Justice, practice and the ‘Real World’: pre-service teachers’ critically conscious visions for teaching amid the complexities and challenges of learning to teach

August 2019

Source: International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 32:7, 929-946

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The author’s practitioner research question in this study was: how do pre-service teachers negotiate conceptualizations of teaching-oriented toward justice, in their development of teaching practice, as novices being/becoming justice-oriented educators?
In examining pre-service teachers’ perspectives through interviews and artifacts of their own practice, he discovered they narrated the aims for their practice in relation to the ‘bigger picture’ and the ‘real world.’
In doing so, he found they also narrated complexities and challenges in navigating this mission in the context of teaching practice and as novices learning to teach.
The author intends the learnings from this study to inform how he and perhaps other justice-oriented foundations instructors can better support the pre-service teachers in becoming proficient, justice-oriented practitioners.

This practitioner research investigated how pre-service teachers themselves negotiated the intersection of justice and practice, so as to better support future pre-service teachers which the researcher teaches.
This article presents one set of findings from the broader study (Schiera, Ravitch, Rust, & Reisman, 2017), which addressed three research questions:

1. What is the relationship between how pre-service teachers conceptualize their teaching practice and their beliefs and understandings about justice and equity?
2. How do they try to enact those conceptualizations in the context of their student teaching placements?
3. What, if any, tensions arise as they negotiate the relationship of justice/equity and their enacted teaching practice in their student teaching placement context?

Pursuing these research questions served intellectual goals, in speaking to the gap between social justice teacher education (SJTE) and practice based teacher education (PBTE) in the literature, as well as professional and practical goals, by influencing improving the author’s work supporting the pre-service teachers he teaches, thereby supporting their development as justice-oriented educators (Maxwell, 2013).

The author employed critical qualitative research methods, which are conceptually central to this study in two ways.
First, critical qualitative research methods aim to de-hierarchize power relationships by centering participants as experts of their own experiences.
This study positions pre-service teachers – the author’s students – as his teachers.
Second, the content of the inquiry and methods of data analysis draw on critical social theories as frameworks to surface how power operates in the practice of teaching and learning to teach.
The findings of this inquiry are leveraged toward educational equity – in this case, toward more effectively preparing teachers to become social justice educators.

There were seven purposefully selected pre-service teachers in this study.
All were enrolled in an urban-focused pre-service teacher preparation program with a long-standing focus on social justice and practitioner inquiry and an emerging focus on employing practice-based methods.
Additionally, given its location in a major northeastern city, the program had an explicitly urban focus, placing pre-service teachers in schools with diverse student populations.
All of the participants were students in a section of social foundations and in a summer fieldwork placement coordinated by the author.
All participants were White.
This limitation of the study is an artifact of whiteness of teachers in U.S. society generally (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).
Data sources included pre-service teachers’ work in the author’s foundations course, three semi-structured interviews before and during their student teaching practica, artifacts of their student teaching practice (videos, lesson plans, student work, etc.), their final teacher research inquiry portfolio, and one final focus group.

Findings: teaching practice and the bigger picture

Justice-oriented practice: preparation for – or transformation of? – The ‘Real World’
All of the participants related their professional visions to the ‘bigger picture’ or the ‘real world’, feeling that good teaching must be related to ‘social justice issues’ and have ‘an effect outside of school.’
Two broad patterns emerged in how the participants in this study conceptualized their ‘bigger picture’ visions.
All seven teachers related their aims to the first pattern, preparing students to succeed in the ‘real world.’
In these ways, pre-service teachers considered what their students – predominantly students of color and often economically disadvantaged – needed to succeed in the wider world.
In addition to preparation for the real world, five of the seven pre-service teachers also emphasized critique or transformation of the real world.
For the teachers who articulated aims of both preparation for and transformation of the existing world, some nuance was required.
In sum, the range and variation of professional visions related to the ‘bigger picture’ represent pre-service teachers finding convergence between justice and practice by orienting their practice toward justice.

