Sometimes the most powerful way to conduct research is to put it in action.
This is exactly how doctoral candidate Erica Gilbertson hopes to address a critical need to build a system of high-quality support for new teachers.
With the help of an action research team consisting of three faculty members in the Mary Frances Early College of Education, three Clarke County School District (CCSD) administrators and a policy analyst, Gilbertson designed several interventions to help new teachers navigate a particularly challenging school year due to the pandemic.
In collaboration with the study, Michael Harris—the former executive director for talent management of the CCSD—formed a new teacher orientation (NTO) team to design, implement and evaluate the district’s induction program.
Action research is a method used for improving organizations through change, evaluation and critical reflection. Based on the evidence gathered, positive interventions are then implemented and studied.
“The induction action research study has been a powerful and rewarding learning journey,” said Gilbertson, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education’s department of lifelong education, administration and policy. “The NTO team sustained momentum and commitment, despite the pandemic, because we all believe so passionately that new teachers need multiple layers of support to succeed in their transition from pre-service to in-service teaching.”
Throughout spring and summer of 2020, the NTO team met every two weeks to design a virtual NTO for 175 new teachers in the CCSD. With the help of College of Education faculty members Sonia Janis, Amy Murphy, Sara Kajder and Kathy Thompson, Gilbertson and Harris used two years of data collected from teacher surveys, focus groups, NTO observations and more to determine what topics teachers are most interested in learning about professionally, as well as the best support systems for their classrooms.
Across the board, the team found that school-based supportive and collaborative learning communities are a priority for new teachers, as well as content-based professional learning, classroom management, social emotional learning, digital teaching and diversity and equity issues.
“One of the major things we wanted to accomplish was to study how a partnership between a school district and a university or college of education could work together to address a particular problem,” said Janis, a clinical associate professor in the department of mathematics, science and social studies education. “We wanted to support the NTO team by modeling how to help new teachers feel like they are part of a community, so the new teachers could help their students feel like they're a part of a community too.”
Prior to NTO, Janis and Kajder developed and implemented a workshop focused on online facilitation and group facilitation to help CCSD instructional coaches, lead teachers and behavioral specialists create and facilitate school-based learning communities for new teachers.
Because data from the research study showed that diversity and equity issues were important topics for new teachers, clinical assistant professor Morgan Faison in the department of educational theory and practice designed and developed an online equity module for CCSD. She also led an equity workshop for NTO facilitators to prepare them for conversations about equity with new teachers, as well as an equity session for all new teachers during NTO.
Overall, teachers reported receiving an overwhelmingly positive learning experience after taking part in the NTO and that the orientation provided them with valuable resources to help them make positive connections with other teachers.
“A key finding from our study was that new teachers want to collaborate with other teachers in supportive learning communities, so we stayed focused on that in all of the work we did together,” said Gilbertson. “Our goal was to help new teachers thrive, so they stay in the profession, and ultimately, have a positive impact on P-12 student learning.”
In the future, those involved in the study hope to collaborate with CCSD to implement more induction support interventions based on their findings. Ideas include creating communities of practice for induction teachers; designing and implementing dedicated professional learning days at each school for mentor-mentee pairs to observe teachers; engaging in professional learning and plan lessons; and offering content-based professional learning for new teachers.
“The action research process cultivated investment in the UGA-CCSD collaboration and resulted in program improvement and learning for all involved,” said Gilbertson. “I am excited about the transformative power of collaborative action research to make systemic change, and I hope to lead more action research studies in P-12 school districts in the future.”