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Teacher Professional Dispositions: Much Assemblage Required

by Kathryn Strom, Jason Margolis & Nihat Polat - 2019

Background/Context: Despite noted difficulties with defining and assessing teacher dispositions, U.S. state education departments and national accreditation agencies have included dispositions in mandates and standards both for determining teacher quality and for assessing the quality of the teacher preparation programs that certify them. Thus, there remains a significant impetus to specify dispositions to assess, identify what “good” dispositions look like in practice, and determine the best way to measure them.

Purpose: The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, we aim to problematize the construct of “teacher dispositions” through a critical synthesis of literature and a discussion of a rhizomatic perspective to generate a (re)conceptualization that is more closely aligned with the immensely complex nature of teaching and learning. Second, we draw on samples of university-generated teacher disposition assessment tools to provide concrete examples that “put to work” this complex perspective on dispositions.

Research Design: To apply ideas introduced in our rhizomatic framework focused on multiple, dynamic assemblages, we conducted a qualitative textual analysis of a sample of 16 widely available assessment tools used by university-based teacher preparation programs to measure teachers’ professional dispositions.

Findings and Conclusions: Overall, the vast majority of disposition criteria included in the tools reviewed were temporal and relational, seeking to assess the interactions of the teacher candidate amidst a variety of potential circumstances as well as material and discursive factors. This reveals a paradox, however, since, despite their more contextual phrasing, these criteria ultimately seek to assess an individual and are high-stakes only for that teacher. Yet, we suggest that the results of this review may be an indication that the field is moving toward a more multifaceted vision of teaching that can better take into account the dynamic, situated, and relational nature of teaching activity. We also suggest the language accounting for some of the complexity of teaching in the disposition assessment tools we reviewed may be an entry point into a more dynamic, vital materialist vision of the profession.

Although ubiquitous in teacher education, teacher dispositions have been a source of debate for some time. Scholars have disagreed about a range of issues on this topic, including what the defining elements of dispositions are, how to operationalize and assess them, and whether they can be assessed at all. Some recent work has suggested that even if teacher dispositions can be assessed, they may be an exaggerated factor in teacher quality and student learning outcomes (Strom, 2015). Yet there is growing consensus among researchers of teacher education that dispositions do matter (Sockett, 2012; Skarbet & Smith, 2013); and some consider them of paramount importance in helping to shape teacher candidates’ approach to issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity (Villegas, 2007).

In the U.S. context, state education departments and national accreditation agencies have included dispositions in mandates and standards both for determining teacher quality and for assessing the quality of the teacher preparation programs that certify them. For example, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP, 2013, 2016), the primary national accrediting body for all teacher education programs in the United States, recently raised the scope and scale of standards for teacher candidates in general and gave increased attention to the measurement of their dispositions in particular. Currently, teacher dispositions are mentioned in several accreditation standards. Standard 3.3 requires that “Educator preparation providers establish and monitor attributes and dispositions beyond academic ability that candidates must demonstrate at admissions and during the program” (emphasis ours), and Standard 2.3 requires that “clinical experiences develop candidates’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions” (emphasis ours). While CAEP (2013; 2016) does not specifically mandate which dispositions a teacher education program must assess to become accredited, the standards do (a) require that dispositions be measured on an ongoing basis, from entry to the program, through coursework, to field experiences; (b) specify that the dispositions measured must address teacher candidates’ capacity to teach “all” students; and (c) mandate that tools used to assess teacher candidates’ disposition be tested for “validity” and “reliability.”

Given these emphases, and despite noted difficulties with defining and assessing teacher dispositions, there remains a significant impetus to specify dispositions to assess, identify what “good” dispositions look like in practice, and determine the best way to measure them. In this paper, we argue that these complex tasks require insight from theories that are equally complex. Specifically, we draw on insights from the emerging “complex turn” in teacher education, which features scholarship employing perspectives that push back on the reductive, linear, technicist thinking regarding teacher learning and practice that has surged in the era of accountability. Instead, this scholarship puts to work theories—such as rhizomatics (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987)—that offer conceptual tools to theorize and investigate teacher learning and related activity as dynamic, situated phenomena emerging from the collective activity of multiple interacting factors (Cochran-Smith, Ell, Ludlow, Grudnoff, & Aitken, 2014; Strom & Martin, 2017). These perspectives require a fundamental rethinking of taken-for-granted notions, like teacher subjectivity, which underlie the field’s collective conceptualization of dispositions. Notably, rhizomatics recasts the world as assemblages—or constellations of interacting social, material, political, and discursive factors with distributed agency (Bennett, 2010)—which problematizes the notion of autonomous, completely agentic, rational human actors. This rethinking, in turn, has major implications for the ways teacher educators understand and assess teacher dispositions.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, we aim to problematize the construct of “teacher dispositions” through a critical synthesis of literature and a discussion of a rhizomatic perspective (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) to generate a (re)conceptualization that is more closely aligned with the immensely complex nature of teaching and learning. Second, we draw on samples of university-generated teacher disposition assessment tools to provide concrete examples that “put to work” this rethinking of dispositions, which demonstrate that the field may be showing signs of moving toward a more contextual understanding of the construct. We suggest that this move offers an entry point to rethink the traditional notion of dispositions as a context-independent quality contained within a (teacher) body or an agentic action controlled by a (teacher) body. Instead, we can conceptualize dispositions as complex, situated, co-constructed, and emergent enactments stemming from an assemblage, or mixture, of teacher-student-context (and so on), a perspective which better takes into account the collective and distributed agency of teachers and teaching phenomena (Strom, 2015; Strom & Martin, 2017).   


