How Teaching Helped Me Be a Better Researcher

How Teaching Helped Me Be a Better Researcher

By Emily Green, MA | March 30, 2017
Research Assistant, ETR

"I am a teacher. It's how I define myself. A good teacher isn't someone who gives the answers out to their kids, but is understanding of needs and challenges and gives tools to help other people succeed. That's the way I see myself, so whatever it is that I will do eventually after politics, it'll have to do a lot with teaching."

   -Justin Trudeau

There is something about being a teacher that you carry with you, even if you transition to something else. I didn’t expect to become a K-12 science teacher, but I loved doing it. Now, I find myself being a teacher in everything I do. It gets into your blood. It changes the way you think. And I cannot thank my students enough for changing me in this way.

As a teacher you don’t get to choose who walks through your door, but you do get to help shape the way they walk out of it. The things you say may be carried on through them forever. Most of the time you don’t even know what your impact is.

I think this is also true for many participants in research. Just through the act of surveying or interviewing people, you inadvertently shift their thinking, perhaps shining light into places that had never been illuminated.

From Doing Teaching to Researching Teaching

I had always wanted to do research, and when the opportunity arose at ETR I jumped at it. This meant I left behind doing teaching in order to research it! The transition has been nothing short of wonderful, and the ideas I bring to my new work are shaped, in large part, by the individual relationships I had with my former students. I believe this has helped me better understand my new position, in which I’m doing research on inclusion and equity in STEM education.

Understanding equity and inclusion also means understanding inequity and exclusion. As a teacher, I worked predominately with the alternative education community. My students loved science.

They also happened to be kids who couldn’t sit still, or had reading challenges, or were on the autism spectrum and missed social cues. Even students who were able at age seven to explain the difference between exothermic and endothermic reactions might be described within their traditional classroom as “distracted, disruptive and bored by science.” It became clear to me that standardized education had a long way to go to service all of the students in our educational systems.

Those students taught me how to bring the lessons back to them. Through this lens of their original disengagement, I can see how my new work at ETR might be received on their end.

What's Changed

Here are some ways I’ve been changed by my students that make me a better researcher on equity and inclusion in STEM:

  1. The way I ask questions: It’s always hard to step out of your own reality to encompass someone else’s. Teaching—especially teaching science—means you must always be prepared to learn something from the unlikeliest of places. In research, you try to find the best questions to get subjects to reveal information you didn’t even know existed about concepts you never even thought were related. Scripting questions in and of itself means you become cognizant of your bias and work to eliminate it so you can better step into subjects’ world.
  2. How I view challenges: It can be frustrating when things don’t go your way. But challenges are what make us experienced. They sharpen us. As a teacher, I purposely set specific obstacles for specific students so they could master the lessons they needed.

Now, I see that challenges are making me potent as a researcher. The more I struggle, the faster I progress and the more I see. Setting manageable obstacles was once something that I taught. Now, I practice it!

  1. Assessing “normal”: Normal is a statistical concept used to find averages and assess social phenomena. Some of my students’ skill-sets ranged 6 grade levels between subjects. This made me realize that “normal” is not the goal. I would have had to stifle the best parts of my students to achieve mediocre results somewhere else.

I see this same process as I work on teams here at ETR. No two researchers see the same questions, processes or results. That is not a deficit, but an advantage.

  1. It’s all in the framing: I worked with students who were often considered round pegs being forced into standard education’s square openings. I saw a lot of reductionism in standardization. Getting results, in both teaching and research, is not a linear process that brings you to some singular finish line. It’s iterative and tangential, and the results can say just as much about you as they do about your participants. This means being aware of your bias and expectations, and trying to mitigate that from the moment you frame your project to the point where you share and diffuse your findings.

As I move away from my role as a teacher and settle into my new life as a researcher, I bring experience in from both sides of the table. And while I may differ from Justin Trudeau in many ways, like him, I see that teaching will be one of the lenses I bring with me from now on. I also know that success is not a finish line, but simply the process that keeps us moving forward.

 

Emily Green, MA, is a Research Assistant at ETR working primarily on projects focusing on Equity and Inclusion in STEM. She can be reached at emily.green@etr.org.

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