For the past year or so since receiving this amazing Fulbright award, I have been carrying around a little secret in my back pocket . . . and as the months have worn on, it has grown bigger and heavier and threatened to climb right out and swallow me whole:
I have no idea how to be a researcher.
I initially thought that the change in scene from New York to Finland might change this, somehow make me more astute as an outside observer . . . and it certainly has. But what I really needed more than a change in scenery, was a change in my own self definition.
Sometimes life hands you a little something amazing and you realize that your narrow definition of both yourself and your abilities were really the issue. Two days after my arrival, the University of Tampere in my home city was host to the Fulbright Center’s annual America in Living Color Seminar, in which American grantees present their research and scholarly work in fields like education, science and sociology.
I arrived like a child on the first day of school, clutching my still empty notebook, hoping that nobody would recognize that I had no idea what I was doing. Within the first two minutes of the opening remarks, the Executive Director of the Fulbright Center was publicly welcoming me as a newly arrived teacher-researcher from New York and all eyes were on me. The title of teacher-researcher was still feeling fraudulent at that point, but I smiled and half stood up out of my chair and waited for the crowds’ eyes to return to the podium.
What happened over the next two days was just short of monumental. I sat and listened as other American Fulbright grantees presented their work: not finished research, not published papers, but rather engaging studies that were bundled in human interactions and observations. The teachers, who like me, were on sabbaticals and missing their families and students, spoke openly and honestly about their research processes –their inquiries at times messy and meandering, leading down different paths than originally intended.
I listened as my friend Janet spoke about the Finnish culture’s sense of duty and respect for the individual child’s learning process; about how she saw entire schools where the teachers provided environments for learning and how in those environments, the children were able to create knowledge; about how trust, respect and expectations dictated every interaction between student and educator.
I thought about my own experiences in New York with struggling students as Karen spoke about her experiences studying Finnish vocational schools and how students, who are trusted to take on the responsibility for learning, have the freedom to make choices based on interest. She reflected on how teachers give students the tools they need to make decisions and believe wholeheartedly that the students will do their jobs. I listened optimistically as she spoke about the collaboration of teachers that she had witnessed, and how Finnish teachers are routinely provided freedom of time for research, reflectiveness and collaboration.
I understood better the positive effect educational research can have both here and abroad as Laurie described her research examining how Finnish schools fail to teach about the indiginous Sami people and was blown away by her efforts to research Sami traditions and create lessons based on their culture –even going as far as to ask them how they would like to be taught about. I was particularly impressed by the notion of having American students examine a culture completely foreign to their own (and the discrimination and marginalization that culture faces) in order to open a pathway into an examination of their own culture for the Mexican-American students she teaches in Phoenix, Arizona.
I gained a whole new perspective on role-play as Amanda plowed over our preconceived notions of Larping (yes, Live Action Role Playing) and showed how she was exploring how educational Larping was an intrinsically motivating, metacognitively active, authentic exercise for students, wholly aligned with her constructivist approaches to classroom pedagogy. As aforementioned Fulbrighter, Karen, commented, “You would be hard-pressed to find a good teacher who hasn’t larped.”
These were just a few of the myriad of presentations I was able to engage with. As the two days went on, I slowly began to realize that I was selling myself short. I am an active and passionate educator, who is hopelessly inquisitive, driven by my allegiance towards my students, my profession and my colleagues, and residing in Finland for another three months with all the time in the world to facilitate meaningful conversations about education, observe, and reflect: how could I not be a researcher?
Signed affectionately, your teacher-researcher friend in Finland,