VOICES OF PRACTITIONERS | Volume 11, Number 1
Debra G. Murphy
Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education, the online journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has been published since 2004. Starting in July 2016, one Voices of Practitioners article will be published in each issue of Young Children as well as online.
Voices of Practitioners is a vehicle for dissemination of early childhood teachers’ systematic study of an aspect of their own classroom practice. Deeply involved in the daily lives of children and their families, teachers provide a critical insider perspective on life in their classrooms through communication of their investigations, the results, and their reflections.
Visit Voices of Practitioners to learn more about teacher research and to peruse an archive of past Teacher Research articles dating back to 2004.
Seeing the benefits of teacher research makes you want to do it. It’s like helping yourself in your own life, your own aura, your own mental sanity. [Laughs.] It is being proactive to fix something or work toward something.
—Holly, Head Start Lead Teacher
I discovered teacher research when Voices of Practitioners editor Gail Perry invited me to attend the journal’s advisory council meeting at the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) Professional Development Institute in the spring of 2009. At that time, I was earning my doctorate and entering the 20th year of my work as a full-time instructor at a community college in coastal New England. As an instructor, my approach had been strongly influenced by the early childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. I felt a deep and nearly immediate connection to teacher research because I realized it could answer some nagging questions about the scope of preparation we offer to early childhood teachers and about the status of our field. My persistent questions had been, How can I possibly teach my students everything they will need to know when they get into the classroom with children? How can I prepare them for the complexity of teaching? And how can I help to address the issues of high stress, low status, and low compensation that plague the early childhood education workforce?
As I read the literature, starting with Meier and Henderson (2007) and then Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993; 2009), I began to understand the potential that teacher research has to allow my students to become intelligent, reflective practitioners who can construct their own knowledge and engage in continuous improvement of their practice. Beginning the very next fall semester, I embraced teacher research as central to my teaching practice as an associate degree teacher educator. I began to use the approach as a touchstone in all my early childhood coursework and in my supervision of teachers in the field.
I am the early childhood education program coordinator and the one full-time early childhood education professor at Cape Cod Community College. I teach the upper-level courses and supervise all of the practicum students in their field placements. Our program has been accredited by NAEYC since 2007. We have an enrollment of approximately 200 students for two Associate in Science degrees and two certificate programs.
Our student population fits the profile of most students in community colleges, which, as educational institutions, are more likely to enroll students of diverse ethnicities (Miller, Pope, & Steinmann 2004). Community college students, including ours, are also more likely to have extensive family and work obligations, attend school part time, and require remedial coursework in math and English (Caporrimo 2008; Porchea et al. 2010). Nearly all of our early childhood education students are women, and most are the first in their families to attend college. Because of these factors, our students often take six or more years to obtain what is, on paper, a two-year degree.
In my teaching, I think of teacher research as comprised of components that should begin in students’ very earliest coursework. I introduce teacher research through visual documentation and a range of writing assignments that require students to reflect on their field hours, observations, readings, class discussions, and presentations. I became convinced within the first semester that I incorporated teacher research into one of my courses, that these practices are transformative. My students began asking meaningful questions, collecting data that allowed them to explore and measure the effects of their teaching, and developing convincing conclusions about what worked and what they still needed to change. More than ever before in my community college teaching experience, the students’ research presentations became engaging and informative arguments about how to reform their work in early childhood settings.
Given this success, I made our program’s capstone project a teacher research study. I assign this inquiry project as part of students’ portfolios for their practicum course, in which they complete 150 field hours as student teachers in an early childhood classroom and attend a weekly seminar. I present the assignment at the beginning of the semester. Students then participate in one seminar session about teacher research, one session on planning their projects, and two sessions in which they share and discuss raw data they have collected. Last, students present the results of their projects during the third month of the course.
I emphasize student choice and agency throughout the project. The students select research questions from any aspect of their practice, plan and implement the data collection, analyze the data, and then write and present a final report to the class. Students’ questions span a variety of topics—for example, supporting prosocial play, working with children in foster care, facilitating the language development of dual language learners, providing and encouraging healthy eating, building better family communication practices, problematizing gender differences often observed in children’s play patterns, bringing nature into the classroom, and building children’s mathematical knowledge. All of these examples reflect real-world challenges that our teachers encounter in their workplaces or field placements, and for many students, this project marks a significant change in their experience and identity as early childhood teachers. Instead of feeling isolated by the difficulties of their work, students enhance their collegiality and collaboration through our seminar discussions about their teacher research projects. Students ask each other thoughtful questions and make supportive and intelligent suggestions. They share resources and examples from their own experiences. We all teach and we all learn.
Since I began using teacher research in my program, I have implemented the same approach in my college-level teaching and have undertaken a self-study to improve my practice as a community college instructor. I have been asking the question, What happens when associate degree early childhood students do teacher research as a course assignment? I have used my field notes and reflections, photographic documentation of student work, students’ written teacher research reports, and interviews with 14 former students as data. My findings show that my students consistently describe ways in which they have questioned and revisited their assumptions about children and teaching—changing their expectations of how children can learn, how teachers can interact with the children, and how they can modify their classroom environments to support richer learning. Second, they talk about the benefits of the changes for young children, while reflecting growing confidence in themselves and in the future.
