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Principled Improvisation to Support Novice Teacher Learning


by Thomas M. Philip - 2019

Background: A significant body of scholarship has highlighted the importance of improvisation in teaching, particularly the interactional and responsive creativity that is required for teachers to co-construct meaning with students. However, recent efforts inside and outside university-based teacher education have pushed against novice teacher learning through improvisation, preferring to focus on the “practicing” of identifiable components or discrete techniques of teaching.

Purpose: Based on an expansive view of practice, I argue that improvisation is inextricably connected to practice and illustrate that the marginalization of improvisation limits opportunities for novice teachers to learn the relational aspects of teaching. I develop the concept of principled improvisation: improvisation that is purposefully oriented toward justice and that accentuates each moment of teaching as political, ethical, and consequential. I describe the design of a learning environment for preservice teachers that was organized around principled improvisation and demonstrate its unique affordances for particular forms of novice teacher learning.

Research Design: Based on a close reading of novice teachers’ weekly reflections and audio recordings and field notes from the whole-class discussions, I highlight five examples of practice guided by principled improvisation that span a diversity of participants, contexts, and scale. These illustrative cases are not meant to systematically characterize all instances of practice guided by principled improvisation in the course; rather, they are meant to be invitations to grapple with new pedagogical and learning possibilities (and limitations) that emerge when teacher education is organized around principled improvisation. In particular, I explore how learning to listen played prominently in teacher practice guided by principled improvisation and examine how the opportunity to narrate, re-narrate, and re-envision experiences allowed novice teachers to learn and collectively build place-relevant theory.

Conclusions: The opportunities to learn to recognize emotion, listen, see race in place, consider political expression, and make sense of power across scales were significant aspects of the relational work of teachers that were learned by organizing novice teacher learning around principled improvisation. These forms of learning could not have taken place if the experiences of the novice teacher were only organized around the rehearsal of components of teaching. It required teaching in a complex space that connects self and interactions in place to larger structures and ideologies in society.



The language of control has become the language of educational reform. The irony of these reform efforts is that they perpetuate a basic reality that has created the problems in the first place. We assert the purpose of schools is to increase learning, but we have organized schools in ways that distort that purpose and even contradict it. (McNeil, 1999, p. xvii)


The work and preparation of teachers have been increasingly defined by the discourse of control. Teachers are seen as a key lever in school reform (Darling-Hammond, 2000) and efforts to control what they do in classrooms through accountability policies, scripted curriculum, and “teacher-proof” curriculum undergird a vast array of reform efforts over the last few decades (Au, 2011; Crocco & Costigan, 2007; Horn, 2016; Milner, 2013; Smagorinsky, Lakly, & Johnson, 2002). Under the slogan that new teachers should be “learner ready on day one” (Data Quality Campaign, 2017; Steinhauer, 2017), the discourse of control has pushed teacher preparation to trade the development of new teachers’ creativity, agency, and professional judgment for generic practices that presumably work for all teachers and every student irrespective of context. Counteracting these mechanistic views of classrooms, I examine the possibilities for teacher learning through deliberately designed experiences that center improvisation and the inherent uncertainty, ambiguity, and unpredictability in teaching.


In this article, I first examine how the notion of improvisation has been treated in certain practice-oriented teacher reform efforts. I then develop the concept of principled improvisation and describe how I designed a learning environment for novice teacher learning that was organized around this construct. To provide tangible illustrations of its possibilities and limitations, five examples of principled improvisation that span a diversity of participants, contexts, and scale are explored. I conclude by examining the new learnings and challenges that emerged when novice teacher learning was organized around principled improvisation.


IMPROVISATION AND PRACTICE-ORIENTED TEACHER REFORM


Efforts both inside and outside university-based teacher education have pushed against novice teacher learning through improvisation, preferring to focus on the “decomposition” of teaching (Ball & Forzani, 2009; Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Grossman & McDonald, 2008) into “identifiable components” (Core Practice Consortium, n.d.) or discrete techniques (Lemov, 2010). Within these critiques, the rationale against improvisation varies. For instance, certain advocates of “deliberate practice” (e.g. “Relay Teaching Residency: Deliberate Practice,” 2017) argue that improvisation is counterproductive to the “automaticity,” “muscle memory,” and “instinctual,” “reflexive,” and “internalized” “habits” and “techniques” that define effective teaching in their view. Proponents of “core practices” or “high-leverage practices” (Ball & Forzani, 2009; Ball, Sleep, Boerst, & Bass, 2009) subscribe to the assumption that successful improvisation first requires proficiency with the fundamental practices of teaching. The tension between the ability to effectively improvise and the need to master key components of teaching reflects a philosophical and pedagogical rift beyond the domain of teaching. The “skills first” approach—a relentless debate throughout education that pushes for the mastery of skills before the freedom to improvise—might appear to be commonsense but is by no means the only way to approach improvisation. On the contrary, others have argued that such approaches can actually “hamper the growth of creativ[ity]” in learners (Hickey, 2009, p. 286).


The rich and nuanced usages of practice (e.g., Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998; Lave, 2012; Lave & McDermott, 2002) have been reduced in popular reform discourses to “practicing” skills and techniques (Philip et al., 2018). To be clear from the start, I am not advocating a prioritization of improvisation over practice. Such a position is a false dichotomy because improvisation is inextricably connected to practice and is an inherent dimension of human activity—a constant interplay between the structures of social life and the improvisational agency that each moment presents for individuals (Holland et al., 1998). As Sawyer (2000) noted, “there is no sharp dividing line between ‘improvisation’ and ‘not improvisation’; rather, there is a continuum, from more improvised to less improvised” (p. 182). I am urging greater attention in teacher education to the improvisational dimensions of teaching that are increasingly undervalued in rigid treatments of practice, which also narrowly define what it means for teachers to be “learner ready on day one.” Through the examination of five illustrative examples of novice teacher learning, I show that creating spaces for the improvisational dimensions of teaching is essential for novice teachers to learn the relational and humanistic aspects of teaching. 


It is important to note that researchers focused on particular practice-oriented approaches to teacher education have also emphasized that teaching is relational work (e.g., Ball & Forzani, 2009; Lampert, 2010). Additionally, they have argued that the relational aspects of teaching can be taught effectively through practice-based approaches. However, our usages of the term relational differ quite substantially. These scholars acknowledge that identities, race, culture, and language can influence the relational work of teaching. The assumption is that novice teachers can master a core practice and can then eventually modify it with students and “parents from different kinds of communities and from different kinds of backgrounds, learning to adjust their approach, demeanor, language, and cultural practices with sensitivity” (Ball & Forzani, 2009, p. 507). Such a view of the relational work of teaching locates “diversity in otherness—in deviations from a presumed mainstream Euro-American, middle-class norm” and thereby threatens to flatten “the complex and varied ecologies of everyday life into an essentialized group trait, often linked with academic deficits or disadvantages” (Rosebery, Ogonowski, DiSchino, & Warren, 2010, p. 323). The relational work of teaching, especially across relationships of power, entails more than teaching “English speaking and non-English speaking . . . students as members of such groups . . . and as individuals at the same time” (Lampert, 2010, p. 22). In my usage, the relational work of teaching includes critically reflecting on and addressing one’s own positionality and the ideologies that construct difference and social hierarchy (Philip, 2011). It requires teachers to grasp the social and material construction of taken-for-granted categories such as race (Lipsitz, 1998; Omi & Winant, 1994) and deliberate on how these forms of social and historical power shape their interactions with students. The relational work of teachers necessitates that teachers consider how identity is negotiated and constructed in interaction (Jackson, 2009; Wortham, 2004, 2006), and how the contributions, experiences, and knowledges of different students are valued or devalued in and through classroom discourse (Bang, Warren, Rosebery, & Medin, 2012; Warren, Ogonowski, & Pothier, 2005). Finally, there is an aspirational dimension to the relational work of teachers whereby teachers strive toward learning environments that “prefigure” the “forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience” to which they aspire (Boggs, 1977, p. 100; see also Philip, Bang, & Jackson, 2018; Zavala & Golden, 2016). Novice teacher learning organized around improvisation can uniquely support these relational aspects of teaching.


PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION


My use of improvisation draws on Sawyer (2004), who highlighted the interactional and responsive creativity in teachers that is required for the co-construction of meaning with students. Teaching is improvisational “because the flow of the class is unpredictable and emerges from the actions of all participants, both teachers and students” (Sawyer, 2004, p. 2). The emergence of joint meaning-making cannot be reduced to any one participant’s intentions in an individual turn because she “cannot know the meaning of her own turn until the other actors have responded” (Sawyer, 2004, p. 2). Improvisation, in this usage, not only “acknowledges the value of students’ ideas, but also uses them as a resource for further learning” (Jurow & Creighton, 2005, p. 276).


I use the modifier principled to accentuate that although the unfolding of meaning cannot (and should not) be predetermined, the improvisational process I am interested in is purposefully oriented toward justice and seeks to “prefigure” a more just society (Boggs, 1977; Zavala & Golden, 2016). Principled improvisation gives added meaning to the claim that all teaching is political and ethical (Freire, 1970); it accentuates that each moment of teaching and learning is consequential as teachers and students continually and jointly re-negotiate power and possibility in every interaction (Freeman & Jurow, 2018; Langer-Osuna, 2016; Philip, Olivares-Pasillas, & Rocha, 2016; Vossoughi, Hooper, & Escudé, 2016). Listening and being in relationship to another (Schultz, 2003), or in the words of Zavala (2018), “being in presence with others” through the mutually humanizing aspects of dialogue, are also fundamental to a purposeful orientation toward justice. Thus, in addition to accentuating the political dimensions of teaching, teacher education organized around principled improvisation in is an axiological innovation (Bang, Faber, Gurneau, Marin, & Soto, 2016) that re-shapes the values and ethics in the social relationships between teachers and students.


The notion of improvisation also emphasizes that teachers are continuously re-solving fundamentally unsolvable problems (akin to what Rittel & Webber, 1973 called “wicked” problems in the context of policy problems). Although the scale of time and participants are different, the moment-to-moment work of teachers has many of the same qualities that Rittel and Webber (1973) outlined. Namely, these problems are intractable and cannot be solved; at best, they can be re-solved over and over again. There are persistent challenges in teaching, and they “compete with each other in such a way that solutions to one may interfere with success in another” (Kennedy, 2016, p. 14). Any moment of teaching implicates facets that are known, ambiguous, and unknown, proximal and distant, and in focus, peripheral, and out of sight: individual students’ knowledge, skills, and affect; relationships between students; students’ experiences out of school; and structural and ideological conditions in society (to name a few). The full consequences of the moment-to-moment labor of teachers “cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions” have completely played out (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 163). Every action is consequential since it “leaves ‘traces’ that cannot be undone” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 163). As teachers make sense of “problems” and “solutions” in the moment, they also run the risk of determining too quickly that the interaction is similar to something previously experienced, since it is easy to overlook “an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 164).


Given the gravity of re-solving fundamentally unsolvable problems in the moment, neither “idealized theory” (Mills, 2005) nor a particular set of practices is sufficient for the work of teachers; it requires principled improvisation that is “contextually relevant, morally adequate, and practically feasible” (Jaggar, 2015, p. 119). The challenges of teaching unfold in ways that we cannot fully anticipate with a particular body of knowledge or set of practices. As Kennedy (2016) showed,


Teachers must continually re-think their solutions to these multifaceted challenges. Each new student, each new group of students, and each new topic to be taught, requires teachers to think anew about how they will portray curriculum content in this new situation, how they will foster engagement in this new situation, how they will expose their students’ thinking in this new situation, and how they will [engage student participation] in this new situation.


Attending to principled improvisation takes up Kennedy’s (2016) charge to teacher educators to engage novice teachers in “reasoning about practice” and thinking “more strategically about events” rather than “merely telling them about bodies of knowledge or prescribing a set of practices for them to adopt” (pp. 15–16).


In summary, principled improvisation entails listening, a “respect for others,” that “enhances the humanity of both the listener and listened-to” (Erickson, 2003, p. xi; see also Shultz, 2003; Zavala, 2018). Purposefully oriented toward justice, principled improvisation necessitates identifying and addressing unjust systems and practices. Additionally, principled improvisation attends to how (in)justices operate across multiple timescales and scales of social organization, sometimes in tension.


DESIGNING FOR PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION IN TEACHER EDUCATION


COURSE CONTEXT


As Grossman et al. (2009) noted, programs of teacher education, or robust strands within a program, need to be organized around a set of frameworks and practices. In an effort to organize teacher learning around principled improvisation, I codesigned an integrated course for a cohort of novice (preservice) teachers with a partner high school teacher (Kevin) and educators from a community-based racial justice organization (Li’i, Julio, and Sergio). The course sought to blur the programmatic divisions in teacher education that reify and exacerbate reductionist approaches to teaching. Because principled improvisation does not only occur within the neatly parsed requirements that define most programs of teacher education, integration between courses and sites of novice teacher learning was crucial. The course combined perspectives that have been taught traditionally in separate social foundations and learning theory courses, enabling prospective teachers to better understand that every theory of learning is implicitly and/or explicitly a theory of society (and the other way around) and to see teaching as simultaneously questions of learning and social justice. The course structure also entailed an integrated field component, in which the novice teachers worked with small groups of 3–4 high school students in Kevin’s class and helped codesign a community-based field investigation with the high school students, which was supported by Li’i, Julio, and Sergio. This dimension of the course mitigated the theory-practice and community-school divides that often define teacher education, creating instead a joint space of theory building to address place-based concerns of equity and justice. Codesigned with Kevin, Li’i, Julio, and Sergio, and taught at both university and school sites, the course sought to address the schisms that often exist across these institutions (Souto-Manning & Martell, 2019, this issue).


There were 24 novice teachers in the course, all of whom identified as teachers of color. They were all preparing to become English or social studies high school teachers, with a specialization in ethnic studies. We met as a group twice a week for 4 hours each: one day on the university campus and one day at the school site after the novice teachers’ field experience. The course meetings with the novice teachers provided an opportunity for us to discuss assigned texts and their individual experiences. Each novice teacher typically spent 85 minutes in his or her field placement per week. The novice teachers and high school students also spent a substantial amount of time together outside the classroom. For instance, in their second meeting together, the high school students led the novice teachers on a tour of their school. The tour enabled the novice teachers to see the social spaces in schools, which often remain invisible to teachers and administrators, through the students’ eyes. As a part of the high school curricular unit, the novice teachers and students engaged in a half-day community mapping activity where they documented and analyzed factors that affected the emotional and physical health of the students and their communities. The novice teachers also led their small groups on an all-day community-based field investigation around a topic that the group had collectively developed over the course of the academic quarter. Examples of issues that groups explored included art as political activism, youth experiences in the criminal justice system, food justice, environmental racism, and community-based organizing.


