Learning to See Students: Opportunities to Develop Relational Practices of Teaching through Community-Based Placements in Teacher Education

by Morva A. McDonald, Michael Bowman & Kate Brayko - 2013

Background: For decades, scholars have argued that teaching and learning depend fundamentally on the quality of relationships between teachers and students, yet there is little research about how teachers develop relationships with students or how teacher education prepares teachers to do this work. Arguably, articulating the relational practices of teaching is critical for those aiming to prepare teachers to reach across differences, educate from a social justice perspective, and teach an increasingly diverse population of students. Noting the emphasis on relationships in community-based organizations (CBOs), the authors investigated preservice field placements in CBOs as potentially strategic contexts for learning about relational aspects of teaching.

Objective: The authors engaged the questions: What do candidates learn in CBO field placements? What are sources of variation between candidates’ learning outcomes? What are individual and contextual factors that shaped candidates’ opportunities to learn in CBOs? Specifically, which factors influenced candidates’ inclination and capacity to enact relational teaching practices (e.g., the methods and skills associated with learning about and connecting with students, families, and communities)?

Research Design: This study was a 3-year longitudinal investigation. Authors followed two cohorts of candidates from their first quarter of preparation into their first year of teaching. Qualitative methods, such as interviews, observations, and document review were employed in this inquiry of 12 case study candidates. To examine questions of variation, authors also conducted an in-depth comparative case analysis of a subset of two candidates and their CBO placement contexts.

Findings: CBO placements facilitated opportunities for candidates to “see students”: candidates developed deeper understandings about children and more nuanced conceptions of diversity; experienced and examined school from an out-of-school perspective; and demonstrated greater attentiveness to the role of context in learning. The more detailed comparative analysis of two cases revealed variation in candidates’ experiences and their enactment of practices involved in building relationships with children and families. This analysis identified individual and situational factors (in coursework and CBOs) that facilitated and impeded candidate learning in CBOs.

Conclusions: Findings from this study highlight the types of learning outcomes that preservice community-based placements potentially afford, as well as factors that make some placements more educative than others. The authors offer a theoretical lens that attends to variation in learning, which could be leveraged in future empirical work. This research contributes to the field’s developing efforts to identify key social justice teaching practices and to conceptualize pedagogies of enactment for such practices.

Social justice teacher education programs aim to prepare teachers to provide high quality, equitable opportunities to learn to all students, to advocate for the transformation not only of individual classrooms but of whole schools, and to consider their work as connected to broader networks of people and organizations engaged in supporting children, youth, and families (Cochran-Smith, 2010; McDonald, 2010; McDonald & Zeichner, 2008)1. In efforts to achieve this aim, social justice teacher education programs engage a wide range of approaches to preparation such as: placing teacher candidates in effective, high need schools with diverse students; incorporating multicultural content in the curriculum; challenging candidates to consider the socio-political conditions of teaching and learning; and, increasingly, requiring immersion experiences in community or non-school settings. A common critique, however, is that these approaches often support candidates to develop and articulate their commitments and principles for teaching from a social justice perspective but less often support them with practices that enable them to enact those commitments and principles in their teaching (Grossman & McDonald, 2008; McDonald, 2005).

From this perspective, fundamental questions for the field of social justice teacher education include: (1) What are the practices that characterize teaching from a social justice perspective? (2) How might we prepare teachers to learn and enact those practices? To thoughtfully respond to these questions, we adopt the view that the field of social justice teacher education must better articulate a theory of justice, a theory of practice, and a theory of teacher preparation if it is to fulfill its promise of improving education for all students (Cochran-Smith, 2010). Cochran-Smith cogently argues that “in order to support justice, teaching practice must be theorized as an amalgam of: knowledge; interpretive frameworks; teaching strategies, methods, and skills; and advocacy with and for students, parents, colleagues, communities, and others involved in larger social movements” (2010, p.14). In this article, we respond to the call for a better articulation of the practice of social justice teaching and the preparation of teachers to teach from such a perspective. To do this, we focus specifically on the relational practices of teaching.

Scholars for decades have argued that teaching depends fundamentally on the relationships between teachers and students (e.g., Hawkins, 1974; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Noddings, 2003; Schwab, 1978; Valenzuela, 1999), and yet there is little research that identifies how teachers develop relationships with students, how those relationships shape instruction and learning, or how teacher education prepares teachers to do this fundamental work (Grossman & McDonald, 2008). Articulating the relational practices of teaching seems particularly critical to the preparation of teachers to educate from a social justice perspective, and to teach an increasingly diverse population of students—which likely requires them to reach across real and perceived differences to build relationships with children and families. Learning about students’ lives and knowledge in and out of school, connecting with their families and communities, and learning about and understanding their cultural repertoires of practice (Gutierrez and Rogoff, 2003) are all examples of methods and skills that those teaching from a social justice perspective might strive to engage as they build meaningful relationships with students.

In this article, we present findings from a 3-year longitudinal study of the placement of teacher candidates in community-based organizations as a component of their preparation. Drawing on research, we view candidates’ placements in community organizations as a promising approach for introducing them to relational teaching practices, and see particular potential in their capacity to help candidates learn how to develop knowledge and understanding of students’ lives out of school, how to engage with parents and families, and how to connect with others involved with improving the educational opportunities for particular children and youth (McDonald, Tyson, & Brayko et al., 2011; Sleeter, 2001). Research on high quality community organizations has found that caring relationships are at the center of their work with children and youth (e.g., Honig & McDonald, 2005; McLaughlin, 2000), and in the case of teacher education, they potentially offer rich contexts for supporting teacher candidates to develop principles and practices for teaching. The majority of research on community immersion experiences in teacher education has focused on the potential of experiences to impact teacher candidates’ dispositions toward students—particularly students who differ from them in terms of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status (e.g. Bondy & Davis, 2000; Boyle-Baise, 1998; Burant & Kirby, 2002). In our work, we build from this foundation as well as work focused on service learning in teacher education (Anderson, Swick, and Yff, 2001; Erickson & Anderson, 1997; Trae and Webster, 2010) to explore the ways in which placements in community-based organizations afford candidates with opportunities to develop frameworks for teaching and teaching practices.

In Section I, we address the question: What kinds of opportunities to learn do community based organizations (CBOs) offer candidates? Our purpose here is to provide the reader with a general sense of the opportunities provided by the CBOs. Analysis reveals a range in opportunities for candidates—with some candidates suggesting they learned very little about teaching and learning and others reporting that they learned a tremendous amount in their CBO sites. Despite this range, we found that from the perspectives of the 12 case study candidates CBOs offered some common opportunities for learning even though the quality of these opportunities varied.

In Section II of the paper, we take up the question: What factors shape candidates’ opportunities to learn in CBOs? Our focus is on how situational factors in the CBOs and coursework attributed to variation in individual candidates’ learning and experience. While some variation in individual experiences can be attributed to individual differences, we hypothesize that a significant amount of variation results from differences in CBO contexts and take up of course work. In our analysis, we identified specific factors that provide guides for the future implementation of this innovation in our own institution, and possibly for other teacher educators engaged in similar efforts.


