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HYPOTHESIS AND THEORY article

Front. Educ., 16 December 2022
Sec. Teacher Education
Volume 7 - 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2022.1036949

Four propositions on how to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educator professionalism

  • Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

This article offers four propositions on how to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educator professionalism. These propositions start from one central thesis: teacher educator professionalism can only be fully understood by looking at actual teacher education practices and how these unfold and develop. Based on this conception of enacted professionalism, the first proposition questions the emphasis on teaching experience for teacher educators; the second proposition advances the idea that teacher education cannot be envisioned without someone to educate; the third proposition suggests making the teacher education institute as an organization a central focus of understanding; the fourth proposition addresses the need to reframe traditional forms of knowledge (re)presentation. In conclusion, a framework for future research and practice of teacher educator development is proposed.

Introduction

Teacher educators no longer are the under-researched and poorly understood occupational group Loughran and Russell (1997) claimed they were. Over the recent 15 years, policymakers and researchers have shown an increasing interest in them. The European Commission (2013) identified teacher educators as “crucial players for maintaining – and improving – the high quality of the teaching workforce” (p. 4). After all, teacher educators are not just building the pedagogies and practices of initial teacher education. As Vanassche et al. (2019) argued, they are also taking on responsibility for “inducting newcomers into the ‘profession’, … modeling, exemplifying and updating professional practice, and undertaking research that informs learning and teaching in the field (p. 479).” The argument often made then is that, just as the quality of teaching in schools is highly impacted by who teachers are, what and how they teach, so the quality of teacher education depends on who teacher educators are, what and how they teach about teaching (Davey, 2013; Vanassche, 2014).

This article focuses on teacher educators’ professionalism because of this centrality. Professionalism is used as a descriptor of the knowledge, skills, and practices specific to the occupational group of teacher educators. If the work of educating teachers requires a particular kind of professionalism that differs in important ways from that developed as a teacher in schools, then what is the nature and substance of this professionalism? How is it constructed? How can we start to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educators’ professionalism? This article speaks to these questions. First, a distinction will be made between two major perspectives from which these questions can be addressed – i.e., a practice-based and a blueprint approach – and the respective conceptions of professionalism these perspectives are based on – i.e., enacted professionalism and demanded professionalism. This analysis lays the foundation for the central thesis put forward in this article: teacher educator professionalism can only by fully understood by looking at actual teacher education practices and how these unfold and develop. The second section of this article builds on this thesis to offer four propositions on how to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educator professionalism. These propositions neither intend to be comprehensive, nor do I claim to have definite answers.1 Rather, these propositions give an overview of the issues that I consider vital to move research on and support for teacher educators’ professionalism further: first, questioning the emphasis on teaching experience as central to being a good teacher educator; second, consistently recognizing the fact that teacher education cannot be envisioned without someone to educate; third, making the teacher education institute as an organization a central focus of understanding; and fourth, addressing the need to reframe traditional forms of knowledge (re)presentation. In conclusion to these propositions, a framework for future research on and practice of teacher educator development is proposed.

From demanded to enacted professionalism

One perspective adopted in many national jurisdictions to analyze and articulate the differences between teaching and teaching about teaching is that of professional standards describing necessary competencies for teacher educators (see, for example, Australia, Flanders, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and United States). Advocates claim that the application of a uniform standards framework will improve the standing of the profession (Vanassche and Berry, 2020). Standards respond to “an ‘ethical’ obligation to be precise about teacher educators’ work” (European Commission, 2013, p. 16). They provide clarity on what is to be expected from teacher educators (Koster and Dengerink, 2008). As such, researchers, policymakers, and professional associations frame standards as an appropriate tool to improve the quality of teacher education and, beyond that, the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

In most countries, the standard frameworks are “real” in the sense that they are being used as the point of reference for induction and professional development trajectories for teacher educators. They are also “real” in that they are difficult to question or ignore. Ceulemans (2015) has shown that standards are remarkably convincing because they are not only based on research but also supported with policy measures, pedagogically inspired, and “ready for use” (see also Ceulemans et al., 2012). Working with the standards framework aligns with the findings from recent research or agreement among a community of practitioners, adds to changes that are deemed necessary from a policy perspective, offers the opportunity to monitor how well one is doing against the standards, and appeals to one’s ethical commitment to offer quality education to one’s students. These mechanisms mutually reinforce one another. Concerns about the scientific footing of standards, for example, become less relevant because standards offer a convenient policy instrument to make visible the many tasks and responsibilities faced by teacher educators. Concerns about the level of political support can easily be countered by referring to its scientific footing. This versatility makes it difficult to question professional standards (Ceulemans, 2015). For many practitioners, researchers, and policymakers alike, they go without saying. However, this legitimacy also means that “the debate what is good teaching and what kind of teachers one aims to educate is prematurely closed or considered irrelevant or redundant because the answers to these questions have presumably already been given” (Vanassche et al., 2019, p. 484) by the standards.

