Fieldwork bliss! Building relationships with participants

I wasn’t really sure what to write about in the past few weeks as I thought nothing interesting was happening, but I just thought that’s naive. I got things going on – writing a book chapter, preparing for a conference, summer school training… and most importantly – fieldwork!

Thinking back, I have always been excited about doing fieldwork, even more so considering that I do research in schools and work with children. It’s always interesting and refreshing to speak to children and look at their perspectives. My research is exploring the experiences of transition to high school of a Year 6 class and I am spending a fair bit of time in school talking to the children and finding out about their expectations and so on.

But hold on, this is not what I wanted to write about. I think at the moment I am more preoccupied  with the ways in which I am developing a relationship with the children and becoming more and more engaged in the school context. It was interesting how quickly the initial distance melted and children began to ask me not only for help with the set work, but what exactly I was doing at school. In this respect they kind of became my little critical friends who thought through my project and the things I should know about them and the school so that I understand their experiences – so thoughtful! But also an opportunity to give them ownership of the project and make their views visible and valued. We have had a number of conversations about research, finding out what matters to children and making schools a better place which, to be honest, greatly benefited my own thinking and ongoing research planning.

I have always thought that one of the most important strengths of my position as a researcher is the fact that children could identify with me and my experiences because in my own educational background I have been in the same position as themselves – so we often talk about where they come from and what it was like in their countries before moving to England, what it was like to learn a whole new language, to manage different cultures and relationships. So I knew it’s only fair they hear my story as well. I told them that instead of telling it all myself I was happy to answer questions regarding things they wanted to know. I was asked the following:

What are schools like in Bulgaria?

Can you teach us some of your language?

How did you learn English?

What were you like in high school?

What do you do at the university?

Were you a teacher?

Reflecting on my answers, I think this was a good opportunity to actually frame and share my own experiences in a way I have never done before. And I suppose it made me a more real person with real experiences, worries and emotions.They even asked me if I could join the school to be a teacher as they could see I would be a ‘good one’. Most importantly though, I think building trust has taken me to another level of gathering even more real and meaningful data that goes beyond the obvious and factual.

It’s just so important to build that trustworthy relationship with participants and especially children. It makes the fieldwork more organic, based on real experiences and reflections. And it makes me happier because I managed to connect with the group of children who will make that jump to ‘big’ school and tell me all about it. Exciting stuff to look forward to!

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