Distillations, Part 1

For my Candidacy exam, I wrote two papers. The first of these explored some of the fundamental questions behind my research, namely

  • what does it mean to teach?
  • how do we develop a sense of ourselves as teachers, particularly in the higher education context? and
  • how does our sense of identity influence our assessment practices?

This post is composed of excerpts and distillations of that paper.


For teachers, Cégep can be an excellent opportunity. Most programs, pre-university or technical, require a Master’s degree or equivalent, rather than a doctorate[1]; furthermore, Cégep teachers are not required to conduct research, publish, or present, although many institutions support individual teachers who wish to pursue such endeavours. Teaching in Cégep is a largely autonomous affair; teachers are not accountable to parents, nor are they accountable to funding agencies.

At the same time, teaching at the Cégep level can present its challenges, not least of which is navigating the question of what level are we really teaching. Since there is no equivalent, the Cégep system has had to address this question – or ignore it – internally. Our students are 17-20, especially in the preuniversity programs, and they are not yet in university, so we might think of them as high school students, and ourselves as high school teachers. On the other hand, they have graduated from high school, and are now enrolled in specific programs akin to undergraduate programs in universities, so we might think of them as freshmen, and ourselves as university professors. Although Cégep programs are mandated as competency-based, that is, curriculum is developed around a concept of knowledge that includes social and academic skills, Barbeau argued that paradigmatic shift toward the competency-based approach has not been properly explained, integrated, or implemented by government, institutions, or faculty (in Doucet, 2016).

Teachers in primary and secondary classrooms also face challenges to their sense of professional identity, of course. In postsecondary education, however, new teachers must negotiate their identity as teachers as opposed to practitioners in their discipline – or, as Garnett (2013) argued, they must embrace their discipline-based identity within the institution and in relation to their students. In postsecondary education, teachers are likely to self-identify first as a member of their discipline, and must, consciously or not, develop a sense of themselves as teachers, both within the discipline and in the larger context of the institution.

Lise St-Pierre, a pedagogical counsellor and resource person for the Université de Sherbrooke’s PERFORMA program, explored what it meant to be a teacher in the Cégep environment (2007).  Like Watkins and Mortimore (1999), St-Pierre discussed the different perceptions of teaching. Some view teaching as an art, others as a science, a craft, or a vocation (St-Pierre, 2007). There are implications underlying each of these perceptions: if teaching is an art, it requires natural talent and good intuition; as a science or craft, it can be dissected into formulae or templates that anyone can adapt to particular circumstances; as a vocation, it requires moral fortitude and disciplinary passion. St-Pierre enumerated the tasks of college teaching – planning, teaching, evaluating, collaborating with colleagues, various professional services, professional development – based on collective agreements and job descriptions, and distilled teaching to three dimensions: teaching, contributing to program and community development, and research, which is, according to St-Pierre, the only optional dimension. Like Lortie and others, St-Pierre noted that regardless of changes made through pedagogical shifts and reforms, once the classroom door is closed, we often teach as we have for a century. This default mode of teaching is perhaps to be expected, since those very changes – technological changes in how we interact with students and colleagues, for instance, or in means of measuring and reporting student learning – threaten our sense of professional identity. If teachers in higher education begin their teaching careers with little or no training, the implication is that they do not have the professional tools, including self-reflection, to adjust to changes to the teaching environment as their careers progress.


Borg (2004) and Lortie (2005) suggested that new teachers enter into the profession with a set of preconceptions about teaching – and unlike other professions, in which people “are more likely to be aware of the limitations of their knowledge” (Borg, p. 274), there is a transition shock that comes from the failure to realize that the aspects of teaching which they perceived as students represented only one facet of a teacher’s job. The many hours spent as a student constitute what Lortie called an apprenticeship of observation. If I take my own background as an example, I spent a year in preschool, seven years in elementary school, four years in high school, approximately three years in Cégep, three years as an undergrad, and six years (part-time) as a Master’s student – a total of 24 years – before teaching my first course. I only began my training as a teacher two years after I started teaching Cégep, and most of my colleagues rely on the occasional half-day workshop to engage in formal teacher training. Many teachers in the Cégep network attend their local Ped Day, a college-sponsored day of workshops and discussion aimed to promote pedagogical development. However, a quick look at local Cégep Ped Day offerings reveals that in fact, very few workshops are designed to help teachers develop their practice; most are either technology-oriented (using PowerPoint more effectively, for instance) or are only indirectly related to teaching (exploring research opportunities or community-building exercises). Borg claimed that “teacher education courses are said by many to have a weak effect on student teachers” (p. 275), so even with formal training, teachers were likely to revert to “a set of tried and tested strategies,” based on their observation from the student perspective, “in times of indecision or uncertainty” (p. 274). Borg’s argument may not ring true for all teacher educators, but it suggests that the biggest difference between those with formal training and those without is that the teachers who have been exposed to new pedagogical practices and theories “recognized the limitations” (p. 275) of the conventional methods, but feel powerless to change: “‘I don’t want to teach like this, I don’t want to be this kind of teacher, but I don’t have any other experiences. It’s like I fall into the trap of teaching like I was taught’” (p.275).


