Two female teachers talk to each other walking down a hall in a school

Getting Comfortable with Complicated Conversations: How Teachers Advocate for Their Students

New research aims to better understand how teachers advocate for their students and how simulated conversations with colleagues can help hone that skill.

Audrey Breen

Every day in schools across the country, teachers snag a colleague for a quick five-minute conversation, hoping to pass along helpful information about one of their students. In these brief and important encounters, teachers’ insights help support their students’ learning and development in classrooms beyond their own. 

But for early career teachers, having these conversations can be tricky and require a skill they likely have never had an opportunity to practice.

Chris Chang-Bacon, assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, calls this common practice “advocacy,” and a new research study he co-authored with April Salerno, associate professor of education, and doctoral students Will Fox and María Guzmán Antelo, aims to provide clarity about what it is and how teachers might practice it effectively.  

“Advocacy is something that we expect teachers to do and is a really big part of the job,” Chang-Bacon said. “And teachers want to advocate for their students. But we sort of imply it, rather than come up with an actual definition or give teachers a chance to practice it.”

Though advocating for a student with fellow teachers or school administrators perhaps sounds less high-stakes than a more public form of advocating—such as speaking in front of a school board, for example—advocating with peers can be fraught with complexities. And those complexities can be amplified for pre-service or early career teachers.

“If you're a new teacher or a teacher intern, you feel like you might be overstepping your bounds by stepping in to advocate for a student—especially to your peers, or to your superiors,” Chang-Bacon said. “When they go out into the field, our teacher candidates would say they see this happening a lot and there are really very few chances to practice it in a low-stakes setting.”

So the team set out to understand what teacher candidates believed about advocacy, to create opportunities for them to practice their skills, and to see what they learned in the process. 

The team opted to focus their study on a select group of teachers that are advocating for their students very regularly: Teachers of multilingual learners, or more formally, teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

Before the research team leveraged a computer-based simulator to allow ESOL teacher candidates an opportunity to practice advocating for their students, they asked them to define and describe advocacy and to envision themselves as advocates. Then they gave them an opportunity to practice advocating with the simulator.

The simulator scenario was designed by Salerno and Fox, who completed his Ph.D. in education in 2022. It required the ESOL teacher candidate to converse with a simulated middle school science teacher. They had about 10-15 minutes to discuss one student they share, who is a multilingual learner with Spanish as their first language, and who is having trouble in the science teacher's class. 

Before the simulation, the teacher candidates often expressed a belief that they would strongly advocate on behalf of their students. However, during the simulation, the teacher candidates were often more hesitant to engage in the bold advocacy they had talked about prior to the exercise. 

“Like all of us, when we have high-conflict moments, it's challenging to be able to put those advocacy plans in practice, while doing the complex work of trying to build or maintain a relationship with a colleague--especially for teachers new in their positions or who are engaging with those in positions of authority,” Salerno said.

The challenge was in finding a balance.

“So how do you stand up for the student's best interest in a respectful way while still maintaining a peer relationship with your colleague?” Chang-Bacon said.

The teacher candidates recognized what was happening in their conversations and in their peers’ conversations when they had an opportunity to rewatch their simulation sessions. Viewing and debriefing each other's simulations, where they were able to reflect on their advocacy later and talk to peers about it, was often where the real learning happened, according to the researchers.

Salerno also leverages role-play with the students when the simulation exercise is not available and sees a similar, powerful learning experience when students review videotaped recordings of their interactions.

“They practice the role of the advocating teacher or the other teacher and then watch videos of each other’s pairs to compare different advocacy responses,” Salerno said. “That has been one of the more powerful parts of the assignment.”

The study also revealed that while the teachers were uniquely advocating in their own way, they did draw on similar strategies. 

Teachers advocated by sharing their professional or general knowledge, giving examples of what has worked for them with their student or sharing some research that might be helpful. They also offered to share their time, for example, offering to join the student in the science class.

“There's no one way to do it. But there are a variety of strategies people can use, and they are all effective,” Chang-Bacon said. “Finding these patterns can help us design an advocacy discussion or guide helping teachers identify what positive resources they can use when they’re advocating for a student.” 

With these insights, Chang-Bacon is interested in expanding the team’s research on advocacy beyond ESOL teachers.

“Advocacy happens for a whole range of issues with students,” Chang-Bacon said. “So how do teachers advocate for a student who's being bullied? How do teachers advocate for a student who is the victim of racism?”

Simulation allows for teachers to practice navigating some of these increasingly challenging topics, serving as a safe place for them to think through scenarios, to mess up and to practice different ways of advocating.

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Audrey Breen