The question of ‘Who am I? post pandemic: Identity and teacher wellbeing in International Education

If you’ve been kind enough to look at any of my previous blogs you’ll notice a common theme… many of my blog ideas start with asking my wife lots of open-ended questions about life to which she kindly engages with me (at least most of the time). One such conversation that we’ve had recently is to do with identity and the big question of, ‘Who am I?’ Sometimes the form of these conversations is often more to do with trying to understand what parts of my identity are important to me, and the tension I experience in wanting to be good at my job, but not wanting it to be how I identify myself. This has undoubtedly been influenced by the ‘stormy seas’ I experienced in the early stages of my career, and during which I had to anchor down in order to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life (at least for this stage in my life). This train of thought led me to trying to understand the role of ‘identity’ in teacher wellbeing more generally, it’s constant shifting, and the hits that it may take once schools return, and that we may have to grapple with. There is much similarity in exploring teacher identity and wellbeing within a nationalised context, and much of this can be related to teachers that are working within the country that they call home, but as I hope to explain further during the blog post, the focus will be on understanding the identity and teacher wellbeing within the international school context.

As a starting point I want to offer a definition of identity to help make this article feel a little more tangible. One such definition refers to identity as “the way we make sense of ourselves to ourselves and the image of ourselves that we present to others.” (Day and Kington, 2008, p. 9). Identity is culturally embedded, and inexplicably bound up with the interrelationship between the personal and the professional. Additionally, much of the educational literature recognises that the wider social context that teachers live and work in, the personal and professional factors of teachers lives, as well as their underlying core values and beliefs, all contribute to a greater or lesser extent on our identity (Day and Kington, 2008).

An article that I found really interesting while thinking more on this topic was a paper by Day and Kington entitled ‘Identity, well‐being and effectiveness: the emotional contexts of teaching’. The authors bring attention to the significant changes to educational policy that has taken place within the UK, which has sought to raise standards of teaching, learning, achievement and school governance and which has hugely influenced the contexts in which teachers work. Day and Kington highlight that it is important to note that these structural changes to education not only affect how teachers work but also how teachers feel about their work. In this sense, teachers ‘professional’ identity is emotional as well as cognitive, not just about what we think but how we feel, and is inclusive of how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about our students (James-Wilson, 2001, as cited in Day and Kington, 2008). Based on their research, Day and Kington posited that identity was therefore a composite of three interacting factors; (1) professional identity (which can be reflective of what a good teacher is in relation to current social and policy expectations, (2) situated or socially located identity within a specified school, department or classroom (the context of the school in which you work in, as well as leadership, support and feedback), and (3) personal identity (linked to family and social roles in personal life) and is illustrated in the diagram below.

As international school educators, the situated or socially located aspect of our identity presents different tensions and challenges, and an interesting article that touches on this indirectly is ‘Teacher (In)Discretion in International Schools’ (Poole, 2019). Poole argues that international schools and their educators can be perceived as having more autonomy as they are not so overtly subject to the ‘tyranny of performativity’ in terms of Ofsted inspections, school league tables, and examination results (perhaps debatable) and in this sense they experience a “relatively autonomous status outside of national education systems” (Poole, 2019, p. 1). Instead, Poole contends that international schools are much more impacted and shaped by the ‘sociocultural idiosyncrasies of the local context’, such as the pressure to facilitate and enhance global mobility for students (and their families).

Fast forward to the present day and the world is tentatively beginning to emerge from a global pandemic; essentially a globally-experienced trauma that has involved uncertainty, loss, grief and fear in a wide variety of ways, as experienced and interpreted by each individual in the context in which they live and work. Many international schools and staff have had to make concessions, which include the withdrawal of job offers, recruitment freezes, pay cuts or freezes, reductions in staff, as well as the making up of lost teaching time through reduced holidays and longer teaching terms. What I hope that this article may contribute to is a broader understanding of wellbeing for teachers working at international schools. As we return to school, it is not just the compassion fatigue we may experience (perhaps even more quickly than usual) but the notion that even within the context of school, our professional and situated identity may be destabilised. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing, but school leadership may need to be aware of this, and help grant a space of understanding whilst these aspects of our identity are reconfigured.

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