Teacher Professional Identity and Learner Engagement

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Can there be something within a teacher’s professional identity that enables them to better engage their students? If so, what are some ways an educator can shape their professional identity to more effectively engage their students in content and skill development?

Education researchers (Salli & Osam, 2018) suggest that a teacher’s professional identity is a balance between both teaching strategies and the teacher’s interactions with students. A person’s identity is made up of several unique perspectives (I-positions), working both separately and in harmony with one another to effect one’s decisions and actions in a given situation (Meijers & Hermans, 2018). I-positions are made up of a person’s past experiences, and each I-position then assumes a role within the person’s identity. When a person encounters a new situation, several I-positions may be activated at the same time and through dialogic interaction, either collaborate or form tension with each other in order for the person to make a decision and act within that situation.

The collaboration and tension among I-positions is where a person’s identity is formed or grows.

According to several educational researchers, I-positions are formed and reformed through relevant experiences. For example, an I-position may hold a positive perspective on using online discussion boards to help students root out important ideas on a topic. That I-position could have been formed because the teacher had a positive experience using similar discussion boards during their teacher education program. That same I-position can change depending on a variety of factors, such as additional experiences, dialogue with students or colleagues, or even the emergence of new technology.

If I-positions are correlated to experiences and dialogue, then what can a teacher do to enhance learner engagement skills and strategies? Sallı and Osam would suggest they seek out experiences that promote learner engagement in order to shape and build their current I-positions.

While observing one of my student teachers, I noticed her students were not engaged in the class discussion. Few students participated and the ones who did had very little to contribute. After class, I asked her about her students’ lack of engagement, and she attributed it to it being early in the week and after lunch. Although that may have affected students’ motivation to participate, her strategies to engage students in the discussion and topics required some tweaking. I questioned her about how to better engage the class in discussion, and she said that maybe she could change the discussion questions. I quickly realized that she needed experience in developing engaging class discussions.

Her “discussion-engagement” I-position lacked necessary experiences and conversations with what Vygotsky referred to as knowledgeable others, or simply a colleague with more experience with a given topic (Joseph & Evans, 2018). I talked to her about having students write about their ideas before entering a discussion in order to better organize their thoughts; we discussed ways to initiate conversations online to generate ideas and examples before engaging in a full class discussion; we also talked about an “agree-disagree” activity where students hear a statement, and depending on their position, move to a certain side of the classroom and then defend their decision.

The next time I observed the student teacher, she showed students two videos, each defending a different side of an argument. She then used Kahoot (online polling software) to ask students about their positions regarding various statements about the topic. When she started the class discussion, students were already abuzz with ideas, arguments, examples, and counter-claims. That student teacher sought out and found ways to develop her I-position, which resulted in better learner engagement during class discussions.

In order to improve learner engagement, educators need to seek out relevant experiences, conversations with peers, and professional development, which can shape and reshape their I-positions. Improving learner engagement does not have to be a huge undertaking. For my student teacher, one conversation led to more discussions with her mentor and peers as well as additional research, leading to a developed I-position from which she was able to draw ideas and strategies to promote learner engagement. Many teachers experience the same voids in their professional experiences as this student teacher, but through networking and seeking out professional experiences, a teacher can affect the development of their professional identity. A teacher’s professional identity is an evolving blend of past experiences, discourse, and philosophies when, if nurtured, can grow and produce a variety of strategies to engage learners.

This article was written by Scott Gibbons, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cincinnati.  Follow him on Twitter at @spgibbons.


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