Developing Research Partnerships as an Early Career Scholar

By Kathrin Maki, Assistant Professor, University of Florida

Developing research partnerships with schools, communities, and other organizations can be an exciting yet challenging endeavor, particularly for early career scholars. Most often, academic positions require moving to a new community, often away from professional and social networks, thus requiring scholars to develop new relationships with community organizations to engage in their work. We asked three scholars engaging in research in schools and communities to discuss how they approach, expand, and sustain their research partnerships.

Lisa N. Aguilar is an assistant professor in the School Psychology Program at Indiana University. Dr. Aguilar’s work centers Indigenous youth, families, and communities with the aim to Indigenize and decolonize educational spaces.

Katie Eklund is an associate professor and co-director of the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on school mental health, including early detection and intervention for children who have behavioral and social-emotional concerns, culturally-responsive mental health interventions, social emotional learning, and school safety.

Stacy-Ann January is an assistant professor in the school psychology program at the University of South Florida. Her research primarily focuses on data-based decision making and academic interventions in school settings.

What big picture ideas do you think early career scholars should keep in mind when establishing research partnerships?

Lisa: Early career scholars should ask themselves: How will I sustain this relationship in a meaningful way? Partnerships should be developed with the intention that the relationship between the researcher and the organization will be ongoing and reciprocal. This advice is targeted toward those of us who do research with marginalized communities or schools that have a high population of marginalized students. I don’t believe that a relationship can be meaningful if it is not sustained through reciprocal action. We are simply contributing to the problem that researchers have created of entering a community, taking what they need, leaving, and not giving anything back to the community if we don’t plan for HOW we will engage and WHY we want to engage. If you enter a partnership solely for the benefit of what it will bring you as a researcher, then it is important to be transparent about that with the organization. I don’t doubt that some organizations will be okay with that but there are also organizations that would not be.

Katie: Before establishing a research partnership, it is important to discern if you are hoping to engage in a fully-formed research-practice partnership or if this is more of a traditional research relationship where you are seeking to gather data from a local school district for a particular project. There is a clear difference between the two. Research-practice partnerships (RPPs) are defined as “a long-term, mutualistic collaboration between practitioners and researchers that are intentionally organized to investigate problems of practice and solutions for improving district outcomes” (Coburn et al., 2013; p. 2). RPPs represent dedicated, ongoing relationships that often include multiple projects that are beneficial to both partners in the relationship. For example, those working in the schools offer an expertise around problems of practice and can spark new directions for future research. For practitioners, much of their time is already accounted for by their primary job responsibilities and they may not be able to engage in their own research. Partnerships can act as a research branch to this work, supporting valuable, independent, third-party evaluations of practitioner-driven practices.

Within an RPP, it is important for the work to be mutually beneficial. In this manner, research questions of practice should be developed jointly between researchers and practitioners. This ensures that they are directly relevant to practitioners and increases the likelihood that research will get used in practice. Engaging in RPPs is also an excellent way for researchers to stay attuned to what is happening within the larger world of education and certainly within the field of school psychology.

Stacy-Ann: Think about and decide what your framework for research partnerships will be. The things that you value will inform how you approach partnerships. It is also important to think of the organizations with which you’re attempting to engage. Consider the extent to which you have shared values and goals. Engage in work to understand your biases and how you can promote equity and social justice in your research partnerships.

I’ll also say that knowing that building research partnerships takes time and there will be bumps along the way. It also helps to be persistent, to reflect on how it’s going, and adjust as necessary.

What specific actions or activities have you engaged in to form successful research relationships with schools or other organizations?

Lisa: First, be present. Attend organizational events, get to know people, volunteer, put away your agenda, and engage with the organization and its people as a person. Being present and volunteering your time addresses the idea of reciprocity. This is particularly important when developing relationships with Tribal schools. Indigenous communities have been mined for data for centuries. We must think differently about how to be in relation with communities that have been harmed by research practices. So, a large part of this must be you showing how you can be of service to the organization. Why should they allow you into their space? What benefit do you bring to the community? Second, assess the needs of the community. This is something that I plan to do when I switch institutions to get to know the Indigenous communities near my new institution. However, this is not just a survey that I will send out via email. This needs assessment will take place in a community space, with food and childcare provided through research funds. I plan to introduce myself, my positionality, and the research that I am passionate about. I will invite children, adults, and elders and incorporate culturally relevant pieces like starting with a prayer, smudging, and making an offering to the community members.

Katie: When I came to UW-Madison almost four years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to co-direct a newly formed Madison Education Partnership (MEP), an RPP between our campus and Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). MEP is designed to improve experiences and outcomes for all MMSD students and reduce gaps in opportunity and achievement. It is co-led by three directors; two of us are faculty at UW-Madison and our third director oversees the Research and Innovation Office in MMSD. MEP is designed to intentionally disrupt the power relations between educators and researchers. Our partnership deliberately opens up spaces where educators can center everyday problems that they confront in the classroom, problems to which researchers can apply their scientific and methodological expertise to solve.

