Teacher educators’ identities

Jean Murray, Gerry Czerniawski and Warren Kidd

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Setting the Scene

The literature on the identities of teacher educators is growing (Davey, 2013; Izidinia 2014), but relatively little is known about the relationship between the formation of professional identities, the practices of teacher educators and the learning they undertake. These connections matter because professional identities form a key part of teacher educators’ ways of understanding the world of teacher education and enacting their beliefs, values and principles through work. The exploration of identity is therefore part of a wider commitment to promoting the understanding and improvement of teacher education in general.

No one universally accepted concept of identity exists in the social sciences, and it is therefore impossible to detail here all the key themes around this contested idea. Essentialist understandings of the concept can, for example, assume that there is a unique core or essence to identity which remains stable over long periods. In contrast, some post-modern views see the concept as fluid and ambiguous. This section is then deliberately selective, choosing explanations which are useful when considering what Izadinia (2014: 426) describes as the “newly emerging concept of teacher educator identity”.

The term ‘teacher educator’ is used here to include all educators professionally engaged in the initial and ongoing education of teachers. The term ‘teacher educator identity’ refers to how teacher educators view themselves; how they view others with whom they professionally engage (for example, colleagues, student teachers, teachers and policy makers); and how they believe those others might perceive them. This conception of identity, while not exhaustive, draws attention to its multiple and fluid dimensions in what Beauchamp and Thomas (2009: 178) refer to as ‘how to be’, ‘how to act’ and ‘how to understand’ the work of teacher education. It also acknowledges the complex interaction between aspects of personal identities (for example, class, gender, race and self-image) and professional identities.

Professional identities are ‘social identities’ in that they are a fusion of both the personal identity of the teacher educator, that is, the image of their own qualifications, characteristics and values, and a collective identity, that is, the experience of being an integrated part of a group. Collectively, professional identity may also be seen as developing in response to socio-cultural values, work place discourses, practices and norms as understood and contested within any occupational group (Izidinia 2014).

Defining teacher educators as an occupational group is challenging, not least because the enterprise of teacher education is often understood differently within and across members of that group – locally, nationally and internationally. Furthermore, different patterns of working relationships, in conjunction with different personal histories and values, ensure that the development of teacher educators’ identities is likely to vary significantly for individuals within and beyond, what may appear – on the surface – to be broadly similar professional contexts. Given the diversity and contestation within and across this occupational group, these differences make it problematic to define a single collective identity for teacher educators.

The relevance and consequences for teacher educators

Davey (2013:19) helpfully divides international empirical studies on the professional identity of teacher educators into three groups:

  • Studies of the demographics of teacher educators in higher education as a particular disciplinary community or occupational sub-group;
  • Studies of the impact of managerialist reformism in tertiary education policy on the work and lives of academics generally;
  • Case studies and self-studies from individual teacher educators relating their own experience of the practice of teacher education.

In self-studies of teacher educators, professional identity is often defined as ‘practitioner’ identity and is therefore integrally related to individual constructions of practice within the social space(s) of teacher education which each individual inhabits.

While a teacher educator’s role is not synonymous with their identity, their day-to-day professional activities inform a significant aspect of that identity in a process that is reliant on social interaction in a range of socio-cultural groupings. Variability in teacher educators’ work roles is well documented and can include: teaching, coaching, facilitation of collaboration between diverse organisations and stakeholders, assessment, ‘gatekeeping’, curriculum development, research, critical inquiry and writing. The nature of these roles will vary depending on a number of factors including the nature of employment (e.g. part time/full time; length of contract; length of time in service etc), the phase (e.g. elementary/secondary/post-16) and whether teacher educators are situated in schools or universities. Teacher educators from some Anglophone countries move to universities straight from school teaching, but without any sustained research experience. In many other countries teacher educators enter the field with doctorates, but are often lacking school teaching experience (Davey, 2013). These groups are likely to encounter different transitional experiences and tensions in the development of their professional identities and subsequent learning needs. One such tension can emerge as they navigate and evaluate their career trajectories through institutional norms and expectations, whilst encountering colleagues who embrace their identity as either a researcher or as a teacher in higher education. Both identities may be affected by accountability frameworks associated with national and international rankings on teacher education institutions.

Many writers have pointed to a ‘third’ or ‘hybrid space’ of knowledge construction existing within teacher education. This hybrid space crosses academic and practitioner boundaries and in so doing rejects some of the artificial binaries (for example, practitioner and academic knowledge, theory and practice) traditionally associated with the field. In such spaces, teacher educators may well hold different perspectives – and facets of identity – simultaneously, knowing and understanding the perspectives of the student teachers, the serving teachers or mentors and their teacher educator colleagues.

Professional identity work is then complex, not least because teacher educators how ‘perform’ their identities will be contingent on the ways in which they position themselves and are positioned by those significant in their professional lives. These considerations and significations will vary locally and nationally.
The European Commission (2013) has recently focused in some detail on how teacher educators can contribute more strongly to improving the quality of teacher education. Creating the right professional learning opportunities and structures is seen as vital to achieving this vision. While this pan-European agenda is welcomed, when professional identities are known to be diverse, there are some challenges in conceptualising and developing such authentic professional learning for all teacher educators,

Starting points for questions

This brief introduction to aspects of the literature on the professional identities of teacher educators raises questions, pertinent to professional learning, to be taken forward for further discussion.

  1. Research carried out by InFo-TED on the professional learning needs of teacher educators (https://www.ntnu.edu/info-ted) indicates that teacher educators want to be part of a collaborative community where they can feel supported and listened to and where they can share practices and experiences. How can the differences in professional identities within and across a group or community of teacher educators be deployed to create valuable learning opportunities, with clear relevance to practice?
  2. To what extent does the notion of a ‘third space’ in teacher identity construction, and its ability to shed light on the evolution of personal and professional identities enable a more nuanced and critically informed analysis of what it means to learn to be a teacher educator?
  3. Teaching about teaching is different and distinct from teaching per se, in that it calls on knowledge and skills about practice that require more than simply being a good schoolteacher. While some teacher educators move into universities having previously taught in schools others are drawn mainly from academic disciplines. How might both groups be encouraged to (re)evaluate their own conceptions of pedagogy and the role it plays in becoming a teacher educator?
  4. Research engagement by teacher educators varies from country to country. Nevertheless such engagement might be seen as a linchpin in professional identity formation. What kinds of provision for learning might enable all teacher educators to become researchers?
  5. Finally, school pupil populations continue to diversify, but a lack of demographic diversity continues to be an issue in teacher education. To what extent should there be a (re)examination of who educates our future teachers? How could a more informed analysis of the inter-sectionality of class, gender and ethnicity underpin teacher education programmes in the future?


Beauchamp C., Thomas L. (2009). Understanding teacher identity: an overview of issues in the literature and implications for teacher education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39 (2), 175-199.

Davey, R. (2013). The Professional Identity of Teacher Educators: Career on the cusp? London: Routledge.

European Commission (2013). Supporting Teacher Educators for Better Learning Outcomes. Brussels: European Commission.

Izadinia, M. (2014). Teacher Educators’ Identity: a review of the literature. European Journal of Teacher Education, 37 (4), 426-441.

Key words: teacher educators, professional identity, professional learning

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