This paper discusses initial findings on teacher identity, as perceived and negotiated by four pre-service secondary-school teachers during an action research project at a regional university. Through systematic collaborative reflection, the group explored the dissonance between theory and practice in order to make sense of their emerging teacher identities. Major themes evident at this stage in the research include the influences of teacher education; the secondary-school context; and ways in which the discourse of technical competence permeates views on teaching. Key factors that enabled or hindered the starting construction of teacher identities by participants are discussed; acknowledging that 'becoming a teacher' is an ongoing process. Initial interpretation of collective and individual reflections suggests that tensions experienced during teacher induction require careful examination in order to promote professional learning rather than to constrain it. Choices about forming a teacher identity need to be consciously informed so that teachers can enter the profession with a developing sense of self-efficacy and professionalism.
The four participants joined this research project because they wanted to become better teachers and learn reflective practice skills. By making the time to persist with collegial discussion and analysis, participants examined the assumptions, beliefs and values on which their teaching and learning practices were based. Through collaboration, the research group became a self-critical learning community (Carr & Kemmis, 1986), who began to inform their actions through their emerging understandings of what it means to be a teacher. This paper documents the findings of the group with some initial analysis and discussion.
The pre-service phase of teaching has been characterised by Huberman (1992) as one of 'survival' and 'discovery', describing the 'reality shock' of new teachers confronting the complexity of classrooms. Many researchers (Brooker & O'Donoghue, 1992; Day, 1999; Frid & Reid, 2003; Graham & Phelps, 2003; Mason, 2002; Moore, 2000; Zeichner & Liston, 1996) emphasise the need for pre-service teachers to develop reflective strategies in order to negotiate these complexities. The beliefs, attitudes and habitual behaviours of pre-service teachers can cause stress in identity formation during teacher education, if not examined consciously and systematically. While a range of reflective processes such as journals, portfolios and online discussions are evident in literature on reflection in teacher education, it seems that the potential of collaborative, collegial reflection has not been explored fully.
Isolation and lack of time to collaborate are typical features of most teaching environments (Dinham & Scott, 2000). There is limited opportunity for practitioner discourse with colleagues (Smyth, 1998). Time for reflection and professional dialogue in teacher education courses is also very limited. The current research project endeavoured to facilitate a non-assessed, voluntary discussion forum for pre-service teachers, so that they could unpack their ideas and experiences within a supportive environment.
The 'we become what we do' view of identity proposed by Davis (Davis, Sumara & Luce-Kapler, 2000) suggests that teaching practice shapes teacher identity. However the practices that pre-service teachers reproduce are often based on observation of experienced teachers, and the advice they generate (Britzman, 1991) even if it is no longer appropriate to current educational contexts. Induction into the teaching profession requires the adoption of certain behaviours and core values, while also needing creative individuality through recognising what is the unique contribution (van Manen, 1990) of each pre-service teacher.
Modernist views of identity in the West privileged the idea of an unchanging, core self, learning to adapt to social roles (Nias, 1997), a view that still informs some current approaches to teacher induction. According to this perspective, personal biography prior to teaching is considered the most influential factor in the teacher identity. Narrative theorists such as Beattie (1995) express a related theory suggesting that identity is evident in the stories people tell of themselves, so that changing identity can be perceived through changes in narratives. These 'pre-existing narratives' (Beattie, 1995) that comprise the 'substantial self' (Nias, 1997) may filter views of teaching experiences and influence formation of teacher selves. Making time for shared story telling is then a significant part of making sense of emerging identities.
This notion of fixed identity is contested by the constructivist view of teacher identity as fluid, contextual (Frid & Reid, 2000; Graham and Phelps, 2003) and constructed, whether consciously or not. Pre-service teachers, who have little or no experience as teachers initially, may want to base their teacher identity on memories of their own teachers. It is through understanding their experiences in a number of teaching contexts that pre-service teachers can begin to shape their own sense of being a teacher, beyond their prior beliefs and assumptions.
The socialising contexts of professional placement still rely on an 'apprenticeship of observation' (Lortie, 1975), and so prove to be a problematic landscape for new teachers to negotiate. Huberman (1992), who researched the professional learning needs of teachers, found that after a decade or so, many teachers became 'professionally dissatisfied' and less willing to engage with problematic issues of practice. Given the average age of teachers worldwide is mid to late forties (Kelchtermans, 2005), it is likely that many supervising teachers may be in the disenchanted phase of their teaching lives when supervising, thus providing jaded or unexamined professional models to new teachers.
