Evolving through tensions: preservice teachers’ conceptions of social justice teaching

September, 2020

Source: Teaching Education, 31:3, 245-259

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study of pre service teachers (PSTs) enrolled in a social justice-oriented teacher education program (TEP) shows that tensions PSTs grappled with while teaching in urban, high-poverty schools powerfully shaped their conceptions of social justice teaching.
Implications for teacher educators working to support social justice-oriented PSTs are addressed.
This study addresses gaps in the knowledge base.
First, it investigated the evolution of PSTs’ conceptions of social justice teaching over one year, as opposed to one course.
Second, it focused on how PSTs’ student teaching experiences – and their inherent tensions – shaped the evolution of their conceptions of social justice teaching, which has been understudied (Mills & Ballantyne, 2016) and which has particular urgency given the push for increased clinical experiences (NCATE, 2010).
Third, it analyzed PSTs’ development from a sociocultural perspective, which scholars have recommended for studying PSTs’ learning about social justice (McDonald, 2005) and their learning during student teaching (Anderson & Stillman, 2013b), as sociocultural theory is well suited to capture the complexity of PSTs’ learning in context.
Specifically, this study explored the following:
(1) How do PSTs’ conceptions of social justice teaching evolve throughout one academic year?
(2) How does student teaching shape the development of PSTs’ conceptions of social justice teaching?

This paper reports on a subset of data from a qualitative case study (Stake, 1995) of nine PSTs in a social justice-oriented teacher education program (TEP) within a selective public university – University of the West Coast (UWC) – in a US metropolis.
Participants were elementary PSTs in the first year of the TEP’s two-year master’s degree program.
The author recruited participants from one section of the Literacy Methods course in which she was observing and interviewed all 9 out of 23 PSTs who volunteered.

Data collection
Case study data included interviews, observations, and documents.
The author conducted three interviews with each PST over one academic year; she also interviewed three focal PSTs’ cooperating teachers (CTs) and faculty advisor.
She observed in select TEP courses, including the Student Teaching Seminar, and in focal PSTs’ student teaching placements.
Documents included the TEP handbook, course syllabi, and PSTs’ course assignments, lesson plans, and weekly student teaching reflections.
The author conducted three 60- to 120-minute semi-structured interviews with each participant.
The first interview occurred in the fall and focused on PSTs’ backgrounds and why they chose the TEP.
She also inquired about their conceptions of social justice.
She conducted the second and third interviews in the winter and spring, after PSTs had completed their first and second student teaching placements, respectively.
She asked about participants’ learning in coursework and student teaching and repeated questions about conceptions of social justice teaching.

Data analysis
To analyze the data, the author utilized the ‘constant comparative method’ (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), an iterative process consisting of several coding cycles.
To look at development over time, she coded each set of interviews – fall, winter, and spring – as a group and then compared across analyses.

