Educator Anthony Cody of Oakland, Calif., whose article “Two Ways to Lead” is featured in the October 2013 issue of Educational Leadership, shares some insights on uncertainty and teacher inquiry.
In teaching, as in everything, it is hard not to search for silver bullets and sure answers. But as Anna Richert, founder of the Mills Teacher Scholars, says, “Teaching is uncertain work.” This outlook guides the Oakland, Calif. teachers who, as part of the Mills Teacher Scholars program, work in teams to engage in active inquiry regarding their teaching.
At a Teacher Inquiry Summit held last May, I heard from some teachers at Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA), a small K–8 school in East Oakland and a Mills Teacher Scholars partner. For these teachers, uncertainty begins with the very question teachers are going to focus on for their inquiry. Marijke Conklin, who teaches at MLA, explains:
I taught for four years prior to coming to MLA. My first year here, the idea of inquiry was presented to me, and I thought, “What should I study?” It wasn’t until the middle of the year that I knew what I wanted to figure out in my classroom. That was a real light bulb for me as a teacher leader. It wasn’t someone telling me, “You need to achieve this and come back with X result.” It was me driving the process, developing my voice.
This stance is made transparent to the students as well, which shifts the dynamics and gives students a new voice. Another MLA teacher, Robyn Chevalier-Hall, explains:
As a teacher, if I’m OK to ask a question, I’m OK if I don’t have the answer in my classroom. . . . Because I feel comfortable acting as a learner myself with my peers, then I’m OK with my students doing it as well.
The idea of uncertainty carries over into some surprising areas, as Marijke Conklin explains:
We use restorative justice at our school, and in this inquiry process, you as the teacher are uncertain about some things. . . . You don’t know the whole story about kids, and there’s some searching and digging and uncovering to do to know exactly what’s going on for them. We have a commitment as a staff to that kind of relationship to discipline as well—thinking about how you get to the root of where the harm is coming from, talking it through with children, knowing we don’t have “the answer”—so suspending [kids] isn’t necessarily going to be the solution. We have to look deeply at the systems at our school.
In this way, the inquiry stance is one that permeates the school, and every dilemma is a chance to investigate and try out new ways of responding creatively to students’ needs. Although uncertainty may be seen as an obstacle to action, in these teachers’ work, it is an opening that creates new opportunities for learning and growth.
In the October issue of Educational Leadership, I offer a more in-depth look at the exciting work of the Mills Teacher Scholars and how this work encourages collaboration among teacher leaders.