Understanding Teacher Identity as an International Teacher
An Autoethnographic Approach to (Developing) Reflective Practice
Authors: Julia Sahling (Southbank University, UK) and Roussel De Carvalho (University of East London, UK)
Summary: Dr Stephen Whitehead
Have you ever considered that every job you do changes you?
Probably not, but you should because paid work is not simply about income and job title, you become what your job environment (discourses) creates you to be. Okay, it is a little more complex and agentic than that, but the fundamental point to recognise is that work informs our identity, our sense of self.
Teaching is a good example and it is explored in this article.
50 years ago, there were fewer than 100 international schools, now there are over 12,0000 a great many of which are staffed by teachers who once worked in the UK, USA, or Canadian state education systems. What happens to the identity of such teachers who move into international school teaching?
They don’t just take on a new job, they take on a new identity. And this experience changes who they are.
‘The teaching profession in England and Wales has been experiencing a steady decline in its workforce, with a significant number of teachers making the decision to move abroad and teach in international schools….We argue that to navigate these highly complex environments teachers must deeply understand their identity.’ (p. 33/35)
So, what is this thing called identity, which we are hearing more and more of these days? [i]
Well, for starters, it is not biologically fixed but always in process. See identity as work in progress rather than a state of being which you attain at some point in your life and thereafter it remains immutable, invulnerable to all external events around you and which directly or indirectly impact you. Identity is porous, contingent, and flexible. We are always in a state of being and becoming.
‘Identity is another complex concept that can broadly be understood as a process of becoming which may be conceptualised as a multi-layered and fluid concept…For the purposes of this research, identity (either personal or professional) encompasses multiple stories of becoming, it is the how of learning to become.’ (p. 35, original emphasis).
When an individual moves from one country to live and work in another, from one culture to another, so their identity also undergoes a shift. This is not manageable in an instrumental way, it just has to be experienced, lived in the moment. For international school teachers this shift can be very profound and have far-reaching consequences. However, it is all too easy just to go with the flow of it all and not engage in any deep reflection as to how one is changing and what that means for one’s personal and professional identities.
‘In order for international teachers to begin to think about their professional teacher identity they must see it as a process of identity formation, rather than as a static label. It is an integral path of their professional development and their constant redefining of self.’ (p. 36)
And why is this so important to teachers (and all professionals)?
‘Teachers who wish to continue to improve and achieve high levels of practice therefore need multiple layers of understanding about their professional (teacher) identity and their personal identity (or identities) in order to maintain such a conducive environment for learning. We argue this may be achieved through a conscientious understanding of their notions of ‘self’ through their professional (teacher) identity and their self-efficacy.’ (p. 36)
In other words, professional development is not something that is simply imposed on a teacher through undertaking an MA, MEd, Doctorate, or attending endless training seminars. PD is personal – it happens only when the individual reflects on what is happening and starts to understand how they relate to these changes, new experiences, opportunities, requirements.
If you have spent all your working life as a teacher in the UK state system and you fly out to some exotic location and start teaching, don’t imagine all you are doing is flying out to some exotic location and starting teaching.
‘When a teacher move abroad, they are faced with differing socioeconomic conditions, cultural value and ideas of the new country, as well as adapting to a new institutional (school) culture….We argue that these different political arenas they will encounter could potentially lead to a more profound understanding of their evolving professional (teacher) identity in a new context…A teacher’s sense of ‘self’ and self-efficacy develops when they experience both internal and professional challenges to their personal and professional identity.’ (p. 37)
And nothing is more guaranteed to challenge any (Western) state school teacher than upping their sticks and flying off to the other side of the world to teach.
The key term here is ‘autoethnography’ but what does it actually mean?
Basically, it means looking at oneself and writing up the story in a way which:
‘demands showing perceived warts and bruises as well as the accolades and successes; thus risking the kind of criticism which comes with the territory.’ (p. 38)
The most effective approach is to keep a diary, or a journal of your professional experiences. Record your experiences but also your responses, feelings, emotions. Do this as a regular routine. Such writing can be cathartic though it will require you to be honest with yourself. Not easy.