The University of Washington’s Elementary Teacher Education Program (ELTEP) is a 5-quarter post-baccalaureate master’s in teaching program.2 For this study, we followed the 2008-09 and 2009-2010 cohorts. Across the two cohorts, 95 preservice teachers each spent 60 hours in community-based organizations (CBOs) that serve diverse children. This innovation was a seminal element of ELTEP’s 5-year renewal effort as part of the Teachers for a New Era grant, and an institutional commitment to fully prepare teacher candidates to work with economically, culturally, and linguistically diverse students in high needs schools.

This innovation involved partnerships with a number of organizations that serve diverse youth populations, such as neighborhood community centers, and culturally based programs3. In their first quarter of preparation, elementary teacher candidates were placed in these CBOs for 6 hours per week for 10 weeks. The stated goals of the innovation were to support teacher candidates to: (1) Build connections with community organizations and local schools; (2) Develop a holistic and assets-based view of children and youth; (3) Acknowledge education and learning as a process that occurs in multiple contexts; and (4) View students, families, neighborhoods, and communities at the center of teaching and education. In an effort to integrate and mediate prospective teachers’ experiences in community organizations, university faculty strived to connect methods and foundations courses to the community learning experiences.


Sociocultural perspectives on learning guided our research design and methods, as well as our examination of the opportunities to learn afforded by the community-based placements. Within sociocultural literature circulating in teacher education, there are two primary strands that attempt to describe and account for learning as participation in the social world. One strand foregrounds the individual and examines how factors such as personal history, prior educational experiences, future aspirations, and perceived self-efficacy affect an individual’s participation in communities of practice (e.g., Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001; Little, 2002). This is not to suggest that the external structural relations are completely absent from these analyses, but that they are considered only in relationship to understanding an individual’s participation. The second strand focuses attention on the cultural historical systems that structure organizational and individual activity and learning, many drawing on Engestromian activity theory. This strand emphasizes how activity internal to teacher education programs (Johannsdottir, 2010; Peck & McDonald, in press) has the potential to create “new patterns of activity” through “boundary crossing” partnerships (Norton-Meir & Drake, 2010; Yamagata-Lynch & Smaldino, 2007). Again, it is not that individuals are absent from a system analysis, but rather individuals are encountered primarily as either occupants of particular positions within formal organizational structures or are grouped as anonymous, albeit integral, components of the overall system. Unlike the first strand, the unit of analysis in the second is learning not at the individual level, but at the level of the collective.

In our analysis, we draw on both strands of sociocultural theory to examine how teacher candidates, teacher educators, and CBO directors participated in the community-based placement innovation described above. Billett’s recent research on workplace learning provided us with a manageable conceptual framework to keep both individual and structural elements “in play” (2003; 2006; 2008; 2009). He suggests that professional learning and its variance must be examined as the interactive contributions of the social situations that individuals encounter in their work (i.e., activities and interactive opportunities) and the life experience and cognitive histories of the individuals engaged in the work (2009). Billett offers a compelling perspective for accounting for the “relational interdependence” of the historically constructed values, norms, technologies, and cultural-professional practices of the sociocultural domain (in our case, teacher education) and the ongoing social and cognitive development, or ontogenetic domain, of the individual (Billett, 2003). Specifically, he introduces two key mediating factors that work between the sociocultural and the ontogenetic that help explain the process and consequences of participating in practice-based or work contexts: (1) The situational domain (2) The microgenetic actions of individuals. Below, Figure 1 represents our adaptation of Billett’s constructs to the context of learning to teach within CBOs as part of a teacher education program.

Figure 1. Application of Billett’s (2003) framework for professional learning to UW ELTEP

Sociocultural domain of teacher education: The historically developing body of knowledge and practice that encompasses values, norms, and technologies that structure the goal-orientation of professional learning.

Situational domain of field placements: Sites of enactment of locally negotiated sociocultural practice and the sites that invite the participation of learners (e.g., the routine, novel practices, and activity of particular community-based organizations and the ways in which those are made visible through CBO directors/staff and university coursework).

Microgenetic actions of teacher candidates: The in situ decisions of individuals that contribute to the construal and construction of the meaning of situational practices and activity (e.g., teacher candidates’ responses to the invitation to learning made in field placements).

Ontogenetic domain of teacher candidates: The ongoing development of an individual’s life history that both affects and is affected by one’s microgenetic actions (e.g., teacher candidates’ prior educational experiences and their understanding of teaching before and during teacher preparation).

As indicated in Figure 1, above, the situational domain encompasses the particular spaces and circumstances in which the sociocultural values, expectations, technologies, and practices are constituted and enacted. While the organization of a sociocultural practice (profession) can be traced historically as a series of paradigmatic shifts in response to various sociocultural changes, such practice is not uniformly enacted across situations or contexts. For example, within teacher education it is generally expected that all teacher education programs should include content on multicultural education, but how programs implement such content varies substantially depending on situational factors such as geographic location, institutional contexts, and faculty expertise and involvement. Importantly, these situational factors contribute to the practices candidates have the opportunity to observe and enact, but do not determine their professional learning. Within these varied situations, each individual teacher candidate, informed by his or her particular ontogeny, construes and constructs meaning by making decisions in situ, through what Billett (2003) calls—drawing on Barbara Rogoff (1990)—microgenetic actions.

These microgenetic actions, which are expressions of individual agency, matter not only because they contribute to cognitive change (learning), which in turn feeds the ontogenetic development of the individual, but also because they help shape situational activities and practice. Simply put, this framework offers us a way of seeing the relationship among an individual’s experience and history, his or her actions in a specific context, and the factors or conditions of that context—all of which constitute and inform one another. From this perspective, all professional learning situations offer affordances that are invitational in quality: They invite participation in practices that are both novel and routine in that setting (Billett, 2009). Yet, individual decisions in the moment affect how those invitations are taken up: are they rejected as inconsistent or unrelated to the individual’s learning goals? Are they accepted as an opportunity to develop particular capacities deemed fundamental to either the sociocultural or situational practice? From this perspective, we can conceptualize the problem of enactment not only as a way to describe the gap between one’s vision of one’s practice and the implementation of that vision, but as a moment when situational factors invite a novel practice and the individual either accepts or rejects the invitation and respectively either explores new practices and ways of participating, or relies on old habits and expectations of participation.

For the purposes of the analysis in Section II of the paper, we specifically drew on the constructs of situational factors, individual agency or microgenetic actions, and ontogeny to inquire about the differences in learning between two teacher candidates during the program’s first quarter, and their placements in community-based organizations. Here, we paid particular attention to interaction of the two candidates’ ontogenies and the situational factors found in their CBO field placements. We also paid close attention to the ways in which each candidate responded to the invitations to the situation, both those initiated by the CBO director or staff and those initiated by university coursework. That is, we attended to the microgenetic actions, or agency, of the two candidates in an effort to make visible the crucial role of individual in situ decisions in cognitive change and professional learning.


In this 3-year longitudinal case study, we followed two cohorts of teacher candidates from their teacher preparation through their first year of teaching. This project represents an embedded case study (Yin, 2003), with the program being the overarching case, and nested within that are case studies of 12 candidates placed in 10 CBOs. Data collection occurred between March 2008 and May 2011. We employed mainly qualitative methods, such as interviews, focus groups, observations, and document review, but also utilized survey methods to measure candidates’ initial understanding of teacher efficacy, beliefs about diversity, and knowledge of instructional strategies to meet the needs of diverse learners (Graue & Walsh, 1998; Ragin, 1987; Yin, 2003).


