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Teaching Secrets: Establishing Your Professional Identity

By David B. Cohen — August 15, 2007 4 min read
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By changing jobs several times earlier in my teaching career, I had a chance to work in schools large and small, public and private, in various regions, and even in another country. Here’s a paradox I’ve observed: Schools are like people—unique and yet predictable.

For all the factors that make a given school different from others, there are certain types of people and situations you can expect to encounter. But, as a new staff member, you will learn not only about teaching in this new setting, but also about fitting into the school culture, and working with new colleagues. And although the students and the classroom are your top priorities, it’s never too early to think carefully about how early experiences in your career can help you establish a professional identity—about how you can collaborate with others and engage in the profession. Here are some hints to help you think about and establish a professional identity.

First, find your allies. Whether they are teachers, custodians, secretaries, parents, librarians, aides, coaches, or counselors, these are the people who want to help you succeed with students. You’ll hear this advice from others who quite rightly want you to recognize how these people contribute to your effectiveness in the classroom. But, besides helping you in your teaching, true allies will start motivating you and validating your efforts, even beyond what you might think you deserve. Consider what a vote of confidence does for your students, and give yourself permission to actively seek out the same for yourself.

I worked in one school where a custodian, adopting a parental tone, said, “I always look out for my teachers,” and often told me how great I was, though she never saw me teach. Thinking back several more years, I recall another ally, Jean, who became an early mentor to me because of her sincere curiosity. She would always ask me, a student teacher at the time, how she, a thirty-year veteran, could improve a lesson I observed. She was a model of inclusive, reflective, and collaborative professionalism.

New teachers have intelligence, energy, and a fresh perspective, so you should maximize the time you spend with people who recognize your brilliance while still pushing you to question and reflect. Find allies who are modeling a professional community and who support their colleagues to ensure that the school is committed to sustained professional development.

Avoid the Ax Grinders

My advice may seem unorthodox, but I’m merely suggesting that you need to be yourself, be authentic, and be principled—and don’t wait.

Here’s another piece of advice: Look out for the complainer. Someone in your school doesn’t like being there anymore, or doesn’t like someone else in the school. Needing validation, the complainer will want to present evidence to you so that you will join his or her ranks. Often, this person has a permanent spot in the office or lounge. In that case, make yours a coffee-to-go. You have nothing to gain from listening to gossip, slander, or the repetitive spinning of an ax-grinder, and even less to gain by trying to match stories, if you’re so tempted. It’s a trap easily fallen into.

Moods are contagious, so spend your time with people who love what they do. I don’t mean to suggest teachers shouldn’t vent frustration sometimes, or that criticisms lack value. The important distinction is that complainers consistently tell negative stories to impress you with their suffering, while allies might sometimes tell a negative story to check their thinking or to illustrate how they learned something valuable and applicable to future situations.

Speak Your Mind

Finally, learn from my own mistake: Don’t keep too quiet early on at a new school. Staff members play roles in the drama (or comedy) of school cultures, so choose your early roles well to avoid typecasting. My problem is that it’s my nature to lay low and observe carefully before fully engaging in a group. Many people take a similar approach in schools, I think, and might even tell you “don’t make waves, keep quiet until you’re tenured.”

But my good friend and colleague Adam showed me the importance of speaking your mind from the start. When we taught together in Chicago, we found each other quite compatible in our values and priorities, and we sometimes found ourselves trying to express the same dissenting view on a decision or policy within our school. The key difference is that Adam was more effective at this than I was, because his professional identity was already well established. Everyone knew what he stood for and knew that he would express respectful disagreement when necessary. That was Adam’s role, and his voice could put an end to thoughtless groupthink and encourage people to reconsider an idea.

I, on the other hand, sat back when I first came to the job, letting others guide debates and decisions. With time I gained the confidence to speak up, but either because I waited too long or spoke too equivocally, I was not heard the same way that Adam was. My advice may seem unorthodox, but I’m merely suggesting that you need to be yourself, be authentic, and be principled—and don’t wait.

Within a school community, your professional identity forms early, and can contribute greatly to your job satisfaction and effectiveness. With the support of a collaborative, appreciative community, and by steering clear of negativity, you can find your voice early and grow into the roles you’re hoping to play as an educator.

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