Teachers are rarely allowed to question, experiment, and critique the routines and approaches they use. They are most often the recipients, not creators, of the research that guides their profession, but the July "Let Teachers Talk" conference at University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education was different.
The conference began and ended with a panel of teachers from Hartford, New Britain, New London, Norwich, Waterbury and Windham who presented their own original research to a room full of PhDs and national experts. Such investment in teachers as experts will improve the study and practice of teaching, and it will bridge the disconnection between saying teachers are important and treating them that way.
These teachers had recently completed graduate work in bilingual education and were presenting their research to researchers and teachers in their communities. Many are bilingual themselves, and community members in the towns where they work, with decades of experience between them. In fact, I didn't realize, until they introduced themselves, that they were full-time teachers, not just "experts" on bilingual education. Their passion, articulate message, and the use of evidence in their arguments were cut from the same impressive cloth as the world-renowned guest speaker who introduced them. As applause for the last panelist faded it occurred to me: This is exactly the role a school of education should play in a state that values expert teaching.
In a state that values teachers, improving teacher preparation isn't enough. There is also a need to reach back out to practicing teachers: to learn from what they know, and to offer them access to perspectives that might enhance their expertise.
Teachers are rarely viewed as experts. Many work for schools that have been labeled struggling or failing. Many have never presented their own research findings or published their work. Teachers in general are "trained" to work "in the trenches," where they need to be "evaluated" and given constant "professional development" by outside experts. Many of them have to clock in and out of their workdays and ask permission to take breaks or depart from mandated routines. Many of them have little control over who or what they teach year to year. They are managed from above by a hierarchy that reinforces that top-down relationship. And yet, individual teachers are the difference between each student's educational opportunity or failure.
If we take seriously the central tenet of the state's recent education reforms, that teachers are the single most important school-based factor in student success, then we must also take seriously the idea that there is a disconnect between this belief and the traditional way teachers are positioned. If not all teachers are as thoughtful and insightful as those on the panel; it is not because they are incapable of it. It's because they are too often only expected to quietly absorb information from guest speakers at "professional development" days and workshops where outside experts tell them how to do their jobs, often with little context for who they are or what they teach.
As a former middle-school teacher and a current educational researcher I've been on both sides of this awkward relationship. But the role of teacher and researcher should not be so distant. Last month's panel proved teachers are some of the most valuable players within Connecticut's educational research. Their unique perspectives, passion, and daily interactions with students make them a valuable source of insight for everything from teacher preparation to evaluation and development.
That is, if we invite them to be; if we give them the time and support to investigate teaching and learning instead of going through mandated motions designed to hold them accountable for other people's programs.
The value of our teachers was embodied by a teacher panel presenting to a school of education, and fueled by the graduate program that reached out to practicing teachers.
Rachael Gabriel is assistant professor of Reading Education at UConn's Neag School of Education.