“Listen before you push”

A Dean’s Self-Study of Leadership and Critical Friendship
Critical FriendshipLeadershipQualityListeningExpectations
This self-study of a dean’s first year of leadership in a faculty of education in Chile was conducted in conversation with a critical friend in Canada. The central questions for the study are (1) What are the primary differences between the first and second time as Dean of Education at the same university?, (2) How can the Dean support and encourage practicum leaders to develop strategies for improving the quality of students' practicum experiences?, and (3) How does critical friendship contribute to the process of identifying assumptions, reframing actions, and evaluating their impact? Themes in the data include how Rodrigo has changed strategies in his third appointment as a dean, how he is supporting improvements in the quality of students’ practicum placements, and how critical friendship contributed to the self-study. The authors conclude that “listen before you push” was a productive strategy. Outcomes are presented in terms of what Rodrigo learned about leadership and what both authors learned about critical friendship.

Context of the Study

Early in 2021, Rodrigo was appointed as Dean at a university where he had served as Dean for one year eight years previously. In the intervening years, Rodrigo worked at another university, including three years as Dean. This new position involves five pre-service programs on three campuses. The authors have acted as critical friends to each other for at least seven years, as an extension of their professional friendship that began 11 years ago. While they live and work in different cultures and languages, they share enough English to communicate clearly. Tom has visited Rodrigo’s universities many times; Rodrigo has visited Tom’s university on four occasions. Each has met the other’s students during these visits. Their friendship became critical over a four-year period (2015-2019) when Rodrigo observed all of Tom’s classes via Skype or videorecording; they frequently discussed class events shortly after each class. Later, Rodrigo invited Tom to act as critical friend during his deliberations about accepting a new position as dean and in the months since taking office. This self-study began as way to analyze Rodrigo’s earliest months of the appointment as Dean, as Rodrigo met and began making decisions with faculty, students and staff in three cities. As we focused on Rodrigo’s leadership, this study gradually expanded to include self-study of their critical friendship. Thus this report seeks to develop insights into both leadership and critical friendship.

Each of us has found that sharing experiences with another teacher educator who is trusted implicitly and at all times but who works at a distance (both physical and cultural) can provide critical new insights when trying to study the impact of one’s own work. We sense that our professional relationship is not only powerful but also in some ways unique. During 25 years with self-study methodology, Tom made numerous pedagogical changes to which Rodrigo paid close attention; Rodrigo subsequently began to examine and change his own practices and associated assumptions. We collaborate well because we trust each other implicitly and we both see the power of addressing not just personal practices but also the assumptions that underly them. Learning-in-action and reflection-in-action (reframing) are essential perspectives in our self-studies. All this has been made possible by Rodrigo’s remarkable ability to recall in detail events, both recent and distant, and by Tom’s persistent focus on asking “What did you learn from the experience?”

Relevant Literature

This self-study is guided by Schön’s (1971) concept of learning systems, Schön’s (1983) concept of reflection-in-action, Redish’s (2021) concept of epistemological expectations, and LaBoskey’s (2004) methodological principles of self-study. Rodrigo is particularly committed to encouraging all to attend to their learning from experience, the importance of which is implicit in the concept of reflection-in-action. The goal is to see faculty working as a learning system:

We must . . . become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, . . . we must invent and develop institutions which are “learning systems”, . . . systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation. (Schön, 1971, p. 30)

In the context of teaching physics, Redish (2021) describes epistemological expectations as “students’ expectations about the nature of the knowledge they are learning. . . . Students’ epistemological expectations can have profound effects on what they hear and how they think about what they’re learning.” (p. 316). Extending this idea to teacher education, Rodrigo works from the assumption that both faculty and students learn from experience as well as from books, lectures and discussions. Rodrigo believes that it is critical to address epistemological expectations about the nature of one’s learning about teaching, learning and learning to teach.

