Trials and Tribulations of Transitioning Into Leadership

A Self-Study of Teacher Education Leadership
Critical FriendshipTensionsTeacher Education LeadershipSelf-Study of Teacher Education PracticesReciprocal Mentoring
Self-study research into teacher education leadership is still in its relative infancy (Allison & Ramirez, 2020). Much of this research has been conducted at the higher levels of administration, which include the deanship (e.g., Clift et al., 2015), with some scholarship on low-level administration, (e.g., Allison & Ramirez, 2016; Haniford et al., 2021; Kitchen, 2016). In this self-study, the authors - a college dean and a program administrator - sought to understand what shared experiences exist among TE administrators, the challenges/possibilities of enacting our administrative roles and responsibilities, and how reciprocal mentoring would assist in the learning of teacher education leadership. We used Berry's (2004) tensions of teaching teachers to understand the tensions of serving in teacher education leadership. In this paper, we focus on the tensions of action and intent and planning and being responsive.


Given the rapidly changing context of higher education, higher education leaders must understand the social, political, and economic context if they are to support faculty and staff in change and transformation. According to Teague (2015), one issue “is who will serve as the next generation of leaders. With the significant turn-over in leadership at colleges and universities expected in the coming years, attention must be paid to identifying and developing well-qualified and prepared leaders” (p. 1). The need to focus on developing leadership capacity is essential given that Rowley and Sherman (2003) illustrate that leadership positions are often filled by academics with limited experience in formal management. Although evidence suggests leadership development is essential (Boyatzis et al., 2006; Gmelch & Buller, 2015), formal leadership development in higher education remains lacking, with most leadership development the result of learning on the job (Anderson & Johnson, 2006; Butler & Yendol-Hoppey, 2020).

In this self-study, we aim to add to the literature on teacher education leadership (e.g., Snow et al., 2022), by investigating our transition into leadership, Diane as college dean, and Brandon as program director. Recognizing the lack of training and support for leading in higher education (Allison & Ramirez, 2020; Mills, 2010), coupled with the isolation experienced by teacher education leaders (Loughran, 2015, 2021), we wondered how reciprocal mentoring and critical friendship across leadership levels would help us understand and develop our leadership practices. As such, we sought to answer the following questions, how do we understand the tensions we experience while engaged in formal teacher education leadership?

Literature Review

Understanding and navigating the leadership challenges of an increasingly complex higher education environment is even more demanding in colleges of education facing unprecedented pressures from outside and inside the institution. Seismic shifts in K-12 education require colleges of education to have leadership prepared to work with radically altered public school partners, licensure requirements, high-stakes assessments of teacher education programs, declining enrollment, and a profession publicly under attack (Hollins & Warner, 2021). Coll et al. (2018) state that,

What is clear is that education [leaders] are expected to be trailblazers in the current tumultuous process of change and adaptation. They experience both internal and external stress related to change. Internal stressors come from the institution itself as budgets are squeezed, enrollments shift, and accountability demands mount. External stressors come from school districts that hire the teachers produced by the college, policymakers at all levels wanting improved or different K-12 student outcomes who think colleges of education need to produce the teachers that can do this, and think-tanks both those supportive of and those critical of teachers and public schooling (p. 5).

These challenges require colleges of education to have leadership positioned at all levels to reinvent and innovate if they are to remain competitive. Teacher education leaders cannot innovate alone, nor can faculty innovate without the support of leadership.

In a previous study (Butler & Yendol-Hoppey, 2020), we wrote of teacher education leaders “working through” faculty to affect desired change. The concept of “working through” others requires formal leaders in higher education to rely on faculty to identify, design, implement, and sustain various curricular innovations. In higher education, faculty are responsible for curriculum, yet higher education leadership is often expected to hold faculty accountable for this work (Kim & Maloney, 2020). Enrollment is under scrutiny as it trends downward (Sutcher et al, 2019; Wiggan et al., 2021), and accusations are made by those outside academia that programs are not relevant or needed (Aydarova & Berliner, 2018). Given the attacks teacher education face to remain relevant and bridge the research-practice gap, this responsibility is real to the survival of teacher preparation programs.