The traditional view of teacher dispositions can be best characterized by the definition proposed in 2001 by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the entity that accredited teacher education programs at the time: “Professional attitudes, values, and beliefs demonstrated through both verbal and non-verbal behaviors as educators interact with students, families, colleagues, and communities.” Such mainstream understandings of teacher dispositions rest on the assumption that they are static and contained within teachers—an “internal filter that affects the way a teacher is inclined to think and act on the information and experiences that are part of his/her teaching context” (Schussler, Bercaw, & Stookberry, 2008, p. 106). These understandings represent a good sense reading (Deleuze, 1990) of dispositions, one that draws on an image of the world as composed of encapsulated, autonomous, rational actors with free will, inside which dwell particular qualities or orientations that inform the actions they take in the classroom. These commonsense understandings—that is, the dominant narrative of teacher dispositions—have generated a large body of work that, as previously noted, disagree on what these dispositions should be, how they relate to the work of the teacher, and the ways in which they might be operationalized and measured.  


Although educational researchers have been studying the notion of teacher characteristics or attributes for some time (e.g., Dunkin & Biddle, 1974), the notion of dispositions as a construct first gained traction in the United States in the 1990s in tandem with the rise of standards-based teacher preparation. During this time, the Interstate New Teacher Assessment Support Consortium (INTASC, 1992) released a highly influential set of standards emphasizing teacher dispositions, which a number of states subsequently adopted to inform their licensing programs for beginning teachers, “put(ing) dispositions on the teacher preparation map” (Villegas, 2007, p. 372). As a result, the language of teacher preparation goals began to shift from “acquisition of knowledge, skill and attitudes” to “knowledge, skills, and dispositions” (Freeman, 2003, p. 1, emphasis ours). This latter phrase was reinforced in the Standards 2000, a revised set of standards created by NCATE that articulated required qualifications of potential teachers (NCATE, 2001). These standards also linked teacher dispositions with a specific outcome—that is, “all students learn” as a result of the desired dispositions (Villegas, 2007, p. 373). As the only national accreditor of initial teacher preparation programs at the time, NCATE’s initial focus on dispositions ensured that this construct became a key focus of teacher education assessment. Although NCATE later merged with the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) to form the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), teacher dispositions have remained one of the central indicators of teacher readiness assessed by initial teacher education programs as part of the accreditation process (Skarbet & Smith, 2013).


Yet despite the central role dispositions have come to play in teacher education, this construct has not been clearly defined in the professional literature. However, in part, it can be traced back to John Dewey (1933), whose notion of “the body of habits of active dispositions which makes a man do what he does” (p. 44) was tied to mindful, reflective thinking (see also Dottin, 2009). In the last several decades, the various definitions of “teacher dispositions” emerging from the professional literature and contextualized program implementation have attempted to make the concepts of “good teachers” and “good teaching” more concrete—but also emphasize the significant tensions in the field that exist regarding what “good teachers” do and what “good teaching” is. Another major disagreement concerns whether dispositions are static and inherent or can be manipulated and/or developed, and where they are located (e.g., within bodies or manifested in action); that is, the extent to which dispositions reside either in the attributes or actions of the individual teacher. For example, NCATE (2001) defined dispositions as:

The values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors towards students, families, colleagues, and communities and affect student learning, motivation, development, as well as the educator’s own professional growth. Dispositions are guided by beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice (p. 30).

Language like “values,” “beliefs,” and “attitudes” locates dispositions primarily within the psyche of the teacher while phrases like “are guided by” imply causal relationships with other cognitive traits. Along the same lines, Damon (2007) defines dispositions as “a trait or characteristic that is embedded in temperament and disposes a person toward certain choices” (p. 376). The linking of the word “trait” with “dispose” places dispositions somewhere within the teacher’s internal world—in other words, it is something fixed that is contained within her mind/body and remains stable over time.

Others have promoted a more action-centered definition of teacher dispositions. For example, Villegas (2007) moved the field forward by arguing that dispositions are “tendencies” for particular behaviors, but they are made concrete in the behavior itself. She further explains: “Since actions can be examined directly, unlike attributes, the complexity of measuring a disposition is somewhat lessened, as long as the type of actions thought to represent that disposition can be specified with reasonable confidence” (p. 373). From this view, teacher dispositions can be better ascertained through analyses of teacher actions rather than a teacher’s psychology (see also Katz & Raths, 1985). This is consistent with initial attempts to measure good teaching in the field, such as the development of National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Since 1987, these national teaching standards have emphasized that good teaching rests on “what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do” (NBPTS, 2015).  

Other conceptualizations examine dispositions through a specific lens or area of expertise, such as morality (e.g., Fenstermacher, Osguthorpe, & Sanger, 2009; Osguthorpe, 2008), fairness and social justice (AACTE, 2013), and resilience (e.g., Day & Gu, 2010). Resilience, in particular, has become such a sought-after teacher disposition that it often frames the hiring practices of school districts (Howard & Johnson, 2004). A “resilient disposition” has become increasingly the focus for hiring teachers within complex, urban school districts that face great retention challenges amidst complex and sometimes demoralizing teaching environments (Haberman, 2010). However, whether emphasis should be placed on individual teacher resilience or on the creation of more sustainable teaching and learning environments remains a source of debate within teacher education (see Margolis, Hodge, & Alexandrou, 2014). Moreover, a construct like “resilience,” if focused on the teacher’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity, can overstate the agency of the teacher and fail to take into account the interactive, highly mediated nature of educational settings.

The conceptualization of dispositions is also shaped by dominant knowledge in the field—such as commonly accepted understandings about what is “good” and “bad” for students from diverse backgrounds. Whaley (1999), for example, describes more culturally inclusive dispositions as enthusiastic, caring, joyful, and professional, while negative dispositions include passivity, struggling with diversity, defensive, and depressed. Interestingly, Whaley’s definitions of dispositions are more attribute-centered when positive, and more action-centered when negative—which mirrors the continuing dilemma in the field of teaching and teacher education in defining and locating the disposition construct.


