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Am I a good teacher? The importance of a positive sense of self

Written By: Helen Ross
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If a teacher does not feel confident in themselves, they will be unlikely to deliver ‘good lessons'

The concept of ‘good teaching’ has been in the vernacular of teachers since the inception of Ofsted in the Education (Schools) Act (1992). Under the current inspection framework, unless schools and teachers are at least ‘good’ they must undergo Section 8 inspections (Ofsted, 2015), guidance for which comes through publications such as ‘Getting to Good: how headteachers achieve success’ (Ofsted, 2012).

Although ‘Getting to Good’ is no longer current, similar publications will likely supersede its detail on how to improve schools holistically. The ‘whole school’ focus of such publications, while important, does not necessarily address teachers’ questions about their own practice and their position within current conceptualisations of ‘good teaching’. Teacher participants in my recent study (Ross, 2017) sought to understand and embody good teaching for young people with dyslexia, and construct positive identities for themselves as teachers.

Breaking down teachers’ interactions

There are many theories about identity and individuals’ understanding of their place in the world. Bourdieu (1977) views identity as a social process – we understand our place in the world through how we interact with others. He views social interactions as being informed by the roles and associated power people have within social settings. Jenkins (2008) also views identity as a collective process, where social agents’ understanding of self is influenced by the social interactions they engage in. Neither Bourdieu nor Jenkins purports to be able to uncover peoples’ ‘true’, hidden self – Jenkins even argues that we cannot know whether there is a ‘true’ self or not (Jenkins, 2008). However, they both provide us with the means to explore how a ‘self’ can be influenced and may influence others socially.

A useful tool for understanding how Bourdieu’s view of identity formation plays out in a pragmatic setting is Jenkins’ (2008, p. 39) ‘levels of interaction’. He breaks down social interactions into three levels:

  • the individual order is the human world as made up of embodied individuals and what-goes-on-in-their-heads;
  • the interaction order is the human world as constituted in relationships between individuals, in what-goes-on-between-people;
  • the institutional order is the human world of pattern and organisation, of established-ways-of-doing-things.

Understanding how interactions are navigated at the ‘individual order’ lays the foundations for exploring how interactions are undertaken at the ‘interaction order’. These interactions then inform ‘institutional’ interactions.

Teachers’ interactions and social identity


In my recent study (Ross, Forthcoming), teachers appeared to frame themselves negatively at the individual level. When considering their own understanding of ‘self’ as a teacher of young people with dyslexia, they did not view themselves as “accomplished and successful academically” (Ross, Forthcoming). Their low self-confidence seemed to stem from their perceived lack of training relating to supporting young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN). This negative framing of their own abilities laid foundations for teachers’ interactions with young people and their parents, in which teachers’ constructions of ‘self’ did not always align with others’ perceptions of them.


Interactionally, teachers’ constructions of ‘self’ led them to downplay their own academic prowess. Teachers instead tended to focus on constructing positive relationships with young people in the classroom through their manipulation of language, body positioning and resources. Teachers’ presenting themselves as powerful ‘state functionaries’ (Bourdieu, 1999) were not evident throughout this study. They attempted to minimise perceptibility of difference between young people, challenge academically gifted pupils and support those who were less academically inclined.

Teachers’ interactions and teaching in this study met criteria for ‘good’ teaching and learning:

“Teachers use effective planning to help pupils learn well. Time in lessons is used productively. Pupils focus well on their learning because teachers reinforce expectations for conduct and set clear tasks that challenge pupils” (Ofsted, 2015: 48)

Thus, through their positive relationships fostered via their positive interactions with young people in the classroom, teachers began to project a ‘self’ with many of the attributes of a ‘good teacher’. However, this ‘self’ and their individual, private ‘self’ did not align.


Bourdieu (1999) viewed teachers as powerful ‘state functionaries’ who control access to resources, and can bestow certain legal statuses on individuals. Teachers who are defined as ‘good teachers’ are viewed positively within literature and participants in my recent study also aspired to ‘good teaching’ (Ross, 2017). Being a good teacher should seemingly empower teachers and reinforce a strong, positive social position for anyone achieving this accolade.