The field component of the integrated course was separate from the novice teachers’ regular field placement. Unlike their standard field placement, where they were expected to gradually ease into whole-class “student teaching,” the integrated course had them work with small groups of students over the entire academic quarter with the understanding that each moment was political, ethical, and consequential—interactions that called for principled improvisation. The integrated course was designed to be mutually beneficial for both the novice teachers and the high school students: The novice teachers could develop the incredibly important but also difficult craft of principled improvisation in a setting where the stakes were not as high as a whole-class setting, and the novice teachers’ presence would facilitate community-engaged learning for the high school students that would not have been possible without the extra adults in a classroom.


PRACTICES THAT SUPPORTED PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION


Practices that emphasized listening with an orientation toward justice were at the heart of the integrated course, as described in this segment excerpted from the syllabus:


At Randolph High [pseudonym], you’ll work with a small group of high school students. Thinking and learning with them will be an opportunity to develop your praxis: refining your vision of who you want to be as a teacher for your group of students and enhancing the practices that support such a vision. For this course, we’ll focus on four intertwined practices of teaching as principled improvisation:

1.

Learning to authentically listen to students.

2.

Learning to follow students' lead in their learning.

3.

Learning to facilitate students’ building on each other’s ideas.

4.

Learning to craft critical questions that build on students’ responses and move their analysis toward a deeper consideration of power and historical, social, political, and economic processes.


The quality of listening featured prominently in our course structures and routines organized around principled improvisation. I emphasized, throughout the academic term, that teaching is often framed through a narrow lens of action without adequate attention to the active engagement and effort involved in listening or making space for others to dialogue.


Practices in our course included the narration, re-narration, and re-envisioning of novice teachers’ experiences. These practices were meant to support them in listening to students and in analyzing and engaging with power across scales. Given the recognition that learning through improvisation cannot be a matter of chance, these practices provided the novice teachers an opportunity to engage social theory and learning theory through our course readings and to actively build theory that accounted for, explained, and informed actions about dynamics particular to our context and place. The intentional design of the assignments and course discussions, as elaborated next, was meant to facilitate collective learning from what might otherwise seem to be haphazard and idiosyncratic experiences. The first step in this process was narrating the novice teachers’ experiences with their high school students. Narrating experiences have been foundational to educational approaches intent on dialogue and transformation. Narration is akin to Dewey’s notion of “formulating” an experience in order to communicate it (Dewey, 1916). Through a Deweyian lens, articulating moments of improvisation allowed the novice teachers to get “outside of [the experience], seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact” it has with others, and how the experience might be communicated to have meaning for others (Dewey, 1916, p. 6).


Freire (1970) highlighted the dimensions of power that are at play in narrating an experience. For Freire, the act of naming the world is a political act that constructs the world through a particular lens and as a particular problem. Building on Freire, we consistently explored issues of power in our narrations through questions such as:


How are we constructing the problem through our narration?

Who gets to narrate the experience?

Who is left out through this narration?


The process of re-narrating the experience with explicit attention to whose voices are included and excluded in the narrations prompted us to work against “deficit” framings of students, families, and their communities and work toward narrations that centered their perspectives and experiences (Swadener & Lubeck, 1995; Valencia, 2010).


The process of narration and re-narration allowed the rest of the class to have an “enlarged and changed experience” as they shared in and made sense of what other novice teachers “thought and felt” (Dewey, 1916).  For example, given the media attention at the time on police violence in communities of color, many novice teachers were interested in engaging their groups in discussing this topic. The initial narrations of their experience, particularly how they made sense of the high school students’ “resistance,” was focused on “internalized racism.” Such explanations erased the high school students’ agency and their multiple motivations for rejecting or complicating the novice teachers’ portrayal of police violence. Re-narrations added texture to the initial one-dimensional narrations, which allowed for a consideration of students’ own experience with other forms of violence in their neighborhoods and their relationships with family and friends in law enforcement.


The weekly reflections and whole-class discussions also created space for re-envisioning our narrations. For our collective learning and theory building, it was not sufficient to describe experiences more expansively; we needed to construct new possibilities. As a class, we collectively reflected on our courses of action in moments of improvisation and weighed other possible trajectories. Our attempt at re-envisioning also has a rich history in Dewey and Freire. Similar to Dewey’s understanding of deliberation, re-envisioning allowed for a “dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action” (Dewey, 1922, p. 190). It was an “experiment in finding out what various lines of action are really like,” allowing for thought to “run ahead and foresee outcomes” (Dewey, 1922, p. 190). Freirian educators have taken a more grounded and embodied approach to re-envisioning (Boal, 1985; Souto-Manning, 2010). Our approach was in some respects an amalgamation of Dewey’s and Freire’s approaches. Our re-envisionings were thought experiments rather than embodied re-enactments, but they were grounded in the real concerns of the novice teachers and each day in the classroom provided a new opportunity for them to enact their new visions. Returning to the example of police violence, re-envisioning provided opportunities, as further described below, for the novice teachers to anticipate interactions in which they sought to better understand students’ positions, explain their own reasoning, and put these ideas in dialogue with each other.


Contrary to the notion of improvisation as fleeting and in the moment, improvisation was viewed as an essential aspect of theorizing and theory building. As Horn (2010) argued, based on her work on teacher replays, rehearsals, and re-visions, these “discourse structures” can help teachers “develop knowledge for teaching that is at once rooted in general principles and deeply situated in practice” (pp. 227–228). Practice guided by principled improvisation made apparent the limits of certain theories we studied in our course. In other instances, practice guided by principled improvisation forced us to theorize in new ways that were locally accountable and meaningful.


THE PRACTICALITIES OF ORGANIZING TEACHER LEARNING AROUND PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION


Weekly journals, in which the novice teachers reflected on their experiences with students, were the key course assignment that supported teacher learning around principled improvisation. Following is the description of the assignment from the course syllabus.


The weekly journal will consist of 3 sections:


1.

Narrate (as best as you remember) dialogue from your group when you attempted to engage in the practices listed above [listening, following students’ lead, facilitating students’ building on each other’s ideas, and asking critical questions]. Use the following questions to help structure your reflection:

a.

What worked? What didn’t? What were you hoping would have happened?

b.

What do students’ comments and participation tell you about what they understand and what they are still in the process of understanding? What might you have said or done to support the disciplinary dimension of learning?

c.

What can you tell about how students are feeling? What might you have said or done to support affective dimensions of learning?

d.

What can you tell about dynamics between students and between you and the students? What might you have said or done to support the interpersonal dimensions of learning?

e.

What do you want to try next?


2.

How did the slice of dialogue you examined and your overall experience at Randolph this week (re)shape your vision of being a teacher for your group of students and your understanding of the practices that are needed to support your vision?