Current supervision models for secondary-school teachers in NSW are also problematic because there is not a systematic, consistent approach by all (Vinson et al, 2002). Teaching requires the least amount of professional experience of any profession (Ramsey, 2000) without clearly stated standards of supervision. Although the combined Degree in Education is four years in duration, there are generally less professional experience segments in the secondary teaching course than there are in Primary teaching courses, and especially so in the one year Graduate Diploma. Because the quality, content and duration of practical teaching experiences are widely acknowledged as influential upon teacher self-efficacy, further research is required to clarify issues particular to the secondary teaching context.
Another difference in the teacher identity of primary teachers is that they have chosen to be teachers from the outset rather than add a teaching qualification to their undergraduate degree (Dinham & Scott, 2000). Secondary teachers begin their teacher education with a strong graduate identity as an artist, scientist or musician. Only some have chosen to teach upon entry to undergraduate studies.
Generic studies of teaching across all levels do not address the specific influence of secondary education practices and preparation. Research into differences between perceptions of primary and secondary teachers show that secondary-school teachers are not required to provide the level of nurturing and life-skill training expected of primary school teachers (Dinham and Scott, 2000). Instead they are expected to be experts in their subject discipline. A roundtable session of the Australian College of Educators (2003) found that there is a distinction between the level of discipline knowledge required of primary and secondary teachers, so that a different emphasis is placed on specific knowledge attainment and generic pedagogic skills in each teacher education course. These differences in community expectations and educational emphasis suggest the need for further research into the influences upon teacher identity specific to secondary-school teachers (Dinham & Scott, 2000). This study aims to further knowledge in this area.
People do not 'naturally' form action research groups for their own 'enlightenment' (Carr & Kemmis, 1986). However the four participants who volunteered to be part of the project, did so due to their interest in ways of becoming better teachers and reflective practitioners. Action research engages participants in identifying shared concerns through discussion, then planning future actions based on analysis of those observations (Carr & Kemmis, 1986). Participants were able to share, develop and evaluate strategies together throughout their final teaching year, after unpacking the ideas of being a teacher in relation to individual and collective concerns. Teacher identity remained the central concern through revisiting 'who am I?' in relation to 'who am I becoming?' or 'what percentage of me is a teacher and what does this mean?'
The first plan of action used a framework of discussion points prepared by the facilitating researcher, in order to critically examine starting beliefs, assumptions and perceptions of 'good' teaching.' Reflective scaffolds were used throughout the research process, to stimulate group reflections and encourage critical thinking about practices, but these were not prescriptive At times discussion digressed from the scaffold if a particularly contentious issue emerged. These scaffolds were sent to participants prior to meetings as a stimulus for reflection. As participants became more active in the research process, the scaffolds were developed out of various contentious aspects of teaching raised by group members. Transcripts sent to participants after each meeting for member checking, also acted as prompts for further reflection on issues discussed.
|Cycle||Meeting||Agenda and topics|
|Cycle one||Meeting One: reconnaissance||Brief introductions|
Agreed research aims
Views of teachers
|Meeting Two: shared beliefs||Origin of values and beliefs about teachers|
'Make a difference' means what?
A good teacher is? Why?
Hopes and fears
|Meeting Three: identifying issues||Changes in self as teacher|
|Meeting Four: inclusive classrooms||Constraints of home situation and classes|
Not 'miracle workers'
Shared strategies for class management
|Meeting Five action plan from themes summary||Theory vs experience|
Planning and scripting
Revisit values, beliefs and assumptions
Future group process
|Meeting Six: revisit starting questions and central research question||Evaluation for second cycle plan|
Doubt and exhaustion
|Summary of cycle one themes|
Subject paradigms influence identity
Becoming a teacher is life changing
Funding and class size constraints
Make reflection more critical for action plans
Need for brief but vivid shared stories
|Cycle two||Meeting One: professionalism||Need to be systematic and well organised|
Duty of care, responsibility
'Fake it til you make it'
|Meeting Two: classroom management||Work of 'inner witness'|
Finding own style
Habits that settle, calm
|Meeting Three: values revisited||NSW values document as stimulus for discussion|
|Project Round up: March 2005|
Final member check of transcripts and themes
Evaluation of reflective processes
Review of changes to self during project
Revisit initial questions on identity and 'good' teaching
Of the four participants, Stan and Junee were enrolled in a Diploma of Education, while Jack and Belinda were in the final year of combined Education Degrees. This meant that professional experience occurred at a different time for the two courses so that two people were in practicum when the others were not.
