The Value of Teacher Identity


One of my favorite teacher books is Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach.  Palmer’s work inspires teachers to recognize the nobleness and greatness associated with this profession.  Its premise is simple.  Teachers cannot teach unless they understand their own identity first.  And so, it made me reflect on the importance of teacher identity.

Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

Parker Palmer

Teachers will resonate with this idea.  The act of teaching is inseparable from personal identity and beliefs.   Good teachers connect their lives with their subject and students.   In contrast, bad teachers distance themselves from their students. In other words, the teacher’s social and emotion well-being is equal to knowing how and what to teach.

I recently had a conversation with a friend, Dr. Michael Poutiatine, from Gonzaga University about this topic.  He explained that teachers evaluate their identity in light of their workplace environment.  That is, the school’s mission and philosophy impacts how teachers interpret their practice.  For instance, some schools approach their curriculum from a humanistic viewpoint.  Such schools encourage students to find and develop their talents.   Teachers whose beliefs aligned to the growth of individuals will find their practice congruent to this type of school.  On the other hand,  teachers who strive for pure academic excellence may find their practice at odds in a humanistic school.  Many schools do not recognize their teachers’ beliefs and values.   Therefore teachers are dictated by their school’s values.  As a result, teachers may become inauthentic in their practice.

Does this mean that teachers cannot be authentic unless the school “fits” with their beliefs?  I don’t think so.  Schools should help teachers find pathways to connect their identities with the school’s goals.  From previous example, administrators from the humanistic school might coach the academically orientated teachers to see other possibilities.  Perhaps such teachers could mentor students inclined to pursue an academic pathway.  When teachers’ identity mismatch their institution’s goals, the school should not view these teachers as deficits.  Instead each teacher’s unique perspective should be seen as adding new possibilities to the school’s existing mission.

Furthermore integrating identity with school’s values helps teachers gain a sense of belonging.  Indeed this sense of belonging is important for building strong social and emotional well-being for teachers.   Don’t we want all students to have teachers with such positive mental health?

We all need to be part of a community.  Our ability to grow comes from how our community appreciates what we do.  Teachers are no different.   Let’s help all teachers connect their identity with their school’s.   So we can make every school a great experience for our students.

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