I started my graduate work in education the day after I accepted my undergraduate diploma, the day after my parents and I packed my school things into the car and I unpacked into my childhood bedroom. I spent that summer working my usual summer job, taking the first required courses of my Master’s degree, and applying for every teaching job that I could find. By the time summer ended and I had secured a teaching job for the fall, I was decidedly less enthusiastic about said degree and wasted little time in letting my advisor know. At the time, my coursework seemed too theoretical, too academic, too highbrow, and no match for the reality of being a new teacher. Balancing the time spent on teaching work and coursework meant that all other time ceased to exist, and I was in no state to actually learn much from the early stages of my degree. But I did, though I didn’t recognize it until much later.
In the second semester, at a time when I was decidedly more focused as a result of surviving the first months of teaching, one of our required assignments was a very traditional action research project. Action research has several theoretical frameworks, but the basic idea is that a teacher does research based on what is going on in a classroom and takes simultaneous action. Reflection is a key component of this process, and the hope is that transformative change will occur. Looking back, I don’t remember much of the paper I submitted, but the experience of doing action research indeed transformed the way I understood teaching and learning, a transformation that is a core component of my practice today. As a rule, I do not recommend being a first-year teacher when entering a graduate program, but I cannot deny that being a first-year teacher during my graduate program (and then a second-year teacher, which makes a remarkable difference) meant that I was malleable, enthusiastic, and highly motivated. This project caught me at a good time.
As it was, I was very lucky to be teaching a psychology elective course to grades 11 and 12 students. In the first semester of the school year, I taught one section and my department chair taught another, giving me someone to lean on. In the second semester, at the time of my action research project, I was having the wonderful experience of having taught something once and being able to revise it, a process I still very much enjoy. I was now the only teacher of this course, meaning I could really do whatever I wanted. Unlike the history courses I was also teaching, which culminated in state exams, this psychology course had no specific requirements aside from a broad set of standards. I was constantly trying to juggle the amount of information I felt responsible for giving my students in history (my approach to teaching and learning has changed dramatically in twelve years!) and psychology was a breath of fresh air. What if, I wanted to know, I took a step back and let my students lead?
For my project, my students and I divided up the psychology syllabus and students chose one topic for which they’d like to lead a discussion at the end of the unit. I don’t remember what the requirements were or what I expected students to hand in, but I do remember that it worked. I sat quietly in the back, taking notes as my students sat in a circle and went through the list of discussion questions their classmates had prepared. I remember one student who recorded herself having a conversation with someone about her topic, someone whose perspective she thought was missing, and playing it for her classmates before asking for their feedback. I remember my students really looking forward to each discussion, for the opportunity to share knowledge and draw conclusions. And I remember that the discussions got better over time, the students more prepared, the participants more involved. Ultimately, I concluded, my students didn’t need me to give them information. There was a whole lot they could find out and build and create on their own.
In terms of action research, I’d learned that a teacher can hand over to students and that this is an effective way to learn. A teacher creates the foundation, scaffolds, models, and supports, and this allows students to construct knowledge on their own. Beginning with this project, I began to understand the importance of both structure and flexibility, of the balance between time and resources. I learned that developing interpersonal skills is a part of learning and not an addition to it, and that mistakes and misconceptions are part of the learning process and not something to fear. I got used to saying, “I don’t know” in class and finding answers became a group activity.
As the world has changed, so has my approach to teaching and learning. This has also had to keep up with the way students have changed, and these changes have been dramatic. But at the end of the day, there is a lot that has remained the same. Learning is still a partnership and a process, and students need to know that they are critical partners in the process. Their devices know far more than I ever will, and my role is not to provide that information or to pretend I can keep up. Rather, my role is to raise young people who know how to work independently and together, who ask and answer difficult questions, and who see themselves as part of an interconnected community. I didn’t draw those connections in my action research project a dozen years ago, but I did learn that I could trust the young people who, for better or for worse, trusted me. And that has made all the difference.