Passion is not enough: Preparing middle level preservice teachers to be advocates for change

Each year, thousands of middle grades preservice teachers assume their places in classrooms across the country, through practica, internships, and student teaching experiences. Over 600 U.S. colleges or universities cur­rently offer some form of specialized middle level teacher preparation (Howell, Faulkner, Cook, Miller, & Thompson, 2016), many of which are in.uenced by national standards that call for a student-centered approach to learning (Association for Middle Level Education [AMLE], 2012a). As a result, these middle grades preservice teachers enter their internships having been taught to “create challenging, culturally sensitive, and developmentally responsive learning experiences that encourage exploration, creativity, and information literacy skills” (AMLE, 2012a, Rubric, Standard 4b) in their respective .eld placements.

This We Believe characteristics:

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them
  • Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant

Notably, the AMLE Standards call for preservice tea­chers to not only be prepared to work within a dynamic middle school concept but to also promote this vision, asking that they know how to “advocate for and provide leadership in the authentic implementation of middle school programs and practices” (AMLE, 2012a, Rubric, Standard 3). Additionally, AMLE Standard 5 (2012a) sets the following expectation: “Middle level teacher candidates demonstrate knowledge of advocacy theories and skills. They advocate for young adolescents and middle level education in a variety of settings (e.g., school, com­munity, youth-serving organizations, legislative bodies, policy makers).”

We agree that preparing preservice teachers to engage in advocacy work is crucial. As middle grades teacher educators, we are also aware of the challenges inherent in the expectation that preservice teachers should be prepared to be advocates. Because many of the characteristics of the reform-oriented middle level con­cept (NMSA, 2010) may challenge existing practices at their schools, middle level advocacy can be especially difficult for even the most veteran of teachers.

Given the uneven implementation of middle level education reform (McEwin & Greene, 2010), the opportunity for preservice teachers to observe and experiment with innovative practices associated with the middle school concept in their field placement schools inevitably varies. As preservice teachers spend increasing time in schools, those placed in more traditional sites often voice compelling questions: “Where are the interdisciplinary units of instruction?” “Where are the teams?” “Why do advisory sessions look like remediation?” “Where is the relevance or meaningful choice?” “Why did my mentor teacher look at me strangely when I asked about projects?”

In many ways, the absence of some of these practices provides an appropriate laboratory for learning how to advocate for authentic middle school practices, as called for by the AMLE standards. Research on teacher socia­lization forces, however, suggests that the pre-existing norms of the field placement school might simply “wash out”the effects of reform-oriented coursework (Zeichner & Tabachnick, 1981). As novice teachers become increasingly concerned with the practical expectations of student teaching, the day-to-day demands of the status quo in their assigned school may appear more urgent than the reform-minded vision, thus gaining primacy in the minds of preservice teachers, no matter how reform-minded they maybe. Additionally, as a result of their status as guests and novices in their field placement schools, preservice teachers may experience pressure to conform to the status quo of teaching and learning in their school. This pressure may ultimately result in their reverting to traditional teaching methods that are contrary to the reform-oriented visions of teaching espoused in their middle level teacher educa­tion programs, thus undermining middle level education reform efforts.

If we aim to prepare middle level preservice teachers to be advocates for change, preparing them to be passionate about middle level philosophy is simply not enough. To the contrary, we argue that preservice teachers need to be explicitly prepared for the political work of reform-oriented advocacy, which we define as work that is driven by reform-oriented views that may defy the status quo at a given school. In the case of middle level education, this reform-oriented view is that of the middle school concept as defined by AMLE. In this case, reform-oriented advo­cacy might involve advocating for student-driven pedago­gies in a school that mostly employs a scripted curriculum or for structures such as common planning time or stu­dent leadership. This may call on preservice teachers to engage in reform-oriented advocacy as they seek to justify straying from existing school practices.

Although research exists on advocacy for specific populations of students (Graybill et al., 2015), the self-advocacy of students with disabilities (Dryden, Desmarais, & Arsenault, 2014), and reform efforts for specific causes such as music education (Shorner-Johnson, 2013), we have found little guidance regarding how programs might prepare pre-service teachers to be advocates of middle level practices (or any reform-oriented practices for that matter) in their future schools. Unlike the field of school counseling, for example, which has established a set of competencies related to advo­cacy work (Trusty & Brown, 2005), teacher educators are left without many tools to do so.