One possible reason that the construct of dispositions is so difficult to define within teacher education is the lack of an agreed-upon theoretical framework within which to locate the concept (Johnson & Reiman, 2007). While some frameworks have been recently offered to theorize teacher dispositions, they remain heavily focused on teacher cognition. Adult cognitive development specialists (Johnson & Reiman, 2007; Reiman & Thies-Sprinthall, 1998), for instance, see dispositions as evolving developmentally as teachers learn about diverse students over time. This dispositional evolution occurs within moral/ethical, conceptual, and ego cognitive domains (see also Reiman, 1999). Within this cognitive framework, Reiman and Johnson (2003) define professional dispositions as “attributed characteristics of a teacher that represents a trend of a teacher’s interpretation, judgements and actions in ill-structured and progressive complex laboratory and professional contexts” (p. 5). Through this theorization, dispositions are viewed as attributes of a teacher that depict one’s thought-process regarding decision-making in a situation with several possible alternative routes of action. From this perspective, dispositions are an internal condition of the teacher that leads them to respond to students in particular ways.  

While some scholars (e.g., Damon, 2007) have concluded that such cognitive frameworks have much to offer to the analysis of the decisions educators make in professional contexts, others (e.g., Strom, 2015) have cautioned that looking to the behavioral sciences for the definition, interpretation, and application of teacher dispositions has the potential to be limiting, reductive, and interpolative because of their deeply embedded positivist, rational heritage. There are also larger concerns that cognitive frameworks produce evaluations of teaching/teachers that are de-contextualized from the environments (e.g., issues of ecological validity) in which teachers work, which can over-emphasize the role of individual teacher psychology (Kennedy, 2010; Margolis et al., 2014) in dispositional assessment. Thus, while current thinking on teacher dispositions is mostly informed by cognitive frameworks, there is an increasing push within the field for more sociocultural and ecological frameworks through which to examine teachers and teaching (e.g., Cochran-Smith et al., 2014; Emdin, 2016; Sockett, 2012; Strom, 2015).

In the following section we detail an alternative theoretical position, rhizomatics, which offers a vital materialist perspective that we suggest can help rethink teacher dispositions from a more complex, situated stance. Importantly, the concept of viewing one’s level of capability as being integrated with context and activity is not new to the educational literature, as various branches of learning theory speak to the idea that students co-construct knowledge rather than acquire it (Corno et al., 2001). Addressing the situation-specific nature of competence and aptitude, some cognitive theorists have argued that “the concept of aptitude ‘in the person’s head’ should be replaced by aptitude ‘as a property of person-in-situation’” (p. 41). As early as the 1980s, situated cognition was gaining favor for viewing the learner/person as inseparable from the learning situation, and for critiquing over-reliance on artificial tasks that place cognition entirely in the learner’s mind. Focusing on student learning, situated cognitive theory united organism and environment as a single interacting system (Corno et al., 2001). Here, we build on the notion of situatedness and interconnectivity, focusing on teaching, adopting a decentered theoretical lens that moves the focus beyond the individual teacher to multiplicity. We take up these ideas next.


The “good sense” readings of dispositions summarized above are limiting in that they are driven by a fundamental logic scheme based on rational humanism. Such patterns of thought are based on the Cartesian notion of cogito, or the rational, autonomous human subject (St. Pierre, 2000), and perpetuate a positivist ontology characterized by linear, one-to-one correspondences, essentialism, universalism, static reality, dichotomies, and sameness (Strom & Martin, 2017). In short, traditional understandings of teacher dispositions are based on a logic that can never come close to expressing the complex, relational, situated nature of teaching and related activity. We suggest that the vital materialist work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987), and specifically, the concepts of rhizomatics, offer a radically different logic that can provide an alternative reading of teacher dispositions (and, more broadly, the phenomenon of “teaching”). However, because these ideas depart so drastically from the view of reality that has dominated Western thought for over 400 years, the concepts and their related vocabulary may at first seem strange and difficult to understand. In our discussion of rhizomatics, we attempt to translate these ideas as concretely as possible while preserving the important ontological shift they entail.      

Based on the figuration of the rhizome (see Figure 1)—a bulb or tuber that expands below and above ground unpredictably—rhizomatics disrupts the linear rationality of Enlightenment thinking, or what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) called “the oldest and weariest type of thought” (p. 5). These philosophers refer to positivist thinking as arborescence, arguing that the characteristics of rationalism mimic those of trees. Typically, trees have a single trunk that stretches skyward until it divides into miniature trunks (branches), which again divide into yet smaller branches, and so on. In making the comparison, Deleuze and Guattari point out that the tree’s hierarchical, binary structure that “endlessly develops the law of the one that becomes two, and then of the two that becomes four” (p. 5) simulates the identifying markers of traditional Western logic. That is, it begins with a universal “one” (the trunk) which merely reproduces itself (the branches) in a linear, dichotomous fashion—thus producing the same kind of thinking over and over, and, as a result, recreating and reinforcing the status quo. As noted above, we argue that most work on teacher dispositions approximates arborescence, or tree-like thinking.


Figure 1. Configuration of the Rhizome


The rhizome, however, shifts away from the static, dichotomous view of reality and moves toward a paradigm of becoming and proliferation: “The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, and, and, and” (p. 25). In contrast to arborescent thinking, rhizomatic thought constructs the world as multiplicities with no central unifying structure. Instead, they consist of heterogenous elements that continuously connect and expand, always changing, becoming different as the multiplicities morph. This type of ontology is both materialist and posthuman. That is, this paradigm does not necessarily take the human as its point of reference for analyzing social phenomena (Braidotti, 2013) and deliberately resists neatly separating material/human/discursive elements (Barad, 2007). Such a philosophy represents a massive shift from a Hegelian, dialectical understanding of the world (e.g., we are separate individuals populating an earth as the central actors in it) to a Spinozan, monistic one (e.g., no separations exist except for the ones that we impose upon it with our agency as researchers) (Barad, 2007; Braidotti, 2016).