The challenges for teacher education leaders related to working through others are many (Butler & Yendol-Hoppey, 2020; Kim & Maloney, 2020). First, faculty must collaborate with one another to build program and curricular innovations (Hollins & Warner, 2021). This collaboration requires support from the whole faculty, not the work of a few. Second, as faculty collaborate, they must appreciate the diverse expertise colleagues must bring to the table and that knowledge needs to be recognized and integrated in a cohesive manner (Hollins & Warner, 2021). Faculty must identify and agree upon a body of knowledge important to quality program design. Third, faculty must have the prerequisite knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to design quality programs (Hollins & Warner, 2021; Snow et al., 2022). No one person possesses that knowledge and as a result, disparate knowledge is required to succeed, including knowledge typically found at the university level and in schools. Finally, faculty must take collective responsibility for assuring program quality and continuous improvement (Cochran-Smith et al., 2018; Hollins & Warner, 2021). When these conditions are present, higher education leaders are positioned to work through faculty (Butler & Yendol-Hoppey, 2020; Hollins & Warner, 2021).

Theoretical Perspective

Berry (2004, 2007a, 2007b) has written extensively about the tensions teacher educators experience while teaching teachers. She noted these tensions reflect the “ever-present ambiguity of teachers’ (and teacher educators’) work” (Berry, 2004, p. 1313), and are meant to “capture both the feelings of internal turmoil that many teacher educators experience in their teaching about teaching as they find themselves pulled in different directions and the difficulties that many teacher educators experience as they learn to recognize and manage these opposing forces” (p. 1313). Berry identified six tensions that produce conflict within the teacher educator’s practice, including telling and growth, confidence and uncertainty, action and intent, safety, and challenge, valuing and reconstructing experience, and planning and being responsive.

Teacher educators have used these tensions to investigate their practice (e.g., McConn & Mason, 2019), but we were interested in understanding how these tensions existed within our work as teacher education leaders (Butler & Yendol-Hoppey, 2020). Like other teacher education leaders (Allison & Ramirez, 2020; North et al., 2021), we struggled with the demands and expectations placed upon leaders. As such, we sought to apply these tensions to our leadership experiences and, building on Berry’s work, offer our conception of tensions in teacher education leadership (Table 1).

Table 1

Contrasting Tensions of Teaching in Teacher Education and Teacher Education Leadership

TensionsIn Teaching
(from Berry, 2007b)
In Teacher Education Leadership
Telling and GrowthThis tension is embedded in teacher educators’ learning how to balance their desire to tell prospective teachers about teaching and providing opportunities for prospective teachers to learn about teaching for themselves.This tension is embedded in leaders’ learning how to balance their desire to tell faculty and provide specific learning opportunities related to strengthening teacher education as opposed to relying on them to learn about how to strengthen and innovate in teacher education for themselves.
Confidence and UncertaintyThis is a tension experienced by teacher educators as they move away from the confidence of established approaches to teaching to explore new, more uncertain approaches to teacher education.This is a tension experienced by teacher education leaders as they balance what they know about teacher education (and the culture of higher education/teacher education) with learning on-the-job how to lead innovation/change in teacher education.
Action and IntentThis tension arises from discrepancies between goals that teacher educators set out to achieve in their teaching and the ways in which these goals can be inadvertently undermined by the actions chosen to attain them.This tension arises from discrepancies between goals teacher education leaders set out to achieve and the ways in which these goals can be inadvertently undermined by the actions chosen to attain them.
Safety and ChallengeThis tension comes from teacher educators engaging students in forms of pedagogy intended to challenge and confront thinking about teaching and learning, and pushing students beyond the climate of safety necessary for learning to take place.This tension emerges in the discomfort created in the lived experience of the teacher education leader when engaging faculty in activities intended to challenge and confront program innovation, and pushing faculty beyond the status quo.
Valuing and Reconstructing ExperienceThis tension is embedded in the teacher educator’s role of helping prospective teachers recognize the value of personal experience in learning to teach, yet at the same time, helping them to see that there is more to teaching than simply acquiring experience.This tension is embedded in the leader’s role of helping faculty recognize the value of their past experience and expertise as important to the puzzle, yet at the same time, helping them see there is more to teacher education than individual expertise and recognize the importance of building new and more comprehensive understandings of high-quality teacher education programs.
Planning and Being ResponsiveThis tension emerges from difficulties associated with implementing a predetermined curriculum and responding to learning opportunities that arise within the context of practice.This tension emerges from difficulties associated with changing current practices and responding to learning opportunities that arise within the leadership context.