We collected and analyzed an extensive data set for this project. Overall, we had 124 individual semi-structured interviews with community-based organization staff, teacher education faculty, and 12 case-study teachers; 3 focus groups with non-case study teacher candidates and 2 focus groups with teaching assistants; 70 observations of university courses and 28 observations of teacher candidates’ community-based placements; a review of documents such as course syllabi, course assignments, and entry and exit surveys. To examine the opportunities within the CBOs and the situational factors that shaped them, we drew mainly on case study candidates’ interviews, focus groups, and survey responses.


As faculty and graduate assistants in the elementary teacher education program under study we volunteered to implement the community-based field placement component of the program in its first year. Our interest in the community-based placements led us to design and implement a research study focused on this innovation. Since the innovation of interest was occurring at our institution, the selection of UW’s ELTEP as a case was an example of purposive as well as convenience sampling (Merriam, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994). Our purposes were not only to engage in self-study as a way to provide feedback to the UW ELTEP program; rather, our broader goal was to contribute to the field’s growing understanding of community-based placements as strategy for preparing teachers to teach in high needs schools with students from diverse backgrounds.  

We based our selection of the 12 case study teacher candidates on a number of criteria. Our goal was to select a sample that was representative of the two cohorts in regard to race, gender, age, and previous experiences working with youth from nondominant backgrounds. For example, 9 of 12 candidates were women, which reflected the cohort’s female enrollment. Case study candidates were also selected based on our interest in researching their respective CBO placement sites. We wanted to study a range of the partnering organizations, and the 10 CBOs in which our 12 case study candidates were placed spanned from YMCAs to neighborhood centers to culturally focused organizations. The two candidates selected for the in-depth comparative case study following the general findings were strategically chosen because we recognized that they had similar backgrounds in many ways and similar programmatic opportunities, yet they had disparate learning outcomes. Juxtaposing a pair such as this enhanced our examination of the factors that contributed to the learning opportunities in community-based placements.


Data analysis occurred as an iterative process. As themes and patterns emerged, we developed codes and data displays derived from the conceptual framework (Miles & Huberman, 1994). We systematically coded individual and focus group interviews for concepts that reflected participants’ participation, outcomes, and integration in regard to the program innovation. At least two people on the research team coded each interview. In the analysis, we triangulated interviews with observational data and course documents to develop a holistic understanding of participants’ experiences and perspectives related to the community-based placements (Yin, 2003). For inter-coder reliability we held frequent discussions about coding as we compared findings. As we began to identify findings, we worked together to verify claims and reconcile internal validity (Merriam, 1998). For example, we used codes to indicate participants’ conceptions of key concepts such as “diversity” and “community,” compared coding across interviews, and discussed interpretations of the findings as a group. Through this process, we identified initial assertions based on our data from Cohort 1 in the first year of implementation, specifically identifying types of opportunities to learn that candidates noted as available in their CBO sites. In our analysis of Cohort 2, we considered how the data either confirmed or disconfirmed our initial assertions. In this paper, we report on the findings from our analysis of both cohorts.


We have come to understand this research project as a form of practitioner inquiry, the goal of which has been both to better understand the complex workings of our own teacher education program for the purpose of improving it and to produce new and needed knowledge to a field that continues to grapple with strategies to prepare teachers to teach in poverty-impacted schools with students from diverse backgrounds.

Admittedly, a self-study such as this includes affordances and limitations. On the one hand, following Maxine Baca Zinn (1979), the researchers in this project enjoyed a kind of “insider” status as a faculty member and administrator, a course instructor, and a teaching assistant respectively, we were natural participants over the two years under study in programmatic conversations and meetings among faculty and staff. This insider status—a sense that we as researchers were not only interested in the community-based placements as an innovation but also invested in the mission and sustainability of the entire teacher education program­—may have built a level of camaraderie and trust with faculty members that would be difficult to achieve as an “outside” researcher. This status and the resulting relationships may have influenced a variety of aspects of our study, from the logistical (e.g., our ability as researchers to schedule participant interviews), to the construction of interview and focus group protocol that attended to all facets of the program rather than simply the innovation under study, to the nature of talk within interviews (Tierney, 1994).

An additional but related affordance of self-study is that it has allowed us to “work the dialectic” of inquiry and practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Our initial research questions on the implementation and impact of the community-based placements drove the initial collection and analysis of data, the findings of which were used to inform internal programmatic policy decisions as well as to contribute to broader conversations in the field. These internal and external conversations, in turn, caused us to refine our original inquiry questions. In fact, this engagement with the dialectic is evident within this paper. The first section addresses an initial (and necessarily broad) research question about opportunities for teacher candidates in community-based organizations, and the second section attempts to answer the primary question about variation in candidate learning that emerged in internal conversations about the program and in conference presentations and discussions with other programs throughout the country attempting to implement similar innovations.

While we share the perspective of much of the practitioner research literature in pushing back against accusations that such research lacks the objectivity and validity of so-called scientific studies produced by outsiders (e.g., Anderson, Herr, & Nihlen, 1994; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993, 2009), we also recognized throughout our data collection and analysis that certain strategies needed to be employed to minimize researcher bias. For example, we paid special attention to asymmetrical power relations during the course of the study, especially as it pertained to teacher candidates; we assigned data collection tasks to members of the team who were least involved in the course or activity under review; and we assigned interviews so that neither faculty nor teaching assistants conducted interviews of their students4. We also used triangulation and disconfirming evidence procedures to strengthen validity claims: All interview transcripts were read and coded by at least two members of the research team and cross-referenced with additional sources of evidence (related interviews, observations, and documents), and the construction of analytic codes was done in an iterative fashion in order to first uncover disconfirming evidence and then alter codes accordingly (Creswell & Miller, 2000).


In response to our first question—what kinds of opportunities to learn do community-based organizations (CBOs) offer candidates—we found that the community-based organizations afforded a range of opportunities to learn that added to the resources available to candidates during the elementary program. An overarching and significant finding from this analysis was that the CBO placements facilitated opportunities to learn related to the knowledge, methods, and skills of seeing children, which we view as core to one’s capacity to build relationships with and teach students. Specifically, we found that for the case study teachers CBO placements afforded them opportunities to: (1) Develop deeper understandings of students and communities (2) Develop more nuanced understandings of diversity, including intra-group diversity (3) Examine school from an out-of-school perspective (4) Attend to the role of context in learning. Below, we elaborate on these four classifications, and use data to illustrate each.


Research suggests that it is common for teacher candidates to leave teacher education programs with abstract, decontextualized understandings of children’s families and cultures (Murrell, 2007). To “see students,” teachers need to develop ways of learning about students in concrete, contextually rich ways, and need practice at connecting general notions of children and communities to particular children and particular contexts (cf. Ball & Cohen, 1999; Murrell, 2007). We found that the case study teachers moved beyond initial assumptions and abstract notions about children’s home lives to deeper or more nuanced and dynamic knowledge.