Underlying professional standards is a blueprint approach (Kelchtermans, 2013) or a conception of demanded professionalism (Evans, 2008; Vanassche and Berry, 2020). Uniform standard frameworks are “an articulated perception of what lies within the parameters of acceptable professional behavior, roles, and attitudes” (Vanassche et al., 2019, p. 485; see also Kelchtermans, 2013). The knowledge, skills, and attitudes associated with the role are assumed to exist context-free (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014; Vanassche and Berry, 2020). That is, standards evidence and prescribe “the knowledge that individual teacher educators need to master, or at least actively work toward, in order to legitimately consider themselves ‘professional’ teacher educators” (Vanassche and Berry, 2020, p. 11). One of the problems associated with this conception of demanded professionalism is what is defined as professional behavior, and who is rightfully labeled as professional, comes from outside the community (Kelchtermans, 2013). Depending on the authorship of the standards, researchers, policymakers, or professional associations very effectively record the “accepted shared norms and behavior code of the profession in relation to how it delivers its service and/or performs its designated function(s)” (Evans, 2008, p. 22). Despite standards being presented as a way for professionals to preserve or reclaim ownership over their roles and remits, the advent of this approach is often seen “as a professional development initiative which has, to all intents and purposes, swept away such conceptions of professionals’ autonomy and control” (p. 24).

A second problem is the rather mechanistic view of teacher educator professionalism underlying the blueprint approach. In this approach, professional teacher educator behavior depends on a set of competencies, which can be specified in advance and which, if rightfully implemented in practice, guarantee the desired outcomes with student teachers (Vanassche and Berry, 2020). For the reasons that will be developed further below, such a mechanistic view denies the complexity of the work of educating teachers and its inherent relational quality as well as its contextual embeddedness.

This article, and the propositions put forward in it, is born from an alternative conception of teacher educator professionalism, which is defined as practice-based (Kelchtermans, 2013) or enacted professionalism (Munby et al., 2001; Evans, 2008; Grossman and McDonald, 2008; Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014; Vanassche et al., 2019; Vanassche and Berry, 2020). The starting point for conceptualizing and studying teacher educator professionalism from a practice-based approach is actual teacher education practices. It concerns professionalism as “that which manifests itself and constantly develops in and through practice” (Vanassche and Berry, 2020, p. 2). The term “enacted” gives center stage to “what is actually happening in practice and why that might be happening” (p. 12), rather than one’s hopes and aspirations for that practice or “normative definitions of what should happen in that practice (e.g., in terms of lists of required competences or standards)” (p. 12). The practice-based approach is reflected in four questions that are subsequently raised and answered: “‘what happens?’; ‘why is this happening?’; ‘what do we think of this and why?’; and ‘should we try to change this practice and why would this change be an improvement?”’ (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014, p. 118). The order of the questions is crucial in that it postpones the evaluation of practice. It is only after a deep exploration of practice through engagement with the first and second questions that one moves to close examination (and evaluation) of the normative stances underpinning one’s practice (including the goals one strives for, the rationale for one’s actions and decisions in practice, and the tenability of that rationale). A conception of enacted professionalism avoids the pitfalls of what I called a de-contextualized and mechanistic view of teacher educator professionalism (Vanassche and Berry, 2020).

Starting from this general claim that teacher educator professionalism and the complexity it entails can only be fully understood by looking at actual teacher education practices and how these unfold and develop, I will present four propositions on how to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educator professionalism.

Four propositions on how to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educator professionalism

First proposition: Having teaching experience is not central to being a good teacher educator

A conception of enacted professionalism should not be read as a plea to reduce teacher educator development to acquiring experience with the “real” world and practice of teaching. “First-hand experience with teaching is central to being a good teacher educator.” The words flow easily from the tongue, but this is not the central issue. Many teacher educators have teaching experience in schools, and that experience needs to be held to the same high standards that we have for teaching in schools. Yet, Korthagen et al. (2006) rightfully argued that “before teacher educators can maintain close connections with schools and the profession, they must understand the many intricate ways in which teaching itself is similar to and different from teaching about teaching” (p. 1034).