Manke (2004) urged leaders to “consider self-study as a mode of learning about administration that can make great contributions to educators’ understanding of the context and practice that surround them” (p. 1389). Although we were leaders in different institutional and professional contexts, we saw benefit in collaborating with one another. Allison and Ramirez (2020) argued that “Leadership self-study inquiries heighten the importance of working with a trusted colleague, someone who is a confidential sounding board, provides an outside perspective unencumbered by institutional politics, and dispassionately challenges rationalizing or defensive thinking” (p. 1206). Accordingly, we framed our work through critical friendship, which helped us “act more wisely, prudently, and critically” as we served in teacher education leadership positions (Carr & Kemmis, 1986, p. 161). We also viewed our collaboration as a form of reciprocal mentoring, which Paris (2013) defined as “pairs of two equal, though differently skilled, experts who act in the role of mentor and mentee to each other for mutual benefit” (p. 136).


By summer 2023, Diane had concluded her sixth and final year as dean of the college of education at a high-research university in the southeastern United States. Before becoming a dean, Diane worked at three very-high research universities in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern United States. She held ever-increasing leadership responsibilities, including center director, department chair, and associate dean of educator preparation before becoming dean at her current institution. Diane returned to faculty in fall 2022 following six years as dean. In summer 2023, Brandon completed his 12th year at a very-high research university in the mid-Atlantic. Brandon has held several program-level administrative roles, serving as program director for two graduate degree programs and coordinator for two non-degree certificate programs.

Data Collection

Data collection began in spring 2018. We first shared professional autobiographies (Bullough & Gitlin, 2001), which provided us with insights into the professional work of the other, allowing for a degree of trust and relationship building (Branyon et al., 2022). Afterward, we generated periodic individual narratives related to our work as teacher education leaders. We contributed 13 narratives during the 2018-2019 academic year. During that time, we found ourselves distracted by academic and leadership responsibilities and renewed our collaboration through a book study of Clift et al.’s (2015), "Inside the Role of Dean". During the 2019-2020 academic year, we individually wrote narrative responses to each chapter and engaged in ongoing dialogue.

Data Analysis

Data analysis occurred in three levels. First, we used Berry’s (2004) six tensions of teaching as a priori codes for thematic coding of data categorically (Saldana, 2021). We individually identified themes and then discussed passage meanings and developed agreement. We aligned these themes with their respective tension, where we looked for patterns and generated thematic interpretations for how teacher education leaders experienced tensions in their work. Following this initial thematic analysis, we identified two tensions (action and intent; valuing and reconstructing experience) as the focus of this self-study, having focused on others (confidence and uncertainty; safety and challenge) in another paper (Butler & Yendol-Hoppey, 2020). For this second round of analysis, we turned to process coding (Saldana, 2021). Our final round of analysis used focused coding, from which the results of this self-study emerged. Codes for the two tensions were analyzed separately to ensure that categories and sub-categories aligned with the pertinent tension. To ensure trustworthiness, we used reciprocal mentoring and critical friendship, and provided exemplars using “previously defined categories validated from research” (Mena & Russell, 2017, p. 115).


