For the last three years, together with others in the Brigham Young University-Public School Partnership, I have been exploring an approach for helping young people become teachers that invites them to become involved in a particular learning process and to think of themselves as inquirers and as teachers. Connecting literatures on teacher preparation, novice teachers, and teachers as researchers, I wondered if student teachers and novice teachers might benefit by learning to do qualitative research and evaluation while learning to teach. It seemed to make sense that if they learned to learn this way early in their careers and had some success doing inquiry while learning to teach, student teachers and novice teachers might be more inclined to continue to be learners throughout their teaching careers. This approach might even alleviate some of the problems of burnout that plague many teachers and might help them inspire their own students to be life long learners as well. It also seemed possible that cooperating teachers and supervising university teachers might learn to serve theirstudents better by participating with them as inquirers too.
This study was designed to examine the experiences of several Partnership participants involved in an inquiry based teacher preparation program to explore how well the notion works and what benefits might accrue in practice. This paper briefly summarizes one key lesson I learned during an exploration of these ideas and relates this experience to the work of the post-modernist philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Briefly stated, the lesson is: when teachers, student teachers, and teacher educators see themselves as learners, evaluators, and/or researchers and spend some of their energy trying to understand their students and their perspectives, they become less attached to pedagogical techniques and move quickly to a responsive and reflective way of teaching that is more commonly associated with master teachers. Because they know their students better, they tailor learning experiences for them that are more appropriate than generic curriculum could be.
The literature on teacher preparation concludes that one of the most important parts of that educational process is the student teaching or field experience. However, the pedagogical practices of student teaching continue to be criticized as being less helpful than they could be (Lanier & Little, 1986). Guyton and McIntyre (1990, pg. 518) confirm this literature in an extensive review and call for research on critical questions about the field experience such as the following: “What strategies can be implemented to encourage student teachers to be students of teaching and reflective about their behavior and surroundings?” They urge the use of naturalistic inquiry to study the student teaching experience from the perspectives of the participants.
The literature on novice teachers likewise concludes that the first few years of teaching constitute one of the most crucial stages in the development of teachers (Bion, 1991). During this time, teachers are more vulnerable (Hoffman, et. al., 1986), unsure of their competence (Johnston & Ryan, 1980), and introspective (Pajak & Blase, 1982) than they are likely to be in later years of their professional lives. The questions raised by Guyton and McIntyre seem appropriate for this stage in teacher development as well.
Authors of a third body of literature have encouraged experienced teachers to be more thoughtful and reflective about their work by conducting qualitative research as a natural extension of the inquiries they make already in their classrooms and with their students (e.g., Fosnot, 1989; Goswami & Stillman, 1987; and Hitchcock and Hughes, 1989). Goswami and Stillman (preface) note that several exciting results accrue when teachers “conduct research as a regular part of their roles as teachers.” For example, they find that teacher-researchers:
These literatures call for the use of research by the participants to enhance the learning experiences of student teachers, novice teachers, and teachers in general. Qualitative research was suggested by some as the most natural for practicing educators to learn and practice. It seemed to me that preservice, inservice, and teacher educator teachers could learn to build on their existing learning and monitoring skills to become insightful teacher-researchers/evaluators.
This study grew out of a naturalistic investigation I have been conducting with cooperating teachers, administrators, high school students, and teaching candidates in a moderately large high school since January 1989. This school has been a “Partner School” in the Brigham Young University-Public School Partnership which was initiated by representatives of five school districts and the College of Education in 1985 with help from John Goodlad and his associates. The Partnership was formed to encourage cooperative inquiry such as this, as well as joint development of curriculum, and collaborative preparation of educators. This study addresses all three of these Partnership goals. As a university supervisor, I have worked with the teachers and administrators at this Partner School to involve several groups of student teachers during their pre-service courses and field experience in this study and have continued working with them as they have taken teaching positions. They agreed to keep field notes to share with me and with each other during the study. As part of the study, I have taught the student teachers and their cooperating teachers naturalistic inquiry skills while their cooperating teachers taught them how to teach. All our work has been in the field.
The procedures we used were typical of qualitative studies with ongoing interpretive analysis. We observed and interviewed each other (the student teachers’, their cooperating teachers, some administrators, and the associated high school students). We also analyzed documents produced by the teachers and students, such as curriculum files and student work.
Analyses of our field notes were conducted both individually and jointly by all participants, throughout the course of the study. Field notes containing observations, interview transcripts, document analyses, audit trail indices, analyses made during experiences as well as more systematic analyses made away from the school were maintained by all participants and shared with one another in weekly meetings throughout the project. Less frequent meetings and correspondence were maintained by me as the university representative with participants after they took regular teaching positions in this and other schools.
Criteria outlined in Lincoln and Guba (1985) and by Williams (1986) were followed to enhance the credibility and utility of the inquiry. Response to these criteria included such precautions as prolonged engagement, persistent observation, triangulation, peer debriefing, member checking, thick description, and maintenance of an audit trail.
Several aspects of these student teachers’, novice teachers’, cooperating teachers’, and teacher educators’ roles and experiences were unique as compared to the typical experiences of participants in teacher preparation programs and public schools: