How to become a teacher-researcher and change education

As a teacher-researcher, you can help to shape the future of education - but how do you get involved?

Charlotte Dawson

Education research: How to become a teacher-researcher

For the past three years, since beginning a master's in educational leadership, I have been involved in teaching alongside academic writing and research.

My research has been presented at conferences in Japan, Hawaii and Finland, and one of my co-authored articles recently won an Outstanding Paper award at the Teaching, Colleges and Community conference.

Perhaps you are interested in doing something similar but are not sure where to start? Or have never thought about it but the above has piqued your interest? Here are some key things to know to begin your journey into the world of teaching and research.

What is a teacher-researcher?

It may sound fancy but a teacher-researcher is essentially any educator interested in reflecting on their practice and that of others around them.

These practitioners usually have one or two areas that they are passionate about, such as digital learning or outdoor education, which they then research more on to find new methods of teaching, learning, assessment, engagement – anything that improves overall education outcomes.

The key skill is being able to step back and consider why things happen, then relating it to what others say. 

Why become a teacher-researcher?

It’s important to link academic research and theories to the real-life context of classrooms. A great university lecturer once said that education should promote the empowerment of teachers, who are encouraged to be creative and collaborative critical thinkers.

The purpose of teacher-research is to provide an "authentic context that values the essential contribution of professional educators".

In short – real teachers being involved means the academic theory and research is grounded in reality and can be turned into useful, actionable insights and strategies in the classroom.

This is why teacher-researchers are so powerful – we can make a real difference.

Getting started in teacher research

So you’ve decided that you want to get involved with teacher research. What next? First of all, it's important to read around your topic.

The best sources for this are those with an academic background, such as journals or sources affiliated with universities, such as books or massive open online courses (MOOCs). Depending on your interests, you may start somewhere like this course offered by the University of Derby.

The costs vary greatly, from annual subscriptions to free information, so be sure to look around and consider which is worth investing in. This will also give you an idea of what academic writing looks and feels like.

The great thing about teacher research is that you are in control. You choose the questions, you work out who to ask and you also decide how you are going to gather data.

You may already be affiliated with a university that can offer you guidance with this or you might independently approach a journal with a completed paper, such as I recently did here.

How to carry out your research

The research you carry out can take many different formats, from a short Google Forms survey, to a recorded interview. Some data samples focus on real-life, lived experiences – this is called qualitative research, whilst other studies examine trends on a larger scale (quantitative research).

Once you have collected the data, then analysis can begin. You can interpret and present your findings in a number of ways – at a conference, via a submission to a journal or perhaps internally at your school and then online.

Indeed, I would definitely suggest reaching out to others in the field. Social media is an excellent place to start.

It’s always best to begin with some informal chats with your colleagues first. You never know, perhaps they are willing to join you in carrying out some research.

To begin, set up a simple Twitter page and start contacting similar-minded professionals, but be warned, once you begin exploring, you may never teach in the same way again!

Be active and engaged

One tip I have learned is to say "yes!". Attend every event that interests you, apply to present your ideas at conferences and don’t be afraid to engage with leaders in your chosen field.You never know what opportunities will open up.

This is exactly how our research group came into existence. Theories and discussions were exchanged between lecturers, professors and students, which eventually grew into an interwoven network.

Along with our 20-plus publications, we were also recently invited to join an international team of professors to present an episode of Silver Lining for Learning.

Further down the line, you may want to share your findings in a paper or at a conference, but the great thing is that being a teacher means you definitely have the skills for this already.

Successful teacher research

As mentioned above, the best researchers do not exist alone, and form networks based on the topics they focus on, or their location, such as this group in the United Arab Emirates.

Being open to conflicting findings, perhaps through a "critical friend", ensures that research is grounded in both theory and practice. This kind of quality control is also carried out in the form of a peer review. 

Achieving publication in a journal can also be time-consuming, so patience and determination are required.

But, most importantly, never be discouraged and remember that your findings will be interesting and important to the right reader – and potentially benefit pupils all around the world.

Charlotte Dawson is an early years teacher in Dubai. She has taught internationally for eight years and is completing a master’s degree in educational leadership at Tampere University of Applied Sciences in Finland

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