Teacher + Researcher: How I Engage in Self-Study

A few years ago, in graduate school, I read a study about teacher contact in the classroom that had a powerful impact on me. The findings weren’t new to me, but unlike most research that I had been reading at the time, the data came from Ontario classrooms like mine. The researchers found the following:

  • Teachers talk to boys more than girls
  • Teachers discipline black boys most often
  • White, middle-class boys get more positive contact with a teacher than any other group

The paper was still on my mind when I returned to my school the next fall. I wanted to see if I would have the same dynamic in my classroom. I engaged in a self-study something that I also learned about in graduate school — to examine my practice. I was surprised and dismayed at the patterns that emerged from the exercise. You can find my tweets about the experience below.

In this post I share my strategies and reflections on engaging in self-study as a classroom teacher and why it has become such an important part of my professional life.

Self-Study as a research methodology

Teachers are used to assessing and responding to the needs, patterns and gaps that we observe in our classrooms. Self-study is different. When we engage in self-study we ask questions like: what am I doing, why am I doing it, what do my action mean, what do those actions create/perpetuate for my students or in the world.

I have been using self-study as my primary tool to engage in equity work in the classroom. When I learn about larger patterns of injustice and inequitable distribution of resources in schools — specifically time, attention, and opportunities — I ask “how am I part of this problem?” (more on this question later)

When I learned about self-study as a research methodology for teachers and teacher educators it stretched the boundaries of what I held as real research and real knowledge. My STEM-trained mind had a hard time letting go of hierarchies of knowledge and a dedication to “objectivity”, but the rest of me was in awe of the humane ideas at the core of the methodology. Self-study as a research practice is rooted in teacher inquiry, reflective practice, and action research. That is to say: it is done without an outside researcher, it encourages us to be reflective and critical of our own practice, and it is aimed at solving problems.

The How

There are lots of ways to engage in self-study. No matter what the execution looks like for you, I think any effective self-study process should:

  1. have a clear focus: address 1 specific practice/dynamic
  2. be systematic: observe, reflect, change, reflect, repeat
  3. be honest: you will learn difficult things about yourself, that is precisely the point
  4. include feedback from others and external artifacts 
  5. result in professional and personal change

A clear focus: What is the question that you want to answer? For me, self-study is always about how I am implicated in a larger, systemic problem (because we all are).  If I am thinking about streaming and know that students from particular groups are disproportionately streamed away from the most rigorous pathways, I ask “who am I recommending for each stream?”

The question is not “am I discriminating?” or “am I a bad person”. The question is always “what am I doing?”

Be systematic: Your inquiry should begin with an observation phase. Track your behaviour in any way that is natural to you and suitable for the question at hand. I would not recommend walking around with a clipboard and tallying throughout the day or anything that would disrupt your normal practice. When I was tracking student contact, I spent some time at the beginning of each break (prep period, lunch, after school) running through the interactions that I had and mentally noting patterns. This process may have been aided by note-taking but I know myself, I don’t like to journal or write down my reflections with any kind of regularity. Requiring this would have deterred me from engaging in the process. I do, as a habit, take quiet moments to mentally reflect throughout the day, so I built the self-study into that practice.

I observe myself for about 1 week. I reflect on what I have observed to determine 2 or 3 changes in my behaviour (actions, speech, routines) that I could make to address the issue, then I commit to those changes for another week or so. After I have incorporated the new behaviours and they stop feeling like a conscious effort, I observe myself and my classroom with new eyes. Are these actions addressing the issue? How do I feel? What changes do I notice in myself in relation to my students? What changes do I notice in my students in relation to my new behaviour?

If I don’t know how to address the issue, I ask other teachers for their best practices or resources.

After a few rounds of this I settle on 1 or 2 of actions/behaviours/practices/routines that I have found beneficial and stick with them for the rest of the semester or year. I have found it’s best to pick only 1 or 2 things to actively commit to because as classroom teachers we are constantly learning, experimenting and being creative with our pedagogy, we can only do so much in a day! Also, since self-study is about both professional and personal growth, the reflection that you engage in will be more emotionally draining than assessing the effectiveness of a new instructional strategy. Which takes us to the next point.

Be honest: The most difficult and important part of the initial observation phase is being honest while withholding judgment. For any kind of growth or change to happen, we must have a clear picture of our current state. Just watch yourself and, as much as you can, don’t deconstruct your behaviour yet. Negative or troubling patterns will emerge. The presupposition of self-study is that there are ways that you can improve and, friends, not every improvement is about moving from good to great. Be open to the reality that your actions may betray your values or best intentions.

Value judgments about your actions come in the reflection phase. Lean on your support networks. Fight defensiveness, fight shame, fight ego.

Include feedback from others and external artifacts: Despite the name, collaboration is an important part of self-study. Find a colleague or another educator to serve as your critical friend in the process. In the past, I have turned to friends who were not teachers, but in caring professions and interested in accompanying me on the journey.

With respect to artifacts, take an honest look at whatever you have on hand. Review all of your report card comments with a researcher’s eye; see how many and what kinds of emails you are sending to parents and administrators about your students; take another look at the feedback comments you have put on the most recent batch of assignments; review your seating plans. We leave lots of evidence about our thoughts and beliefs in the artifacts of our work.

Professional and personal change: Self-study is deeply personal. It is not just about changing our practice, it is about changing ourselves.


Not if but how I am part of the problem

Early in my career I assumed that my good intentions, and in fact my very identity, would insulate me from being “part of the problem”. Asking myself Am I part of the problem? was a radical act at the beginning of my self-study journey. Today, I know that the more honest question is How am I part of the problem?

The most important lesson that I have learned through studying myself is that when we join a system, the inertia of the system implicates us all. If inequity is built into a system and we are the agents of that system, we will be the agents of inequity unless we are actively pushing against it.

I use self-study so that I am better able to push back.


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