Constructing Spaces for Professional Development in an Action Research Course

A Self-Study of Teacher Educators’ Practice
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Self-Study of Teacher Education PracticesProfessional DevelopmentAction ResearchProfessional Identity
Teacher education has an important role in preparing teachers for active participation in creating future educational context. We are three teacher educators at the University of Iceland exploring how we can enhance our teaching in an action research course at graduate level. The aim of this research is to strengthen our professionalism to give teacher students opportunities to develop their understanding of action research. The objective is to illuminate how we bring our professional identities together supporting students in developing their emerging identities as action researchers. Data was generated and analyzed by mapping our journeys into teacher education, specifically in teaching action research, highlighting incidents and individuals that impacted our educational beliefs. Data included three-step interviews and material generated within the course. We searched for pedagogic turning points to identify opportunities for enriching our understanding of practice and develop pedagogical discourses. Findings illuminate how our professional identities and beliefs emerged and developed in the process of supporting students negotiating their identities as action researchers. We argue that by sharing our challenges and experimenting, knowing that we are there for each other, we generate new possibilities and perspectives for understanding and being, personally and professionally.

Context of the Study

Education is an important pathway to empower people to be active participants in society. As teacher educators, we believe that teacher education has an important role in preparing teachers to respond to future educational contexts in ways that respect and draw on the background, knowledge, and abilities of their students (Biesta, 2013; Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015). This requires conceptualizing teacher preparation as more than a technical endeavor in which student teachers acquire a set of ‘tools’ to be used across settings and contexts. Rather, we need to prepare student teachers to welcome and engage with the complex processes involved in learning to teach by positioning them as teachers developing skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior in response to their experiences (Loughran, 2006; Hamilton and Pinnegar, 2015). Teachers must avoid the urge to seek simple solutions to educational challenges and accept the responsibility for directing their own learning (Loughran, 2006). We need to prepare student teachers to approach their practice with humility and vulnerability, and willingness as professionals to step beyond their comfort zone to explore unknown topics or situations.

Vulnerability is inherent in the process of teaching. It is the way in which “teachers live in their job situation” (Kelchterman, 1996, p. 307). Understanding who we are as teachers is imperative for us as teacher educators to serve our teacher students faithfully (Mitchell & Weber, 2005; Palmer, 2004). Such teaching, in our understanding, comes from within (Korthagen et al., 2013), or “from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (Palmer, 2007, p. 10). If we believe this, we need to design spaces within our teacher education programs that address the fundamental questions we ask about teaching: who is the self that teaches? Who do we think we are? (Mitchell & Weber, 2005; Palmer, 2007). Collaborative self-study allows us to address these questions “openly and honestly, alone and together” (Palmer, 2004). Thus, we hope to “challenge, deepen and extend professional knowing in the interest of making a qualitative difference to professional practice for self and others” (Pithouse-Morgan & Samaras, 2015, p. 1).

To create conditions for a dialogue that builds on mutual trust and care for each other, we need to design spaces that support “circles of trust” (Palmer, 2004): spaces that invite the student teachers’ and our own selves to show up, to lead us towards professional growth. A circle of trust is “a group of people who know how to sit...with each other and wait for the shy soul to show up” (Palmer, 2004, p. 59). People who trust one another are more likely to share sensitive information that they would not reveal to others outside the circle (Leana & Pil, 2006). Relationships developed in such a group involve patience, compassion, and faith in each person’s capacity to learn from within (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015; Korthagen et al., 2013; Palmer, 2004).

A circle of trust is a community that can be chaotic and creative, with emergent forces at play that need constant tending (Palmer, 2004). Creative work and the freedom that it calls for are often limited by the angst teachers experience when planning teaching (Jónsdóttir & Gunnarsdóttir, 2017). Creative ideas that are not expressed or publicized are lost if they are not allowed to emerge and be tested (Jónsdóttir, 2016). Pithouse-Morgan and Samaras (2022) emphasize that co-creatively “embracing the uncertainties, complexities, and elisions of practice in company of trusted others through unexplored means can lead to fruitful results” (p. 212). The facilitator’s role in a circle of trust is to create and protect a space where everyone feels safe (Palmer, 2004), and where participants can express their ideas without fear of judgment (Freire, 2000).

