Negotiating multiple identities in teaching; focusing on the professional and the caring

As an academic scholar interested in identity, I have become even more acutely aware of my own sense of self and how I come to understand who I am and how and why I behave the way I do in certain situations. I have posted a blog about my transitionaI identity as an early career academic on my blog in the past but I am also an academic teacher and in my current role as Senior Teaching Associate I have increasingly developed a sense of the multiplicity of Anna’s that I perform in my daily life. In recent weeks, as the pressures of piles of marking, and preparing for, and teaching lectures and tutorials have increased, I have been consciously identifying different elements of my character and personality that come to the fore in different contexts and at different times; identities that qualitatively differ from those times when I am with my friends and family. So far, I have yet to put them down in words. Inspired by this thinking and prompted by Lem Usita’s blogs about his multiple identities and recent post about what a teacher does, here is my initial attempt at exploring and theorising about these multiple, spatial and relational identities that I perform and present at work.

I think what initially got me thinking about this was something poignant that Jamie, my husband said one weekend. In conversation with my parents, he pointed out that he only knew “the Anna at home – silly humoured, fun Anna”, not the Dr, who goes to work every day and, to some extent, discusses and presents about important social issues from a highly critical academic perspective. I have to admit that my way of winding down from this mentally challenging role is often watching terrible TV and reading trashy weekly magazines.

A challenging and often more blurred boundary between my shifting identities is the requirement during my working day to interact with people in very different ways and to negotiate similarities and differences between myself, my colleagues and my students in a variety of diverse settings and social interactions. I lecture, I engage with colleagues in meetings, I meet with students face-to-face, often on a one-to-one basis and lead group work. Each of these settings requires a different form of communication and an appropriate identity. I think that the two most important identities that I negotiate through teaching are my professional and caring identities. While I have many others these in particular perhaps clash the most and at times are difficult to perform.

Professionalism – I always try to maintain a professional identity in my work life; one where my conversations focus on academic issues or topics at hand. In the lecture situation this is somewhat simpler. I am there to present material, sometimes with student interaction but predominantly focused on a specific pre-defined topic. While I am friendly in my approach I am also presenting often complex material and this is a time when I act or perform, to some extent, in a way that allows me to ignore the sometimes bored expressions that would normally bother me, and enjoy being centre stage.

In face-to-face interactions with students however this becomes much trickier and the detachment of the lecture presentation is not feasible. Students are human and they are emotional beings and this emotion frequently spills into the professional environment.   Learning can be a difficult process and as a teacher it is my role to facilitate that learning but also find effective ways to deal with that emotion so that it becomes positive for the student. Sometimes this emotion, also affects me as well and this is often where the caring element of my identity comes into play.

Caring – I am by nature a caring person. I am empathetic to people’s individual issues and needs and to some extent this is why I enjoy teaching so much and why my job is an important, and fulfilling part of my identity. I like people, I like their complexities and I like the challenges people present; it usually brings out the best in me and helps me with perspective on my own identity. When students become particularly emotional for whatever reason (usually in face-to-face situations when I have returned a lower grade) this is when the professional nature of my identity is challenged. If a student cries (which happens quite often) my natural reaction is to give them a hug (it always makes me feel better!) but of course in a professional environment this is tricky territory and I refrain. One thing that surprises me is that we get very little training about how to handle people and to handle emotion especially if, as Lem argues, part of what teachers do is bring out the angst in students about their learning. I know I am no expert at this and that I have to draw on different elements of my personality to deal with this.

This post only scratches at the surface of the identities that academic teachers might adopt through their interactions with students in a variety of different settings when they teach. As well as being responsible to some extent for providing a learning experience, part of what I do is also comfort and encourage students and to try to build their confidence or act as a sounding board for various (sometimes non academic) issues. While there is a fantastic support and welfare network for students where I teach, inevitably, teaching involves building relationships with students and therefore various performances of identity that must be negotiated on a daily basis.

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