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Action Research: How Can I Support Weak Teachers in My School ?

1. Introduction

Action research is performed in education to solve practical problems that relate to specific

areas of concern for teachers or for students. Ferrance (2000) characterizes it as “a reflective

process that allows for inquiry and discussion as components of the ‘research.’ Often, action

research is a collaborative activity among colleagues searching for solutions to everyday, real

problems experienced in schools, or looking for ways to improve instruction and increase student

achievement. Rather than dealing with theoretical aspects, action research allows practitioners to

address those concerns that are closest to them, ones over which they can exhibit some influence

and make change” (6).

Action research is based on several assumptions about how schools and educators work and

identify their own needs. The first assumption is that the people in the educational establishment

know what their own problems are and how best to solve them. The second assumption is that

teachers and principals are more effective when they examine and assess their own work and use

the resulting information to consider ways of working differently, and a third assumption is that

working collaboratively is better than working alone to solve problems. A final assumption is

that working with colleagues helps everyone to develop professionally. (Watts, 1985,)

There are different kinds of action research, each geared to a specific problem. For example,

some action research may be a single teacher attempting to understand and make changes in his

or her classroom, while another may involve a school team, examining a problem specific to

team matters but that does not affect the whole school. Still another may be a school-wide

process for finding a better way to do something, and this may involve those outside of the

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school in a partnership arrangement. Whatever kind of action research is contemplated and

carried out, its primary purpose is to choose a course of action that has an obvious benefit over

what has been done previously.

This action research seeks to determine a course of action with regard to two teachers at the

school who present problematic behaviors that are detrimental to the English program at

Hothaifa bin Al Yaman School, and to determine how policy initiatives may address this issue in

the future.

2. Background

I am a senior English teacher (SET) at Hothaifa bin Al Yaman School in Ibri, Oman. Four

English teachers plus myself as SET work at this school. My responsibilities include teaching

classes (12 periods per week) along with supervising the other four teachers. The school day

begins at 7:15 am and ends at 1:45 pm. There is a 30-minute break after the fourth period. All

teachers are required to stay at school for the entire school day.

Two of the teachers in the school are what I would consider “weak” teachers, in that there are

difficulties with them performing their roles in an expected manner. Teacher A, who is 48 years

old, has been teaching for 26 years. He manifests problems in several areas. He has no

experience with computers and technology, and does not like to use them, although they are

essential to support the curriculum. He is dependent on the SET in implementing remedial and

enrichment plans for weak and outstanding students, argues with the headmaster and SET, is late

in turning in reports that are required, does not complete his paperwork and duties without being

forced to do so by the school administration or SET, does not use approved examination

templates, does not keep discipline and order, does not accept advice, complains about his pay,

and is often absent. Teacher A says that he suffers from permanent debilitating headaches, feels

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neglected by the ministry of education, does not know how to operate technology, is old, does

not like the absence of social events in the school, is busy with his family, and he says that

Omani teachers are overloaded with duties.

Teacher B has some of the same issues, but is not as difficult as Teacher A. Teacher B is 42

years old and has been teaching for 20 years. He has some knowledge of computers, but does not

use the Learning Resource Center using the justification that the internet is too slow. He often

asks other teachers for help in understanding his lessons, and he is argumentative with the senior

teacher and with the regional supervisor. Teacher B does not believe that directives from the

Ministry should be followed literally, while the regional supervisor supports doing so.

Additionally, he has problems with time management, does not use the exam templates provided

for him, and only focuses on the good learners, to the detriment of the weaker ones.

3. Methods

3.1. Participants

The participants in this study were two low-performing teachers from Hothaifa bin Al Yaman

School in Ibri, Oman who were part of a four-teacher team, led by the Senior Teacher who is

also the researcher for this project.

3.2. Research Questions

The research questions to be answered in this research are:

1. What are the teachers' areas of weakness?

2. Are there external or internal factors affecting their performance at school?

3. How can the teachers be supported to overcome their weaknesses?

4. Did the proposed action plan lead to improved performance during this

research?

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5. Were there differences in the teachers’ self-assessments of their skills and

behavior and the assessment of the SET?

3.3. Data Collection

Three methods or evaluation tools assessed the two teachers. These included observation over

time, personal interviews, and the comparisons these generated to a comprehensive set of

guidelines and best practices for teacher growth adapted from Danielson (1996). Each of the

three evaluation tools has its merits as a qualitative method, but caution is warranted when

relying on these methods singly. The study was structured so that each contributed to an overall

picture of performance compared with a minimal standard for acceptable performance in any

educational setting. The use of three methods provides 'triangulation of data, where information

from one source informs and supports information from another and can be used to improve

validity in a qualitative study.

