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Advocacy for Equity in Classrooms and Beyond: New Teachers’ Challenges and Responses

by Steven Z. Athanases & Luciana C. De Oliveira - 2008

Background/Context: New teachers face an array of challenges in today’s schools. Even when teachers leave credential programs with useful preparation, early-career jobs and contexts shape and constrain teachers’ goals and practice related to teaching diverse learners. Becoming change agents can be a tall order.

Purpose/Objective/research Question/Focus of Study: Considering this context, we sought to understand how graduates of one teacher credential program appear prepared to advocate for educational equity in their new jobs by asking three questions: (1) What challenges do new teachers identify in classes and schools that require advocacy for some youth? (2) In what ways do they respond to such challenges? and (3) What enables these acts of advocacy?

Research Design: A total of 38 graduates, all currently teaching, participated in five separate 3-hour focus groups of 5–10 teachers each. We used focus groups as a research tool to triangulate a range of other data, including artifacts and surveys. We sought teachers’ deep reflections on practice, on their preparation for advocacy work, and on their professional needs. We transcribed focus group discussions then subjected these to a series of procedures, including analysis of content and themes of teachers’ narratives.

Findings/Results: Teachers reported actions to address equity in a range of sites, with the classroom as the core site for teachers’ advocacy work. In complex narratives, teachers reported trying to meet learning needs of diverse students. English language learners’ needs especially prompted acts of advocacy in and beyond the classroom. These included instructional tailoring, out-of-class tutorials, hunts for better texts and tests, a library field trip, creation of a culture/computer club, heightened parent contacts, and launching of a bilingual parent group. Teachers’ acts of advocacy shared four crosscutting themes: a goal of equitable access to resources and support, convictions about equity, interceding on behalf of students in need, and engaging coadvocates. Teachers reported that these themes have grounding in their teacher credential program, which featured advocating for equity in its mission, goals, and practices. Those with bilingual education credentials engaged in more acts of advocacy beyond the classroom, and analyses suggest that this may be due to credential program experiences, life experiences, and the larger sociopolitical context for teaching English language learners.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Results challenge conventional models of learning to teach, documenting how teachers, even in the throes of the induction period, can focus on student learning and on ways to advocate in and beyond the classroom for those in need of someone interceding on their behalf, particularly when well prepared to do so.

Parents would say, “Why can’t my kid be in that? My kid needs extra time or deserves extra time.” The thing I would tell them is . . . not everyone has the same resources and the same past experience to get them ready to come to school. And my answer is that you have to trust me that I’m going to know your child and when it gets to the point that they need extra involvement or extra help, then they are going to get it.

—Anna, first-grade teacher

Diversifying instruction to meet varied students’ needs is a central educational concern, as Anna, a third-year teacher, illustrates. Having taught bilingual kindergarten, K–1 Spanish support enrichment, and now first grade, Anna was clear about a need to ensure that each child receives appropriate help to succeed in school. Embedded in her remarks are assumptions that she can and will assess her students’ varied needs, that she can differentiate support, and that extra help, when needed, is on the way. She offers an optimistic view of her role as advocate for educational equity. Other graduates of the same teacher credential program share her vision of the importance of this advocate role. In focus group discussions, they told rich and complex stories of advocating for students in their first years of teaching in their classrooms and beyond. Although most of their stories share Anna’s convictions, many include challenges of managing differentiated instruction and frustrations with ineffectual colleagues or school policies. In addition, teachers prepared to teach in bilingual settings reported more acts of advocating beyond the classroom for reasons that we explore.

Student needs, particularly in underperforming schools, can be daunting, and many teachers face this reality unequipped. In California alone, the site of the present study, the number of underprepared or uncredentialed teachers was expected to reach over 41,000 by 2002, with 48% of teachers entering the profession without credentials (Shields et al., 2001). Moreover, unprepared teachers are unequally distributed to low-income schools serving mostly students of color, many of them English language learners (ELLs; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002; Oakes, 1990; Shields, et al.). Many students in these teachers’ classes likely will be underserved. Even with a credential, teachers may be unprepared for school challenges. Also relevant is a well-documented gap between experiences of middle-class White women, who constitute much of the U.S. new-teacher population, and those of culturally and linguistically diverse and low-income students. Efforts have strengthened preservice teachers’ knowledge and attitudes about, and pedagogy relevant to, diverse learners (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 2001; LaFramboise & Griffith, 1997; Olmedo, 1997; Troutman, Pankratius, & Gallavan, 1999). We know less, however, about whether new teachers engage often-articulated acts of critically examining schooling conditions and working to create empowering school cultures for underserved students of color (Banks, 1995), or developing commitment and skills to act as agents of change (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). In urban contexts in particular, little work has examined practices and effects of new teachers engaging as activists for more equitable schooling (Oakes, Franke, Quartz, & Rogers, 2002).

For new teachers, becoming change agents can be a tall order. Concerned with survival in new jobs, many teachers can barely keep their eyes focused on individual student learning, much less make change in and beyond the classroom. Standards for student and teacher performance in the United States hold potential to strengthen education for all learners (Darling-Hammond, 2001), but with little guidance to meet them, many new teachers feel “lost at sea” (Kauffman, Johnson, Kardos, Liu, & Peske, 2002). New and veteran teachers alike bemoan pressure to teach to tests, in a climate of intimidation by assessment (Stiggins, 1999). Even when teachers leave credential programs with useful preparation, early-career jobs and contexts shape and constrain teachers’ ideologies, goals, agency, and practice related to teaching diverse learners (Buendía, 2000; Causey, Thomas, & Armento, 2000; Cochran-Smith, 1991). Institutional policies, colleagues, and professional learning opportunities affect teachers’ instructional attention to diverse learners (Stodolsky & Grossman, 2000). New teachers leave the profession early at an alarming rate, often because of job dissatisfaction and unsupportive schooling conditions (Ingersoll, 2001).

Against this backdrop, we sought to understand how graduates of one teacher credential program appear prepared to advocate for educational equity in their new jobs, with attention to being “agents of change.” Faculty of the program from which Anna graduated worked for several years to develop and investigate an experimental program with explicit attention to preparing teachers as advocates for equity. A prior study examined multiple data sources of graduates’ perceptions of their preparation to teach for diversity, and faculty perceptions of relevant program work (Athanases & Martin, 2001). Of note were teachers’ reports of advocating for equity in classrooms and other sites, even in the demanding first years of teaching. For the present study, we examine these issues of advocacy among new teachers in detail. We asked these research questions: (1) What challenges do new teachers identify in classes and schools that require advocacy for some youth? (2) In what ways do they respond to such challenges? and (3) What enables these acts of advocacy?



Advocating for equity begins with a focus on student learning. Although this seems basic, even very experienced teachers benefit from professional development that features the work of an individual child and ways to raise academic expectations and performance of low-income youth (El-Haj, 2003; Timperley & Phillips, 2003). Achieving a student learning focus can be a greater challenge for new teachers, who tend to focus on early-career concerns such as self-image, resources, and procedures, and only later on curriculum and students (Farrell, 2003; Fuller, 1969). One model of teacher development described the novice’s inward focus, and adaptation and reconstruction of the novice’s self-image as teacher, without which the novice cannot progress to having a student focus (Kagan, 1992). However, the present study is shaped by a social reconstructionist frame: In this view, teacher education can and should jump-start a new teacher’s focus on student learning. In addition, from the perspective of a continuum of teacher learning across a career span (Feiman-Nemser, 2001), such attention can and should be reinforced by mentors in the teacher induction period. Despite a prevalence of conservative mentoring functions that Little (1990) characterized as situational adjustment, technical advice, and emotional support, mentors with a clearly defined knowledge and skill base can focus teachers early in their careers on learning of students, particularly low-achieving students (Athanases & Achinstein, 2003), and can guide new teachers’ attention to diversity and equity concerns (Achinstein & Athanases, 2005).

With education of all children as a primary goal, from a legal and economic perspective, equity means that funding should go to those in greatest need (Kohl & Witty, 1996). This may require redistribution of resources—for example, allotting more funds to better support special education students’ learning. Beyond finances, equity for teachers may mean redistributing resources of time and attention to students in particular need, and differentiating supports for learners to ensure equitable outcomes (Haycock, 2001). Critics of such work argue that it attends so much to those in need that those better prepared receive inferior education. However, many argue that equitable learning environments strive for high achievement for all learners, while teachers in such settings seek to close achievement gaps of their students (e.g., Cohen, 1997).

