Responding to Pandemic-Centered Nihilism With Democratic Renewal and Restoration in Teacher Education

Nihilism in Teacher EducationDemocratic Renewal in EducationPandemic Pesponse in Teacher EducationJohn DeweyPandemic Grief and Loss
We are two tenure-track, but untenured teacher educators in the United States. We teach in the Midwest and Southwest. We have both taught in universities for more than 5 years. During the COVID-19 outbreak in the spring of 2020, school buildings and college campuses all over the county closed to prevent the spread of illness. As we worked through planning, redesigning, and revising courses we considered our teacher educator knowledge and expertise. During the movements between instructional modalities, we read and re-read John Dewey’s (1938) monograph ​"Experience and Education" (EE)​ together to organize our thinking. As we moved through shifting phases of our work, our purposes in reading have evolved with our changing contexts. We realized that going back to go forward again, which was Dewey’s (1938) view of history, does not always mean going very far back after all. We can use what teacher candidates have learned so far about teaching in troubled times to draw them through the rest of their preparation.


“Thanks again for the wonderful class yesterday,” the note from the classroom teacher read. “The students loved the lesson and felt that it helped them reflect on where their writing comes from.” For this creative writing class of high school juniors, Mary built a shared cloud slideshow and showed students several places to find images on the internet and paste them into collages. The class Mary was visiting was a high school creative writing class in the community where Mary is a teacher educator. The goal of the task was for students to share their sources of inspiration for the stories that they were writing. Some students found images of other books they had read in the same genre. Other students used photos they had taken of their neighborhoods and from experiences they had. Many students also used images and colors that symbolized the mood they were trying to evoke.

After students finished their collages, they used the comment feature to give feedback to one another that displayed the name of the peer. Other students left anonymous comments by using the notes section of the presentation program. Students had time to share and ask questions verbally. When the activity was over, Mary asked students for feedback about their learning. One student said, “I really liked how, even though some of us are at school and some of us are in our houses, we all could interact.” Another student sent Mary a private message through the video conference saying, “This is the first time that I felt I had friends in the class.” The students, it seemed, valued the interaction as much as the insight into their writing processes.

Mary visited the class often during the semester to participate in co-developed activities that promote writing development and promoted discourse about writing as a craft. Mary had visited this school and worked in this classroom during in-person learning before the pandemic of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in the spring of 2020. While Mary had always valued her work with the students in this class and in classes of other students at other schools, the onset of remote learning inspired Mary and Mark to revisit the work of John Dewey, particularly Experience in Education (1938). Mark is a teacher educator for social studies at another institution who Mary met at a virtual conference in the summer of 2020. During their regular meetings, Mary and Mark shared stories of hope like the one above and stories that were less hopeful, even nihilistic. These less-hopeful stories often centered on frustrations that the pandemic was disrupting teacher education practice but prompting changes that might be hopeful. The purpose of this paper is to share what we have learned about using Dewey’s (1938) work to reach forward rather than sink into despair.

Research Question

We are asking: How have we come to understand our responses to shifting conditions in teacher education to sustain our work during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic?

Practical Context for the Study

We are two tenure-track, but untenured teacher educators in the United States. We teach in the Midwest and Southwest. We have both taught in universities for more than 5 years. During the COVID-19 outbreak in the spring of 2020, school buildings and college campuses all over the county closed to prevent the spread of illness (Education Week, 2020). Education and teacher preparation were still expected to move forward during this catastrophic social and political crisis. We finished the classes we were teaching using remote learning procedures and processes guided by our respective institutions. We taught classes in the fall of 2020, the spring of 2021, and the fall of 2021. As we worked through planning, redesigning, and revising courses we also considered our teacher educator knowledge and expertise (Pinnegar, 2009). In the fall of 2020, Mary continued to teach online, and Mark returned to some in-person work. Mary taught online in the spring of 2021 and did not return to in-person teaching until the fall of 2022. During these movements, we read and re-read John Dewey’s (1938) monograph ​Experience and Education (EE)​ to organize our thinking. As we have moved through shifting phases of our work, our purposes in reading have evolved with our changing contexts.