Complexities of preparing students for the ‘Real World’ in teaching practice
Narrating one’s professional vision in relation to justice became more complex as pre-service teachers were engaged in actual situations of practice – the ‘day-to-day application’.
One student’s experiences revealed one manifestation of these tensions: when is preparation for the real world important, and when is it problematic?
He criticized careerist paradigms, but at times embraced college preparation; he sought to emphasize the intrinsic value of things, but leveraged the real world when it served as a necessary motivator.

Four pre-service teachers described a different challenge that emerged in practice: preparing students for the real world while also being responsive to students’ real worlds.
This tension lies at the core of culturally responsive teaching, in connecting students’ experiences and identities to the learning content and skills valued in school and society (e.g. Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995).
Two pre-service teachers described a third tension: how to ensure students felt valued and successful in academic settings, while maintaining high expectations to ensure they were prepared for the real world.

In short, while all seven pre-service teachers identified preparing students for the real world as one of their aims, actually doing this in teaching practice proved more complicated.
Across planning culturally responsive instruction, selecting curricular content, building key skills, designing collaborative activities, motivating student engagement and holding high expectations, preservice teachers narrated a complex and complicated relationship between seemingly clear ‘real world’ purposes for teaching and the day-to-day elements of teaching.

Developing justice-oriented practice in the challenging process of learning to teach
One student’s teaching aim was explicitly about making the world more equitable; here, his challenge is not from the context of practice, but from his novice status in the process of learning to teach.
He distinguished between moments when novice teachers can be ‘conscientious,’ ‘equitable,’ and ‘democratic’ because they have their ‘wits’ about them, versus being ‘in the moment,’ ‘trying to be a teacher-person’ but ‘still gaining experience,’ which makes it ‘a little bit tougher.’
Unlike the challenges above, which come from context, these challenges emerge from stages of development.
In short, he highlights the challenges of being as equity-minded as he aspires to be among the pressures of being a novice teacher learning to teach.
This novice stage mediates both his conceptualization of what a proficient teacher is and his bandwidth to pursue that vision in a complex moment of teaching practice.
Some students are, indeed, critically conscious about larger societal issues in relation to their practice; the content of the author’s social foundations course was described as the ‘theoretical underpinning’ by them.
Rather, they are communicating that the pursuit of their justice-oriented visions is tangled with their status as novice educators, struggling to attend both to their development of practice and to their larger aims toward justice.
Amid these pressures of the ‘day-to-day’ and ‘moment by moment,’ they narrowed their scope of action to what seemed possible as novices.
The author feels that perhaps the preparation of social justice-oriented educators must be considered developmentally, in relationship to the challenging task of also learning to teach.

Conclusion: seeking synthesis in practice and praxis
The author declares that he has taught and will continue to teach more pre-service teachers who ask the question: What is the ‘day-to-day practical application’ of justice-oriented social foundations?
In conducting this critical qualitative practitioner researcher study, the author learned how pre-service teachers themselves negotiated the relationship between justice and practice.
They shared professional visions relating their practice to the ‘real world’ or the ‘bigger picture’; narrated the struggles that emerged in the complexities of teaching; and situated their aims in relation to the challenging process of learning how to teach.
In reflecting on these lessons, the author discovered that social foundations can play three key roles for pre-service teachers facing these dilemmas: first, by supporting their development of a justice-oriented professional vision; second, by enabling them to practice seeing situations of practice with a critical lens; and third, by teaching them practices to interrupt inequities appropriate for their stage of development.
Pre-service teachers can apply both critical conceptual tools and social justice core practices to understand their emerging practice in new ways and act toward justice within it.
From a sociocultural perspective, this addressing all elements of the problem of enactment (Kennedy, 1999).
From a critical perspective, this represents critical praxis: action and reflection on the world to transform it (Freire, 1970/2011).

Freire, P. (1970/2011). Pedagogy of the oppressed (2nd ed.) (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum. (Original work published 1970.)
Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press
Kennedy, M. M. (1999). The Role of pre-service teacher education. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 54–85). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491. doi:10.3102/00028312032003465
Maxwell, J. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sages
Schiera, A. J., Ravitch, S. M., Rust, F., & Reisman, A. (2017). Justice and practice: Tensions in the development of social justice (teacher) educators (Doctoral dissertation). ProQuest Dissertations & Theses, Ann Arbor, MI. 

Updated: Apr. 29, 2020