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Identities Teaching Identities

by Louisa Koschyk


‘We are all unique’. A phrase which children are frequently told - whether it is plastered on school walls or echoed in motivational speeches. While they will enthusiastically share their prowess in sports or musical talents, delving deeper into the intricacies of what truly makes them unique can leave both children and adults alike at a loss for words. How do you articulate your own uniqueness? Not only will children find this hard to pinpoint but many adults do as well. We are talking about the intricacies of people’s identities - trying to understand these, let alone know how to interact with other identities, is a challenge everyone consistently faces. 



Identities:

At the end of the day, identities will always be completely unique, however, there are some general structures we can use to understand them a bit further. 

Our identity is made up of two different aspects: 

  • Things we have control over (what we chose to spend our time doing for example) 

  • Things that our environment has forced upon us (our age for example). 

These are not completely separate in real life. However, attempting to separate them can help us to delve a bit deeper.

The aspects or facets of identity that we have no (or minimal) control over can include our age, sexual orientation, race, ability status, nationality, etc.:




I will purposefully not speak of intersectionality here, as it is a term that can often be misunderstood. Instead, I will use the term, linked identities. Everyone’s identities are the culmination of their linked identity facets. The facets do not exist in silo - I can’t speak about my experience being white without also considering the fact that I am a queer woman.

These linked identities will influence how we see ourselves in different situations:

A black, gay teacher may be particularly aware of their race when teaching classes of majority white students. However, once amongst predominantly straight staff, who discuss their private life over lunch, they may be more aware of their sexual orientation facet as they feel that this more actively ‘others’ them. 


The details of the facets of our identity can and many will change throughout our lives and hold a different importance for us. For example, we will be a different age, may live in different locations or have a different sexual orientation. Even aspects of our identity which are more fixed, such as race, can still change in importance throughout our lives. Notably, even at the same point in our lives, the facets may form bigger parts of our identities based on our immediate surroundings. For example, for someone in their early 20s, their sexual orientation might be a particularly prominent facet of their identity as it is something they are exploring and are very aware of when meeting new people. However, when this person is in their 40s, with a family and more consistent friends and family, their sexual orientation may not be an aspect of their identity that they consider very often. 


The resource, which can be found in our membership library (link at the end of this piece), explains this further and provides a toolkit.


 

Reflectiveness to be able to teach

Despite the perceptions of some school children, teachers are, in fact, human beings. Moreover, teachers (like any person) have intricate identities. We ask teachers to be significant in the identity formation of their pupils, to guide them through systems of oppression and privilege and empower them to become upstanders, not bystanders, for themselves and their community. To be able to effectively do this, teachers need to first be aware of their own facets of identity, their own privileges and histories of oppression. Having a reflective awareness and an in-depth understanding of themselves will allow them to ‘role model’ and have open discussions about this with their pupils. This will also draw more awareness to their words and actions, there may be ways in which they unconsciously act on their privileges to the detriment of others. 


When working with Children and Young People (CYP)

As an adult, having a reflective awareness of one’s own identity facets can influence practice in some of the following ways:


Modeling

As a key adult, we spend a lot of our time modeling learning for our children. We model how to solve long division, we model a good example of a story introduction, we model how we want children to interact with us by showing good manners to other people. These are all chosen moments in time where we actively model. However, it is often forgotten that simply by sharing a space with children and young people we are modeling how to be a person. We model how we enact facets of our identity and how these impact the relationships we form. 

Knowing, being aware and reflecting on the facets of identity which we model, helps us to do so consciously and in the best interest of ourselves and those around us. As a black teacher, we are not only modeling the fact that teaching isn’t an exclusively white profession. We are also modeling our own relationship with our race or ethnicity and how it may or may not impact choices we make and the relationships we form. 



Privilege Check

Being reflective of our identities can extend to being reflective of our privileges. We will all hold them to different extents in different environments. Despite current narratives leading us to think otherwise, being privileged or having privileges is, in itself, not a bad thing. The main factor is whether we know about these privileges and what we do with that information. Being aware of one’s privilege will allow for genuine connection with other people whilst also opening the space for using this privilege to support those who do not have it. For example, someone acknowledging their straight privilege and using this to be an active ally, will allow queer people to relate to and subsequently work with that person more closely.

Discussing privilege is often uncomfortable - by acknowledging our own privilege, we highlight that others do not hold this privilege. However, simply ignoring our own privilege because we feel ashamed or embarrassed by it cannot and will not ever be helpful. 



Relationships

Earlier, I mentioned how we all have these identities which are a culmination of different identity facets. Children and young people have these too. We are identities teaching other identities. An awareness of our own complex web of identity facets will allow us to not only create spaces where other growing and developing webs of identity facets are welcome but also gives us the opportunity to form more meaningful relationships. These will be authentic and honest and most importantly, built on mutual trust and respect.

It is unavoidable for educators not to bring their own identities and experiences to the education setting. Just as it is unavoidable for children and young people not to bring theirs. 

For people to be their authentic selves, they will embrace and express their identities, feelings and values, without conforming to societal or cultural expectations. 



 

Applying this to practice

The principles set out above are centered around the concept of self-awareness and the awareness of others. This is reflected in the quadrant model of emotional and social intelligence (see below).




In what way this then influences how individuals manage and act on this awareness of themselves and others will be linked to their own and their environment’s values. 

The question of what consequential actions are, cannot be given as a ‘one size fits all’ solution. It is important to remember and recognise that thinking about and considering identities is highly personal and therefore has the potential to affect people deeply. When working with children and young people, good practice is to let them take the lead on any conversations about their identities:


  • This might start with a teacher sharing aspects of their own identity and how this influences them as a person before asking children to reflect on this themselves. This will need to be done sensitivity to age appropriateness and privacy. 

  • Then, the opportunity can be created for children to share their own thoughts and experiences in a safe, pressure-free environment. This highlights the importance of the aforementioned role modeling. It is not about forcing children to confront their identities, but rather giving them opportunities to see and be exposed to different identities, and then allowing them to reflect and discuss at their own pace.

  • This will be most effective if the school or setting values emphasise individual identities and the importance of being understanding and respectful of these. School leaders need to not only have a reflective awareness of their own identities but also create a framework whereby it is safe for children and young people to explore aspects of their identities and make sense of these in different contexts. Considering what exactly leaders, teachers and adults working with children can do is a larger piece of work for which there will be more publications coming.

  • When people are able to be their authentic selves, any relationships that are formed will be influenced and driven by this authenticity. These honest relationships between adults and children have the foundations to grow strong and be sustainable. When disclosing or discussing aspects of personal identities there can be potential risk for it to make people vulnerable to stereotyping, or even bullying. It is therefore important to ensure that the values of the immediate environment is safe and accepting and reinforcing this alongside conversations.


 

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