In the classroom of a multicultural society, an equity focus requires cultural competence: knowing roles of culture in education, being committed to learning about students’ cultures and communities, and using culture as a basis for learning (Ladson-Billings, 2001). It also includes monitoring teacher-student interactions for fairness and cultural sensitivity (Grant, 1989). This may entail observing who is participating and who is not, and who is being served and who is not by particular instruction and why. In this equity framework, teaching is not an ethically neutral activity but one steeped in considerations of care and justice (Hargreaves, 1995; Keltchermans & Hamilton, 2004; Noddings, 1984; Secada, 1989; Witherell, 1991). It includes casting all aspects of school as problematic rather than given; learning to locate expertise inside oneself rather than merely outside; and knowing how to examine what is in schools and how to determine or imagine what could be (Richert, 1997). Moving from such imagining to action includes recognizing a need to advocate in ways that align with core definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary: “to intercede on behalf of another” or “to publicly recommend a proposal or action” (Merino, Martin, & Pryor, 2001). The term here echoes its use in Romance languages—abogado (Spanish), advogado (Portuguese), avocat (French)—meaning attorney, or representative of others who cannot represent themselves, which involves taking actions on their behalf.

Such actions have been reported among veteran teachers who, in one study, told how antiracist professional development helped them make interpersonal relationships, curriculum, and institutional efforts that better serve students of color (Lawrence & Tatum, 1997). A third-grade teacher’s involvement in a doctoral course on multicultural education aided her efforts to revise a South Carolina history unit to include African American and Native American perspectives, an inquiry frame, and a reflective component for colleagues rethinking curriculum (Jennings & Smith, 2002). Newer teachers, graduates of a program that prepares social justice educators for urban schools, reported reasons that they remain in teaching at higher rates than most novices. These included learning to become change agents in curriculum and pedagogy; participating in and leading committees and after-school programs; and promoting structural changes such as detracking and facilitating college access (Quartz & the TEP Research Group, 2003).

Equity-focused teaching also includes knowledge of ways that social, historical, political, and economic forces shape patterns of access and achievement for students and how school structures reinforce and resist inequities (Nieto, 2000). Besides knowledge of larger sociopolitical contexts, to be change agents, teachers also need to understand the local micropolitics of department, school, district, and community—political literacy to understand how and when change is possible in an organization (Kelchtermans & Ballet, 2002). This includes knowing the players, power hierarchies, and allegiances. It also includes knowledge of strategies to navigate, respond to, and proactively influence schools and to read and influence organizational contexts (Achinstein, 2006). For a new teacher often focused on surviving the first years, this can be particularly challenging.

The present study examines advocacy for equity, analyzing discussions with graduates of one credential program. Prior studies of the program explored instruction in teacher inquiry to address learning needs of ELLs or underperforming students (Merino & Holmes, 2002), and graduates’ reports of ways that the program prepared them to advocate for all youth (Athanases & Martin, 2001). The present study examined five focus groups of graduates to explore issues more deeply. Transcribed discussions yielded, among other things, narratives related to advocacy.


Teacher narratives provide a rich source of data for understanding educational issues. This study is framed by educational research grounded in narrative. Each mode of representation yields particular forms of seeing and understanding (Eisner, 1994). Narrative is not only one of these modes of thinking and expression but also a structure for organizing knowledge and a process for educating (Bruner, 1996). In schooling, stories provide insights about course content and can support construction of a classroom community (Dyson & Genishi, 1994). Narrative often is used by effective teachers to foster social relations, to enable linking of school and world knowledge, and to structure critical thinking (Martin, 2000). Narrative inquiry in educational research and theory has examined roles of stories of experience, particularly the functions of teachers’ stories (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, 1994; Knowles & Holt-Reynolds, 1994).

Teachers’ stories are not merely tales with plots and facts. They can enable access to a teacher’s developing knowledge base (Craig, 1998) and can point to troubling issues and theories worthy of reflection (Gomez & Tabachnick, 1992). In book talk stimulated by published narratives, teachers’ stories have enabled deeply textured encounters with issues of culture and equity (Florio-Ruane, 2001). Much more than a technical process, learning to teach involves articulating, transforming, and adapting a personal teacher identity, and use of personal narrative can support that process (Carter & Doyle, 1996). In research on teaching and teacher education, stories represent a way of knowing and thinking well suited to explicating educational issues (Carter, 1993). This is in part because narrative brings past and imagined experience to consciousness (Heath, 1986). Teacher stories can help us understand our place in the world, the roles we assume, the actions we take, and the meanings that we make of events. The content of narrative is action and the situation that action creates (Havelock, 1986). In disciplines as varied as literature and psychotherapy, across historical periods from Aristotle to the present, narrative has been understood as the organization of action and events into a unified whole (Polkinghorne, 1988).

However, actions and narrative are not the same; narrative is a linguistic construction that recounts and organizes actions into a unified whole that has meaning. The linguistic elements of the story are, in a sense, its poetics, a window into the teller’s attempt to give the story both texture and meaning. For Bruner (1986), meaning often resides in a coda, the teller’s closing commentary on a narrative. Culler (1975) differentiated between story, to refer to events, characters, and settings (content), and discourse, to refer to the form of expression, presentation, or narration of the story. For this study, we distinguish between story and discourse. We describe themes that emerged from teachers’ stories related to advocacy; we then examine the discourse of the narratives for particular meanings that the tellers ascribe to the events. In other words, the stories contain actions, events, and themes; the language used by teachers to narrate the actions provides commentary and insight. However, we see these two dimensions as interacting. As Culler noted, to ignore the discourse of the telling, the poetics, means that we run the risk of seeing only sequences of events without the tellers’ meanings. On the other hand, if we examine only the discourse, we miss the power of the selection of events that can educate us.



The site for this study is a large California research university with a relatively small program that prepares teachers for multiple- and single-subject credentials. Though now doubled in size, at the time of the study, the program prepared an average of 67 candidates per year and 40–60 more in summer and weekend coursework through a collaborative program with a nearby state university. Students complete a Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development (CLAD) credential or a Bilingual Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development (BCLAD) credential—designed to increase knowledge of culture and diversity and to prepare teachers to work effectively with students developing English proficiency. Assignments and experiences address these issues in courses such as Cultural Diversity and Education, Language Development in the Chicano Child, Teaching Language Minority Students in Secondary Schools, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (for English teachers), and BCLAD courses such as Communication Skills for Bilingual Teachers. In 1995, the programs were designated “experimental” by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, an incentive to review guiding principles, investigate practice, and conduct a self-study. The program claims to develop four teacher roles. The primary role is advocate for educational equity; documents reveal a focus on addressing inequities of schooling and society, especially in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Three other roles support the advocate role: reflective practitioner, collaborator, and researcher on one’s practice.

One self-study goal was to understand development of teachers as advocates for equity. Data sources were surveys, questionnaires, interviews, observations, and focus groups. Sixteen teacher educators and over 300 program graduates primarily from the 1997–2000 academic years participated in the larger study. The study reported here taps these sources but features perceptions of advocacy identified by graduates in the context of focus group discussions.


A total of 38 graduates, all currently teaching, participated in five separate 3-hour focus groups of 5–10 teachers each. We recruited 6–12 participants per group—a minimum of 6 for lively interaction and a maximum of 12 to ease members’ participation and moderator control (Flores & Alonso, 1995). Because of teachers’ last-minute conflicts, one group had a low of 5, and others had 7–10 members. Three conditions increased generalizability of results (Fern, 2001). First, participants represented the larger population of new teachers under consideration. Second, they were recruited independently to mirror the larger population and to promote group heterogeneity. Third, discussions focused on a small number of issues so that responses could be generalized, not diluted or muddied by too many concerns.

Participants were selected to achieve balance and diversity in some areas and contrast in others. Balance occurred within and across the first three groups in ethnicity (slightly over one third were teachers of color, mostly Latino, with several African American and Asian American); and program (balanced with single and multiple subjects, with several graduates of the newer collaborative program). Balance also occurred in grade levels taught (balance of elementary and middle/high school) and subject matter emphasis among single-subject teachers (with slightly more English teachers than math or science teachers). We considered years of teaching experience (mostly balanced across 1–3 years; with a few with slightly more experience). For gender, despite recruitment efforts, male teachers were underrepresented, even in terms of program participation. For contrast, we recruited BCLAD credential graduates for the final two groups, to learn these teachers’ particular advocacy challenges and perspectives on their preparation for this work.