For example, Sandra, a case study candidate, shared a story of a young boy who refused to get out of a wading pool during a group field trip. This boy, a monolingual Spanish-speaker whose sister served as his main translator, had a reputation for being “defiant.” Sandra, trying to understand his situation, gently started a conversation with him using her limited Spanish skills. He erupted in eager chatter, and exited the pool with Sandra. She said,

And so it just … pointed out how easy it could be for a kid who has a different primary language to slip by and not get noticed or to be labeled a troublemaker because he’s not doing what’s expected. But how do teachers know exactly? And … he was so eager to communicate and, like, share himself and be seen.

Sandra employed a number of strategies that led to increased knowledge of this individual child, as well as an improved relationship. She approached the child and the situation with a “stance of inquiry” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009); rather than complicitly accepting the reputation and narrative that had been constructed about this boy, she decided to actively inquire. Further, in her inquiring, she decided to, in her words, “communicate with him … in a way he could interface with better.” By initiating the conversation in the boy’s home language, she was able to learn more about his personality, as well as his capability and willingness to communicate when he had access to a wider repertoire of his linguistic resources. Sandra linked what she learned from and about this child to larger trends for language-minority students, which suggests that the contextual knowledge she developed would serve her outside of the particulars of her placement.

The character of the candidates’ experiences in these placements was generally interactive and in some cases facilitated the development of a deeper understanding. The less formal nature of the contexts and many of the established procedures (i.e., game time, snack) allowed for informal and frequent conversations; these facilitated rich opportunities for candidates to learn about children and develop bonds with them. Engaging with children was something that was deeply valued by CBO directors, and was also emphasized in UW coursework. ELTEP assignments served as tools that mediated candidates’ activity, including the ways in which they engaged with students. For example, the CBO seminar required candidates to learn about and interact with as many children as possible. For the literacy methods course, each candidate presented a read-aloud lesson with a group of students at the CBO, and also administered an emergent literacy survey with a young child. The differentiated instruction course required candidates to complete a “shadow assignment” in which they learned as much as they could about one language-minority student, via observation, direct interaction, and interviews with adults who know the child.

In addition to the coursework, CBO directors and educators were instrumental to candidates’ learning about children and families, relationship building, and networking. Most CBO directors had knowledge about children across several contexts of their lives (home, school, CBO). Conversations with directors proved key to candidates’ opportunities to make sense of their experiences. For Claire (a case study teacher), Amy (the CBO director) supported her relational work with a specific group of older girls with which Claire was having difficulty connecting. The director’s guidance as reported by Claire was also important for her learning about parents. In an interview, Claire described a situation in which a mother who was very upset came into the CBO. According to Claire, the mom was yelling in Somali, angrily took her two children, and left. Claire was scared and confused about what had happened, and she asked Amy about the incident later. Amy explained that she, too, initially was intimidated by this woman, but over time she got to know the mother quite well and had been to the family’s home on a number of occasions. She explained that the mother was actually very supportive of her children and the CBO. In response to this, Claire said,

I think the biggest thing was to not jump to conclusions about some of the parents of students because my first reaction was, “Whoa.” Like if Amy hadn't kind of given me a little bit of a background saying, “Actually, she's very supportive. She can just kind of come off in this abrasive way,” I probably would have been intimidated about talking to her.

This example illustrates how CBO directors’ deep knowledge about children and families in turn buttressed candidates’ deepening knowledge. It also demonstrates how CBO directors, in addition to imparting knowledge, were modeling key practices associated with building and sustaining relationships.


By developing more specific and nuanced understandings of children’s home lives, family backgrounds, and cultural affiliations, most candidates also developed more sophisticated understandings of diversity itself. More specifically, we found that the CBO experiences challenged the case study candidates to: (1) Grapple with the range of diversity within particular groups, and (2) develop a view of culture as a practice rather than an individual trait.

Within-Group Diversity

We found that teacher candidates, particularly those placed in CBOs with high concentrations of children who shared similar ethnic or linguistic backgrounds (7 of 12 CBOs in second year), had opportunities to make important distinctions within groups. For example, there is evidence that candidates made distinctions around how individual children enact their language or ethnic affiliations. This finding was more prevalent in second-year data, perhaps because of an increased focus on this in coursework. The following quote from Margo, a case study candidate placed at a bilingual Latino organization, illustrates this concept:

[My shadow assignment] kid was a biracial kid who’s African American, but then Mexican American. She would talk to me all the time about her Mexican American heritage, but then her parents are divorced so she doesn’t really know a lot about her dad’s side of the family and stuff. So she’s very sensitive and aware of the fact that her parents are divorced. She’s like, “Oh, yeah, my mom and I—we’re Mexican, but my dad’s black,” and stuff. So it’s kind of like those conversations with her were really like they’ll always stand out, I guess.

Margo continued to describe the differences among the children at her CBO in regard to their personalities, language use and preferences, and ways of interacting. Her quote represents the perspectives of the majority of case study teachers that the differentiated instruction course’s shadow assignment was an important tool for candidates’ learning about the ways in which children can differ. Further, the CBO seminar’s related assignment, which required candidates to utilize Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological framework of development to examine the ecologies of individual children’s lives in relationship to their own, also highlighted the nuances at play in the lives of children.

Practice-Oriented Views Of Culture

It is common for novice and practicing teachers to think about culture as a general set of traits shared by ethnic group members (Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003). However, our analysis showed that direct experiences with children coupled with assignments that focused on learning the specifics of their lives and ecologies seemed to move candidates toward a more practice-oriented view of culture. This orientation led many candidates, even those who had substantial experience with diverse groups, to think about students’ lives and needs in less static and perhaps less essentialized ways. Zane, a self-identified Chinese American who attended racially diverse public schools in this very district, was surprised by his experiences in his mostly African American CBO in a working-class neighborhood. Zane had substantial experience working in an after-school program in another, more affluent part of the city, and found that the contrast of his CBO placement prompted him to examine his assumptions about his cultural knowledge. He said,

I was really used to running my program the way that I ran it and talking to my kids the way that I talk to them … and it just didn’t translate. So it was very humbling. I mean, it’s like … I didn’t really think about the culture being something that I needed to work on within Seattle.

There is also evidence that through the process of closely examining individual students’ lives, candidates gave increased consideration to the intersectionality of race, language, (dis)ability, gender, and other categories of diversity.


In their frequent informal conversations with children and parents, and in their homework tutoring experiences, candidates learned about children’s schooling experiences. From an out-of-school vantage point, they learned about children’s feelings about school as well as the curricular demands for a wide range of grade levels. Claire’s quote shows how her being outside of school provided her with opportunities to think about how teachers’ decisions play out for children:

I kind of had a chance to see the homework that students get. And they get these big, thick packets every week. And for some students they were just fine and then other students really had a hard time with them, both with not being able to complete the work independently and then also more like the time management part of it. It made me think … How's a kindergartener going to know how to time manage this big packet thing that he gets, you know? So I guess when I go into teaching, I want to just kind of really keeping that in mind and knowing that—especially for when they couldn't do the work on their own—if they didn't have the CBO support with a bunch of tutors available, I don't know that they would have been able to get it done. A lot of times their parents may or may not be able to help them with that.

