I teach, therefore I am? Teacher identity, symbolic interactionism and other ramblings

Teacher identity

Is there such a thing as ‘teacher identity’? Research suggests that there is, and that developing a ‘teacher identity’ is a social process as well as a personal one. According to Beijaard, Meijer, & Verloop (2004), teachers continuously interpret and re-interpret their professional identity, which itself consists of multiple sub-identities and is highly context-dependent.

A study carried out by Sylvia Chong (2011) aimed to see how trainee teachers perceived the teaching profession upon starting their teacher training, upon completing it, and after their first year as a ‘novice teacher’ (what in the UK we call an NQT – Newly Qualified Teacher, or, according to my dad, “Not Quite There”). The study found that ‘teacher identity’ is far from static, and can either be strengthened or diminished when trainees come into contact with the realities of the teaching profession.

Many people reportedly start to ‘feel like a teacher’ before becoming one, and this self-perception of having teacher-like qualities is said to guide many to applying for teacher training courses in the first place. According to Schempp et al. (1999), people start to ‘feel like a teacher’ due to childhood experiences at school, experiences with teacher role-models and past opportunities to teach.

Feeling ‘like a teacher’

Interestingly, I didn’t ‘feel like a teacher’ until I started actually teaching. I suppose I thought of it as a job more than an identity, and you don’t need to feel like a plumber to be one, do you? Not too long ago, one of my younger brothers said he couldn’t believe I was going to be a teacher, to which I replied: “trust me, neither can I mate.” It would seem that neither of us had previously perceived me as having the qualities or character traits usually assigned to educators.

It was only very recently, after watching some of my lessons on YouTube, that he sent me a message on Facebook: “I can really see you as a teacher now, and it is scary”. This raises the question: were those ‘teacher-like’ traits there, within me, waiting to be nurtured and to blossom? Or are they traits I have observed in others, created and developed as requirements of my chosen career? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but one thing I do know: The more people have treated me like a teacher, the more ‘teacher-like’ I have felt. So, it seems, maybe others have more power over my teacher identity than I do.

Symbolic Interactionism

I can’t help but think about teacher identity in terms of Symbolic Interactionism. Stay with me here whilst I give you a brief overview of Symbolic Interactionism, and hopefully you’ll see why.

When we are very young (I mean, like, baby or toddler young), we have no self-concept. We see the world outwardly and are free from the inhibitions that plague us later in life. We don’t care if we’re naked or clothed, we pick our noses, play with our private parts regardless of company and we say what we want (limited vocabulary permitting). In essence, we have no identity. We couldn’t care less what other people think of us or how they perceive us. We just are.

Only when we are a bit older, playing in the school playground, do we start to define ourselves through external values. I vaguely recall playing ‘cops and robbers’ with friends at primary school, a role-play game in which children need to know what their role is (cop or robber) and subsequently how to behave, how to act, what to say and do. Through games like this, for the first time, children start to see themselves through the eyes of others, and to define themselves through their ability to meet certain criteria that essentially ‘police’ identity. Even before starting school, children often ‘pretend play’, imitating adult behaviour to take on the role of ‘mums and dads’, for example. In this ‘play stage’, children learn to take on roles and to adapt their behaviour accordingly. This is the start of the creation of their identity, their self-concept. They begin to objectify themselves; to see themselves as an object.

Whilst different theories emphasise different things and explain things in slightly different ways, in essence Symbolic Interactionists agree that humans’ identity is constructed and guided by constant feedback from others. Your friend saying “No, not like that! You’re the robber, so you need to run away!” later becomes “you’re in big school now, behave like it”, then takes the form of job descriptions which serve as a script for the play you will enact from 9 ’til 5, Monday to Friday. If you don’t follow your lines carefully, you won’t get to keep the part.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Being told things like “boys don’t cry” can also shape a person’s identity as a boy and later as a man, and cause them to behave in a way that reflects their perception of that identity. I would maybe go as far as to say that nothing that happens to a person can have no effect at all on their identity. Every single interaction either strengthens, maintains or causes you to re-examine aspects of your identity and to adapt you behaviour accordingly. Of course, that’s not to say we cannot be conscious of these processes and have a certain amount of agency over how much we allow others’ feedback to dictate our identity and behaviour.