Teacher education leadership is a lonely and time-intensive enterprise (Loughran, 2021). The work of improving teacher education is complex, with much of it taking place behind the scenes. To accomplish the myriad goals of teacher education, colleges of education require leaders who are knowledgeable about teacher education and invested in reform. In this section, we first explore the tension of action and intent and how we worked to achieve the goals of teacher education while countering those actions that inadvertently undermine the accomplishment of those goals. We then turn to the tension of valuing and reconstructing experience to highlight how we reconstruct individual and collective understandings of teacher education to improve the teacher education experience.

Exhibiting Care and “Working Through the Divide” as Teacher Education Leaders

Being Concerned About Good Teacher Education

Although having leaders invested in teacher education is necessary for the long-term success of teacher education, there is no guarantee that those in leadership have professional backgrounds or identities associated with teacher education. This is increasingly likely as distinct colleges of education are combined with other colleges or embedded with departments and programs not associated with teacher preparation. At one point, Diane’s college was at risk of being combined with another college at her university. She expressed her reservations with senior leadership, noting, “I told my provost that at this institution you need a teacher education dean to work with the urban school districts.” She went on to highlight the challenges teacher educators might face if they did not have a college-level voice both inside and outside the institution, “It is just too complex and a department chair will likely not have the clout to raise money or change policy.”

Diane was worried about what might happen to the positive developments in improving teacher education if she stepped down, stating, “The organization cannot rely on one person giving up their life though to do the dean work … I hope they can find a great next dean who is a teacher educator, but I don’t get to pick my replacement.” As a dean, Diane was viewing teacher education change from a senior administrative position. Alternatively, Brandon, who was a program director and teacher education faculty, saw dedicated faculty searches as a vehicle through which change could be affected long after she stepped down as a dean. He asked, “Is there a way you can have a voice in the matter? I know you’ve got a number of searches going and your hope is to fill them with individuals who commit to strengthening the teacher education work.”

In caring about teacher education, perhaps one of the most significant challenges for a leader is the distance developed from teacher education practice. Curriculum has historically been the purview of faculty and programs, with senior leadership maintaining some distance. As a teacher educator, Diane found this challenging because as dean, “We give up much of our ability to directly impact curriculum and programs, work with students, and engage in creative activities.” As someone with aspirations toward higher levels of leadership and who cared deeply about teacher education, Brandon acknowledged this tension, saying, “I understand the further you are away from the faculty position, the less you have to do with the nuts and bolts.” He added, “You become ‘big picture,’ when then some faculty critique you because you’re overly broad and not providing specifics, but if you provide the specifics they then complain because you’re meddling in the domain of faculty responsibility.”

Seeing the Big Picture as a Teacher Education Leader

In discussing our leadership experience, we wondered if faculty resistance to change was due to one’s location in the institution. For us, being a teacher education faculty member was akin to being a classroom teacher, with Diane noting, “It reminds me of when I was a teacher and couldn’t understand the principal sometimes. Usually, I didn’t have a complete enough picture to fully inform budget and other choices.” The question was less if there was a “conspiracy” toward change, it was how much of the “big picture” did faculty have about a college or a given situation. Diane stated, “The dean has the advantage of seeing the broader picture to help facilitate the implementation of an idea.” But we also acknowledged that leaders must engage faculty with the overarching goals of the institution, with Diane highlighting her attempts, “I have tried to provide faculty members with opportunities to inform the strategic plan and budget allocation. I learned very quickly that there is a big picture one must possess to fully participate in these activities and full participation in a process like that takes a tremendous amount of time.”

