Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Action Research Course


Joy Earle

As vice-principal of a large high school I deal with many things in the run of a year. Lates, attendance, suspensions, expulsions, physical assaults, threats, harassment, racial incidents, maintenance problems, environment problems, buses, mediations, student government, graduation and prom activities, dances, trips, committees, strategic planning, school advisory councils, drug and alcohol problems affecting both students and staff, emotional problems of both students and staff, registration, staffing, budgeting, electrical failures, fires, bomb scares, stink bombs, illness and death of students and staff, etc. For the most part I try to solve problems in a way I feel is equitable to all parties involved. You gain experience in solving a multitude of problems, get used to what you do, and realize you never know what will happen from one day to the next.

When our action research course started we were asked to pick critical incidents -- I understood a critical incident to mean something that happened in the work day that caused me to sit back and take notice, to make me think, or something that was problematic or puzzling to me. Although I deal with many different types of problems, over my three years in the vice-principal's job one thing has always bothered me -- the difficulties some teachers have in creating a positive learning environment for their students. What happens in the classroom is critical in having a successful school. I believe if good things go on in classrooms the positive feeling created spreads to every corner of the school.

I wanted a quick answer to this problem. I knew that it could not be solved easily, but felt I should be able to do something to help develop positive relationships between teachers and students. I felt sorry for teachers who were having problems and lucky that in my years of teaching I had not had many conflicts with students. I wanted to help teachers relate to students in a positive way. I wanted to be able to help teachers, knowledgeable in their subject area, but who did not seem to relate well to students. Repeatedly I heard students say they hated a particular teacher, students who got along with all other teachers. What did certain teachers do to cause this response? That has been the question that has always stayed with me. I thought it appropriate to engage in some inquiry about this question. This course gave me a perfect opportunity.

I've always kept extensive notes on the students I've dealt with. I record the student's version of the problem, the teacher's version of the problem, my own version of what I see as the problem, the mediation process, and the agreed upon solutions. At the end of every year I usually have four or more 3" binders full of details on my student interventions. When we started talking about journals in class I thought my binders were a good place to start.

After going through all entries in my binders I came up with a situation I thought was typical of the kind of problem I believe we should be able to eliminate. Let me tell you about Maia and her teacher, KL.

Maia -- A case of "I Won't Learn from You"

Maia's family relationships are stressful and complex. Life isn't easy for Maia but she's managing to stay in school and even do well in many of her classes.

In November, Maia was ordered leave one of her classes and report to the office. When she arrived at my door she was visibly upset. She told me KL sent her to see me because she would not do what she was told, refused to read or write, refused to take her Walkman off, and then, when the teacher continued haranguing her she took out a mirror to inspect herself. KL would not stop yelling at her, she said. Maia would not do what KL said, and when KL told her to leave the class and report to the office Maia left slamming the door behind her. When I spoke to the teacher, KL was also visibly upset because Maia would not cooperate or comply. Maia was kept out of class for a week and then permitted to return on the condition that she respect the teacher's wishes. In mediation KL agreed to give Maia another chance. This agreement worked for a while.

On a few occasions KL sent Maia to the office because she would not do as she was told (minor items). On each occasion Maia and I talked about her attitude and the sorts of things she should not do or say. We also talked about her temper and I made arrangements for her to take an Anger Management course. I talked with her social worker and the other adults outside school who work with her. With me Maia is always very polite although I certainly sense an "edge" to her. Again, things were quiet for a while.

In March, Maia was again sent to the office by KL. Same sort of incident -- again she refused to open her book or do any work at all. Finally she blew and told KL to "f. . . off." On this occasion she was suspended from school and not permitted back in class; during that particular class time, instead, she met with me and we worked on finishing the course. It happened to be a course she had a chance of passing and our goal (mine and Maia's) was to get her through as many courses as possible this year, given the difficult time she has had.

Maia's complains that this teacher:

  •  is nosey and always wants to get into her business
  •  asks personal questions in front of the class
  •  thinks I'm a bad kid because I don't live with my family
  •  starts with me and the words go back and forth and
  •  KL always wins, I never do
  •  won't stop until I really lose it

Maia has problems with one other teacher who says she is moody, only works when she feels like it and can be saucy. All her other teachers say Maia is respectful, capable of better work than she does, is cooperative and pleasant, that her work is improving, and that behavior has never been a problem.

Maia says the teachers she likes are:

  •  happy
  •  talk to her privately, not publicly, when asking how she is
  •  comment on work she does well

I wondered how would I have handled Maia had I been KL? I have been in the classroom for 24 years teaching a variety of subjects and all levels of students. In those years there have been discipline problems, but very few that I was not able to arrive at a workable solution for both the student and me.

How would I have handled Maia? With kid gloves, until I had developed a relationship with her. I would have discovered early in the game that she had a hair trigger temper, left her alone if I sensed she was having a bad day, would not advertised her personal life, and would have dealt with her pleasantly but firmly. What did KL do? Yelled, demanded, embarrassed, treated her like a young child, and put her in a situation where she could not win. Maia did not want to lose face in front of her peers. KL backed her into a corner, gave her no chance to look good in front of her friends.

Maia says she does not like to read and hates to write. It does not help that KL pressures her to do both. I tried offering Maia a range of books to read until I discovered one she loved. She had no problem reading this book, even when traveling back and forth to school. She had no problem writing a report on her reaction to the book. We were able to find something Maia was willing to read and she has hopefully rejoined the literacy/learning club that Smith (1988 8) talks about. If all goes well Maia should get a credit for the course. Although the problem between Maia and KL was not solved, the problem of losing the credit was.