This shift from dualism to monism, as Braidotti (2013) notes, is enormous. It dramatically interrupts the individualistic foundation upon which many U.S. societal structures are built, including the structures of schooling, and replaces it with collectivist, relational way of living and seeing the world. Describing the crux of this philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari (1987) explain:

Thus each individual is an infinite multiplicity, and the whole of nature is a multiplicity of perfectly individuated multiplicities . . . nature is like an immense abstract machine, abstract yet real and individual; its pieces are the various assemblages and individuals, each of which groups together an infinity of particles entering into an infinity of more or less interconnected relations. (p. 254)  

For teacher dispositions, this means that an investigation into a teacher candidate’s “disposition” is also an investigation into all that this individual encounters as she learns and practices “teaching.”

We find the concept of assemblage referenced in the quote above to be a fruitful entry point into rhizomatic thinking, or conceptualizing and studying the world as multiplicity. Assemblage expresses both the constellation of material and discursive elements composing it and the collective function of those elements working together. In the original French text, Deleuze and Guattari use the term agencement—which literally translates to an arrangement or a set. deFreitas (2012) draws on the classroom as an example of an assemblage that might consist of human and other material elements such as students, teacher, desks, books, teaching materials, whiteboards, and other elements of the physical space. However, there are also discursive elements that play a role in the way the classroom assemblage operates, and what is produced in terms of teaching and learning, such as traditional expectations of what the teacher and students do in a classroom setting and historical/cultural discourses of deficit for particular marginalized groups of students.

As a key part of this assemblage, the teacher is also an “infinite multiplicity,” an ongoing production of elements both internal (her biographical history, background experiences, education, desires, and so on) and external (the human/material and discursive constructions with which/with whom she interacts throughout her life). Far from having a fixed nature, she is, at any moment, but a temporary individuation of a subject—a temporal realization of self—co-constructed together with the other assemblage elements with which she is enmeshed at that time. Using a rhizomatic frame, we suggest (re)thinking this concept as a “disposition expression,” a temporal production emerging from a particular assemblage—a collective enunciation of particular multiplicities (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) for each teacher-candidate.

Importantly, however, the perspective we offer is not a completely subjective or relativist one. A rhizomatic perspective eschews both positivist or “realist” as well as social constructionist ones (Braidotti, in press). Instead, rhizomatics takes up a sort of entangled middle ground between these stances, holding that the world is not a static, ordered place that can be completely discovered in an objective sense, but neither is everything completely socially constructed, meaning we can know nothing (Barad, 2007). Rhizomatics takes a more complex, “both/and” position between fact and fiction: “There is a there there, but it is fluid rather than fixed” (Hekman, 2010, p. 94, emphasis in original), and the “there” that is there is highly mediated. Put in rhizomatic terms, there is a material or physical reality that can be known, but it is entangled with sociocultural, political, and discursive forces, and these co-produce each other (Barad, 2007). This offers, then, not a relative view of reality, but a situated one, where knowledge is produced and events always occur in relation to specific assemblages of people, things, ideas, and so on.

To highlight how a rhizomatic perspective differs from a traditional one, we summarize the two positions connected to teacher dispositions in Table 1. We understand that a binary-contrast approach may obscure some possible overlaps between the two views; however, it helps us describe our framework more explicitly, which is critical to the foundation of our subsequent arguments and assumptions henceforth. A vertical examination of the columns (from the top down) displays the internal consistency of each framework in terms of its basic assumptions about the nature of dispositions, their defining components, focus of research inquiry, the role of context, and so forth. For example, in a rhizomatic perspective, dispositions are considered to be complex, dynamic, and relational by nature. Therefore, it is appropriate to use qualitative methods that take a process-oriented multivariate approach to the study of dispositions as situated within the particularities of a context of situation.

Table 1. Traditional versus Rhizomatic Views of Teacher Dispositions




Nature of dispositions

Primarily a cognitive and behavioral construct

A social, cognitive (socio-cognitive), socio-cultural, and material construct

Defining elements of dispositions

Static values, beliefs, attitudes, etc.

Dynamic and ever-changing assemblage of  interconnected elements

Focus of research inquiry

Identification of teacher thinking and behavior as static and generalizable products

Exploration of dynamic and adaptive processes of pedagogical happenings, within the unique particularities of teachers, students, the environment, and their interactions.

Perspectives of assessment of dispositions

More likely to objectively assess disposition

Less likely to be able to assess dispositions as they are unstable and situationally produced

Role of context

Homogenous, less context-dependent

Heterogeneous, context-dependent and context-interactive

Ultimate goal

Help teachers construct ‘good’ dispositions- that are stable

Continuous observation of disposition as they are not stable

Level of research focus

Macro level: univariate analyses of individual factors: beliefs, values, etc.

Macro and Micro level: multivariate analyses to capture interaction effect and processes of ‘becoming’

Developmental patterns

Linear, predictable, stable (arborescent)

Non-linear, complex, networked/relational, proliferating

Primary research approach

More quantitative, generalizable, and objective

More qualitative, interpretative, and subjective

Interpretational attitudes

Unidirectional, one-theory, empiricist, individualist

Multiplicitous, situated, relational, materialist, pluralist


To apply ideas introduced in our rhizomatic framework focused on multiple, dynamic assemblages, we conducted a qualitative textual analysis of a sample of 16 widely available assessment tools used by university-based teacher preparation programs to measure teachers’ professional dispositions. We do not present these as an exhaustive and comprehensive data set, but rather, as a way to provide contextual examples to extend both our critical review of dispositions offered earlier in this paper and our re-thinking of dispositions through a rhizomatic lens. However, we did engage in systematic processes to locate and examine these assessment instruments, which we detail next.


The tools (many of which are in the form of rubrics, likely due to CAEP’s requirement that teacher preparation programs should be able to quantify disposition assessments to show trends across multiple years during accreditation) were located through a general Internet search using various configurations of the search terms “professional dispositions,” “teacher professional dispositions,” and “university assessment of teacher dispositions.” We included only teacher disposition assessment tools that had been formally approved at the institutional level for the formative assessment of teacher candidates, summative assessment of teacher candidates, or both formative and summative purposes. We excluded tools that did not expressly and solely assess teacher professional dispositions.  Our initial search led us to over 30 freely accessible and downloadable professional disposition assessment documents. Using the inclusion criteria outlined above, we eliminated instruments that were solely linked to individual courses, as well as those where dispositions were assessed in conjunction with several other domains of teaching. This left us with 16 instruments, which we viewed as sufficient for a non-empirical research endeavor where the sample was a means to “put to work” the rhizomatic theory with concrete artifacts of practice.