‘Autoethnography is a research methodology that can be used to its full potential with international school teachers. There is no reliance on other members of staff or students for collecting and interpreting the data…However, the perceived freedom may also be a limitation…Separating themselves from difficult issues as they are happening, in order to gain perspective, may also be challenging.’ (p. 38)
It is this ‘journaling’ method which was used to collect data for this article.
One of the authors, Julia Sahling, used such an approach over an extended period and in the article she gives specific examples, based on her experience, of how to use autoethnography as a methodological tool for (self) research when transitioning into international teaching. She identifies three key stages and links them to her journal accounts/writings/reflections.
Stage 1: Seeing yourself as a learner in a new cultural context
“I wrote a world in my Spanish notebook tonight – resilience. This was after a listening exercise in which I didn’t get any right: I wanted to cry. I was so frustrated with myself and the whole process. Everyone else in the class seemed to get it. But I knew this was going to be hard, right? Didn’t I know what I was getting myself into when I moved here, not speaking any Spanish?” (p.42)
“Having previously taught in Thailand, I thought I was more prepared than most for the poverty that might face me in Mexico….Today, during dismissal, a child in my class gave money to an even younger child who was begging outside the school gates. Suddenly, the reality of teaching such privileged children in an international school was set in such a stark contrast to the struggling reality faced by the majority of the children in this country.” (p.43)
Stage 2: Seeing yourself as a teacher in a new educational context
“I arrived on time to school this morning and met with the coordinator, whose class I would be in, before the children arrived. She introduced me to some staff and referred to me as her teaching assistant…Although I have been a teaching assistant in the past, being referred to as an assistant after all of my experiences and qualifications really forces me to question if the teacher label is all that important to my identity, my dignity. Or perhaps it makes me wonder if it affects my status within this school, this context, with these colleagues.” (p. 43)
Stage 3: Seeing your values through different lenses and adapting your expectations
Just over a year into teaching in Mexico, in two different schools, and I am looking for jobs elsewhere. I have found a lack of support from leadership and a lack of structure and clear expectations in both schools, which makes me feel like I am drowning in cultural chaos. Unfortunately, the most astute advice I got from another teacher was ‘to lower my expectations’. Applying for jobs has become a humbling experience; to go from thinking ‘Of course they will want me, look at all of my experience’ to ‘I wonder if I was good enough?’ How did I portray myself?’ Could my confidence by knocked any more by constantly sending out my CV and not hearing anything, or is it a sign that these are not the right schools for me?’ (p. 45)
One has to be very emotionally mature and brave to not only write like this but also allow the reflections to be in the public domain, in this instance informing an academic journal article.
As a writer myself, I find it impressive at both a personal and professional level.
That said, I believe most international school teachers are capable of this level of reflective self-analysis if only they’d give themselves the time and opportunity to engage in it. Sure, the writings can remain personal and private, but in the very writing so will the emergent self and identity be recognised, and, importantly, embraced.
Too many of us carry on through life trying to shield our emotions, pretending we are stoic, dispassionate, thick-skinned, rational and logical actors in control of events or unmoved by them.
Don’t believe any of that.
Life hurts, but it is in the hurting that we develop – in which case try and understand what is happening and accept our feelings. For those of us with the calling of international educationalist/teacher, nothing could be more important to our professional and personal advancement.
[i] For more on identity at work see S.Whitehead and S. Hollins (2022) Total Inclusivity at Work, Routledge. For more on identity as a teacher, see A. Aow, S. Hollins, and S. Whitehead (2022) Creating the Totally Inclusive School. (Routledge). For more on identity in universities, see P. O’Connor, S. Whitehead, and S. Hollins (2022) Creating the Totally Inclusive University. Routledge.
Sahling J, De Carvalho R. Understanding Teacher Identity as an International Teacher: An Autoethnographic Approach to (Developing) Reflective Practice. Journal of Research in International Education. 2021;20(1):33-49.
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