Three Thresholds in a Single Crossing

Harnessing New Alliances Within a Critical Friendship
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CollaborationPre-service TeacherUniversity-community PartnershipsTeaching Licensure
A multi-faceted, university-based team emerged from a year-long project having discovered much about their professional selves in the midst of accomplishing a shared goal of preparing pre-service teachers for a newly mandated certification exam. Their team, composed of an Assistant Professor of Early Literacy, an Associate Professor of Literacy and Curriculum and Instruction, and the Associate Dean for the College of Public Service, demonstrated a uniquely componential yet collaborative response that resulted in noteworthy success, despite the limitations of a worldwide pandemic. An iterative five-step model developed from their work, and they found that the five steps of needs assessment, team formation, ongoing coaching, codifying processes, and frequent celebrations were both complicated and enriched by persistent tensions in the areas of teaching, systems, and communications. These strategies guided their approach to renewed curriculum development, innovative instructional delivery, and improved assessment readiness. Through the nexus of their individual and collaborative identities, they embraced new ways of leading and producing content for internal and external stakeholders.


What was it about that night?
Connection–in an isolating age
For once the shadows gave way to light
For once the shadows gave way to light
For once I didn’t disengage.
 ~Mark and Roger, “What You Own,” RENT, by J. Larson, 1997

For most educator preparation programs (EPPs), it is de rigueur for teaching certification licensure exams to have significant impacts upon matters such as institutional reputation and program accreditation, so teacher education faculty must navigate the paths from theory to practice and from pedagogy to assessment for their students (Peck et al., 2010; Warner et al., 2020). Lest we despair and ineffectually bemoan the loss of academic excellence in the face of high-stakes testing, the three of us chose instead to pause and connect through an “everyday courage” (Pignatelli, 2010, p. 233) that we did not know we had.

Our narrative of self-study begins with a state-mandated, high-stakes reading test that threatened to cast a shadow over our existing curriculum and instruction and to make matters worse in the midst of an isolating pandemic. Much like Pignatelli (2010) suggests, we opted to eschew shadows of circumstances, engage with one another, and “imagine ways of keeping the conversation going about alternatives, even as we remain open to revising and rethinking how best to proceed” (p. 235). What follows is our story of three educators responding to one, new teacher certification test or, to rephrase, three educators coalescing around a single goal to engage in a critical friendship.

The Task

As of January 1, 2021, individuals seeking our state-administered teaching certification for Early Childhood through Grade 8, including bilingual education, must pass an additional exam in the Science of Teaching Reading (SoR). While this new exam presented significant instructional shifts for our department, community partners, and EPPs across the state (Mosley Wetzel et al., 2020), our team’s uniquely componential yet collaborative response resulted in noteworthy success.

To present this as a state-specific policy issue, though, would be misleading. State departments of education, both across the US and internationally, are foregrounding scientific approaches to reading instruction (Seidenberg, 2013; Solari et al, 2020; Dehaene, 2009; D’Mello, & Gabrieli, 2018). Moreover, our reflective study centers particularly on our professional growth through the development of a test preparation instrument rather than the content of the instrument itself. Thus, our collaborative learnings are illustrative beyond the scope of literacy education.

State and national mandates of change for EPPs are not new, but there was something about the circumstances of this one that brought us out of the shadows of an isolating pandemic into a collegial, engaging connection. Our work to develop a highly effective, innovatively designed teacher preparation tool was the immediate, tangible goal, but it was our systemic stance of self-reflection and identity analysis that led us to discover “what it was about” this collaboration that connected and grew us as professionals in unexpected yet deeply valued ways.


Our collaboration includes an Assistant Professor of Early Literacy, an Associate Professor of Literacy and Curriculum and Instruction, and the Associate Dean for the College of Public Service. As we share below, we each contributed individualized components—content, instructional design, and administration—to our collaborative work.

Eve’s Content Perspective

As the early reading content specialist, I completed significant training and embedded new insights derived from SoR into the curriculum. I considered key issues, such as the tension between content knowledge and pedagogy: making content accessible and relevant to practice, determining what/how to condense, and pushing the instruction beyond mere assessment competencies. Embedded in this challenge was the necessity of getting buy-in from faculty on an emerging literacy paradigm and educating them in the pedagogy of SoR so they could effectively and confidently integrate the new curriculum into their courses.

