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.