Participants’ teaching contexts varied, with a preponderance of lower income urban and rural communities with culturally diverse students and high numbers of ELLs in the schools and the teachers’ classrooms. Urban sites tended to be very poor, often with populations at nearly a third African American, a third Latino (mostly Mexican American), a third Asian of varied ethnicity, and small numbers of White students. Most ELLs were native Spanish speakers, but several teachers reported high numbers of students whose native languages were Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, and Russian/Ukrainian. Several urban teachers reported large student groups living in housing projects, and several rural schools had many children of migrant farm workers. Graduates with BCLAD credentials worked in a range of communities, in classes with primarily ELLs and, in some cases, in bilingual or English language development (ELD) classes.

Groups were moderated by a new faculty member and a postdoctoral researcher, both strangers to graduates, to increase participants’ candor. Both are White, one male and one female. Both had experience in teacher education and in moderating discussions and analyzing discourse. The former (and first author of this article) teaches courses on cultural diversity and education, and researches diversity and equity in K–12 and teacher education. The latter teaches about teacher leadership, and race, culture, and politics in education, and researches American Indian and non-Indian teachers and their relationships with students. Two female undergraduate prospective teachers, one African American and one Mexican American, served as research assistants. A non-native English speaking graduate student with expertise in language education, linguistics, K–12 second-language development issues, and adult education assisted in analysis and is second author. We all had knowledge of the credential program but no direct involvement at the time of the study.


Background data included year-end student assessment surveys completed by over 300 students over 4 years, on which students rated significance of 14 program elements in helping them develop knowledge and skills for work as advocates for all children (see Athanases & Martin, 2001, for account of full data set, and Merino et al., 2001, for selective survey results). Core data analyzed for this study were transcripts and field notes of five focus group discussions. Teachers reflected on, among other topics, their current conceptions of advocacy, their relevant practices, ways that the program did and did not prepare them for this work, and ways that their school sites support and constrain their advocacy goals (see the Appendix). Discussions were audiotaped, with names changed after transcription to assure anonymity. Program documents served as support data.


More than cursory opinion reporting, we sought teachers’ deep reflections on practice, on relative merits of their preparation for that work, and on their ongoing professional needs. It is in both doing and thinking about that doing that much of a practitioner’s expertise is developed and displayed (Schon, 1983). To promote and tap such reflection, we used focus groups as a research tool to triangulate a range of other data and to illuminate survey results (Flores & Alonso, 1995; Morgan, 1988; Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). In addition, focus groups can uncover trends obscured by consensus in surveys and aid theorizing about phenomena (Fern, 2001).

Unlike surveys and structured individual interviews, focus groups allow participants to take some control of conversation by articulating ideas in the context of others’ remarks (Bergin, Talley, & Hamer, 2003). Focus groups also allow participants’ voices to be more dominant in the research process (Krueger, 1994). Moreover, focus groups can capture dialogic and fluid aspects of opinion formation (Fern, 2001), supporting the social construction of knowledge. In the education of novices in four professions—teaching, architecture, law, and medicine—two conditions have held the most potential to engage professionals in fruitful reflection: Artifacts stimulated reflection, and reflection was explored through social means (Richert, 1991). We built both conditions into procedures to support teachers’ reflections. To address the artifacts condition, as participants convened, they reviewed two large tables of artifacts of the credential program. These included institutional documents such as statements, brochures, and overview materials; course and practicum materials, including syllabi; lists of resources used; and sample lessons. Also included were student work samples, such as teacher portfolios, sample lessons designed, reflections on teaching and teacher preparation, and visual stimuli, including photos of classroom interactions. Focus group discussions then began with group brainstorming of things recalled from the credential years. Teachers called out names of assignments and faculty members, topics and themes, issues and challenges. An assistant recorded all ideas on large butcher-block paper, then hung these sheets prominently to promote reflection during discussions.

Participants made notes on their professional autobiographies and teaching contexts and then used them for introductions to the group. This highlighted group members’ distinctiveness and helped deter a tendency for dissenters to suppress disagreement in favor of maintaining group consensus (Morgan, 1988). Discussants often participate unequally, due in part to gender, ethnicity, cultural norms, and perceived status of group members. In focus groups, men often take the floor during unstructured time, frequently interrupting and changing the topic flow; women often make nonverbal requests to speak without gaining response, and moderators have to call on women to speak (Brown, 2000). Our groups had few men, and their participation did not reveal discussion dominance. However, we watched to see if those racially/ethnically/linguistically not in a majority in otherwise homogeneous groups might withdraw, especially in disagreements. Following Brown, we worked to ensure that these participants were not silenced, and we attended to nonverbal signs of desire to speak. Clarifying participation rules helped, but moderators intervened at times to encourage the silent and discourage the dominant. To maximize chances that all participants feel comfortable to participate fully, discussions began with ordered turns in response to central questions, with each group member invited to take and hold the floor as fully as needed to answer a question. Following these turns, often scaffolded by moderator probes (e.g., Can you say more about how you adapt your lessons for ELLs?), participants were encouraged to engage in crosstalk, extending and refuting others’ responses.

The moderating style adopted was nonjudgmental reflective listening, conveyed through nonverbal communication and verbal means of clarifying, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, and summarizing (Fern, 2001). Efforts were made to establish a climate of trust, safety, and respect, because distrust of a moderator can cause participant resistance, stepping back, and dropping out (Fern)— salient concerns because our lead moderator was a White male academic, and most participants were female classroom teachers, over one third people of color. Moderators reflected on biases in moderating groups, to foster participants’ engagement. To aid reliability of method, we used a constant moderator style in a scripted but flexible format, with probes for elaboration. A protocol of questions was followed by open-endedness to capture unique reports and insights.


We transcribed focus group discussions then subjected these to a series of procedures to identify units of analysis so that relevant meanings of discussions could be managed, maintained, and explicated (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). First, we reviewed all five transcripts totaling 300 double-spaced pages, along with moderators’ reflective notes written directly following focus groups. We wrote up emerging categories and themes, guided by teachers’ articulation of challenges warranting advocacy, of markers of acts of advocacy, and of support and impediments to act. Second, because we primarily were interested in the teachers’ conceptions and stories of advocacy, we isolated portions of transcripts concerning these stories. Informed by Bruner (1986), Carter (1993), Connelly and Clandinin (1990), and others, we parsed the narratives for features of story structure. Context (large issues) and context (specific issues) referred to the background that teachers provided in terms of specific characteristics of their school districts, and school and specific situations giving rise to the presenting problems to which they felt the need to react. The category problem referred to the presenting problem(s) leading to the teacher’s responses/actions. Stance/attitude refers to what teachers reported feeling and wanting to do for underserved students. Response/action includes specific responses or actions taken by these teachers that exemplify their practices of being advocates. Resolution/reported outcome involves the results and effects of the specific actions taken by the teachers. In some cases, a coda provided final reflection on the story’s meaning.

Using this emerging template for the structure of the narratives, we created a data file for each focus group, in which transcribed talk was copied and pasted into relevant cells of the narrative matrix. We continually revised the narrative categories until they captured all portions of the full set of narratives. Other discourse data, such as reflections and commentaries on fellow participants’ narratives, were used later to support, extend, and refute emerging analyses.

To move from story structure to analyze content and themes of teachers’ narratives, we then examined the salient categories of challenges that teachers identified as warranting advocacy, and their reports of actions and responses to these problems. This procedure involved use of concise language to capture often long and complex narratives. To monitor the fit between teachers’ language and our concise representation of it, we practiced construction of language independently and then compared notes on links between original narrative and our representations of it. We then co-constructed the abbreviated language of every narrative to create a concise file of challenges and responses. This file enabled us to construct data displays (Miles & Huberman, 1994) and to report on various patterns and crosscutting themes in the narratives of advocacy.

Our repeated readings and analyses led us to realize that a category of stance or attitude in the narratives provided information about teachers’ predispositions to act in response to problems. To answer our research question—How do the teachers describe their motivations to act or their refusal to act on the presenting challenges?—we conducted linguistic analysis, following Polkinghorne’s (1988) argument that “study of the realm of meaning requires the use of linguistic data” (p. 7), and “the realm of meaning is best captured through the qualitative nuances of its expression in ordinary language” (p. 10). We repeatedly read teachers’ language for emerging patterns and for links between stance and action.

