As they wind down their doctoral studies at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), Susan Kardos, David Kauffman, Edward Liu, and Heather Peske leave an impressive body of work. Each has been lead author on an academic article and collaborator on a published book; they’ve delivered conference talks, conducted quantitative and qualitative research, written grant proposals, and extensively reviewed each other’s dissertations.
Thanks to their participation as co-investigators on the GSE’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers (NGT) under professor Susan Moore Johnson, the four have bucked the stereotype of the lonely, isolated life of a doctoral student. Producing their own dissertations in concert with the work of the NGT and each other, they all describe their research – on a range of topics related to the complex worlds of new schoolteachers – not as intellectual exercises but rather as real-world academic training.
But even more than provide a positive experience for the doctoral students, the
Project on Next Generation of Teachers,
project’s uniquely collaborative style has generated a body of research on how to recruit and retain new teachers that far exceeds the sum of its parts. Further, say the team members, their collaborative work has a greater potential to inform the practitioners who can use it.
“There are these really interesting connections between all the studies we do. I think that’s the power of the project,” says Peske. “I can’t do the work that I’m doing in isolation. I have to think about all these other factors. And all the other factors are what teachers are thinking about in schools.”
Collaborative thinking on new teachers
Directed by Johnson, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning at the GSE, the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers aims to address critical questions related to the future of the nation’s teaching force. As our nation anticipates a shortage of teachers in the coming decade, what will it take to recruit, retain, and support a new cohort of talented, committed professionals?
All four researchers signed on to NGT in 1999, when it was in its infancy (two other doctoral students, Sarah Birkeland and Morgaen Donaldson, have since joined the team). Liu and Kardos graduate today; Peske and Kauffman anticipate finishing their dissertations within the next year.
Together with Johnson, the four wrestled with their research questions, reviewed the literature, and designed methods of inquiry from the very start. “It was so exciting…. It was the very beginnings of very stimulating intellectual work that’s not an assignment given to you but an assignment you give to yourself,” says Kardos. “It was really what I thought graduate study would be.”
All four co-investigators, like Johnson herself, are former classroom teachers who arrived at the GSE with a range of ideas for research. While some fit the project more neatly than others – Liu was curious about hiring practices of schools while Kardos came with an admittedly fuzzy interest in creating teacher community – they were drawn to Johnson’s creation of a truly collegial research team. “If we had convened this group and Susan [Moore Johnson] said, ‘I’m interested in how people teach the flatworm to flip over,’ I would have signed on to that,” says Kardos.
An opportunity to present research at a conference catapulted the NGT into action with a pilot study; four articles followed and the team was off and running, looking at the experiences of new teachers through the lenses of hiring, curriculum, professional culture, pay and incentives, career paths and decisions, and alternative certifications. As the NGT team published research and toiled at their individual dissertations, their work style remained intensely collaborative.
Setting a standard for careful, critical, yet supportive commentary, they reviewed each other’s work and eagerly sought comments and ideas. They advanced NGT research by each contributing his or her expertise to the final study, article, or presentation. Emblematic of the team’s work style, the project’s recently published book, “Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools” (Jossey-Bass, 2004), draws from each member’s research but is by no means an edited collection of their work. “There’s not one word that doesn’t have all of our fingerprints on it,” says Kardos.
An interconnected web of ideas
Team members agree that their collaboration, while perhaps less expedient than the more traditional model that has each researcher toiling in his or her own silo, produced results more robust than had they worked alone. With their academic fates linked, they set a high bar for quality and respect, and supported each other to reach it.
“There was a constant search for how your work fits in with the other pieces of the puzzle,” says Kauffman, who is exploring the experiences of new teachers with curriculum materials. He would look to Kardos for input on how curriculum materials mesh with teacher support, for instance; Peske tapped Liu’s research on hiring practices for her own findings on alternative teacher certification programs.
“All of the research that we do is interconnected,” Peske says. “Because we’re creating this web of research findings, we can better inform practice and, hopefully, policy.”
Reaching out to school practitioners has been one of the shared values that glues together the team’s diverse work styles and varying areas of inquiry. They’ve made a commitment to rework every one of their articles published in a scholarly journal for publication in a practitioner journal, a task that earns the young academics no “credit” in the publishing frenzy that characterizes the climb up the intellectual ladder.
“It’s not ‘worth’ anything, but on the other hand, it’s worth everything, because that’s what principals and teachers read,” says Kardos.
Peske notes that the researchers’ integrated work style mirrors the complexity of issues practitioners face, making it that much more relevant to school principals, superintendents, or teachers themselves, who must take a holistic perspective of issues and challenges.
Mentoring doctoral students
Although they often worked as equals, the four co-investigators are quick to credit Johnson for her visionary leadership and gentle guidance of the project and their careers.
“Susan gave us ownership. She really treated us as her collaborators, her colleagues,” says Liu, who is launching his professional academic career – he will be an assistant professor of education at Rutgers University – with a firm footing in the business of academia.
“I don’t think any of us ever took for granted what Susan created,” says Kardos, who will become a postdoctoral researcher at Brandeis University’s Mandel Center, working with Sharon Feinman-Nemser on new teacher learning.
Johnson says that the NGT’s research style emerged from its substance: she was as interested in creating a process that mentored doctoral students for academic careers at the same time the product explored how teachers are mentored and prepared for their careers. Like the others, she believes that the process not only made for a positive work experience for the doctoral students, it led to better research.
“The power of working collaboratively and developing ideas with other people led, ultimately, to more interesting ideas,” says Johnson. “We’re all really proud of the work that’s come out and feel that it simply is better than the sum of individual accomplishments could ever be.”