Practitioner Action Research and Professional Wellbeing

Dr Andy Convery

Research and Professional Development Lead

Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports 2020-21

The reports in this booklet carry a surprisingly uplifting message for these challenging times.  Although the practitioners conducting these action research projects were confronted with chaotic conditions which completely changed teaching as we know it, these reports collectively display a powerful sense of professional wellbeing – the participants radiate professional pride and professional purpose through their research activities.  And despite the frustrations when initial plans had to be abandoned, and the revised plans had to be continually refocused at short notice, the practitioner researchers demonstrated a professional resourcefulness that adjusted to new constraints and used them as a stimulus to trigger new thinking and innovative activities.

I became so intrigued by this sense of positive purpose breathing through the reports that I began to look into wellbeing more deeply, and, like many of us over the past eighteen months, I turned to the NHS[1] who provide a valuable framework for understanding – and developing – wellbeing.  They suggest five steps to mental wellbeing, four[2] of which underpin these projects, and these offer a useful framework for understanding the benefits of teachers researching their practices:

1. Connect with others

Paradoxically, in a time of lockdown characterised by isolation and separation, teachers adopted a variety of new approaches to make contact with learners, and they regularly built better relationships with those reserved learners who might sometimes slip below the radar in conventional, more demanding group sessions.  Time after time, marginalised learners responded enthusiastically to the one-to-one opportunity offered through technology, and appreciated this dedicated attention.  Even in the severe constraint of lockdown lock-ups in prison education, moving voices can be read in prison ‘diaries’, where individuals have the freedom to express their needs freed from peer pressures dominating classroom settings.  These fresh connections with learners reciprocally built their sense of wellbeing, and their gratitude is repeatedly recorded in learners’ detailed feedback.

The research project activities also enabled new associations with established colleagues and mentors.   Even though traditional project team meetings were not usually viable and project participation could not always develop as widely as intended, staff felt liberated to request help to solve emergent online teaching challenges.   These collaborative activities enabled staff to celebrate a revived, shared commitment to helping learners, and new circumstance encouraged teachers to shake off some tired coping strategies and embrace more positive learner-centred activities; to quote one established teacher with twenty years’ experience, “Taking part in this has changed my life”.[3]

2. Give to others where possible

Action research provided a framework to build on teachers’ natural altruism in wanting to make a difference for their learners, in tandem with the satisfactions of being able to help and support colleagues.  The project reports bear evidence of where unexpected opportunities have arisen to provide individuals with extra help, and the research process has drawn on teachers’ natural generosity of spirit by instigating fulfilling new ways that practitioners can ‘walk the extra mile’ to help both individual learners and colleagues.  This fundamental benefit from ‘giving to others’ often goes unremarked in projects, as the instinctive helpfulness of teachers is a taken-for-granted (though much appreciated) satisfaction of the profession[4].

3. Learn something new

All teachers had to learn something new as Covid constraints moved teaching online, but the action research project structure prompted and supported staff to explore how the online potential could be fully exploited. Through the motivating assistance of mentors, practitioners explored what engaged and challenged learners; for example, how to ‘chunk’ content; how to use activities as preparation or as follow-up; how to solicit and reward learner feedback; and how to persuade reticent individuals to contribute to virtual groupwork.

The ‘new’ was not just how to use new technologies and applications, nor was it just learning how to transfer traditional content into online packages. This action research-driven professional resourcefulness was not just about using resources, but in discovering how to use them wisely. The ‘new’ was often fundamental, as teachers reassessed their understandings of how learners learn, and supportive mentors and responsive learners helped them reconsider what helps learners to make progress.  In response to the question “How has your view of how students learn changed?”, multiple participants commented on revising their expectations of learners’ capacity to

  • self-manage;
  • take responsibility for their learning;
  • support their peers;
  • contribute purposefully to the research

Practitioner researchers repeatedly celebrated how working more closely with learners had reinforced their conviction that “each individual follows a unique journey”.  Teachers testified to changing their assumptions about what learners actuallyneed from teachers, and they began to claim new pedagogical identities as enablers and facilitators of more autonomous, rather than being mere deliverers of content.

4. Pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness)

When participants researched their teaching practices and investigated what was happening in their encounters with learners, they paused to deliberate on those events, and this provoked and inspired deeper insights into their practices.  They found themselves asking why their assumptions had been challenged, and as they looked more closely at their activities and they listened more carefully to their learners, they began to understand themselves as teachers, and to consider the effects of their actions on the learners:

“They have a love of learning we assumed they didn’t have”

“The relationship between the teacher and the student is important – I knew that, but sometimes, who the teacher is, isn’t who you may have thought it is!”

“I’ve been given the time and opportunity to think deeply about learning from a learner’s point of view.  Very precious”

“It [our project] has busted a lot of myths that I and colleagues have had”[5]

When participants held their learning moments to scrutiny, they became aware of the unique richness of each learners’ experience that is too often overlooked. Their action research, like mindfulness, enabled a higher level of conscious deliberation that created the conditions for pedagogical reawakening and professional wellbeing by helping them reflect on the moment and use their new knowledge to plan more rewarding activities for learners.

Final Thoughts

In concluding these reflections on the practical and emotional benefits of action research for practitioners’ professional identities, it is worth considering the Ofsted 2019 findings about teacher well-being. The Ofsted research report[6] found that levels of satisfaction with life are higher among the general public than staff in schools and Further Education providers, and overall levels of teachers’ occupational well-being are low.  The report identified that high workloads, lack of resources, and poor learner behaviour led to stress for teachers, who felt that they do not have enough control over policy, which changed too quickly.  In light of this report, it seems counter-intuitive that those OTLA researchers embracing additional research responsibilities along with the crisis management of the pandemic should actually experience greater professional wellbeing and positive professional purpose.

Perhaps the answer can be found in that Ofsted recommended that staff well-being  can be restored by creating a positive working environment “in which staff have an appropriate level of autonomy”. Practitioners do not have control over policy, but through researching their practice they do enjoy significant control and agency over their professional responsiveness to how policy impacts learners.  The action research projects demonstrate significant improvements in participants’ professional pride, professional purpose and professional resourcefulness, and hopefully post-16 leaders will continue to encourage their practitioners to engage in action research.

As an action researcher, I want to end this analysis with a challenging reflection that will hopefully stimulate the next wave of actions.  Many of the OTLA  projects found that the pandemic disrupted traditional practices that were not proving very effective, and new practices were negotiated as participants established more rewarding forms of communication with individual learners.  With the potential end of lockdowns in sight, can we return to a ‘new normal’ which has fostered wellbeing in staff and learners, and incorporates individual tutorials, additional online activities, and frequent use of learner voice?  Or will the ‘old normal’ with its inefficiencies of scale and traditional delivery practices seep back to dominate and disempower?



[2] The fifth is “Keeping physically active” – I can’t find evidence of this in these reports but possibly the improved sense of purpose may have triggered some extra-curricular physical activities!

[3] UCG

[4] Nias, J. (1989) Primary Teachers Talking London:Falmer

[5] Mentimeter responses. Dissemination Event, July 9th 2021

[6] Ofsted (2019) Summary and recommendations: teacher well-being research report available at accessed 29/07/2019