Learning How to Be a Better Teacher Educator Online

A Self-Study in Times of COVID-19
Teacher EducationSelf-StudyTeachingCritical FriendCOVID-19 Pandemic
The aim of the self-study was to investigate the first author’s practice as an online teacher educator, focusing on how to become a better teacher educator online. Looking through the eyes of the student teachers and with input from Tom as critical friend, Maria set out to understand her online teaching practices and to identify ways to improve her practices. Her main concerns were student motivation and participation and the quality of pedagogical interaction in an online course. Overall, this self-study highlights the key importance of pedagogical voice and productive learning as well as the value of focusing on new strategies for maintaining in-person features in an online learning environment.


Being a teacher educator is always challenging and the COVID-19 pandemic generated new challenges with the sudden shift to online teaching. In times of significant educational change (Berry & Kitchen, 2020), such as the experience of being a teacher educator online during the pandemic, self-study can make a significant contribution not only in documenting but also in better understanding one’s own practice. As a teacher educator since 1994, Maria anticipated the experience of being a teacher educator totally online with high expectations and with anxiety. It entailed a sense of discovery of a new space for pedagogical interaction and the realization that considerable joint, ongoing and real-time learning had to occur. Prior collaborations inspired Maria to share these thoughts with Tom, and the idea of collaborating in a self-study of Maria’s online teaching experience followed quickly. Both authors had been involved in self-studies of their practice as teacher educators before the pandemic (Russell & Flores, 2020, 2021). The new context of online teaching and the possibility of taking advantage of digital tools were seen as two important elements, with Tom acting as a critical friend.

Self-study is key to developing a pedagogy of teacher education (Loughran, 2005a) and to going beyond the view of teaching as mere “doing” to include the “why,” leading to the development of more informed and meaningful practice to enhance student learning (Loughran & Menter, 2019). In a review of literature about teacher educators’ professional learning, Ping et al. (2018) suggested that:

doing a self-study appears to be an important type of practitioner research for teacher educators, which enables them to reflect on and scrutinize their own practices or assumptions about learning and teaching, aiming at improving their teaching practices. (p. 100)

A critical friend can play a central role in identifying assumptions underlying practices and in helping the teacher educator studying personal practice to delve more deeply and to identify significant features that the researcher may not have identified for analysis. As Carse et al. (2022, p. 127) concluded, “collaboration is a critical feature of self-study. A critical friend with personal experiences of teacher education is a unique asset.” Looking into one’s own practice with new eyes constitutes a key feature in self-study by teacher educators (Loughran, 2005a).

Framing the Self-Study

This self-study is guided by four of the 18 assertions about the pedagogy of teacher education presented by Loughran (2005b):

- Learning about teaching needs to be embedded in personal experience.
- Articulating personal principles of practice helps in aligning practice and beliefs.
- Teaching is about relationships.
- Modelling is crucial—student-teachers learn more from what we do than what we say. (pp. 34-36)

Humanizing the online environment by creating a climate conducive to fostering the relational and social dimensions of teaching and to listening to students were at the forefront of the decisions made at the beginning of this self-study of teaching in a totally online environment. In other words, it is about shaping community in online courses by supporting the relational (Murphy & Pinnegar, 2018).


This self-study was conducted during one semester of online teaching (February to May, 2021). The context was a compulsory online course titled “Integrated Curriculum Approaches for Basic Education” within a Master Degree in Teaching English for Primary School. Fifteen student teachers were enrolled in the course, which was done totally online via Zoom (3 hours per week) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim of the self-study was to investigate Maria’s practice as an online teacher educator, focusing on how to become a better teacher educator online. Looking through the eyes of the student teachers and with input from Tom as critical friend, Maria set out to understand her online teaching practices and to identify ways to improve her practices. Her main concerns were student motivation and participation and the quality of pedagogical interaction in an online course.

Maria’s main concerns, drawing on the experience in semester one, related to the political, ethical and pedagogical dimensions of online teaching (who, why and for which purpose) beyond the more technical and instrumental dimensions (what and how: content and online tools) and to the coherence between principles/discourse and action/real practice. The idea of teacher agency in curriculum development within a more humanistic and flexible perspective (in theory and in practice) and the need for “humanizing” the online space (screen/ virtual classroom; fostering the human presence/interpersonal dimension on a screen) were also key features.