The two teachers were not informed they would be participating in an action research about

weak teachers, as they might feel insulted to be classified as weak. They were told, instead, that

the research was about evaluating ways to help teachers grow professionally. The interview

group included the two participants as well as other more active teachers who have the same

circumstances to compare the answers. For example, teacher B said the internet is not available

in his region while this teacher’s active peer during another interview stated he receives all the

emails and notifications and implements what is needed from him.

The teachers provided an oral informed consent prior to beginning the study; Observations

were made through daily interaction with these two teachers. These observed behaviors were the

first order for the basis of taking the second method, interviewing, to explore the root cause of

observed problematic behavior.

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Interviews were conducted with both men to elicit their perceptions and attitudes about their

job as teachers and about the school and ended with questions about their self-perceived teaching

skills and knowledge. Participants were interviewed by phone for the first interview to ensure

their privacy.

After these interviews were completed, the two teachers were provided direction as to what

was expected from them in order to conform to the school, policies. Their improvement plan

consisted of tutorials and materials in team work. Materials about group dynamics were

provided, and they were given tables providing the specific work required from them (Assigned

English Club duties such as English language corner Teacher A). Each teacher was assigned a

specific wing or area in the school where they were responsible for maintaining order and

discipline. Additionally, tutorials were given to both teachers about how to use exam templates

to conform to the ministry’s exam requirement. They were provided hard and soft copies of the

templates and were to use these between March to May 1.

The regional supervisor was called to inform the teachers that sticking to the Ministry’s

specifications is a requirement from the Ministry to help support the importance of compliance.

These improvement plans were provided to each teacher in writing and they had to sign. Also

during this time, when the teachers were using the action plan, class visits were increased and in

post discussion, the two teachers were given advice in how to manage students in their classes

and how to address individual differences. They were provided with hard copies as

supplementary materials that were prepared by the SET.A workshop was held about classroom

management and individual differences. Finally, both teachers finished IC3 (a course in

information technology literacy) at the end of March.

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A second interview was held with both teachers after they had worked based on use of the

action plan from March to the beginning of May. This second interview referred to their answers

on the first interview and elicited information about whether, in their opinion, anything had

changed with regard to their attitudes or their perceptions. The interview questions for the two

categories are listed in Appendix 1.

The third aspect of the methodology involved an assessment instrument adapted from

Danielson (1996). It is in the form of a matrix for teacher growth (See Appendix 2), and was

designed as a self-assessment tool. For this study, the matrix was used both as a self-evaluation

tool for Teacher A and B and as an evaluative tool by the senior teacher, so that perceptions

could be compared.

3.4. Analysis

Data from the three collection methods was analyzed to evaluate conflicting data as well as

supporting data. Data analysis was performed using a thematic analysis by categorizing the data

into topics and aligning them to the SERVE Matrix (Appendix 2).

3.5. Limitations of the Study

A possible limitation of the study was that the researcher was the SET for the participants.

There might be existing bias on both sides based on this working relationship, and having to

respond to interview questions to a work-related superior could skew the results. Another

limitation is the number of participants is limited to two teachers from one school. More teachers

and schools should be included in future research, so the findings could be more reliable.

4. Findings

The observation phase of this research revealed attitude and perception difficulties on the

parts of both Teacher A and Teacher B. These teachers often used their own test templates

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instead of the ones provided by the Ministry of Education, and both teachers had difficulty with

and an unwillingness to use required technology. Absenteeism and arriving late were observed,

and both teachers were argumentative with the SET, not having an open attitude toward

constructive criticism.

The interviews revealed some problematic attitudes and behaviors As an example, Teacher A

revealed that he had not been rewarded for his work for 26 years and was not happy with the fact

that he did not receive peer visits and that the school provided no opportunity for social events

that included all of the teachers and staff. Teacher B was more positive, revealing that he most

likes meeting with other teachers and pupils and therefore felt more of a sense of community

than that perceived by Teacher A. Unlike Teacher A, who complained of the school and the

Ministry of Education, Teacher B felt happy and satisfied as a teacher. Both teachers indicated

they felt overworked. Like Teacher A, Teacher B desires and likes social events with other

teachers, but seems to perceive that they exist more than Teacher A.

After the action plans were administered a second interview with each teacher was

conducted. This interview revealed that Teacher A had asked his twelfth grade son to type the

final exam for him because he does not know how to manipulate computers. Because of this

behavior, the SET had to rewrite 90% of the tests because the questions were vague and did not

meet the specifications even though the son of Teacher A used the template the SET (Senior

English Teacher) provided. Teacher B used the excuse that the internet connection (to get the

exam specifications and materials the Senior Supervisor sent to each teacher in the region) in his

area is very slow, but when the SET provided him with softcopies, he followed the specifications

and the templates correctly. The SET only changed a few questions for his test. Teacher B, even

after the action plan, was not happy with being asked to use exam templates from the Ministry

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and continued to express his frustration with this process, showing little willingness to change.