A helpful way of distinguishing between the work and responsibilities of teachers and teacher educators was proposed by Murray (2005) who conceptualized teacher educators as second-order practitioners. “As second-order practitioners teacher educators induct their students into the practices and discourses of both school teaching and teacher education” (Murray and Male, 2005, p. 126; see also Murray, 2008). Therefore, “teaching about teaching requires the ability to hold two perspectives simultaneously: The perspective of the classroom teacher and the perspective of the teacher educator” (Vanassche et al., 2015, p. 345; see also Zeichner, 2005; Loughran, 2014). Many of the activities performed by teacher educators bear a close resemblance to what teachers do. Just like teachers, teacher educators design instructional environments to support students’ learning, decide on learning goals and curriculum materials, and plan their assessment strategies accordingly. The crucial difference, however, is that “this teaching is always intended to support students’ learning about teaching” (Vanassche, 2014, p. 3). They teach about teaching.2 As Russell (1997) and Loughran (2006) have argued, this implies a complex amalgamation of content knowledge (the knowledge to teach a particular subject) and pedagogical knowledge (the knowledge to teach about teaching). Moving from the first-order field of school teaching to the second-order field of higher education thus demands a significant shift in identity, practices, and pedagogical expertise.

Not every teacher educator is capable or willing to make that shift and operate from a second-order perspective. Teacher educators who enter the profession as successful classroom teachers with years of teaching experience often tend to rely on their knowledge of the first-order field to teach their student teachers in the second-order field of teacher education.3 Take as an example one teacher educator who was interviewed in a study exploring teacher educator positionings in relation to student teachers.4 Grace (pseudonym) had entered teacher education with 15 years of experience in elementary teaching. Her first-hand experience with the reality of teaching in schools was seen as enabling her to teach student teachers. She stated the following: “This worked for me, trust me, I am the expert.” Such a position resulted in a rather directive relationship with student teachers in which she defined the agenda and decided how to work on it, in line with her personal experience of teaching (see Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014 for a more detailed account of Grace’s story). Research shows that this is not a stand-alone case. Revealing is, for example, the literature on the disruptive experiences of classroom teachers transitioning into their new roles as teacher educators (Bullock, 2009; Boyd and Harris, 2010; McKeon and Harrison, 2010; Wood and Borg, 2010; Ben-Peretz et al., 2011; Trent, 2013). In the face of the challenges of the work of educating teachers, teacher educators often express “a determination to develop and demonstrate competence in their new role by ‘seeking credibility through knowing.’ Their aim, at least in the early stages of their new role, was on establishing credibility as a ‘teacher”’ (Boyd and Harris, 2010, p. 14). Such a view firmly locks in the knowledge of teaching in schools, with teachers. Put differently, from a first-order perspective the “problem” of teacher education boils down to sharing “the best of the best.” It is about mapping and transferring “[what] the most able exemplars of accomplished practice do, and do well” (Shulman et al., 2006, p. 29) to those new in the field since having student teachers successfully import these practices into their own classrooms is assumed to be the best indicator for superior teaching performance. From this follows that the central goal for the professional development of teacher educators is having teaching experience since experience in classrooms and schools is assumed to be the best indicator for superior teacher educator performance.

One of the risks of such a view is that the rich learning opportunities that can be made available at teacher education institutes are reduced. Wisdom of practice takes precedence over the wisdom of theory, the latter referring “to theoretical frameworks, models, and concepts that operate as a lens to analyze and make sense of the particular situation in which one finds oneself and decide how to act in it” (Vanassche et al., 2019, p. 483). Many beginning teachers have faced a deeply troubling reality shock upon entry into the practice field, yet the reverse problem is equally problematic. Boiling down teacher education to “learning the tricks of the trade, without much deepening through theory” (Korthagen et al., 2006, p. 1021), means that the century-old problem in teacher education is inadequately addressed – that is, how to teach teachers to connect theory with practice in such a way that they can use theory to inform their practice.

Second proposition: Teacher education cannot be envisioned without someone to educate

Conceiving professionalism as what is manifested in actual teacher education practices automatically implies that teacher educators’ professionalism only exists in relational forms, the most crucial relation being the one with one’s students. Current research’s preoccupation with professionalism as the competencies acquired, possessed, and performed by individual teacher educators (following the blueprint approach) thus lacks validity. Most importantly, it fails to acknowledge that teacher educators cannot escape the fundamental reality of always “being in relation with students” (Biesta, 2009). Teacher educators cannot force learning; it may or may not occur. They depend on their relationship with their students to make learning happen (Vanassche, 2016). Hence my second proposition that the relation between teacher educators and their student teachers, its nature and development, needs to be included in every attempt to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educator professionalism.

