‘I’ve stopped teaching. Am I still a teacher?’

Stepping down from teaching after 25 years, Pam Jarvis finds herself starting to question her teacher identity
1st November 2019, 3:03pm


‘I’ve stopped teaching. Am I still a teacher?’

When You Stop Teaching, Are You Still A Teacher?

As a psychologist, I have plenty of experience of identity theories, past and present. 

But academic knowledge and personal experience are very different things. 

This summer I came to a transitional identity phase of my own: I reached the age at which my Teachers' Pension Scheme pension matures. 

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This is slightly complicated because I also have a Universities Superannuation Scheme pension, which matures five years later. So, within such a moratorium, I had to decide what I was going to do.

In the end, I decided to take the pension currently on offer so I could step down from my teaching role, but continue to pursue my research and writing interests (my first novel has been in progress for far too long without sufficient progress). 

And so, after 30 years as a researcher in education, psychology, social policy and history, and 25 years as a teacher in many different sectors, new roads begin to beckon. 

Teacher identity

Most academic research on teacher identity deals with the other end of the teacher experience: how it is built in the first place. 

Beauchamp and Thomas remind us that, even once the concept of "me, the teacher" becomes a reality, "a teacher's identity shifts over time under the influence of a range of factors both internal to the individual, such as emotion, and external to the individual, such as job and life experiences in particular contexts", and that throughout the career, the teacher identity is "multi-faceted and dynamic".

I can identify with this, having started my teaching career in a type of community education that doesn't exist any more, then moved on to gain several teaching qualifications including QTS, while teaching in further education, schools and higher education, including more than 20 years as an Open University associate lecturer.

Every role brought unique and different facets of identity, but always with the solid core of "teacher".

Now, for the first time since 1994, I have no timetabled teaching on the horizon. I am most definitely experiencing this as a discontinuation.

Who am I?

So am I still a teacher? Some would say no.

But then what of all those senior Edutwitter colleagues, some many years retired, who frequently make wonderfully insightful contributions to conversations about teaching, drawn from their long experience? Their loss would certainly remove depth and reflection from ongoing conversations. 

And then, of course, there are many other informative, diverse voices adding to the richness and quality of the conversation: those who were once classroom teachers, but have since become consultants and/or advisers who visit many different schools in the course of their work; headteachers who no longer teach in the classroom but are intricately involved in what happens within it due to management and mentoring responsibilities; and teacher-researchers like myself who focus intently on particular questions in education through meticulously reviewing the existing literature and observing current practice, both their own and that of other people.

What makes a teacher?

I regularly read posts and blogs, usually heartfelt and deeply introspective, from those currently struggling with teacher identity, who choose to leave posts that they feel are no longer right for them, seeking other roles that may or may not involve direct learner contact. Some eventually choose to return to the classroom. 

In which case, are they still teachers in the sense that they were when they left? As a relatively late entrant to teaching, having first worked in government administration prior to having children and spending some years as a full-time parent, I have always found that my experience of life "outside" added depth to my own teacher identity.

I think that the same would also surely be true for a teacher who takes a career break to refresh the ways in which they create meaning and psychological integrity within their lives.

Others may sometimes seek to define us within their own parameters of identity, but in the end it is up to individuals to define who they are, and how they present this to the world. 

Within such personas, a professional identity that has been built over a significant proportion of a lifetime cannot be credibly denied.

While we may be early years teachers, primary teachers, secondary teachers, further education teachers, higher education teachers, retired teachers, teachers currently on a career break or teachers in many other myriad life and career stages, including that of transition, all of those who teach, or have taught, are all undeniably teachers. 

And, as such, we are all a rich source of continuing professional development for one another. 

Dr Pam Jarvis is an honorary research fellow at Leeds Trinity University

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