We are three teacher educators at the University of Iceland School of Education exploring how we can enhance our teaching in a graduate-level 10 ECTS action research course. Our students come from different disciplines, mostly within the School of Education. Some of our students have prior knowledge of action research, but most choose this course because they recognize the usefulness of this research approach. The course emphasizes the nature of action research and helps students develop the mindset of an action researcher through conducting their own research projects: defining a topic to explore, developing a theoretical foundation, collecting and analysing data, and presenting findings. We believe that this inquiry approach is essential to professionalism in education.

In the course, we position ourselves as researchers to examine our understanding of our professionalism, drawing on each other’s knowledge on teaching and development as teacher educators, offering our findings to the larger research conversation (Berry, 2020; Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015; White et al. 2020). We bring to our study different educational and lived experiences (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006). These influence our understanding of and belief in the importance of action research, including our roles as facilitators. These differences impact our capabilities and comfort in exposing and expressing our professional identities. We come together to design and lead students through a process that acknowledges multiple and constantly emerging professional selves (Berry, 2020; Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015): our own and those of our students. Our pedagogy emphasizes artistic methods, creating dialogical spaces, and formative learning.

In this study, we engage in a search for pedagogic turning points or threshold opportunities that can enrich our personal understanding of practice through raising new possibilities, perspectives, and discourses (Hamilton et al., 2020).

Aim, Objective, and Research Question

In our action research course, students begin by uncovering who they are and what is important to them personally and professionally. While we think this is an essential step in equipping students to reason and reflect on issues they confront in their various professional settings, we are aware that opening the educational space in this way makes it dynamic and unstable, leaving us vulnerable to encountering and working with whatever emerges (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015). In reflecting on the overall design of the course and the processes it releases, our challenge is to work with students to create circles of trust where they dare to share issues that are important to them.

The aim of the study is to strengthen our professionalism individually and as a community in creating spaces that give students opportunities to develop their understanding of action research and negotiate their identities as action researchers.

The objective of the study is to illuminate how we bring our diverse professional identities together to generate new possibilities, perspectives, and discourses as we support students in developing their emerging identities as action researchers.

Our research question is: How do our professional identities emerge and develop in creating (trusting and caring) spaces for students to negotiate their identities in becoming action researchers?


In this research, we explain how we created a space for ourselves to come together in designing trusting and caring spaces for students in a master’s level course on action research. For this purpose, we utilized some of the same methods and tasks students use within the context of the course as they carry out their action research projects. This allows us to understand how our professional identities emerge and develop in interaction with students and their enduring challenges in negotiating their identities as action researchers in the process of conducting their research projects (Berry, 2020; Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015).

Data Generation and Analysis

In August 2021, we generated our primary data by visually and rhetorically mapping our journeys into teacher education, both in general and specifically in teaching the action research course. To understand where we come from and how that has informed our professional development, we began this exploration by creating and sharing individual mind maps highlighting incidents and individuals that had an impact on our educational vision and dispositions. Next, we conducted three-step interviews with each other. The questions that guided the interviews were: why do you want to study your own practice? How does your professional identity influence the process of the course? What are you hoping to illuminate through the research process? Secondary data included material generated within the context of the course in spring 2021: teachers’ input, students’ hands-on activities in relation to different aspects of the research process, recordings from weekly in-class rapport meetings, students’ final research reports, and students’ self-evaluations.

The data analysis was iterative; we traced emphasis emerging in our primary data in the secondary data to verify or challenge our understandings and interpretations. We engaged in a search for pedagogic turning points to identify opportunities for enriching our understanding of practice by trying out new possibilities and perspectives, and to develop discourses of pedagogy (Hamilton et al., 2020).