Many authors rely on metaphor, or explore how others use metaphor, to articulate teacher identity. Badley and Hollabaugh (2012) included medical metaphors (teachers are doctors, and the students’ illness is ignorance), military metaphors (teaching is about instilling discipline and conformity), agricultural metaphors (teachers plant seeds) and even spiritual and religious metaphors (school as sanctuary, and teacher as mystic/priest). More recently, Weimer (2016) described teaching as midwifery, and teachers as “present at the birth of learning” (para. 3) In an interview, Cégep teacher educator Denise Barbeau (Doucet, 2016) compared teaching to directing theatrical productions, or to gardening.

The fact that so many different metaphors exist to describe what it means to be a teacher, or what it means to teach, suggests that the concept of what a teacher is, and how I might understand my self as a teacher, is not that simple. If nothing else, the constantly shifting theories of learning and knowledge would imply a parallel shift in how we understand what it means to teach; Badley and Hollabaugh (2012) identified three ‘clusters’ of teaching metaphors that seem to reflect the evolution of our concepts of teaching and learning: transmission, facilitation, and catalyst (p. 52). Generally speaking most “metaphors portray teachers positively, as people who meet the needs of their students” (p. 53), regardless of where the metaphor falls on the epistemological spectrum. Metaphors from the transmission category reflect a teacher-centered concept of teaching as the act of moving information from the source to a destination, often perceived as an empty vessel to be filled with our knowledge. Many of our common expressions in education are in fact rooted in this perception. Consider, for examples, idiomatic expressions such as getting ideas across or getting through to students.  Badley and Hollabaugh believed that transmission metaphors reflect the reality that teachers have knowledge that students do not yet have, but need; however, “when a teacher attempts to become the sole transmitter and interpreter of knowledge (the principle source and cause of learning) within a classroom, meaningful learning is easily undermined” (p. 56).

The notion of the teacher as facilitator is arguably a more commonly used metaphor in contemporary pedagogy, which is typically more student-centered, as Barbeau’s theatre director and gardener metaphors exemplified. Badley and Hollabaugh suggested some problems with the facilitator metaphor, however, which implies that learning somehow comes from within students, and teachers are simply tasked with setting the stage for learning. Badley and Hollabaugh propose a more accurate term, prime mover, which

more openly recognizes the teacher’s dual role of preparing the environment for student learning to occur and guiding the process as it unfolds [and acknowledges that] it would be nearly impossible … for teachers to prepare for student learning to occur … without some expert knowledge in the area which the students were to study (p. 58).

In other words, while a facilitator may seem like a friendlier way to think of teaching, a teacher must still have knowledge to transmit – students are neither the tabula rasa implied under the transmission model, nor the untapped source of all knowledge implied by the facilitator model. Furthermore, as the coaching metaphor suggests, the prime mover model of teaching is rooted in the idea of facilitation but brings in motivation and inspiration: “Good coaches are able to inspire those they coach to perform at their highest level, whether in training, in competition, or in life experiences” (p. 59).

Finally, Badley and Hollabaugh described the teacher as catalyst, that is, the teacher who creates dissonance to inspire learning, perhaps by playing devil’s advocate, engaging in Socratic dialogue, or stirring the pot. Dissonance becomes the irritating grain of sand that ultimately becomes the pearl. Proponents of the teacher as catalyst claim that students are more engaged in their learning; however, the authors caution that while lively and rigorous debate might engage students, teachers must ensure that curricular objectives are not neglected, and engaging in this approach to teaching requires “exceptional classroom leadership and discussion-leading skills” (p. 63); sensitivity to student discomfort, recognition of boundaries, establishment of safe learning spaces; and recognition of “the ceiling of students’ capacity for dissonance” (p. 64), so that students are not so stressed that they lose sight of the task.