Underlying this practical work is my philosophical stance. To discover and clarify what I believe about teaching and learning, I have asked myself why teacher research is such a powerful focus for the program. The work of philosopher John Dewey ( 1997) provides some answers. He describes the importance of specific attitudes that facilitate reflective thought: open-mindedness, whole-heartedness, and responsibility. Open-mindedness is described as the willingness to consider more than one position or point of view. Whole-heartedness refers to giving focused attention and enthusiasm to the topic at hand. Responsibility involves being aware of the outcomes of one’s actions and thoughts. Dewey suggests that good teachers have these habits and strive to cultivate them in their students. These habits of thought are at the heart of inquiry-oriented teaching practice, and so they are reflected in the students’ comments as they describe what they have learned and how their thinking has changed from their time in our community college program.
Veterans and less experienced teachers alike talked about change when questioned about their teacher research projects. Misti, a preschool teacher who has worked with 3- and 4-year-olds in an early childhood program for more than 30 years, described how her stance on risk-taking and collaboration changed due to her teacher research on ways to incorporate more learning about shapes and spatial sense in her classroom. She said,
I find that I am much more open to thinking outside of the box and to going out of what I would consider my comfort zone, which has been a very good thing. Certainly when I am doing something I am more apt to go ask somebody else what they think and try to bring in different ideas, which was a hard thing for me to do.
Maria, another veteran teacher of 20 years, who did her practicum in a Head Start classroom with 4-year-olds, talked about change in terms of surprising herself. She described her teacher research on how to support a child in her classroom with special needs in fine motor development:
What stands out for me the most, and did then, was the amount of change; that you were so propelled after [the teacher research project]. You had no idea where you were going to end up, and that was phenomenal for me to have that happen in an organic way, especially since I have been in early childhood for a long time [laughs].
Amber, a preschool teacher who has been in the field for only five years, emphasized changes she implemented due to her inquiry, while also describing changes she would continue to make. Amber’s teacher research project focused on how to incorporate more patterns in math in her classroom. She explained,
I found myself elaborating on the children’s patterning discoveries. I have already talked about doing things in the classroom differently. I am trying to think of other ideas to make math a more exciting area for the children. I want to make math more meaty.
As these students’ comments show, changing practices and changing views of their identities as teachers is part of what teacher research brings to my community college students. Another layer is students’ recognition of this shift in power, which is facilitated by my willingness to coconstruct my teaching with my students. To inform my teaching, I draw from Rinaldi (2006), who uses her practice from Reggio Emilia to show how looking at visual documentation is a form of listening to children that builds collaborative inquiry. Further, from qualitative research—the methodological grounding for teacher research—I draw from work such as Gilligan, Spencer, Weinberg, and Bertsch (2003), who, similar to Rinaldi, use the metaphor of listening. They characterize how reading and rereading interview transcripts allows researchers to really listen to the data so that they can challenge assumptions and learn from the study participants.
Thus, I contend that teacher research creates a context in which the voices of early childhood community college students become visible, especially to the teacher researchers themselves. The data they collect reveal to the teachers, and tell me as their instructor, what they pay attention to. For example, the choices they make about what to photograph reveal what they have done and how children benefit from their projects. Further, their completed teacher research reports provide a culminating perspective on what they have learned, how that learning has influenced their practice, and how children have benefitted. Holly, who has been a Head Start lead teacher for five years, talked about her teacher research on supporting children in foster care:
I really broke it down to why—what was going on with [the children] and my reflections on how I could help them—even if I was jotting in the journals things like, ”This happened today,” or ”They saw mom,” or ”They were going back and forth through foster homes,” or whatever [...] There were so many things that I could reflect upon.
Misti, the veteran preschool teacher mentioned earlier, also noted that she saw how the routines built into research practices required by her teacher research project supported children’s learning. She said,
I had never really thought about intentional teaching until this class. I was thinking that everything you do is intentional. But it’s not. I didn’t realize that, and that was a good thing for me to figure out. To be specific and intentional and to see how much information you can draw from to explore and create for children is important, and I had not thought about that.
Jennifer, who was new to the field and doing her practicum in a Head Start classroom, discussed her teacher research about when and where prosocial play happens. Her revelation was learning how to observe and facilitate by being present without always stepping in to manage children’s interactions. She noticed how the research practice of closely observing children changed her approach, saying,
It made me jump in less to what they were doing. It forced me to step back and know that the situation was going to be fine. I was observing, so I didn’t want to step in, anyway. But had I not been observing, I might have stepped in quicker and might never have known that they would be fine [without my intervention]. I gave them the opportunity to figure it out.