We then used the constant comparative method (Merriam, 1998) to analyze teachers’ discussion reports of ways that their credential program did and did not prepare them to advocate for equity. We report results of this analytic strand in a separate study (Athanases & Martin, 2006) and a condensed version for the present article. Finally, we examined transcripts and field notes for ways that focus group interactions shaped the talk. As Myers and Macnaghten (1999) noted, “In social research . . .opinions are produced in context, for specific interactional purposes” (p. 185). This required attention to interactions and to how groups varied. A teacher’s report of acts of advocacy in this context may not predict how he or she might engage in similar acts in the future; however, it documents teachers’ conceptions of advocacy and their responses as expressed in particular focus group contexts. We do not claim that table numbers represent independent reports (as in surveys) because of the interactive component of focus group discussion. However, the numbers provide an outline for deeper analysis, and we benefit from the social construction of knowledge in which artifacts and talk prompt deeper levels of reflection. In addition, within a narrative, a teacher may discuss several challenges, and we did not want to lose the richness and complexity of thinking represented there. On several occasions, therefore, we double coded a narrative as representing two challenges. We balance summary and quotation to capture both patterns and precise illustrations (Morgan, 1988) and use representative cases to illuminate themes.


We first map the sites of teachers’ efforts to advocate for equity. We then report challenges and actions related to advocacy in and beyond classrooms. Because the latter are particularly rare for new teachers, we then present three teachers’ narratives of advocacy beyond the classroom and analyze how they exemplify themes that emerged across the full corpus of narratives of advocacy. We also discuss teachers’ reports of their credential program preparation for this advocacy work.


Teachers reported actions to address equity in a range of sites. As Figure 1 shows, the classroom, at the center of this map, is the core site for teachers’ advocacy work of several kinds. This is where the new teacher can feel some agency and control in designing strategies and taking actions to meet students’ learning needs. The classroom, though, is nested in a set of other sites of advocacy, from the school out to families and community, and out to policy structures and larger social spheres. The arrows from classroom up to school indicate the way in which some teachers reported moving up and out of their classrooms to adult groups in the school community where they felt the need to advocate for youth. For example, one teacher concerned about special education students having little voice in relevant school policies and about their parents not knowing their rights, stated, “I started going up to the administrator to complain.” These groups included other faculty members, school committees dealing with policy issues, resource staff for students with special needs and, at the top of the hierarchy of adult groups, the administration.

For advocacy with families and community, Figure 1 shows a bidirectional arrow stretching up and out of the classroom toward community. This indicates how teachers reported reaching out to families to engage them in children’s school learning, and attempted to pull them in to classrooms for activity during and after the school day. In several cases, these acts had purposes of engaging family members in activities at sites indicated by arrows that point out from family and community: parent groups located within the school borders; PTA (parent teacher associations) situated at the border of school and community; and the public library located out in the community. Finally, a few of the narratives included accounts of advocating for equity in policy and larger social spheres within which schools are situated.

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As Table 1 shows, classroom-based student learning issues were the primary prompt for teachers’ convictions and actions related to advocacy, because 32 of the teachers, or 84%, reported such challenges, and these challenges were explored in narratives in all five focus groups. Briefly, classroom-based challenges and responses included the following. As Table 1 shows, most frequently, teachers told accounts of ways that they needed to address ELLs’ diverse language needs. Responses included full-class pedagogy and tailoring of instruction. Teachers reported ELLs’ learning needs at grade levels across schooling years. Stories included kindergarteners needing help with English listening comprehension, first graders needing support in reading basic Scholastic books, children at upper elementary grades needing enriching materials to transition to English rather than mere picture books or simplistic texts, and ninth graders needing close attention to English language development. Teachers reported ways that they responded to these challenges during class time and through extra meeting times with students before and after school, during lunch, and in after-school clubs. (For a detailed analysis of advocating for ELLs in and beyond the classroom, see de Oliveira & Athanases, in press.)

Table 1: Challenges Prompting Convictions and Actions Related to Advocacy in Teachers’ Focus Group


Number (and %) of all teachers reporting

Number BCLAD teachers reporting

Groups explored

(N = 38)

(N = 12)

(N = 12)


Challenge focus

Classroom-based advocacy regarding student learning

32 (84)



ELL learning needs

16 (42)

9 *


Meeting needs of highly diverse students

12 (32)



Cultural dominance, racism, linguicism

8 (21)



Mainstreamed special education students

6 (16)



Classroom management and expectations

5 (13)



Beyond-classroom advocacy

19 (50)



School site issues

12 (32)

7 *


Family and community issues

9 (24)



Larger educational policy and practice issues

3( 8)



* Indicates that more than 50% of teachers reporting this challenge focus were BCLAD-credentialed teachers.

Table 1 shows a second set of issues reported by 12 teachers across four groups concerned meeting needs of diverse students beyond language concerns. Teachers reported trying to meet learning needs of an amazingly diverse population in terms of home countries, cultural norms, reading levels, learning styles, gender, life histories, and behavior. Responses took the form of tailored attention to varied needs during class time but sometimes involved special work beyond class and in lunchtime tutorials, after-school sessions, and clubs. The challenges of remarkably heterogeneous classrooms posed greater challenges for middle school and high school teachers who managed many students daily in tight schedules. High school teachers, across subject areas, found diversification of instruction essential and profoundly challenging as they juggled it with pressures of curriculum coverage, standards expectations, and testing mania.

Three other areas prompted acts of advocacy in classrooms. Table 1 shows that 8 teachers across three focus groups (7 of them BCLAD credentialed) reported ways that they needed to advocate for youth when larger sociopolitical issues filtered down into class, such as cultural dominance, racism, and linguicism. Issues prompting teachers’ actions included cultural divides in schools between “migrant kids” and “farmer kids,” Anglo students policing Spanish use by peers, and Spanish-speaking students hiding their command of Spanish out of fear that it was not a prestige language. Responses included full-class discussions, intervention activities, and one-on-one coaching. Six teachers across three groups reported challenges related to mainstreamed special education students, especially meeting the needs of learning-disabled students and attending to emotionally disturbed students without neglecting needs of others. Finally, Table 1 shows that 5 teachers in just two groups addressed classroom management issues related to advocacy. These included holding high expectations for all students, differentiating discipline with sensitivity to cultural norms and community practices, and the need to find strategies that work to reach students acting out, rather than bailing out on kids.


As Table 1 shows, 19 teachers (50%) reported acts of advocacy beyond the classroom, and 10 of these teachers (just over half) were BCLAD credentialed. We briefly overview this category, then present cases of 3 teachers’ acts of advocacy beyond the classroom. Table 1 shows that 12 teachers identified problems related to advocacy that they addressed in school sites beyond the classroom. Challenges involved accessing resources and support for students, and challenging school policies and practices in ways that extended classroom-based concerns. Issues included securing adequate testing of and support for special needs students; lack of adequate curricular materials for students transitioning into English; and lack of faculty sensitivity and active response to changing demographics. Several teachers reported that nonmainstream students often were cast as problems rather than as reasons to make change.

Teachers reported advocating for youth in faculty meetings, conferences with counselors, formal and informal meetings with colleagues, and meetings with school administrators regarding policies that needed revision to meet all students’ needs. Four narratives (three from BCLAD teachers) involved confronting an administrator about students’ needs. In one, a teacher was disturbed by her principal’s practice of assigning “role models of English” to each classroom. Her core concern was that English monolinguals were used as language models even though they were low-socioeconomic-status (SES) children and speaking “poor English.” This teacher wanted the principal to see that balanced bilingualism is an important goal and could be modeled by native-Spanish-speaking Latino children who had developed English proficiency. Though several teachers reported supportive leaders, 2 spoke of administrator resistance to their advocacy. One noted, “I’m a first-year teacher and I really want to make sure that these kids have equity and here I’m not even getting the support from my administrator. I’m being frowned upon. That is very frustrating for me.”

Three teachers, all BCLAD credentialed, told narratives of how they challenged school practices broader than concern about one student and more entrenched than a single administrator directive. Issues included faculty complaining about Mexican American students missing school in December for trips to Mexico for family reunions, holiday rituals, and celebrations, without proposing solutions; a school practice of using simple texts to help students move to more advanced literacy when more enriching literature was needed to challenge and engage students; and tracking of students by language proficiency when greater mixing of students was needed across tracks to challenge ELLs to reach toward higher English proficiency. All three cases involved voicing concerns to make school policies better serve ELLs, the main target youth for BCLAD-credentialed teachers.