Let’s say that identity and behaviour go hand in hand. We adapt our behaviour to ‘act out’ our perceived identity, and use others’ perceptions of our behaviour and their ‘feedback’ to re-define our identity. A big part of being a teacher, then, is acting like a teacher. Or at least getting the idea from others that we are doing so, particularly those who have successful teacher identities themselves. If others make us feel like we are behaving as a teacher should, we may feel like a teacher. If people make us feel like we are not, we may question our teacher identity.

Thought experiment

With this in mind, here is a simple example of how social interactions shape how we act and how we perceive ourselves: You buy a new T-shirt. You saw someone who you think is cool wearing a similar one, and you want (subconsciously or consciously) to be perceived as ‘cool’ yourself. You go home, you put it on, and you go out to a party….

Scenario 1: You arrive at the party, people are smiling at you, your friend sees you and says “Hey! Wow, love the T-shirt, you look great!” and you dance the night away feeling confident with your new purchase. After that day, it becomes your favourite T-shirt for about a month and you wear it on several occasions, including a date.

Scenario 2: You arrive at the party, you go largely unnoticed, your friend sees you and says “Hey! Come to the dance floor!” and you dance the night away feeling comfortable with your new purchase. After that day, the new T-shirt is one of five or six that you wear quite regularly, but you don’t wear it for the big date.

Scenario 3: You arrive at the party, people are looking at you strangely and you feel people are whispering to each other and laughing after they look away from you. Your friend sees you and says “Hey! Oh interesting choice, not sure I like it”. You dance for about twenty minutes, feeling self-conscious the whole time, and then you make an excuse that you feel unwell and head home. When you get home, you throw the T-shirt to the back of your closet (it’s too sweaty to take back to the shop) and you don’t see it again until you move house four years later.

Now imagine this: the T-shirt is your ‘teacher identity’ (if you’re not a teacher, it can be another identity for the sake of this thought experiment). You liked the idea of being a teacher, you thought it would suit you, you knew someone you admired who it did suit, so you give it a go. After you put the teacher identity on and you step into a space where other people judge your teacher identity, you are presented with constant feedback that you use to decide whether you want to continue wearing this identity, whether you want to pursue it as the main aspect of your identity (and something you proudly show as much as possible), or you toss it to the back of the closet and abandon it completely.

Identities

‘Identity’ in general is not such a simple thing to explain, and we arguably don’t have just one. Being a father is an identity, being a car mechanic another and going to a job interview may require us to adapt, create or ‘enact’ yet another. Our identities are constantly changing and adapting to the feedback we get from others. The truest ‘you’, if such a thing exists, might be the ‘you’ dancing round naked in an empty house with music blaring out. But even then, you only understand yourself through the tens of thousands of things people have said about you, the expressions on people’ s faces when you have said or done certain things, and the values about the person you want to be which you’ve cherry-picked from your perceptions of others.

When you look in the mirror, do you really see yourself objectively? I would argue that you don’t. We all look in the mirror and contemplate how we ‘look’ to others. We try to perceive ourselves as our boss will perceive us, as the person we fancy will perceive us, or how our students will when we are stood at the front of the classroom. The values and ideas we engage with to decide how we ‘look’ are also completely dependent on cultural and social norms.

“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am”

Charles Horton Cooley

So, for me, teacher identity is no different. People ‘pick up’ ideas about what it means to be a teacher: how teachers dress, the things they say, the things that make a teacher a teacher, just as a tree is a tree. We categorise the world with words and descriptions and then we use those very same words and descriptions to categorise ourselves. This explains a lot about some of the research findings about teacher identity. Some student teachers might have been drawn to the profession because, at an early age, they were told they were “good at explaining things”, that they were “patient”, or because they once taught someone something and they received positive feedback (whether explicit or implied).

These events might have made them ‘feel like a teacher’. When actually teaching in school for the first time, and when interacting with other individuals who have attained – and therefore collectively police – ‘teacher identity’, three things can happen:

  1. They continue to receive feedback from others that makes them feel ‘like a teacher’ and they re-affirm their teacher identity. This could be literal feedback like their mentor, for example, saying they explain things very well and have a good presence in the room. It could come from children, who enjoy the lessons and make good progress. It could also come from less-literal feedback, like feeling they ‘fit in’ in the staff room and perceiving that they have similar values to other teachers.
  2. Their interactions in school don’t really give them the validation they were hoping for. They thought they’d feel more ‘like a teacher’ after a few weeks in the classroom, but they feel no more like a teacher now than they did three years ago when they helped out at an after-school club at their old school. In fact, all of the teachers they have met have much more complex and diverse personalities and values than they expected, and they’re not entirely sure where they fit in this melting pot of teacher identities.
  3. Their interactions make them feel less ‘like a teacher’ and they are led to re-assess their teacher identity. They might receive literal feedback that they cannot manage behaviour well, that their explanations were flawed or unclear, or other things which could either outweigh all previous affirmative feedback, or bring into question the validity and possible bias of previous feedback.

