, photographs, and transcripts to document what their students say and do; and use that information to evolve their practice as they celebrate and support the voices and experiences of the children they teach. In this sense, teacher researchers are innovators, curriculum drivers, agents of school change, and directors of their own professional development.

Support and Growth

As a doctoral student, I participated on the Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum Teacher Researcher Team led by Jane Hansen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia and Reading Hall of Fame Member. For years, in preparation for our teacher research team meetings, I selected a piece of student writing that spoke to me. It would be a piece that made me scratch my head and ask, "What can I learn as a writer and teacher of writing from this young author?" or "What do I need to do next to support her growth?" I would capture these contemplations in a one-pager. That one-pager was exactly that, one page, and its content was reflective of my immediate classroom experience. During our small group meetings, every teacher researcher brought her one-pager, shared her contemplations, and elicited response from her team. We met weekly for one and a half hours. We took our work and time together seriously, because we had an internal charge to grow.

Diversity is essential in creating strong and dynamic teacher research teams. Each year our six- to eight-member group spanned across ages, gender, years of experience, grades, and content areas. Difference expanded the vocabulary of the room. As we heard our fellow researchers use new words and frameworks to discuss their experiences, we began to internalize those new ways of thinking, and thus pushed our own understandings of who and how we teach. Coming to know students as individuals and opening spaces for them to grow in their own directions is difficult work. Teachers' voices and contemplations need support. That is what teacher research teams do; they provide a place to lean and space to explore and expand.

The Best Tools

I have three primary tools that I use as a teacher researcher:

  1. My first tool is my spiral notebook. Here I jot notes while I conference with students, tape in samples of their work, and record insights and observations. Each evening, I reflect on my notes and use them to plan for tomorrow.

  2. My second tool is my iPhone. Throughout the day, I take pictures and videos of my students' writing samples, projects, and engineering feats. I often interview them as they share their innovative thinking. These visuals sometimes go in my spiral notebook, sometimes in my Evernote app, and often on my blog to parents. I also use them when I share my students' thinking and creations at our research team meetings and when I present at conferences or write about my practice. The visuals serve as an outward product of our classroom's evolution.

  3. My third and most important tool is my teacher research team. These colleagues focus me and serve as a sounding board and support network for my contemplations in the classroom.

Tapping Into the Power

The initial power of being a teacher researcher illuminates as you live the classroom life beside your students and realize that they have much to teach you. As you start to listen and record their thinking, you are amazed at the work that is happening in your room. Because of your amazement, you begin to more purposely structure your classroom to meet your students' needs. And because of that new structure, your students' learning is intensified, and their talk and work starts to surpass your own expectations. That power of being a teacher researcher is then clarified and intensified as you sit and discuss your observations and insights with your own teacher research team and receive their response.

Today, I am a classroom teacher and the research coach for our Saints Action Research team, part of our school's Center for the Study of Boys. In that role, I lead a team of seven teacher researchers who teach across grade levels and content areas, researching the work that gets done in their classroom, on the field, and in the studio.

This year I challenge you to join (or perhaps start) a teacher research team. Invite the experiences in your classroom, the questions in your head, and the support of your team to become your most powerful professional development. After all, the most effective curriculum is the one that follows the students, and the most successful professional development is the one that grows from the questions in your classroom.

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Dorothy Suskind's picture
Dorothy Suskind
Director of Middle School

Thank you Katie for your response. Yes, our teacher-researcher colleagues are essential to our growth. Several years ago, I had an adjoining room to my teacher-research colleague, Betsy. Throughout the day, we would pop into each other's classroom to share student work samples, pose questions about what our students were doing and saying, and co-plan for instruction based on the work we were seeing our students do. Today, Betsy and I are on different grade teams and hallways, so we find our "teacher-researcher" talk time on afternoon runs. As often as possible, we bring our running clothes to school, and when the bell rings and the students leave, we set out for a neighborhood jog to talk about our practice. In many ways, those runs are teacher-research meetings in ACTION.

Dorothy Suskind's picture
Dorothy Suskind
Director of Middle School

Yes Rusul! I think sharing with students the focus of our teacher research and hearing their voices is essential to moving our own teaching practice forward. My current teacher research question is ~ What happens when I create space for my boys to write on topics and in forms of their choice and then teach through response based on those choices? Each day I take notes on the work my boys do, but I also interview them and ask them about their process. As a teacher-researcher, I also write about my own practice. Often, I share drafts of my academic articles with my students and ask them if I am accurately capturing our classroom work, THEIR work.

All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

Great! I have built out a comprehensive plan that supports action research projects as the core of a site's professional development. The plan also embeds both the teacher evaluation process and professional units for district's step-column salary increases all in a tidy package!

I believe the use of action research may also be incentive to increase teacher retention as teachers are engaged in their own learning solving their school issues and challenges!

I also will post my plan for how to integrate action research for all stakeholders in a school learning community.


Billy Cardenas's picture


Great read! I learn from my students every single day. My students attend my classroom full of energy and ready to learn. As far as a research team, at my campus we have professional learning communities where a group of teachers share ideas to improve student learning. According to Dufour (2004), "education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn". I am currently enrolled in a Master's Program at Walden University where I am studying and researching why teacher networks can work. According to Niesz (2007), "communities of practice, in which learning and teaching are interwoven in social networks, may someday lead to a movement to put thoughtful professional expertise back into schooling". These PLCs take place in a communal environment where the symptoms of the environment are fun for teachers who are constantly thinking and sharing ideas. In our PLCs we have a healthy conflict which is vital when having our meeting norms. At Juarez Lincoln HS we want the focus to be on students and have them collaborating with each other. What I will take back with me is the three tools you mentioned to use as teacher researcher. What is your take on PLCs? Would you consider this part of your research team?

Billy Cardenas

Carol's picture

I appreciate your comments on Teacher Research: "The teacher research is not something done to us, it is done by us".

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Great article. Thanks for sharing Dorthy.

Dorothy Suskind's picture
Dorothy Suskind
Director of Middle School

JR ~ Thank you for sharing your ideas. You have some thoughtful ideas about using Teacher-Research as a powerful tool to empower teachers and keep our best teachers where we need them most.

Dorothy Suskind's picture
Dorothy Suskind
Director of Middle School

Billy ~ I think PLCs are powerful and important pieces in building community and empowering teachers. I think teacher-research teams go a step further in that each teacher is not only talking about what she is doing, she is specifically researching a particular practice/ piece / voice in her classroom. Through that work, she is also researching the work of other teachers doing similar things in their classrooms. She then takes her experiences and her readings and writes and shares what she is finding. Her work then becomes part of the literature and shapes school policy. I also think as teacher-researchers our number one goal is to hear students, it is very student VOICE centered. To me, being a teacher-researcher is not only an identity but a philosophy of how I interact each day in the classroom. With that said, there is certainly a great deal of overlap and room for teacher-research teams and PLCs.

JC's picture

What's described in this article is not really research. I think we can view the actions described as good teaching practices in terms of reflection, but let's not confuse anecdotal experiences and subjective conclusions with research. That becomes detrimental because too often teachers don't really know the difference and they believe their anecdotal experiences are the most valid form of information when they actually tend to be the least valid form of information, and they eschew actual research findings in favor of subjective beliefs.

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