With the broader goal of increasing the impact of middle level teacher education programs on middle level education reform, this article addresses the following question: What skills do student teachers need to engage in reform-oriented advocacy? To investigate this question, we draw on the experiences of four reform-minded preservice teachers who engaged in reform-oriented advocacy during their student teaching semester. In the hopes that we might inform the eventual development of an approach to preparing teachers for such work, we then use the experiences and insights of these four student teachers to propose a set of skills needed to persist in reform-oriented teaching and advocacy.

The research context

The four student teachers in this study were enrolled in a Middle Level Teacher Education program that was built upon the tenets of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) and aligned to the AMLE standards (2012a). One of the authors first met Bobbi, Danni, Charlie, and Ray (pseu­donyms) as students in her introductory middle level education course that took place the year prior to student teaching. They were selected for participation in a reform-oriented collaborative inquiry group on the basis that they (1) expressed a clear interest in middle level education reform as evidenced by class discussions and reflections, and (2) raised important questions concerning their impending student teaching experience in the context of middle level education reform. The focus of the colla­borative inquiry, on which they worked with their instruc­tor, was to investigate how they might bring specific middle grades teaching practices in their field placement classrooms. Collaborative inquiry, one of several participatory and action-based inquiry methods, is defined by Bray, Lee, Smith, and Yorks (2000)as “a process con­sisting of repeated episodes of reflection and action through which a group of peers strives to answer a ques­tion of importance to them” (p. 6). Since collaborative inquiry is designed to “provide a liberating structure within institutional settings for people to explore ques­tions normally closed to them” (Bray et al., 2000, p. 13), it was particularly well suited to the goal of engaging student teachers in education reform that might challenge the status quo at a given school. The precise approach to collaborative inquiry employed by this group is described in detail in DeMink-Carthew (2015).

All four student teachers conducted their student teaching at Lakeview Middle School (LMS, pseudonym), a school that demonstrated some basic structural character­istics of middle schools (e.g., students and teachers orga­nized into teams, common planning time) but otherwise operated as a junior high (e.g., disciplinary, predomi­nantly teacher-centered modes of teaching and learning, homerooms). As part of their collaborative inquiry group work, the group used the 16 characteristics of successful middle schools to critically reflect on their field placement experiences. As a result, the group identified “relevant curriculum” and “active, purposeful learning” (NMSA, 2010) as areas they aimed to emphasize during their semester at LMS. In particular, they wished to develop a “hands-joined” (AMLE, 2012b, p. 16) learning experience, one in which teachers and students work together to develop projects.

Over the course of the semester and with the permis­sion of the school’s administration and their mentor teachers, the four student teachers collaborated with their middle school students to develop and implement a social action project that was intentionally co-developed. The student teachers first led their students in consensus build­ing around goal identification, during which time the young adolescents settled on “promoting a positive school culture at LMS” as their objective. They then embarked on a process of investigating, proposing initiatives, and taking action. This project ultimately resulted in the creation of three student-run initiatives: Spirit Week, Teacher Appreciation Week, and a proposal for a student leadership club that would continue to propose and implement new ideas for promoting positive school culture in years to come. Notably, student involvement in these initiatives was new to the school and the direct result of tireless, and at times contentious, advocacy work on the part of the student teachers who struggled at times to help others to understand the importance of student voice in school-wide initiatives. This provided the student teachers with first­hand experience in the political work of reform-oriented advocacy, which ultimately revealed that, to engage suc­cessfully in this work, student teachers need to develop strong advocacy skills.

Reform-oriented advocacy as a political act
Although the student teachers were able to experiment with several aspects of middle grades reform in their field place­ment, they negotiated a number of challenges as they attempted to implement developmentally responsive school­ing while working within this more traditional context. In particular, the school politics of reform-oriented advocacy proved much more complex and thorny than they had anticipated. As Bobbi, Ray, Danni, and Charlie enacted the hands-joined social action project, the student teachers were called upon to tactfully navigate complex power dynamics, negotiating with various stakeholders to achieve their goal. They quickly learned that the success of their work hinged upon their successful collaboration with authority figures in the school. The logistics and decisions regarding some of their students’ proposals required that the student teachers work with school administration and more experienced educators to share student ideas, envision logistics, and seek input. Collaborating across power dynamics in this way was both essential and unfamiliar to the student teachers. At times this collaboration was also complicated by the group’s sense that they were operating at cross purposes with school administra­tion, whom the student teachers felt were giving “mixed mes­sages” with regards to their support of their reform-oriented work. This in turn heightened their awareness of the power differentials at play, specifically the school administration’s power to make or break the work. These challenges revealed the extent to which reform-oriented student teaching is a political act, rife with the complex relationships, divergent perspectives, and ensuing tension that often accompany poli­tics. Furthermore, since these politics had been largely unad­dressed in their teacher preparation program, this came as an unpleasant surprise to a group of student teachers who were passionate about the middle school concept yet relatively naive about the politics of school change.