This study has also been influenced by a number of published self-studies that focus on leadership, critical friendship, and the significance of the two in combination. These include Clift et al. (2015), Loughran (2015), Loughran and Allen (2014), Mills et al. (2012), and Ramirez and Allison (2016). Our personal analyses of the power of critical friendship have been discussed in Fuentealba Jara and Russell (2022) and in Fuentealba and Russell (2014, 2016, 2020).


This self-study identifies and interprets patterns in Rodrigo’s earliest efforts to improve the quality of teacher education at his university. The following questions are central:

  1. What are the primary differences between the first and second time as Dean of Education at the same university?
  2. How can the Dean support and encourage practicum leaders to develop strategies for improving the quality of students' practicum experiences?
  3. How does critical friendship contribute to the process of identifying assumptions, reframing actions, and evaluating their impact?

An overall objective involves studying responses to Rodrigo’s various moves to better understand his own underlying assumptions as he works toward greater coherence and mutual understanding of the roles of supervisor, mentor teacher and student during practicum placements.


The authors are the participants in this self-study that focuses on Rodrigo’s first 10 months in a new leadership position. Data sources include (1) notes of meetings with faculty members, pre-service teacher candidates, and mentor teachers who provide practicum placements and (2) notes of frequent online meetings between the two authors. Particularly significant has been Rodrigo’s culturally unusual commitment to bringing students into ongoing deliberations about the practicum. Rodrigo set out to act not as a mentor but as a partner to department heads, developing professional friendships in which he acts to include a big-picture perspective in their conversations.

Notes taken by Tom during online meetings with Rodrigo are central to the analysis of Rodrigo’s efforts to encourage improvements in the university’s teacher education programs. Data were analyzed in terms of major themes across a series of conversations, with Tom regularly challenging Rodrigo to explain in greater detail. Discussions with faculty, students, and mentor teachers are ongoing and recordings provide additional data. Perhaps the greatest challenge identified to date is finding meaningful ways to invite mentor teachers to be part of teacher education.

With attention to LaBoskey’s (2004) five characteristics of self-study research, the authors analyzed data independently and shared the patterns that they identified. Here we highlight areas of accord and areas of tension concerning improvement of the practicum experience. This research extends our earlier self-studies (Fuentealba & Russell, 2016, 2020) and adds to previous self-study conference presentations by deans, such as that by Mills et al. (2012). Trustworthiness typically involves credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. As data were collected, the authors drew on the six phases of thematic analysis outlined by Nowell et al. (2017, p. 4)


The following data from meeting notes between May and August 2021 describe some of Rodrigo’s earliest experiences and observations. Rodrigo meets every fortnight with his immediate superior, here designated as VR. These excerpts are followed by data relevant to each of the three research questions.

Question 1: What Are the Primary Differences Between the First and Second Time as Dean of Education at the Same University?

After reviewing several months of data, Rodrigo summarized his previous and new practices and the influence of his critical friend in Table 1.

Table 1

Summary of Rodrigo’s Previous and New Practices As Dean

Previous Practices (2012)

New Practices (2021)

Influence of Critical Friend

Asking others “What were the results of your experience?”

Asking others “What did you learn from the experience?”

Asks for evidence of learning: “Did students notice the change in practices?”

Sees the importance of listening and recognizing the voices of others and asks “What is your opinion?”

Sees the importance of others’ experiences of practices. Encourages reframing of practices by exploring assumptions.

Reminds that “Listening alone is not learning.”

Asks “What are the best practices in other contexts?”

Asks “How do our practices help us to learn in a better way?”

Stresses the importance of the authority that comes with experience.

Suggests to others that “You ought to do this.”

Suggests to others that there is knowledge in action.

Points out instances of modeling practices to others

Sees individuals acting alone

Supports a collaborative view of professional practice

Explores features of critical friendship

When Tom asked Rodrigo to describe his changing assumptions, he received the following:

Taken with the changing practices in Table 1, these statements reveal the value of self-study of a new Dean’s earliest months in that position.