Our review was guided by critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA is a useful methodological approach when analyzing the “texts that inform and constitute the social realities and understandings of policy related to education” (Lester, Lochmiller, & Gabriel, 2016, p. 5). Here, CDA allowed us to analyze how the mandated measurement of professional dispositions is constructed through language as represented in dispositions criteria, and how these words position individual teachers in relation to their environment. Because we analyzed tools specifically at the institutional level, this constituted an analysis of the function of language at the “meso” level (p. 3).

More specifically, we employed semiotic narrative analysis to look at the relationship between how words were structured and how they were used, as well as membership categorization analysis to identify how groups of words served as categories to accomplish particular institutional goals (Perakyla & Ruusuvuori, 2012). Additionally, discursive constructionism (DC), a branch of discourse analysis (see Holstein & Gubrium, 2012), assisted our efforts in better understanding the purposes for particular language choices made by institutions seeking to measure teacher professional dispositions. DC emphasizes that “assemblages of words, repertoires, categories, and the like assemble and produce stabilized versions of the world and its actions and events . . . discourse does far more than describe objective states of affairs; it is used to construct versions of the world that are organized for particular purposes” (p. 5). DC, in conjunction with CDA, allowed us to examine the assemblage of language in dispositions tools in relation to notions of teacher dispositions being stable, dynamic, or open to manipulation by those seeking to implement a particular vision of social order.

Within the set of 16 tools identified, disposition constructs were presented in two primary formats: (1) rubrics and (2) bullet points. For example, one Northwestern initial teacher preparation program used a rubric to assess teacher candidates’ “Democratic and Equity Principles” on a 3-point scale ranging from “Exceeds expectations” to “Fails to meet expectations.” Using the bulleted format, another program located in the South assessed the similar disposition, “Humane teachers who value the dignity of every individual and foster a supportive climate of intellectual inquiry, passion for learning, and social justice” via a series of sub-descriptors (e.g., the bulleted “exhibit appreciation and respect for differences”) and a box to determine “Met/Not Met.” In cases where the dispositions assessment tool was a rubric, the highest rated scale box on the rubric (i.e., the category describing the most exemplary form of the disposition) was used to determine the definition of each disposition.

As a result of the first round of analysis, we recognized that dispositions criteria tended to  fall into two sets: those that posited the disposition as a fixed, internal condition of the teacher candidate,  and those that posited the disposition as a temporal, relational negotiation of internal and external conditions by the teacher candidate in her particular context. After identifying dispositions criteria in these two categories, we conducted a second review, focusing on places where the disposition criteria could not be categorized during our initial data analysis and examining additional information (e.g., descriptive sub-bullet points). For instance, one disposition indicator described, “Maintaining his/her position as a positive role model for students and others in regular attendance, grooming, punctuality, and professional demeanor.” During our initial review, it was unclear whether being on-time, well-groomed, and professional were fixed internal qualities of the teacher candidate or ones assembled locally based on relational and material factors. However, in a second review, our question was clarified by the following wording in sub-bullet: “Demonstrates situationally-appropriate behavior.” This indicated a more temporal, transactional construct resting on the relationship between internal (personal) and material or contextual factors, and thus, we categorized the larger dispositions criteria as “temporal.” In contrast, a similar criteria on an assessment used by another university—“Consistently demonstrates a pattern of professional behavior with respect to issues such as regular attendance, no tardiness, and task completion of the highest quality”—was coded as “fixed” because it did not refer to context or situated action.

In our second review, we also examined language to differentiate between fixed and temporal dispositions.  For example, we categorized criteria with the suffix “ness” as temporal rather than fixed—“kind-ness” as something shown in interactions, whereas "kind" is a possessed quality or characteristic, something you are or are not. Similarly, we read "truthfulness" as a behavior you exhibited within context, whereas we considered "truthful" as a fixed quality. The results of this review were translated into a table (see Table 2) to organize our theoretical analysis of the professional dispositions tools, compare how individual assessments and the totality of the assessments were posited as traditional (fixed) or rhizomatic (relational) constructs, and illustrate larger trends across assessment tools.

Importantly, we also recognize the constraints of traditional methods when paired with a rhizomatic frame (MacLure, 2013; Strom, 2015). For instance, it is important to emphasize that the boundaries of the categories did not “emerge” but were instead imposed by us. Indeed, the results of our analysis, which we present below, are partial, agentially constructed knowledge (Barad, 2007) by three researchers and teacher/leadership educators who are situated in particular geo-political, cultural, and onto-epistemological realities (Braidotti, 2013). To put our positionality in perspective, we are, respectively, a white woman, and two white men, from working and middle-class backgrounds, living in two urban centers in the United States, who identify as social justice educators and actively seek to disrupt reductionist thinking/practice in teacher education. As such, this situatedness (Haraway, 1988) leads to a particular reading of the data and shapes the findings as presented below.    


In this section, we provide an overview of the results of the review of teacher disposition assessment instruments. Overall, the vast majority of criteria included in the tools reviewed were temporal and relational, seeking to assess the interactions of the teacher candidate amidst a variety of potential circumstances as well as material and discursive factors. Where fixed, internal qualities of the teacher candidate were the focus of assessment, they primarily were in the categories of the teacher candidate being:

Enthusiastic, positive, a self-starter,

Organized, well-planned,

Professionally consistent (e.g., present, on time), and

Emotionally stable.

