Recently I was interviewed by Cameron Malcher for the TER podcast about my PhD. You can listen to the interview, which was released on Sunday (it kicks in at the 35 minute mark). My favourite part of the podcast was Cameron’s concluding thoughts that were sparked by the interview. Below is not a blow by blow account, but a reflection on what we discussed.
What is professional identity?
In my PhD I defined identity as “ongoing sense-making process of contextually-embedded perceived-selves-in-flux”. It is a process rather than a product, a constant state of becoming. It is fluid rather than fixed. It is constantly shifting, as suggested by Fred Dervin’s notion of identity as liquid. It is socially constructed and contextual; that is, identities are co-constructed with others, and we are different versions of ourselves in different situations, with different people.
Factors that make up our professional identities include our beliefs, values and assumptions. Our identities are created and rewritten through language, through the ways we tell the stories of ourselves, to ourselves.
On the blogosphere and the Twitterverse there have been arguments about the disconnect between who owns identity and labels, suggesting that some think that identity is superimposed on us by others’ perceptions, while some believe that we own and make our own identities. The socially constructed nature of identities suggests that both have merit. We write ourselves for ourselves, and our self-perceptions rely on how others perceive and interact with us (although this interactions can be rejection of others’ perceptions, as well as acceptance).
Why consider professional identity in education?
Teaching is deeply personal. Part of the reason I brought professional identity together with learning, leading, and school change is that I think they are inseparable. Looking at education reform through the lived experiences and identities of those in schools is key to understanding its impacts. Professional learning and the leading of schools need to take teachers’ and leaders’ senses of selves into account, and engage with them.
Focus of my research
I conducted research within my own school and examined the stories of 14 teachers and leaders, including myself. The background context was a school-based teacher growth initiative.
I used narrative research to explore how these educators’ professional identities interacted with their learning and with school change. I was interested in what it is that shapes and shifts educators’ professional identity perceptions and in what ways schools and systems might work with a greater understanding of educator identities when designing and implementing education reform.
My narrative approach involved interviewing participants in ways that encouraged storytelling, including using coaching protocols, and then storying those data. It required me to be reflexive as the researcher. The experience of my PhD was personally and professionally transformative for me. I loved it, and it was incredible professional learning. In particular, the luxury of listening to educators’ stories was a joy and a privilege. I presented at AARE last year on my creative, literary approach to storying data, and this Saturday I’m presenting on my ethical decision making at the researchED conference in Melbourne.
My research found that:
- We professionally learn throughout our lives. Our professional learning encompasses life moments that are professional and personal, formal and informal, in schools and out of schools, singular and collaborative. Professional are shaped by good and bad experiences, by role models and anti-models.
- Learning which taps into who educators see and feel they are, has the most impact on their beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, and practices.
- Coaching and being coached is identity shaping, shifting teachers’ and leaders’ beliefs about learning and teaching.
- The Danielson Framework for Teaching can be a useful tool for teacher self-reflection when used by teachers for their own growth.
- School reform and school cultures which trust the capacities of teachers to reflect and improve is empowering and capacity building.
Implications of my research
With the caveat that my PhD was highly contexualised (considering the nature of the school and individuals I studied) the findings have something to offer the education world.
Firstly, there is a need to broaden the definition of professional learning, to allow teachers and schools to think more broadly about what it is that transforms educators, and who drives the professional learning of teachers. In my own leadership practice I am wondering how professional learning might be more autonomous and individualised. About how professionals might choose and follow, with support and opportunity, their own growth trajectories. About how schools and systems might acknowledge and encourage heutagogical (self-determined) learning.
Secondly, schools and systems can work from their own contexts to design and slowly iterate models of professional learning, from the bottom up and the middle out. As many scholars point out, effective education reforms are contextual. They cannot be lifted from one school or nation and dropped on another. Change in schools should be at a slow evolution-not-revolution pace, and based in assessing available evidence and current context.
As a result of my reading and research, I advocate for distributed and empowering leadership in schools, and school systems that trust teachers. I am a card-carrying, flag-waving fan of the Flip the System movement, which champions the agency and voice of teachers within their own systems. Teachers and school leaders have the internal capacity for analysis, reflection and growth. The individual should be honoured, valued and supported, within the holistic collective of the organisation and the system.