Question 2: How Can the Dean Support and Encourage Practicum Leaders to Develop Strategies for Improving the Quality of Students' Practicum Experiences?

With Rodrigo’s listening and modeling, practicum leaders are discovering the power of listening to teacher candidates. Following cultural norms supported by personal experiences, they previously would watch a lesson but talk only to the mentor teacher and then give the student the comments written during the lesson. In November 2021, Rodrigo invited Tom to lead two 90-minute Zoom presentations (with excellent translation services). Each presentation was attended by about 40 individuals, with roughly equal numbers of teacher candidates, mentor teachers, and faculty supervisors. Including students with those who offer them critiques and suggestions represented a unique change of assumptions, including the value of listening to students to understand how they are experiencing the practicum. Students’ comments included the following:

Analyzing these data led Rodrigo to reframe assumptions about supervisory activities and applied them to planning for the first term of 2022: (1) Listening to Tom led Rodrigo to “push” consideration of student voices and Rodrigo is making this recommendation explicitly to supervisors. (2) Rodrigo will ask supervisors to collect evidence of changes they are making in practice, in contrast to familiar practices of reporting changes without evidence.

Question 3: How Does Critical Friendship Contribute to the Process of Identifying Assumptions, Feframing Actions, and Evaluating Their Impact?

Our critical friendship focuses on challenging each other to identify the assumptions implicit in our practices and gather evidence about the impact of new actions based on reframing of assumptions. As Rodrigo continues to share his leadership experiences with Tom (much as Tom previously shared his teaching experiences with Rodrigo), the comments by Tom support Rodrigo in his probing of assumptions that underlie his actions and the responses by those with whom he is engaging. Tom frequently points out that Rodrigo has the skills to change a practice, to deviate from a dean’s typical response in his culture, and then to lead the analysis of underlying assumptions. We offer several examples of the process:

Themes and Patterns in the Data

Question 1: Primary Differences in Role As Dean

Rodrigo’s changes of practice are being noticed by those with whom he interacts; they are noticed because they do not conform to stereotypes of the behaviour of a Dean. In most instances, unexpected responses by Rodrigo signal to his new colleagues that he takes a different approach to leadership. We offer the following examples of changing practices and assumptions:

Question 2: Supporting Improvements in the Quality of Practicum Placements

Teacher education has long struggled with issues of quality in teacher candidate’s learning during practicum placements (e.g., Feiman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1987). Understanding that improvements will come slowly, Rodrigo studied the impact of early moves to identify existing patterns and tensions:

Question 3: Contributions of Critical Friendship

Previous experiences as critical friend to each other helped us to extend that friendship in this self-study. The more we explored the first two questions, the more we realized we were also learning more about the nature and potential of critical friendship. The three main points Rodrigo has explored with Tom in the context of improving practicum quality are (1) the importance of students’ voices, (2) the importance of evidence from students’ actions, and the importance of all three participants in the practicum triad engaging with each other at all times. Our critical friendship includes these patterns:

This most recent adventure in critical friendship inspires a recommendation to teacher educators to engage in repeated mutual critical friendships with the goal of continuing to improve the practices of both actor and critical friend.


Our central finding is that “Listen before you push” has thus far been productive. In Chile, there are expectations that a dean tells people what to do and maintains personal distance. Guided by reframed assumptions about teaching and leadership, Rodrigo began this appointment with an emphasis on listening and minimal giving of instructions. At first, many faculty seemed puzzled about how to respond; soon Rodrigo began to notice acceptance and even appreciation of his intention to listen to the concerns and goals of both faculty and students. Rodrigo has identified four significant differences between his first and second experiences as Dean of Education at Autónoma:

  1. Rodrigo’s approach with team leaders is deliberately characterized by calm.
  2. Rodrigo guides teams forward by discussion, not by direction.
  3. Rodrigo urges faculty to share their plans for teaching and research.
  4. Rodrigo models the behaviours that he is encouraging others to explore.