The group’s lack of preparation for the political work of teaching manifested itself primarily in two ways. First, the student teachers were surprised to learn how challen­ging it was to navigate the complex power dynamics of school bureaucracies. As they sought feedback on the social action projects proposed by their students, for example, they struggled with mixed messages from differ­ent school administrators, who were at times supportive and encouraging and at others dissuasive and dismissive. The student teachers became uncertain whether their work, which they understood to be effective middle grades practice, was ill-perceived by those in power. Reflecting on the interpersonal challenges of this experience, Charlie shared the following: “The politics … that surprised me.” Bobbi was equally surprised, exclaiming in disbelief that, “It’s like I’m learning to play politics there!”

Second, the student teachers began with idealistic views of school change, harboring high hopes that their reform-oriented work would initiate a ripple effect that would change their traditional field placement school. As the group faced multiple political and pragmatic chal­lenges, however, the student teachers began to adopt the mantra that “change is small.” Although this appeared comforting at times, Ray was frustrated that middle level education reform seemed to happen in “baby steps,” explaining that, “it’s a slower process than I thought.”

In some ways, it should come as no surprise that the student teachers were naive to the politics of school change. This was, after all, their first full immersion into the world of teaching. And while collaboration is a cornerstone of the middle school concept, collaboration skills are typically taught in the context of working with others toward a com­mon goal, such as in effective teaming, common planning time, and family involvement. Less evident in preservice teacher curriculum, however, are skills that enable one to collaborate across power differentials and, at times, at cross purposes. Yet the notion of middle level teacher education as a lever for middle level education reform is built upon the assumption that well-prepared student teachers can become advocates for and leaders of middle level best practices. In light of the commitment to reform-oriented advocacy within the AMLE teaching standards, these student teachers’ lack of explicit teacher preparation for the political act of reform-oriented student teaching is troubling.


To investigate the question, What skills do student teachers need to engage in reform-oriented advocacy?, we collected and analyzed several data sources associated with the student teachers’ collaborative inquiry work: (1) audio recordings and memos from our 15 inquiry group meetings; (2) researcher memos re.ecting on emerging themes in inquiry group meetings; (3) student teacher reflections on challenges faced, strategies used, and lessons learned as they engaged in reform-oriented work in student teaching; and (4) audiotapes, memos, and transcript segments from student teacher interviews in which they elaborated on the aforementioned student teacher reflections (approxi­mately 45–60 minutes in duration). We then engaged in what Miles, Huberman & Saldaña (2014) refer to as “three concurrent flows of activity: data condensation, data dis­play, and conclusion drawing/verification” (p. 12) using the following analytic questions: (1) What skills did the student teachers use to persist in their reform-oriented work? (2) In retrospect, what skills did the student tea­chers report that they wish they had more practice with? (3) What skills did they appear to struggle most with? Codes were then used to develop themes and, in keeping with qualitative data analysis, writing was used as a means to make sense of the findings.

The reform-oriented advocacy skills

As they advocated for their social action project and, through this, the ideas and involvement of their students, the group began to employ a set of advocacy skills aimed at moving their work forward despite their limited power and complex school politics. These advocacy skills included (1) building rapport; (2) educating, not intimi­dating; (3) anticipating concerns; (4) re.ecting before reacting; and (5) establishing communication norms.

Building rapport

As Danni, Charlie, Ray, and Bobbie initiated their work, they strove to build rapport with their mentor teachers, colleagues, and various members of the school leadership by initiating conversations that were both inquisitive and amicable in nature. They asked questions about the school vision as well as the professional journeys, teaching approaches, and interests of various colleagues, and were generally enthusiastic to learn as much as possible. Likewise, the student teachers made a point of sharing their own journeys into teaching as well as their interests in middle grades reform-oriented teaching approaches. In an informal way, these conversations appeared to help establish the student teachers as colleagues and profes­sionals, rather than merely “students,” while also providing them with valuable insight into the priorities and interests of school leaders and individual teachers.

