Uplifting the Teaching Profession

By Jim Parsons and Dennis Shirley

The piles of contradictory research available about education today can be baffling. Some days, we feel we have no choice but to just throw up our hands in despair. How shall these conflicts be sorted out? Foundationally, we believe no sorting out will occur without teachers in the room. Teachers know much that often doesn’t find its way into policy. Here’s one thing we know. The task of including teachers in policy building is crucial because the conditions under which teachers work cannot be removed from their abilities to help students learn. This begs the question: What do teachers need to do their work well?

 We believe teachers need effective ways to focus on their core task of improving teaching and learning. In times of financial constraint, increasingly a pattern in Canada, governments’ educational policy becomes conservative – focused first on audits and second upon assignment. The result is political “salami slicing,” an approach we have seen in Alberta where the highly innovative Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), despite excellent results, was “trimmed”from the educational budget in March 2013. Provincial educational leaders retreated to the security of bureaucratic apparatuses, and any hint of collegial approaches to educational progress fell victim to self-protective “cones of silence.” School level budgets have been cut and innovation exorcised.  This does no favor for our students, our teachers, our communities, or our country. Engaged collaborative/creative thinking is needed desperately now to forward our students’ learning and to improve our schools into places we all want to work in. 

A second thing we know is that educational improvement must be practical and collaborative. Even if schools and students differ, when teachers work together, student learning improves. Our recent research on teacher professional learning and teacher efficacy in Alberta tells us that teachers believe “collaboration with colleagues” – learning to work together through mutual engagement – helps them improve their teaching because it opens spaces where they share their practices and insights with others. Such a process is truly collaborative and comes with a number of powerful concomitant engagements.

Specifically, when teachers critically and creatively engage each other, learning will be improved. The process is less like moving an egg from one carton to another and more like making an omelet. The old way was to move a decontextualized “best practice” from one teacher and school to another teacher and school. More to the point, traditional professional development practices were largely based on transferring knowledge from an expert to an audience. And, here is the key. Research shows that seeing one’s self as an audience is rarely an effective path towards educational growth. The new way is to believe teachers come full – not empty. Although we are indeed individuals, we live and work in schools – which should be communities of shared practice. We learn from one another.

Such shared learning has three key characteristics. First, it involves interacting with others around mutual insights about practice. Second, it believes all educational partners should interact because they all have something to offer the community and, by interactively sharing what they know, learning will be mutually beneficial. Third, the work is empirical. That is, it is research-informed, because teachers have lived it and know it. Grassroots research often involves collaborative inquiry in the first place – as Kurt Lewin knew when he developed the groundings for Action Research more than fifty years ago. A community of practice is first a collaborative activity where two or more people make a decision to interact with each other and open themselves to influence from another who they see as having something to share.

Here is a third thing we know. The kinds of non-interactive transmissions of “good” practices during isolated professional development events that focused more upon what teachers did and less upon what teachers knew were poor ways to improve teaching and learning. Rather than independent, one-sided transfers of so-called best practice, we believe teachers need interdependent, mutual, and transformative conversations of shared practice. Transfers from one person or place to another seldom improve schools. Teachers need competent partners with professional capital, desire for reciprocity, collegiality and trust, and an audaciousness fueled by collective moral purpose. These are, we believe, the marks of a professionalism that dares evaluate and challenge what doesn’t work for our children today. We are all teachers together in this!

Here is a fourth thing we know. We know that working as educational partners can make a difference. And, here is where The Canadian Journal for Teacher Research comes in. We see, by starting this Journal, a way to stand up to be counted as a force for educational transformation. The Journal is a partnership of trust that invites those who care to help us identify needs and implement educational improvement. We believe in high standards for teaching and learning, in clear and well-discussed educational policies, in involving and building educational partnerships with our students and their parents, in creating spaces for provocative conversations about educational actions, in drawing support from many sources, and in sparking broad and deep discussions about teaching and learning.

We have designed The Canadian Journal for Teacher Research for teachers. We hope the Journal helps teachers become more collaborative. For us, this means that teachers should no longer remain isolated in single schools, cloistered from colleagues with common interests. We believe teachers’ work will improve as they offer, receive, share, and discuss their own “good practices” with others. We believe reflective improvement in teaching and learning can become embedded, ongoing, and sustainable. Finally, we believe teachers can benefit from expanding networks that provide spaces to create, challenge, and support collegial sharing focused upon teaching and learning practices.

We see The Canadian Journal for Teacher Research as a space for teachers’ professional learning and development. The Journal is nothing less than a collaborative inquiry that works to engage teachers in professional research defined broadly about teaching and learning as a means of building instructional agency and informed practice. Because we believe teachers share goals, we believe collaborative problem-solving to pursue these common goals helps us all transform practice – including the practice of “engaging” an educational research-informed journal. We believe our Journal can help teacher researchers and other researchers work together both within local schools and on the educational borders and margins we all share. Our shared goal is to develop better ways of teaching so as to support student learning.

We hope to build a space where teachers, individually and collectively, try out new ideas in classrooms and share their findings – the success of these efforts. Thus, The Canadian Journal for Teacher Research is a place where we will write about teaching and learning and critically consider our collective work as teachers. We are a collaborative problem-solving group undertaking the building of a shared way to talk about teaching and co-constructing a discourse community. We are a community of practice convinced that knowledge construction about teaching and learning emerges from systematically considering practice, that teachers should be part of that consideration, and that we all will benefit from chances to share insights about the pursuit of our common interests. Any discourse community is made richer by inclusion. None of us are on our own in this work.

So, welcome to The Canadian Journal for Teacher Research. Our collaborative inquiry will offer teachers structured and monitored opportunities to consider what in the past has not be the privy of practicing teachers. We hope to create a professional shift in teaching and learning practice. We invite others to join our work to build and to sustain a collaborative community of practice and to help us generate the enthusiasm to persist the difficulties that might come. For us, this initiative is a priority.

 Jim Parsons

Dennis Shirley