The Case of the Teacher and the Multiple Identities

2014-09-27 13.10.22When I left my last job I thought long and hard about how to say goodbye.  I loved working with the staff there and was sad to go, but how to convey that?  Well something that I did in my leaving speech was to tell them two things that they didn’t know about me and two things that I hoped they knew about me.  The two things that I really hoped that they knew were, firstly, that I thought they were a really amazing staff, that worked really hard.  The second thing was I was really proud of everything they had achieved and that I had learnt a lot from them.  If you want to know what the two things were that they didn’t know, then you’ll have to ask them or me!  I had worked there for a while, but I was pleased that there were things about me that were still unknown. The thing is that I think we need to to be more than the job that we do.  I’m always wary of people who so completely identify themselves with their job, because especially in today’s climate we will all know people who have lost jobs and the devastating effect that can have on an individual’s identity. Instead of it being ‘I am what I do’ we could see that what we do can add important meaning to our identities and helps us to be part of different communities.

Think back to when you were at school, we had a crazy fascination if we ever saw a teacher in the holidays, say, at the seaside, the cinema or in town. What on earth were they doing? How come they are pretending to be like normal people?  In my first job I lived in the same small city as most of the pupils and was frequently followed around town when shopping just because they were so curious as to what I could possibly be buying.  The classic cliche of the teacher going into a box a the end of a day still rumbles on, and with extensive marking and planning, it is easy to feel that are lives are consumed by school, especially during term time. I am a passionate believer in protecting that work/life balance, but that’s not just something relevant for those with dependants, because, well let’s face it, not everyone has dependants. It is ultimately about out our identity that we need to protect and encourage to flourish independently to school persona. The more content we are as a person, the more we are in a position to let our passion for what we do flow in lessons.

Identity is a crucial component of our working lives. Rather than have one identity throughout our careers we take on a succession of different identities, different roles in different schools, a bit like trying on shoes and some fit us better than others. Some we fall in love with, if you’ll permit me to continue with the analogy, and others we can’t wait to kick off at the end of the day. What perhaps we don’t acknowledge enough, whilst we are working in schools, is how tricky those transitions from one identity to another can be. It could be that we really enjoyed being a Year 7 tutor and then suddenly the next September you can assigned to the Year 9s without so much as a warning. There is a sense of loss with, quite often, next to no time to adjust to the change. Herminia Ibarra talks about the ‘reinvention ripples’ that happen when we change identities. In schools it sometimes feels as if there is no time for the the ripples.

Splash created by a drop of water splashing into a calm poolOther transitions can be much harder and trickier to cope with, for example, the move to middle management. When that pile of examination board forms hit your pigeon hole that have to filled in right away, or the out of date text for the website, or the schemes of work that need updating, it seems a million miles away from the days when you could spend that time planning and marking. Bigger still is the move to senior leader.  Again, it is not an augmentation of your current job, it is a completely different job. You are moving from one job to another and more often than not there is no acknowledgement of that. I can remember when I first became a Head of Department heading to a bookshop to find a book called, How to be a Subject Leader, which didn’t exist at the time. I pretty much did the same thing when I became a Deputy Head. Of course, there is a great uncertainty taking on a new role with all of its new responsibilities, but it is more than that. You are also taking on a new identity. For example, being a Senior Leader means getting used to some conversations stopping when you walk into a room, when previously you might have been in the middle of that conversation. That’s fine, because you’re in a different group now. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fun working day, or respect your staff with every atom, but you also have to do some not so pleasant jobs sometimes which mean you really need that bit of distance. It is hard and you can be prepared in terms of your experience, prepared even in terms of your knowledge base, but nothing can quite can prepare you for the change in identity.  With all of these changes being a part of our working lives, I think we need to ensure that we are more than what we do. We need to hold something back. We need to keep something for ourselves. That stops us from being completely consumed, in case the distinction between us at home and us at work disappears altogether. Even the most open book amongst us should have a hidden chapter or two.

So what is in your life that is protected just for you. I’m not talking about family or friends, but something about you, your interests, your party trick, a special hidden talent. We can be open books to our colleagues, we can share what is going on in our lives, but keep something just for you. These days teachers’ emotions and reaction are being watched every moment by the ‘Educating Essex/Yorkshire/East End’ Series.Those unmanned cameras zoom in to witness the despair, the joy, the frustration is writ large on our television screens. Even in our technological advances the barriers are being broken down. I am a great fan of social media, not least because it makes even the more famous more accessible and that our communication is made easier. Twitter is genuinely a fantastic media for career development. However, we need to manage it with our work roles. I definitely agree with @TeacherToolkit’s recommendation for at least two Twitter handles, keep one for your professional identity and keep the other one for kittens, memes and fascinating pictures. Don’t give yourself away completely, particularly if your using it with students, protect that part of your identity that school can’t get their hands on.

So what are things that your colleagues perhaps don’t know about you? Are you a secret Heat magazine reader? Do you play bingo? Do you love listening to thrash metal? Think about the Venn diagram below (you’ve got to love a good Venn diagram) how much of an overlap would there be on your version and what is being held back just for you?2014-09-27 12.44.27

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