My life as a Teacher-Powered Researcher

By Sara Kemper • May 17, 2018

Earlier this year, Julie Cook published a compelling post about her complicated relationship with teaching—one that ultimately led her to a long-term career at Souderton Charter School Collaborative.

I was the teacher who left.

Bewildered by the unrelenting demands of the job, and not impermeable to the demoralized banter of my colleagues, I left my 5th grade teaching post—and the teaching profession—after just two years. Strangely, I even insisted to my now-husband that he not let me teach again. Somehow I knew that I would want to.

The Costs and Benefits of Teaching

That’s the funny thing about teaching. In his landmark and remarkably-still-relevant 1975 book, Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie calls the job “special but shadowed.” It holds so much promise—the opportunity to help young people to self-actualize, instill in them a passion for learning, and remove barriers to their success.

And yet, historically, the costs of teaching have outweighed the benefits for far too many novice and seasoned teachers alike. It is exhausting, and often lonely. Success is hard to come by, and much more difficult to measure. In many schools, pressure to “cover content” disincentivizes the personalization and adaptiveness that enrich learning experiences for students and teachers alike. And although we love to “appreciate” teachers, our society doesn’t really respect them. Anyone who has ever referred to themselves, or been referred to by others, as “just a teacher” knows what I mean.

When a teacher weighs these pros and cons and ultimately decides to leave, students and schools suffer a range of consequences—a fact of which I am now painfully aware. Fortunately, Lortie’s bleak depiction of teaching isn’t universally accurate. There are entire education systems around the world that operate under completely different norms around teachers’ work (perhaps Finland’s being most well-known). And here in the U.S., the vast diversity of educational options means that pockets of divergence in teachers’ work life emerge when you go looking for them—so that’s exactly what I did.

So puzzled by my own experience of being simultaneously allured and repelled by the teaching profession, and so dismayed by the consequences of turnover for young people, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota in education policy and leadership. I knew that teachers were immensely important to students’ success in school. What I wanted to know was how to build a teaching profession that truly honored that importance. A profession that was sustainable and sustaining.

Discovering Teacher-Powered Schools

Just over a year into my studies, the first annual Teacher-Powered Schools national conference was held in Minneapolis. One of my professors forwarded a request for volunteers: work the registration booth in the morning, and attend the afternoon sessions free of charge. I didn’t know about TPS at the time, but was curious enough to sign up.

As a conference observer, I was struck by the passion with which participating teachers spoke about their work. Discussions about developing students as independent learners, critical thinkers, and good citizens focused on possibilities, not roadblocks. Presentations highlighted innovative strategies for making decisions inclusively and efficiently. The allure of teachers’ jobs was quite apparent, but the negativity—the overwhelming sense of defeat I had witnessed and experienced in my own teaching days—was gone.

By the end of that day, I had a research topic.

Fast forward two and a half years and I’m nearing completion of a mixed methods, multi-site study on the professional work life of teachers in Teacher-Powered Schools. My research considers the role of collective teacher decision-making authority in teachers’ workplace “vitality,” a term I use for the combination of teachers’ retention in the profession, their enthusiasm for the work they do, and the energy to keep getting better at it.

It’s premature to report my findings here (though I do hope to be able to share them soon!) but for me, the research process itself has been instructive. I was fortunate to spend a week at each of three Teacher-Powered Schools—one on each coast and one in the Midwest, representing a range of autonomy arrangements. (I have kept school names confidential to protect participants’ identities.)

I observed teachers working with students and colleagues, and interviewed them about their careers and work experiences. I then surveyed about 350 teachers in 40 Teacher-Powered Schools across the country. From my perspective as a former teacher and an educational researcher, three things stood out to me throughout the research process. In my experience, TPS teachers:

Had time for me.
I mean this both literally and figuratively. I was surprised to find that teachers at all three school sites—some more so than others—had below-average teaching loads (not to be confused, necessarily, with work loads). This also meant that they had considerable unstructured time throughout the school day to meet one-on-one with students, collaborate with colleagues, and speak with the occasional graduate student researcher.

Furthermore, they were eager to contribute to my research—seeing our interviews as opportunities to “get the word out” about their schools and about Teacher-Powered Schools more generally. In essence, the teachers I spoke with—though candid about the challenges they faced in their work—were generally proud stewards of the schools they had helped to shape. Knowing how difficult it can be to convince teachers to participate in research, I felt fortunate to have found willing participants in TPS teachers!

Embraced their imperfections.
Teachers are constantly being judged by non-teachers: school leaders, instructional coaches, district officials, parents, reporters, politicians, researchers, and even students themselves. Everyone has an opinion on teachers’ work and why they are or aren’t “performing,” presumably because everyone has had first-hand experience in K-12 schools.

It is no wonder, then, that teachers can be suspicious of observers who don’t really, truly understand the context in which observations occur. I can’t really, truly understand teachers’ contexts, either, so I was surprised that teachers seemed so unphased by my presence in their classrooms and work spaces. I learned that, in the schools I visited, observations were just a normal part of life for teachers. Being observed meant feedback and new ideas, not judgment; it meant community, not shame and blame. The observation cultures I witnessed seemed to reflect “open-door policies” in which teachers felt comfortable displaying their imperfections, seeing them as opportunities for growth and not as damning signs of ineffectiveness.

Craved improvement.
For the most part, the teachers I met seemed genuinely curious about my project and were interested in hearing about what I was learning. They understood the challenges they faced as inherent to teaching, and hoped that my observations would help them view those challenges in a different light. Whether I succeed in that regard is still up for debate, but the fact that teachers were poised to make changes when problems became apparent distinguished them from most other teachers I have spoken with in the past. With time during the day to problem-solve, a cultural openness to change, and the collective authority to translate ideas into actions, teachers had become accustomed to improvement. As a researcher, I could be an important source of insight into the improvement process.

Of course, these were impressions—not research findings. And as a good researcher would, I should not generalize to all teachers in all schools I visited, nor all Teacher-Powered Schools for that matter. But as I reflect on my research experience, I am inspired by the teachers I observed and spoke with. I could see myself in their shoes: challenged but not depleted, proud but not self-defensive, determined but not demoralized.

I’m still not sure if teaching is the right career for me, but I can say for sure that I’m putting the option back on the table.

Sara Kemper is a doctoral student researching teacher-powered schools at the University of Minnesota.