(Name of contributor held by web authors)
My response to your invitation to share my experience of self-study action research:
“How can I teach in a way that ensures no student is left feeling isolated or marginalised in my classroom?”
I am a NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) currently working as a Business Studies and Maths Teacher. I obtained my undergraduate degree, a BA (Hons) in Education, Business Studies and Religious Studies in St. Patrick’s College, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. A very significant part of this programme was the emphasis that was placed on the importance of reflective and reflexive practice.
During the first years of my degree programme, I openly admit I was naive and never fully engaged with reflective practice. Reflexive practice was practically non-existent in my case. I saw the only purpose of my reflections as being to fill up more space in my School Placement folder (I completed three school placements in St. Pat’s, in second year, third year and fourth year). As regards my school placements, my reflections in second year and third year served their purpose to a point; I achieved a very high 2.1 honours grade in second year and I obtained a 1.1 honours grade in third year. However, something was still not adding up for me as I finished my school placement in third year.
During my three school placements I taught in two schools. One school was mainstream and the other was located in a disadvantaged inner city area, and I completed my placements in third and fourth year here in this inner city school. This school is also the school in which I currently work. In all my placements I witnessed extremely disadvantaged students who were being marginalised by society, their communities and their education. I taught students who openly admitted to having no interest or desire get an education or to learn. Many of them had one purpose in life; survival. They did not factor education into their life. Education was something they struggled with, and many of them were not helped by the fact that they had SENs (Special Education Needs) which only served to exclude these students even further.
While I was experienced success personally while on my school placements, I still knew that I was not helping these students as well as I could have been. I was still not making education relevant or accessible to them. I struggled to manage the classroom at times, because their lack of motivation and interest frequently led to discipline issues in the classroom, some of which I would classify as quite serious incidents. However, at the end of third year in college I was required to engage with an Action Research Project which allowed me to research my own teaching practices in relation to an area of education that interested me. The obvious area for me was disadvantage and inequality in education.
In third year I conducted a Literature Review and I analysed retention rates and the definition of ‘disadvantage’ in relation to education. However, in fourth year I used my school placement to question the difference I could make in seeking to focus specifically on my teaching of four particular students. I asked myself the question “How can I teach in a way that will include these four individual students into my lessons?”. These students were chosen randomly; one had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), one had EBD (Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties), another was a native of India who spoke no English and the fourth student was a member of the travelling community. My research documented my attempts to include these students into my lessons over my final five week school placement in January/February 2013.
I think it’s fair to say that I had more failures than success with these four students. I managed to successfully improve my own practices around including the student from the Travelling Community, by taking his prior knowledge and experience into account. As regards the other three students, I had some minor successes but overall I failed to include these students over the five week placement. However, these failures have been the best thing to ever happen to my teaching career to date.
My Research taught me that nothing occurs in isolation. Inequality in education is not occurring because of one or two factors, it is occurring because of a huge number of factors. What I find interesting is that these factors often feed into each other. For example, when I began analysing inequality I began to find that many students were being isolated because their behaviour made them very difficult to manage. In some cases the student’s behaviour could be linked back to his/her SEN. My student who had ADHD was difficult to manage at two o’clock in the afternoon because of the consumption of large amounts of sugar which made the condition worse.
I began to learn that discipline issues tend to arise from a lack of motivation, and that lack of motivation is a combination of finding school a challenge and often inaccessible to these students, as well as these students having little or no parental involvement or interest in their education. Furthermore, sociological concepts such as the Restricted Code became apparent to me; most of these students had poor literacy and numeracy skills and often did not understand what was being asked of them, because, as teachers, we tend to speak the ‘Elaborate Code’. To top it all off, most of the students are further marginalised by their Special Education Needs which only make an already difficult situation even more difficult.
Many people have commented about the validity of my research. I believe that it is valid simply because it is valid to me, and to the teachers I worked with on my school placement and with whom I am currently working again. We all deal with these students every day. From my duties as a Year Head of Second Year students, it is obvious to me that my research has become more valid than ever. For example, recently I had the French and Irish teacher approach me about one of the second years who was causing a lot of discipline issues in Irish and French classes. I decided to sit down and have a chat with this student to ask why he was misbehaving in French and Irish but not in any other classes. His reply was that he struggled in these classes and that ‘I haven’t a clue what’s going on in those classes’. This conversation finished with me discovering that this student had been diagnosed with severe dyslexia in primary school, but nobody had made his current school aware of it until he had told me. While there is a clear lack of parental support in this case, I managed to get his mother to source a letter confirming his condition which hopefully will allow us to allocate him resource hours moving forward. More importantly, this new piece of knowledge has been shared amongst the teaching staff, and hopefully this shared praxis will allow this student to be included more effectively in all of his classes because teachers can now put strategies and methodologies in place to meet his needs more effectively.
That simple example highlights the validity of this type of research. It also highlights the clear link between equality and equity. For this student to be properly included we, as a staff group, needed to identify his needs. Now that we have identified his needs, i.e. he has dyslexia; we can go about helping him and making him become part of the class again, rather than being marginalised. This demonstrates to me how equity feeds equality, and if we want equality in our classrooms we need to first practice equity in order to meet individual needs. To me this means we need to engage in differentiation, work with IEPs (Individual Education Plans) and plan how ware going to use the IEPs to facilitate differentiation to occur. I have found that prevention is better than the cure as regards discipline issues; differentiation and constructivism are the broad prevention measures I use. In simple terms I believe that providing students with opportunities to become involved and motivated greatly reduces discipline issues in the classroom, and this is done through differentiation. Strategies, resources and methodologies are all derived from differentiation.
The Action Research Project I completed in fourth year was the best thing I have ever done regarding my teaching career. I play a lot of sport, and a huge part of sport is trying to find that extra inch or extra percent that gives me the edge over the man I’m marking or playing against. It’s about trying to be that step faster, jump that inch higher, kick the ball that little bit more accurately and improve as a footballer every day I train. If I impose that analogy on my teaching career, action research has helped me to begin searching for that extra percent that may make education more accessible to my students and that improves me as a teacher. It has helped me include some students up to this point and I strongly believe that through reflective and reflexive practice it will help me to make a difference to my students in the future.
The reality is I have used reflective and reflexive practices every day since starting teaching in this school again. It has become a way of being for me. I am constantly learning and will continue to do so until the day I finally walk out of the classroom for the last time. I might not be writing every single thing down on paper but I do make notes which will benefit my students and myself in the future. My role as a Year Head in particular is allowing me to start trying to make a difference by involving parents in their children’s education. I also work with social workers, my colleagues and most importantly my students and these partnerships are crucial to the holistic development of these students. My action research has informed my practices but it does not end there. In fact I believe it is only the beginning and it will never be finite.
To conclude, my research began by focusing on inequality in education but it became clear to me that this umbrella term incorporated every single aspect of education from equity and equality to differentiation and planning and preparation. My self-study action research project was the time in my initial teacher education where the light switch flicked on for me as regards my own philosophy of education. It linked together everything that I had covered in college for the four years and gave me a great base from which I could go out and launch my teaching career. I’d like to say it has made me the teacher I am today but the reality is I’m a novice in this profession and it is far too early to make a statement as strong as that. However I do believe that, in time, it will be a statement that I will undoubtedly make with confidence.
(Name of contributor held by web authors)