Once they began to perceive the potential uncertainty of school leadership regarding their reform-oriented social action project, the student teachers sought to build on this rapport by initiating frequent informal check-ins. Bobbi explained, for example, how she went out of her way to interact positively with school administrators since she felt that this made it more likely they would be sup­portive and less likely to “stamp out” the reform-oriented work the student teachers were doing with the students:

Another strategy again was just making my visits to the administration more frequent, not even just regarding this project but other things. I would invent reasons or something I already knew the answer to … it might be an error on my part, but I feel like if I can get in and build a relationship with these administrators, make them feel something for me other than “just an intern” or “just a teacher”—I want them to see me as more than that—because then it’s harder for them to simply stamp it out.

The student teachers understood that the relationship between reform-oriented teachers and school leadership can make or break the success of reform-oriented initia­tives. Their experiences indicate that building rapport early on with teachers and school leaders can assuage future uncertainty by establishing trust and affinity. This suggests that student teachers should be supported in building rapport with school leadership through frequent positive interactions. This also underscores the impor­tance of student teachers being fully engaged in their field placement school (e.g., collaborating with school leader­ship, participating in faculty and committee meetings) rather than isolated in their assigned classrooms. If we aim to support student teachers in becoming advocates, we must provide them with ample opportunities to practice developing relationships and sharing opinions with col­leagues as well as school leaders.

Educating, not intimidating

All of the student teachers spoke about the importance of sharing the AMLE vision for middle school education with others. More specifically, as part of their commit­ment to middle grades reform, they felt it was their responsibility to educate others, when appropriate, about the middle grades reform movement. This sharing of resources was a strategic move, aiming to legitimize their work in hopes that it would make others more supportive. When sharing their work with others, whether informally or in formal proposals, the student teachers made frequent reference to This We Believe (NMSA, 2010), using the 16 characteristics (p.14) as an anchor for these conversations. Referencing other resources, such as the AMLE website (2016), Middle Schools to Watch (2016), and IDEA: The Institute for Democratic Education in America (2016), they fre­quently shared examples of related work that was taking place in schools across the country. Danni went so far as to jokingly refer to herself as an “AMLE evangelist” and Bobbi spoke of the importance of sharing examples of “what’s out there” with others, underscoring that, “Someone has got to come in carrying the torch—I know it’s socliché—but shedding the light on, ‘This is what’s possible out there.’”

In sharing reform-oriented ideas, however, the group found it was important to communicate in ways that acknowledged the power dynamics and honored the status of more experienced teachers. Charlie demonstrated her keen understanding of these dynamics with the following explanation:

It’s not just telling them what you are doing or what you want to do but focusing on how you approach every conversation that you have with them. And not just administration but other teachers as well. Like I said, you’re not telling them how to run the school or telling teachers how to run their classroom but shar­ing ideas because you all have the same goal … or at least you have to hope that you have the same goal. Really I think it’s just how you frame it, how you communicate with people, not just what you’re com­municating to them but how you approach them. I think you have to make sure that the attitude and how you’re talking to them is not, “I’m going to tell you how to teach.” It’s, “Let’s share ideas about what we can do in our classrooms.”

These insights suggest that not only must reform-oriented student teachers be prepared to educate about and advo­cate for the middle school concept, they must also be given an opportunity to develop the skills to do so diplo­matically, given that they are positioned, as Charlie put it, “at the bottom of the food chain.”

Anticipating concerns

Throughout their experiences working with school lea­dership, the student teachers also made concerted efforts to package their ideas in ways that were mindful of school politics. One example is in relation to the selection of the project focus. Although the group initially considered focusing their project on a specific problem identified by the students at the school (i.e., How can we decrease bullying at LMS?), their sense that the school leadership may be image conscious led them to reframe the driving question with a positive spin (i.e., How can we promote a positive school culture at LMS?). Likewise, the student teachers were careful to illustrate how this project was aligned with multiple interdisciplinary Common Core standards, a feature that was especially timely at LMS as the school was in its first year of Common Core imple­mentation. To this point, in his post-interview, Bobbi underscored the importance of having “something to show for it” (e.g., an example, student work, testimonials from students) when attempting to convince others:

I still think though that you have to have something to show for it. I can’t just come in and say “This idea is great.” That’s enough to get somebody like me going because I can start to envision and imagine things but a lot of people are more pragmatic than that and they’ll be like “Um, yeah that sounds great but, you know, that’s not possible.” Like the way I used to think in class—”That sounds awesome but I don’t think it can happen”—until you realize it can. It just doesn’t happen all at once.

