I Almost Left Teaching. Here’s How Teacher Research Saved My Career.

About 17 percent of new teachers will leave the profession in their first five years, research shows. I never thought I’d be one of those teachers, but I felt doubt bubble up around year six, when I had my most challenging group of students to date. On top of that, I was a new mom and finishing up my graduate degree.

Yet, luckily for me, my graduate capstone seminar cracked open a whole new world of thinking that inspired me to become a teacher-researcher.

Teacher research is a systematic, careful, and strategic way to collect contextualized data on teaching and learning. While quantitative data is helpful to understand a student, teacher research goes a step beyond and provides the story behind the data. Here’s how teacher research revolutionized my practice and saved me from leaving.

Teacher research helped me notice why some students didn’t want to write.

All teacher research starts with a question. The question often evolves over time in response to data trends.

When I started my research, I wanted to know more about how to narrow the achievement gap through writing instruction. My class included many students who were underperforming as writers.

When I began to examine my data with my classmates and professor, a significant trend emerged: my students’ resistance to writing had more to do with their lack of opportunities to express their authentic voice than it had to do with not wanting to write.  What started as a broad question became more specific, as I explored how multigenre writing changed how my students viewed themselves as writers, and moreover how it helped them to improve their writing skill set.

Teacher research helped me see students’ strengths, not just their weaknesses.

Teacher research views student artifacts as among the most valuable pieces of data to understand a student.

Many of my students in this class were resistant and underperforming writers. When I sat down to grade their papers, I found myself comparing their writing to some of the more proficient and advanced writers who I had in another class. In doing so, I was assessing what wasn’t there instead of what was there.

When I shared several artifacts with my grad-school classmates, we focused instead on what the student was able to do in their writing–not just what was absent. Instead of noticing how one writer had multiple run-on sentences and weak transitions between ideas, I began noticing how she had multiple ideas and was in the process of developing and expressing her content knowledge. Adopting a growth mindset toward my students helped me to move beyond this deficit model of teaching.

Teacher research gave me empathy for frustrating students.

One of the key tenets of teacher research is that running records and field notes need to be written in a neutral voice, focused on what the student is doing—not how the teacher feels about it. When I was able to remove my own bias and frustration about students, I suddenly began to view my students with a newfound empathy.

As teachers, it is so easy to take personally the behavior of challenging students. But what happens if we don’t respond personally to student behavior, but instead simply observe it? This shift empowered me to make decisions that redirected behavior rather than punishing it. Instead of viewing one student as defiant, I began to look for outlets for his anger–via his own writing.

Here’s the Takeaway.

Looking back, I realize that these challenges could have broken me. But thanks to teacher research, these experiences trained me for my work today as a literacy interventionist and academic support coach. By embracing observation and removing my bias, this challenging group transformed my pedagogy and practice.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  When she’s not teaching, Lauren often runs for the woods with her husband and their three sons/Jedi in training and posts many stylized pictures of trees on Instagram.