3.


4.

How did the readings for the week (re)shape your vision of being a teacher for your group of students and your understanding of the practices that are needed to support your vision?


These prompts created the opportunity for the novice teachers to narrate, re-narrate, and re-envision their own experiences. In addition to these individual opportunities for reflection, the design of whole-class discussions allowed for collective narration, re-narration, and re-envisioning. Each week, after I had read and responded to each of the student journals, I identified themes across journal reflections. I would bring these cases to the whole class. I would often ask the novice teachers who shared these cases in their weekly journals to provide an initial narration of the interaction. At times, considering potential vulnerability of the novice teachers, I would provide an initial narration of an anonymized version of the case. These initial narrations would open up space for additional re-narrations and re-envisionings. Additionally, drawing from the course readings, these narrations, re-narrations, and re-envisionings would provide opportunities for the novice teachers to both apply theory from the readings and generate starting points from which to build “contextually relevant, morally adequate, and practically feasible” theory (Jaggar, 2015, p. 119).


EXAMPLES OF LEARNING THROUGH PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION


Based on a close reading of the novice teachers’ weekly reflections and my notes from the whole-class discussions, I outline some of the unique possibilities that emerged when novice teacher learning was organized around principled improvisation. While each moment of teaching inevitably implicates multiple levels of analysis, I highlight five examples of practice guided by principled improvisation that span a diversity of participants, contexts, and scale. These illustrative cases are not meant to systematically characterize all instances of principled improvisation in the course; rather, they are meant to be invitations to grapple with new pedagogical and learning possibilities (and limitations) that emerge when teacher education is organized around principled improvisation. The re-presentation of these examples is largely based on the weekly journal responses that the novice teachers had submitted. Additionally, I rely on audio recordings and field notes from our novice class discussions to provide additional context.


1. PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION AS KNOWING ONESELF: LEARNING NEW RESPONSES TO FAMILIAR SITUATIONS


The first illustrative example focuses on a brief classroom interaction, spanning a few minutes, between Diana, a novice teacher, and the students who were in her group: Oscar, Antwan, and Mia. My interpretation of this example emphasizes how Diana learned about herself through her interactions with her students and the political and pedagogical significance of this learning.


Diana’s group of students at Randolph reflected many of the structural inequities and injustices that existed at the school. One of her students, Oscar, had immigrated from El Salvador within the last two months. He was in the 11th grade in El Salvador but was made to start high school again as a ninth grader when he enrolled at Randolph. In the second week, during an icebreaker activity, Antwan mentioned that he was looking forward to Monday, which happened to be October 31. Diana immediately assumed that he was anticipating Halloween, until it became apparent that it was the day his brother would be released from prison. Mia was often distraught in class, and Diana soon learned that she hadn’t seen her mother for an extended period of time. Mia’s mother had gone to Belize and was unable to return to the United States. Because Oscar only spoke Spanish, Diana’s facilitation included translating between Oscar and Antwan and Mia.


In the fifth week, Diana asked Antwan and Mia (along with JT, another student who was in their group that day) to read a handout on their own while she translated it for Oscar. The handout, which examined disparities in access to green space and recreational space across neighborhoods in Los Angeles, was assigned by the teacher as background reading for a class activity on the same topic. The routine of splitting the group for translation had consistently worked for Diana and the students. On this day, however, the method was unsuccessful. Before class with the novice teachers, I noticed that Diana was dejected. She described how her students “shut down” after she tried to talk with them about not completing their assignment. She emphasized how she felt she wasn’t “cut out for the classroom management.” Diana’s recounting of the interaction was her initial narration, which focused on her students’ response and shortcomings in her innate ability. Because class was about to start, I suggested we could meet later in the week after Diana had a chance to reflect on the interaction in her journal.


The formal structure of reflection prompted Diana to re-narrate the interaction through the perspective of her students. She elaborated on the interaction, explaining that while Diana and Oscar were working together, JT, Mia, and Antwan appeared to be gossiping about another student. Diana asked them a question in an attempt to re-direct the conversation, but they ignored it. After asking the question three times, she decided to just wait—a technique that is often suggested to new teachers. Antwan finally noticed Diana and prompted the others to turn their attention to her. Reflecting on what occurred immediately after, Diana wrote,


I wish I would have taken a breath and just regrouped but instead, I told them that I had asked them a question three times and noticed that they hadn’t read. Antwan tried to tell me that he did but I didn’t give him an opportunity to explain. He then looked frustrated and I realized what I had done was wrong. Before I could think of how to fix what I had done, Antwan told me, “I don’t need to prove to you that I did do it.” I then told him that I was sorry, that I didn’t give him an opportunity to share what he read. He didn’t say much after that but still worked on completing the worksheet.


Diana’s interaction with Antwan is an example of teachers having to constantly re-solve the problem of requiring students to fulfill an expectation and allowing for their agency and self-expression. In this case, she determined too quickly that the interaction was similar to something previously experienced (purposeful disregard for a request from a teacher) and overlooked “an additional property of overriding importance” (Antwan had fulfilled her expectation) (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 164). She realized the implications of her action within seconds of its occurrence, but the “waves of repercussions” had rippled out too far (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 164).


Interactions similar to what Diana experienced arose in multiple groups, often when the novice teachers least expected it. As the novice teachers brought them up in our whole-class discussions, we were able to explicitly consider the competing demands on a teacher that Kennedy (2016) highlighted. In the following week, when this case was brought to the whole class, it became apparent through the narrations and re-narrations of multiple novice teachers’ experiences that the interactions shared one quality despite variations in particularities: The accusations came out in moments of deep personal frustration. Re-envisioning the experience provided alternative courses of action that could have been more productive, but also highlighted the limits of separating knowledge and practice from emotion. Part of our collective theory building was to highlight teaching as an activity inseparable from emotion. The saying, “Ask, don’t take to task” became a reflective tool for the novice teachers to use when they could feel themselves getting exasperated with students. It allowed for us to collectively acknowledge that feelings of frustration are inherently a part of being human and that our responses to these feelings in the moment are highly consequential for students and cannot be undone. These are moments when teachers should not rely on automaticity or keep fidelity to a technique as suggested by reductionist approaches to practice-based teaching; learning to recognize and name their emotional response and carefully deliberate on their course of action is most important. Unlike a predetermined practice-as-technique, “Ask, don’t take to task” was a tool for the novice teachers to make sense of their own embodied response in teaching, to pause and listen to students, and to use their judgment before taking the next consequential action. It wasn’t a tool that provided a precise next step in action, but a tool that prompted in-the-moment re-narration from the perspective of the students. Similar interactions undoubtedly occur in all field placements; our focus on principled improvisation, however, continually prompted novice teachers to closely attend to the consequentiality of each moment of teaching and how the possibility of re-envisioning and re-engaging similar interactions in the future was tied to better knowing themselves and their emotional response.


2. PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION AS HUMILITY: “CRITICALLY CONSCIOUS” TEACHERS LEARNING TO LISTEN


The second illustrative example focuses on interactions that extended over the course of an academic quarter between Rosa, a novice teacher, and her students, particularly Winston. My interpretation of this example emphasizes how Rosa learned to listen in interaction and thus learned about herself. I draw out the political and pedagogical significance of her process of learning about herself.


