Departmental e-mail reflection groups promise to help resolve two of the most pressing problems facing the teaching profession, finding time for meaningful, ongoing professional development (Cook, 1997) and the retention of new teachers (Reed, Reuben, & Barbour, 2006). The ultimate goal of teacher research and all other forms of professional development is learning, learning to be a better teacher. Though learning is often defined as lasting change (Driscoll, 2000), little change occurs in a vacuum. One path to professional development for teachers is personal reflection, but its power to generate meaningful change is limited by the individual teacher’s existing knowledge and experience. On the other hand, meaningful change tends to flourish in cultures defined by rich social interaction (Piirto, 1992). Though classroom teachers can and sometimes do draw inspiration and ideas from other educators (Manning, 2006), practical opportunities for this are much too rare (Selwyn, 2000).
Change is not always perceived to be a good thing, and change for the sake of change rarely is, especially in education. Positive and persisting change in education tends to emerge most often from thoughtful, systematic approaches to learning. A systematic approach to learning is a common definition of research. It follows then that effective professional development for educators requires a systematic approach and access to a richly interactive learning context.
Though the general definition of research enjoys wide acceptance, what constitutes a systematic approach does not. What then is teacher research? Is it one thing or is it many? Recognizing the complex practical realities of teacher research, MacLean and Mohr (1999) define teacher research as any inquiry conducted by teachers that is intentional, systematic, public, voluntary, ethical, and contextual.
Stagnant Momentum and Resistance to Change
The public schools suffer from a history of daunting stagnant momentum, resisting any effort to change, hanging doggedly onto centuries of tradition and precedence. Consequently, though all manner of school reform comes and goes with some regularity, what transpires in schools today is remarkably similar to what went on a hundred years ago. With the single exception of the public schools, most aspects of day to day life in 21st Century America would seem alien and be almost unrecognizable to people living a hundred years ago. Though faces change, textbooks change, buildings change, politics change, and school jargon is revised from time to time, like schools themselves, teaching evolves so slowly that it seems almost set in stone.
Though teaching evolves slowly, it does evolve and improve. However, again and again, it seems educators must relearn that all meaningful and lasting change in the public school emerges from within, from the core. At the core of the public schools is the classroom teacher. Schools are resistant to change, because teachers are resistant to change (Rusch & Perry, 1993). Only when teachers are the agents of change does real and lasting change occur in the public schools.
This chapter forwards the argument that active participation in a private e-mail discussion group can reduce teacher isolation and facilitate the growth of personal and professional relationships within content area departments in secondary schools. It also describes how active membership in an e-mail discussion group successfully transformed one such department into a reflective, supportive, self sustaining, close-knit, and collegial unit, ultimately resulting in lasting cultural, curricular, and instructional reform within the department.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Professional Learning Community: A professional development model involving classroom teachers in study groups, professional dialogues, and other collegial activities.
Stagnant Momentum: The tendency of the status quo to remain the status quo.
Reflective Conservatism: The tendency of teachers to avoid being especially reflective or analytic about their work (Zeichner,1987).
Institutionalized Isolation: Personal and professional isolation resulting from close scheduling and all consuming duties on the job.
E-Mail Reflection Group: An asynchronous, e-mail enabled discussion group formed for the purpose of collective reflection of common experiences.
Action Research: An informal, qualitative, formative, subjective, interpretive, reflective and experiential model of inquiry in which all individuals involved in the study are knowing and contributing participants (Hopkins, 1993).
Professional Dialogues: Conversations between teachers about teaching related issues.
Research: The systematic study of phenomena resulting in new knowledge, skills, or understandings.
Mentoring: A collegial relationship of advice and support provided by an expert teacher to a novice teacher.
Reflective Thinking: A purposeful, thorough consideration and critique of one’s thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions.