Professional Inquiry: The Swiss Army Knife of Teacher Survival

Professional inquiry among teachers is a positive force at any time. It unifies teams, creates energy, grows skills. It keeps practice fresh and focuses effort. As a pedagogical instrument, it’s a virtual Swiss army knife. During periods of stress, it is more than useful, it is an essential tool of survival.

In New York City and environs, where I work as a staff developer, teachers feel like their pedagogical planes have crashed in the wilderness at night. They are set upon by a host of snarling beasts: more rigorous “Common Core” standardized tests that threaten to make their teaching look weaker; a complicated new evaluation system that for many means complicated shifts in instruction; and scripted curricular models that could usurp units they’ve carefully crafted over the years. It is professional inquiry that helps them build campfires, protect them through the night, and hack their way to safety in the morning.

Features of inquiry that I’m finding helpful include (a) setting agreements, (b) inspiring ourselves with pithy ideas, (c) gathering burning questions, (d) creating multi-year plans, (e) exploring with an inquiry mind-set.

To set agreements, we brainstorm guidelines for our work to be productive and enjoyable. Here is are three examples from a high school team’s longer list:

  • Assure that thoughts from everyone are expressed.
  • Bring something to the table without fear of recrimination.
  • Be focused and engaged, invested in our precious time together.

We revisit such agreements periodically to see how we’re doing, sometimes scoring ourselves, which is a highly unscientific form of assessment, but useful and usually amusing.

To process inspiring ideas we use a “text-based seminar” protocol (which I have taken to calling a “quote-based protocol.”) Here is a set of quotes that seems apt in this time of change:

  • If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play. – John Cleese, actor, writer and film-director
  • I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.  – Septima Clark, American educator and civil rights activist
  • If you do not know to which port you are sailing, no wind is favorable. – Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Rome, 5 BC – 65 AD

Writing in response to these notions, then discussing them, seems to put teachers at ease, as would the calming words of elders around that campfire, beyond which lurk the marauding demons.

The burning questions that teachers have at the beginning of a change process reflect their hopes, concerns and fears. This is the heart of the inquiry. Here are three samples from a much longer list generated one group:

  • What do I do with the child who doesn’t have that inquisitive nature?
  • How do we measure growth (grade) to build courage?
  • Do the standards allow teachers the freedom to teach in their style?

These kinds of questions guide us as we make our way back to civilization from the forest of dread. Answering them and dropping them like husks on the path is satisfying.

The multi-year plan is the map to liberation. Security and hope are its great gifts, even if, as we go, we have to make adjustments along the way. In one high school our introduction includes this language:

The following draft plan values the spirit of professional inquiry as teachers try new ideas in a process of action research, share their findings collegially, and collaborate in the design of creative units.

Here is a timeline for one grade:


Year One


Year Two


Year Three


Grade 9 ELA
  • Action research on instructional action plans from Spring 2013, share with grade team
  • All adopt EngageNY unit this year as action research on efficacy
  • All adapt Summer Planning Team Units
  • End of Year, map next year based on this year’s findings
  • Continue instructional action research and sharing
  • Teach revised and adapted EngageNY unit
  • All teach revised Summer Planning Team units
  • Adapt two core proficiency modules
  • Continue mapping process to include teacher generated units
  • Continue instructional action research and sharing
  • Complete curriculum map that incorporates adapted EngageNY unit, all four adapted core proficiency modules, and teacher-generated units


Such a plan allows teachers to see that using model units is a learning process. They can apply what they learn in their own designs in due time. They are out of the woods, safe and sound.

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