These strategic moves to frame their ideas around shared goals reveal the ways in which the student teachers felt compelled to “prove” the worthiness of their work. While perhaps necessary, this can notably be problematic when your work is, in part, motivated by a commitment to the non-cognitive or socio-emotional facets of schooling. Nonetheless, anticipating concerns related to their work and being prepared to address them prior to engaging with those in authority helped the student teachers navigate school politics more effectively. This insight suggests, therefore, that student teachers may be best positioned to be successful reform-oriented teaching if they are provided with opportu­nities to understand the politics and priorities of their .eld placement school before student teaching begins.

Reflecting before reacting

When especially frustrating incidents occurred, the stu­dent teachers learned that confidentially debriefing and reflecting with thought partners (e.g., classmates, veteran teachers, recent graduates of their preparation program, teacher educators, university supervisors) can be a useful strategy. In some cases, this prevented the student tea­chers from reacting in haste, and perhaps in anger, in the midst of tense situations. This was especially true for Danni, who re.ected that “the younger me would have been mouthing off and stuff” but through this work, she realized the following:

Sometimes it’s just better to regroup, talk it out, and think about what you need to do instead of trying to take care of it in the heat of the moment.… See sometimes I feel like it’s important to say something at the time, to be like, “Excuse me real quick, I just want you to know that.” But I think sometimes it’s better to just not react and it’s better to let the storm roll over and reflect, think, and move forward from it … and that’s hard to do. It’s hard to just step back and let it roll and let them stomp on you a little bit and then try to regroup afterwards. It’s like resilience almost.

The political nature of reform-oriented teaching means that the process is likely to be frustrating at times. Student teachers, who often are not only new to the profession of teaching but also new to the world of professional work, must understand that frustration is to be expected and resilience required. Furthermore, they need opportunities to delineate between those moments when it is necessary to speak out immediately and those in which collecting one’s thoughts might be a better option. This also suggests that student teachers must be provided with, and learn how to develop, a network of reform-oriented thought partners with whom they can critically reflect and colla­boratively brainstorm.

Establishing communication norms

Throughout the course of their work, the student teachers developed an appreciation for the role communication plays in reform-oriented advocacy. When asked what it takes to participate in middle level education reform, Bobbi immediately responded with the following:

Constant communication with the students and the administration. You know, this is what we are doing—what do you think about this? Just a lot of “what do you think? What do you think? What do you think?”…to get into their head and to get them giving it a thought other than a passing “oh yeah, sounds good.”

Due to the pace of the school day, the rapidly evolving nature of their work, and the numerous competing demands placed on school leaders and teachers alike, the student teachers quickly realized that they needed to find ways to communicate frequently and effectively.

At the beginning of their work, the student teachers made several attempts to schedule a meeting with all of the key stakeholders, aimed at establishing a common understanding and identifying norms for communication. A tense interaction based on miscommunication with an administrator early on caused the group to recognize that it was better to over-communicate than to risk being accused of going rogue. Nonetheless, they were unsuc­cessful in their efforts to schedule a meeting and instead were encouraged to proceed with the work under the assumption that a meeting would be forthcoming. This outcome made them understandably uneasy and tinged the work with uncertainty. As the project progressed, however, the student teachers realized that meetings such as the one proposed were not in keeping with the pre­ferred method of operation in the school.

As a result, they shifted from requesting meetings to simply stopping in the main office. Describing their new approach, Ray shared, “It wasn’t so much of a meeting as a stop-in. I think that might have been the problem with meetings. For them it’s too big of a word.”Once this new norm was recognized, the student teachers were more readily able to receive feedback and make progress, increasing the frequency of their informal conversations and check-ins with administration as the project pro­gressed. Although an initial meeting would have clued them into this favored style of communication, the student teachers learned the importance of understanding a school’s processes and context when trying to create change. These experiences affirm that establishing pre­ferred norms for communication among stakeholders is important at the onset of the work so that student teachers can feel confident in their reform-oriented efforts.

