Opportunities and Costs: A Self-Study of Coordinating Teacher Education Programs

August 2021

Source: Studying Teacher Education, 17:2, 122-142

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this self-study, the authors sought to understand how two teacher educators navigated the opportunities and costs of coordinating their respective programs, literacy education (Joy) and elementary education (Michelle).
Throughout the study, they negotiated the tensions of their roles as coordinators as well as teacher-educators-as researchers.
By taking on these multiple identities, they hoped to grow and reflect on their personal and professional journeys as educators while answering the question ‘How do program coordinators perceive the opportunities and costs associated with their positions?’

This self-study was conducted at James Madison University a mid-sized public university in the mid-Atlantic area of the United States.
The university’s College of Education (CoE) houses five departments, each with its own academic unit head (AUH), often called department head at other institutions.
The responsibility of the AUH includes overseeing whichever programs are in their department and they report directly to the dean.
In contrast, a coordinator works with the faculty and students within their programs and reports directly to the AUH.
While not all in programs in the CoE have coordinators, each of the four programs in the authors’ department has a coordinator

Self-study is a powerful methodology for ‘addressing the multiple concerns and needs teacher educator administrators might have’ (Allison & Ramirez, 2020, p. 19).
Pinnegar (1998) suggested that the way a self-study might be ‘done’ depended on what was sought to be better understood.
The authors chose to engage in a collaborative self-study since it allowed them to work together as critical friends to understand ‘problems of practice’ more deeply (Dinkelman, 2003).
Critical friendship in research on leadership takes time but is essential since administrators may expose feelings of inefficiency or inexperience (Allison & Ramirez, 2020).

Data sources
An important aspect of this self-study was the desire to better understand the authors’ leadership responsibilities and actions.
Thus, the data they collected were specifically chosen to reach that goal and they were very intentional as they designed the study knowing that as leaders, it would be easy to let other things take precedence over collecting data.
The authors each kept an electronic reflective research journal, adding multiple entries per week over the course of the study.
Rather than responding to specific prompts, they used these journals to document leadership tasks, interactions with stakeholders, and their reflections.
The authors also met monthly in critical friend meetings.
These meetings, usually lasting over an hour, occurred in early September, late October, and mid-November.
These open ended conversations allowed them to examine their leadership practices and exchange ideas with the support of a critical friend who was on the same journey.
In addition, they interviewed their AUH to better understand her thinking specific to the opportunities and costs of coordinating their specific programs.
This interview was recorded and later transcribed.