Teachers got talent

It is possible that some people who feel ‘like a teacher’ before training to be one suffer from the same sort of false-identity-creation as the people who confidently strut onto the stage of talent shows and screech terribly-timed song lyrics at a panel of judges, whose feedback will either reinforce, completely destroy, or have absolutely no effect on the person’s identity as a ‘diva’. These people may have based their ‘diva’ identity on positive feedback from their grandmother, strangers on karaoke websites, and the sound of their voice in the shower, only to have it shattered by the real ‘divas’ who are the ultimate gatekeepers of the diva identity. The Ofsted of the diva world?

When I first considered applying for a teacher training course (PGCE), I hadn’t really had any particular teaching experience. The big question that sat over the decision, was “Can I be a teacher?” What did I mean by this? I meant, can I stand at the front of a class of 30 children, make them listen to me, explain things to them in a way they will understand, help them to learn things, and actually enjoy doing it? Can I act like a teacher in such a way that others will perceive me as one? I’d never done it, so I had no real way of knowing. It was at a ‘teacher taster day’ that I was unexpectedly thrown into the proverbial deep end, placed in front of a class whose cover teacher hadn’t turned up. I was only there for a few minutes but I was centre of attention, I was saying things and the children were listening, I was asking questions and they were answering, I was smiling and they were smiling back. Thankfully, and contrary to popular belief, children cannot smell fear.

When the brief experience was over, the person that had observed me gave me very positive feedback. Based on my own feelings, the feedback they gave me, and my perception of the children’s response to my ‘teaching’, I may have laid the first brick in the foundation of my ‘teacher identity’. Over the course of the last year, I have laid many more of these metaphorical bricks. You could even say I constructed a small structure that I’ve started to get quite comfortable in, although sometimes I worry the ground will shake and it will come crashing down.

I’m sure some trainee teachers may have a pretty solid house by now, whilst others may have started with a seemingly strong foundation which has since been chipped away at and weakened. Some may choose to abandon it and start on the foundations of another identity, whilst others (myself included) will keep building. The exciting thing about it is that there isn’t really a particular blueprint you have to follow. There’s the Teacher’s Standards, of course. And there are Ofsted criteria, staff handbooks, and schools that have adopted very specific pedagogical approaches. But everyone has their own touch in the classroom. Really, I think there are likely as many teacher identities out there as there are teachers.

My teacher identity T-shirt (yes, that silly analogy again)

Remember I said there were three scenarios in the T-shirt analogy? Well, I’m breaking my own rules, because for me it’s been a bit like this: I needed some clothes because mine no longer fitted, so I went shopping. I saw a T-shirt which looked practical, it looked like it was the right size for me, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it was my style. I thought I might as well buy it and keep the receipt. After all, if I wear it for a day and decide I don’t like it, I can always take it back. I needed a T-shirt anyway, so this was as good as any other. I take it home, I try it on. My wife and family all say it fits well, it’s practical and it is the sort of T-shirt that is well-seen by society. It’s not like ripped jeans or those vest tops that leave your nipples exposed (seriously, what’s the point?).

I’d spent many years working on my shoulders and biceps, and this T-shirt seemed to do justice to all that hard work, and allowed my hard work to set an example for others. I decide to wear it to visit a shop that sells similar T-shirts, and they tell me that it’s a particularly good fit on me. I see some of the pictures of their models, and I’m not so sure I look as good in it as they do, but I take the compliment. I decide to enrol on a course where I can study T-shirts, and I learn so much about how they are made and how they protect people from the sun and the wind that I find a new respect for my T-shirt. I also realise how you can even personalise it, rolling the sleeves up a bit or embroidering your own design onto it. Other people with pretty nice T-shirts occasionally compliment the designs I’ve embroidered onto my own. A few of us share ideas and copy each others designs, and it feels great to be part of the T-shirt community.

