Early Career Hub

Owning your professional identity

Written By: Nick Dennis
5 min read

Initial teacher training (ITT) promises much. You get told that, at the end, you will be an advocate for your subject, inspirational, primed on the latest thinking on psychology, assessment, behaviour management and inspection requirements so that you are ready to help shape society. What they don’t necessarily tell you is that becoming a teacher not only alters your perception of the world; it alters you, too. In the words of Kate Clanchy (2019), it is a ‘bodily experience, like learning to be a beekeeper or an acrobat: a series of stinging humiliations and painful accidents, and occasional sublime flights’ (p. 1), which change you.

But this change, and the burden of responsibility in being a teacher and the desire to ‘get it right’, should not mean a diminution of your unique talents, experiences and heritage. On the contrary, it is only by owning our teacher identity and personal identities in school that we can truly become great teachers.

A need for increased diversity

There is a need for increased diversity in all areas of education – in terms of gender, ethnicity and more. Research from management consultants McKinsey in 2018 (Hunt et al.) suggests that organisations that are more diverse ethnically outperform organisations that are more culturally homogenous by 33 per cent when financial performance is taken into account. Although not based in schools, the numbers presented by McKinsey are arresting, especially when we consider that the education system strains every sinew to make marginal improvements in outcomes for students every single year. Having diverse staff was not itself the cause of improvement, but McKinsey found that, over time and size of organisation and across geographies, there was a substantive relationship between having diverse staff and superior performance. Schools that foster diversity in staff may be unlocking the potential for superior exam results and a better school culture without really knowing it. But school performance is just one reason why supporting teachers from a diverse range of backgrounds to own their personal and professional identity is important.

Effecting change through the curriculum

One way that having a diverse staff, who own not only their professional identity but also their personal identity, effects change is that it can increase the quality of decision-making and pedagogy around one of the most important issues in education at the moment: curriculum. Both the planned curriculum and the co-curricular curriculum help students to acquire knowledge and improve their understanding in a wide range of different areas. A limited curriculum does not serve anyone’s interests, and subject bodies such as the Royal Historical Society (Atkinson et al., 2018) have published reports on gender and ethnicity in curriculum construction and the effect that they have on teaching at university, the teaching profession and wider society.

Having a diverse staff who own both their professional and personal identities allows for more nuanced discussions within departments about the teaching of genetics and moving away from the simplistic understandings about ‘race’ that emanate from them. Or it may lead to contextualising the teaching of texts such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park as an example of how certain pieces of classic literature reflect past economic and social realities, with the enslaved labour in the Caribbean providing the backdrop for the book. Or it might allow for consideration of how, when it comes to discussing maths problems, there is a sense that we can trace the origins of the knowledge we use to Greece, India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. This is not an exercise in tokenism, but a way to show the connectedness of humanity and how knowledge is constructed, an important skill in the age where narratives about societies and people are concocted with little reference to history or fully grasping the fundamentals of a topic. Ultimately, this provides a richer, more nourishing and broader educational experience for all.

Effecting change through career progression

Curriculum interventions are the easiest aspect where a teacher’s personal and professional identities can have an impact. But for some teachers who are aspirational about furthering their career and who may be looking for opportunities or for role models, the current situation in schools is not always encouraging. For example, 37 per cent of teachers at secondary schools are men, yet they make up 62 per cent of headteachers (DfE, 2017). Students from diverse backgrounds make up almost a third of students in state and independent schools, yet heads, senior leaders and middle leaders lag behind this figure.

How can we seek to change this? Although there are great generic programmes for developing your skills out there, there are also organisations that specialise in working with underrepresented groups to challenge the status quo. Grass-roots organisations such as #BAMEed and #WomenEd offer support, mentoring and advice to teachers at all stages in their careers. Staffed by experienced educators, these organisations, and many like them, know that professional and personal identities are intertwined and pay careful attention to raising the profile of teachers from minority backgrounds nationally. They also offer opportunities for public speaking and events that are focused on addressing issues that many other conferences leave out, as they understand that the optics of panels and keynote speakers are important in a society that is diverse.

Effecting change at a system level

If you are a teacher from an under-represented group, seeking promotion is not the only way that embracing your identity can have a wider effect on the education system. The annual governance survey carried out by the National Governance Association (2018), representing one of the largest voluntary groups in the country, indicates that around five per cent of state school governors are from ethnic groups other than ‘white’. School governance is a vitally important leadership role and you can truly help to shape a school to live its stated values. For example, while every school states that equality is key to its functioning, there is a gender pay gap in schools, where female staff are paid anything from £900 to £4,000 less than men in the same role (Jeffreys, 2018).

Moreover, schools often have statements about ‘seeing the best in everybody’ but we also know from numerous studies, including from Oxford University and the UK government, that you are likely to be turned down for an interview if your name seems to suggest a heritage that is not ‘white’ British (CSI, 2019; Wood et al., 2009). Schools and universities attended are also seen as proxies for candidate quality, and this can eliminate talented individuals from the recruitment process. These are current open problems in the school sector but these important issues are usually left aside due to the tyranny of the urgent in schools. Offering your professional status, as well as your personal experiences, can help schools to become more inclusive and show integrity and authenticity to the students, colleagues and the wider community.

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