Claire’s reflection suggests that experiencing and examining school, and homework specifically, from outside of school is a striking, albeit rare, benefit for novice teachers. Had Claire only been in a school placement, she would have likely seen packets of homework leave and return to the classroom, without an understanding of the wider set of experiences surrounding that. Having a sense of how academic demands like homework are experienced by children and families is invaluable; it has the potential to prompt candidates to think about the nature of the tasks they assign, and they ways in which they set up and support the tasks.


Finally, teacher candidates’ experiences in CBOs, and the course-based mediation that shaped those experiences, seemed to orient candidates to issues of context in learning. Perhaps it was the disruption caused by placements outside of schools, or candidates’ opportunities to access a range of learning environments, that made them more sensitive to the role of context in learning

For most case study teachers, discussion of context seemed to reach beyond description of the specifics of their own field placements and toward a deeper reflection of the role and influence of context for students’ learning, comfort, and/or motivation. In the excerpt below, Margo reflects on one of her most salient “lessons learned” during her first term of the program. She said,

Kids are influenced everywhere. There’s always something that they’re learning. In an environment where it’s like a very family one like that and where they do feel really close, like “you know me,” and “I’ve been here forever.” They maybe feel more comfortable to express themselves or maybe just feel safer in an environment like that, where they do feel like they’re a family, I guess.

Margo demonstrates her understanding that her CBO placement was certainly a context for learning. While this may seem like a simplistic or basic outcome, it is actually noteworthy—especially given that many case study teachers, at least initially, questioned whether CBOs could be educative spaces for learning to teach. Margo’s quote also highlights her thinking about the weighty influence of context. She understood that that a child can express him or herself in one context, but not in another—and the factors that comprise a particular context or environment impact that child’s ability and willingness to communicate.

The analysis of the interview data revealed that in general teacher candidates had opportunities to learn in their CBOs that ranged from exposure to diverse children to increased attention to the multiple contexts of children’s lives. Each of these opportunities supported their development of the general, conceptual framework of seeing children as central to their role and practice as teachers. However, our analysis also revealed significant variation in how candidates appropriated the concept of seeing children and as teacher educators and researchers we wanted to better understand what might account for this variation. In Section II, we take up questions focused on the situational factors within the CBOs that shaped candidates’ learning.


I would say, what we’ve been talking about this whole quarter: the idea of seeing the student and understanding that each student comes from different backgrounds, a different walk of life, different culture and heritage. And that significantly plays into who they are and you have to take that into account as they’re learning.

-Teacher candidate Dallas, first interview

Definitely the whole thing we’ve had all quarter about getting to know the child, making that effort to know their background and see them for their strengths, or not just their weaknesses, but like knowing their family, knowing where they’re coming from, how they’re feeling, so that you can then take that and gear that towards your teaching.

-Teacher candidate Margo, first interview

At first glance, the similarities between these candidates’ response to the question, “What, if anything, did you learn about teaching at your CBO?” are encouraging. Both candidates suggest that community placements are contexts in which “seeing students” can be foregrounded as an aspect of learning to teach, and both allude to the concept’s repeated appearance across components in the first quarter. Even more encouraging, perhaps, is the fact that these responses, as mentioned above, are largely representative of all of our case study participants: “seeing students” figures prominently in candidates’ self-report of the opportunities and learning afforded by placement in a community-based organization.

Yet, on further examination significant variation in case study participants’ professional learning appears. The cases of Margo and Dallas represent this variation. As we outline below, we might view Margo’s case as an instance that illustrates powerful opportunities to learn in a CBO placement, while Dallas’ case represents an instance in which that experience was less valued and less valuable. Our more in-depth analysis addresses questions regarding the interaction of individual experience, the CBO context, and the university course context as shaping such opportunities to learn.

Drawing on Billett, we acknowledge that ontogenetic differences, situational differences, and microgenetic decisions made in situ contributed to different opportunities and outcomes for candidates. To explore the interaction of these factors, we focused our analysis on each of these as contributing to Margo and Dallas’ opportunities to learn. We think of this as a particularly strategic comparative case study that can illuminate key factors that led to differential learning and inclinations around enactment. These two candidates both reported having positive experiences in their CBO placements, and reported learning that seemed relevant to them. They shared many similarities in their life histories and pathways to entering the program. They took the same teacher education courses at the same time, and thus had the same required assignments. They had equally limited prior experiences with the racial and ethnic communities represented in their respective CBO placements. Yet, despite these similarities, there were marked differences in their learning. In the following pages, we ask: Why?


Dallas and Margo were 2 of the 58 candidates who entered the elementary teacher education program in the second year of the implementation of the community-based placements. They came to the program with strikingly similar narratives about the environments in which they grew up and about their pathways into teaching.

Dallas was raised in a small town in Washington State where “there are no minorities of any sort,” with a father who, as a teacher, introduced him to the idea of teaching as a career. However, Dallas entered ELTEP following an undergraduate business path; it didn’t take him long to realize that “he didn’t really like it” and he changed to an education major. He cites a particular field placement in a sixth-grade classroom in a “very high needs school” as the biggest influence on his decision to apply to a Master’s in Teaching program, as it was the first time he “really worked with students” and he found that he “really loved it.”  

Margo grew up “white, middle class” in a medium-sized city in Washington State and attended schools with “no racial diversity.” From an early age she wanted to either follow in her father’s professional path as a teacher or her mother’s path as a pharmacist. Even though she remembers preferring teaching “all throughout high school,” she entered into the pre-pharmacy program when she came to the University. After doing service learning for a quarter at a suburban Boys and Girls Club for one of her psychology classes, she decided she wanted to pursue “the teaching thing.” In preparation for applying to the Master’s in Teaching program, she also volunteered in a first-grade classroom at an urban K-8 public school, where she “did a lot of one-on-one Sound Partners,” a phonics-based tutoring program in early reading skills.

In addition to these narratives about these candidates’ background and life experience, Figure 2 represents Margo and Dallas’ responses to the “views on teaching” section of the program’s entrance survey as compared to the cohort’s overall responses. The questions included in the “views on teaching” section were designed to address three dimensions: teacher efficacy, instructional strategies with diverse students (including English language learners and special education students), and diversity beliefs (see Appendix for list of questions). Candidates responded to questions on a five-point Likert Scale, with 1 indicating “strongly disagree” and 5 indicating “strongly agree.”

Two aspects of the survey results are particularly striking. First, both Dallas and Margo scored at or above the cohort mean in all but one instance (Dallas reported less confidence than the cohort in relation to his knowledge of instructional strategies with diverse students). Second, when compared to each other, Dallas and Margo entered the program with almost identical perceptions about the role of efficacious teachers in student learning and both had similar positive beliefs about diverse students, families, and classrooms. Again, the most notable point of difference between the two candidates was Margo’s confidence in her instructional knowledge and strategies when working with diverse students.

Figure 2. Initial Views of Teaching Comparison


Despite these similarities, we recognize that Dallas and Margo were different people with different personalities and inclinations. There was likely a range of ontogenetic factors that were simply not captured in our qualitative and quantitative data. However, because there were ontogenetic similarities between Dallas and Margo before ELTEP and the CBO placements, we were able to examine with fewer analytic complications the factors within the CBOs that could account for differences in their opportunities.


