The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Does having a strong professional identity hold teachers back?

Elizabeth Holmes looks at the impact of professional self-image on professional learning in schools.

‘Change is the end result of all true learning.’ Leo Buscaglia

Looking back at staffrooms I have sat in over the years, it is evident that as educators we all have a sense of professional identity which influences the way we undertake the job. Naturally, at times this identity facilitates and supports our wellbeing at work, enabling us to teach and to learn with great effectiveness. At other times, it stifles us and may prevent us from flourishing in the roles we have.

How beliefs about ourselves shape our attitudes to professional learning

So much of what we do towards our professional learning is influenced by the beliefs we have about ourselves as educators – our professional identity – as well as our beliefs about teaching and learning. Our professional identity is a work in progress and it usually pays to be mindful of the ways in which this sense of identity evolves in response to how we experience our careers, the public perception of the jobs we do and other factors such as our overall sense of wellbeing in our lives. Teacher identity is relatively well researched, so there’s a decent range of papers to explore in academic repositories and databases. There are many perspectives on the notion of identity – psychological, social, developmental and so on – but a first step is simply to focus on how teachers identify themselves in the role. These are very basic explorations which can help to guide the direction of any whole-school professional learning. For example, if the over-riding feeling is an identity of teachers as experts, there may be obscured blocks to development. If teachers have a self-identity as being primarily learners, professional development may be more effective. If there is a significant difference between the way early-career teachers identify themselves in the profession and those with considerably more experience, whole-school CPD may need to be adjusted accordingly. It is also worth considering the process of transforming teacher identity. We all do this each time we change role or add in an extra responsibility, or as we progress through our careers. If we mentor other teachers our identity shifts or we develop a sub-identity focused on the new role. In addition, how strongly do we identify ourselves as leaders? What are the ways that our identities outside our careers support or detract from our sense of professional identity? Finally, perhaps most significantly, are our actions compatible with our core beliefs about professional identity and personal wellbeing?

Becoming the kind of teacher we want to be

This is not designed to be an academic study using theories of identity development to guide. It is simply opening up the question of how we identify ourselves in the roles we undertake, and may elicit information on whether staff feel empowered or disempowered; supported or unsupported; engaged in professional learning or disengaged; motivated to develop or unmotivated. Shifts in our professional identity may be a key factor in the extent to which we develop our skills at work, possibly bridging the gap between the kind of teacher we are and the kind we want to be. Our biography is not our identity – the roles we have and have had over the years, and the status we claim, are not sufficient to feed a fully formed sense of professional identity. A strong sense of professional identity does not necessarily equate with professional competence, so it’s worth considering what impact identity has on us personally. Do we feel strongly identified with the role of educator, and therefore our commitment to professional learning is strong, or does our strong identification with the role of educator reduce our commitment to professional and personal learning? Start discussing the question – the process just might clear the way for some groundbreaking CPD. 

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