Table 1 shows that 9 teachers, 6 BCLAD credentialed, told of efforts to draw parents into school policy and into supporting students’ learning. Several described how their cultural identity and/or proficiency in a language other than English enabled them to advocate for parents in support of students. Three spoke of efforts to strengthen ways of communicating with parents about school policies, students’ progress, and parents’ rights regarding support of children with special needs. Two narratives involved libraries to support students’ developing literacy in very low-SES schools. In one case, a kindergarten teacher in an inner-city school noted that her students had little book exposure, and only two had been to a library. She created a field trip with parent chaperones to the local library so that children could get library cards and get immersed in book activity and so that parents could get exposed to library services. She also sent home maps so that all parents could locate library branches near home and sent explanations about written and taped materials that families could access. A second teacher in a rural school created an eighth-grade library because the school had no card catalogue, no books, and no funding. She raised $1,000 the first year and $3,000 the next by carefully preparing arguments about need, meeting with the Lyons and Rotary Clubs for donations, and developing a plan for community members to donate the cost of a book and then have their picture on a dedication sticker in the book. She also instituted an annual book party to welcome family members to a book-based evening.

Finally, Table 1 shows that 3 teachers’ narratives addressed larger educational policy and practice issues. One teacher at a diverse continuation school with older students trying to earn a diploma bemoaned exit exams and voiced a need for standards boards to be more sensitive to students not on the academic track. Her way to advocate was to “crab about issues like this” by writing letters to educational policy people, calling for less top-down activity and more attention to teachers’ understanding of the range of students. Another case involved a teacher’s critique of tests designed by outsiders. She noted discrepancies between test versions in English and Spanish and, knowing that results would be compared, she wanted to ensure that her students were not judged intellectually inferior based on a problematic test. She raised the issue at her site that tests created by agencies need scrutiny and screening by the school. We now present cases of three teachers’ accounts of advocacy, focused especially on ways that advocacy extended beyond the classroom.


In reporting these cases, we highlight four themes that emerged across the full corpus of 38 teachers’ narratives. We selected these cases from among many because they illustrate the themes clearly and provide a sampling of the varied challenges that teachers identified as warranting advocacy, and teachers’ varied forms of response. Crosscutting themes were the following. First, narratives included a focus on gaining or helping others gain equitable access to resources and support for student learning. Second, narratives revealed a conviction about equity and the need to act. Teachers reported a proactive stance, a predisposition to act on behalf of one or more students whom they deemed in need of advocacy, despite potential opposition, extra work, exhaustion, or risk. Third, acts of advocacy involved interceding on behalf of one or more students. At times, this took the form of action and doing, and at times it featured speaking for one or more students in the school forum and other sites. Finally, narratives of advocacy beyond the classroom engaged other actors as coadvocates.


A former medical researcher, Maureen now taught fourth grade at a low-income, culturally diverse school with a strong presence of gangs and guns. Maureen, a White teacher completing her second year in the profession, was especially aware of special needs students’ rights and told how ineffectual her school was in meeting needs of such students (we define her labeling terms in the discussion that follows her narrative opening):

One of my own blood children is a special ed student. As a parent I was very much aware of my rights. I also became an advocate for special ed students in the mainstream because they don’t usually have a voice and their parents are quite often not aware of their rights and what is available to them to help them succeed. So when I went in to my Title 1 school (one of those special ed mainstreamed environments), ELL kids, SDC, and “resourced” are in my room. And I found that within the first week I had assessed and I knew even those who weren’t already identified as RSP or SDC, that I had another good portion of my students who were below and needed to be evaluated. So I went to my fourth-grade colleague and I said [to the] Student Study Team, “How do I get on it?” They said, “Well you go sign up.”

All four themes are evidenced in Maureen’s narrative. She shows a strong advocacy stance for helping special education students gain equitable access to resources at her school site. These include resource specialist programs (RSPs) designed to support students enrolled in regular classes for more than half of the day but who show discrepancies between abilities and academic levels as defined by the law. Students with more intensive educational needs that cannot be met in regular classes and with aides and support services can be formally identified as needing special day classes (SDCs) for more than 50% of the day. Maureen clearly has knowledge of these services and knows that the Student Study Team (SST) serves a crucial function of gathering human and programmatic resources to design an alternative instructional plan. The SST may include administrators, concerned teachers, counselors, psychologists, and parents. Noting the problem of special education students not being diagnosed and not having “a voice” at her school, Maureen immediately went to a colleague to ask how to get support for her students. She continued,

Already they had a docket of follow-ups and everything else—they only do one a week. My first kid didn’t even get in until after the first of the year. I was livid! I started going up to the administrator who was very sympathetic, but it’s budget/personnel. I even knew of other students who through parent conferences also should have been “SSTed.” I also talked to those teachers, “Are you aware that the sibling of so and so may be LD, needs to be looked at?” You either get agreement or “I can’t deal with it, I’ve got 20 kids. I’m sorry I’m not going to meet his needs.” I find that very hard to deal with.

In seeking special services through an SST that did not get reviewed for 4 months, Maureen’s reaction (“I was livid!”) shows a conviction about equity and a reaction at the personal level. This conviction drove her to intercede on behalf of this student and others by speaking with an administrator about the problem of delay in review of cases. Her convictions also made her critical of colleagues who neglected these students. Her response to the neglect shows a conviction that such a situation is unacceptable, evidenced in the use of “very hard to deal with”—especially because she has sought coadvocates in her efforts. Maureen reflected on her role at the school:

I think they realized when they hired me that I was kind of a strong person and the principal kind of knew it. I hope they’re happy that I’m there because I think you need to speak up for those children and anyone in your classroom who is off the mainstream, you got to meet their needs. Half of my class is not at grade-level standards as they are stated and dictated to us. But, you’ve got to keep in there fighting, you’ve got to work at it. I find it a very exhausting but a very valuable job. I’m much happier here than at med research.

Maureen shows a strong conviction about advocacy for equity in expressing the need “to speak up for” special needs students and all those “off the mainstream.” She demonstrates uncertainty with use of the verb hope, showing that she has doubts about administrators’ satisfaction with her hiring. When she says “you need to speak up for those children” and “you’ve got to meet their needs,” the verbs need and have got to indicate necessity—not a matter of desire or expectation, but a matter of obligation. The verb speak up for suggests the need for teachers to raise their voices, in the sense of the word abogado, or representative of others who cannot represent themselves, which involves taking actions on their behalf. Despite a challenging reality of half her students being below grade-level standards, Maureen’s commitment suggests that advocacy for students means necessity (you’ve got to), persistence (keep in there), forceful action (fighting), and sustained effort (work at it).


Anna, whose words opened this article, was a White woman in her 20s and a fluent Spanish speaker. She taught first grade at a large year-round school of around 900 students in a highly diverse neighborhood. Her school had one bilingual track and one Spanish Support Enrichment track. She taught a “true bilingual” kindergarten class for a year, then taught a year each of kindergarten and K–1 Spanish Support Enrichment. Anna began her narrative by defining her role of advocate for equity:

I think the advocate part is really important in that it goes beyond just believing for yourself and in your own classroom and your own students that they all can learn and they all will have access to what they need to learn. But you’re an advocate, you actively go out and in your school site as a whole try to make sure that’s happening for all students. An example for me was helping start and get established a bilingual parent group at our school and then training parents to be leaders of that group.

Anna distinguished between believing something and actively going out in her school site. For Anna, being an advocate means more than a belief in a teacher’s own students; advocating means action, moving beyond the classroom. She also distinguishes a teacher’s own students versus all students, and for Anna, equitable access is key so that all students have “what they need to learn.” Anna continued her narrative by focusing on parent involvement:  

Well, at our school it’s probably around 60% students who come from Spanish-speaking families, but when I started there, the PTA was all Caucasian parents. The Spanish-speaking parents didn’t really feel a part of the school. They felt like they had their own little group that was a part of it, like the Spanish-speaking parents arranged celebrations and activities within the school to celebrate things like Cinco de Mayo or Dia de los Muertos. But there was no mixing, there was no feeling of ownership of the school as a whole.

