Dividing practices: social class and the professional identities of secondary school language teachers' identities

Year: 2019

Author: Black, Stephen, Wright, Jan, Wright

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Teacher identity is integral to the teaching of languages, indeed, prominent researchers in the field of applied linguistics make the claim that ‘language teaching is identity work’ (De Costa and Norton 2017, p. 8), and more generally, that ‘learning to teach is an identity making process’ (Beijaard 2019, p.1). In this paper, to better understand teachers of languages we focus on and explore how they and others view their professional identities.

Several decades of neoliberal reforms in NSW schools, and in Australia more generally, have produced, particularly at the secondary schooling level, an hierarchical schooling system in which children from higher SES have access to a different and more privileged academic curriculum in comparison with children from lower SES backgrounds. Not only does this set up different knowledge and resource contexts but there is also research indicating that teachers view their professional roles differently according to teaching context, including whether their students are high achieving or low achieving (Ben-Peretz, Mendelson and Kron 2003).

This paper focuses on the experiences and sense of identity of languages teachers in the teaching contexts of this highly differentiated schooling system. This paper is based on semi-structured interviews with secondary languages teachers collected for the larger study. It will be presented through a series of vignettes of language teachers’ backgrounds and experiences, comparing teachers’ professional identities constituted in the context of academically selective secondary schools where languages as academic subjects are valued, and where languages teachers enjoy high status and those of languages teachers in low SES comprehensive high schools.

The languages teachers’ experiences and professional identities varied largely according to teaching context, and in particular, whether they were teaching high achieving students in high SES academically selective or independent schools or underachieving students in low SES comprehensive high schools. The differences in the teachers’ experiences and professional identities were marked, and yet, in terms of their personal socio-economic and educational backgrounds, including university and teaching qualifications, they were very similar. For some languages teachers in the selective high schools there appeared to be a seamless transition from being high school students of languages to selective high school teachers of languages. This contrasted with the struggles that teachers in the comprehensive schools in our study had to maintain their professional identities as languages teachers and valued teachers in their schools.