Rosa entered the teacher education program with substantial experience working with high school students in youth participatory action research (YPAR) settings. She had an extensive background in social theory and ethnic studies. Similar to a phenomenon that other “critical” teachers of color experience (Philip, 2013b; Philip, Rocha, & Olivares-Pasillas, 2017; Philip & Zavala, 2016), Rosa often positioned herself and was positioned by others—without evidence from classroom interactions—as an educator who could effectively facilitate discussions of race and racism.


Practices that centered principled improvisation proved particularly challenging for Rosa, and it was initially difficult for her to even recognize the troubles she was encountering. Over the duration of the academic quarter, however, the lens of principled improvisation helped her “unlearn” certain problematic teaching practices that she had acquired in a particular YPAR setting. Specifically, she recognized and addressed her tendency to convince students to adopt her political stance. Initially, her strong sense of knowing what was “right” made it difficult to listen to students and follow their lead in co-constructing meaning, especially when she politically disagreed with them. The design of the course assignments prompted Rosa to reflect on how she was listening, or not listening, to her students. These struggles and insights were evident even in her first journal entry, where she noticed that she went into an elaborate monologue about the social construction of race, the legal cases that shaped citizenship in the United States, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—all in response to a student’s curiosity, “What’s your race?,” in an icebreaker activity! She recognized, in retrospect, that the student quickly lost interest in what she had to say. She reflected on how she might take things slower in the future.


Through the lens of principled improvisation, Rosa increasingly attended to the relationship between her conduct and student engagement. For instance, in the second week, she re-considered the causes of her students’ lack of interest: “I noticed that they were very serious and that I needed to change my demeanor to make them feel comfortable.” In response to a course reading (Philip, 2013b), Rosa showed a greater awareness of the difference between her prior teaching in a particular YPAR setting and her current teaching context. Troubling her initial assumption that all students of color would be inclined to engage in explicit racial analysis of contemporary issues, Rosa began to explore students’ experiences across multiple scales. For instance, she considered the context of mandatory schooling in contrast to her prior experience with students who sought out spaces for political learning and activism through YPAR.


Rosa thoughtfully reflected on the tensions she experienced with her political commitments during our whole class discussions. For instance, in the first week, the novice teachers and I engaged in a prolonged discussion about a single quote from a course reading: “The vast majority of working-class indigenous and non-white people in the contemporary United States cannot see the extent to which the essence of the colonialism that made them English-speaking, Christian individuals continues to define their social existence” (Tejeda & Espinoza, 2003, p. 6). Rosa resonated with the quotation, indicating that it was important for “critically conscious” teachers to help students see how they had “internalized dominant ideology.” She cited the example of students blaming economic inequality on the individual choices of people living with poverty. Re-narrations of Rosa’s example and her portrayal of the role of teachers raised an accompanying tension: Critical consciousness as a static attribute of teachers always positions them as right and negates the need to listen to students (other than to correct them). Other re-narrations drew out the ways in which teacher discourse about effort and hard work, on the scale of classrooms, can build on and reify ideologies of meritocracy. The multiple re-narrations lead to a re-envisioning of Rosa’s example. Collectively, the novice teachers considered how Rosa’s example of students making sense of poverty might unfold, over time, if teachers prioritized listening by “withholding judgment” and “seeding questions” instead.


By week 2, as evidenced in her weekly journal, Rosa deliberately experimented with withholding judgment when students said things that were counter to her political commitments. But Rosa struggled to understand why Winston continued to deny the existence of police brutality. Her experimentation with seeding questions was often short-lived, and she continued to focus on convincing Winston about what he experienced as a young man of color (at least from her perspective). A stronger sense of withholding judgment and seeding questions appeared in week 5, when she reflected on the week’s reading: “I kept telling myself that I need to ask them questions. Even if they do share similar backgrounds to me or people I know, they might have experienced it differently and have derived a different understanding to their experiences.”


Rosa’s increased attention to leveraging her own experience to relate to students was another notable shift in week 5’s reflections. She wrote about how Efrain, one of the students in her group, had “really opened up about his home life and the type of work done by his family.” Efrain’s willingness to tell Rosa more about himself provided Rosa the opportunity to share what her parents do for work and “why it’s particularly important that we do well academically.” Rosa’s use of  we indicated her attempt at forging a collective identity with Efrain based on shared experiences in working-class families of color rather than assuming it. From this interaction in particular, Rosa learned the importance of humanizing herself and her students in communicating her expectations:


This helped us stay on task more. I noticed that students and people in general don’t respond well to being told what to do, especially several times in a short amount of time. I have tried to focus on me when I ask them to continue working and I believe that’s been working well because they do not feel personally attacked.


Two weeks later, when Rosa brought up police violence yet again, Winston put his head down and began shaking his head. For the first time, she explained to him why she was so invested in police brutality. She shared a picture of her four-year-old son and the story of when he told her he was cold as they sat in a park in San Francisco. She instinctively suggested that he wear his hoodie, only to look across the street and watch a police officer interrogate a young man of color in a hoodie. She asked herself at that moment, when should I tell my son to “suck it up and be cold?” “When will he be criminalized for being cold?” Rosa reflected on how Winston started asking questions about her son at that point and began to engage the issue of police violence in ways he hadn’t before. It is important to note that Rosa’s learning in week 5 about humanizing herself and her students within the context of “staying on task” did not simply transfer to the situation of teaching about police brutality; what it means to humanize oneself and others deepened for Rosa as she learned to see and act on this dimension of teaching across new contexts (see Philip, 2011).


Rosa’s shift toward listening to students and building on their insights was most evident in week 9, when they visited the California African American Museum as a part of their field inquiry. An exhibit included a picture of a shooting target covered with bullet holes and roses. Unlike what might have been more typical of Rosa’s response at the beginning of the quarter, she asked her students what they thought about the “reappropriation” of the shooting target. Her question created the context for students to take up the specialized language, such as re-appropriation that Rosa often used, but also created the space for them to make their own “connections between other artists and the symbolism of flowers,” such as its relationship to “a funeral, a street after someone has been shot and families leave candles and flowers, and just the general contrast between flowers and bullets.”


The lens of principled improvisation prompted Rosa, and others who saw themselves as “critically conscious,” to become aware of when they were telling students about the oppression the students were presumably experiencing. Rosa’s initial tendency to “tell” students should not be conflated with the “powerful role intentional teaching can play” (Vossoughi et al., 2016, p. 220); “telling” flattens students’ experiences and possible futures, whereas intentional (sometimes even seemingly didactic) teaching sustains the space for joint meaning making with students. The novice teachers’ practice guided by principled improvisation helped them see the importance of forging shared identities with students, rather than assuming them. It opened space for our class to consider how the act of listening was effortful. It moved us from the enthusiastic but cursory recognition at the beginning of the quarter that listening is essential for effective teaching, to beginning to theorize a pedagogy of listening and its centrality in the craft of co-constructing meaning with students.


3. PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION ACROSS SPACE: TEACHING RACIAL JUSTICE IN THE SPECIFICITY OF PLACE


The third illustrative example focuses on the novice teacher, Luisa, as she made sense of what seemed to be an offhand remark by one of her students, Gabriela. It examines how Luisa’s understanding about Gabriela’s comments deepened through the novice teachers’ collective sensemaking over three weeks. My interpretation of this example emphasizes a greater understanding of place that co-constructs the novice teachers’ engagement with their students.