Theoretical Context for the Study

Honestly facing the most difficult moments of our lives will inevitably upset our deepest commitments (Wagner, 2020). For us, we believed that we had a deep commitment to the democratic mission of schools (Goodlad, 1994, 2000; Goodlad et al., 2015). To understand our commitments in tandem with our experiences, this study operated using a particular definition of the word democracy. In the tradition of John Dewey (1938), we understood democracy not as a political party or a political system where everyone voting on all, or most issues is considered the gold standard. Instead, we understand democracy as a transformative way to operate in communities. Democratic communities encourage participation, plan for the vulnerable, and are aspirational in their interest to admit when something is not working and make consistent efforts to improve (Coulter et al., 2009).

As a public good, schools can be the center of democratic exchanges (Goodlad, 1994, 2000; Goodlad et al., 2015). In school communities centered on renewal, there is an interest in acknowledging the vulnerability of the young and the historically underserved while acknowledging the necessity of preparing them for meaningful adult life (Erikson, 1968). In this frame, schools can be places to help young people have experiences with democratic dialogue. As former classroom teachers and current teacher educators, we are aware of how difficult it is to center democracy in an institution that has consistently shown to reproduce hegemony, rather than allay it (Apple, 1980). We understand this was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, but having the temporary shift away from the school buildings as a potential locus of control offered a unique opportunity for educators and teacher educators to see exactly how potent traditional hegemonic forms of schools really are and how resistant people at universities and schools can be in trying to maintain structures of schooling that have failed by their own measures (Kozleski, 2020). It is with these understandings that we read Dewey (1938) and considered previous self-studies of teacher education practices (S-STEP) that centered on Dewey and democratic renewal.

Perspectives From Previous Self-Studies

For us, a globally disruptive pandemic heightened the need for teacher educators to understand the past while moving forward. S-STEP supports teacher educators in understanding the complexities of learning to teach (Vanassche & Kelchtermans, 2015). In fact, our efforts were built on the premise that S-STEP research makes a difference in teacher education (Kosnik et. al., 2006). Previous S-STEP research has helped teacher educators address a variety of special challenges from navigating early career workload (e.g., Arizona Group, 1994) to moving through career transitions (e.g., Clift, 2010). There is S-STEP work documenting the difficulties with providing educational experiences to students (e.g., Kim et al., 2021).

Reading and re-reading works of educational philosophy during times of trouble can bring opportunities for reflection and renewal for faculty members (Wagner, 2020). There is specific precedent for using Dewey’s (1938) ideas and conducting systematic readings of Dewey to learn about one’s practice. For example, Ritter et al. (2008) used a Deweyan vision of teaching social studies in collaborating with teachers and experienced tension in the idea that counterproductive practices and ideas that emerge during practicum experiences can be useful for improving teachers’ practice and in advancing democratic ideals where one has the right to make a mistake in learning and in teaching. Erickson and Young (2008) employed a similar framing where they tried to involve preservice teachers in policy decisions but found tension in what they perceived were professional obligations to use certain strategies and engage in specific routines. Their tension echoed Dewey-inspired (1938) understandings of democracy as a complicated task of embracing pluralism but tempered with some need for assimilation or standardization.

In another study, Cameron-Standerford et al. (2016) focused on learning from experience using Dewey (1938) as a framework. Pinnegar et al. (2012) read Experience and Education as a focal text to learn how Dewey’s work built storied knowledge. We read Dewey to understand our initial response to the pandemic as teacher educators. Each of these groups has used Experience and Education as an anchor to both elicit stories for learning as well as question the stories that they had about teacher education practices.