Karen used to be an Icelandic teacher of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Her PhD teacher research explored how to draw on her students’ linguistic and cultural resources in practice. She has been working in teacher education since 2012 and has been involved in teaching the action research course since 2009.

Svanborg was a primary school teacher for almost 30 years before doing her PhD research on innovation education. She has been a teacher educator for 14 years and has taught the action research course for six years. She has conducted several collaborative self-studies in teacher education and has led two group action research projects with teachers across four school levels focusing on enhancing creativity in teaching and learning.

Edda had been a coordinator for special needs education in a compulsory school for 14 years when she embarked on her doctoral research, which emerged from her worries that her teaching practice was working against the school policy of inclusive education. Through this self-study research project, she found that she needed to develop her leadership skills and attend to the discourse of disability to transform the practice of supporting students. She has taught the action research course for two years.

Developing and Co-creating Our Professional Identities

In our findings, we illuminate how our professional identities and beliefs emerge and develop in the process of supporting students negotiating their identities as action researchers. In looking through the data we illuminate the driving force behind our educational practices and how these are rooted in and transformed through our lived and professional experiences. This findings section is divided into four segments: our entry points, creating trusting and caring spaces, making ourselves vulnerable, and developing creative professional courage.

Our Entry Points

The three of us bring to the course different educational and lived experiences. These impact our capabilities and comfort in exposing, expressing, and embracing our own and each other’s professional identities as we come together to support students in developing a stance of inquiry. Through an ongoing dialogue, we revealed how the mundane experiences we bring to the course are important in developing a supportive space for students.

In sharing her journey to teaching this course, Karen explained how becoming a teacher of students who are deaf through teacher research had a transformative impact on her developing professional identity by forcing her to confront who she was as a hearing professional in deaf education. This process was both emotionally and intellectually challenging, culminating in a “professional existential crisis.” This is how she explained this to Edda and Svanborg as she talked them through her mind map:

This process was challenging. I experienced conflict within myself, about myself, with the subject matter I was teaching, and the school environment. What helped me through this conflicting experience were people willing to listen and believing in what I was doing at moments when I felt chaotic. In these moments I was given a space to talk myself into an understanding of the situation I was in, to the extent that I began to see some opportunities to work through these challenges.

This experience is the foundation of Karen’s educational beliefs and vision. She believes that as a professional, you must develop critical subjectivity and cultivate competence to create a space to lean in, listen for who you and those you work with are, and interrogate critical incidents in order to nurture ever-emerging identities within situated contexts.

Svanborg explained her journey into teacher education as a long road that she initially did not intend to take:

Until university, I intended to become an artist. I always loved school – but art school turned out to be the only school I did not like. After graduating as a compulsory school teacher (6- to 16-year-old students), I taught nearly all subjects (not PE) and leaned towards applying creativity and arts in my teaching, whether it was teaching to read and write, science, or history. I took many professional development courses and when I got to know innovation education I was smitten. I loved teaching it. It engaged students and they were creative on their own premises.

After teaching at the primary level for almost 30 years, Svanborg conducted her master’s and PhD research on innovation education (IE) in Icelandic compulsory schools. She wanted to uncover what in IE “made the magic.” This research made her realize that her artistic drive could also be fulfilled through supporting others to express their creativity in different ways.

As Edda explained her mind map, inclusion was the common denominator of her ideas -- that education should be democratic and based on human rights. Central to these ideas is to approach teaching with a growth mindset, to make sure that students feel they are included and belong; that they are active participants and experience achievement in their learning. Edda shared how her upbringing laid the groundwork for her emphasis on inclusivity in her professional life:

I grew up with seven siblings –five older siblings and two younger. Being the typical middle child, a bit invisible and a little obsessed with fairness and balance, I became very attuned to the needs of others.

Edda’s ideas about research echo this. As a teacher educator, she views research as a process to learn with people to improve educational practices – not to judge people or practices. This is something she wants students to embrace. Thus, in her mind action research is a means to learn about oneself as a person and how to create inclusive practices in educational settings.