The understanding of ‘good teaching’ as defined by Ofsted (2015: 48) seems to contain subjective language, whereby ‘well’, ‘clear tasks’ and ‘challenge’ at first glance appear to give concrete, informative guidelines on how to become a ‘good teacher’. However, teachers in my recent study (Ross, 2017) did not conceptualise of ‘good teaching’ clearly. Instead, their view of good teaching seemed to be ‘anyone but me’ could be viewed as a good teacher.

Teachers views of ‘self’ tended towards the negative in relation their abilities as teachers of dyslexic young people, and their training in supporting those with special educational needs. Thus, for individuals in my study, and potentially other teachers, the position of teachers as ‘powerful state functionaries’ (Bourdieu, 1999) did not chime with their experiences of the role or associated social position. Instead, their understandings of ‘self’ led them to construct themselves as less than ‘good’ teachers of young people with dyslexia (Ross, Forthcoming), whose lack of training and knowledge of dyslexia hindered their ability to meet the needs of young people in their care. As such, despite having delivered some excellent lessons and having received ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ ratings in lesson observations, there appeared a disjuncture in teachers’ own and others’ understandings of their teaching and identity.

Repairing a disjuncture

The findings from my recent study (Ross, 2017; Forthcoming) suggest that there is a disjuncture between teachers’ understandings of themselves, good teaching and others’ perceptions of their position. Recent focus on high-quality teaching, particularly within SEN and Disability Discourse (DfE and DfH,2015; NASEN, 2014)), has been argued to potentially mean that young people’s needs are blamed on poor teaching (BDA, 2012), which could reinforce teachers’ negative views of self.

As a PhD researcher and more recently as the Head of Learning Support and SenCo in a small independent school, my own understanding of ‘good teaching’ has been both challenged and reinforced. Through my research, and my professional role, I have come to understand that a teacher’s own construction of self is paramount in their ability to undertake their role positively and for them to inspire their students. If a teacher does not feel confident in their own abilities, they will be unlikely to deliver ‘good lessons’ or support pupils to achieve good and outstanding learning.

Much of teachers’ doubt that I have encountered professionally and academically has centred around a lack of control over resources, both in terms of material resources, training resources and the cultural capital-based (Bourdieu, 1991) resources accessible to their students. As such, I feel passionate that we need to empower teachers and other educational professionals to take charge of their own professional development and training, so that they can then begin to view themselves as highly trained and competent professionals.

I believe that the Chartered College of Teaching – with a structured Chartered Teacher programme, informed, designed and implemented by teachers – is a positive and proactive way for teachers to take charge of their own continuing professional development. This will support them in the construction of a positive understanding of their own professional capacities, through collation of examples of their own ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ practice. This way, the ultimate beneficiaries of our education system, the students, will reap the rewards of a positive, competent and motivated workforce.

  • Bourdieu, P., (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1991) The Peculiar History of Scientific Reason. Sociological Forum, 6 (1): 3–26.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1999) Scattered Remarks. European Journal of Social Theory, 2 (3): 334–340.Education (Schools) Act (1992) London: HMSO.
  • British Dyslexia Association (BDA) (2012) The British Dyslexia Association’s Response to the SEN and Disability Green Paper [Accessed online through the British Dyslexia Association 31 March 2013].
  • Department for Education and Department for Health (DfE and DfH), (2015) Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice. London: DfE and DfH.
  • Jenkins, R., (2008). Social Identity. London: Routledge.
  • NASEN, (2014). SEN Support and the Graduated Approach. A quick guide to ensuring that every child or young person gets the support they require to meet their needs. NASEN: Tamworth.
  • Ofsted, (2012). Getting to good: how headteachers achieve success. London: Ofsted.
  • Ofsted, (2015). Handbook for short, monitoring and unannounced behaviour school inspections. London: Ofsted.
  • Ross, H., (2017), ‘An exploration of how dyslexia affects young people’s, teachers’ and parents’ concepts of self, interpersonal relationships, and inter-institutional interactions in the setting of a mainstream secondary school’, PhD Thesis, University of Bath, UK.
  • Ross, H. (Forthcoming), ‘An exploration of teachers’ agency and social relationships within dyslexia-support provision in an English secondary school’. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8578.12174
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