The research questions for this self-study were: “Can I enable dialogic teaching and productive listening to students in an online environment?” and “Can I create and sustain a relational pedagogy when teaching online?” Amongst the guiding principles underpinning Maria’s stance as a teacher educator were:

  1. learning about teaching implies a focus on the learner rather than on the curriculum and it may be enhanced by approaches that are modeled by the teacher educators (Korthagen et al., 2006);
  2. modeling productive learning (Russell & Martin, 2014) and putting meaning into “reflection” through a teacher educators’ own practices may contribute to enhancing professional learning in a more explicit way.

Maria explained the purpose of the self-study when she first met the students and all agreed to participate and signed a voluntary informed consent form. Some students were interested in learning more about self-study and some stressed that it seemed a good strategy to understand and improve practice. LaBoskey (2004, pp. 842-849) set out five essential characteristics: self-study research is self-initiated and focused, aimed at improvement, interactive, using multiple, primarily qualitative methods, and validated based on examples of normal practice. This self-study report is guided by previous reports of self-study of online teaching practices, including Dunn and Rice (2019), Donovan et al. (2021), and Rabin (2021).

The primary data sources were questions put to students in several different ways. Tickets out of class were collected anonymously at the end of each lesson using the online tool called Mentimeter. inviting them to state the most important ideas they were taking from the class. Also, specific questions were posed and responded to electronically, including the value of the tickets and their views of the course in relation to other courses in their program. Students’ reflections and portfolios were also studied, along with Maria’s reflective journal, email communications with Tom, data collected by Tom and Tom’s attendance at one of the virtual classes. Data collection was ongoing throughout the course. Student teachers were also asked to give permission for the quotation of any of their written statements. Their questions about the research were always answered promptly and an overview of findings was reported at the end of the course.


Conducting a Self-Study Online

When Maria shared with the student teachers the intention to do a self-study at the very beginning of the course, they were surprised. Some asked questions such as “What do you mean by that?” and “What does it entail?” but all responded positively. Maria was pleased with that response and later asked the students: “What do you think about a teacher educator doing a self-study of his/her practice?” Their anonymous responses were positive and confirm the importance of inquiring into one’s own practice to understand and improve it in meaningful way.

I think it is a great strategy to enhance his/her practice and others’ practice. It is an essential tool/strategy to improve teaching in order to make it more relevant and fruitful.
I think it is really important in so far as both the teacher educator studying his/her practice and his/her critical friend can improve their practice and try to find innovative alternatives.
I think it is extremely positive for reflecting and this makes it possible to improve teaching.
I think it is a great idea. It enables the teacher educator to change his/her practice to make it more powerful. I would like to do it in my practice as a teacher.
It is important for teachers to update their ways of being a teacher and their teaching. It makes them think about what they do and help them to develop knowledge about the practice and sharing it with others.
I think it is key to improving practice and its effectiveness and to enhance students’ interest and outcomes.

These responses confirm to Maria the importance of studying her own teaching openly, both online and in person, both to better understand her teaching and to model the potential of self-study to future teachers.

Inviting a Critical Friend to Collaborate in a Self-Study

The participation of a critical friend was received positively by the students and they highlighted it in their accounts. This was something new for them and they stressed the value of this opportunity to learn:

In this class there was participation and argumentation as always. I also found Tom’s participation extremely interesting.
I want to say that it was a pleasure to know Tom's experience as a teacher. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
I'm thankful for this opportunity, it gave me some powerful insights into teaching and learning.
I really enjoyed the task about the sentences focusing on curriculum. It made me make sense of what I have learned. I also enjoyed Tom’s responses to our questions.
Thank you for the opportunity to get to know Tom and to learn from him. It was an experience that I will never forget as a future teacher of English.

Online teaching made it possible for Tom to participate directly in one class, and this encouraged Maria to use online software to invite others to participate in her classes, online or in person. The collaboration of a critical friend clearly enhanced the value of the self-study.

Challenging Beliefs About Teaching and Being a Teacher

Student teachers’ accounts collected anonymously and from their personal portfolios stressed the ways in which their ideas and beliefs about teaching and being a teacher had been challenged in an online course. Not only did they mention the relevance of the reflective tools and how these help to make explicit their implicit theories, but also they highlighted how they made sense of those theories in the group discussions. In general, their views were positive. Some spoke about specific aspects of the teaching profession, such as the lack of curricular autonomy and social recognition, as in the following:

I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the critical reflection that teachers have to do about themselves but also the use of tickets out of class as you can get feedback from the students about your teaching. Most of the times students don’t have an opinion about what they are learning and how.
It made me think that teaching is a profession of great responsibility. A good or a bad teacher may change a student’s’ life.
In this module I have changed my definition of what it means to be a teacher. I have learned about teachers’ autonomy or lack of it. I have also learned that teachers have to like what they do and not give up…
In this module I have to admit that I have changed some taken-for-granted ideas. I have learned other ideas which I find very important and they are sometimes obvious but sometimes you don’t reflect on them. For instance, the importance of reflection in the process of becoming and being a teacher but also in your practice as a teacher.

