Trajectories of teacher identity: emergent, tenuous and distressed paths through the early career phase.

Year: 2012

Author: Morrison, Chad

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Teacher identity sometimes refers to the constructs that we use to delineate members of the profession from those who are not. At other times it refers to the processes that teachers engage in through the course of their professional lives which contribute to growth and change. Such understandings convey that teacher identity is largely about defining an individual's suitability for teaching. Implied in these understandings are the assumptions that educators and the community regularly make about what teachers should be and beliefs that those whom we identify as teachers have the necessary characteristics, skills, knowledge and capacity to be teachers.

This paper presents findings from a longitudinal study that attempted to capture the professional identity development of 14 early career teachers throughout a year of their teaching lives. The focus of the research was to explore how the participants made sense of their formative experiences and what processes contributed to their identity formation.

What emerged from their data was the collective practice that underpinned each individual's capacity to identify with the profession and to subsequently form an identity as a teacher. The participants' identity development therefore reflected the collaborative actions that created or limited circumstances for the individuals to find traction, to build a picture of themselves that was conducive to further success and to understand what was required of them for future success.

Three trajectories were developed to explain this identity development throughout the early career phase: emergent, tenuous and distressed. In circumstances where the participants were connected to colleagues and leaders, where resources were allocated for their professional development, and where formal and informal dialogue about teaching was accessible and responsive to their needs and experiences, the participants expressed emergent teacher identities that were characterised by an orientation towards future success and traction. Conversely, where these features were not present, the participants expressed distressed teacher identities. Distressed teacher identity conveyed that participants' constructions of themselves as teachers were departing from personally and professionally sustainable ones and that exit from the profession was looming. Additionally, tenuous teacher identity was expressed by those participants who oscillated between emergent and distressed states.

These three trajectories appeared important to the ongoing formation of teacher identity as they acted as filters and mediators of experience. Beliefs about future capacity, identification with colleagues and the wider teaching profession and traction within the early career phase were all closely connected to these expressed trajectories.