Rodrigo set out to be a dean who keeps his office door open. He welcomes ideas and suggestions, to which he responds with inquiries about underlying assumptions and supporting arguments, pushing without being directive.

Rodrigo is responding to tensions between campuses by creating online discussion groups with members from all campuses to encourage cooperation at the program level. Similarly, cross-campus groups of students are a helpful beginning. Listening before pushing and pushing rather than directing have proven to be elements of a decanal strategy that most people are finding productive and supportive. Our ongoing critical friendship continues to support clarifying assumptions and reframing practices.

Returning to the Literature Guiding This Self-Study

We have applied Redish’s (2021) concept of epistemological expectations to the nature of what teacher educators know and what they are learning (and not learning) from their experiences as teachers of teachers. We all inescapably enter the work of teaching teachers having been shaped by Lortie’s (1975) apprenticeship of observation without explicit awareness of the assumptions and behaviours we were internalizing. As models of teaching for those learning to teach, we include ourselves among the teacher educators who must identify their personal assumptions about how we learn to teach. This self-study has revealed the importance of listening as well as telling and questioning.

LaBoskey’s (2004) five characteristics of self-study methodology continue to be valuable guides. This self-study was self-initiated to enable Rodrigo to understand his earliest moves after his appointment as Dean. We push each other to be improvement-aimed, and this study was interactive with faculty, mentor teachers and teacher candidates. Our methods are typically qualitative and we have provided examples in support of our conclusion. Nowell et al. (2017) helped us strive for trustworthiness in our analysis of data. The two works by Schön (1971, 1983) encourage us to be “adept at learning” and to pursue reframing of our assumptions as we continue to learn from experience.

Outcomes: What Have We Learned From This Self-Study?

What Did Rodrigo Learn About Leadership?

Perhaps Rodrigo’s greatest insight concerns the similarities between good teaching and good leadership. Teachers are encouraged to build a trusting relationship with their students and a sense of community within the class. Good teaching also involves listening to students’ successes and challenges as they learn. Rodrigo’s changed practices (Table 1) appear to be building trust and a sense of community with his colleagues. Listening to faculty members and students is generating an increasing number of telephone and email conversations about what people are experiencing and how they hope to improve learning within the teacher education programs. Encouraging strong collaboration and respecting the views of others are also features common to both teaching and leadership.

Rodrigo has developed a novel set of assumptions that are drawing people’s attention and encouraging risk-taking. This first year of his appointment has also enabled Rodrigo to focus on how individuals learn from experience. Self-study methods have enabled Rodrigo to see that learning from experience requires permission to analyze experience and to do so against a backdrop of previous experience. Re-examining situations and events can generate reframing of assumptions and support for new practices. These activities require attention to knowledge constructed from experience as well as knowledge developed from research.

Rodrigo’s attention to improving the quality of learning in the practicum risks challenging traditional assumptions about the structure of a teacher education program. Efforts to date suggest that trusting, engaging and listening are generating openness to new possibilities and new risks with respect to deeply rooted habits and responses by mentor teachers in schools and the faculty supervisors who visit student teachers.

What Did Rodrigo and Tom Learn About Critical Friendship?

This extended and ongoing self-study has shown us the value of a long-term relationship with many shared experiences. Each shared experience, whether in person or by video, strengthens our critical friendship. Rodrigo’s impressive ability to recall events shared years ago enables us to revisit shared experiences, compare them to immediate concerns, and then construct new interpretations that may generate new practices. A critical friendship can be particularly supportive of risk-taking, knowing that a new practice has been developed in partnership with someone who shares a commitment and understands the implicit assumptions. Increasingly, we sense that critical friendship can be seen as two individuals committed to teaching/leading each other in a trusting environment dominated by good listening.


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Rodrigo Fuentealba

Universidad Autónoma, Santiago, Chile

Tom Russell

Queen's University

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