The important element to consider here is the fact that these relations always imply more than a simple technical liaison in which teacher educators make sure that the right set of skills and knowledge is produced in their students. This is not an argument against the importance of equipping student teachers with the technical know-how to teach, yet this is not the only goal that matters (Vanassche, 2016). Such a focus on means runs the risk of forgetting what Zeichner (1983) labeled “the prior and more fundamental questions related to purposes and ends” (p. 3). Drawing on Van Manen’s (1991) work, I have referred to this as the ‘pedagogical’ in teacher education (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014; Vanassche, 2016). The pedagogical relationship suggests a particular content or form of the relationship between teacher educators and their students, a relationship of care and responsibility for the student as a person. Such a pedagogical relationship is more than a means to an end; it is a relationship in which the teacher educator tries to act in “a right, good, or appropriate way” (Van Manen, 1991, p. 9) for what is best for the “being and becoming” (p. 17) of the student. Even a simple, seemingly technical issue such as evaluating student teachers thus implies important and difficult “normative decisions between different answers to the question of how to do justice to one’s students or, more generally, the question of what is good teaching” (Vanassche and Berry, 2020, p. 31). Therefore, Kelchtermans (2009)5 has argued that “[t]eaching implies taking a stance” (p. 265), pursuing particular goals and values, and dismissing others, for very good reasons. The conception of enacted professionalism put forward in this article starts from this idea: a teacher educators’ actions in practice reveal what a teacher educator stands for. Teacher educators’ actions and decisions in practice are professional messages or reflections of one’s personal stance, values, and norms (goals) and a particular idea of “good” (meaningful) teaching.

As Frelin (2013) has shown, relational commitment, in that sense, is not so much to be understood as an ability that can be possessed or performed, or something that concerns teacher educators’ personalities or inner life. Rather, it is a structural dimension of their professionalism. It is the basic condition under which teacher education occurs. Teacher educators’ relational work with student teachers “parallels or is done in the shadow of direct instruction” (Frelin, 2013, p. 2). It escapes one’s abilities to actually direct, interfere with, or alter it and goes beyond the teacher educator’s knowledge of his/her student teachers. Relational professionalism is not “a pre-package ability that can be called forth and applied in each and every instance” (p. 2). Rather, it concerns deliberate action in pursuit of educational goals and activities which one perceives as the “proper” thing to do or to pursue in light of a particular group of students, at particular stages in their development. As such, the “degree of relationalism” of a given activity cannot be anticipated, nor judged outside of the activity itself; relational professionalism is always tied to the contexts and practices in which it occurs and develops.

Because of the relationship with student teachers and the moral commitment it entails, student teachers are ultimately the ones that justify one’s sense of self and professional competence as a teacher educator (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2016). Student teachers are not passive recipients of teaching. They are active agents in the relationships with teacher educators. Lortie’s (1975) theory of the apprenticeship of observation makes clear that student teachers always experience and interpret teacher educators’ actions in specific ways. They have the relational agency to accept, shape, or reject teacher educators’ decisions for action, with profound consequences for the teacher educator–student teacher relationship and the professional task at hand (i.e., teaching and learning about teaching). The “willing” student confirms one’s competence and sense of self as a teacher educator. The “obnoxious” student denies such acknowledgment, for example, by ignoring feedback or seeking different sources of feedback. Student teachers dispense legitimation of teacher educators’ professional role. When the relational acknowledgment of professional competence is denied, this often leaves teacher educators vulnerable and uncertain, an issue that will be returned to below.

Third proposition: The teacher education institute as an organization needs to be made the focus of understanding rather than the location in which practices take place

The relationship between teacher educators and student teachers never works in a vacuum. It takes shape and form in specific institutional contexts, characterized by specific structural (e.g., the availability of time and resources, organizational structure, formal and informal roles and positions, and student teacher population) and cultural (e.g., curriculum, leadership, and teacher education team) working conditions. These different contexts inevitably influence teacher educators’ understanding of themselves and their work, as well as their professional learning (opportunities). The contexts in which teacher educators enact their practice thus matter.