As teacher education leaders, we want to affect positive change, and to do so as quickly as possible. We felt poor teacher education would negatively affect student learning in K-12 classrooms. At the same time, we acknowledged change was a process. Diane argued, “Sometimes you have to acknowledge the incremental outcomes. None of it is fast and that is problematic because the work of teacher education needs to be done with a sense of urgency.” What was problematic was the lack of collaboration in achieving change. For us, we felt we were individual voices advocating for change rather than achieving as part of a collective. Diane noted the lack of collaboration at the four institutions she had worked in her career, stating, “I have watched too many faculty spend more time trying to take someone else down than working together.”

Re/Constructing a Comprehensive Picture of Teacher Education as Leaders

Shifting Interpretations of Teacher Education Leadership

Leadership changes in higher education are inevitable. The average tenure of a dean in a college of education is approximately three years (Coll et al., 2018). Department chairs serve approximately six years, with most returning to faculty and some into higher administration (Gmelch & Miskin, 2011). Leaders carry different goals and visions for their departments and colleges, mannerisms and ways of being, and ways of engaging faculty and other stakeholders. It is also inevitable that each of these may shift during one’s tenure as a leader as they continue learning the work of leadership. For us, our experiences with leaders have varied and directly inform - or challenge - the ways in which we see ourselves as leaders. Brandon reflected on the dean who hired him at his institution, noting that she “was a model of how to care for others… She clearly cared and interacted with her faculty on a daily basis. I knew that if I had to talk with her about something, her door was always open.” He highlighted the need for positive leadership, as his dean during this study was less personable and constructed barriers between faculty and administration. Having served on faculty and as an administrator at four different institutions, Diane noted the lack of positive leadership examples, stating, “The experiences I did have were with negative examples, not positive ones.”

Having served in various administrative roles, Diane helped Brandon make sense of his experiences with his dean. She replied, “Communication is central to being a good leader. You can have good and necessary ideas but if you cannot communicate intentions, then you’re going to lose more faculty than you would if you did.” She continued, “You’re never going to please everyone - that’s impossible - but you can mitigate dissatisfaction through proper communication and structuring of processes.” Brandon found this feedback assistive, replying, “Yes, this is an important trick - proper communication and structuring processes.” But, having lacked proper models for such practice, Brandon added, “Not ever really sure how to do that though. [I guess] you know it when you see it.”

Experiencing Challenges in Promoting Change

If the goal of teacher education is to support continued positive socio-cultural growth and change through the development of effective educational practitioners, it stands to reason that teacher education itself requires leaders intimately familiar with best practices and scholarship associated with teacher education. However, as we noted, few leaders with oversight over teacher education view themselves as holding expertise in teacher education. This reality negatively impacts the ability of those invested in promoting change in teacher education from doing so. To make sense of our place and responsibilities as teacher education leaders, we often discussed the substance of reform initiatives, particularly those that went beyond the “surface level,” which generated faculty resistance. One conversation was indicative of this constant struggle:

Diane: …Change requires a lot of time, thought, and policy development with layer upon layer of approval at our place.
Brandon: Change has been hard when it comes to things beyond course/program curriculum. To try and incorporate things into tenure and promotion, or basic faculty collaboration and communicative spaces, is met with resistance.
Diane: So, faculty here often resist administration suggesting changes. When the faculty aren’t policing and improving themselves, this is really frustrating.

Diane also sought to identify the cause of faculty resistance, stating, “I believe it is aloo fear and worry. Perhaps they don’t have confidence that they can do it or they believe that change will negatively impact their life.” Noting how she had to rethink her leadership to achieve change, Diane continued, “Expanding the sphere of listening and empathy is a goal for me. This becomes easier as I gain more confidence in my ability to communicate and navigate difficult conversations.”