He did appreciate and respond to helpful suggestions from the Senior Teacher regarding time

management, and he liked getting help with some difficult material that he was teaching.

However, when asked if he had goals to continue improving as a teacher, he responded

negatively and referred to being busy and having duties as a father as well.

With regard to maintaining discipline for their respective areas, Teacher A did not

participate, while Teacher B did so for the first two weeks and then stopped. The SET and

headmaster increased follow-up with the two teachers regarding completion or preparation books

and submitting student grades, and both of the teachers showed progress in this regard.

Regarding using the LRC (Learning Resources Centre), neither teacher used it, which suggests

further action is needed. Both teachers finished IC3 (a course in information technology literacy)

at the end of March, but nether changed their attitude towards technology use in April.

The SERVE Teacher Assessment and Growth Matrix revealed a deep divide between the

senior teacher expectations and the actual perceptions that the men had. The SERVE assessment

measures, qualitatively, planning, assessment, instruction, student motivation and management,

and teacher impact. These are scaled on an unsatisfactory, needs improvement, proficient, and

accomplished basis. Obviously, the accomplished is the mark for which to aim, but because of

teacher differences and experiential differences, proper policy lies at the proficient level. The

vast majority of these teachers’ self-assessed comments fell into the proficient range, while the

senior teacher’s assessments of both teachers put them into the unsatisfactory or needs

improvement category. This difference is significant, and reflects most directly on teaching

responsibility and on, in some cases, continued employability.

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5. Discussion

The results suggest that these teachers were willing to improve in terms of time management

and having a better understanding of their materials that they teach. Both teachers showed

resistance and almost refusal to maintaining control of the students and to using technology as

required by the Ministry. Additionally, both teachers resist use of the exam templates provided

and required by the Ministry. The fact that the teachers were open to classroom visits,

suggestions, and training by the SET, but resisted most directives that came from the Ministry

might be revealing of an attitude that policies should be formed at the local school level not at

the government level.

The results also suggest that appropriate policies are not in place to detect problem teachers

early and to address the problems at an early stage. Every teacher, in practice, should be moving

toward a proficient level, and policy should reflect this so that when a problem arises such as it

has with these two teachers, it can be addressed at the point of commencement rather than after

some damage has been done. It may be, however, that more research is needed in this area, as the

sample population for this research was quite small and may not be representative at all of the

situation in other schools. It may also be that some of the other policies of the school, such as

using common templates for examinations without having enough training and directions, may

need to be reevaluated. Teachers could be more productive if they undergo refreshment courses

or workshops conducted by professional trainers. Furthermore, teachers, especially those

working for so many years at schools need subject oriented ICT training courses to catch up

rather than mere training to pass general ICT literacy tests such IC3 or ICDL. Increased use of

the LRC needs to be encouraged. Additionally, it is suggested that teachers receive both hard

copies and emails of important materials and announcements. Both teachers expressed a desire

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for more opportunities to socialize with peers. Attempts by the school to include these

opportunities might contribute to a sense of community, making the teachers more open to

suggested improvement, and making them feel more a part of the school development plan.

Exchanging visits with teachers in other schools is another technique that can both improve

teaching skills and provide the social engagement they ask for.

6. Conclusion

Teacher behavior is a significant part of the teaching/learning process, and there are always at

least minimal expectations for what a teacher ought to do and how it ought to be done. This is

partly the responsibility of the school teacher credentialing process, but the process is not

consistent from country to country or even region to region.

The two teachers in this action research study were non-compliant and even given mitigating

circumstances (headaches, need to be with family, disagreement with the way that examinations

are carried out), their displayed attitudes and actions did not conform to a professional standard

of behavior that might be expected in any school, regardless of its location. By the time of the

action study, intervention was clearly needed in both cases.

The results of the study also reveal policy issues that need to be examined. The situations

represented by these two teachers should never have reached the stage that they did, and policy

formation for teacher expectation and behavior is certainly called for. There may also need to be

some questioning about the roles of the senior teacher, the headmaster, and the regional

supervisor, who seems to have too much input into local school decision-making. Also at issue is

the politicization of teaching advancement, which is based on results rather than successful

growth and experience. The results of this research study can initiate inquiry into these types of

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fundamental questions so that teacher performance and behavior problems are reduced in the

future.

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