This may sound like stating the obvious. Yet, the emphasis in existing research lies almost exclusively on the micro-level (the level of “teaching one’s students”) while learning less about the organizational and institutional realities and processes that impact in fundamental ways the content and pedagogy of teacher educators’ practice. For example, what does it mean to operate in a competency-based curriculum that fundamentally contradicts one’s personal beliefs about teaching? How to cope with a significant increase of student teachers, limiting your ability to visit them during their internship and develop a trusting relationship with their mentors? How important is it to build alliances with the “key figures” in the institute (a.o. heads of department, program leaders) who – as we know from research on micropolitics (e.g., Blase, 1991, 1997; Achinstein, 2002) and educational innovation and reform (e.g., Altrichter and Salzgeber, 2000; Achinstein and Ogawa, 2006) – have a crucial impact on the cultural norms, rules, and values that define the organization of work in the institute? Working conditions are often considered insignificant or peripheral, simply the location in which practice takes place or an unfortunate aspect of the institutional framework in which people are working. This denial makes it more difficult for teacher educators to see the fundamental relevance of the organizational level to their practice, job motivation, and professional development. Beyond that, it also makes it difficult to alert student teachers to the fact that, just like teacher educators, they will have to operate in specific schools with a specific curriculum, student population, mission statement, infrastructure, policy framework, etc. which all impact the possibilities for their practice. As such, teacher educators not recognizing that their professionalism always operates in specific institutional contexts, also means that an important agenda for teacher education is not realized here.

To be clear, teacher educators mostly do not passively resign to the contextualities of their work. For most teacher educators, the commitment to their work does not stem from “grudging compliance with external demands, but rather from a dedication to doing a good job” (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 127). This dedication to doing a good job is defined by teacher educators’ normative assumptions and beliefs about good teaching and their goals with their student teachers (see proposition 2). These normative beliefs have been shown to serve as powerful sense-making devices (Tesluk et al., 1997) that – implicitly or explicitly – guide and shape teacher educators’ actions in practice. Teacher educators filter the contexts of their work and actively seek opportunities to enact their pedagogical commitment. At the same time, however, a challenging context inevitably impacts their professional lives and development. This point was clearly exemplified in a narrative analysis of the learning journey of one teacher educator involved in a professional development project drawing on a self-study approach (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2016).6 John (pseudonym) was a highly experienced teacher educator. Engaging in the self-study project for him was seen as “a vehicle for ‘proving the one-sidedness of the curriculum policy. I’ve been waiting impatiently for this trend of competence-based education to blow over. I’ll do my very best to give it a little push in the right direction” (p. 6). The final phrase highlights the political agenda attached to his involvement in the project; an agenda motivated by the tension between his personal concepts of teacher education and those enacted in the curriculum. Over the course of the project, an interesting straddle showed. John derived a high level of support and encouragement from the strong collegial relationships in the self-study group (as an important contextual condition) while his collegial relations in the department worsened and intensified. His participation in the project made public and very visible “the incongruence between the collective normative sense-making structures at the organizational level (curriculum policy) on the one hand and his personal normative beliefs on the other” (p. 10). In the end, this triggered strong self-protective interests that hindered the agenda of professional development embedded in the project. The desire to confirm his task perception (as part of his self-understanding) was stronger than any other goal and prevented him from critically questioning and revising his beliefs. As such, John’s case illustrates the central role of the organization in teacher educators’ professional lives, work, and development (including the collective, shared norms functioning as important cultural working conditions). This analysis shows “that teacher educators’ capacity to manage these interactions with their working conditions is a complicated process which highlights the vulnerability that structurally characterizes their job but also affects their opportunities to develop professionally” (p. 11).

Therefore, it is essential that teacher educators themselves consider and acknowledge the fundamental impact of their working conditions on their practice, but also that we – as a research community – begin to develop the theoretical and methodological tools to understand the mediating role of context. Downplaying or not addressing the contextual embeddedness of teacher education practices undermines the relevance and validity of theoretical frameworks for understanding teacher educator professionalism, but more importantly also “weakens their potential to inform and guide the development of powerful professional learning environments and pedagogies” (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2016, p. 11). Hence, my third proposition is as follows: The teacher education institute as an organization needs to be the focus of understanding rather than the location in which practices take place. These practices, building on the analysis above, extend well beyond the pedagogy of teacher education to also include the pedagogy of teacher educator professional development.

Fourth proposition: Reframing traditional notions of knowledge (re)presentation

Finally, rethinking and studying teacher educator professionalism as enacted or practice-based implies the need to develop new forms of knowledge representation that allow to document and make accessible the complex (proposition 1), relational (proposition 2), and contextualized (proposition 3) aspects of teacher educator professionalism. In my plea for enacted professionalism, I do not forgo the idea of a public knowledgebase of teacher education, nor do I reduce this ambition to a notion of teacher educator professionalism as ‘knowledge in practice’ (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1999). As I have argued elsewhere, the “profession needs to develop a shared language of teaching about teaching (Loughran, 2006), a language which makes explicit the complex professional know-how, understandings, and practices that teacher educator professionalism might comprise so that others also can start to analyze, question, and critique it” (Vanassche and Berry, 2020, p. 26). There is a tremendous amount of work to be done here.

The Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices community (Kitchen et al., 2020) has delivered interesting examples of how we might conceptualize and portray such enacted professionalism. Berry (2004, 2007), for example, has articulated her knowledge of practice through the construct of tensions, which she sees as capturing the “at times conflicting, purposes [which] are part of the ever-present ambiguity of teachers’ (and teacher educators’) work; and are, as Lampert (1985, p. 194) observes, ‘more manageable than solvable’.” The identified tensions were “telling and growth,” “confidence and uncertainty,” “action and intent,” “safety and challenge,” “valuing and reconstructing experience,” and “planning and being responsive.” Berry’s tensions suggest that there are no easy answers in teacher education, and that teaching student teachers requires the ability to manage and reconcile, at times conflicting, purposes, and demands. These tensions are general, yet at the same time also particular in the way that they help to explain and analyze situated teacher educator actions, decisions, and practices (Vanassche and Berry, 2020). Similar to Berry, Senese (2002) identified three axioms in his self-study of teacher education practice: “go slow to go fast,” “be tight to be loose,” and “relinquish control in order to gain influence.” These axioms contain “overtones of tension and even irony and the tension inherent in each rises from the opposing forces at play” (Senese, 2002, p. 47). Other examples include Wilkes’ (1998) paradoxes, Loughran and Northfield’s (1996) summary statements, and Pinnegar and Hamilton’s (2009) assertions for practice and understanding.

As Vanassche and Berry (2020) argued, these forms of knowledge representation are highly interesting “because the question of standards or judgment about what constitutes high-quality teacher education practice cannot be sidestepped and has to be faced: What is good teacher education?; What kind of teachers do we aim to develop?; On what goals do we agree?; On what goals don’t we agree?” (p. 28). Such questions lie at the heart of a practice-based approach in research on teacher educator professionalism, as defined above. Articulating professionalism as tensions, axioms, summary statements, assertions, or paradoxes demands that teacher educators continuously position themselves in relation to these tensions in their own practices. These discussions, then, are an essential starting point for the further development of teacher educators and the profession at large:

…we see them as situated accounts of local responses to particularly cited socio-cultural issues in teacher learning. Their aim is to raise questions of social, cultural, and institutional context to a new level in discussions such that these questions may become the focus of understanding rather than simply locations in which an activity takes place (Freeman and Johnson, 1998, p. 404).

Tensions, axioms, or paradoxes do not provide a blueprint or a normative guide for practice (demanded professionalism), rather they provide an analytic scheme from which to interpret a given situation. They can help teacher educators to acknowledge and analytically understand the complexities of the situation they find themselves in and manage and decide on trade-offs between demands and purposes. Such (re)presentations of knowledge “are not intended to become exercises of importation or the basis on which to promulgate techniques” (Freeman and Johnson, 1998, p. 404). They are not rich enough to provide guidance on what to do in all situations, nor is it their intention to be. These knowledge representations do not position teacher educators as passive consumers of knowledge or directives developed by others (e.g., as captured in teacher educator standards), but rather engage them in a reflective dialog about what is happening in practice and why.

Toward an agenda for future research

Figure 1 summarizes the agenda for future research embedded in these four propositions. It presents what I understand to be central characteristics of teacher educator professionalism that deserve further research. In line with the logic of enacted professionalism, the research agenda starts from actual teacher education practices, which are conceptualized as intrinsically relational and contextual. This is shown in the figure by situating the three constitutive elements of teacher education practice (i.e., the teacher educator, the student teacher, and the context of the teacher education institute as an organization) in relation to each other. It is important to persistently consider these elements together and in relation to each other in future research. The author briefly highlights the key elements of the proposed research agenda, as well as their interplay.

FIGURE 1
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Figure 1. Overview of research agenda. TE, teacher education.

