Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education
Date of this Version
Published in John I. Liontas, ed., The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, 8 vols (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018).
The concept of teacher identity has experienced a resurgence of research attention as scholars in education, psychology, and related fields have expanded our understanding of identity from something internal, coherent, and fixed to something socially mediated, fragmented, and multiple. Identities are constructed as individuals claim identity positions and as external others assign identity to individuals; these self-positionings and positionings done by others may be complementary or contradictory. Simultaneously with an individual’s use of agency to claim identity positions, external forces are at work to assign identity positions to that same individual; and, when these two forces clash, a negotiation of identities occurs. External others, such as persons, institutions, and the media, may endorse an individual’s identity positions (e.g., a teacher’s claim to be a legitimate language teacher) but may also exert pressure to alter or overturn such positions (e.g., a school’s assignment of lower status to a non-native English-speaking teacher who claims to be a legitimate English teacher). Identity, then, is “a cover term for a range of social personae, including social statuses, roles, positions, relationships, and institutional and other relevant community identities one may attempt to claim or assign in the course of social life” (Ochs, 1993, p. 288). Identity work comprises self-positioning and positioning by others. Identity is a continual negotiation between personal agency and external forces, which work in concert with or in opposition to an individual’s identity claims (Bucholtz & Hall, 2005).
Identity is not singular but multiple, and multiple identity positions are inhabited by an individual simultaneously. An identity position as “language teacher,” for example, may coexist in an individual simultaneously with (or in addition to) others, such as parent, Latina, or fitness buff. Aside from multiplicity in the number of identity positions held, there can be also multiplicity within each identity position. For example, a language teacher may simultaneously claim identities as a communicative language teacher and as a proponent of grammar-based language instruction, two positions that, taken at face value, would not appear to coexist harmoniously. Identities, then, are not only multiple but contradictory at times.
Identity is continually under construction, and identity work is ongoing throughout an individual’s life. This is not to say, however, that an individual has no enduring identities. While all aspects of identity are open to alteration and negotiation, most individuals’ identity work includes carrying forward relatively stable identity positions (e.g., gender). Identities have varying degrees of durability, depending on the strength of an individual’s agency and the pressure of external forces. Less durable identity positions may fall away, while more durable ones may remain largely unchanged throughout all or large chunks of an individual’s life.
Identity work, the construction and negotiation of identities, is accomplished by two primary means: discourse and practice (Varghese, Morgan, Johnston, & Johnson, 2005). Identity in discourse locates identity work as occurring primarily in language and social interaction. Identity in practice asserts the importance of the enactment of identity through one’s behavior and participation in particular communities. Identity-in-discourse and identity-in-practice perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and teacher identity research commonly includes both perspectives.
An identity position as teacher or language teacher is one that may be claimed or assigned, supported or contested through individual agency and external others. Further, the elements and markers of this identity—what a teacher says, how a teacher acts—are in constant negotiation not just between self and others but even within oneself.
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