I start wearing it every day (well, Monday to Friday at least) and although sometimes it starts to feel uncomfortable, itchy or I get a bit sick of wearing it all day, there’s always some nice comment made about it or I see how it brightens other people’s days, so I keep wearing it. Some days I feel like I love it, and other days I wonder why I ever bought it in the first place, especially when someone makes some nasty comment about it or I hear other ex T-shirt wearers saying how vests or shirts are more comfortable. Occasionally I’ve dabbled with the idea of wearing something else, maybe a tunic. Or I could just go topless for a while until I work things out. But I’ve never really considered taking it back to the shop or tossing it to the back of the closet. To be honest, I quite like how I look in it.

“Don’t make me use my teacher voice”

I remember picking up a tote bag at a Languages Show event back in November. On the side, it had the words: “Don’t make me use my teacher voice”. Things like that arguably give teachers the means to proudly assert and re-affirm their ‘teacher identities’. Even what not smartly dressed, in a school, stood at the front of the classroom, they can let the world know they are a teacher, that they’ve learned to ‘play the role’, and that they embody the values they believe people believe teachers have. I say “they”. Should I say “we”?

When I first picked up the tote bag, I think I was eager to ‘join the club’, to be a part of the community. But actually, I felt like a bit of an imposter for having it. At school, my main ‘area for development’ was my use of voice. I am quite softly spoken and somewhat monotonous, and this seemed to be ‘un-teacher-like’. I needed to be able to pierce through the noise and to “hook and engage” students with my voice in order to really ‘join the club’. I worked on this and, with some practice, it did improve somewhat. Now, it’s possible I feel more ‘worthy’ of the tote bag, like Thor and his hammer. It’s possible I would now proudly pack it full of vegetables in front of cashiers and customers at the supermarket, but for the life of me I can’t remember where I put it.

Teacher identity during Coronavirus

Coronavirus has been a bit of curve ball for many teachers. The pandemic has changed the role of teachers and the requirements of the profession for many, as online teaching has become the temporary norm and being able to use a computer confidently has quickly become more important than ‘use of voice’. For me, I suppose it may have had a positive effect on my ‘teacher identity’. So much of ‘feeling like a teacher’ is feeling competent, and getting the impression from others that they think you are competent. What I lack in educational experience, I make up for with digital know-how. I know my way around a computer, and indeed the internet, pretty damn well. I suppose it has levelled the playing field for younger trainee teachers entering the profession, who feel like we have something to bring to the table which teachers with decades of teaching experience may not.

It makes the whole prospect of starting a career as a complete novice much less daunting, as the ‘newbies’ maybe have as much power over the future of the ‘teacher identity’ as the veterans do. On the one hand, it does seem a bit unfair to expect to be on the same level in the identity politics of teaching as people who have spent years in the profession. But on the other hand, it is arguably the constant feeling of incompetence, and the constant scrutiny of whether your teacher act is believable, that is driving new teachers to leave the profession early in their careers. Of course the scrutiny and the ‘areas for development’ are all necessary to become an able teacher who can be entrusted with successfully educating hundreds of children, but they can chip away at trainees’ ‘teacher identities’ if they are not properly balanced with affirmation.

At times during the training, I would think that teaching was like dancing (and not just because I’m a terrible dancer). Unlike professional dancers who can practice with a partner or alone, in privacy, trainee teachers only really get to dance in front of an audience which contains at least one professional dancer. Sure, we talk at length about dancing, we discuss the different dances and their origins, we watch other people dance and we take notes, but we only get the chance to dance ourselves in front of a full house. After the grand (or not-so-grand) performance, we then have to find out all of the wrong steps we made, all the times we were out of sync with the music, and whether the audience enjoyed it or not. We go away with notes of our inadequacies, and come back the next day to dance again. Don’t get me wrong, it can be really quite exhilarating and enjoyable, and learning to be reflexive and self-critical is a key skill to succeed in life, not just in teaching. But it can be a rather intense experience.

I feel like I passed the peak of the mountain when I moved to my second placement school, where my mentor saw me teach and told me “you’re pretty much there”. They may seem like simple words, but those small things build up – just like the smiles versus the strange looks at the party in the T-shirt scenario – and they can ultimately lead to big decisions about what path we choose to pursue. I’m sure when I start my journey as a Not Quite There (Newly Qualified Teacher) in September, there will be new mountains to climb and new threats to my teacher identity, but hopefully I have enough of an idea about how what my teacher identity is to me, that it will survive. And if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t, I hope to have enough other ‘bits’ to my personal identity to walk away still knowing more or less who I am.