Anna explained her concern that although Spanish-speaking parents arranged celebrations and activities, they didn’t participate in other parent-related activities with Caucasian parents. Anna’s description shows a conviction about equity, that all parents need to feel part of the school. The noun feeling implies the importance of a personal level of commitment and engagement necessary for parents’ involvement. Anna responded to the issue:

So one of the things that myself and several other teachers did was help start a bilingual parent group, which was like a PTA except targeting these Spanish-speaking parents who wouldn’t go to PTA meetings. So this past year, we actually had elected officers for it and are trying slowly to turn the control of the group over to the parents by training them. But that was a big part to me, where all families feel like they have ownership of the school and have a right to have a say in how things are done there.

In starting a bilingual parent group with colleagues, Anna showed a strong conviction that parent involvement is not only participation but also a matter of power or privilege to which parents are justly entitled, and a responsibility for what goes on at school. Anna interceded on behalf of parents, serving as a representative and pulling in colleagues and parents as coadvocates who ultimately could support all children’s learning.

Just as Anna worked to mix parent groups to strengthen families’ equitable access to school life, Anna’s second narrative similarly features mixing student groups to strengthen ELLs’ equitable access to school resources:

Between 16 and 18 of my 20 students were Spanish speaking, and it was kindergarten or last year K–1. So it was their first opportunity to be in a classroom where they were hearing a lot of English. But with having four tracks, one being bilingual and this other one being designated for Spanish support, they are very segregated. And a lot of their books and things that are in English, that are at their level, were in other classrooms.

In this example, Anna speaks to the issue of detracking. Inequality was demonstrated by the lack of appropriate books and by segregation as a result of tracking. Again, Anna interceded:

So I felt that I really had to push or be an advocate for them, to get mixing of students across tracks. So that’s one example I thought of, of how in the classroom . . . like just saying, “No, it can work,” and the kids need to be with kids who speak English as their first language if we are expecting them to be able to be proficient at it by third grade. Just having them only hear each other and interact with each other is not going to do it.

Anna’s opening to her act of interceding shows a conviction about equity at the personal level (“I felt that I really had to”), showing the need to act in response to a problem of equity. The verb push shows effort needed to intercede. Anna shows a conviction that for kids to develop English proficiency, they need to be with other kids who speak English. The mixing with students from other tracks allows for more equitable access to resources of English input in the form of both books and English speaking peers. Her use of “No, it can work” anticipates potential opposition to the plan and her insistence on resisting the status quo of groups segregated with different books and speakers of different levels of English proficiency. Her last statements further support her conviction that mixing is not only important but necessary.


Rena’s case involves three separate acts of advocacy: in the classroom, in an after-school club, and in ongoing interactions with parents. Rena taught bilingual Spanish classes to first and second graders in a large school of approximately 1,000 students. An Armenian American fluent in both Armenian and Spanish, Rena was well placed in her first school assignment, where Armenian and Latino students constituted the entire population. Rena’s narrative of classroom advocacy involved helping bilingual students gain equitable access to school resources by seeking supplemental books for students to read and perform in front of English-speaking peers. We feature, however, her advocacy beyond the classroom. In one case, she helped start an after-school culture and technology club to promote equity:

At our school, we had done a survey, and a lot of the students that had computers at home were ones that were White or from upper middle-class backgrounds. So being one of the bilingual teachers, I thought it would be something more fair to give students with no home computers a chance to be on the computers for a little bit longer time.

The presenting challenge in this narrative is a digital divide: children from low-SES backgrounds without computers at home. The divide relates to equitable access, the need for these students to use computers at school more often. Rena’s conviction about this need led her to respond:

So I helped start an after-school culture and technology club. It was 1 hour. The first part would be dedicated to learning something about the culture. We had guest visitors that would help to talk about something about the country, or we’d talk about a certain food or a certain region or a poem or a song. And the other half would be where the students would get time on the computer in the computer lab, and they loved having that time. That was just for Spanish-speaking students. I thought that was one of the ways of making them feel more equal because at our school there was no program for these kids and yet they were being held back in some way. So that was neat! It was very successful—we got several hundred students to participate. In fact, it got so big that we had to create separate sessions.

Rena reported the program’s success (“so big that we had to create separate sessions”) and went on to explain that they expanded to one session for first and second graders, and another for students in Grades 3–5. Rena’s conviction about equity is signaled in statements about all kids needing access to computers to support academic achievement, and shows the importance of kids feeling more equal. Rena’s act, along with efforts of colleagues and guest speakers as coadvocates, was instrumental in making this club happen. Although the act of interceding began as an ambitious project of a thoughtfully designed club with several goals, it blossomed into something even larger than Rena even had anticipated, serving “several hundred” Spanish-speaking students from Grades 1–5—far more than her own charge of one class of first and second graders.

In another narrative, Rena reported advocacy in communicating with parents:

I kind of think that the educational equity part for me means like every student can and does succeed whether it’s at a different rate and sometimes if you don’t speak their native language or if you’re not considered “in” on their crowd (because sometimes they don’t necessarily respond to you if you’re not of their same background), you might not be seeing their progress.

Rena shows conviction about the importance of accessing knowledge about what’s going on with diverse students. She goes on to tell how she developed this conviction in part through her experience of having shared cultural and linguistic insider status at the school where she taught:

Because I was an Armenian teacher, a lot of the Armenian parents would open up to me more openly, more than they would to some of their own teachers. And yet I was able to see some of the progress, whereas others teachers would think, “Gosh this student had made zero progress.” I know that if I taught the same exact grade level by talking to them in Armenian, I was able to see certain things that were happening at home or if they were doing those things. You could really see the progress because you were “in,” you knew the language, and they could communicate with you better.

Rena described how her cultural identity and proficiency in a language other than English enabled her to advocate for parents in support of students. The parents considered her “in,” so they communicated with her better. She reflected on this way that she had interceded:

So, I think it’s a matter of being a little bit more open-minded and knowing that everyone succeeds, it’s just at a different rate, and to give them that chance. So I think that was a very eye-opening experience because I know that they were very glad that I was able to help them by saying “No, they’re on track.” And I was able to tell the teachers, as well, that things were going OK, or certain things were happening at home.

Rena was able not only to communicate with parents about students’ progress but also to bring the conversation back to students’ teachers, functioning in an even bigger role than just communicating with parents about students. Rena served as cultural and linguistic ambassador, above and beyond the call of duty, with students not even assigned to her classes. Rena was a bridge between parents and other teachers. In addition, as the opening of her narrative highlighted, Rena reported this act of advocacy to illustrate not merely what she did with a particular cultural group of parents and students (and their teachers) in a particular community but also how this narrative illustrates the need for all teachers always to be “more open-minded” and to understand that although we can never have personal access to all cultural and linguistic knowledge, we can develop knowledge that all students succeed at different rates in different ways. Her narrative reminds teachers that a school community may have cultural and linguistic ambassadors who can serve as resources for students, parents, and teachers, as Rena did in the narrative she told.


Our crosscutting themes of equitable access to resources and support, conviction about equity, interceding on behalf of students in need, and engaging coadvocates arose in cases of all three teachers we highlighted, as they did in the larger corpus of narratives. Maureen’s advocacy beyond the classroom for special needs students highlighted for her the need to work with multiple parties (colleagues, administrator, parents) in several arenas to meet children’s needs. Maureen, the fighter, felt responsible for giving voice to those who usually do not have a voice, so that they might succeed. Anna’s narratives demonstrate that equitable access is important for both ELLs and their parents. ELLs need access to school resources and the opportunity to interact with English-proficient children. ELLs’ parents need access to school involvement. Anna’s narratives showed that her advocacy acts contributed to such access. Anna, the mixer, displayed convictions about what it means to be an advocate and the importance of looking beyond one’s classroom to achieve equity. Rena’s advocacy acts started in the classroom but moved beyond to reach other students and parents in her school site. For Rena, access meant providing students with opportunities to show that they can read; giving Spanish-speaking students more equitable computer time opportunities; and serving as a communicative link between parents of nonmainstream cultural and linguistic groups and the teachers of their children. Rena was a bridge between resources and students, students and other students, and parents and teachers. The following section addresses new teachers’ preparation to be advocates for equity.


Graduating from the same credential program figured heavily in teachers’ convictions and actions related to advocacy for equity. We trace the four themes already explored to teacher preparation, highlighting things learned both in the present study and related studies (see Athanases & Martins, 2006, for a detailed analysis of ways that teachers reported learning from their teacher education program to advocate for equity).