Disposition assessments that included these criteria tended to locate dispositions in the teacher (body) and perpetuated a discourse of complete teacher agency for achieving them. For example, one university located in the Southern United States specified that a high-quality teacher “Consistently maintains high interest and enthusiasm for classwork and teaching.” In this case, the wording of the dispositional quality indicates that the teacher herself is the generating point for that interest and enthusiasm (rather than a conflux of actors and circumstances). A teacher preparation program in the mid-Atlantic provided a second illustration, stating that the ideal teacher “Is a self-starter who begins projects or endeavors.” In a similar vein, “self-starter” indicates that the teacher herself is an autonomous agent who initiates activities, and the leading word “Is” infers a fixed state of being regardless of time, place, or circumstance.

However, other than the qualities listed above, which can easily be argued are sought in any workplace circumstance inside or outside of the field of education, the vast majority of teacher professional disposition criteria that we reviewed were not fixed, internal characteristics of the teacher candidate—and this finding came as a surprise. Many identified dispositions that were interactional—that is, referencing activity as co-constructed between actors—acknowledged the relational nature of teaching. For instance, a Midwestern teacher preparation program desired a teacher-candidate who “interacts with others appropriately and respectfully, recognizes the context of interactions, seeks and uses knowledge of diversity that contributes to effective interactions." Similarly, a southern coastal university required "Collaborative teachers who demonstrate awareness of and appreciation for the communities in which they teach and who foster mutually beneficial relationships with the community." Other programs, such as another university located in the Southern United States, recognized the importance of teachers’ ability to tap into “a wide variety of resources in the school, family, culture, and community to facilitate student learning," which implicitly indicates the program’s recognition that teachers must navigate elements from multiple systems to construct assets-based, relevant practices.

The disparate and often self-contradictory use of dispositions assessment tools we found within our review leads us back to the question: What is meant by the term “disposition?” Consistent with our analysis of the discourse of dispositions, we include here a brief etymology of the word itself, where we find similar subtle splits in meaning from its multiple origins. From the French term “disposicion” (12c.) we get the meaning “tendency of mind”—a relatively weak connection between one’s internal state and one’s actions in the world around the word “tendency.” There is also the active form of the word from the Latin “disponere” meaning “to put in order, arrange.” This infers that one’s disposition is how they “manage” the world, a somewhat stronger connection between one’s internal state and external factors. Additionally, we can trace the term’s lineage to English references to “temperament” (late 14c.) and an astrological connection describing the “position of a planet as a determining influence.” Here, there is both more of a positivist and mystical bent on the term, focusing of the root word “position” as an “influence” in determining one’s movement through the universe.

The multiple roots of the word “disposition,” then, can be located on a continuum, with differing emphases on internal vs. external factors in determining one’s actions. Yet, whether it is a tendency, a management, a position, or an influence of one’s actions, the term itself has murky roots. Thus, it is not surprising that the use of the term in universities assessing one’s actions as a teacher is wrought with ambivalence.

Surprisingly, given current trends of standardization and instrumentalism in education (Mehta, 2013), the general pattern observed in the 16 assessment tools we examined shows that, at least linguistically, developers used an interactional and situated view of teacher professional dispositions. In addition to the list of sources from which the disposition instruments were retrieved, Table 2 presents the total number of dispositions that were assessed and the number and percentage of these dispositions that were categorized as internal/fixed versus relational/temporal.  For example, of the six assessed dispositions at the University of South Florida, five were relational/temporal and one was internal/fixed. Taken together, as presented in Table 2, a small fraction (just 6%) of the 179 dispositions the tools assessed focused on the internal, fixed state of the teacher candidate while the remaining 94% to a greater extent emphasized the relational contexts individual teacher candidates negotiate.  


Table 2. Descriptive Statistics of Analysis of Professional Disposition Instruments

Instrument Source

Total Number of Dispositions Assessed

Number  of Internal/


Number  of Relational/


Percentage of Relational/


Azusa Pacific University





Missouri State University





University of South Florida





The College of New Jersey





Salisbury University





University of Tennessee





Mansfield University





University of Wisconsin-River Falls





Southern Connecticut State University





The College at Brockport State University of New York










UNC Charlotte





University of Montevallo





University of North Carolina Asheville





University of Wyoming





Washington State University











The marked pattern discussed above implies the understanding that a teacher candidate’s disposition towards teaching (and the core principles of “fairness” and “the belief that all students can learn” originally defined by NCATE) is dependent upon the mixture or assemblage of particular students, colleagues, learning standards, theories of learning, rules and regulations, ethical and linguistic expectations, and professional communities of which a particular teacher candidate is part. As evidenced in Table 2, the highest percentage of fixed, internal dispositions criteria was 17%— which occurred in the tools of three universities. The overwhelming overall 94% focus on temporal, relational dispositions shows an awareness of the complex, enmeshed realities that teacher candidates face as they begin to navigate the multi-dimensional nature of the profession—inclusive of student, classroom, and school context.

In keeping with rhizomatic thinking, the configuration of this assemblage and the elements present is based largely on luck of the draw—the unpredictable, multiply-assembled fields of growth, and the ways that these elements collectively work together.  Put another way: a student teacher could be placed anywhere, and a new teacher has far from complete control over where they will receive their first job offer, yet these material factors will inevitably impact the evolution of their disposition as a teacher. Although there is certainly some space for agency regarding the ways that work occurs, that agency is distributed across the assemblage, not held entirely by the teacher (Strom & Martin, 2017). This is in line with sociocultural views that underscore the primacy of the “social” over the “individual” in learning and teaching activities (Vygotsky, 1978). Yet despite this more contextual and relational approach, professional dispositions assessment in current educational policy is high-stakes for the “autonomous actor”—not for the contexts that actor navigates. That is, the assessment results in a specific impact for the teacher, but not necessarily for her setting or any of the actors/elements in it. Further, these assessment tools seek “sameness” (standardized criteria at national, state, or institution level) across school and classroom contexts that are widely acknowledged to be not at all the same.  Thus, while emphasizing diversity and complexity, the “root” of these assessments is still arborescent.  They rest on the assumption that there are particular, fixed teacher qualities (the trunk of the tree), which may “branch off” into different contexts, but still grow in a linear and predictable pattern (the sameness referred to above). Thus, while acknowledging that the teacher is embedded in particular contexts that make a difference, these assessments deem the individual teacher as more important, or more agentic, than the multiplicity of contextual elements and actors to which she is connected, or the interactions arising therein. In this way, teacher dispositions are not seen as “collective enunciations” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) produced jointly by a teacher and her assemblage, but as rooted within that individual teacher who, rationally, can and should move her disposition to a more valued, higher scoring box on the rubric.


