On (teacherly) identities: Who am I and who gets to decide?

Know thyself.

my multiple selves reflected back at me

my multiple selves reflected back at me

In policy, research and practice, the teacher voice is a vulnerable and vital one, but other perspectives (student, school leader, academic, parent) are also important in educational discourses. What or who is a teacher in terms of identity? I don’t mean job description, the kind of thing you’d find on a curriculum vitae or Twitter bio where people often label their current professional role. Teacher. Principal. Consultant. Advisor. Coach. Lecturer. Professor. Some might quibble over whether a teacher of teachers who used to teach in schools is in fact a teacher, as Stewart Riddle recently found. Yet labels don’t explain the complexities of self in terms of being a living human in the world.

The field of identity is sometimes lamented as being confused, contested and slippery, with different definitions meaning different things in different contexts. Theorisation of the self has a long history, appearing as early as 1902. At times identity has been seen as fixed and singular, but now more often it is seen as shifting and plural.

My PhD thesis defined identity as the “ongoing sense-making process of contextually-embedded perceived-selves-in-flux”. I see identity as process rather than product, as shifting rather than fixed, and as constructed and operated by the individual. It is a constant process of being and becoming. We are never finished. We don’t foreclose on an identity, but fluidly negotiate a variety of self-perceptions in a variety of contexts. We imagine and enact our identities by looking at past, present and potential future selves.

Additionally, identities are individual and collaborative. We construct our versions of ourselves based, not only on our perceptions and imaginings of self, but on our relationships with others, organisations and contexts. Costa and Garmston’s concept of holonomy is based on Koestler’s ‘holon’ which describes something which is simultaneously part and whole. Holonomy can be used to conceptualise the symbiotic interrelationship between individual and group or organisation.

My PhD looked at professional identity, in conjunction with professional learning and school change, in order to explore what it is that shapes educators’ development of professional identity perceptions, what shifts those self-perceptions, and in what ways schools and systems might work with a greater understanding of educator identities when designing and implementing education reform. My doctoral study found that professional learning deeply involves senses of self. Learning which taps into who educators see and feel they are, has the most impact on beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, and practices.

I often write on this blog about identity (look! there’s a tab for that). Writerly identity, doctorly identity, teacherly identity, researcherly identity, experty identity, parenty identity, coachy identity. I create stuff. I teach stuff. I tell stories. I learn stuff. I write stuff. I coach people. I lead teams and projects. I read. I am coached. I am led. I am a learner, a parent, a teacher, a researcher, a coach, a flâneuse.

So, as we are selves in action and in motion, can we decide when someone starts or stops being or becoming a teacher? I wonder about what makes a teacher identity. Surely it’s not something that enters a person as they set foot in their first school classroom and leaves them the moment they step out of their last taught lesson at a school. If I left the classroom for academia, would I no longer be a teacher? Well, maybe not a ‘current school teacher’, but I wouldn’t shed my teacherly-ness or my years of identity-forming teacherly-experiences. What about teachers who teach for decades and then retire? I guess those wanting labels might call them former teachers or retired teachers, but might they still identify as teachers? Many school leaders in my PhD study saw themselves as teachers first and foremost, and leaders/teachers of teachers second; for all, serving the student was at the centre of their senses of self.

Who gets to tell us what roles we can and cannot identify with? Who is the keeper of the labels? I’d argue that we are the constructors, operators and refiners of our own identities. Who am I and who gets to decide? Me.

11 thoughts on “On (teacherly) identities: Who am I and who gets to decide?

    • I take your point, and that of @chemistrypoet, that (school) teacher voice not be usurped. Grass roots teacher voices are crucial in research studies, policy making and bodies which make decisions and recommendations about the profession. I still think, however, that anyone can claim that being a teacher is part of their identity, even if their current job doesn’t label them as such.


  1. Interesting. I am a Chemist, and not a teacher. In some contexts these labels will be informative, and in others less so. It depends on what the purpose of the label is. With respect to the debate in the UK around who should be eligible for membership of the putative College of Teaching, the key aspect is what is perceived as being required for the body to effectively deliver for classroom teachers. In this context, the key is what effect it would have if non-current classroom teachers were admitted to membership? In this context, the label is for a defined purpose and, I would say, legitimate. So labels can be functional, and then they need to be carefully defined so that they fulfill that purpose.


    • I agree that the purpose and definition of the label is important. When talking about the (classroom) teaching profession or (classroom) teacher-led change, a clear and perhaps limited definition is useful. In this post I was responding to some claims that those who don’t currently teach in the classroom can’t/shouldn’t identify as teachers. Functional labels and definitions for a specific purpose are one thing; telling people how they are allowed to see themselves is another.


      • Ah. Yes. That is different. My view is that people are free to see themselves in any way they want…..whether that is seen as credible by others is a different issue……


  2. 4 decades ago I was a chemist. Then I became a science teacher who saw herself as a chemist who became a science teacher. I am currently about to submit my PhD thesis on whether science teachers’ professional identity can be influenced by their experiences of their professional development programmes. As a science teacher (labelling myself), I was a member of the Ontario Colllege of Teachers (Canada). Then I retired to do my PhD, but I am still allowed to continue my membership of the college of teachers. I guess that makes me a chemist who can always call herself a teacher as long as she maintains her membership of the Colllege. Yes, I will always see myself as a teacher, but my identity is more than being a teacher. I am a chemist, science teacher, mother, grandmother, wife, sister, daughter, best friend…..- the many faces of myself from my perspective. Imagine when my perspective of myself and that of the world out there combine. What is really my identity? Yes Deb, the many faces of our identity.


  3. Here is another opinion…

    Regulatory bodies also get to have a say on your identity. Quite a few (though not all) academics in the field of Education are also registered teachers. I’m an ‘accredited teacher’ in NSW, and just gaining full ‘registration’ here in Queensland. Would that be verification enough for the naysayers?


    • Kelli, you’d have to ask the naysayers, but the conversation (on blogs and Twitter) which prompted this post was around an academic who is still a registered teacher. The naysayers said ‘nay’; as he wasn’t currently teaching in a school, he wasn’t a teacher, despite being registered.

      In this post I hoped to tease out some of the complexities of the identity stuff. And explain that there are many in education who transgress boundaries. The lines between labels can blur, I think.



  4. Pingback: Professional identity & professional learning: Reflections on my TER podcast interview | the édu flâneuse

  5. Pingback: Multiple ways of being: Teacher, researcher, coach, vegetable, fruit. | the édu flâneuse

  6. Pingback: Rethinking professional learning: an academic paper for JPCC | the édu flâneuse

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