Theory of Teacher Identity Development ©

Tom Yedica


Statement of Focus: What aspects contribute to creating different teacher identities?

Supporting Rationale: As a teacher of six years, I have observed how new teachers, besides myself, have entered the district in order to begin their teaching profession. Each new teacher, in a course of three years forms a working "identity" by which students, administration, other teachers and even parents know. My goal is to follow teacher identity paradigm to quantify how teachers fall into the four categories.

Background: The psychologist Carl Jung theorized the "persona" where identity is masked by the person and changes by the situation. For teachers, this theory would profess that one puts on a "teacher mask" in front of the students while taking off that mask when not teaching. But by wearing the "mask" for a long period of time that persona is incorporated into the individual so that the teacher personal is the identity. Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Development stages described the crisis of Identity v. Identity Confusion and the psychologist James Marcia described the four outcomes of this crisis. In both cases adolescents learn to form an identity whereby they create the predominant persona based on their inner attitudes and outer environment. But my focus will go beyond the adolescent years (if teaching is not actually an activity of prolonged adolescence for young, new teachers) and study identity development formation when one's work career begins.

The paradigm for this undertaking will be the Theory of Teacher Identity Development © follows Marcia's attempt to categorize the identity development into four categories. But unlike Marcia's theories, the identity development of a teacher rests upon their position on the continuum of Interpersonal Comfort and Knowledge.

Theory of Teacher Identity Development©

The paradigm is based upon two concepts essential for a teacher's formation of an identity: Knowledge in the area which you teach and Interpersonal comfort with others, particularly students. By "Knowledge" I mean this to be a teacher who has a level or degree of information about the subject area, a level or degree of information about how students learn i.e. academics and pedagogy and a level or degree of knowledge about him/herself. But these are not mutually exclusive for a high level of academic or pedagogical knowledge is useless unless the teacher is comfortable with students, the environment and themselves. "Interpersonal Comfort" is the ability to communicate, listen and build a level of rapport with the students, parents, administration and other faculty whereby the teacher appears to be genuine and at ease with his/her role as an educator. But more importanty, the teacher is comfortable with him/herself in this setting. The combination of Knowledge and Comfort thus creates an ability to teach and, therefore, an identity as a teacher.

Professional / Progressive Educator - This is the highest and most sought of the identity distinctions. A professional / progressive educator is the teacher who has a degree of knowledge that students admit is high. This is the teacher "who knows his or her stuff." But beyond that the professional / progressive educator has a degree of comfort between teacher / student. The professional / progressive educator is not afraid of the teaching situation and does not rely only upon one source (i.e. the textbook / workbook) to provide curriculum. The professional / progressive educator does disseminate information (from a wealth of knowledge on the topic) but is comfortable enough to allow students the ability within the classroom setting to "discover" knowledge for themselves whether through lab work, research projects or instructional activities. And the professional / progressive educator sets up an environment in which s/he learns with and from the students. The students ask questions and then are questioned in return in order to develop higher order thinking skills. And the professional / progressive educator is continually trying to learn how to be a better, more knowledgeable by not always relying on the same lessons and willing to risk trying something new in the classroom. This is the teacher that students respect and enjoy having.

Pal - Students are very comfortable with the teacher who is their pal. The pal has a level of intimacy with his / her students that is very admirable. The pal understands the students and responds to their needs. But unlike the professional / progressive educator, students understand that the pal does not know the material as well as s/he "should" and / or does not understand it as well some of the students. Often pals will admit their shortcomings and justify their teaching to "skills" rather than "content" rather than a combination of the two. The pal will comfortably talk to the student in the hall regarding weekend activities, sports and extracurriculars more so than course content. The ties between student and teacher are the focus of the pal and the pal is convinced s/he is a good teacher based solely on the fact that s/he is "popular" with the students. In a worst case scenario, the pal may appear "flirtatious" with students of the opposite gender and / or develop dangerously close physical and psychological ties to the students.