The implications of the status of student teachers within schools bears significant implications for their work. Student teachers are, by definition, novices who operate with the awareness that they are continually being assessed for certification. As guests in their field placement schools, student teachers must be prepared to communi­cate in ways that are mindful of this position. For Ray, who was keenly aware of her status as a student teacher, fre­quent communication was thus also a deliberate choice to avoid “getting in trouble”:

For the school, I just started bombarding them with information. I went to XXX and XXX1 with what the kids wanted to do for Teacher Appreciation Week. Told them about it, showed them the pieces, asked if I could make copies, all sorts of other things and they kept looking at me like “Why are you asking me permission?” but it was cool because I didn’t get in trouble.

The perception by Ray that over-communicating pro­tected her from “getting in trouble”is a poignant illustration of one of the implicit ways in which socialization forces can serve to dissuade student teachers from reform-oriented teaching. If student teachers feel that defying the status quo by engaging in reform-oriented teaching may jeopardize their success as student teachers, it is not surprising that they may instead choose to comply with the status quo at a given school. If frequent communication with stakeholders can protect student teachers engaged in reform-oriented work, increasing their sense of security despite their risk-taking, perhaps more student teachers, like Ray, will be willing to persist in their reform-oriented pursuits.

Implications for middle grades teacher education

The experiences of these student teachers point to several implications for middle level teacher education programs that aim to prepare preservice teachers to be advocates for change. The experiences and insights of these student tea­chers illuminate the political nature of reform-oriented advocacy. Equipped with a deep commitment to middle level education reform, the student teachers in our study none­theless entered into student teaching with idealistic notions of school change and were surprised at the extent to which their work was political. They were thus underprepared for the task of reform-oriented advocacy, illustrating that preparing student teachers to be passionate about middle level philosophy is simply not enough. In the sections that follow, we offer several concrete suggestions for how teacher edu­cation programs can prepare preservice teachers for the work of reform-oriented advocacy.

Explore how other fields prepare professionals for advocacy work
The experiences of the student teachers in this study suggest that reform-oriented advocacy requires a set of skills that are not typically emphasized in teacher educa­tion. If we hope to prepare teachers to be advocates for middle level education reform in their school, teacher education curricula must explicitly prepare preservice teachers with these advocacy skills. Given that advocacy is not unique to the work of teaching, one implication of these findings is that teacher education programs could benefit from investigating how other programs (e.g., social work, school counseling, education leadership) prepare professionals for this work. For example, a preliminary analysis of the overlap between the skills that emerged in our data and those presented in the school counseling competencies suggests that there is some interesting overlap. The skill of building rapport, for example, aligns nicely with the following description of “collaboration skills” provided by Trusty and Brown (2005):

Strong relationships are a necessary condition for advocacy. Professional school counselors form and maintain positive relationships with professionals and parents. Relationships with administrators require special attention because advocacy efforts often put administrators and school counselors on opposite sides of issues. Openness to others’ ideas and sensi­tivity to others’ perspectives promote positive rela­tionships. (p. 4)

In the hopes of identifying practices that could be trans­ferred to the preparation of teachers, we recommend further investigation into the specific methods other programs use to support professionals in developing advocacy skills.

Provide opportunities to practice using the advocacy skills
Using our knowledge of teacher education methods, we can envision several ways to engage student teachers in practicing the advocacy skills. First, a set of advocacy skills such as those proposed in this article should be shared and unpacked with preservice teachers. Example advocacy scenarios should then be used to deepen understanding of how each skill can be applied in practice. Students might be given a scenario, for example, in which their school has decided to replace advisory time with additional test pre­paration. The teacher educator would then challenge the preservice teachers to envision how they might proceed in advocating for the continuation of advisory. In addition to providing a chance to experiment with the advocacy skills, scenario-based tasks such as these would also surface any naive conceptions that preservice teachers may hold about the work of advocacy, providing an opportunity for tea­cher educators to probe and deepen their thinking. As students share their ideas, teacher educators should listen with an ear for specificity, challenging them to shift their responses from idealistic and oversimplifled (e.g., “I would meet with the principal to convince her that advisory should stay”) to pragmatic and concrete, applying the advocacy skills (e.g., “I would build rapport with an influ­ential school leader, learn more about the concerns that are driving the change, remind others of the importance of advisory, and then work with others to propose an alternative solution”).