Diane’s Instructional Design Perspective

Because this new certification requirement emerged during the height of the pandemic, I was compelled to seek new ways to deliver the literacy curriculum. Moreover, I was tasked with the problem of how to consolidate this work for multiple stakeholders: our undergraduate students, our community partner, who provided an alternative certification program, and potential new graduate students. With a turnaround time of less than a year, I sought an innovative instructional design via an asynchronous, portable, and pedagogically-sound module-directed virtual course that would be accessible to thousands of pandemic-impacted pre-service students and educators throughout Texas. Bringing together my virtual product design, development, editing, and project management experience to serve as an anchor, we ensured alignment between those involved in developing the virtual course framework–the reading-content expert and university technology consultant–to meet the consistency, design, and functional demands of the asynchronous learning environment.

Laura’s Administrative Perspective

As our college's associate dean, I developed strategic K-16 partnerships that brought our traditional teacher preparation program and other alternative certification programs to the same problem-solving table. I broadened leadership levers to include expert faculty working alongside cross-functional teams of university and district administrators and departments, thus setting out to make our newly developed SoR curriculum and virtual course accessible and portable state-wide for a variety of stakeholders. I extended stakeholder benefits by creating pathways for students across the state of Texas to enter our Master of Arts in Teaching program by linking successful completion of the SoR online learning modules to eligibility for graduate course/program entry and credit.


While our larger project was to develop an online exam preparation course for a newly mandated state exam (see “The Task” above), embedded within that project, we soon realized, was a second but-no-less-important aim: studying our own development as teachers and leaders to share our learning with a broader community. It is that realization that made us pause. Our project represented the intersections of interests—the university and community partner, academic department and university administration, deep pedagogical learning, and high-stakes assessment preparation—and it was on the brink of those thresholds that our real work of self-study began. This question guided our reflective research: What steps and stances steered and fostered the pandemic-impacted pedagogical work of a hybrid faculty and administration team?


Our study adopted the framework of Paulus, Woodside, and Ziegler (2008), who stated that collaborative practice is “emergent and iterative,” that data includes collaboratively constructed meaning, and that findings and outcomes are only part of an ongoing conversation (p. 226). Essentially, we did not know what to expect, but we knew we needed each other. As noted in Schuck and Russell (2005), self-study is difficult for the individual because there is no distance between assessment and practice. Critical friendships offer a view often obscured in self-assessment but visible to outside perspectives. Our work was critical in the sense that it was essential and, in fact, urgent. With so much at risk for each of us, it was important that we all be able to be critical in the sense that we were also able to challenge each other’s perspectives.

Our collaboration was supported by both qualitative data, such as personal observation, correspondence, and dialogue, and quantitative data, such as enrollment numbers, teacher responses, and testing outcomes. Although the focus of this study did not center on the quantitative results of our project, we acknowledge that the students’ exam results influenced our qualitative reflections. Notably, the results collected at the close of the first calendar year of the SoR assessment administrations revealed a 97.2% passing rate (278 out of 286) for our university students and a 99% passing rate (131 out of 132) for the alternative certification students from our community partner. The qualitative data for this study span over 18 months and include 7 Zoom meetings, 221 emails, countless texts, and reflective writings.

With respect to trustworthiness, “dialogue, collaboration, and critique” were at the heart of our work (Samaras & Sell, 2013, p. 93). Using Creswell’s (2013) constant comparative approach, we examined all the data, negotiated meanings, and drew out themes through in-person and Zoom discussions. Finally, to address quality and validity, we adopted four guidelines from Bullough and Pinnegar (2001) related to self-study: our work should “ring true,” “promote insight and interpretation,” “take an honest stand,” and be grounded in “problems and issues that make someone an educator” (pp. 16-17).


Berry (2007) defined tensions as a “way of representing and better understanding the elements of ambivalence and contradiction so intrinsic to the complex nature of pedagogy” (p.139). This project was steeped in the overarching tension of policy versus learning, but in the tradition of previous work in S-STEP research (e.g., Ritter, 2018), our reflective analysis revealed distinct tensions specific to our learnings during this project.

