Navigating Teacher Education in Complex and Uncertain Times
reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan - September 11, 2019
Mercados autoethnography offers a unique perspective on her development as a teacher and teacher educator over time. She skillfully attends to shifting policy contexts, personal identity, social expectations, and community influences as she retraces her own educational journey. While the title initially brought to mind the modern neoliberal landscape of teaching and teacher education reform, Mercados writing demonstrates how contexts are always shifting, creating both uncertainties and opportunities. The book examines the intertwined nature of her past experiences, her commitments as a teacher educator, and the educational contexts within which she operated. It provides a deeply nuanced exploration of teacher educator practice that is embedded within (and responsive to) her local contexts, while simultaneously offering a set of tools applicable across settings.
In the introduction, Mercado outlines a broad context surrounding teacher education and literacy policy in the United States, framing the current milieu as shaped by neoliberal forces that have undone much of the progress of the 1960s and which have defined students from linguistically diverse backgrounds as deficient. Mercado goes on to describe how working in this context required her to re-examine her own developmental trajectory and practices as a teacher educator. She then explores four themes that wind throughout the rest of the text: preparing teachers to teach literacy in low income, transnational communities; the importance of multiple communities of practice; connecting communities of practice; and teaching as research.
The first section of the book explores Mercados familys migration and her early education. She moves back and forth, weaving her personal and family history together with broader historical changes. She documents her trajectory through school as a Puerto Rican student, often cast as other within both her honors classes and the broader system. She also highlights educators and peers who helped her succeed, tracing her path through an oppressive institution at a time when most other Puerto Rican students were placed on lower tracks or pushed out. This section also weaves together the histories and practices of the Puerto Rican diaspora, other Latinx intellectuals and educators, and community activists. She links their approaches and practices to modern day approaches in teaching and teacher education. These connections are conceptual, not historical (i.e., they share a commitment and approach rather than a specific lineage), but the linkages are not fully unpacked here.
In the following section, Mercados journey continues as she describes her experiences teaching young children. She outlines in detail how she worked to develop a new model of bilingual teaching, making connections to related theories and research that understand language and literacy as embedded in culture, forming in a non-linear fashion, and best supported through contextualized classroom practice. Her perspectives on literacy and learning rely on social practice theories of development, which emphasize the inherently social and cultural nature of literacy development (Dyson, 1993; Heath, 1983; Wells, 1995). During this phase, Mercado also moved out of the classroom and took on multiple roles supporting teachers as a professional development provider, program coordinator, and adjunct instructor. Recounting her beginnings as a teacher educator, she draws upon the metaphor of flying a plane while building it, describing how she was learning to be a teacher and a teacher educator at the same time. She also describes constructing an identity through her peers and other resources as she figured out how to do this thing called teaching in situ. She analyzes this repeated experience, describing it as the result of having little formal preparation for either role (PK-12 bilingual teacher or teacher educator). Perhaps the real lesson of this autoethnography is how this is always the case; we always learn to fly the plane while building it. Practice is developed in real practice rather than in preparation for real practice.
The following chapter reviews her development as a teacher educator, particularly once she joined the faculty as a tenure track professor. She outlines two studies that contributed to her development and that of the pre-service and in-service teachers she taught. The first focused on engaging PK-12 students in research projects that braided together personal, professional, and community life. The second was focused on funds-of-knowledge-style ethnographic work with teachers in their students homes and communities (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992). Mercado communicates clearly how her research, teaching, and personal life were interwoven in a style that reads, at times, like a memoir. She also threads the theme of literacy and language as socially constructed cultural practices that are linked to students (and her own) home lives and experiences.
Chapter Five jumps forward in time to the NCLB era, where Mercado brings together her past learnings and the commitments that arose out of them in a new context that more narrowly defines reading and standardizes instruction and assessment. She explores the consequences of this new context on teachers, schools, and students, but also provides an example of how she adapted her reading methods courses to meet these new needs and stay true to her philosophical commitments as a bilingual teacher educator. Chapter Six describes a self-study Mercado undertook after retirement that analyzes artifacts from three sections of her reading methods courses at the end of her teaching career. While the analysis process is under-articulated, the findings demonstrate the challenges and possibilities of creating a community of practice in a graduate level course for pre-service teachers.
The final chapter brings us back to the connections across communities of practice and offers digital tools and online communities as spaces that are rich for that kind of connection. Mercado implores other teacher educators to write their own professional life histories in order to build solidarity for a movement of progressive change in teacher education.
The thread of language is strong throughout the book, and Mercado demonstrates its affective link to culture and identity as well as the intersections of privilege, class, and social positioning among different dialects. Mercado has some valuable insights about transference and hints that there were ways of communicating her practices that worked well with young children but that did not always transfer to teacher education students. Some of her insights, however, are not linked to existing theory or research (like embodied learning). They are based on her own reflections and analysis of her experiences but could be further developed with additional contextualization. While her themes of teaching literacy in low-income transnational communities, the importance of multiple communities of practice, and teaching as research are prevalent throughout, the theme that I was most hopeful to read more about, connecting across divergent communities of practice, is underdeveloped. It exists in the in-between of her practice descriptions, but it is both implicit and under-theorized.
Mercados text gives a close look to the work and life of teacher education over time in ways that few other texts do. Her particular experience as a transnational, bilingual educator working towards social justice in both PK-12 teaching and teacher education provides a wealth of valuable lessons for educators at all levels. It focuses on the life of a teacher educator and how her personal, professional, and community selves came together over time to produce her teacher education practices.
Dyson, A. H. (1993). From prop to mediator: The changing role of written language in childrens symbiotic repertoire (pp. 2141). In B. Spodek and O. N. Saracho (Eds.), Language and literacy in early childhood education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: A qualitative approach to developing strategic connections between homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132141.
Wells, G. (1995). Language and the inquiry-oriented curriculum. Curriculum Inquiry, 25(3), 233-269.