In her written reflection about her first meeting at Randolph, Luisa noted an unexpected exchange with one of her students, Gabriela: “One of my students complained how she had a strong Salvadorian accent when speaking Spanish. She blamed her father for her accent and felt strongly of not speaking Spanish as often because of her accent.” The exchange prompted Luisa, in her first journal entry, to think about how important it was for students to feel “comfortable” with their “culture” and “heritage” and what she might do to support students’ “individual identities.”


After the high school students gave the novice teachers guided tours of Randolph in their second week together, the novice teachers became acutely aware of how social space in the school was racialized. In the whole-class discussion after the school tour, many of the novice teachers shared that their experience in the tours included statements from students like, “That’s where the Salvadorians hang out, that’s where the Black kids hang out, and that where the couples make out.” In initial narrations on the first day of class about the multitude of ways in which race operates in schools, the novice teachers had emphasized tensions between African American students and Latino students. Evidenced from the class discussion, these views were based on the novice teachers’ own experiences in high school and popular media representations. Listening to students and seeing the school through the eyes of students helped novice teachers see that the primary racial antagonism that existed at Randolph was not between African American students and Latino students, as they had expected, but between Mexican American students and Salvadorian American students. The re-narrations of students’ comments from the tour also highlighted that the tensions did not exist only along this single axis, however. Racialized friction also existed between African American and Latino students, first-generation Latino students and other Latino students, and English learners and students who were more proficient in English. These social stratifications were not self-evident. They emerged as the novice teachers made sense of their students’ experiences in light of our course readings and, very notably, some of the novice teachers’ personal knowledge of and experience with the neighborhood surrounding Randolph. The novice teachers quickly appreciated that an “idealized theory” (Mills, 2005) of how to engage dynamics of race in school contexts was insufficient; it required a place-conscious approach that was “contextually relevant, morally adequate, and practically feasible” (Jaggar, 2015, p. 119).


Although Luisa was not vocal in the classroom discussion, she returned to her interactions with Gabriela in her next written reflection. She shared that while they were on the school tour, Gabriela pointed to a few students speaking Spanish and said, “You see! That’s why I don’t want to talk Spanish. Those two guys have weird accents.” Luisa continued,


It was during our whole-class discussion that I realized there was a schoolwide tension between Mexican and Salvadorian students. I was trying to make the student in my group realize that being proud of her heritage is a step towards advocating for her voice. I wish I had known that it was not just a personal problem.


The weekly journal and the class discussion format that emphasized narration and re-narration supported Luisa in re-narrating a “personal” problem as an institutional and social problem. Luisa began to see Gabriela’s hesitance to speak in Spanish across scales. She had initially framed and attempted to address it as an issue that was particular to Gabriela feeling uncomfortable with her “heritage” and “culture.” Through the re-narrations in class, Luisa was able to see Gabriela’s reluctance to speak in Spanish across institutional and political scales that positioned Salvadorian Americans and Mexican Americans against each other within the larger context of Whiteness.


During the following week’s whole-class discussion, I had asked Luisa to share her reflections. Building on Luisa’s experience, Rosa (the novice teacher in example 2) also contributed to our collective understanding by expanding on an interaction she had encountered at Randolph. She described an instance in which a group of students “slut shamed” a peer while mocking her Salvadorian accent, which made visible the deeply intersectional nature of racialization and other forms of power like patriarchy, nationalism, and linguicism. Seeing the school’s social space through the eyes of students allowed the novice teachers to better understand how racialization is an ongoing and situated process that is intricately tied into dynamics of immigration, language, and gender. Our course readings, as points of reference, helped the novice teachers make sense of these shifting and place-based forms of racialization within the historical context of Whiteness in the United States.


Practices organized around principled improvisation helped the novice teachers better understand the placespecific constructions of race through the eyes of their students. By listening to their students, the novice teachers learned that they couldn’t assume that racialized categories such as “Latino” or “people of color” had the same local significance for their students as they did for us. A re-envisioning of their practice meant starting with students’ meanings. It pushed us to collectively build a theory of race and intersecting forms of power that was place-relevant and answerable to historical and societal processes, and it called for theory to reflexively inform our engagement with students at Randolph.


4. PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES: SUPPORTING HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS IN THE STRUGGLES FOR POLITICAL EXPRESSION


The fourth illustrative example focuses on a whole-class discussion with the novice teachers in which they reflected on the previous week’s political events. My interpretation of this example emphasizes the novice teachers’ response to a particular set of extraordinary school events that they had to negotiate interpersonally and understand in light of its national context and consequences.


Seven weeks after the start of the academic quarter, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. In response, thousands of high school students throughout South and East Los Angeles (the predominantly Latino and African American regions of the city) organized massive, coordinated walkouts to protest the racialized violence and hate that had marked the presidential campaign leading up to the election (Kohli, Resmovits, & Knoll, 2016). At Randolph, students who had walked out of class were prevented from leaving the school as administrators and security guards initially locked the school’s gates and forced the students who left their classrooms into the school auditorium. Given the sheer number of students who were protesting, the administrators eventually decided to open the gates of the school and allow the students to march to City Hall.


Fluidly moving between foundational texts on student resistance that the novice teachers encountered in class, including pieces on the historic 1968 East Los Angeles school walkouts (Bernal, 1998), and their field experiences, the novice teachers had the opportunity to articulate their political commitments and responsibilities for themselves and others in light of the walkouts. In our whole-class discussion, most of the novice teachers (and I) expressed outrage that administrators attempted to curtail students’ freedom of expression, while acknowledging the legal limits for students to protest during school hours. John, a novice teacher with extensive experience as an activist, expressed how he engaged in conversations with students and supported them in their decision to walk out. As an act of solidarity, he decided to walk out with students even after weighing how it might impact the school administrators’ perception of him.


It was well into the conversation that Alonzo shared an alternative perspective. Alonzo described his own experience in school, when nearly 40,000 Southern Californian students walked out to protest proposed immigration legislation in 2006 (Cho & Gorman, 2006). Alonzo recounted the pressure he felt from his peers to walk out, even though he had a well-reasoned political stance for his disagreement with the tactic. Alonzo believed that he and his peers should have the right to express their discontent through different means. He was particularly concerned that the walkouts posed a particular threat to undocumented students, who could face deportation if arrested. In the lead-up to the walkouts, many undocumented students were forced to “out” themselves for fear of being politically misunderstood or misrepresented. Based on his experience, Alonzo narrated his encounters with students who decided to not walk out—a group of students who were invisible up to this point in the discussion. Our narrations had conceived of democratic participation exclusively through the lens of walking out. Alonzo’s insight helped our class re-narrate these “nonparticipants” as actively engaged in the democratic process.


John’s and Alonzo’s narrations of their experience allowed the class to expand our notion of democratic participation. It allowed us to see another layer of Kennedy’s (2016) argument about the competing demands of teachers: Meeting the needs of one segment of students can undermine the equally legitimate needs of another. Alonzo’s narration also created new opportunities for theory building. Our re-envisioning of the novice teachers’ experiences during the first portion of the whole-class discussion generated helpful new courses of action but were constrained by our limited understanding of participation. Alonzo’s narration, and the ensuing re-envisioning, allowed for new possibilities that valued multiple forms of democratic participation, dissent, and protest.