Methods and Strategies

Our work demonstrated characteristics of self-study of teacher education practice (LaBoskey, 2004). It was ​self-initiated since we worked to connect Dewey’s (1938) to our present circumstances; ​improvement-aimed​ as it sustained us in teaching as well as university service work for teacher preparation; ​interactive ​in the sense that we communicated regularly with each other to discuss the reading, tell stories, problem pose, and derive implications; ​primarily qualitative​ in its generation of data through dialogue and artifacts; and relied on ​exemplar-based validation​ where others can decide whether what we share resonates with their own experiences.

We discovered our mutual interest in understanding our current experience and using it to see forward in our practice at the S-STEP meet-up in May 2020. At that time, we invited a critical friend to help us think through the reading. Our critical friend suggested Dewey (1938) as a frame to support our reflection. Since we were both familiar with Experience and Education and we both thought it was important work, we accepted our colleagues’ advice. We set a reading schedule and established initial questions. We met every two weeks over the next several months. During reading, we searched for quotations from the reading that we thought spoke directly to our concerns in the pandemic. For example, we were both struck by the word ​connectivity in Chapter Two. Dewey referenced connectivity in his theory of experience to say that learning must have a contextualized flow to it and that miseducative experience can be interesting but is often un-connected:

…[E]xperiences may be so disconnected to one another; Energy is then dissipated, and a person becomes scatterbrained. Each experience may be lively, vivid, and ‘interesting’ and yet their disconnectedness may artificially generate dispersive, disintegrated, centrifugal habits. (Dewey, 1938, p.26)

We cued the word connection as having multiple meanings. We understood it as conceptual linkages (resembling Dewey’s original meaning) as well as digital access. We discussed what connected learning might mean in terms of establishing relationships online and providing threads in our instruction to acknowledge the current situation. We felt that all, if not most, of our curriculum would have to be recontextualized considering the present circumstances. Further, this dissipation and seeming scatterbrain-ness emerged for us as prescience for the current conversations about "learning loss"—whether there was such a thing, how learning across modalities offered different experiences of learning at home and school, what judgments are put on the outcomes of those experiences, and more. We thought about the inability to separate scatterbrained-ness from changing school experiences versus the pandemic and its economic and social upheaval. The pandemic—and all that came with it—was the "occasion."

We presented our work at an academic conference in the spring of 2021, which gave us the opportunity to reflect anew. During the summer, we met three additional times to compare our current experiences to the pattern we had established initially. Then, in the fall of 2021, we met twice to evaluate our experiences and understand what we could learn about the ongoing shifts in our teacher education practice through the pandemic.

We recorded the meetings we had using the features available in the video conferencing software that we used to meet. We maintained a running shared document of quotations we saved, our commentaries on it, and stories we told in relation to the reading. During data analysis, we highlighted and made comments on the document, re-watched our conversations, and made lists of major themes that were emerging and the evidence we gathered that supported that theme as such (Ní Chróinín et. al., 2015). We established the final themes by looking back at our research question and deciding which items from our lists were most useful in attending to our question. We shared these with our critical friend who provided additional feedback--not about whether our themes were “right,” but about how to shape the language as we conveyed the theme. For example, we were using the word ​recommendation​ in much of our notes and the critical friend brought to our attention that Dewey used the word ​suggestion, and so we might want to be consistent with the term. Our findings revealed a cycle of initial shock, followed by optimism, practicality, and disappointment, and then we ended with reframing (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Initial Model of Our Responses

However, as the pandemic progressed, we saw that we had tried to map linearity using this model when we noticed that we were having experiences that were in fact, nonlinear in nature. Specifically, we thought about how shifting conditions at our institutions could ‘snap’ us out of our optimism and we would return to shock. We found that we might experience all these during a single faculty meeting or in a single interaction with practicing teachers. Such experiences are represented in previous self-study literature, where Strom et al. (2018) described the non-linear work of teacher education before the pandemic.