Program graduates repeatedly noted strong preparation in knowledge of diversity and equity as they relate to youth in and out of schools. Undergirding this preparation were (1) core questions of whom schools serve, who is not doing well, and what one can do about it, and (2) an understanding of disparities and the need for students and families to gain equitable access to learning opportunities and resources. Anna noted, “I felt like we were directly taught educational equity, what that means, what that should look like in your classroom.” Staff had worked for several years to develop and investigate an experimental program with explicit attention to preparing teachers as advocates for equity. Program documents, notes from faculty meetings and retreats, students’ work on conceptions of advocacy, and teacher educators’ syllabi, portfolios, interviews, and questionnaires revealed programwide attention to preparing teachers to educate culturally and linguistically diverse youth and to advocate for equity in schools (Athanases & Martin, 2001).

Graduates consistently reported learning that to address equity, a teacher must first place learning of individual students at the center of teaching. Assignments, projects, and role-playing supported this stance across many different courses. In addition, graduates reported ways that coursework helped them to develop cultural and linguistic competence and equity pedagogy. This included learning how students historically have been left out because of race, language, and class, and how to monitor one’s pedagogy for equitable access. Among areas of emphasis were the need for challenging curriculum and high standards for all students; grouping strategies to promote equity and accommodate all learners; ways to use multiple modalities in classroom learning; and reflection on one’s teaching practice related to equitable learning.

Strong preparation to teach ELLs was particularly prominent. This included knowledge of language development; pedagogy to scaffold language demands and content learning; methods for classroom inquiry and intervention to strengthen ELLs’ learning; and how social, cultural, and political forces impact education of ELLs. A majority of over 300 program graduates reported in surveys that they felt well prepared to advocate for equity in classrooms and schools, with particular attention to ELLs (Merino et al., 2001). Student teaching placement was important in deepening understanding of equity issues. The program places student teachers in culturally and linguistically diverse and generally high-need sites in primarily urban and rural settings with an average of 60% of students on free or reduced lunch; graduates often take jobs in high-need schools (Merino et al.). Graduates also pointed to the importance of sustained and scaffolded apprenticeships in teaching for equity, with student-teacher supervisors as mentors and ongoing cohort discussions in supervisor seminars and informal settings to reinforce equity concerns.


Two themes emerged in convictions about equity. First, graduates reported a strong cohort of well-selected program candidates who helped foster a stance of advocacy. Teachers develop professional roles in part due to ways that personal histories have shaped their convictions, attitudes toward school and culture, conceptions of teaching, and stances toward interpersonal relations (Au & Blake, 2003; Florio-Ruane, 2001). The credential program from which teachers in this study graduated screened applicants for academic performance, experiences with youth, and orientation toward diversity. Several teachers entered the program predisposed toward advocacy for equity. Personal experience with linguicism and prejudice toward those with accents shaped some teachers’ acts of educating colleagues about ways to be more sensitive to Mexican-descent youth. Maureen’s status as a mother of a special education student predisposed her to advocate for special needs students and to report that advocacy at school and in her credential program cohort. Bilingual teachers know the challenges of learning a second language and in several cases reported particular sensitivity to the need for appropriate scaffolding and resources to help ELLs learn English. Other relevant antecedent factors included teachers’ early tutoring and intern experiences with youth in schools. In addition, the program increased enrollment of students of color, from none to an average of 27% in the first 4 years of its experimental period, and 43% in the fifth year (Merino & Holmes, 2002), enabling perspectives of a more diverse student body to shape teacher preparation dialogue and experiences about equity. Anna felt the program “did a great job” selecting candidates:

People who came from all different backgrounds and had all experiences in school growing up and some had done different things and were coming back. People just brought with them really rich backgrounds and perspectives. And I felt like there were a lot of really strong individuals in that program, and that I learned probably just as much as I learned from the actual instructors of the classes, especially with the emphasis on collaboration. There were a lot of people who, in my opinion, had been strong advocates for different things, either as undergraduates or in other parts of their lives. I definitely got an appreciation of that and a desire to be like that from being in the program.

Anna’s remarks point to the power of building cohorts of teacher candidates who can model for each other, set the bar high on advocacy, and participate in a community of teacher learners.

Beyond building cohorts of carefully selected candidates, a second theme was the ways that the program helped develop and deepen a disposition to advocate for equity. We consider disposition “an attributed characteristic of a teacher, one that summarizes the trend of a teacher’s actions in particular contexts” or a “summary of actions observed” (Katz & Raths, 1985, pp. 301–302). Predisposition, then, refers to feelings and beliefs that may prompt one to act a certain way (Katz & Raths). In their narratives, teachers spoke of ways that the program shaped and deepened their convictions about equity, with BCLAD teachers reporting such convictions even more frequently and strongly. Much of the program value, argued graduates, lay not only in concrete strategies but in development and reinforcement of a caring and proactive stance to support students’ learning and to advocate beyond the classroom. About such a stance, Anna reported, “I was passionate about it, coming out of this program.” Faculty and supervisor modeling of a focus on individual students was fundamental and vivid. Several faculty members stood out as providing consistent and passionate examples of this stance. One graduate noted that her professor taught her, “I’m an advocate for these children, these are my children, they’re my students, I’m here for them, and I have their best interests at heart.” Also important was a stance of acting rather than complaining. One faculty member was identified as being particularly clear about the responsibility to act on behalf of those students in need and to try to find a solution when educators become divided over a school policy with students’ learning at stake.


Graduates reported themes related to learning to intercede on behalf of students, learning merits and strategies for outreach to families and communities, with advocacy for special needs students, ELLs, and their families particularly important. However, this was truer for those BCLAD credentialed, and more explicit programwide instruction in outreach to families appeared necessary. In some cases, teachers learned to tap new pedagogical content knowledge to make advocacy work. The teacher who created the eighth-grade library, for example, traced this advocacy for students and families to learning in the credential program how to act in response to inequities related to funding and resources. She explained that her literacy perspective was rooted in her reading methods class in learning why children read and do not read, how to identity and address reading problems, how to inspire reading, and how to engage parents in talking about books with their children. This teacher used three sources of knowledge developed in her English methods class to articulate rationales for book choices: merits of young adult literature, uses of noncanonical works to engage diverse learners, and ways to choose subject matter connected to standards. She noted, “I never, without this credential program, would have thought of that.”

BCLAD-credentialed teachers learned a range of ways to advocate on behalf of ELLs, particularly because they were earning teaching credentials in a time when bilingual programs were being dismantled in California, and Proposition 227, an English-only initiative, was passed in the state. The program promoted strategies that included designing classroom and lunchtime interventions to strengthen students’ language learning; practice in articulating positions on bilingual education issues; reading studies about bilingual education and practicing talking to a school board about reasons that bilingual education might and might not work; learning how to survey colleagues and schools about school policies and school political climates as they relate to support for ELLs; and participating with an instructor in government forums related to education of ELLs.


Graduates reported value in observing and being mentored by classroom teachers who themselves held convictions about equity and appeared to advocate for students in need in and beyond the classroom. Several teachers who did not benefit from such models at their school sites felt that this was a weakness and argued for more careful placements. Although some teachers engaged parents as coadvocates, graduates felt unequally prepared to do so. High school teachers, often with 150 students per day, felt less inclined to contact parents as coadvocates, having such large rosters of students.

Engaging coadvocates at school sites also was not easy; teachers reported a shortage of support professionals. One teacher noted that teachers get students who need to be served by professionals other than a classroom teacher. With a shortage of help, the teacher needs to step up. This teacher reported the need to assume responsibility because “you’re often left to be the person to do that.” Again, this suggests that the responsibility of the teacher is to do more than teach. Another teacher reported the need to be the missing link, brokering support if you can locate it. He reported how a student had “bolted” from his room the first day:

He hadn’t ever been evaluated. He came out 98% emotionally disturbed, ADD. How did he get through the system until fourth grade? Like, hello? Someone down there needs to be working, check the cumulative files, you know. They didn’t want to take the step to maybe pursue it. They’re not doing the kid a favor and certainly not anybody else.

This teacher closed his remarks by stating that students and resource staff need teachers to help, to be coadvocates looking out for those in need. He added, “I was instrumental in getting him evaluated.” His language choice marks his awareness that he served as the “instrument” but could not do this work alone.


New teachers who graduated from the same teacher credential program reported challenges of advocating for equity in classrooms and beyond. Of particular note is that teachers in all focus groups and across grade levels reported concerns with ELLs’ learning needs. Reports included complex ways of seeing how challenges of meeting students’ learning needs warranted advocacy within the classroom and extended beyond classrooms to other sites, such as faculty lounges and meetings, staffing conferences, and exchanges with administrators. Teachers assessed the need for more equitable access to resources and learning support, felt convictions about equity that drove them to act, interceded in various ways, and engaged coadvocates.