These comments indicate that the online course was effective in helping students identify and explore their underlying assumptions about teaching as a profession. The reflective strategies were effective in the online course and Maria will continue to use them in teaching, both online and in person.

Having a Voice

Student teachers appreciated the opportunity to be heard in the classroom, particularly through the tickets out of class. They reiterated the importance of listening to students in the classroom, but also stressed the role of feedback and the adjustments made in the lesson as a result of their participation, particular because they felt comfortable in responding anonymously. The tickets out of class were found even more relevant and useful due to the totally online nature of the course.

This is an excellent way of asking for doubts or questions or even suggestions and it allows a reflection on the part of the teacher. The tickets made it possible for everybody to have a voice.
I think that the tickets promote openness and communication and also positive feedback.
Tickets give us space to ask questions that sometimes we are afraid to ask in the classroom. It is the first course that I had this opportunity and I appreciate it.
I think they are very useful. Apart from being able to give our opinion about the class, the initial discussion at the beginning of the following class makes us understand that the teacher takes into consideration students’ needs and tries to adjust the lesson to them.
Tickets out of class are a good way to share our doubts because online teaching does not enable a direct interaction with the teacher. The answers in the following class are useful to revise the lesson.
They are good ways of providing feedback without the constraints that sometimes exist in face-to-face situations with the teacher.
It is an excellent strategy of hearing from the students and of having feedback as the information is anonymous. The teacher always showed concern about discussing the answers and doubts. This was useful to make adjustments where needed.
I think they are useful, especially because the pandemic did not allow face-to-face teaching.

Tickets out of class were new to these students and they found them particularly helpful in the online context. It was particularly powerful that Maria began each class by reporting and responding to comments about their learning in the previous class. This is a strategy to be continued online and in person.

Promoting a Climate of Sharing and Mutual Trust in an Online Environment

From the beginning of the course, Maria tried to create a positive atmosphere so that students felt comfortable in expressing their views and sharing their experiences. Teaching online was challenging and trsut was something that Maria wanted to explore during the online course. Of importance were a set of “rules” and suggestions for making the most of the online experience, such as using the chat option and the breakout rooms whenever there was a need for a joint or personal communication.

Humanizing the online environment was key as well as building trust in order to foster students’ sharing and participation on the screen. Students reiterated the relevance of the portfolios developed throughout the course. They identified the complexity of the topics (e.g. curriculum, assessment, analysis of legislative texts) but they also acknlowledged the specificity of the course and its significance in their journey to become teachers. The relational aspect and the dynamic nature of the activities were particularly emphasized, as well as the “openness”, “discussion” and “interactivity” in online classes. The following quotations are drawn from a specific question asked electronically: “In what ways do you find this module/class different from most of your other classes?”.

Yes, it is different, as the content is different and the teacher’s approach is different as she is always asking questions and makes us reflect. Also the portfolio makes us be aware of what we need to do.
It focuses on a topic that is dense but it promotes critical thinking and reflection on a set of essential concepts that are key to the teacher’s work.
I like the discussion in small groups. The teacher is open and students do not feel afraid of saying what they think or of asking questions and I am thankful for that.
I think the main differences are the pace of the lesson and the kinds of activities we do. We can discuss the topics, understand the ideas of the colleagues and work with other colleagues. This course has a dynamic that is not usual.
In this course there is much more reflection, participation, discussion and sharing of knowledge about all the topics. Classes are more dynamic and include a wide variety of methods and activities.
Besides the content, this course is different from the others. The tasks in group and the organization of the lesson and the activities make it very attractive for us. We participate a lot. I even forget that I am online!

These comments speak directly to Maria’s goal of ensuring that the online teaching experience was engaging and productive. Conducting a self-study of her first online teaching experience paid rich dividends that could not have been achieved in other ways.