Professor / Dictator - The converse of the pal is the professor / dictator. This is the teacher that students know is very learned and is even respected by the students for that fact. But the students also feel the professor / dictator is not approachable or comfortable with them. This is not an aversion to one or a few students, it is a general unsociability or uncomfortability with others regardless of background. Due to the high level of academic knowledge and inability to relate to students, the teacher may rely on "professing" the information to the class, s/he may not trust sources of information other than her/himself. The door will close as the focus of the class is on today's lecture / lesson and any interruption to the class is an interruption in the fountain of knowledge being spewed forth. If the students do not respond to learning that way, the professor may turn into dictator questioning in disbelief the inability of the students to grasp the information. And it may not only be the class information but carry over into policies within the class where the dictator is in total control and may see continual questions as a threat to her/his authority. And the dictator may have a high knowledge of pedagogical and methodological techniques but it is the teachers uncomfortable "personality" that turns students off to any attempt at classroom simulations which seem "forced" rather than informative. In the worst case scenario, the dictator may become easily upset by students, parents and administration, inflexible and create an "ivory tower" around them as protection from "lesser" elements.

Worksheeter / Daycare - This teacher does not have the level of knowledge to teach the class effectively. Nor does this teacher have any desire to relate to students. But what this type of teacher has is a job and a book / manual and a class period containing 30 students and 50 minutes. Students are in the class and must get through the material in the curriculum without much diversion or useless "chit-chat." There is very little personal contact between worksheeter and students, except maybe to correct the assignment and to begin a new one or to introduce the video they will be viewing for the next 3 days. If the focus of this teacher diverts from the educational aspects s/he may turn into the daycare worker who is there to take attendance and make sure no major felonies occur while in his/her classroom. Activities such as "quietball" may develop where students will spend the entire hour playing catch with a ball and the only rule (which broken amounts to an assignment for the class) is not to speak.

Now that the four main identities have been elucidated, the question begs, "does one who develops one of these identities have this for his/her entire career?" The answer is no, but while old habits die hard, identities die harder. For example, a teacher may be identified as a professional / progressive educator and have a level of knowledge admirably high in the field. But if the teacher does not demand much from students, or relies more closely on intimate ties with students, that teacher will then become a pal. Likewise, if a teacher is assigned a new, unfamiliar class to teach, that teacher may respond by becoming a pal or worksheeter until a level of knowledge is attained. Conversely, a worksheeter or professor may, over the course of time develop a rapport with students that creates a new professional / progressive educator identity. But rapport will be easier to build with experience.

Unfortunately it is difficult to change teacher identity once it solidifies because s/he has created an identity, a certain expectation follows. A pal may become a popular teacher because all the students know they will have an easy class. The teacher will justify remaining a pal when approached by other teachers or administrators because all that matters to the pal is student responses. Only the student may admit "I learned nothing in that class." The professor / dictator will justify his / her identity by claiming to have "high standards" compared to other teachers who s/he sees as pals. Often the first complaints to a professor dictator will arise from students who resent the teaching to purposely disrupt the class often expressing a desire not to be there. The worksheeter / daycare will have an environment set up where students know what they have to do (the assignment) and many students enjoy that rigid, non-changing patter of do-correct-do more. But the worksheeter / daycare will make fun of the "handholding" going on in other classes and the need to "get back to the basics." S/he may justify the sitting and reading-in-place by saying that it is "preparation for college."

My contention is that the first three years to a teaching career (or new teaching assignment) are crucial to developing a healthy teacher identity. It is in that time that the teaching identity crisis occurs and the "persona becomes the person." This will be my directive in the professional development certificate program - to attest to the theoretical paradigm through the learning experiences and test the theory through action research.

I think the implications from understanding the theory are twofold. First the theory will be educational for all teachers to see how they are identified in the school culture. For those that are not content with their identity, they may go about determining who they are and who they want to be and then create a goal to strive for. It will also serve to open the eyes of the experienced teacher who is in charge of mentoring new teachers. It will guide the mentor to go beyond explaining policies and procedures, but to help the new teacher obtain the level of knowledge needed and/or begin to build rapport with students, staff, administration and parents. And it is those four groups of people, identified in the district and building mission statements, that create a better educational environment.