In an examination of context, we explored situational factors that contributed to Dallas’ generalized and passive appropriation of the concept of “seeing students” and Margo’s integration of the concept with methods, strategies, and skills for enacting that concept. In particular, we found that CBO directors’ capacity to model and articulate their practices, and the ways in which particular course assignments invited candidates to learn in and from their specific CBOs as critical differences between Dallas and Margo’s experiences. As first glance, however, there were notable similarities between Dallas and Margo’s CBO sites, which were the Septima Clark Center and La Unidad, respectively.

The Septima Clark Center

The after-school youth program at Septima Clark Center was nested within a larger advocacy and service organization. The program served K-5 African American students, including several students whose families had immigrated from North and East Africa. Rosaline, the lead CBO educator who supervised Dallas and his ELTEP peers, was African American and a speaker of both African American English and Standard American English dialects. She was well known by families, and advocated for Septima Clark Center students in schools.

La Unidad

The bilingual after-school youth program at La Unidad was nested within larger advocacy/ activism/ service agency, and was focused on academic support, language, and culture maintenance and “recapture,” community involvement, and nonviolent action. Most of the students who attended La Unidad were Latino and bilingual. Jessica, the bilingual CBO educator who supervised Margo and the other candidates, was an immigrant from Mexico. As a long-standing member and leader in her community, she was well known and trusted by families. She communicated regularly with teachers and principals, and attended (and sometimes hosted) conferences with parents and teachers at La Unidad.

Dallas and Margo had similarly limited background experiences with the communities in their respective CBOs going into the experience. Dallas had very few previous interactions with African American children or adults. Similarly, Margo reported that she had very little experience with Latino children or adults. She was a monolingual English speaker.

Daily Activities

The set and sequence of daily activities in which candidates engaged at their CBO placements were also quite similar. Interview and observational data suggest that the daily schedules of Septima Clark Center and La Unidad had many of the same components (see Figure 3). For example, both candidates engaged in both formal and informal work with children, arrived early to meet and converse with CBO staff, and had similar opportunities to meet parents and guardians during pick-up time.

Figure 3. Daily CBO Activities

Dallas—Typical Daily Activities at Septima Clark

Margo—Typical Daily Activities at

La Unidad


“[My CBO partner and I] would get there at 2:30 and [the children] would be there until about 3:00-ish. And so we would just hang out and converse with the directors and other staff. [...] [Or] we’d ask what [the staff] wanted to be done.”

Reading or game playing time:

“Generally, it was us reading to them. I had a couple instances where I did a read aloud to a small group of three or four students at a time, aside from our read-aloud projects [for the Literacy class].”

Snack time

Homework time:

“When we’d help students with homework, they might be struggling with something. [...] One day I helped a student and he was so excited that we got all of his homework done. He just wanted to tell his mom. He was so excited and proud. And so even though he didn’t want to do it [at first], he was glad and proud he could do it.”

Caregiver pick-up:

“The parents would come and pick them up. We would say hi and introduce ourselves and stuff. And, for the most part, I don’t think they generally remembered who we were … .”  


“Each day we’d usually get there pretty early to work on the little Zunes [a multimedia project that incorporated children’s digital photographs and narratives].”                                                

Outside/Inside play time:                                                    

"[A]lot of time on the playground was [...] getting to know the kids. That was a time we’d be like, ‘Oh, what’d you do at school today? Oh, tell me about this.’ And they’d always ask me stuff.”

Snack time:                                                    

“[The organization] is very family-oriented, with snacks too. They do the family-style, like everyone has a big platter of stuff, and they have to share it with everyone else. [...] We’d always have conversations with the kids. [I]t was a lot of trying to get an idea of where they were at with school and their personal lives...”

Reading time:                                                   

“It’s kind of cool with reading because each day is a different thing. Maybe Monday they’re going to have individual reading. Maybe Tuesday it’s going to be partner reading. And then Wednesday will be like shared reading, where it’s with three or four kids.”

Homework time:                                         

“There were some kids who call out for attention and say, ‘Come help me. Come help me.’ And then there were some kids who don’t feel comfortable with school at all, but they don't want the help. [I]t was cool to see what they were doing in school and be like, ‘Oh, this is what’ - and to see if stuff correlated with what we were learning [at University].”

Caregiver pick-up:                                        

“Every time a parent came to pick them up [...] I’d go up and introduce myself. [...] They always wanted to get to know me better [...] it was like building some sort of trust with them.”

Despite the similarities, differences existed in how Dallas and Margo understood and articulated the schedule of activities and their participation. One might be tempted to explain these differences as the result of individual characteristics such as differing abilities and ways of understanding, and as Billett reminds us, we should not eliminate the individual entirely from any analysis of professional learning. However, Billett also suggests that we pay attention to the situational factors within these settings and how they invite candidates’ participation. A closer look at these more general opportunities illuminated key points of variation that contributed to real differences in candidates’ talk and activity related to enactment.

A Closer Look Reveals Key Differences

In interviews, Dallas and Margo reported having time to meet and discuss their daily participation with the CBO educators. As we previously mentioned in the general findings, conversations with CBO personnel were found to be key opportunities for candidates’ learning. While it seems that all candidates who had access to this type of interaction with CBO educators benefited from such experiences, a closer examination showed important ways that this particular situational factor differed for Margo and Dallas. At Septima Clark Center, Dallas reported that he would “hang out and converse with the directors and other staff;” this was different from the nature of the interactions with staff described by Margo. Margo, who explicitly refers to Jessica as a “teacher” and a “guide” in her interviews, mentions moments during the day when Jessica would “pull us [candidates] aside” and talk about why she designed an activity in a certain way or would give advice about how to attend to the needs of her different students.

Snack time was another activity shared by Septima Clark Center and La Unidad. However, as demonstrated in Margo and Dallas’ reflections (Figure 2), snack time represented a very different situational factor across the two sites for the two candidates. Dallas listed snack time once in his description of a typical day, whereas Margo talked about La Unidad’s snack time at length, and numerous times across her interviews—even months after she had completed her CBO fieldwork. Reflecting on snack time, Margo stated:

And then they come in and have their snack. La Unidad is very family-oriented, with snacks too. They do the family style, like everyone has a big platter of stuff, and they have to share it with everyone else … It was kind of cool because Jessica has it set up where, if you’re at this table, you only talk to the people at this table. It’s for two reasons, like they don’t want you shouting across the room, but then they also want you to interact with those kids—a smaller group so you can check in with them and be social. I asked Teacher Jessica, because they had the one table with all girls and one boy, and I was, “How do you set that up?” And she’s like, “These are the kids who work well together. Like, if I put him at this table, it’s chaos.” So she kind of has it like strategically placed,

So (with this arrangement), we’d always have little discussions with the kids. At first it was mostly like the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus discussions. And then it was like the older kids it was very much about school. They’d always talk to me about, “Oh, I can’t stand school. I hate school.” So it was a lot of trying to get an idea where they were at with school and their personal lives. And so that was also when they asked me a lot of questions at snack time.

In Margo’s discussion about snack time, it is clear that she had thought deeply about the principles and practices that undergirded and surrounded this activity. Unlike Dallas, Margo came to identify the value in this seemingly informal event. Because of her knowledge of the conceptual and practical tools that surrounded the activity, research suggests that it is more likely that she will enact the practices that were articulated and modeled (Grossman, Smagorinsky, & Valencia, 1999). La Unidad’s snack time afforded her opportunities to learn about arrangements that foster community building, and practice in seizing opportunities to engage children in discussions about their lives.

