The Ontario Action Researcher


Cilla Dale

Special Assignment Teacher
Grade 3 and Grade 6
December 1999-June 2000

My role for six months has been that of a co-teacher of nine different classes, working with thirteen different teachers (later changing to eleven different classes and their homeroom teachers: nine belonging to the original group, four being recent additions). The nature of my job as a special assignment teacher has adapted on an ongoing basis to suit a group of teachers and students who are changing some of the ways they teach and learn. My goal has been to establish a productive working relationship with the teachers, always keeping in mind our common intent to improve the quality of student learning. Thus, my action research question became:

How do I achieve a relationship of trust with teachers as I work with them in their classrooms to improve student learning?

The original impetus of unsatisfactory provincial assessment results was not a sufficient justification in the minds of teachers for adding another teacher body into the classroom or for making wholescale changes to teaching practice. A different kind of justification had to be established, one that made sense regardless of the looming presence of the test. The EQAO provincial test results did, however, provide us with an opportunity to analyse data and identify general areas of weakness. Since that analysis had already been done on a Board-wide basis, I felt my first task was to make teachers aware of it. Then we needed to identify connections between particular curriculum expectations (skills in language and mathematics where weaknesses had been identified), teaching strategies and desirable practices. We could, for the moment, set aside the issue of the test. In my view, improved test results would happen eventually if, as a result of our combined efforts in the classroom, we could create improvement in student achievement of curriculum expectations. I started the assignment in December, bringing with me the following items:

  • an example of a reading response task, with rubric for levels of achievement in reasoning and communication;
  • an organizer for math journals to help frame responses using words, pictures and numbers;
  • a paragraph writing task to be done using writing process steps.

These items were tools for modelling language and math communication and to broach the subject of rubrics and levels. Most teachers were just hearing about these and were receptive to finding out more. I also hoped to elicit from teachers what they felt their needs were to bring about improvement in student performance.

There is no doubt that my own practice has been affected by the experience of the last six months. The experience has given me the chance to re-affirm my own convictions and also learn from other teachers, because I have had an unusually rich opportunity to reflect on teaching practice. I also knew I had to "walk the talk" by modelling in practice the approaches which were judged in theory to be appropriate, and even essential, if certain focus areas were to come to life in the classroom. The focus areas for my involvement were identified as math journal writing, specific strands in math, process writing, and response to a wider variety of reading material.

Sample actions in January were:

  • modelling the scaffolding of a poem before students read it and answered questions;
  • having students work at the board in front of the whole group to illustrate how they solved a math problem (comparing strategies);
  • helping an individual student recognize the level descriptor that matched his/her piece of writing and identify next steps.

One of the necessary approaches was the Quest 2000 math programme, with its emphasis on giving the students extensive hands-on experience in activities before asking them to reflect on and communicate their personal learning and strategies. In working with teachers who were using the programme for the first time, it helped that I believed in its approach, and that I had some previous experience on my own with it. Now I needed to establish some credibility with my fellow teachers, who might think I had all the answers, might think I had none, might object to my presence, welcome it or merely tolerate it.

Even the best welcome does not totally diminish the personal risk-taking involved in the kind of improvisational, 'thinking on your feet', "problem-solving-as-we-go" approach that took place in the classrooms, either side by side with the teacher or with the teacher as onlooker. I found the process ranged from nerve-wracking (in an almost perversely satisfying way) to outright exhilarating. It is easy now to look back and relish the successful results now that the good relationships exist, but moving forward often required an almost chameleon-like response to the variety of environments in which I found myself.

Establishing trust was important because without it I do not believe there would have been significant change. If the "extra" person in the room is not trusted, there is little if any incentive to try what is being modelled or suggested by that person, especially if it is different from current practice. How would we know if another approach works, if it is never tried? As trust develops, the advantage of having a colleague to open up to is enormous; the vulnerability that brings is equally so. The initial responses I received from teachers ranged from mildly dismissive to warmly welcoming. So right from the start I had to judge how far I could go in suggesting an activity, a strategy, a resource, or a degree of collaboration. My early notes contain examples of attitudes I encountered, strategies I thought were ready to be tried, students I noticed, presence or absence of materials: the notes were my way of trying to assess what I might encourage next, so they became a record of different degrees of readiness.

Example: a teacher who, in December, expressed resistance to using the new Math programme when the previous one was familiar and has served well in the past. The same teacher in late February eagerly explained the virtues of a particular component of the new programme to fellow teachers at a staff meeting.

The initial action on my part to solve the resistance roadblock was to ask what this teacher found to be the biggest hindrance in using the programme, and then to create and provide one resource she identified at the time as being possibly helpful. By the time I returned (with that resource) for the next visit, the teacher had taken the initiative to give most of the components a thorough read-through and was ready to give the programme a try. One challenge she shared with most other teachers was teaching a combined grade. My response was to provide a split-grade correlation document and sit down with the teacher to plan match-ups for the remaining math units, based on their common "essential understandings." During the following months, we worked together modelling problem-solving steps, use of math terminology, use of multiple representations and strategies, pictures, words, numbers, concrete objects, giving the students graphic organizers, and so on. It seems to me that sensitivity at the outset and following up on a request were determining factors in developing the beginnings of a relationship of trust. In every case where a teacher identified a need, we talked about what I could do to help. Early on especially, the relationships were encouraged by letting the teacher's voice be heard. My notes show that as time went on, the teachers took increasing initiative to customize and create tools such as rubrics and made more specific requests of me, I think because they had a clearer sense of direction and purpose. By April, five teachers had made specific requests for support in setting up exploration centres for certain math units that would accommodate split-grades and also exceptional students. Other teachers who were not part of "my" group were also now involved in seeking advice and support, partly I think as a result of divisional meetings. The meetings were facilitated by release time provided by the Board. They allowed more systematic sharing of experiences with the new math programme and process writing, and gave everyone a chance to see together the relatively small increments in skill found in the grade to grade progression of curriculum expectations. Teachers had a better sense of not being alone.