Our study has several limitations. First, we cannot generalize from our study that similar results will occur in other sites with other new teachers. Our participants were not randomly selected. To address this, however, we sought a representative sample of program graduates, and we looked closely at qualitative data collected in focus group settings to examine how five groups of teachers reflected on their practice and its origins in order to provide an up-close look that contributes to research and helps theorize about new teachers learning to advocate for equity. Second, our study relies on self-reports of teachers’ advocacy communicated in focus group settings. This work will be strengthened by future efforts to follow selected teachers into their classrooms and school sites for observations of teaching and advocacy in action, and for interviews with teachers, students, and other school and community personnel to study the impact of such acts on teaching, student learning, family support, school culture, and school policy and practice.

Teacher preparation research needs more longitudinal perspectives (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2002), particularly in documenting preparation of teachers for historically underserved communities (Sleeter, 2001). Although our study does not examine classroom practice of program graduates and their students’ achievement, it provides qualitative data analysis of reports of graduates’ practices and some links between these and their credential program. Notably, White teachers in our study, including Maureen and Anna, did not cast themselves as deficient in being able to address needs of culturally and linguistically diverse youth; instead, they presented themselves as actors predisposed to act in service of equity.

Several new teachers told of ways that they had advocated for students and their families. Most reports extended from ELL concerns. These included heightened communication with families about the nature of school activities, ways to support students’ learning, and family rights regarding services. Responses also included serving as cultural and linguistic liaison between parents and other teachers and fostering involvement in parent groups. Although only one narrative of advocacy involving parents emerged from the three non-BCLAD focus groups total, both BCLAD focus groups included four to five narratives each of outreach to parents, of advocating on behalf of students and families, and of building institutional structures to support parents’ involvement in the education of their children. Several of these narratives included attention to serving as language interpreters and cultural ambassadors for parents.

Several factors may explain BCLAD-credentialed teachers having reported far more acts of advocacy beyond the classroom than did other new teachers. First, the BCLAD-credentialed teachers may feel the need to speak up about problematic school policies and inequitable learning opportunities for students because their preparation to teach ELLs and teacher education coursework on the role of language in academic literacy (Schleppegrell, 2004) is more up to date and developed than that of many of their more veteran colleagues who have not benefited from professional development to teach ELLs. Regarding meeting ELLs’ needs, program graduates felt well prepared (Merino et al., 2001); as one noted of her school’s faculty, “I’m one of the only ones who understands.” Second, these teachers developed greater organizational and political literacy (Keltchermans & Ballet, 2002) in their credential program. This included how to read the context (structures, processes, systems, problems, key players, and power structure); how to navigate the system (communicating effectively and diplomatically with multiple parties, building relationships, finding political allies, and marshaling resources); and how to advocate for change (Achinstein, 2006). As we reported, BCLAD-credentialed teachers received explicit instruction in ways to read and navigate their school contexts to meet ELLs’ needs. They learned ways that bilingual education is a contested terrain, that use of languages other than English in class to support students’ learning can be viewed as detrimental, intrusive, and controversial; and that those teachers who continue to do so may need to be prepared with rationales for how to speak up to colleagues, parents, administrators, and school boards about such a pedagogical choice. They also learned to engage families more fully as coadvocates, and some also practiced attending and speaking at policy meetings regarding ELLs and schooling. The higher number of acts of advocacy beyond the classroom among BCLAD-credentialed teachers suggests that they perceived a greater need to act, felt better prepared to act, and/or felt deeper convictions about acting.

This points to the possible need for teacher candidates in other program strands and in programs at other universities to receive more extensive preparation in organizational and political literacy. To intercede on behalf of students in need, particularly in sites beyond the classroom, a teacher likely needs strong pedagogical content knowledge, good inquiry skills and stance, knowledge of learners’ needs, knowledge of sociocultural and larger sociopolitical contexts, and the skills and dispositions to use that knowledge in practice. In addition, attention to diversity and equity throughout a program appears essential in fostering the role of advocate for equity, rather than being segregated into a “diversity class.”

Teacher education efforts to prepare teachers to work with ELLs have been impaired by several factors. These include insufficient placements in schools with adequate numbers of ELLs, lack of supervisor knowledge to guide relevant instruction, and a slim research base that has yet to inform educators about which disciplinary and pedagogical bases best prepare teachers for work with ELLs in which kinds of communities (Merino, 1999). No matter the level and quality of preparation, support likely will be needed for new teachers, especially those underprepared and those receiving no credential at all. Again, this preparation appears most effective when suffused throughout a program.

Beyond initial preparation, new teachers dealing with constraints of school sites and early career demands need support in engaging the role of advocate for equity. Mentoring through teacher induction can address this need. As of 2003, 30 states in the United States have teacher induction programs; 16 require and finance formal induction for all new teachers (“Quality Counts,” 2003). Some of these programs include activities designed to focus mentors and new teachers on student work (Davis, 2006; Porter, Youngs, & Odden, 2001). Mentoring holds the possibility of focusing new teachers on diversity and equity (Achinstein & Athanases, 2005), and effective mentors can help new teachers examine learning through frames that move beyond managerial to human relations and even political frames, with attention to power differences in the classroom and with a mission of achieving social justice (Achinstein & Barrett, 2004).

Our study suggests that new teachers can and will advocate for diverse youth in classrooms and in ways that extend beyond the classroom into other school forums and to families and community. This appears particularly true when teachers benefit from a credential program that nurtures advocating for underserved youth in particular and sustains this attention throughout a program. Our study also challenges conventional models of learning to teach. Although we might predict that new teachers, if not guided in other ways, might focus on survival and on self and self-image, then on curriculum, and finally on students, our study reports instead an instantiation of the possible (Shulman, 1983). Teachers in our study reported that even in the throes of the induction period, they wrestled with ethical and political issues regarding limitations of schooling, rather than learning to replicate the status quo—acts that new teachers can and should do (Gore & Zeichner, 1991).

Although many concerns ran through the narratives (including survival concerns at times), student learning—particularly of those often on the academic margins—was the engine that drove the narratives (Bruner, 1996). As our cases highlighted, acts of advocacy were grounded in assessments of inequitable learning opportunities and prompted teachers to secure equitable access to resources in support of that learning. Although student learning may be the engine driving the narratives as well as the acts, our themes show that effective acts of advocacy follow a pathway of skillful assessment of a problem or challenge of equitable access, convictions to act, organizational and political literacy to know how to intercede, and an awareness that this cannot be done alone. We need to listen closely to voices of well-prepared new teachers such as these who have equity on their radar screen. Their acts of advocacy in classrooms and beyond shed light on what is possible and on how we might design teacher preparation and mentoring programs that foster such advocacy.



Focused Questions

What is your current conception of the role of being an advocate for educational equity?

Can you describe any examples from your teaching of how you have enacted this role or tried to enact it?

Can you think of any examples of your nonclassroom experiences at your school site or in your district of enacting this role?

In what ways do you believe your credential program prepared you or did not prepare you to assume this role as a teacher?

To what degree does your school environment support this teacher role?

Now I would like to have us turn to the three supporting roles of reflective practitioner, professional collaborator, and researcher of one’s practice. In what ways do you believe that your credential program did or did not prepare you to assume these roles?

Open-Ended Questions

For more freeform remarks on any dimension of the program that participants want to comment on:

What are some of the real strengths of the program in preparing teachers for work in schools and especially for work with culturally and linguistically diverse learners?

What are some of the weaknesses or problems in the program?

What suggestions might you have of ways to improve these?


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 1, 2008, p. 64-104
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14535, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 12:10:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Steven Athanases
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    STEVEN ATHANASES is an associate professor in the School of Education, University of California, Davis. He studies diversity and equity in English teaching and teacher education and development. Recent publications include “Learning to Advocate for Educational Equity in a Teacher Credential Program” with K. J. Martin (Teaching and Teacher Education, 2006) and Mentors in the Making: Developing New Leaders for New Teachers, coedited with B. Achinstein (Teachers College Press, 2006).
  • Luciana De Oliveira
    Purdue University
    E-mail Author
    LUCIANA C. DE OLIVEIRA is assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, at Purdue University. Her research interests include academic literacy, second language writing development, and equity in teacher education.
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