We found that many of the factors that supported Margo’s learning involved observations of and discussions with Jessica. CBO educators/directors’ expertise, which developed from work with children, families, and schools as well as their work as teacher educators, was a key element that shaped the opportunities presented in many other situational factors (i.e., conferences and snack time).

CBO Educator Expertise.

In our closer analysis, we identified several categories within CBO directors and educators’ expertise that seemed to matter for candidates’ inclination to identify and enact practices. CBO directors’ expertise involved their knowledge of and work with children and families, as well as their appropriation of the teacher educator role. The particular components of directors’ expertise we identified were: knowledge, modeling practice, articulating practice, inviting candidates into practice, and providing guided assistance.

In order to illustrate how the situational factor of CBO director expertise influenced the learning of candidates, we closely examine snack time as a “case within a case.” In discussing this example, we highlight the ways in which Jessica’s expertise facilitated Margo’s perception of snack time as (1) an educative experience and (2) as an opportunity to develop and enact relational practices.


Jessica’s knowledge of children, social support, the community-building mission of the organization, and of context led to well-theorized decisions about grouping arrangements.

Modeled Practice

Jessica conversed with children during snack, and elicited responses from them by asking about their days and families. She encouraged them to use communication strategies for passing and sharing food and utensils.

Articulated Practice

Margo knew the theoretical rationale of the structure and purpose of snack time (e.g., she was able to explain intentional grouping, Jessica’s objective for children during this time, that the activity/arrangement aligned with wider program and agency goals around community building). This suggests that Jessica had effectively conveyed these concepts to her.

Invited Candidates Into Practice

Jessica expected candidates to engage with students during this time. Margo practiced strategies for learning about children and sharing information about herself; the conversations she had during snack led to important learning about children’s lives and school experiences.

Supported Practice

Jessica gave feedback, and followed up on candidates’ work. One of the most important elements of facilitating and fostering enactment is having opportunities to try out practices with guidance and scaffolding (Grossman et al., 1999).

There were clear differences in the expertise exemplified by educators at Septima Clark Center and La Unidad. Rosaline had deep contextual and cultural knowledge of students and families; however, interview data suggest that some of the activities were not made as explicit to the candidates as those at La Unidad. While Rosaline did exhibit and model important practices in her work with children and families, she was less adept at articulating the practices to the candidates. Also, evidence suggests that in some respects, Rosaline thought of the candidates as more knowledgeable than herself; this could have weighed in on her identity and role as a teacher educator. Interview data suggest that she felt confident in her understandings of Septima Clark Center children, but she did not appear to feel a strong sense of efficacy as a teacher educator. This was one way that Jessica stood out. She was exceptionally good at conveying knowledge and practices to candidates. Margo reflects on Jessica’s ability to community her practice in the following statement:

So Teacher Jessica was always being very open, and she would … teach us and say, “Yeah, and like this situation, I do this” … or she’d pull us aside and do random things to kind of guide us like, “This is how I do it,” or, “When I do my thing for a student who’s struggling … I call this to the teacher’s attention and set up a meeting with the teacher, the mom, and the student.” So she was very open about stuff.

Findings from research on teaching skilled practice (Kazemi, Lampert, Ghousseini, 2007) indicate that naming and defining discrete practices, and receiving support and feedback along with frequent opportunities to reflect as they “try out” or approximate (Grossman et al., 1999) practices are critical aspects of assisting novices as they learn to teach.

Jessica invited candidates into practice and supported them in their approximations of practice. More specifically, she presented opportunities for Margo to try out some of the relational methods that were introduced in coursework and/or modeled by Jessica, and assisted her in the process. From inviting them to outside events, to inviting them to meet parents, to inviting them to work with students they did not usually converse with, Jessica was encouraging Margo and the other ELTEP candidates to join in her routine practices. Margo, in her microgenetic actions, accepted these invitations and seized opportunities to learn from them. It is impossible to know if Dallas would have responded to these opportunities—like snack time—in a similar way had he been placed at La Unidad. What we do know, however, was that the opportunities facilitated by Jessica’s expertise were “in the soup”—or made available in the context—which was critical for her learning. If such opportunities are absent in a learning context, then even candidates who are inclined to learn and appropriate practices are restricted.  

Mediating Coursework

Margo’s and Dallas’ opportunities to learn were mediated not only by factors situated in the CBO itself, but also by University course assignments aimed at orienting their learning. Grossman (2005) argues that assignments represent a “crucial ingredient in the pedagogy of teacher education, as they focus students’ attention on particular problems of practice and introduce them to ways of reasoning or performing” (p. 426). In this case, assignments, activities, and readings from ELTEP were also situational factors that shaped candidates’ learning. Both candidates identified connections and opportunities in their coursework, but in different ways and to different extents.

When analyzing the course-field connections with a lens focused on enactment, we noticed that both candidates valued opportunities to approximate practices (Grossman et al., 1999) in their field settings. Dallas viewed the literacy course as being the most connected to the CBO experiences: The assignments from that course were focused on applying instructional and assessment methods—or approximating instructional and assessment practices in the CBO—that were introduced in the course. He said that the work required from the literacy assignments “not only helps me to help them, but it helps me to understand the (literacy course) material.” Based on Dallas’s interview data, the approximation experiences were likely important for supporting Dallas’s capacity to enact particular literacy assessment practices. It is unclear from the interviews, however, if he had gained tools related to seeing children or relational aspects of teaching from these approximation experiences. One particular instance casts doubts: He was completing the Emergent Literacy Survey for literacy class with a kindergarten student over two days—the first day “he was very hyper” and the second day it seemed to Dallas like his student was tired and so Dallas stopped 10 minutes into the assessment. He learned later that the student “was really upset by it and didn’t feel like he was smart enough to do it, even though he performed fairly average.” Asked what he learned from the situation, Dallas replies, “Patience. Students, if they need a break, give them a break.” While patience is, of course, an invaluable virtue for all teachers, there was clearly more to be learned than solely the need for teacher patience in this scenario. In this case, it appears that Dallas missed an important opportunity to approximate inquiry and reflection practices needed to examine this child’s situation. Perhaps most notably, Dallas did not reflect on the way that his framing and communicating the task to the boy may have contributed to the child’s frustration; nor did he reflect on the task in relationship to the boy’s identity as a reader or struggling reader. Situational factors such as the emphasis of the assignment and limited assistance at the CBO, as well as Dallas’ microgenetic moves, restricted the overall potential of the learning opportunity.

In contrast to Dallas, Margo often described course assignments as instrumental to her learning in the CBO. One of the most formative for her was an assignment from the CBO seminar in which she represented the multiple contexts informing her development. This particular assignment drew on Brofenbrenner’s (1979) view of human development. As part of a La Unidad project, Margo and her partner were charged with making Zune podcasts of children talking about their lives, families, and interests. Before conducting the interviews for the podcasts, Margo and her ELTEP partner decided to bring in the products they had created for their CBO spheres of influence assignments to share with the students. This was not a requirement, and thus represented a (noteworthy) microgenetic decision to engage the assignment in this way. Margo said,

My partner and I decided before we wanted to do the interview things with the kids that we were going to kind of bring in our own vignette things that we did for Nala (CBO seminar instructor). So I made a digital montage of my life, and my partner made a poster with pictures of her family and stuff. And that was in the middle of our placement, but showing them that, like all of a sudden, it was a completely different environment.