To best serve our certification-seeking students, we acquiesced early on that we had a job to do and that we needed to do it well. However, we did not have a previously established script for anything like this, and the pandemic isolated us from our usual informal collaborative habits. Similar to reports by other S-STEP researchers, we felt the tension of our usual human and proximate work with the disembodied nature of virtual teaching and learning (Bullock & Fletcher, 2014; Strom et al., 2016). The comfortable structures of office and conference-room chats were supplanted by the inhospitable squares on a Zoom screen, buffeted by hundreds of emails and text messages. As previously stated, it is common for educator preparation programs to grapple with the tension between the pragmatic demand of certification exams and the academic yearning to provide rigorous and unique engagement. We balanced these needs by using as data our acknowledgment of the external forces at play, our discussions of potential problems inherent in our project, and the identification of tensions that surfaced during our work (Haniford & Pence, 2016).

Throughout our collaboration, our knowings have been emergent. As Pinnegar, Hutchinson, and Hamilton (2020) observe, knowing is contingent on “context, humans, and knowledge” (p. 107). Our narrative outlines our processes and negotiations while trying to meet the high-pressure demands of a mandatory teacher-certification assessment project, a challenge similarly faced by other states and countries as they adapt to SoR requirements. The areas of instruction, systems, and communication all contributed tensions that, ultimately, were our thresholds to cross together.

The lessons learned and the success of our collaboration resulted in the development of a five-step process model that is both linear and cyclical in its forward-moving practice: (1) identifying the needs and barriers of all stakeholders in the pedagogy of SoR; (2) forming a cross-functional design and implementation team; (3) facilitating multiple and ongoing coaching/feedback sessions; (4) codifying written policies and processes; (5) and communicating and celebrating often. (See Figure 1 for a visualization of how our project’s process intersected with the tensions of our self-study).

Figure 1

Five-Step Process Model for Projects

We had as checks and balances what Fletcher, Chroinin, and O’Sullivan (2016) referred to as multidimensional interactivity, such that our stakeholders influenced each of us who in turn brought those voices to our critical friendship. It was both surprising and reassuring that despite our different positions and goals, we were experiencing similar tensions within our collaboration. From our reflective conversations and writings, three common tensions emerged.

Tension 1: Theory vs. Pedagogy

This tension was in no small way influenced by the pandemic. From the very beginnings of this project, we understood that pedagogical methods would, by necessity, have to be digital and flexible. But with a new and essentially unwritten curriculum that had never been taught and that was in some ways contradictory to previous literacy paradigms, the amount and method of learning and teaching seemed insurmountable. Eve analyzed the new curriculum and how best to align resources and delivery models to it:

After some 160 hours of training and I don’t know how many books and articles, I still sometimes think that I can’t teach this. How do I condense it? What is important for the test? What is important for actually teaching kids to read? There is lots of science out there, and lots of discussion over why it’s important, but little in the way of methodology. And because “direct, sequenced, structured instruction” isn’t really part of the previous literacy paradigm, I have to address new ways of teaching and find resources to support it that are developmentally appropriate for pre-service teachers. And I have to put it in a digital, interactive, format? I am way out of my comfort zone.

Diane deliberated the negotiations between a breadth of content and the practical nature of the project:

Eve comes to this work flooded with training hours, newfound knowledge, and a passion for SoR. I’m a literacy person, but the EARLY literacy world always makes me a bit nervous. The intermediate and secondary levels are more my speed. I’m coming to this project, then, as a somewhat nuanced learner who is in awe of her detailed mastery of this material. I have the basic framework, but I don’t have the deep drive for it like Eve has. I think that’s going to help me guide her as we negotiate the broad swaths of research she brings to the project and the necessary saturation limits that we must keep in mind for an asynchronous course. We teach the same students—pre-service teachers in a minority-serving institution—so I believe I can bring that shared perspective to our planning.