Our realizations about this brought additional thinking and analysis using the recordings of our meetings and artifacts we began to gather such as faculty schedules, notices from the universities, revised policies, and so forth. As we worked to re-read these documents, re-watch the recordings, and re-engage with Dewey (1938) we determined that our experiences were better represented as a non-linear model where we engage in restorative actions while at other times, we are simply coping better. We recognized this alongside a non-model for understanding grief (Schut, 1999). In this non-linear model of grief, the purpose was not to ‘fix everything’ but to move forward—the same admonition that Dewey (1938) touts; “A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth” (Dewey, 1938, p. 40). Figure 2 represents our non-linear model.

Figure 2

Non-Linear Model of Our Responses

Ultimately, we found the second model where we travel back and forth between restoration and nihilism in response to current pressures, was much more representative of what we did and then we were better able to generate findings that were centered in the democratic aspirations of Dewey (1938).


Throughout this work, we continued to consider the phrase from (1938) where Dewey noted that “Situation and interaction are inseparable from one another” (p. 43). In Dewey’s thinking, experiences are constituted as a transaction that takes place between an individual and what, at the time, comprises their environment. We realized that the individual view of the transaction gave us pause because we found ourselves living collective and individual trauma that required collective and individual grief. We realized that transaction within an environment that seemed to be constantly shifting might account for what was becoming an on-going, increasing discontentment with the inertia of teacher preparation at our institutions.

One example of this inertia was represented in re-applications for students who dropped out during the pandemic and wanted to return. Among our colleagues, there was a sense of trying to decide who "deserves" to return and who does not. We could see that these conversations were oriented toward trying to make decisions based solely on past circumstances using strategies for decision-making that reflected past priorities for admission. Mary asked Mark:

More than a dozen of my friends have died since 2020, and my father is ill and dying [he eventually did die in September 2021]. I was a remote worker and a remote teaching parent for most of 2020. I supported students and family members with COVID-19 and through disaster like when my oldest brother lost his business in a wildfire. At what point could I have said that I have been sufficiently impacted by the pandemic to ‘deserve’ to drop a ball or take some time away from work? I don’t really want to make those judgments for students. Wouldn’t the more democratic way be to think about what is needed to move forward? What I mean by that is: What do students and the program need to put in place to go on? Can those needs be met?

Mark responded:

If our colleagues and institutions are unable to meet students, and our needs, what can we do ourselves? (Conversation, August 2021).

In asking these questions, we see the possibilities for both coping and restoration. In a coping frame, Mary would support the work of qualifying the students without raising any issues. She might even build a heuristic of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" loss from the pandemic. Instead, she shared her thoughts with colleagues about what she felt were more democratic ways to address the influx of re-applications; but more, Mary was able to use her experience to come to the important conclusion that she did not have to justify her loss to the academy to feel that it was legitimate. When she realized this, she found she was able to be more responsive to students and sit in tension with them about her losses versus theirs. In another example, while we initially hoped for a radical rethinking of how teacher education could leverage online, in-person, and various structures of hybrid work, we realized our institutions were making it harder for instructors to make decisions without higher-level approvals and additional work on our part. To us, these decisions were made without attention to strong reasons to meet remotely (e.g., a guest speaker that needed to use video conferencing anyway).

In a coping framework based on nihilism, we might have just said “Well, I guess we will go back to all in person again”—and some days we did talk like that is what we were going to do. In a democratic frame based on restoration, we decided to participate in professional learning required by our institutions to teach online courses, ask questions, and find out how we could provide more practice. Mary did this because she had such good experiences working with adolescents visiting classes virtually during the pandemic, but also because she taught one of her classes in person and her preservice teachers asked questions about how to teach online and she found that what might be considered basic skills of using the chat function for participation—not the technical aspect of finding the chat box and typing, but the determining how and when to use chatting to instruct and/or foster engagement—and other pedagogical moves like connecting the class through cloud documents were unsteady in the preservice teachers’ minds. While we realized there are more conversations to have about how to ensure digital learning opportunities are educative and meet students’ goals, we found that continuing to believe in the possibilities while being honest about the potential for limitations was a restorative act that helped us want to keep doing teacher education.