Metaphor and teacher identity…. I’m not alone

Speaking of validation, having written all of the above, I discovered that I am not alone in using wild and imaginative metaphors and analogies to communicate the joys and challenges of teaching. In fact, there is a research paper on Understanding new teachers’ professional identities through metaphor (Thomas, 2011). Some of the ones mentioned in the research paper are true works of art:

  • The captain of a boat; I have to take these people (students) somewhere and there are storms and high waves.
  •  A coat hanger. Everything hangs on you and you need to support everything and everyone. If not, it falls.
  • A survivor of the Titanic but who didn’t have a lifeboat and had to swim to shore
  •  A gerbil on an exercise wheel who is eager to make efforts but going nowhere
  • Some days you have really calm waters, you love being out there and there are other people on the ship that really help you out. Other days you feel like you are on that ship all by yourself, the water is rocky and you wonder, “Why am I on this boat? I didn’t sign up for this.”

Types of teacher identity

Karaolis and Philippou (2019) identity three groups of teachers according to their different ‘professional profiles’:

  1. Teachers with negative professional identity
  2. Teachers with negative professional identity
  3. Uncommitted teachers

I once heard a teacher refer to another as a “martyr teacher”. I’m not sure which group that ‘sort’ of teacher would fit into. Giving the utmost importance to their professional identity as a teacher (perhaps at the expense of their personal life) could subjectively be seen as very positive for their teacher identity, but objectively very negative if it leads to burnout. In research I have done into vegan identities, I have noticed similar trends; those that give the ultimate importance to their ‘vegan identity’ appear less likely to remain vegan in the future, compared to those who take things more calmly and see their ‘veganness’ as just one aspect of their identity (as I do mine). Perhaps ‘teacherness’ could work in the same way?

Doing inductive thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews carried out with 20 primary school teachers, Karaolis and Philippou (2019) identify several factors which influence ‘teacher identity’:

  • Self-efficacy: whilst this didn’t effect teacher identity per se, it seems to be of importance in relation to motivation. All of the teachers “declared to feel highly efficacious”, so apparently feeling competent and cable doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a ‘positive teacher identity’.
  • Task orientation: The way teachers conceptualise education as student-centred or teacher-centred, emphasise the ethical and social aims of education or the need to develop knowledge and skills. Teachers which focused on more student and socially orientated aims of education had more positive teacher identities.
  • Work motivation: Teachers with more positive professional identities had greater intrinsic motivation for being a teacher.
  • Professional commitment: Teachers with more positive professional identities described their commitment as “directed towards the students and to their profession in a broader sense”, whilst the other two groups focused on things like time needed for preparation.
  • Future perspective: This one is a little bit sad; “it seems that all interviewees do not see any positive future, neither personal nor for the educational system”. However, the teachers with more positive professional identities focused on the bleak future of the education system, whilst the other two groups focused more on their own bleak future.

In short, it would seem from this study that the key to developing a positive teacher identity is to think less selfishly; to draw motivation from the social importance of education and the importance it has for students, to be committed to the students and not focused on your own sacrifices, to see teaching as a vocation rather than as a career, and to want to be the violinist on the sinking ship rather than the first to board the lifeboat. In short, the “martyr teachers” have apparently got it all right.

References

  • Beijaard, D., Meijer, P. C., & Verloop, N. (2004). Reconsidering research on teachers’ professional identity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20, 107-128.
  • Chong, S. (2011) Development of teachers’ professional identities: From pre-service to their first year as novice teachers. KEDI Journal of Educational Policy[s. l.], v. 8, n. 2, p. 219–233.
  • Karaolis A., Philippou G.N. (2019) Teachers’ Professional Identity. In: Hannula M., Leder G., Morselli F., Vollstedt M., Zhang Q. (eds) Affect and Mathematics Education. ICME-13 Monographs. Springer, Cham
  • Schempp, P. G., Sparkes, A. C., & Templin, T. J. (1999). Identity and induction: Establishing the self in the first years of teaching. In R. Lipka & T. Brinthaupt (Eds.), The role of self in teacher development (pp. 142-161). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Thomas, L. (2011) Understanding new teachers’ professional identities through metaphor, Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(4),  762-769
James Sturt-Schmidt - Millennianaire

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