The analysis above brings into focus a continual paradox in the assessment of teacher dispositions. On the one hand, the teacher education community acknowledges that dispositions are largely context dependent and that teacher candidates are not autonomous actors within those contexts. On the other, and largely because of accreditation requirements, these tools are being used to assess the readiness of individuals to obtain a teaching credential. As shown in the analysis of these 16 disposition assessments, the wording in the majority of the evaluation criteria featured in these instruments reference a more situated notion of teacher disposition—that is, they mainly demonstrate an understanding of dispositions as something affected by or even constructed with the particular context in which a teacher is embedded, rather than a static characteristic possessed by an autonomous actor. This generally aligns with the emerging “complex turn” in the teacher education literature (e.g., Cochran-Smith, et al, 2014; Strom, 2015; Strom & Martin, 2016) previously discussed in this paper, which we argue is an indication that the field is moving toward a more multifaceted vision of teaching that can better take into account the dynamic, situated, and relational nature of teaching activity (Strom, 2015). We also suggest the language accounting for some of the complexity of teaching in the disposition assessment tools we reviewed may be an entry-point into more a dynamic, vital materialist vision of the profession.

However, while the overwhelming majority of these evaluation criteria are written in a way that provide language to better account for the contextual nature of teacher dispositions (i.e., they account for differences across settings), whether this translates into impact is questionable. Ultimately, although their language is more complex, these assessments fail to disrupt the logic scheme underlying the construct of disposition, which is still rooted in the Cartesian cogito—the separate, autonomous, self-regulating subject (Braidotti, 2013; St. Pierre, 2000). By seeking to evaluate the teacher candidate or student teacher individually, these assessments continue to separate her from her context, as well as other elements of the schooling assemblages of which she is part, to assign her an individual score for activity that is actually a collective production exceeding the sum of its parts, and as such, cannot be dissected to attribute a part of that production to the teacher. If the teacher is not an autonomous actor, but a part of larger, inter- and intra-active systems, and her actions and speech are but a “collective enunciation” of the workings of that assemblage (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987), that assigned score or rating has questionable validity at best.

In addition to the failure to truly disrupt the notion that the teacher operates as an autonomous entity from her students/context, these assessments continue to perpetuate the idea that the teacher is also a stable or fixed body. In other words, she is expected to demonstrate the same characteristics or qualities consistently over time. As we previously discussed, from a rhizomatic perspective the world is mobile—in motion—and in a constant state of flux, and so are the humans that occupy it. From moment to moment, depending on the assemblages that we are in connection with, we, and the world around us, become different (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). Because of this mobility and continual process of change, it is entirely possible and even likely that a teacher may demonstrate different dispositions depending on the ways the different multiplicities emerge and converge in a particular context of situation.

A case study one of us recently published (Strom, 2015) clearly illustrates the situated and relational nature of dispositions. In this case, a first-year high school science teacher taught two different sets of classes (11th and 12th grade earth science and ninth grade environmental science). Each of these sets featured a different amalgam of student and contextual factors. His 11th and 12th grade students were mature, focused on graduating, and generally observed the classroom norms the teacher set for them. These classes were also fairly small and had no standardized test or mandated curriculum associated with them, which gave the teacher room to be creative with the curriculum. Because the teacher had taught earth science the previous year during his pre-service teaching residency at the same school, the teacher was very comfortable with the subject matter. His ninth grade environmental science classes were very different. The students were less mature and more likely to socialize or argue among themselves. The classes were large and the teacher had never before taught the content, which was a tested subject with a tightly paced curriculum guide.

When this first-year teacher “plugged into” each of these assemblages, the different elements interacted in ways that produced divergent patterns of teaching behaviors and actions. In his earth science classes, because of the relatively smooth functioning of the social environment, the teacher and his students forged positive relationships. The teacher engaged students in small group, interactive learning experiences, and he tended to be open, flexible, and cheerful. In his ninth grade classes, the teacher and his students were not able to work out the same type of environment, and chaos often reigned. The teacher responded by tightening control through teacher-led, whole-class lectures (which gave students less time to talk/interact) and imposing more rigid class rules. As a result, he and his ninth graders did not form the same type of connections he enjoyed with his upperclassmen, and exchanges with his students were often tense or even hostile. In these classes, the teacher developed a different teacher-persona than he had in his earth science classes. In an interview he plainly stated, “There are some characteristics that are very ‘un-me’ with the first years, where there is this unnatural strictness that sometimes appears . . . I feel like I have to be more serious and reactive with them” (Strom, 2014, p. 152). If this first-year teacher were to be assessed on his teaching dispositions, the outcome of his evaluation would to a significant extent depend on which class he was teaching (and likely temporal factors as well, such as the time of day, student moods, the lesson at hand). His teaching practices, “tendency of mind,” and his own teacher-self, were not constant—they were constructed in relation to and together with a particular set of students and contextual conditions/factors.

To summarize, there is a good chance that the prescribed set of actions, behaviors, or qualities assessed on the teacher education program rubrics do not correspond directly with multiplex and fluid nature of reality. While we acknowledge that, from procedural or policy perspectives, having these clear sets of assessment criteria may seem like the most efficient way to provide an evaluation, we must also recognize that if these numerical values actually do not tell us anything useful, they are of questionable worth. An approximation at best, these static representations of desired teaching behaviors/actions do not account for the joint activity of teaching-multiplicities that produce teaching events that cannot be “cut up” and assigned to a single body (the teacher); nor do they consider the temporality of being that results from existing with/in a constantly changing world. Rather than seeking easily-quantifiable, neat explanations (that may well be meaningless), we argue that probing “uncomfortable affects” that trouble attempts at rational explanation and continually leak or escape from the categories assigned to label and organize phenomena (MacLure, 2013, p. 171) may be productive for generating thinking about multi-faceted ways to form a more relational, co-constituted, mobile conceptualization of teaching and teacher dispositions and, in turn, find more complex ways of operationalizing and “assessing” them.