Recounting and making sense of the unique unfolding of their small-group discussions allowed the novice teachers to better appreciate the contextuality of principled improvisation as they saw how students in different groups grappled with the same national event in very different ways. Our class discussions made apparent the shortcomings of idealized theories or practices, such as adopting blanket rules to share or not share political positions (Hess & McAvoy, 2015) and the initial stance to always lend support to overt student action. We worked toward a “contextually relevant, morally adequate, and practically feasible” (Jaggar, 2015, p. 119) response to the dilemmas that emerged in classrooms. The events after the election reminded us as a class that principled improvisation is particular to time, including moments such as tragedies and celebrations that are routinely a part of a school community.


5. PRINCIPLED IMPROVISATION AND SCALE: ADDRESSING POWER ACROSS SOCIETAL, INTERACTIONAL, AND INDIVIDUAL SCALES


The final illustrative example focuses on the interactions between Brad, a novice teacher, and his students, Micky, Laura, and Rebecca, over the course of 6 weeks. My interpretation of this example emphasizes the challenges in learning to think and act across scales of power (in this case, societal and interpersonal).


Teachers (and for that matter, people in general) rarely have the opportunity to carefully attend to the convergences and contradictions in power across scales of analysis and power. These dynamics became pronounced in Brad’s group. Micky was a gender-nonconforming student (in our time at the Randolph, he was the only openly queer student we met). As a queer man, Brad wrote how he “gravitated” toward having conversations with Micky about the experiences of queer people of color. Micky was routinely bullied in and out of school. For instance, in week 2, Brad described how he overheard Rebecca telling Micky that another student was “making fun of him, probably in a homophobic way.” Nearly every week, Brad noted that Micky spent some portion of class time with counselors who provided mental health services.


Brad observed, from their first day together, that “Micky and Rebecca are definitely outgoing and willing to show vulnerability, while Laura seems okay with staying quiet while still listening attentively.” Each week he would try different strategies to engage Laura. Brad was highly reflective about moments when his strategies even backfired. For instance, during week 2, when he asked his students about their interests, Micky answered for Laura after he had just finished describing his own interests. Brad reflected on his struggle of not wanting to “silence” Micky, while wanting Laura to “speak her mind more.” He reflected on the need to create “equitable spaces in conversation.” He attributed the “imbalances” to Micky’s “outspoken” nature and Laura’s “reserved” nature and noted the strong friendship between Micky and Rebecca, and Laura’s preference to join other friends whenever possible.


Initially, Brad struggled to establish his own authority in the group while also building his relationship with students. Many of the novice teachers similarly grappled with their sense of identity, collectively reflecting on moments when their lack of structure undermined relationships and learning in their groups and on moments when they became too rigid in their demands and thereby alienated their students. For instance, in week 3, Brad reflected on these contradictions:


The students all seem comfortable with me. An ongoing issue I am having with my developing identity as a teacher and the way that identity plays out in the relationships I build with students is that I tend to try more to be the students’ friend and confidant rather than a figure of authority. Perhaps Micky’s and Rebecca’s calling me their “second dad” is indicative that I do hold some authority in our relationship. I also think the way I instruct students to obey certain demands or warnings like, “Be careful! Don’t push them off the swing!” “You need to apologize to her!” or, “We talked about using that kind of language!” carries a whiney tone that can be less assertive and more easily dismissed.   


As a whole class, in small informal conversations, and in one-on-one discussions with me, Brad consistently narrated his experience, and we collectively re-imagined courses of action that could have supported Micky and his group members.  


Despite these collective attempts, Brad’s efforts spiraled beyond his control, and the dynamics in the group came to a head in week 5. Brad wrote: “Our group’s dynamics are very problematic at this point! Rebecca and Micky are close friends, and their interactions almost always exclude Laura unless Micky or Rebecca say something rude to Laura. At this point, Micky is bullying Laura, and Rebecca is complicit with this.” Brad also reported that Micky said that Brad “was not doing a good job at controlling the group.” Brad was in the midst of a “wicked problem.” He had difficulty appraising the consequences of his prior actions “until the waves of repercussions” had played out, and the traces they left behind could not be “undone” at that point (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 163). His potential blind spot of supporting Micky through a presumed shared identity was at odds with the needs of Laura and the overall well-being of the group.


After week 5’s class, Laura asked Kevin, the teacher, if she could transfer out of the class. After talking through the issues with her, Kevin and Laura decided that changing groups was a better alternative. Brad spoke with Kevin and they decided, with Laura’s consent, to facilitate a restorative justice circle the following week. Brad acknowledged that the circle provided some closure to the conflict in the group but that the students did not want to “get into things” and “just wanted it to be over.”


Brad attempted to employ practices that were meant to promote equitable participation, and he demonstrated a high degree of awareness of and reflection about his shortcomings with these practices. But Brad was unprepared to pragmatically address the seeming disjuncture between power dynamics experienced and enacted by Micky at different scales (and I was not adequately prepared to support Brad in this process). Most of the course readings, and even our collective theorization about intersectionality in the context of the Salvadorian American students at Randolph, had not prepared us to simultaneously engage with Micky as a “bully” at an interpersonal scale and as someone who is consistently a target of heteronormative aggression at the institutional and societal scale. Although this disjuncture was more easily conceptualized, the pragmatic implications were more difficult to address. Brad’s challenge, as he struggled to engage in a practice guided by principled improvisation, was to simultaneously account for and address power within the group at these multiple scales.


In many ways, our collective endeavor with Brad was a failure. We neither addressed the heterosexism Micky faced in the school nor the bullying he enacted in his group. Brad’s narrations and our re-envisionings were ultimately sobering. It made abundantly clear that teaching was a “wicked problem” where our attempts to re-solve problems have lasting effects that cannot be taken back. We recognized that the only way out of Brad’s increasingly detrimental predicament was not full resolution, but rather a less than optimal solution brokered by Kevin—a situation teachers often experience when administrators intervene. We learned the hard lesson that “contextually relevant, morally adequate, and practically feasible” (Jaggar, 2015, p. 119) solutions are also time dependent: A resolution with those characteristics at the beginning of the term could have looked different. However, the attempts at a practice guided by principled improvisation with Brad pushed us to think more carefully and begin to theorize about power across scales. Similar to our collective theorizing toward place-relevant theories of race and power, these forms of theory building for teachers and by teachers were only made possible by organizing novice teacher learning around improvisation.


NEW LEARNING, NEW CHALLENGES, AND WEIGHTY DECISIONS FOR THE FUTURE OF TEACHER EDUCATION


The lens of principled improvisation and the movement between theory and practice through narration, re-narration, and re-envisioning offered significant new learning opportunities for the novice teachers, as evidenced in the preceding examples. Learning and social theory were no longer frameworks to apply to practice. Novice teachers’ work with students became spaces of theory building that nuanced, complicated, and troubled the theory they read. We were writing place-relevant theory rather than simply using theory developed in different contexts than ours. Through narrating, re-narrating, and re-envisioning, grounded theorization allowed us to iteratively see the novice teachers’ interactions and work with students through a new lens. In other words, the novice teachers were engaged in praxis—reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it (Freire, 1970)—focused on the moment with a profound recognition of its consequentiality over time.