Our research question was: How can we understand our responses to shifting conditions in teacher education so we can be sustained in our work during the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer is that while we tried to find a linear way to make sense of our responses to our experiences, we understand now that there is no reliable rhythm during an extended, on-going emergency and our institutions were ill-equipped and interested in innovation only on certain terms. We realized how much we constantly engage in nihilistic coping in the face of dire teacher shortages in some communities and the on-going assaults on public education. Yet, we still have work to do as teacher educators.

We realized that going back to go forward again, which was Dewey’s (1938) view of history, does not always mean going very far back after all. We can use what teacher candidates have learned so far about teaching in troubled times to draw them through the rest of their preparation. For ourselves, we realized part of the reason we could not get a strong footing in being positive was because Dewey’s (1938) fears that materialist values are a threat to education in a transformational democracy really resonate with us and so unless there is a strong movement toward reckoning within our social institutions, we will likely persist with some skepticism of whether real change can occur. However, we can enjoy renewal as Mary did when she had such a good experience going and working with a class of young people who were delightfully surprised that they could learn something about writing from each other while they were not all in the same room and working to use digital tools. Further, some of that renewal can be vicarious as Mark enjoys Mary’s report and in turn, relays restorative stories to her about successes he has had while supervising prospective teachers at his institution.

Making our framework and then un-making to reflect a non-linear outlook taught us about loss and how it is constructed within our communities, institutions, and ourselves. First, we co-constructed an understanding of the pandemic as a change in circumstances and diversion of experience, rather than merely a subtraction of one thing from another. We learned about the contextual nature of loss as schools moved back to in-person learning; instead of enthusiasm and deep participation from our students who—according to some colleagues—would be overjoyed to be in our physical midst, many students were upset by what was now a new set of perceived losses: choices of when to do classwork, money used to pay for parking, and lost time with children and loved ones while they were now in a physical classroom. In materialist framing this makes sense. Losses and non-gains are more easily perceived than non-losses and gains in economics (Idson et al., 2000). Now that students and instructors have had the experience of learning online, it will not matter in what modality learning is done. As teacher educators, we will nihilistically notice the losses or non-gains more easily, and it is up to all of us to restoratively locate the gains and the non-losses.

Further, since doing this work, the country of Ukraine was invaded, inflation worldwide soared for a period, and there were unpreceded assaults on civil rights in the United States and beyond. Democracy in teacher education and education is not a passive state of being. To be democratic in our context requires us to seek nuance in making decisions that are both restorative and nihilistic. We do not think it is useful to think of ourselves as vessels of Grace to students and colleagues. A vessel of Grace will eventually be drained. Instead, we take encouragement from Dewey, who stated, “…attentive care must be devoted to the conditions which give each present experience a worthwhile meaning” (p.49). Rather than short-term nihilistic coping decisions, we desire to prioritize strategies for restorative practices with the understanding that we will likely have to use these strategies over and over.

Finally, we emphasize the value of S-STEP methodology learning from our experiences as we navigate difficult times. In moving this work through various stages with feedback from audiences and reviewers in the community we were able to break free of the linear approach we had initially conceptualized because our community thoughtfully engaged in our work. In the future, we look to position ourselves as members of a community and contribute to peace. Instead of pouring out our energy, we point ourselves forward.


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Mary F. Rice

University of New Mexico

Mary Frances Rice is an assistant professor of literacy at the University of New Mexico. She teaches writing pedagogy and digital composition. Her scholarship uses interdisciplinary approaches to study the literacies and identities of online teachers and learners. Mary was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities. She is also an Online Learning Consortium Emerging Scholar and a Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute fellow. Mary taught junior high English language arts, ESL, and reading support classes. She was also a Teaching English Language Learner (TELL) program instructor.
Mark Diacopoulos

Pittsburg State University

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