Modeling Teaching

Maria’s concern about “walking the talk” makes her always question what and how she does what she does as a teacher educator and this was particularly challenging in online teaching. Teaching totally online entailed even more attention to her practice and to listening to the students as well as considering the perspective of her critical friend. One particular issue that was emphasized related to the concept of wait time in an online environment. This was an issue that was adjusted along with strategies for managing silence. It was important to leave more time for student voices to be explored rather than focusing solely on Maria’s voice. Students recognized adjustments in terms of the pace of the lesson and they highlighted the positive atmosphere and their engagement in the activities and discussions. It was rewarding to read their anonymous comments pointing to aspects of modeling teaching and promoting reflection about be(com)ing a teacher:

In this online course, time flies even if it takes place at the end of the day and we already feel tired. The teacher has been adapting the pace of the lesson.
This course encourages you to think differently about teaching and being a teacher as you can talk openly about what you think and feel.
The teacher challenges us to reflect about teaching and education in general and to explore the role of the teacher in the classroom and beyond.
I think that the examples of the teacher’s teaching and the climate itself are very powerful. It shows us how we can also teach and how we as teachers should care about our students and their learning.
This course is the only course that I have that instigates us to question things and be critical in relation to teaching and assessment. This is something that you don’t find in the other courses.

These comments make it obvious that the students valued Maria’s unique efforts to make the online teaching experience not only productive but also unique. While self-study methods can identify weaknesses as well as strengths, these comments indicate that Maria’s goal of responding to the online challenge was achieved. Importantly, many strategies can also be used when teaching in person.

Students’ Comments About the Online Course Experience

The following examples illustrate students’ feedback in the tickets out of class:

I find the way the teacher does teaching in Zoom very interesting. She is able to motivate us to participate in class, and classes become quite productive.
The discussion was really interesting in today’s class. I really enjoyed when we shared and reflected on our experiences and made sense of the theories that we learned.
The discussion about teaching and being a teacher was particularly relevant and interesting. It contributed to reflecting on our past experiences and also to analyzing the kinds of attitudes and behaviors we want to adopt in the future as teachers.

Maria was pleased that they linked her teaching to the importance of productive learning and their making sense of teaching both individually and also collectively:


As demonstrated in the students’ voices, Maria’s experience in this self-study has been rewarding but it also entailed adjustments in online teaching, namely, in regard to managing silence in the online classroom and in creating a diversity of teaching and learning experiences so that students were not bored but became more engaged, especially because this was their last course. This self-study has contributed to changing Maria’s practice in ways that are aligned with her beliefs and professional values as a teacher educator:

Despite challenges, the experience of being an online teacher educator provided opportunities to test and to learn new ideas and activities based on sharing, on student involvement, on making connections between beliefs and practices in teacher education and on building relationships with students that enhance trust and commitment so that modelling is more likely to happen. The key role of the critical friend helps to make a self-study become stronger, more challenging and more meaningful. This was particularly relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic. In such a demanding and unexpected context, the importance of relationships and a pedagogy of care (Murray et al, 2020; Moorhouse & Tiet, 2021, Rabin, 2021) as well as issues of equity and inclusion in online teacher education (Donovan et al., 2021) have been highlighted. In times of radical educational change (Berry & Kitchen, 2020), doing a self-study of being a teacher educator online during the pandemic can make a significant contribution not only in documenting but also in better understanding one’s own practice.

As Dunn & Rice (2019) suggest, one of the major challenges in online teacher education is that many teacher educators find themselves underprepared and under pressure to design online teacher education courses that reflect their beliefs about what constitutes high-quality teacher preparation practice. Maria’s main concern related to the social presence in teaching online and the alignment between beliefs and practice in relation to a dialogic approach to teaching.

In teacher education the role of relationships plays a central role, as does the power of listening to students and improving practice.The critical friend was key in looking at Maria’s practice and in discussing aspects of teaching and learning with the students. If critical friendship can be challenging, its rewards can also be profound (Russell, 2022). Students’ anonymous responses proved effective in getting to know their views. The online experience was challenging and required a search for new strategies and tools to foster student engagement without losing the interpersonal, social and reciprocal dimensions of teaching and learning.

Findings point to the importance of joint learning and co-construction of knowledge as well as making explicit one’s beliefs and actions as a teacher educator in light of Loughran’s assertions about the pedagogy of teacher education. The power of listening to student teachers and learning from them was a key insight gained in the self-study. The same can be said for the need to make pedagogy in teacher education more transparent as reflective practice can and should be taught. Added to this was the power of moments of silence in technologically mediated interaction and the value of the personal as well as the professional in making sense of the process of be(com)ing a teacher.Overall, this self-study highlights the key importance of pedagogical voice and productive learning as well as the value of focusing on new strategies for maintaining in-person features in an online learning environment.


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Maria Assunção Flores

University of Minho

Tom Russell

Queen's University

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