Before I did that prac I didn't have much of a concept of how to be a teacher at all really ... Now I've done that, I think I can. (Stan)All participants maintained that longer, more frequent professional experiences earlier in their course would improve their sense of efficacy as teachers. Jack and Belinda found that the long intervals between professional experiences in the combined degree left them feeling disconnected from teaching and unable to form a strong sense of being a teacher. Interestingly while their university studies were concerned with how to teach and why, participants largely viewed this as theoretical and of little use to their sense of self as a teacher. They claimed personal experience was more important than the theoretical underpinnings provided at University lectures.
The lottery-like nature of supervision placements had had a huge bearing on participant identity formation. Jack considered himself 'lucky' because his three placements 'went smoothly' in terms of supervision, whereas the other three participants had mixed experiences, some due to inappropriate supervision and school environments. Junee had a very positive first placement and then experienced a break down of communication with her second supervisor. He had locked her out of the art storeroom and didn't want her using school materials for teaching. After initial feelings of failure, Junee said that it strengthened her because she had to come up with creative ideas for activities with the kids without accessing materials from the storeroom. This supports a finding that 'negative' professional experiences can also be very formative for teacher identity and ingenuity.
As identified by Ramsey (2000), supervising teachers have little or no training in mentorship and yet have a profound influence on how the pre-service teachers view themselves as teachers. There were several instances of participants arriving at their school for practicum and being given the impression that they were an imposition. Belinda was told that the teacher was too busy to have her, but had no choice because it was 'their turn'. Stan's first school claimed it did not know he was coming and did not want a student. In both instances, the teaching experiences ended up being useful, but the supervising teacher left them to 'sink or swim' to a large extent. Participant assumptions about the attitudes of experienced teachers were challenged by these experiences, leading to comments like
... is this how I'm going to end up?' (Belinda)Participants had to revisit their pre-held assumptions about teachers liking their students and work, since many of the staff they encountered seemed disenchanted by teaching work and conditions. Junee cited the carpool as the only place she could access professional dialogue since her supervisor was unwilling to discuss practice and new ideas with her. This is supported by the work of Huberman (1992), whose research on the life cycle of teachers suggests that older teachers are on the whole less enthusiastic about their work. Most of the supervising teachers of participants were older, and only two out of the eight seemed to enjoy their job. Becoming a part of teacher culture in its various forms proved to be problematic for all the participants at different times, mainly due to the unspoken or attitudinal environments created by some experienced teachers.
Another finding related to professional experience is the problematic nature of placements in rural areas. A variety of teaching contexts allows pre-service teachers to evaluate best practice and see a variety of educational models in operation. This occurs by chance rather than design at present since regional universities have to rely on the good will of surrounding schools to provide sufficient placements. Stan was financially able to pursue a final practicum in Tasmania which resulted in him obtaining a job at that school. However the other participants were unable to attend remote placements due to family and part-time work commitments, and so were limited to the schools available locally.
Participants perceived major dissonance between the teaching theories presented in their university course and the practicalities of professional experience.
The strategies that we were taught at Uni aren't the ones that I've been using because a lot of what they suggest I have tried and they've failed dismally in terms of group work and co-operative learning. (Stan)External sources of knowledge about teaching were initially relied upon by participants, but increasingly they began to trust the knowledge they formed through personal experience. The 'me'/'not me' process of identifying with a social group (Austin 2005) was explored for its richness in informing the research question. Participant stories are useful in revealing this process:
I don't think I'll let go of the strategies at Uni very easily because there's a lot of things I can use, but I'm also very interested in teachers out there. (Junee)
My supervising teacher said I'd end up yelling at them [students] because that's what she did, but it wasn't an option 'cos I can't project loudly. After a week of kids climbing the walls, I worked out a raffle system that they really liked, and they ended up being my favourite class (Belinda)The other participants adopted this strategy and used the action research process to refine it for their own classroom management.
The fixed nature of habitual teaching practices needed to be critiqued by pre-service teachers so that they could develop their own style of appropriate behaviours. Stan found the authoritarian approach of his supervising teacher inappropriate but he said "it works for him". He reflected that the chalk and talk strategies used by this teacher were the most effective for Stan to adopt in that situation because students were used to them and responded well. But he intended to train his classes differently when he entered teaching so that he could try more innovative approaches.