MEP has provided a wonderful opportunity to build relationships not only with district leaders in our local schools, but to understand problems of practice that are pervasive throughout the system. It has allowed us to connect faculty interested in educational research with building principals or teachers who want to do more to help their kids. The formal relationship between the university and the district has helped to establish trust and to ensure both groups can support one another. It goes much further than researchers simply “pitching” a project that a school may or may not be interested in, but rather centers the larger needs of the district to solve questions of practice.

Stacy-Ann: I try to take a multifaceted approach to forming research partnerships and some strategies have been successful. For example, I have asked researchers with extant partnerships to facilitate introductions with key stakeholders. If the researcher has similar and complementary research interests, then it may be possible to collaborate with them on a project that is ongoing/beginning. When the researcher has not had similar interests, I follow up those introductions with offers to meet and discuss the potential for a partnership. Many universities have offices of community engagement. It may be useful to reach out to individuals in those offices to learn more about how they can connect you with organizations in the community that may be interested in a partnership. Finally, I have reached out to schools and districts directly to initiate conversations about a potential partnership. Although not every contact led to a partnership, some have.

How have you navigated the hidden or implicit rules and cultures that are often evident in schools and other organizations?

Katie: I think it’s important to develop relationships with the individuals who are the closest to the actual work. For example, if you are examining the impact of a social-emotional learning intervention in an early childhood classroom, spend time with the preschool teachers to better understand their classroom norms, personal values, and the challenges they are facing with implementation. Talk more with the director of the early childhood center to understand the systemic supports and barriers to implementation and to gain a deeper understanding the role of the center in the larger community.

As I quickly learned as a school psychologist: if you have been in one school, you have been in one school. Just because you successfully implemented a research project in a middle school in one district does not mean that it will be equally successful in its partner school down the road. The culture and climate of each school can make or break even the best laid plans for research. Build relationships not only with the school administrators who are often gatekeepers to your research; spend time learning from children, parents, and those in the larger community about how your research will intertwine or complement their existing practices. And don’t forget that when the project is done to share your findings and determine how it might most be useful to those it is intended to serve.

Stacy-Ann: Fortunately, my background as an elementary teacher has helped with this some. But I’ve also asked faculty who have formed research partnerships with schools in that district/area about what hidden rules may exist and how they’ve navigated them. I’ve also found it helps to be open and collaborative while building relationships with educators. As you become immersed into the culture of the school, you may be seen less like an outsider and more like a partner.

What barriers have you faced in forming relationships with organizations and how have you overcome them?

Katie: Be prepared for individuals to say no to your proposed work. Just because you spend time establishing a working relationship with a local school or district does not mean that they will always say yes to every project that you propose. When describing a new project to a potential partner, I always leave room for them to decline or say no. If the project is not aligned with their core values, mission, or interests, they should not be persuaded to say yes. Better yet, work with your school partners to co-develop research questions that will directly impact problems of practice. This will ensure there is buy-in to the project while increasing the likelihood that your collaborative work will have a direct impact on practice.

Stacy-Ann: There are several potential barriers to forming relationships with stakeholders in schools. One of the biggest factors is time. Educators are quite busy with many and sometimes competing demands for their time and energy. That said, people make time for things they value and that they find beneficial. To help mitigate this barrier, I have tried to match schools’ goals with my goals. I also maximize the time with stakeholders, by being organized, responsive, and efficient. Another factor is the possibilities of being viewed as an outsider and/or not being trusted. This could be due to individuals’ or organizations’ history with researchers in this past, as well as structural and systemic issues like racism. I approach partnerships from a strengths-based perspective and with the goal of building mutually beneficial partnerships. I recognize that stakeholders are the experts in what they do and their schools/community. There are many strengths that they have, and those strengths should be prominent in our work together. Also, regardless of what their goals for improvement are, it is not my job to come in and “fix” them, their students, or their caregivers.

How do you balance your research agenda and goals with organizational needs? What steps have you taken to ensure your research was mutually beneficial (e.g., pro bono professional development)?

Lisa: My research agenda is grounded in my lived experiences as an Indigenous person who has had to navigate predominantly white institutions. I am clear when I describe my research that I am doing research WITH Tribal communities, schools, and peoples and not ON them. Therefore, I do not have to try very hard to find balance between my goals and Tribal goals because they match fairly well. Now when it comes to schools, this has been more difficult because schools are very hesitant to engage in Indigenization and decolonization efforts. But all that to say I don’t compromise my research agenda to align with a watered down version of what public school administrators and educators would like to see.

Katie: Within MEP, our local RPP, every project must be specific to an important problem of practice for our school partner and involves commitment from both district and university experts. In this manner, the project must have (1) buy-in from the district administration, (2) a lead in the district with authority to either make or effectively advocate for changes based on research, and (3) a UW investigator with the expertise and interest necessary to ensure success. This framework ensures that the work may not only help a researcher with a specified project but shows direct benefit to our local schools. Obviously, this framework is used for multiple projects beyond my own research, so I can offer a few thoughts regarding what steps I have personally taken.