From a practice-based approach, there is first and foremost a need for rich empirical accounts of teacher education practices in future research on teacher educator professionalism (Vanassche et al., 2021). In describing practices and analyzing how these develop, the factors and processes that jointly shape teacher education practices can be mapped and more thoroughly conceptualized. Research might prioritize signature pedagogies (Shulman, 2006) in teacher education since these are critical for understanding the distinctive nature of teacher educator professionalism. Post-lesson debriefs during student teachers’ internships are such a capstone practice in teacher education programs globally (e.g., Bullough and Draper, 2004; Young et al., 2005; Valencia et al., 2009; Williams, 2014). Debriefs are essentially Janus-faced in that they bring together the complex worlds of theory and practice, of schooling and higher education, and of learning (being a student of teaching) and performing (teaching students). They also make visible the different, and at times conflicting, arguments of (good) teaching from the teacher educator, mentor, and student teacher (Bruneel and Vanassche, 2021). Debrief practices can therefore teach us a lot about the contextualized and relational nature of teacher educator professionalism.

Second, the teacher educator–student teacher relationships merit further attention. Future research might explore in more detail the dynamics between teacher educators’ and student teachers’ normative views. Building on Lortie’s (1975) theory of the apprenticeship of observation, student teachers – just like teacher educators – bring their biographically embedded beliefs about teaching to the situation and these may or may not align with teacher educators’ assumptions. Although it has been recognized that these assumptions are most often common-sense and tacit, rather than made explicit (e.g., Stuart and Thurlow, 2000; Ashton, 2015), they inevitably enter the relationship and form part of the reality in which teacher educators enact practice. This line of research might also benefit from complementing the dominant use of interview data, mostly restricted to teacher educators’ views, with direct observations of actual debrief practice and interactions (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014). Yoon (2008), for example, examined extensive observations of classroom interactions from a discursive perspective to examine the mutual positioning of students (i.e., English Language Learners) and teachers, offering a powerful example of how we might design and conduct this kind of research.

Third, future research should explore further theoretical frameworks and research approaches, which emphasize the interplay between the level of the teacher education institute as an organization and the sense-making of individual teacher educators. For the reasons detailed above, a perspective that understands and studies teacher educator professionalism as an attribute of an individual falls short in several ways. Most crucially, it fails to do justice to the complex reality in which teacher educators live their professional lives and enact their expertise; realities in which the teacher education institute as an organization and individual sense-making should be seen as two sides of the same coin, rather than two different entities that either “align” or “compete” with each other. The disadvantage of such a strict distinction is that the focus is placed either on structure (working conditions) or teacher educator choice processes (agency), at the cost of attention to the interplay of both. In such a logic, the relationship between teacher educators and their working contexts is interpreted as unilateral on both sides. This places, for example, the teacher educator in a position of “being aware of” or “opposing” this contextual influence. Rather, it is about trying to conceptualize and understand the complex interplay between agency and structure in future research on teacher educator professionalism. For example, I refer to research on institutional logics (i.e., the broader system of values, norms, and rules operating in an organizational field) exploring how institutional belief systems become embedded in the formal and social structure of organizations and the practices of its individual actors (e.g., Weick et al., 2005; Vermeir et al., 2017).

Toward an agenda for professional development

A conception of enacted teacher educator professionalism not only offers an agenda for future research, along with theoretical and methodological suggestions about how to enact this research. It also holds direct implications for how we can conceive of and actively support teacher educators’ professional development. Paralleling the research agenda suggested before, professional development from an enacted approach starts and ends with one’s practices as a teacher educator. It demands close investigation and critical interrogation of those practices from a researcher’s attitude (Kelchtermans et al., 2014). It requires a combination of what Grossman et al. (2009) defined as “pedagogies of investigation” and “pedagogies of enactment.”

S-STEP offers a methodology for understanding and conceptualizing these pedagogies of investigation and enactment (Vanassche et al., 2021). Teacher educator–researchers working from an S-STEP approach engage in the systematic investigation of their practice and the forces which shape and define it (e.g., one’s personal learning history and that of one’s students, as well as the history of the teacher education institute as an organization). Their attempts to make explicit and validate their professional know-how not only serve the improvement of personal practice but also the improvement and development of the profession at large through building the public knowledge base for teacher education. The critical and investigative attitude enacted in S-STEP is an extended example (or enactment) of Cochran-Smith’s (2003) principle of “inquiry as stance.” It describes “the positions teachers and others who work together in inquiry communities take toward knowledge and its relationships to practice” (Cochran-Smith, 2003, p. 8). With this metaphor, she “intended to capture the ways we stand, the ways we see, and the lenses we see through” (p. 8; see also Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1999, p. 289). Inquiry as stance suggests a specific way of being present in and relating to one’s practice (Vanassche et al., 2021). It implies close attention to the contextual and relational qualities of the work, and the thoughtful combination of the situational and general or “the perceptual and conceptual” (Vanassche and Berry, 2020, p. 27) while building on and critically interrogating the work of others. It involves a focus on the problematic and that which escapes one’s control, thoughtful planning, and design as a teacher educator, on both the personal and the public levels (Vanassche et al., 2021).