Building New and Existing Programs to Improve a College

Although we experienced challenges as teacher education leaders, we also found success in achieving some aims. For Diane, an immediate priority was creating a learning culture, particularly among her leadership team. Through them, she hoped she would have a “team that is powerful enough to create a learning organizational culture within the culture.” She added they were “beginning to have a vision of where we are going with the college.” This approach reflected her mindset of accomplishing goals by working through others. Diane said, “I have been told this by a former dean when I was an associate dean. I agree totally but the approach only feels urgent when certain conditions exist.” For Brandon, his accomplishments were more limited in scope. Over several years he worked with faculty and school partners to develop a school-university partnership, and then was tasked with revising and leading an existing program. He noted, “I took on program administration with little understanding of what would be expected of me… [but] I took on the master’s degree program thinking this was my chance to put my stamp on something institutionally.”

In contrast, Diane, as a dean, had to gain the support of faculty and was forced to use other measures to achieve success. Brandon asked, “How have you been able to secure legitimacy for what you want to do?” She said, “I have placed pressure points and aligned accreditation demands that introduce the importance to faculty (which has led to some changes).” Diane also mentioned the need for specificity and clear communication when building a message about a college’s priorities, stating, “Check in frequently. Recognize incremental and large success.” As dean, Diane met with each faculty member during her first year to get to know them, met with departments each semester, met with faculty - by rank - as a group, led monthly leadership team meetings, and held regular faculty assembly meetings. Achieving success meant working as part of a team, with Diane arguing, “I don’t know anything that doesn’t take a real team to be successful.”

Providing faculty with opportunities to engage with leadership and substantively influence program, departmental, and college goals and their enactment is necessary to achieve meaningful teacher education reform. Early in our study, Brandon asked Diane what she saw as the dean’s role. Given that she was figuring out the dean role, Diane expressed uncertainty but then posed a question. “What would I hope a good dean would do?” She answered her own question, stating that a dean should “provide a clear vision with clear ways to achieve that vision, [and] nurture faculty and programs that can help achieve that vision.” This brings us full circle, in that we believe for leaders to affect meaningful teacher education reform, leaders must be concerned with the pursuit of good teacher education and be intimately familiar with teacher education practice, making them, truly, teacher education leaders.

Discussion and Conclusions

In this study, we highlighted how important leadership is in affecting positive change and improvement in teacher education. Teacher education requires leaders who have a deep commitment, care, and vision for teacher education, but also understand the urgent demands placed on teacher educators to reform teacher education (Hollins & Warner, 2021). However, without substantive reform in how teacher education leaders are trained and supported, it is likely that teacher education will not meet its full potential (Anderson & Johnson, 2006; Coll et al., 2018).

Perhaps a persistent challenge facing teacher education leadership is the long-standing perception of teacher education itself. Olsen and Buchanan (2017) noted that teacher education is “not typically viewed or treated as a distinct profession but rather as a job or role that educators drift into” (p. 28). If teacher education continues to be viewed as somewhat “self-evident” (Zeichner, 2005), requiring little support or training to effectively operate as a teacher educator, then it is little surprise that similar views are held toward teacher education leadership. The reality, as the research on teacher education leadership has shown, is far different. Clift (2011) noted that “the life, obligations, responsibilities, and roles of a faculty member do not provide a clear framework for assuming the role and responsibility of a teacher education administrator” (p. 168).

Successful teacher education requires knowledgeable and effective leaders. However, leaders require supportive learning environments to develop in their roles and responsibilities. Such environments may consist of formal training programs, learning modules and mentors provided institutionally, and professional development offered through professional organizations. In our case, we found reciprocal mentoring and critical friendship effective in supporting one another through the trials and tribulations of transitioning into leadership. We felt less isolated in our institutional environments, and we felt supported by someone familiar with our struggles. We also found benefits in exploring our growth through self-study research, as the shift into administration can create challenges in actualizing your scholarly identity (Butler & Yendol-Hoppey, 2020). Our collaboration provided us with the space to understand and improve our leadership practices while generating scholarship about that growth.


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Brandon M. Butler

Old Dominion University

Diane Yendol-Hoppey

University of North Florida

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