The identity of teachers

Experiment: Integrating the messages of a collection of literature.

Analyzing the work of teachers is incredibly fascinating work. As a former teacher, I am still intrigued at every story and every quote. I would describe every piece of research about teachers as a “page turner”. What did they say?! What happened next?! I constantly yell inside my head.

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Identity is an important facet when looking at teachers. Teaching is not just a profession, it is a lifestyle. To name it as a “calling” is to deny the intense training and physical work. To call it a “vocation” is to deny the psychological coupling of the person with teaching. Teachers don’t tend to express teaching as simply their work, but talk about teaching as their identity. “To teach is a way of coming at life, of finding oneself, which is experienced as deeply spiritual and life affirming – living a life that matters” (Bullough & Hall-Kenyon, 2011, p. 128). Teachers integrate themselves into their classrooms and combine their professional lives with their personal lives. In a study of “being whole” as teachers, Jennifer Nias found that teachers described the necessity of having a strong personal identity but that it was intertwined with being a teacher. The teachers described a teacher identity as a blurring of the line between personal and professional life (Nias, 1988, pp. 197-200).

The analysis of identity is important because teachers are too often treated as just the hidden mechanism of schooling or just some other component of the “black box” of education. Policies are created at district or government levels and children come out the other end with little regard for what happens in the middle. But teachers are an integral part of this equation and, simply put, changes to the nature of education that stop teachers from finding their “whole” selves within their work are a serious problem. “Demoralization is better understood as a process of continually being frustrated in one’s pursuit of good teaching. In the process of demoralization, moral rewards are elusive in a practice that had previously afforded access to the satisfaction of doing good work. The failure to access moral rewards is not the result of a lack of personal fortitude or moral sensibility but a fundamental change in the rewards available through the work” (Santoro, 2011, p. 16). For teachers whose lives are so inextricably linked to their work, not being able to access the moral rewards means that they no longer feel like teachers. The sense of meaning in teaching is lost.

Now, some may argue that there is a simple solution. This is often phrased as finding a “work/life balance” or teachers are urged to leave their work at school. Within a school, teachers resign themselves to “playing the game” to get through activities that they find outside their personal beliefs of good teaching. They work through tough mandates that contradict their professional ethics or allow themselves to be subjected to demeaning examinations of their work. But the  link between a teacher’s work and their identity is so strong that these acts undermine the very identity of the teacher as a person. “Competence anxieties can intensify when the public realm of teaching performance is segregated and divorced from the private realm of personal feeling; when professional lives and personal lives become strictly detached from each other (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 150). To separate teaching from identity is disabling for a teacher. There is no easy path of disentangling teaching from life. Without being able to integrate the personal and the professional, teachers no longer feel like themselves.

 

Bullough, R. V., & Hall‐Kenyon, K. M. (2011). The call to teach and teacher hopefulness. Teacher Development, 15(2), 127-140. doi:10.1080/13664530.2011.571488

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing Teacher, Changing Times. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Nias, J. (1988). What it Means to ‘Fell like a Teacher’: The Subjective Reality of Primary School Teaching. In J. Ozga (Ed.), Schoolwork: Approaches to the Labour Process of Teaching (pp. 195-213). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Santoro, D. A. (2011). Good Teaching in Difficult Times: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work. American Journal of Education, 118(1), 1-23. doi:10.1086/662010

With the comic from David Lee Finkle from Middleweb. Check out his website at: Mr Fitz.com

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