The teacher education community has multiple paths it could travel regarding the teacher dispositions issue. Down one, teacher educators could seek to create a better version of the same—by, for example, designing better rubrics or other tools with more precise categorization of the dispositions we value, holding onto the idea that because it matters it must be measured.  However, challenges here include pervasive disagreements on what those dispositions actually are (construct validity), serious questions about the fidelity and inter-rater reliability in the development and implementation of those rubrics due to issues such as rogue coding (Neuendorf, 2002) as well as rushed projects and overworked raters (Keyton et al., 2004, Neuendorf, 2002), and the situational and unstable nature of dispositions that makes generalizability and comparisons across contexts very difficult. Further limiting criteria intended to evaluate teacher dispositions is the fast-changing nature of the work of teaching and contemporary models of learning, which may render even agreed-upon dispositions criteria null and void within years or even months.

An alternative road, one built on the recognition of the complexity of teaching, would be to accept that not everything that matters can be measured—or at least not by traditional means. Instead, we might embrace the situational nature of dispositions by increasing teachers’ personal and professional awareness, understanding, and insight into the shifting relationships between themselves, their students, and learning contexts—with an emphasis on process over product. For example, rather than “assessing” dispositions at a moment in time (such as during a classroom observation), we might ask teacher candidates to describe the evolution of particular dispositions over time.  The dynamic learning process could be captured in portfolios tracing and documenting the assemblage of their dispositions as a teacher (and resultant teacher practice) in response to coursework, readings, field experiences, and student teaching. Teacher educators would work to improve the dynamic nature of the trajectory, rather than prove their students met prefabricated criteria in a box.

Not only would a focus on awareness, assemblage, and analysis better resemble the realistic, relational nature of teacher dispositions, but it might also produce more of the type of teacher thinking and action originally sought by the dispositions movement. Teacher candidates and new teachers becoming more aware of their own constructed tendencies of mind can assist in their developing new ways of thinking and being. Noting how different factors impact the assemblage of these mind-frames could facilitate the development of more nuanced and complex notions about what students from backgrounds different from their own are able to learn and do. Further, looking across the multi-faceted terrain of teaching and learning, synthesizing multiple sources of data into meaning can build the type of skills that will help the teacher thrive long-term—not just at a particularly assessed moment in time. She will be able to adapt to changing circumstances, consider events from multiple perspectives, make in-the-moment decisions or judgments based on contextual happenings, and inquire into practice for ongoing learning.

We do not minimize the cost and time involved with such a complex effort, but we also argue that simplistic tools and reductionist, linear ways of thinking that reinforce the status quo of teaching will be even more costly for students, teachers, and preparation programs in the long run. We also acknowledge that, given the current policy context and the value for quantitative ways of meaning-making, some type of hybrid approach that values multiple ways of assessing teachers’ disposition development may also be a fruitful avenue for developing more complex and ecological understandings of this multifaceted phenomena.

Teacher educators and accreditors, justifiably, care about how new teachers think and act—particularly regarding issues like diversity and social justice. However, because teaching, learning, thinking, and diversity are all such complex phenomena, we need insights from theories that are equally as complex as the phenomena themselves. Put another way, if ensuring that “all students learn” were an easily definable or achievable task, it would have happened long ago. Amidst shifting social, cultural, educational, and policy landscapes, seeking the “right” mindset of a teacher apart from these influences and environments is likely a failed effort. Instead, more complex theories like rhizomatics can better account for the multiplicities that constitute a teacher’s disposition, which itself is in a constant state of flux as new materials enter its assemblage. Focusing more on teacher self-assessment, and new teachers being mindful and critically reflective of their own disposition assemblage over time, is one initial way to continue to build on the emerging complex turn in teacher education which both current scholarship and practical tools like the ones reviewed in this paper indicate is beginning to occur.


The authors would like to thank Ana Maria Villegas for her generous review of an earlier draft of this paper.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 11, 2019, p. 1-28
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22813, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 5:47:39 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathryn Strom
    California State University, East Bay
    E-mail Author
    KATHRYN STROM is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at California State University, East Bay. Her research focuses on preparing educators to work for social justice in classrooms and school systems and putting posthuman/materialist theories to work in educational research. Recent publications include “Non-linear negotiations: Hybridity and first-year teaching practice” (Teacher Education Quarterly, 2018) and “Clinging to the edge of chaos: The emergence of novice teacher practice” (Teachers College Record, 2018). She is also the co-author of the book Becoming-Teacher: A Rhizomatic Look at First-Year Teaching (Sense, 2017).
  • Jason Margolis
    Duquesne University
    E-mail Author
    JASON MARGOLIS is a Professor of Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. His research focuses on the intersection of teacher professional development, teacher leadership, and efforts to change schools. Recent publications include "The missing link in teacher professional development: student presence" (Professional Development in Education, 2017) and "Self study research as a source of professional development within a school of education" (Teaching, Learning, and Enacting of Self-Study Methodology, 2018).
  • Nihat Polat
    Duquesne University
    E-mail Author
    NIHAT POLAT is a professor and associate dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the School of Education at Duquesne University. He has three research tracks. The first track includes his work on second language learning, teaching, and assessment. The second area focuses on teacher education, while the last area concerns the education of immigrant populations and English learners. His most recent work includes a co-authored book entitled Supporting Muslim Students: A Guide to Understanding the Diverse Issues of Today’s Classrooms (2017, Rowman & Littlefield) and “Developing Preservice Teachers’ Self-Efficacy and Knowledge through Online Experiences with English Language Learners” (2018, Language and Education).
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