Creating Trusting and Caring Spaces

Within the overall structure of the course, we begin each class by dividing students into small status groups, which we facilitate. In these meetings, students are allocated time to talk about their projects, while the other students are encouraged to ask questions or provide support. We emphasize that students have obligations toward each other and that everything discussed is confidential.

In analyzing our data, we noticed how we all talk about the importance of creating different kinds of spaces where students “develop the mindset they need, to inquire into and make decisions based on the student population they teach and the educational contexts they find themselves working within” (analytical meeting, September 22nd, 2021). Below we discuss the kind of learning spaces we think are important.

Svanborg: Students need spaces to experience doing something new to help them understand their practice and understand the importance of scrutinizing practice in order to become more than skilled technicians. Also, to use theories (experiences of others) to deepen one’s understanding.
Karen: I find it important for students to experience a space that allows them to name and work with influences on their professional lives. Their concerns are often rooted in and between their personal and professional experiences, blurring the boundaries between the two. So, these spaces need to allow students to work at this intersection; to explore values they want to enact in their personal and professional lives.
Edda: I agree, my point is also to use the course to empower students to think in terms of solutions -- how to find solutions to our challenges in practice rather than wallow in them. I want students to experience the importance of action research for their own work -- that they see that action research is self-empowering and helps them strengthen their practice and professionalism.

Through our dialogue, we determined that the spaces we create in the course need to creatively challenge students and encourage active participation. To enable the vulnerability this requires, we try to develop trusting and caring spaces where students feel that they are emotionally safe and will not be judged.

Making Ourselves Vulnerable

Vulnerability is built into the course design. In developing their research projects, students are invited to revisit memories and experiences that affect them professionally. This encourages them to stir up and rummage through the baggage they have accumulated on their personal and professional journey before they focus on and formulate a research question. This design creates the challenge of capturing and openly addressing unexpected issues or emotionally loaded experiences that may emerge. In an analytical meeting, we discussed our feelings involved in this exposure and its importance for students’ research.

Edda: I feel most insecure when people are not exploring their work but are more geared towards personal challenges. It’s difficult to embrace, I find myself resisting, because I can be so helpless in how to support them.
Karen: I agree, and I keep wondering how we can bear witness to this personal aspect or challenge. Students are often faced with emotionally charged challenges that we need to accept, finding ways to support them in exploring from different perspectives.
Svanborg: … and analyze. At this point, a needs analysis is called for – they must ask why is this a problem? ‘Why, why, why.’ We need to get the students to focus on analyzing the problem and think ‘what can I do about it’? In relation to our professional work, psychological factors or emotions are often important in taking constructive steps.
Edda: … they bring up these challenges because they go so deep into their project. If they were just scratching the surface, we would not be hearing about these emotionally loaded issues… but I think this is related to what we are talking about, to the fact that we are open to all kinds of projects.
Svanborg: I think that with this emphasis on the personal, students’ research projects seem to reach a deeper level and be more enduring.

When students become vulnerable enough to divulge their difficult experiences in becoming professionals, we are there to respond with empathy and sensitivity toward their feelings. Yet, our role is to support them in exploring how they can leverage their experiences for personal and/or professional growth. This leaves us in the position of having to rely on and draw from each other’s professional strengths.

Developing a Creative Professional Courage

In the course, we emphasize processes in which students experience embodied learning, artistic expressions, and using metaphors as symbols for how they feel or interpret elements and processes in their action research.

