Shaping teacher identity: “Know first who you are” Epictetus

As a senior lecturer in primary teacher training, one of my roles is interviewing prospective applicants for the course.  Inevitably, a key question that we ask at interview is ‘what makes you think that primary teaching is the right career choice for you?’  The answers vary from the all too predictable ‘because I love children’ to the slightly more inspiring ‘because I want to make a difference’.  But what does wanting to make a difference truly mean?  As schoolteachers and university lecturers, many of us would say that a desire to have a positive influence on those in our professional care is at the heart of what we do.  For those of us in ITE (initial teacher education), part of this is about supporting the trainees in their journey towards developing their professional identity. 

Making independent choices

As an English specialist, one of my research interests is how I can positively influence trainees in developing an identity as a reading-teacher so that they can encourage children to read for pleasure , thereby having a positive impact on the children’s future attainment.  However, this need to influence is something that has started to trouble me, particularly from an existentialist perspective. I am starting to question what gives me the right to decide which identity choices are ‘better’ than others or to impose my ethos on others.  Existentialism identifies that identity is something that we should discover for ourselves; we should be free to choose who we are and who we become. There is no one else responsible for the decisions that we make and there is no ultimate destiny to fulfil. If we turn to others to make the choice for us, then it is an example of Sartrean ‘mauvaise foi’ (bad faith) or what Heidegger termed ‘inauthenticity’.  Individuals need to make their own critical decisions about who they are and create their identities without reference to the other, ‘das man’ (the ‘they’) or, in my case, the University Lecturer. Trainee teachers need therefore to develop their own criticality as an integral part of their professional development. The possibilities when considering our identities are endless, yet the choices that we do make, such as that of a career or a job, are significant steps in the formation of our identity.

Communities of Practice

On entering University life, trainees are encouraged to form communities of practice.  In the primary English sessions, we discuss the statutory requirement to encourage children to read for pleasure and therefore to develop reading identities and become, in due course, ‘reading-teachers’. There are proven benefits that result from reading for pleasure and it is something that we as an English team advocate.  However, does this potential pressure to become reading-teachers mean that our trainees are acting on received ideas rather than ones that they have explored and formulated for themselves? Is there then the potential that the trainees become absorbed in a communal identity where they have no need to ask uncomfortable questions about meaning?  Trainees in this position could therefore be considered to have been thrown into a community where they are told what they should believe and, at worst, could then become passive adherents to the choices of others.  These trainees would then find themselves in a position of bad faith, being unaware of their lack of autonomy and agency.  Heidegger called this a state of ‘tranquilization’ and it is not something we should wish for our trainees.  

Acknowledging the tension

It is crucial therefore for me, and I would argue for us as lecturers, to acknowledge the tension between the two poles of facticity (where we are thrown into a situation where we have little control) and transcendence (where we have the freedom to make our own choices).  For individuals to sit at either extreme is evidence of bad faith and so my, or our,  aspiration (as educators) to have a positive influence on trainees should surely be more about enabling them to be aware of the wide range of choices available and to promote in them a sense of self-efficacy and self-worth where they feel able to explore and question their identity and ultimately make their own decisions about which values will be at its core.  At this point only will they be able to achieve their identity, by discovering who they truly are. Then, we may be in a position to say that we have had a positive influence in helping them shape their own identity by making conscious and considered choices.

Eli Power

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