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Entrust Students With Their Own Identities

In what ways are we, perhaps unwittingly, prescribing or imposing unwanted identities on students?

Daniel Wickner | @DanielWickner
August 14,  2020

The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself.” James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Each of us has undergone (and continues to undergo) a lifelong identity journey– making sense of who we are, who we want to be, and our place in this complex world. For some, the journey has been relatively linear. For others, it has been full of twists and turns, crises and failure, invention and reinvention, trauma and triumph. These ongoing stories, like creation myths, explain our existence and help us ascribe meaning and purpose to our lives. Our identities are the core of our being and we own them.

But how much identity ownership do we allow our students? How much control do they have over the development of their own identity? In what ways are we, perhaps unwittingly, prescribing or imposing unwanted identities on them?

The dimensions of identity
The dimensions of identity

Identity is multidimensional (Cote, 1996). Its inherent complexity and expansive nature clash with our reductionist instincts, causing us to create boxes, lanes, and categories to simplify an unavoidably nuanced and complicated concept (Schachter and Rich 2011). One dimension of identity can be seen as its aspects– its constituent parts– which are innumerable. A non-exhaustive list of aspects may include gender identit(ies), race(s), name(s), culture(s), age, language(s), ability, religion(s), nationalit(ies), and class, but also any other parts of who we are and how we describe ourselves (Weinreich and Saunderson, 2003). As stewards of our own identities, we may also play a role in deciding which aspects are most central to who we are (Settles, 2004). The “identity journey” provides a longitudinal dimension, as who we are will transform over time due to our lived experiences, with new aspects appearing, different aspects gaining centrality, or aspects fading (Erikson, 1980). Along with defining ourselves, we are also defined and perceived by others– the “identity perspectives” dimension– and these influences greatly affect who we become (Schachter and Rich, 2011; Gee, 2000). Lastly, we must recognize that this multidimensional complexity exists in the aspects, journeys, and perspectives of all people– with no two identities fully alike.

This complexity extends to our students. But with such a formidable multidimensional identity maze in front of them, it is often our instinct as well-meaning educators to hand students a map and a destination– i.e. “steps for recommended identity development”– who we want them to become and how to get there. Through our words, instructional choices, classroom structures, school environment, relationships, and personal example, we may be pulling students along a path– one of least resistance that avoids the struggle of genuine identity work– and path they may not want to follow (Mishler, 1978).

Education through an identity lens
Education through an identity lens

When viewed through an identity lens, educational environments and decisions can be seen for how they affect student identity development (Schachter and Rich, 2011). Is curriculum prescriptive or does it reach out to students for personal connection and deep questioning? Do classroom structures and tasks provide a single definition of success or multiple avenues for creation, expression, and understanding? Do content and literature narrow students’ ideas about identity or broaden, deepen, and diversify them? Does the classroom environment adhere to a strict sequential approach to learning or does it provide time and space for student-driven identity exploration, reflection, connection, and sharing? Are uncomfortable and challenging questions about identity and social injustice avoided or accepted and encouraged? Are assignments and assessments tightly standardized or are they responsive to the unique identities in the room and the surrounding community? Are teachers molding students for the next grade or are students molding themselves with their teacher’s ongoing mentorship? Are teacher-student-family relationships functional and regimented or do stakeholders take time to truly understand and learn from each other? Are teachers hired and evaluated on rigid metrics or do school leaders create and empower a diverse, culturally competent staff to share and teach who they really are?

Identity expert educators
Identity expert educators

Our everyday educational choices influence our students’ identities and it’s up to us to choose what kind of influence we want to have. Instead of giving my students a map, I choose to help them develop tools that will help them guide themselves along their rugged and winding journey– questioning, resilience, reflection, confidence, awareness, empathy, independence, curiosity, voice, and passion. Instead of making assumptions about student identities, I choose to fight my biases and listen to who they say they are, accepting them at face value and learning more when they feel ready to share. Instead of masking my vulnerabilities, I choose to share the most challenging missteps and detours along my own identity journey– and the difficulties I still face. Instead of expecting students to swallow academic content whole, I choose to help them connect what they learn to who they are. Instead of accepting the status quo, I choose to confront unjust and outdated structures within our school environment that disempower students and stunt their healthy identity development. Instead of succumbing to the short-term pressures of curriculum coverage and standards mastery, I choose to value my students’ long-term identity development and carve out the time and space for them to tinker with who they are.

I choose to entrust my students with their own identities.

Cote, James. (1996). Identity: A multidimensional analysis.

Erikson, E. H. (1980). Identity and the life cycle. W W Norton & Co.

Gee, J. P. (2000). Identity as an analytic lens for research in education. Review of Research in Education, 25,   99–125.

Mary Macdonald Mishler (1978) Education and Identity, Oxford Review of Education, 4:2, 197-203

Robinson, Erin Nicole (2012). The Relationship Between Teacher Cultural Competency and Student Engagement. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 553.

Schachter, E. P. & Rich. Y. (2011). Identity Education: A new conceptual framework for researchers and practitioners. Educational Psychologist, 46(4), 222–238.

Settles, Isis. (2004). When Multiple Identities Interfere: The Role of Identity Centrality. Personality & social psychology bulletin.

Weinreich, P., & Saunderson, W. (Eds.) (2003). Analysing Identity: Cross Cultural, Societal and Clinical Contexts. London and New York: Routledge.

Daniel Wickner is a third grade classroom teacher at Hong Kong International School and has taught internationally for ten years. Being multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual, he strongly identifies with the complex cultural intersectionality of international school communities and is passionate about supporting students’ healthy identity development.

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