Introducing Teacher Identity and This Volume

By Olsen, Brad | Teacher Education Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Introducing Teacher Identity and This Volume


Olsen, Brad, Teacher Education Quarterly


Real knowledge comes from those in whom it lives.

--John Henry Newman

Watching a television show recently, I heard a character say, "DNA is what we are; identity is who we are." That's an interesting line--one I'm not sure I accept but one that raises salient questions: What is the "self "? How are boundaries between nature and nurture, or between individuals and their experiences (or between mind/body, self/other, I/we) drawn? These questions, applied to teacher development, frame this issue's investigation into teacher identity as useful frame for the study and practice of teacher education.

This special issue of Teacher Education Quarterly brings together several researchers from United States university programs where teachers are prepared for work in diverse classrooms. While each researcher or research team has conducted a separate investigation, all nine studies are bound by a common question: how do individuals inside social contexts develop understandings of and for themselves as teachers; and how does highlighting the processes by which this occurs aid the various teacher educators who work with them? Together, these articles offer multiple analyses of teacher development inside connected spheres of multiculturalism, professional identity construction, and contemporary teacher education. More specifically, all studies foreground teacher identity as the primary analytic. But teacher identity is hard to articulate, easily misunderstood, and open to interpretation.

What Is Identity?

Part of the trouble defining teacher identity stems from the many ways the word "identity" had been used over time. For example, in early and middle parts of the 20th century, the term was mostly the province of psychoanalysis to refer to the individualized self-image any person possesses (Freud, 1961/1909). In this way, identity was framed as mostly autonomous and frequently directed by its owner. Although social psychologists (including Erickson, 1968; Moshman, 1990; and Vygotsky, 1978) have since framed identity as a more situated, dynamic process of individuals developing conceptions of themselves as rational beings over time, the articles in this special issue tend to avoid these traditional psychological framings of identity.

Another example is that, in the second half of the 20th century, the term gained currency in sociology and anthropology. Troubled by some psychologists' emphasis on the individual, many social scientists privileged "cultural identity" to refer to the ways any person self-identifies with, or is somehow claimed or influenced by, various cultural or racial/ethnic categories (Anderson, 1991, Fishman, 1973; Bourdieu, 1991). Used in this manner, identity is understood in terms of broad cultural strata such as race, class, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, language, and physical ability, to name a few. This view treats individuals as mostly shaped or constructed via cultural markers and social positionings. It is inside this frame that identity politics emerged, in the early 1970s, as a way to describe how people work to acquire additional power or representation for themselves and the social groups to which they belong. The articles in this volume tend to avoid these broader, structural, perhaps over-determining, cultural framings.

So, it is from this admittedly oversimplified tangle of intellectual traditions that we inherit "identity." (1) In fact, some may wonder if the word itself has become used up--twisted into so many shapes and disciplinary knots that a new term is required. To this, Kwame Appiah (2006) remarks: "'Identity' may not be the best word to use, but it is the one we use" (p. 15).

So that is the word we use.

The articles in this volume mostly draw on sociocultural theory--a loose cluster of complementary, sometimes competing, contributions from social psychology, social anthropology, sociolinguistics, and philosophy that focus on the self in practice; on the various interdependencies among person, context, history, and others; and on the situated, continuous nature of self-development. …

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