Dowling (2008) suggested that,

 … identity [is found in] the everyday, the mundane, and the ordinary. The practices through which identities are lived are multifarious and changing: people’s senses of themselves, the processes shaping identities, and the geographical scales of identity construction are enacted in the minutiae of daily life. (p. 812)

If our daily lived experience is the primary site of identity construction, can I safely assume that over time, as a teacher in higher education I will simply become a master teacher through repetitive practice? Perhaps, but I would argue that Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice demonstrates that just assuming I will eventually be a master teacher if I can just do it for five, ten, or twenty years (or 10,000 hours) is a rather irresponsible assumption to make, the consequences of which may have a damaging impact on teachers and their students.

As a teacher, I create and interpret meaning, and my students do the same. In my role as teacher, I need to be aware that both parties are creating and interpreting meaning, and that our own individual understanding of each other’s meaning is not necessarily – even inevitably not – the way it’s read and interpreted by the other. Meaning is multifaceted, and permeates our teaching from theoretical stance to everyday practice. At the most basic level, I want to be aware and mindful of the potential discrepancy in my intended meaning and how I am understood by my students. In other words, if feedback is essential to assessment, and assessment is essential to learning, then what I say matters, and how it’s understood matters. I create feedback, but my student creates meaning, and acts accordingly. Part of my role, then, is to engage in meaning-making with my students, both within and around my feedback.

Knol’s (2011) concept of meaning-making is that the construction of meaning arises from the gaps and the process of filling those gaps. If I apply this concept to the question of teacher identity, I believe an exploration of how teachers develop their sense of professional identity can add to our collective understanding of what it means to be a teacher, and develop tools to help us develop and refine our practice. Particularly in the context of higher education, which, as argued below, frequently means teaching without pedagogical training, we must determine what it means to be a teacher, or, more accurately, what it means to me to be a teacher, and how I see myself in that role. At the same time, I can use this notion of meaning-making happening in the gaps and interpretations to explore teacher approaches to assessment, and more specifically, feedback. In short, the meaning being constructed is multifaceted; my exploration looks not only at how we make and interpret meaning through feedback, but also how our constructed sense of self influences our assessment practices.

Clearly, situating a discussion of identity within the context of a post-constructivist meaning-making frame means that even our manipulation of the term constructs meaning. Identity, in our contemporary context, has become a heavy term, with political affiliations and issues of intersectionality reshaping our understanding of the concept. Fearon (1999) argued that “the meaning of ‘identity’ as we currently use it is not well captured by dictionary definitions, which reflect older senses of the word. Our present idea of ‘identity’ is a fairly recent social construct” (pp. 1-2). Definitions of identity are as context-driven as identity itself; some definitions focus on personal sense of self (Abrams & Hogg, 2008; Taylor, 1989; Wendt, 1992), others on the self in relation to specific social groups (Bloom, 1990; Deng, 1995; Herrigel, 1993; Kowert & Legro, 1996), and still others on the self in relation to social interaction (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Clifford, 1988; Hall, 1989; Jenkins, 1996; Katzenstein, 1996; Wendt, 1994; White, 1992). As Fearon noted, despite the several definitions and the varying complexity therein, there is “a common underlying concept. Almost every one evokes a sense of recognition, so that none seems obviously wrong, despite the diversity” (p. 6).

Fearon’s (1999) description suggests that teacher is one of several complex roles that call on more ineffable aspects of our individual identity. While the notion that one is born a teacher is exclusionary and limited, I believe that successful and satisfied teachers are at least aware of the expectations, from themselves, their colleagues, their students, their institutions, and society, respecting their actions and attitudes. I do not mean to suggest that all teachers share a set list of attributes and attitudes; however, I believe we may all benefit from reflecting on, discussing, and sharing our thoughts and practices.