Early childhood teacher research literature underscores the benefits of teacher research that results in teacher empowerment through the generation of knowledge by teachers and the opportunity for teacher voices to be heard (Meier & Henderson 2007; Katz 2012; Lytle 2012; Perry, Henderson, & Meier 2012; Stremmel 2012). To paraphrase an old riddle, “If community college students in early childhood teacher education speak and no one is listening, do they have a voice?” I have observed how teacher research sets up expectations and routines in community college classrooms that build teacher voice, as well as engaged conversations among peers and with me as their instructor. When they inquire into their own work as teachers, early childhood educators speak with clear, confident, knowing voices. When they engage in the systematic and critical practices of teacher research, these students also become generators of knowledge, learning how to question their assumptions and their practice with young children. Thus, teacher research provides a framework for early childhood community college students to make use of the power they have to improve the lives of the children in their classrooms. Every semester my belief in the importance of teacher research in teacher education is validated by what my students have to say. They express confidence, growth, determination, and hope. As Melinda, who has been a preschool teacher for 10 years in an early childhood program, said,
I was a little nervous because I had never done anything like this before, but I think it is one of the best things I remember doing in school. I’m serious. I like to learn, maybe that’s why. It was so … what is the word I am looking for? Enlightening!
Heidi, who has been a family child care provider for 15 years, working with infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children, had the same level of enthusiasm that arose from a sense that she could be an agent of change. She observed,
It’s like a circle. It’s like a waterwheel. If you put something positive in, it’s going to come back to you. That way, anytime the child is here, if I give them something positive they can bring that back to the next place, be it home or wherever they go.
Amber, the preschool teacher mentioned earlier who has been teaching for five years, provides another voice of hope, power, and collaboration. She noted,
Some teachers complain a lot. Change something! Let’s change something. Let’s do something different. Let’s see if it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. We will try something else. That’s the fun part about it. We all learn in the process together, us with the children. We all learn together.
In my own practice, embracing teacher research is the most important change I have ever made to my teaching. As this article demonstrates, my students have provided me with evidence that teacher research helps the field of early childhood education address some of our most basic concerns about lifelong professional development, providing the highest quality teaching to all children, and raising our profile and level of professionalism as a field. Community colleges educate the vast majority of early childhood teachers, and our students are eager for a pedagogical stance that values and builds upon their wisdom as practitioners. I have seen through my own practice at Cape Cod Community College that teacher research is possible, and it has positively transformed my practice and our program.
Caporrimo, R. 2008. “Community College Students: Perceptions and Paradoxes.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 32 (1): 25–37.
Cochran-Smith, M., & S.L. Lytle. 1993. Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge. Language and Literacy series. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cochran-Smith, M., & S.L. Lytle. 2009. Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation. Practitioner Inquiry series. New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J.  1997. How We Think. Mineola, NY: Dover.
Gilligan, C., R. Spencer, M.K. Weinberg, & T. Bertsch. 2003. “On the Listening Guide: A Voice-Centered Relational Method.” In Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design, eds. P.M. Camic, J.E. Rhodes, & L. Yardley, 157–72. Washington, DC: American
Katz, L. 2012. “Developing Professional Insight.” In Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting, and Learning From Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers), eds. G. Perry, B. Henderson, & D.R. Meier, 127–32. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Lytle, S.L. 2012. “Some Thoughts on Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education.” In Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting, and Learning From Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers), eds. G. Perry, B. Henderson, & D.R. Meier, 195–202. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Supporting Teacher Research
Meier, D.R., & B. Henderson. 2007. Learning From Young Children in the Classroom: The Art and Science of Teacher Research. New York: Teachers College Press.
Miller, M.T., M.L. Pope, & T.D. Steinmann. 2004. “Dealing With the Challenges and Stressors Faced by Community College Students: The Old College Try.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 29 (1): 63–74.
Perry, G., B. Henderson, & D.R. Meier, eds. 2012. Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting, and Learning From Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers). Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Porchea, S.F., J. Allen, S. Robbins, & R.P. Phelps. 2010. “Predictors of Long-Term Enrollment and Degree Outcomes for Community College Students: Integrating Academic, Psychosocial, Socio-Demographic, and Situational Factors.” Journal of Higher Education 81 (6): 750–78.
Rinaldi, C. 2006. In Dialogue With Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching, and Learning. Contesting Early Childhood series. New York: Routledge.
Stremmel, A.J. 2012. “Reshaping the Landscape of Early Childhood Teaching Through Teacher Research.” In Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting, and Learning From Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers), eds. G. Perry, B. Henderson, & D.R. Meier, 107–16. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Debra G. Murphy, PhD, is professor of early childhood education at Cape Cod Community College, in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. She is president-elect of ACCESS (Associate Degree Early Childhood Teacher Educators) and an executive editor of Voices of Practitioners. She has participated in several teacher research panel presentations at NAEYC conferences. Debra has been assigning teacher research to students in her courses for the past seven years and has been conducting her own teacher research on the process. firstname.lastname@example.org