In my own research, I first try to ensure that the school has a specific need that will be met by a proposed project. For example, they may be interested in a new Tier 2 intervention or want to learn new strategies for progress monitoring for student behavioral concerns. Data gathered from their school may not only answer our research questions, but more importantly help the school in addressing needs of students and educators. Second, if you have funds, talk to the school about how to best support the participants in your studies. Some schools will allow you to pay teachers directly while others have rules about only allowing payments to schools or to teachers outside contract time. Identifying these needs early on in the project can help ensure individuals are adequately compensated for their time.

Stacy-Ann: I am always up front about the goal of having a mutually beneficial partnership. I talk about these during my initial and ongoing contacts/meetings with relevant stakeholders. This helps to set the stage early in the partnership. In my initial meetings with school partners, I try to learn as much as I can about their needs and offer pro bono professional development aligned with my expertise around these needs. This has sometimes happened before the school participated in any research project. For me that’s okay, because my aim is to build long-term partnerships. I tend to lean on the side of giving more, for better or worse. When I have had research projects in mind that are consistent with the school’s goals and I have built a relationship with them, then I talk with them about the project. I also try to have discussions about their topics of interest that are consistent with my expertise. We have these discussions with the goal that together we can develop ideas for studies.

What actions have you taken to successfully recruit participants? How have you gained administrator, teacher, and other leaders’ buy-in to conduct your research?

Lisa: Pay them! I believe it is super important to pay research participants or create ways that they can get some other material benefit. Can the student get high school credit for participating in a yearlong project? Can they get extra credit for a shorter project? Can we pay them a small stipend? Provide food? Tangible benefits are one successful way to recruit participants and I also think the methodology used is important. For example, I am beginning to explore Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) methodology, and I anticipate that lots of students will want to engage in this type of research because it centers their voices and experiences in a way that mainstream public schools don’t.

Katie: We have a small group of school psychology faculty at UW-Madison who meet monthly with district school mental health leaders from our local school district. This ongoing partnership has been wonderful in terms of developing trust, rapport, and a better understanding of each group’s priorities. We really just spent time learning more about one another for the first 6-9 months that we met. This included better understanding the roles and functions of school psychologists, social workers, and counselors in the district, as well as our current and future plans for research as faculty. This time together established a wonderful foundational relationship for exploring future research projects together.

Our partnership is now in its third year, and I consistently look forward to our monthly time together. Our relationship has been critical to understanding when research projects may or may not be a good fit within the district. The central district team is able to suggest schools who might be interested in particular projects and to help introduce us to building principals or school mental health principals who might be interested in our work. When we have this “warm hand off” and introduction to potential participants, it goes a long way in quickly establishing trust and allowing us to better meet the needs of the school.

Stacy-Ann: I usually gain administrator buy-in for the project first. Strong relationships with administrators have been key to any project that I have led in schools. It is also important that the project aligns with topics of interest to them as well. I have had success with projects that have a clear and direct benefit to the school. Ideally, not just for the students who participate, but potentially other students as well. Another factors that has helped is having research with minimal involvement from teachers or administrators at the school. Educators have so much on their plate, I try not to add any more.

Once I have administrator buy-in, I meet with teachers about the project. Some of the same reasons why administrators become interested in the project are the ones that draw in teachers. They especially appreciate projects that don’t ask them to do much and that don’t disrupt their schedules. As a result, I’ve conducted research outside of core instructional time (e.g., before school) and during intervention blocks (when conducting intervention studies). I have successfully been able to have teachers help recruit participants by sending informed consent forms home with students who may meet eligibility criteria for the study.

How have you navigated the challenges associated with conducting research in applied settings during COVID?

Lisa: I have actively chosen not to conduct research in applied settings during the pandemic. Communities like mine have been hit HARD and I didn’t think it was right to ask more of them so that my research agenda could benefit. Instead, I have focused on other papers like theoretical papers, commentaries, meta-analyses, etc.

Katie: I have tried to provide grace and space for myself, my colleagues, our students, and our school teams around engaging in research during the pandemic. My larger school community (where most of my research was taking place) was fully virtual from March 2020 until May 2021. Unless we had projects where it made sense to pivot to a virtual platform (only one of our projects fit this description), active data collection on the remaining projects were placed on hold. It was more important to our team to be respectful of the challenges associated with virtual learning during the pandemic, than to push forward research projects with impending deadlines. Thankfully, my academic home has offered support for that to happen, and no-cost extensions were granted by many funding agencies.

As a research team, we worked to evaluate how extant data could address our new and existing research questions. This led to a few unexpected manuscripts and projects that might not have happened otherwise. Our team was also able to spend more time evaluating qualitative data we had gathered from stakeholder focus groups for a new intervention we were evaluating, and quickly learned that this work was actually thriving during the pandemic. Many educators and parents had more time to participate in a virtual focus group during the first year of the pandemic than they may have otherwise.

What approaches have worked well for you for engaging in research partnerships? Comment below.

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