At no time did any of the participants feel confident to suggest new ideas to their supervising teachers. They did not think that they as novices were viewed as having anything new or useful to offer. Further to this, participants noted that they were trained to use very advanced technology for teaching at university yet most school placements did not have functioning overhead projectors let alone power-point facilities. The theoretical and technical knowledge they were exposed to at university was sometimes not applicable at schools due to lack of resources or systems, making adaptation a necessary part of their teaching identities.
Participants found that many areas of personal interest, with potential for experimentation were constrained by the structure of their courses. Higher marks seemed achievable through following the advice of supervising teachers and lecturers, rather than taking risks.
The teaching course is like a giant machine that cuts off all the great ideas that students start out with and mass-produces teachers because the course and the syllabus are so prescriptive. (Stan)
Belinda wanted to teach because she was
... interested in how kids get their emotions out through art and how they are able to deal with a lot of things without talking about them.Stan gave his main reason for wanting to be a teacher as follows.
Environmental Resource Management made me realise that care for the environment relies on education, managing peoples' perceptions and attitudes more than the resource itself.Julia was motivated by being a mother and wanting to nurture creativity in other students. Her insights into teenagers and child development proved enriching to our discussions.
All of the participants found that their undergraduate courses lacked the breadth of knowledge and skills needed in classroom teaching, especially art and music courses that encourage specialisation in a particular medium or instrument. Science teaching also requires pre-service teachers to be familiar with chemistry, biology and physics. The two artists-becoming-teachers (Belinda and Junee) found that there were too many techniques to learn in the short time of their curriculum specialisation studies. A common belief in the group was that teachers need to be knowledgeable and skilled in their particular discipline to gain the respect and co-operation of students, but that they felt incompetent as teachers through their lack of discipline specific knowledge and pedagogy.
I like to play in a band to get away from work, and I go to the pub and see the kids I've been teaching, so I have to watch myself. (Stan)Belinda voiced similar sentiments when reflecting on values.
I haven't had to change my values since I started teaching but I just can't voice them as much. Teachers need to watch what they say. Do we really want to tell them (students) our values?
The social problems of students impacted on the initial idealistic views of participants about their ability to 'make a difference'. In the first reflective meeting, one of the core aims of each participant was to make a difference as a teacher. Junee said it was difficult to feel that you could make a difference "You can feel worn down by students, teachers and school environment and that's stressful". Stan felt even more disheartened at a low point.
We're just glorified babysitters... There can be a cycle of resistance to education built through families. How will kids read books if their parent don't read books?Belinda expressed her horror at the number of young students who had hangovers (or said they did) on Monday mornings, so she felt anything that she tried as a teacher would not work, for reasons beyond her control. Becoming a teacher involved each participant working out ways to work with less than perfect situations, often conflicted with their own views of how teenagers should be raised by parents. Each of the participants realised the need, for them, as teachers, to work more broadly with parents and the community rather than just work within the classroom. The boundaries that seemed so clear in their teaching course became more fluid and problematic.
That's where I'm finding the inadequacies and insecurities keep on coming up. I'm quite happy being a normal pleb. (Junee)Two participants had trade backgrounds prior to entry into the education course. Stan expressed delight at becoming a professional so that he did not have work so hard physically, and that the work was not 'dirty'. He perceived 'becoming a teacher' as improving himself and his working conditions. The other ex-tradesman Jack, agreed that the work was cleaner physically, but was daunted by the level of responsibility for students and ongoing learning required. He found the work more physically exhausting and lamented that he felt 'pooped' by the weekend when he needed time to relax and rejuvenate, but he needed to spend time preparing classes and honing new skills. All participants had changed their early assumptions that teaching would be an 'easy' job.
Working with teenagers, proved to be problematic to the participants and challenged many of their assumptions.
I assumed that kids want to learn and I've found out that the percentage of kids who actually want to learn is in the minority... You just assume that they all want to be there and have a great time. (Belinda)As the youngest participant, she found some student attention inappropriate and found it hard, being close to their age and height, to be a figure of authority.
Jake had further concerns, also due to his closeness in age to his students:
I suppose I'm very cautious with young women just because I'm a young guy. So I make sure I keep that very far away and out of the picture. It's a pretty big issue with adolescents.
There are no easy answers to classroom management and you have to go and work it out for yourself. (Stan)They viewed the strategies presented at University and those modelled by supervising teachers as less important than the strategies shared and refined by participants to suit their own personal style.