From this, it follows that the researcher’s attitude at the heart of a practice-based approach to teacher educator professional development recognizes and values “the complexity, messiness, and unpredictability that characterizes teaching and teacher education” (Vanassche et al., 2021, p. 24; see also Kelchtermans and Vanassche, 2010). It demands that teacher educators postpone the need for a quick fix and rather focus on deepening their understanding of the complex situation they find themselves in and expanding the repertoire of pedagogical responses to that situation. The latter term refers to the second proposition put forward in this article, locating decisions about the “rightness” or appropriateness of teacher educators’ actions in the relationship with their students. Seeing the problematic as problematic requires that teacher educators “accept the responsibility of teaching in ways that continually focus attention on not only what is being taught, but also on the complexity of how and why it is taught; regardless of the perceived success or otherwise of the practice at that time” (Loughran, 2006, p. 42). Building one’s understanding of the complexity of teaching and learning about teaching should enable teacher educators to more effectively deliberate between different options to proceed while knowing there is not “a best particular way of doing something” (Osburn et al., 2011, p. 213).

Kelchtermans (2013) has rightfully emphasized that a researcher’s attitude demands an audience. It is dialogical in that “it manifests itself in forms of professional dialogue, conversation, critique, and inquiry with others” (Vanassche et al., 2021, p. 24; see also Kelchtermans et al., 2014). Close investigations of personal practice benefit greatly from the perspective of others, including one’s students, colleagues, and the research and practice community at large. Critical dialog not only avoids teacher educators from getting locked in their own perspectives, understandings, and practices, “but also holds the basic conditions for generating a pedagogy of teacher education that is grounded in practice yet extends well beyond that local practice in relevance” (Vanassche et al., 2021, p. 24).

Data availability statement

The data analyzed in this study is subject to the following licenses/restrictions: The dataset is not shared because of privacy concerns. Requests to access these datasets should be directed to EV.

Author contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and has approved it for publication.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Footnotes

  1. ^ These propositions present a wrap-up of my theoretical and empirical work in this field. When necessary and appropriate, references to earlier work in which some of the issues addressed here have been developed further are included in the text.
  2. ^ This assertion spurred the research agenda of the International Forum for Teacher Educator Development (http://info-ted.eu). InFo-TED’s close inquiry of the landscape of research around teacher educator development highlights the need for high-quality professional development activities tailored to the specific support needs of this occupational group as well as a shared vision of quality in teaching student teachers.
  3. ^ Interestingly, research has shown that this first-order positioning is much appreciated by student teachers (e.g., Ben-Peretz et al., 2011).
  4. ^ These data are drawn from a larger study focusing on the relationship between teacher educators’ positioning and teacher education practice (for further details, see Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014). The interpretative analysis of a cycle of narrative-biographical interviews with 12 experienced teacher educators delivered three teacher educator positionings: “a teacher educator of ‘pedagogues”’, “a teacher educator of reflective teachers”, and “a teacher educator of subject teachers”. Each of these positions refers to a “coherent pattern of normative beliefs about good teaching and teaching about teaching, the preferred relation with student teachers, and valuable methods and strategies to enact these beliefs in practice” (Vanassche and Kelchtermans, 2014, p. 120).
  5. ^ Kelchtermans builds his argument from the work of Bullough (2008) who has argued that standing before class means standing for something; “teachers offer themselves to those they teach, and they testify of themselves and of what is of most worth” (Bullough, 2008, p. 5).
  6. ^ For a more detailed description of the theoretical and methodological approach of this study, see Vanassche and Kelchtermans (2016).

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Keywords: teacher educator professionalism, enacted professionalism, teacher educator standards, self-study, professional development

Citation: Vanassche E (2022) Four propositions on how to conceptualize, research, and develop teacher educator professionalism. Front. Educ. 7:1036949. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2022.1036949

Received: 05 September 2022; Accepted: 16 November 2022;
Published: 16 December 2022.

Edited by:

Celina Lay, Brigham Young University, United States

Reviewed by:

Eliza Pinnegar, Independent Researcher, Orem, UT, United States
Mary Frances Rice, University of New Mexico, United States
Tom Russell, Queen’s University, Canada

Copyright © 2022 Vanassche. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Eline Vanassche, eline.vanassche@kuleuven.be

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