Laura considered the tension between theory and practice that surfaced in our initial discussions:

In theory, I understand the work to be accomplished, but the practicality of delivering substantive learning for students aligned to the SoR expectations is difficult to conceptualize, especially through a leadership/ administrative lens. I know traditional change models call for the organization to develop a vision before proceeding with change, but it seems better to allow our vision to emerge from, more than precede, our action, especially after reflecting on our college’s traditional structure and historical patterns of how we work. To enact change, a truly shared vision must emerge from our joint work with administrators and faculty over time as we engage in the change process together, and we must allow it to be refined over time to evolve with our college’s changing conditions.

Tension 2: Traditional vs. Innovative Systems

Given the rapid changes we are encountering in demographics, technology, and geopolitics, our traditional methods were inadequate to the task of educating our pre-service teachers, helping them attain certification, and readying them for both today’s and tomorrow’s K-12 classrooms. In contrast, innovative and dynamic systems, ones that are agile and possess the capacity for continuous change, can more effectively meet the evolving needs of pre-service teachers, K-12 schools, communities, and societies (Edwards & Chapman, 2009). Dynamic systems are more interactive than traditional systems; and when they are fully functioning, different forces, structures, or processes within the system interact in a coherent manner bringing about clarity, meaningfulness, and improvement. Eve expressed misgivings about moving faculty from traditional to new understandings:

The chatter of the Twitterverse has so much pushback. I want to find a way to have SoR be well received. I don’t want to insult my peers—have them thinking, “Oh, so you’re telling me that what I’ve been teaching for all these years is wrong.” How do I get them to embrace this? Will they accept the intrusion of the natural sciences into education? I just remember my “Aha!” moment when I saw the MRI and fMRI data. If I could only show them…the whole idea of neuroscience leading reading educational practice seems almost like science fiction.

Diane combined university resources across departments to produce an instructional infrastructure:

When teaching our classes, even as the pandemic is shoving us all to completely online working environments, we can tweak materials and explain the twists and turns of our thinking to our students in real time. For this project, we are producing something that must stand asynchronously with built-in, anticipatory supports for pre-service teachers working through dense, important material. I converse with Eve constantly, via text, email, and Zoom. I’m starting to understand her vision for the material. Since it’s a reading curriculum, I’ve designed a structure in which the students will explore, explain, engage, extend, and evaluate their way through eight “chapters.” I take Eve’s ideas, fused with my structure, to our instructional technology department. One of the designers and I strategize to produce a multi-functional course that can serve both internal and external audiences.

Laura coalesced individual faculty expertise, varying capacity levels, and program improvement potential:

To me, it is essential to utilize faculty who have the content-area background to support our project’s reading focus. Yet, our education department is small and consists largely of new pre-tenured faculty with heavy teaching loads. Additionally, the need to reach future participants working remotely doesn’t guarantee that a content-area faculty specialist is also an adept online instructional designer. I also realize the value of creating portable virtual learning pathways to maximize our student reach, better meet students’ learning needs, and to move beyond our default (and often ineffective) in-person group test preparation held during class hours. This project can be the catalyst our education department needs to “see” a differentiated learning delivery model for our students’ benefit.

Tension 3: “Silo” -ed Communication vs. Cross-Functional Communication

Typical top-down, stratified university organizational structures often drive the goal-setting conversations of today’s higher education environments. Faculty voice is often drowned out by the demands of service, research, and teaching upon their time. Furthermore, we often insulate ourselves from criticism in the drive for promotion and tenure. Whether borne of intention or necessity or a mixture of both, silos are built and habitually reinforced. While this may not be the intent of administrators or of faculty, the reality of the frenetic pace leaves faculty to fend for projects and productivity individually. Eve identified the impact of her usual isolation on her work and her reticence to partner with someone else on this project:

I think what has surprised me the most is my personal growth in my identity as an academic within a community…I generally don’t play well with others and do not like asking for help. But trying to learn software tools to create digital content while at the same time making sense of the science of reading for undergraduate, never-before-in-the-classroom teachers, had my head swimming. When Laura reached out and tried to partner me up with Diane, I was reticent. Yes, she had the instructional design and technological skills, and yes, she was a literacy educator, but…what if she didn’t like the content? What if she didn’t believe in the science of reading? Having someone reviewing my material, constantly asking questions, and reigning in my passion turned into someone looking at my work from a learner’s eyes, asking for clarity when the content was too dense, and ultimately bringing the work to a place where both reader and writer could celebrate what I believe so strongly.