Findings and discussion
The authors were novice self-study researchers who greatly varied in terms of their experience coordinating programs.
However, they both agree that their experience acting as critical friends during this study not only strengthened their research, but it prevented some of the loneliness they had felt in the past as coordinators.
Conducting this self-study encouraged them for the first time to have honest conversations with a peer about the costs and opportunities involved in coordination.
What was striking as they looked across the data, was in many instances their opportunities and costs varied despite the fact that they are coordinators in the same department.
For example, Michelle’s primary stakeholders were Elementary Education (ELED students, and except for helping faculty with particular student issues, Michelle had relatively little involvement with faculty.
Although she facilitated program meetings and student review meetings attended by faculty, she did not schedule classes or assign faculty to teach courses.
She also was not involved in hiring supervisors and/or adjuncts.
Joy, on the other hand, was heavily involved with faculty.
From assigning course loads to hiring adjuncts, Joy dealt directly with faculty on a regular basis.
Also, Joy was responsible for recruiting teachers into the M.Ed. program, whereas Michelle was not involved in recruitment for her program at all; students chose to attend the university because of the 5th year master’s degree into which they moved seamlessly.
Prior to the self-study, neither of the authors were aware of the differences between coordinating the two programs; they assumed that they each fulfilled the same duties and responsibilities.
Engaging in collaborative self-study helped them establish a professional community (Allison & Ramirez, 2020; Roose, 2010).
Conversations as critical friends brought differences in their roles to light and led them to interviewing their AUH.
They wondered, why did they do such different things under the same title of coordinator?
During the interview, the AUH readily admitted that she had little expertise in literacy and left most of those decisions to Joy.
On the other hand, the AUH had been a faculty member in ELED, the program Michelle coordinated, for many years, knew the program intimately, and believed that she could remove much of the decision making off of Michelle’s responsibilities.
Having an opportunity to discuss the role of coordinators with the AUH helped them understand why some differences existed.
However, it still highlighted the fact that program coordination was not consistent across programs, even within one department.
What became apparent also was the level of authority, perceived or real, that the authors had as coordinators.
When Michelle assumed the role of coordinator, the AUH at the time explicitly told her that she was at the same hierarchical level of all faculty; she had no more authority to make decisions than any other faculty member.
Joy, on the other hand, had no such conversation at the time she accepted the position; and was often encouraged to make decisions.
This affected the ways in which Michelle and Joy approached coordinating.
The data did reveal similarities.
For instance, the authors both believed that developing, growing, and maintaining strong, positive relationships amongst coworkers and students was key to their success as coordinators regardless of stakeholders.
They understood that it was necessary to have a collaborative approach to problem-solving and everyone should contribute ideas and perspectives.
Coordinators cannot be the sole resource for answers.
Students and faculty need to acknowledge and accept their roles in resolving issues.
Doing so will build the leadership skills of all.
The authors learned, too, that coordinators ‘serve at the pleasure of’ their AUH. While they each had program goals and agendas, their efforts were sometimes interrupted by requests from the AUH.
The AUH’s emergency became their emergency whether they wanted it or not.
This reflected the findings of Gmelch (2004) who studied conditions for academic department chairs.
However, opportunities to exercise a level of autonomy did surface.
The authors considered themselves lucky to work in an environment where overall the faculty wants what is best for the department and the students they work with.
Research suggests that academics who are committed to their profession, experience higher levels of job satisfaction (Dorenkamp & Ruhle, 2019).
As a result, they have a shared desire to improve policies and how things are done.
They found validation and fulfillment when they were successful in effecting change.
For Michelle, this was true primarily through advising students as they navigated the challenges of becoming teachers.
In working with students, Michelle often advocated for changes in procedures that affected students’ ability to progress through the ELED program.
When she was successful, she knew she not only helped specific students, but future students who would have faced the same challenge.
For Joy, this included rebuilding the literacy program through hiring new faculty and expanding the M.Ed. program throughout the state.
In conclusion, universities can shape and strengthen individual programs and departments by attending to program coordinators in three ways:
(1) develop university class schedules so that time exists during the day, rather than at the end of the day, for rich and deep conversation among leaders on a regular basis;
(2) develop explicit job responsibilities for coordinators that reflect a structure of coherence and authority; and
(3) provide mentors and/or leadership training to assist coordinators in building their skills and supporting their efforts.
There are thousands of faculty across the country and world who are in leadership roles, whether directing or coordinating a program or multiple programs at one time.
This self-study adds to the literature on the importance of leadership if the goal is to attract and retain individuals who will work to attain the mission and vision of the university.

Allison, V. A., & Ramirez, L. A. (2020). Role of self-study in navigating teacher educator administrators’ responsibilities. In J. Kitchen, A. Berry, S. M. Bullock, A. R. Crowe, M. Taylor, H. Guðjónsdóttir, & L. Thomas (Eds.), International handbook of self-study of teaching and teacher education practices, Second edition (pp. 1200–1222). Springer International Handbooks of Education.
Dinkelman, T. (2003). Self-study in teacher education: A means and ends tool for promotingreflective teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 54(1), 6–18.
Dorenkamp, I., & Ruhle, S. (2019). Work–Life conflict, professional commitment, and job satisfaction among academics. The Journal of Higher Education, 90(1), 56–84.
Gmelch, W. H. (2004). The department chair’s balancing acts. New Directions for Higher Education, 126(126), 69–84
Pinnegar, S. (1998). Methodological perspectives: Introduction. In M. L. Hamilton (Ed..), Reconceptualizing teaching practice: Self-study in teacher education (pp. 31–33). Falmer Press.
Roose, D. (2010). A few steps forward in the process of looking back: Setting parameters for a self-study of administrative and program development work over 18 years. Studying Teacher Education, 6(3), 269–279. 

Updated: Dec. 22, 2021