The connection between my development of teacher self and my assessment practices is clear: my identity as a teacher is founded on my belief of what teaching and learning are, and part of that belief is the notion that assessment is, as McMillan, Hellsten, and Klinger (2011) say, “a process that supports and enhances student learning” (p. 2). In other words, to be a good teacher, I need to consider how, what, when, and why I conduct assessment. Assessment is, however, often maligned by teachers and students, as well as institutions and the non-academic community. Students fear exams and struggle with deadlines for papers and projects; teachers complain of weekends spent correcting those exams, papers, and projects. If, as suggested, teachers in higher education (and even, as we have seen, in other levels) rely on the apprenticeship of observation as the primary guideline for their practice, then I can see how assessment may be perceived negatively by teachers. As students, we too feared exams and deadlines; furthermore, we were not privy to teachers’ assessment planning, correcting, or departmental discussions. Is it any wonder then that teachers don’t instinctively know how to approach assessment, or how to use the information it provides?

Pedagogically, assessment is an integral and essential aspect of learning, “intrinsic to effective instruction” (Wiliam 2011). At its most basic sense, assessment is about information; teachers gather information about what their students are learning, students get information about their progress, institutions get information about their success rates, and so on. Of course, “information does not become ‘feedback’ unless it is provided within a system that can use that information to affect future performance” (p. 4), to alter what Ramaprasad identified as the gap between performance and mastery (cited in Wiliam, 2011).

As a teacher, then, I can go deeper in my understanding and appreciation of assessment; I am not merely assessing student learning, I am getting feedback on my teaching through student performance. Wiliam (2011) suggested that formative assessment can help teachers make decisions about future iterations of a course, a lesson, or an assignment; in other words, I can use assessment for the benefit of future learners, based on present learners’ experience. As implied above, feedback is not simply what comes after assessment, but, particularly in formative assessment, is “at the heart of effective learning” (p. 6). If teachers complain about correcting papers, perhaps they need to reflect on what they see as the function of assessment and feedback. Wiliam, referring to the work of Allal and Lopez, said that the remediation model of assessment or feedback + correction, has been particularly espoused in the Anglophone education model, whereas

within much of the research undertaken in Francophone countries, the central concept is ‘regulation,’ summarized as ‘feedback + adaptation. … [here, regulation] used in the sense of adjustment in the way that a thermostat regulates the temperature of a room (p. 8).

In fact, simply correcting student work implies a closed process, that is, student production, teacher correction, end of process. Regulation, on the other hand, implies student production, adjustment, reproduction, adjustment, and so on; in other words, assessment and feedback become dialogic. This assessment model, according to Broadfoot, then becomes “the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there” (as cited in Wiliam, 2011, p. 10). If, in my context, feedback is essential and constitutes a dialogue, and social interaction creates meaning, then assessment creates meaning, which is why I need to be mindful of it.

So in order for me to create learning opportunities through formative assessment, I need to create space for training my students to interpret and apply feedback. More importantly, I need to take time to demonstrate to students that I am listening to their feedback, and I recognize feedback as an ongoing dialogue or “system of feedback loops” (Wiggins 2005, p. 185). Especially for weaker students, this training will support student learning and encourage them to solicit feedback. Finally, as a consciously reflexive practitioner, I need to strive to see feedback as that system of loops, providing information to both student and teacher – in an ideal feedback loop, both of us making “deliberate adjustments” to our learning and teaching activities (Pollock, 2012, p.5).


I am beginning my research with an understanding of teacher identity as a construct, neither uniform nor immutable, based in my beliefs, practice, sense of self, knowledge, dispositions, relationships, and attitudes. My professional identity, my teacher-self, comprises aspects that are, invariably, permanent personal attributes, as well as aspects related to my practice, that change over time, over contexts, through interactions, and with reflection.

A recent e-mail exchange circulated among teachers in my college English department, beginning with one teacher seeking advice from the rest of us regarding “strategies about how to get [70 student] papers marked in a reasonable amount of time, in a sane, manageable way” (Robb, personal communication, 2016). A few of our colleagues responded, offering various suggestions based on individual practices. What I found most interesting about the exchange were two things: first, that the different responses revealed different ideas about what our role is, as teachers, and what our attitudes are about assessment and evaluation within that role. Secondly, I was interested in the idea that the teacher who sent the initial query noted that she has been teaching for a decade, so her appeal was not that of an overwhelmed and underexperienced novice teacher. This exchange highlights for me both that who we think we are as teachers has a direct influence on how we approach assessment, and many of us are willing to engage in reflexive, deliberate practice.


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[1] Depending on the program and college, minimum requirements vary; however, a review of local Cegeps confirms that most programs require at least an MA or equivalent.

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