Diane noted how strict communication protocols gave way to more seamless interactions that supported the goal:

When Laura assigned me to this project, I was honored but nervous! I knew that Eve had been attending multiple trainings working diligently on this material for months. Who was I to interrupt? I wrote to her, “I’m super excited (and stressed!) about joining you on this project.” I was intentional and transparent about my vulnerability with the early reading content, and then I was purposeful and reassuring about my ability to package Eve’s brilliance into a workable instructional design. I also filtered and organized administrative requirements from Laura, who, in turn, graciously grew my leadership abilities. At every turn, balance is key.

Laura considered the role of traditional feedback and what type of feedback was needed to enact desired change:

Even prior to working in a fully online and remote working environment, we weren’t good at eliciting and providing feedback to each other. Yes, we participate in formal annual evaluations that include narrative feedback, but that feedback often lacks specificity, doesn’t happen in a timely manner, and is usually kept between one or a few administrators and a small group of faculty members serving on an annual review committee. When significant improvements are needed, we’re often too timid to work more broadly together out of fear that we’ll be viewed as lacking in knowledge or ill-equipped for our roles. In order to conduct the change needed to meet the demands of new SoR expectations, we have to communicate differently than we have in the past. We need to build in feedback mechanisms for coherence and stability. We all need ongoing feedback, focused on our product, process, and progress, to properly monitor and assess our change efforts. And this feedback must come from multiple data points, including informal and formal quality checks, third-party reviews, faculty, students, and more. We must collect meaningful data on the ongoing results of our change efforts, and this data must be made available to all stakeholders involved. Everyone must be given opportunities to reflect on the data and redirect their change efforts accordingly so building in an intentional, cross-functional feedback loop will be essential to our success.


We were asked to “reflect on how we might realize the contributions...[we] could make to different communities and audiences” (S-STEP, 2021). It was precisely this dilemma—serving multiple communities and audiences—that spurred the design of our work. Our multifaceted team was a collaboration of necessity, with each of us pursuing distinct individual goals within the context of a shared goal.

Educational researchers have documented that all organizations resist change; and historically, higher education has been at the forefront of disruption avoidance (Christensen & Eyring, 2011; Glickman et al., 2018). Our university is no outlier. It relies on traditional practices and structures to perform our work: isolation and individualism, lack of dialogue about instruction, and a reflexive resistance to curricular innovations have been observed across all departments. In the College of Public Service where we all work, these characteristics have particularly negative effects on teacher educators and pre-service students.

As a result, we first asked how we could act consciously to reshape our static organization into a purposeful collection of individuals who intentionally interact in an ongoing manner to meet our project’s goals. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we asked how we could illustrate our belief that universities are for students, learning, and improvement rather than for insularity, self-protection, and complacency.

The strategies of our 5-step process model became visible as consequences of our approach to renewed curriculum development, innovative instructional delivery, and improved assessment readiness. Diacopoulos and colleagues (2021) presented six signposts of self-study, which guided our reflections. Specifically, signposts #3: “Examining practice through collaboration,” #4: “Identifying changes in practice,” and #6: “Sharing with others” held particular relevance for the work we describe here. Through the nexus of our individual and collaborative identities, we became and emerged in new ways of leading and producing content for internal and external stakeholders.

Future Directions and Conclusions

Though we continue to collect resultant quantitative data, answering our broader, more qualitative question of self-study will inform our future projects in terms of feedback loops, working protocols, leveraging strengths, and seeking unique opportunities. Our initial project was spurred by a state-mandated requirement, but “for once, the shadows gave way to light.” During the creation of the test preparation modules, partnership negotiations, and implementation, we realized that we were growing as professionals—for once we “didn’t disengage.” This knowledge led us through our individual thresholds to cross to the collective path of self-study; it prompted a personally reflective stance that continues alongside our data analysis from the project outcomes. How lovely that, amidst a grim pandemic that threatened all we knew of education, we found “connection—in an isolating age.”


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Eve Zehavi

University of Houston

Diane M. Miller

University of Houston

Laura J. Link

University of North Dakota

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