While it is one thing to say what one would do in a given situation, it is another altogether to find the right words in the moment. For this reason, we recommend using the same advocacy scenarios to role play conversations between preservice teachers and other stakeholders (e.g., more experienced colleagues, school administra­tors). Role-playing how one might share resources with a more experienced colleague, for example, would offer students an opportunity to practice the delicate balance needed to educate, not intimidate. Through debriefing, they would also be able to analyze the impact that language and communication style can have on the outcome of advocacy work. Improvising a respectful yet honest response to a colleague who is difficult to work with would allow students a chance to develop professional language that would create space for them to reflect with thought partners before reacting. In this way, the teacher education classroom could become a low-risk space in which preser­vice teachers can experiment with advocacy skills before they are faced to use them in the high-stakes context of student teaching.

Problematize extremist and idealistic visions of school change
Teacher educators should problematize the tendency of preservice teachers to adopt extremist or overly idealistic perspectives regarding education reform, challenging stu­dent teachers to instead view school change as a messy, at times frustrating, process that is iterative and incremental. Open-ended discussion of questions such as these may be used to unpack student teacher assumptions regarding school change: How do schools change? How can you influence school change? What can you do if you want to change something about your school? What can you do if you are placed in a middle school with an administrator who does not value or understand middle school philosophy? In these discussions, teacher edu­cators should emphasize the role of pragmatism in reform-oriented advocacy work, underscoring that change often requires compromise, creativity, flexibility, and an incre­mentalist view of change. Analyzing case descriptions of schools changing over time may also inform student understanding of the mechanisms and process of school change. Further, inviting guest speakers who are engaged in school-based initiatives to share their work and respond to the above prompts could be especially powerful in in.uencing the views of preservice teachers on school change.

Provide opportunities to investigate school politics
As part of their teacher preparation, preservice teachers should investigate school politics and power dynamics, pre­ferably within the context of the school in which they will be student teaching. Conducting informal interviews of mentor teachers and/or school leaders could be especially helpful. Example questions for such interviews might include: How are decisions regarding teaching and learning made in this school? What level of autonomy do teachers have in developing curriculum? Which of the following reform-oriented approaches to teaching do you think would be do-able in your school? Which would be especially challen­ging? What avenues do teachers have for communicating ideas with school leadership? What initiatives are currently underway in your school? Unpacking the results of these interviews prior to stu­dent teaching could inform the development of reform-oriented approaches to teaching that incrementally challenge the status quo.

Set the stage for advocacy work with partnership schools
The experiences of this group of student teachers under­score the important role that Colleges of Education must play in creating the context for reform-oriented work. Vitally, before student teaching begins, university partners must set the expectation with partnership schools that the work of student teaching involves: (1) full engagement in professional activities that include collaboration with col­leagues and school leadership around school-based initia­tives, and (2) reform-oriented work that will require input and support. In so doing, university partners can set the stage for student teachers to establish collaboration norms with other stakeholders. Without the clear support of university partners, however, student teachers are likely to struggle to establish the legitimacy of their work, resulting in frustration and, worse, the potential abandonment of their reform-oriented advocacy.

In addition, knowing that reform-oriented advocacy is challenging and often frustrating work made even more daunting by the nature of student teaching, Colleges of Education must support student teachers in developing a network of thought partners. While it is perhaps idealistic to expect that every student teacher will have a mentor teacher who is engaged in reform-oriented advocacy, it is not unrea­listic to expect that each student teacher should have access to a small group of thought partners with whom they can reflect and brainstorm.


Reflecting back on the thousands of preservice teachers placed in the middle grades each year, we wonder how strong our middle schools might be if we could staff them with teachers who had explicit training not only in enacting devel­opmentally responsive pedagogy but also in persevering with that pedagogy within more traditional contexts. In the ongoing struggle to promote effective middle level practices, the preparation of preservice teachers to “advocate for and provide leadership in the authentic implementation of middle school programs and practices” (AMLE, 2012a,Rubric Standard 3a) is crucial. What, after all, is the purpose of middle level teacher education if not to prepare future tea­chers to challenge the status quo in traditional schools in order to meet the needs of young adolescents? Systemic change is an uphill battle that cannot be won on passion alone. This passion must be paired with a set of skills that is designed for the work ahead.


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  1. Yes! Something I feel very strongly about. Passion will only get you so far in education. As educators we must work together to actually advocate for change. Passion and the “love of the job” will fade away and we will still be left with many young adolescents who need strong teachers.