Worlds of Education

Credits: Asian Development Bank
Credits: Asian Development Bank

Constructing Teachers’ Professional Identity – learning from seven countries

published 31 May 2017 updated 11 July 2017
written by:

Early stages in research projects are always a mix of aspirations, exploration of the research literature and growing clarity about key questions. In a research project that is as important as the one funded by Education International, to explore how national policies and cultural factors influence the development of teachers’ professional identity this stage is particularly exciting - and just a little daunting because all professional identities have existential implications.

Teacher identity is particularly challenging to research because, as Day (1999) puts it: “Teachers’ professional identity is constantly evolving in an ongoing process of interpretation and re-interpretation of experiences.” What kinds of questions do you think we should be posing under this important set of goals? How can we ensure we don’t get lost in abstraction?

With our feet on the ground we are starting with a focus on which experiences are most supportive of teachers and which get in the way. With our heads in the clouds we are also looking at how unions, governments and teachers themselves can take advantage of the different insights which international comparisons afford. Most nations see education as core to expressing national identity and building the society of the future. At last, albeit slowly, national governments are starting to realise that the role, identity and contribution of teachers is much more significant in this important endeavour than the legislative and structural frameworks they put in place. But, given the existential nature of education for national identity they want influence here too.

What are the basic building blocks governments seem to be using to exercise such influence? Current education reforms seem to be focussed on specifying national professional standards and accreditation arrangements, specifying (and in the better cases, funding) professional learning and development and prioritising professional review and teacher evaluation.  The range of approaches is huge. Most countries specify some things tightly and leave others to “local” discretion (which might exist at classroom, school or district level). But whatever the mix of specification, local interpretation and teacher autonomy, teachers are left to navigate their way through the Scylla and Charybdis of regulation, accountability measures and space for professional judgment. Teachers are expected to think and behave professionally, by both:

  • adopting professional characteristics, knowledge and attitudes, which are prescribed nationally, regionally and at school level ; and
  • developing a personal professional pathway through these expectations and the demands.

Our current working proposition is that teachers’ professional identities emerge iteratively from interactions between their personal disposition, skills and experiences, and their working environment. But that doesn’t  get us much closer to a set of reasonably consistent lenses through which we can make sense of the radically different approaches of different nations whose education systems are at different stages of development  in rising to educational, equity and social justice goals.

What, in a more practical sense, should we be considering  in order to build a meaningful whole bigger than the sum of the parts from researching  teachers’ dispositions toward their students and each other, and their experiences, perceptions and working environments around the world?

We have identified some building blocks from the research literature but are very keen to learn from you about whether these are likely to capture essential elements of teachers’ experiences and identity in your context.

School leaders can and do constrain or enhance teacher leadership; some do so intentionally others accidentally. For example, transformative school leaders position themselves in heroic roles as ‘super heads’ responsible for driving up performance and, by implication, cast teachers as followers. By contrast, school leaders’ intent on distributing leadership positions every teacher as a leader in a complementary and interlocking network of reciprocal responsibilities for students’ success. Is this binary distinction meaningful as a statement of different ends of a spectrum? Or do we need to develop lenses for exploring other national and local frameworks for enabling and/or constraining leaders’ choices in framing teachers’ own leadership role?

Developing teachers’ professional agency, voice, learning and development seem to be obvious markers of the ways in which different nations constrict, enhance and /or constrain teachers’ professional identity. This links with different models of autonomy, access to professional knowledge and models of collaboration. Professional learning is particularly important in shaping teacher identity; research reviews unite in emphasising the importance of collaboration and shared risk-taking within effective professional learning and development (PLD). Some research goes further, stressing the importance of focussing on both individual and collective efficacy and of teacher-perceived status and wellbeing. Evidence in this field strongly emphasises teacher pro-activity in developing professional knowledge and skills. So we are wondering  whether exploring  both legal requirements and frameworks and teachers’ own experiences of professional knowledge creation, planning, professional learning and curriculum development/ enactment will help us to reveal  key enablers and  inhibitors of professional identify.

What else might we need to look at to capture the essence of this important process in your context? For example, we know that in some cases, professional agency has had to move into the realm of ‘principled resistance’ to national policy moves, facilitated through collective forms of action. But in others , as in for example the case of current Swedish reforms, it seems that  policy making and teachers’ collective professional identities are  evolving iteratively through joint scrutiny and planning of reforms.

Teaching like everything else in society is changing. The world in which our students live is changing even faster. As well as building on evidence from the past through research reviews, this project will also have an eye to the future. So we are focussing on the value of networks and the ways in which technologies for collaboration, including professional tweeting and blogs, are raising new possibilities for local, national and trans-national teacher networks. Might they open up new possibilities for the development of a confident and self regulating identity for the profession? Or can you see other newly emerging trends that are making significant demands on teachers or opening up new possibilities that are more effective for the profession collectively than e-enabled social networks?

We will be working directly in seven case countries, Chile, Germany, Kenya, Ontario, Scotland, Singapore and Sweden. But we are keen to hear from teachers and teacher research leaders around the world about  important insights we might be missing, so that we can contextualise our study more broadly .

Please get in touch and  give us your views!

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.