Findings and discussion
Findings from this study show that student-teaching tensions led to the evolution of PSTs’ conceptions of social justice teaching regarding three spheres: structural, relational, and personal. Some aspects of PSTs’ conceptions appear aligned with the TEP’s social justice-oriented goals.
For example, PSTs recognized the importance of structural inequity throughout their time in the TEP, a pillar of the TEP’s curriculum.
However, some of the development spurred by activity-system tensions during student teaching may not have been desirable, from the TEP’s standpoint.
For example, tensions PSTs encountered between TEP ideals and classroom realities led PSTs to consider it necessary to navigate inequitable structures.
If that involves ‘teaching to the test’ is this an instructional practice the TEP would endorse? To what degree – if any – might the TEP sanction working and being successful within inequitable systems? Given its goal for teachers to ‘change the world’ and engage in ‘activism,’ coupled with its emphasis on creating curriculum that is relevant to students’ lived experiences, it seems likely that the TEP would prefer its charges work to transform the system rather than tailor their instruction to standardized tests.
Specifically, considering these conflicts through an activity-system lens can support teacher educators to intentionally mediate PSTs’ field-based learning, as others have also argued (Anderson & Stillman, 2013a).
In particular, viewing tensions as catalysts for learning – as Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) posits (Engeström, 1999) – can support teacher educators to leverage these inevitable student-teaching conflicts to further PSTs’ understanding of social justice teaching.
This might take the form of, for example, Joanna, a teacher educator (an important activity-system ‘community member’) probing  to expand upon her use of the word ‘tolerance’ and to examine – and possibly challenge – the intent behind her words and support her to consider how a classroom based on ‘tolerance’ might look different than one grounded in ‘acceptance’ and ‘love’, thereby purposefully creating tension to facilitate learning and reflection.
A teacher educator could also think about ways to ‘re-mediate’ the student-teaching activity system (Anderson & Stillman, 2013a) in instances such as when Ruth disagreed with her CT sending ‘misbehaving’ students out of the classroom.
For example, a teacher educator could introduce a ‘mediating artifact’ such as a co-developed action plan for ways that Ruth could (respectfully and appropriately) support both her CT and students when individuals were perceived as disruptive.
Basing the plan on the TEP’s core tenets would not only bridge the university-field divide but also alter activity-system dynamics – such as possibly changing the ‘division of labor’ so Ruth was a more active participant rather than a passive observer – thereby reshaping Ruth’s learning (and also supporting students’ learning).
By leveraging various conflicts and contradictions as learning opportunities, or facilitating ‘productive tension’ (Stillman, 2011) for PSTs, teacher educators would have the opportunity to mediate PSTs’ learning in ways that can further PSTs’ learning towards the TEP’s social justice-oriented goals.

This study has implications for TEPs aiming to prepare social justice-oriented teachers.
Student teaching placements proved to be critical settings for PSTs’ learning, as others have documented (McDonald, 2005; Whipp, 2013).
Teacher educators would be wise to ensure they are purposefully mediating PSTs’ field experiences to facilitate PSTs’ critical and equity-minded thinking about fieldwork (e.g. Stillman & Anderson, 2016).
While this study demonstrates evolution in PSTs’ conceptions of social justice teaching, the future in-service practice of these teachers remains unknown.
Additional studies following PSTs from TEPs into their classrooms (e.g. Mills, 2013; Whipp, 2013) would provide insight into how teachers make sense of their preservice learning given additional contextual factors of their in-service realities.

Anderson, L., & Stillman, J. (2013a). Making learning the object: Using cultural historical activity theory to analyze and organize student teaching in urban high-needs schools. Teachers College Record, 115(3), 1–36.
Anderson, L., & Stillman, J. (2013b). Student teaching’s contribution to preservice teacher development: A review of research focused on the preparation of teachers for urban and high-needs contexts. Review of Educational Research, 83(1), 3–69.
Engeström, Y. (1999). Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R. Punamäki (Eds.), Perspectives on activity theory (pp. 19–38). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McDonald, M. (2005). The integration of social justice in teacher education: Dimensions of prospective teachers’ opportunities to learn. Journal of Teacher Education, 56(5), 418–435.
Mills, C. (2013). A Bourdieuian analysis of teachers’ changing dispositions towards social justice: The limitations of practicum placements in pre-service teacher education. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 41(1), 41–54.
Mills, C., & Ballantyne, J. (2016). Social justice and teacher education: A systematic review of empirical work in the field. Journal of Teacher Education, 67(4), 263–276.
National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. (2010). Transforming teacher education through clinical practice (Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel On Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning). Washington, DC: National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education.
Stake, R. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Stillman, J. (2011). Teacher learning in an era of high-stakes accountability: Productive tension and critical professional practice. Teachers College Record, 113(1), 133–180.
Stillman, J., & Anderson, L. (2016). Minding the mediation: Examining one teacher educator’s facilitation of two preservice teachers’ learning. Urban Education, 51(6), 683–713.
Whipp, J. L. (2013). Developing socially just teachers: The interaction of experiences before, during, and after teacher preparation in beginning urban teachers. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(5), 454–467. 

Updated: Apr. 19, 2021