For one task, we ask students to use recyclable materials to make a symbolic expression of what they learned from their data collection and analysis. We used this approach in another context and Karen really wanted to bring it into our course. Svanborg was a bit hesitant, even though she had used similar creative methods elsewhere. She wrote in her research journal: “In this context, a research methodology course that I feel is supposed to be serious and strict, these approaches are not a safe choice.” However, students’ reflections indicated that this experience helped them make unexpected connections with their work, as this example shows:

It was fun and informative to express my research visually and artistically. I had broken my arm and thought I couldn't do anything. It turned out differently. I dreamt that I produced a piece that gave me a profound understanding and when I had to make the artwork and present my research it was a piece of cake. When I scrutinized the sculpture, I saw that it exemplified the journey I had been on. It was powerful. Presenting my research, supported by the sculpture, went well, and there I also found the light to illuminate the rest of writing the research.

Reading this, we realized how this work gave students a bit of a shake-up, helping them to see their data and analysis as creative and symbolic actions that led to a deeper understanding. While some expressed difficulties, more conveyed their enjoyment. Even those who started out skeptical shared that they surprised themselves by enjoying the work and learning from it.

These creative and embodied processes not only supported our students in exploring their research projects from different perspectives; they seemed to release invisible energy that enriched our professional development, creating new possibilities for how we could relate to each other through the co-creation of pedagogical practices, as evident in this interview excerpt.

Karen: You were talking about how you bring to the course innovation education methods to put the focus on students’ voices…and that you have gained a deeper understanding of the importance of these methods. Could you explain this?
Svanborg: …along the way I have been able to transfer this emphasis to teaching in general…to cultivating with students, student teachers, and professionals in an educational setting that they are all creative, and believe in their abilities as professionals, that their voices matter.
Karen: Can I add? These methods and having the opportunity to teach with you, being in the presence of your professional confidence and resilience, has touched me. How you lead students through each step, this analytical work and working with recyclable materials. Suddenly I find myself daring to follow through various ideas.
Svanborg: You added one thing here, to dare. Our cooperation in various contexts has given me the courage to dare more or become stronger in doing. I have noticed that you dare and with support, like with the poetic inquiry which I was a little hesitant about at the beginning, you jump. So, these are the creative methods we have cultivated together.

Through an ongoing dialogue, we identified how these creative ways of teaching and our collaboration in various contexts gave us a “professional courage” we didn’t think we had to embrace students’ developing identities. This gave us a new starting point to flip the roles of students and teachers and to begin with issues that seemed urgent for students.

Discussion and Conclusions

Professional development resides in the foundational beliefs and assumptions educators and teachers alike have about teaching and learning (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015; Loughran, 2006). These beliefs and assumptions develop over time and are rooted in experiences inside and outside of schools, blurring the boundaries between the personal and the professional. We traced our educational beliefs and assumptions about teaching and learning to our upbringings, important events and individuals, and the theoretical work we have read. We recognized the multifaceted nature of our personal and professional stories and how they come together as we search for threshold moments in our work to push ourselves further.

It takes emotional and intellectual work to embrace, support, and challenge student teachers’ developing identities in ways that prepare them to critically approach their educational practices and contexts (Loughran, 2006). Our data shows how we found a way to cross the threshold of embracing students’ emotional issues as part of developing their action research projects. In sharing and discussing our vulnerability, we experienced how we grew professionally and in so doing advanced the knowledge base of our teaching and learning (Pithouse-Morgan & Samaras, 2022). That is, working collaboratively and creatively gave us the courage to sustain and develop engaging, trusting, and caring spaces for students.

As self-study researchers, we continue to challenge ourselves to deepen and extend our professional knowledge and practice (Pithouse-Morgan & Samaras, 2015). Analyzing our data, we see that through our collaboration we create spaces for our students and ourselves that allow us to share and intertwine our expertise and embrace our vulnerability. In these spaces, we push and support each other to step outside of our comfort zones. We encourage each other to share our challenges, put forth half-formed ideas, and experiment, knowing that we are there for each other not to judge, but to collaboratively explore and generate new possibilities and perspectives for understanding and being, personally and professionally (Hamilton et al., 2020).


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Karen Rut Gísladóttir

University of Iceland

Edda Óskarsdóttir

University of Iceland

Svanborg Rannveig Jónsdóttir

University of Iceland

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