I went back to my binders from last year just to see what else I could find. There were other similar student complaints about KL -- this teacher

  • always wants to know their business
  • won't let them alone for a minute
  • keeps at them until they blow up
  • picks on certain people
  • always wants to know what they did on the weekend,
  • and then lectures them about what they did

KL needs to learn to read, and relate to, the kids a little better. When they are having a bad day, this teacher needs to let up, not try to pry into their personal business, and not embarrass them in class. Pretty obvious stuff, but not for KL, apparently.

Students, it seems, are choosing to not learn with KL. They are capable, but in class they are angry, disruptive, argumentative, frustrated, and overwhelmed. To me, these are all characteristics of what Herb Kohl (1994 1) refers to as "not-learning" behavior. Herbert Kohl's article, "I Won't Learn From You" says

It helped me understand the essential role that will and free choice play in learning, and it taught me the importance of considering people's stance toward learning in the larger contact of the choices they make as they create lives and identities for themselves (p: 10).

Maia gave up with KL. She felt she could not win and it wasn't worth the effort to succeed. She decided to not-learn instead.

In his article "Demonstrations, Engagement, and Sensitivity" Frank Smith (1983 2) talks about the three basic aspects of learning. With KL, Maia refused to become engaged because of the negativity generated by KL and her feeling that KL expected her to fail.

Picone (1990 3) says teachers should set up the situation, ask the right questions, show a lot of encouragement and patience. Maia did not see any evidence that KL was doing this. Maia was not given gentle coaching and encouragement. Incidents got out of control before this could happen.

Garth Boomer (1987 4) in "Addressing the Problem of Elsewhereness" says teachers must harness students' rampant brain power and get it to engage in learning. When teacher's and students intentions coincide mutual excitement in learning occurs. This never happened with Maia and KL. Maia always perceived the class as a threatening environment, a place where she could not learn. In "Surprising Conversations" Robichaud-Haley (1994 5) says teachers should

just be there, accepting, encouraging, listening, sharing and enjoying. I cannot tell him that I know the push must come from within. I must support his confidence in his own learning and create a trust within himself that he is capable, that he can do it, and that others will help carry him through (p: 36).

Sounds similar to Smith's sensitivity. Vasquez (1994 6) says we must "create a community of trust where all voices can be heard and that students have confidence and trust that in our classroom their voices will be heard" (p: 42). KL does not seem to be able to build such a trusting community.

Is KL a reflective practitioner? I don't think so. I don't think KL has ever considered alternative ways of handling such situations. In the conversations we've had KL always says it's the students' fault.

I plan to share Patricia Stock's article 'The Function of Anecdote in Teacher Research" (1993 7) with KL. I think this teacher's curriculum needs to be changed. KL has to learn to listen to students, relax a bit, and do things they enjoy. I thing KL might have fewer conflicts if there were opportunities for learners to identify the concerns of their lives in conversations with one another and to become critical inquirers into those concerns.

Maia can make it. She needs teachers who care, who take an interest in her, and will give her the extra help she needs. Next year I'll see to it she gets these teachers.

KL is more challenging. How do you teach a person to show students you care? How do you get a person to listen to the kids and adapt curriculum to fit their needs? How to you get a person to change? Hard questions. Are there answers?

Going back through my binders again I still kept wondering about good teachers and what enables students to learn from some teachers and not from others. I wanted to put together a piece about positive learning experiences from what the kids told me. I tried it.

Will You Learn From Me?

What if I'm

Welcoming and caring every day
Interested in what you say
Listening for what you are not saying
Leading from behind

What if I'm

Your cheerleader if you'll let me
Offering a curriculum you help choose
Utilizing your learning energies and harnessing your brain power

What if I'm

Learning from your lead
Encouraging you to reach your potential
Actively engaging you in the learning process
Respectful of your privacy
Nurturing and positive in our relationship

What if I'm

Forging ahead at all times
Refraining from activities that seem pointless
Opening myself to you
Making things make sense for you

What if I'm

Methodical and prepared in the presentation of my lessons
Energetic and pleasant yet guiding firmly and giving you structure

I'll give you a chance
I'll learn from you
What do you think?
Will you learn from me, too?

Boomer, Garth 1987 Addressing the Problem of Elsewhereness. In: Dixie Goswami & Peter Stillman (Eds) Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher Research as an Agency for Change. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers: 4-13. Return

Kohl, Herbert 1994 I won't learn from you. In: I Wonít Learn from You. New York: The New Press: 1-32. Return

Picone, John 1990 Knowlege, Skills or Judgement! CCTE Newsletter, 23 (1/2): 1-2. Return

Robichaud-Haley, Cathy 1994 Surprising Conversations. Reading, 28(1): 35-38. Return

Smith, Frank 1988 Joining the Literacy Club. In: Joining the Literacy Club. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books: 1-16. Return

Smith, Frank 1983 Demonstrations, Engagement and Sensitivity. In: Essays Into Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books: 95-106. Return

Stock, Patricia Lambert 1993 The Function of Anecdote in Teacher Research. English Education, 25(3): 173-178. Return

Vasquez, Vivian 1994 A Step in the Dance of Critical Literacy. Reading 28(1): 39-43. Return