It is different every time anyway. (Belinda)
Participants found that different styles were more suited to each of them and that it was important to understand how they could best reflect on their practices rather than adhere to one style only. Processes of reflection were adopted in different ways by individuals, according to their preferences. All participants began to actively 'notice' (Mason, 2002) themselves during teaching, with part of them being observer, part actor. Stan described himself beginning to watch himself in action and have a part that was coaching him inside his head. Schon (1983) calls this process in professionals 'reflection-in-action' and van Manen (1991) calls it 'pedagogical tact'. Simply put, Stan began to think like a teacher, problem solving on the spot. Jack however preferred to think it out alone and then use the group for clarification. Belinda preferred mind mapping and verbalised less but was particularly observant in the group. Junee was the only one to use a reflective journal, even though everyone was encouraged to do so at the start of the project.
Double-loop learning (Schon, 1983) occurred because the group learnt about collegial reflection while using this process to learn more of what it means to become a teacher. At times they were reflecting on their growing ability to reflect and take action, while at other times, the central questions on teacher identity were addressed. The process also refreshed and engaged the facilitating-participant-researcher through actively reflecting on what it currently means to be a teacher, after teaching in high schools for fifteen years. The dialogue and interchange of ideas on learning and teaching, became an ongoing tool for improving practice for all participants in the research.
Tension between identity determined by subject discipline and emerging teacher identity was a recurrent theme, suggesting that it may be an ongoing source of professional tension for secondary-teachers. This view is supported in the literature. A British study of music teachers found that public expectations of them as professionals were judged in terms of their musical skills and yet success in the classroom required a different set of skills (CIRME, 2004). They needed to engage in ongoing practices that maintained and developed their musical skills, as well as develop their teaching skills further. This situation is not particular to 'practical' subjects, since scientists also specialise but expected to be competent in physics, chemistry, biology and in some cases, agriculture. The need for ongoing learning, and rapid catch-up in most cases, became apparent for participants not only in pedagogy but also in their specific discipline. Teacher-as-learner emerged as an ongoing construct for their new identities. Further research is needed in this area of secondary teacher identity.
The desire to 'know what works', to gain strategies, dominated the focus of group discussions on what they needed to learn and know. The view of teacher as 'technician', the what, subsumed participant awareness of learning how to learn, and often why, This supports the literature discussed earlier that refers to this pre-service phase as the 'survivalist' stage of teaching. Even though participants unpacked this assumed need, there was no handy list of solutions they could apply to all situations. The need to be creative problem solvers was added to their understandings of their new selves. The unconscious aspects of self that drive one's actions when teaching are not acknowledged in teaching standards which favour technical competencies. So it is significant that this research has focused on making unexamined aspects of self-as-teacher conscious, in order to become better teachers, as determined by the teachers themselves.
If skill-based knowledge is given priority by both educational managers and emerging teachers, then this has powerful implications for educationalists trying to promote the professional nature of teaching or 'reprofessionalise' teaching (Ramsey 2000; Vinson et al, 2002; Smyth & Shacklock, 1998).
The reflective research group was cited by participants as a powerful process for debriefing, trying out ideas and finding commonality, "to know that I wasn't the only one feeling like this" (Jack) and as a way of breaking the isolation of study. Interestingly, it was the non-competitive, non-assessable nature of the group that was cited as the most important aspect of being able to discuss identity issues. This may have implications for the ways in which reflective tasks are conducted in current education courses.
Currently opportunities for pre-service teachers to reflect with others, to integrate 'repositionings of self', are often limited by lack of time and adequate critical processes. Reflection in order to evaluate options for practice enable some degree of choice But many external factors in being a teacher are beyond the control of pre-service teachers and require adaptation of their pre-held attitudes and habitual behaviours. While pre-service teachers may not have choice about many of the external factors that shape their teacher identities, they can choose how to respond to these factors if able to be critically aware of them. Creating 'breathing' and 'learning' spaces in an otherwise challenging, sometimes tense, period of teacher education, has provided a powerful lens on what it means to be a teacher for all participants.
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|Author: Marian Webb is a high school teacher currently completing her Master of Education through Southern Cross University. Her research interests include reflective practices and questions of noticing self in action, teacher identity, musical education and collaboration. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Webb, M. (2005). Becoming a secondary-school teacher: The challenges of making teacher identity formation a conscious, informed process. Issues In Educational Research, 15(2), 206-224. http://www.iier.org.au/iier15/webb.html