The data I collected and used to determine how best to foster trust throughout the six months of my assignment included the following:

  • feedback sheets from teachers handed out in January with the heading, "How am I doing?";
  • ongoing entries in my journal/daybook (relating to teacher level of comfort, observations on student motivation, changes in teaching/learning strategies, assessment strategies, teachers' opinions on student progress as a result of strategies, next steps);
  • samples of student work as evidence that our efforts were having results (building confidence in our collaboration);
  • feedback sheets from workshops I gave for teachers in March and April;
  • notes taken during conferencing sessions with teachers that helped me identify patterns of need. These prompted reflective comments in journal, target-setting for the next session and the searching out or development of resources.

I knew that my own pre-existing notions of "good" practice would influence the direction in which I might attempt to lead teachers. So I acknowledge an "agenda" underlying my actions, but I also know I am constantly processing signals from those I work with in order to have a sense of where they are. I believe my bias coincides with the following notions:

  • that students should be involved in much hands-on exploration in math activities (predicting, experiencing), before drawing conclusions and communicating their own learning or strategies;
  • that in the process of writing, students should learn to take control of revising and editing their work;
  • that students will only learn to understand and appreciate a variety of text if they are given guided opportunities to read and respond to a wide variety of text.

I noted a general feeling that the teacher's job was made more difficult by the fact that the curriculum was still very much in process of becoming familiar (especially how the teacher's own grade's expectations fit into the continuum of expectations). The new math programme, for example, seemed overwhelmingly vast and students did not have all of the skills needed to work independently at reading and writing tasks. My own interactions with students supported the notion that many students lacked self-direction in language activities and were probably not reaching their potential in attaining expectations. One thing was agreed upon early on: two heads were better than one. So it seemed that we should be able to help create change and improvement together.

Sample comments from teachers on the January feedback sheets:

"It has been great just being able to bounce ideas off you and get some input as to what type of activities I should be doing in the classroom."

"...good sounding board"

"..the extra hands"

"...reassuring having your support and affirmation"

I felt the potential hindrances to nurturing a bond between myself and other teachers included the following:

  • annoyance at the provincial test looming large;
  • reluctance to have a relative stranger in the classroom;
  • reluctance to change practice or include different strategies in teaching;
  • perception that I was there to judge, oversee, or "spy" on teachers.

I believe the following actions or strategies that I used, eased the process of developing a productive working relationship with colleagues:

  • ·conference time listening to teacher concerns;
  • modelling risk-taking;
  • creating and/or providing resources, facilitating workshops in response to specific needs;
  • providing resources that were generally useful;
  • collaborating to devise criteria, rubrics for a task;
  • collaborating to assign a Level from the Ontario Curriculum Levels of Achievement to work samples based on rubric descriptors;
  • asking for feedback and taking action based on it;
  • fully setting up specific activities such as exploration centres in math so there was no extra work for the teacher;
  • modelling a specific strategy in the classroom at the request of a teacher;
  • teaching a lesson at the request of the teacher on a particular topic that the teacher found troublesome;
  • collecting and passing on tips and teacher-developed materials across a group of schools (a kind of cross-pollination of ideas);
  • working with designated small groups of students for a specific purpose as determined by the teacher.

(See Appendix for more detailed information on "layers of action" taken with teachers, students and as personal initiatives)

One item in particular, the "trading" of tips and resources developed by teachers, had the effect of binding us all together in much the same way that countries trading with each other are unified. As test time grew closer, one teacher initiated a sharing of math strand "summaries", each one prepared by a teacher from each of five French Immersion schools, to act as an organizer for revision of key terms, etc. It is a good example of teachers taking charge and taking proper advantage of the liaison I could provide by distributing copies.

I pushed forward intuitively, but made it a practice to write daily notes to keep track of the stages of each relationship. Those notes reveal that I depended less and less on planning ahead as time went on and the relationships were well established. They also show increasingly detailed information on what was happening in the classroom and a flow of proposed next steps. In the early days I brought start-up resources such as story maps, planning webs, math journal organizers, and "at-a-glance" expectation documents to everyone. Later, I differentiated resource provision considerably in response to particular requests (e.g. for rubrics, or exploration centre implementation). More recently, certain teachers have created their own resources, such as rubrics, and want to show them to me and to others. I see that stage of development as a testament to the bond that has been established through shared commitment.

If I were to continue the assignment, I would follow the same guidelines as this year, allowing for adjustments to individual situations. In addition, I would request feedback from teachers in a more organized fashion, at regular intervals, with specific questions that arise from my observations and reflections. This would allow for clearer targets and also provide more documented evidence of progress.

Bibiographical Note:

Name: Cilla Dale, FSL Coordinator, Nipissing Parry Sound Catholic District School Board, North Bay, ON P1B 6P2
Academic Background:BA (Hons.) University of Hull, U.K.; B.Ed., Nipissing University
Current Interests: second language learning/acquisition, specifically comparison and interlinking of strategies in Core French and French Immersion classrooms; mentoring practice
Email address:
Mailing address: 87 Nelson Avenue, North Bay, ON, P1A 1Z8