Voices in Education

On Centering Teacher Voice
The largest school district in the United States closed its school buildings on March 23 in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. New York City’s 1.1 million children and 75,000 teachers left their classrooms, gyms, cafeterias, auditoriums, schoolyards, stairwells, hallways, desks, rugs, and chairs and went home, reconnecting in the digital spaces of Zoom, Google Classroom, and Hangouts. Teachers had three days to prepare for this transition to remote teaching and learning, a transition that went as well—or as poorly—as could be expected within a deeply segregated and inequitable school system. At the close of the school year, the NYCDOE sent out a survey to parents and students asking about their feelings and preferences on reopening school buildings and resuming in-person learning, with 301,000 parents and 117,000 students responding. The teachers were not asked.

Asking teachers about their experience and using their knowledge and judgment to make educational policy is consistently in short supply—pandemic or not. To reach the ears of the decision-makers in central offices, teacher voice is mediated by union chapter leaders, principals, and district administrators. Yes, there are community meetings where teachers can join the line for the mic. Sure, there is the occasional survey that promises direct transmission of information once it is analyzed. But survey responses of scales, percentages, and rankings cannot possibly fully express what teachers have to say. When it comes to shaping the conditions of their working lives, teachers are essentially told to “shut up and teach.” And when it comes to realizing the vision of equity and excellence we have for the children in our schools, it is unconscionable that we do not consistently, carefully, and respectfully listen to the voices of those who do the work of teaching and shape our children’s learning.

Are educational researchers any better listeners of what teachers have to say? Of course, we are! We study teaching and seek out teachers as our study participants. We analyze large longitudinal data sets, compose our own surveys, design thoughtful interview protocols, and carefully observe. Indeed, there is valuable survey data already on teachers’ experiences working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet the way we listen to teachers is limited—we listen to their answers to the questions we pose. Educational researchers are the creators of research questions, the setters of agendas, the keepers of parameters, the starters of conversations, the askers of questions, the deciders of follow-up. Teachers are the consenting participants in our research designs, the responders to our questions. Teachers are the object of our studies; they are not the authoring subject.

In my doctoral research, I wanted to center teacher voice. I wanted to listen to teachers without imposing my own interest and inquiry. I wanted to know what teachers talked about when they talked about teaching—when they talked of their own accord, when they chose their interlocutor, when they decided how to start and finish, when they determined the topics of the conversation. I found this free-ranging, unsolicited, authoring teacher voice in the teacher conversations recorded for StoryCorps, a national oral history project that provides access for ordinary people to record their conversations—about anything—with someone else. As a researcher, I would listen. Listen, learn, understand, interpret. Make sense of what was given to me, not of what I asked. In that research, I learned that when teachers speak of teaching, they speak of four things: purpose, power, love, and learning.

When teachers speak of learning, they talk about not only their students’ learning—the essential work of teaching—but also their own. When considering learning as an aspect of teaching, teachers tell stories of how they learned to teach, recount what they learned about teaching, and muse on how they were transformed by teaching. In my article “The Learning of Teaching: A Portrait Composed of Teacher Voices” in the Fall 2020 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, I transmit and interpret teachers’ talk about their own learning and make a case for composing research agendas on teacher learning based on what teachers say is important to them, for promoting a scholarship of voice in research on teaching, and for further use of the StoryCorps National Teachers Initiative as a rich data source of teacher voice.

The method and findings of my doctoral research center teacher voice practically and politically and position education research as an act of listening. Such a stance is always needed. But in these days, right now—the days of a pandemic and the days of social movement against the killing of Black people by police; the days of illness, death, and unemployment and the days of reckoning (hopefully) with our nation’s racist past and present; the days of ever-increasing defunding of education and the days of steadfast activism and increasing political participation—it is vital to listen to what teachers are saying. It is vital to understand what and how teachers are learning.

While educators speak of children’s “lost learning” during the days that schools were closed and elaborate on the best ways to measure this loss, we should make time to listen to teachers talk, at length, about every child in their class, so that we can have a more accurate picture of each child’s progress, development, and yes, loss—not only academic but also the social, emotional, and embodied traumas of our times. While policymakers and union leaders debate what systems of student standardized testing and teacher evaluation are appropriate going forward, we should make time to listen to teachers talk, at length, about the myriad ways they learned to engage with children in the literacies and numeracies relevant and responsive to their realities. While central office administrators discuss new technology platforms and scheduling scenarios for hybrid remote/face-to-face instructional models, we should listen to teachers talk, at length, about what supported their spirits and strength while teaching remotely, how they collaborated and coordinated their efforts, and how they want to shape teaching and learning in this new world.

If our definition of learning remains grounded in the teacher-learner-content core, we must center the voices of the people at that core. We must learn from teachers by listening to them.

About the Author: Irene A. Liefshitz (https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1877-3338) was a teacher, assistant principal, and instructional coach in the Bronx and Washington Heights, New York City, before earning her doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she now teaches qualitative research methods courses on portraiture and case study research. She continues working with teachers and administrators in New York City while pursuing her research interests on teachers and teaching, teacher learning, and stories and metaphors about teaching.

Irene A. Liefshitz is the author of “The Learning of Teaching” in the Fall 2020 issue of Harvard Educational Review.