The role of agency in determining and enacting the professional identities of early career Aboriginal teachers.

Year: 2012

Author: Burgess, Cathie

Type of paper: Refereed paper



The purpose of this study is to explore the role of agency in early career Aboriginal teacher's expressions of their professional identity. Despite the discursive environments of schools which are largely shaped by normative conceptions of Australian culture, Aboriginal teachers exercise agency in their work by drawing on aspects of their personal, professional and situated identities (Day & Kington, 2008). This paper argues that in the context of teaching, opportunities to exercise personal agency are of critical importance to the development and maintenance of a 'healthy' professional identity, particularly for those traditionally disempowered by the mainstream system, such as Aboriginal teachers.


This qualitative study employs narrative methodology in both the processes of obtaining and analysing data, and in the stories that are constructed from the data. Three early career teacher composite narratives were constructed from fifteen focused, conversational, in-depth interviews (Goodfellow, 1995) and two focus groups with Aboriginal pre service and early career teachers.


Findings revealed that agency is a key factor in the development of early career Aboriginal teacher's professional identities, and that the extent to which Aboriginality plays a role in enacting agency is dependent upon individual experience and action as well as school context. The sociocultural predisposition of the school context and the way in which teachers respond within this context is significant in the development of professional identities. Increasing pressure to subscribe to normative conceptions of teaching through the imposition of a standards approach (Mockler, 2011) reduces space and opportunity for the preservice teacher who articulates a culturally diverse or atypical professional identity.


This study challenges normative discourses around Aboriginal teacher's actions and responses in specific school contexts (Santoro & Allard, 2005), and opens up spaces for Aboriginal teachers to determine their own professional identity either as part of or separate from their Aboriginality so as to exercise personal agency and achieve alignment between their actual and designated identities (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Relevant issues for early career Aboriginal teachers, and to a certain extent their non-Aboriginal counterparts, have significant implications for teaching contexts, teacher education, and the transition into teaching.