The “different environment” Margo describes involved a dramatic influx of trust and sharing between La Unidad students and herself and her partner. Certain situational factors provided this opportunity for Margo. La Unidad placed significant value on personal sharing and had well-established routines that facilitated sharing among children and between children and adults. In addition, in Margo’s case, course assignments seemed to facilitate her reflections and visual representation. Additionally, her microgenetic decision to leverage these situational factors and utilize a tool she had acquired in coursework contributed to the striking outcome—the “different environment” to which she refers.

The increased trust and level of sharing exemplified the success of Margo’s approximation of the practice of exchanging personal information with children. Billett would say that this shaped her ontogeny, as the success from that experience led to her increased self-efficacy in enacting relational practices. This, in turn, expanded and enhanced the situational factors available in her placement, the relevance she saw in the mediating course assignments, and her motivation to seize ensuing opportunities for learning. Margo’s engagement of the differentiated learning course’s shadow assignment further illustrates this process.

Margo discussed the importance of the learning experience afforded by the shadow assignment throughout her interviews, sharing extensive knowledge about the child she shadowed as well as some of the methods she used to learn and think about her (e.g., “stepping back to see her from all different perspectives”). Alternately, Dallas did not mention the shadow assignment when asked about salient course-field connections. One explanation is that particular opportunities in her CBO, and perhaps other individual inclinations, led Margo to see more relevance in assignments like shadowing a student than Dallas did. We know from research that perceptions of relevance matter for take-up (Feiman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1985), and these are largely influenced by candidates’ developing ideas of what it means to teach and be a teacher. Perhaps tasks like the shadow assignment were less in line with what Dallas conceptualized as the work of teaching compared to the literacy tasks, which he regarded as application-focused. Perhaps, for a combination of situational and microgenetic reasons, he did not recognize the methods or application requirements associated with shadowing a student.

Many of Margo’s assignment-facilitated approximations of relational practices had positive outcomes for her capacity to see children and their families, and to build relationships. This is likely because the situational factors in La Unidad were particularly well matched for the curricular emphasis on seeing children and building relationships, she had supportive guidance in her approximation experiences, and her early successful experiences influenced her stance toward other ensuing assignment opportunities. Margo seemed to have been able to appropriate the practical tools in ways that allowed her to conceptualize “seeing the student” as composed of practices, and also compelled her to try out a number of such practices.

Undoubtedly, the individual ontogenies that candidates brought to the work of learning in community-based organizations account for some of the variation in learning outcomes. However, as the comparative analysis of Dallas and Margo suggests, the examination of how situational factors of the organizations and university coursework intersect with individual experiences and agency provides a more complete, albeit complex, picture of the opportunities afforded, and of the learning trajectories of individual candidates. This finding is particularly important as it provides concrete leverage points for improving the opportunities for candidates within community organizations by identifying specific practices of directors, for example, that facilitate candidates’ learning.


In conclusion, we offer this reflection from one of our teacher candidates who was commenting on her experience with a particular child in her CBO:

Whoa. This is like some crazy rowdy girl who wants all the attention in the world, and she’s all about herself: kind of snobbish. But then you step back and see her from all these different perspectives. I learned that, like wow, her parents divorced right after she got married. She’s very sensitive to this. She lives with her mom and her aunt and her grandma, and they share a two-bedroom apartment. Like, you see all these different things that add to their lifestyle, but this kid makes the most of it and has the greatest time here (CBO). She looks up to all the other kids … so like taking that chance to really know that child and get to know them from all the different things.

In this moment, in relationship to this particular child, this candidate has chosen to see and to know. More specifically, she has, in her words, “stepped back to see” and “taken a chance to really know.” Seeing students is key to building relationships with children and their families, fundamental to teaching from a social justice perspective, and central to high quality teaching. The relational practices of teaching—those aspects of teaching that hinge on teachers’ capacity to relate to students—in our view depend in part on teachers’ knowledge and understanding of the communities and families of the particular students with whom they work. They also depend on teachers’ ability and willingness to engage relational teaching practices. How and where can teachers be prepared to do this work? Extending other research, we suggest that community-based organizations offer promising contexts for learning to teach.

In our analysis of the UW Elementary Teacher Education Program’s innovation of placing teachers in community-based organizations, we identify specific classifications of candidates’ learning opportunities, from opportunities to develop deeper understandings of students and communities, to opportunities to attend to the role of context in learning. Our analysis reveals significant variation within each of these categories. In this paper, our intent was to offer a theoretical lens for making sense of how and why candidates’ opportunities would differ that goes beyond simply recognizing individual differences in background or participation.  

To date, although held up as promising, little is known about the opportunities for learning that community immersion experiences afford teacher candidates, or how the factors within community-based contexts shape that learning. In our view, the findings described here contribute to the field’s understanding of the types of learning experiences that community immersion experiences potentially provide teacher candidates. The quality of CBO educators and directors and their ability to articulate, model, invite, and support teacher candidates’ development is instrumental to the quality of the opportunities to learn made available to candidates. Given research on the impact of supervising/cooperating teachers on candidates’ learning in school placements, arguably, this is no surprise. However, this work suggests that community-based teachers and community organizations offer rich mentorship and contexts for preparing teachers with practices that will help them to reach across difference to see their students, their students’ families, and their students’ communities—a goal that continues to challenge teacher education programs.

This research also suggests that university coursework and the mediation it provides, shape the ways in which and the extent to which candidates have opportunities to approximate teaching practices. The framework we adopt to understand the trajectories of individual candidates—Margo and Dallas—provides a scaffold upon which other researchers and teacher educators can draw as they engage in questions of how situational factors and individual ontogeny shape learning opportunities. Despite the ways this framework and our findings contribute to this area, we recognize that this research is limited in that it offers only an initial understanding of the learning and affordances of community based placements. Nonetheless, as social justice teacher education reaches to fulfill its promise, placements in community organizations offer a specific approach for supporting candidates to develop relational teaching practices—which in our view are central to any vision of teaching for social justice.


1. The authors of this paper have collaborated throughout the process from research design to publication. We have participated as colleagues in the development of the ideas, findings, and writing presented here.

2. During this study, at the end of the first four quarters, qualified preservice teachers are recommended for certification, and then after the fifth quarter, which typically takes place over the course of their first year of teaching, teachers receive their Master’s degrees. In 2009 and 2010, during the first quarter of the program, preservice teachers were placed in CBOs as their only field placement and are required to take five courses. In the following quarters prior to certification, teachers are placed as interns in high needs public schools in the Seattle area and attend an array of methods and foundations courses. For more specific information on the UW’s elementary program please see: http://education.washington.edu/areas/tep/elementary/index.html.

3. In the first two years of this study, the program had seven consistent partnering organizations. Capacity, quality, and other logistical issues prompted changes in the number and locations of other partners over the two years. At any given time, the total number of partnering organizations ranged from 10 to 12.

4. For example, because the faculty member was also in an administrative role, she did not interview any of the case study candidates or facilitate the focus groups based on the assumption that her position would bias candidates’ responses.


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