The opportunities to learn to recognize emotion, listen, see race in place, consider political expression, and make sense of power across scales were significant aspects of the relational work of teachers that were learned by organizing novice teacher learning around principled improvisation. These forms of learning could not have taken place if the experiences of the novice teachers were only organized around the rehearsal of components of teaching. It required teaching in a complex space that connects self and interactions in place to larger structures and ideologies in society. My experience with the novice teachers at Randolph is a stark and powerful reminder that “building respectful relationships with students” cannot be reduced to “techniques [such as] greeting students positively every day, having frequent, brief, ‘check in’ conversations with students to demonstrate care and interest, and following up with students who are experiencing difficult or special personal situations” as suggested by certain practice-oriented reformers (TeachingWorks, n.d.).


The new configuration for the integrated course, however, came with its own set of challenges. The course required a great deal of extra time and effort on my part. It also needed immense generosity, dedication, flexibility, and adaptability by Kevin, the cooperating teacher. It was also far more emotionally taxing for the novice teachers, Kevin, and me than a traditional course. Given students’ experiences with injustice in society and schooling, novice teachers quickly learned that principled improvisation and theorizing can also mean moving through the high school students’ and their own grief, anger, sorrow, and trauma (hooks, 1994). As the high school students seemed to resist the efforts of the novice teachers, many experienced moments of immense self-doubt. This was perhaps pronounced, since the cohort was entirely composed of students of color with an ethnic studies focus, many of whom had grown up in areas neighboring the school. As an instructor, I too was unprepared to respond to the emotional aspects that emerged in the integrated course context. I realized how my prior experience teaching a university-based social foundations course had provided a firewall that kept many of these affective dimensions of learning to teach in the field.


Learning to be responsive to the new affective context and consequences of the integrated course is tied to a larger need to develop new pedagogies that are appropriate for this approach. A traditional foundations course is, to some degree, based on a theory to application model. Integration between foundations courses and the context of teaching necessitates a theory building approach that moves between texts and the particularities of place and practice. It also called on me to develop, and it made abundantly apparent at times my shortcomings with, pedagogies that would allow individual learning to genuinely become a form of collective learning.


Our choices about how to organize teacher learning reflects our understanding of what teaching entails. Surely the technical dimensions of teaching are essential, but we need to be weary when practice-as-technique and “skills first” approaches work to marginalize, dismiss, or subsume the relational and humanistic aspects of teaching. Advocates of practice-oriented approaches to teacher education often turn to professions like medicine to justify their model of professional learning. While doctors are generally well prepared for the technical aspects of their profession, they are grossly underprepared for the relational dimensions of their work that are more aligned with teaching. In fact, the consensus is that medical training makes doctors less empathetic as they move through their education and training and strive toward “professionalism” (Neumann et al., 2011). Some of the reasons that Neumann and colleagues highlighted for the decrease in empathy are important warnings for “professionalizing” teacher education like medical schools: a “hidden curriculum” where technology and objectivity is prioritized over the humanistic aspects of medicine; an “informal curriculum” where patient–physician relationships are fragmented and do not allow time for “learning from and with the patient” and where medical students are treated as “immature human beings” who require prescriptive instructions (Neumann et al., 2011, p. 998).


Haque and Waytz (2012) further argued that “dehumanization is endemic in medical practice.” Their explanation for the growing dehumanization in medicine has clear parallels to educational reform: “deindividuating practices” that correspond to generic practices for all students to succeed; “impaired patient agency” or notions of deficit thinking; “dissimilarity” that resembles devaluing the knowledge of students and communities; “mechanization” that is comparable to the use of labels and decontextualized quantitative measures to describe students and student learning; “empathy reduction” or the analogous insensitivity to unjust policies and practices in education; and “moral disengagement” or the construction of students as deserving of failure. Is this the future we envision for teacher education? Is this the preparation and learning we desire for our novice teachers? Is our hope to produce teachers who are proficient in the technical aspects of teaching but less empathetic human beings? While standardized practices have a place in teacher education, the goal of organizing teacher education exclusively around reductive notions of practices has frightful consequences. Novice teachers must have a space to develop shared knowledge, judgment, and context-responsive improvisational practices through learning opportunities organized around principled improvisation.


The current trend in teacher education to codify teacher practice reflects the irony of reform efforts that the epigraph pointed out: “They perpetuate a basic reality that has created the problems in the first place” (McNeil, 1999, p. xvii). The exclusionary focus on having new teachers master a core set of practices reflects the “technocratic logic” of educational reform through which “systems of standardized top-down control” seek to “reduce variation and discretion” across teachers (Mehta, 2013). It under-conceptualizes oppression, inequity, and injustice to slogans of cheerful inclusivity (Martin, 2009). This contradiction in systematizing teaching in the name of achieving equity and social justice is apparent in the underlying assumptions. The “basic reality” effectively curtails the creativity and agency of teachers through a host of suppositions: Novice teachers can only effectively engage in improvisation after they master the “building blocks” of teaching; teaching can be neatly defined into separate, independent problems; a generic model that does not take novice teachers’ experiences, identities, or goals can be used for teacher education; teacher educators know the one right way that novice teachers should teach; and that community knowledge, experience, and practice have little, if anything, to contribute to teacher learning.  


As McNeil (1999) prompted us, we need to think hard about whether the ways we organize teacher learning support or distort and contradict the purpose we envision for schools. If we believe that one of the purposes of schooling is for teachers to be “intellectually and pragmatically engaged in the continual formation of a democratic society” (Philip, 2013a, p. 203), organizing novice teacher learning around a set of practices or techniques is insufficient. There must be space for teachers to learn from the uncertainty, ambiguity, and unpredictability of teaching; to struggle with the consequentiality of actions that cannot be undone; to weigh what is “contextually relevant, morally adequate, and practically feasible” (Jaggar, 2015, p. 119); to experience the effort of listening; and to build theory that is grounded in place. For such a vision of teaching, we need to organize teacher learning in ways that are not constricted by the language of control. Organizing novice teacher learning around principled improvisation is neither a panacea nor sufficient by itself; it is a part of a larger effort to name and address the challenges and possibilities we face in teacher education today.


Acknowledgments


I thank Ilana S. Horn, A. Susan Jurow, Shirin Vossoughi, Mariana Souto-Manning, and the participants of the Innovations in Teacher Development Conference at Kings College (June, 2017) for reading early drafts of this manuscript and for providing valuable suggestions, comments, and critiques.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 6, 2019, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22739, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:17:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas M. Philip
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS M. PHILIP is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley. Professor Philip studies how teachers make sense of power and hierarchy in classrooms, schools, and society. He is interested in how teachers act on their sense of agency as they navigate and ultimately transform classrooms and institutions toward more equitable, just, and democratic practices and outcomes. Two recently coauthored publications are: “Making justice peripheral by constructing practice as ‘core’: How the increasing prominence of core practices challenges teacher education” in the Journal of Teacher Education and “Why ideology matters for learning: A case of ideological convergence in an engineering ethics classroom discussion on drone warfare” in the Journal of the Learning Sciences.
 
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