Remaining a student of teaching forever: Critical reflexive insights from a lifetime of multiple teacher identities in the Republic of Ireland

Geraldine Mooney Simmie


I begin this narrative inquiry of what it means in contemporary times to have a successful teacher identity, which I understand as multiple and evolving and gleaned over 40 years teaching in higher education and secondary schools. John Dewey reminds us that teaching is about remaining a student of teaching forever. This is something that resonates with me as I make sense of a life journey of searching for a personal ethics of self as a teacher, passing on the known (and partial) canon of knowledge, the values, and virtues of becoming a person in a just society and all the while making space for something new to emerge, for daring to transgress (hooks, 1994) as an activist professional, a public intellectual, problem-poser, and troublemaker from understandings of successfol teaching as pedagogical, philosophical, and political acts (Frcire, 1972).

I posit that successfol teaching and teacher identities are connected to moral and political philosophy because they are imbued with intentionality and are not neutral, either in the direction of freedom and liberation or for domestication and colonization. For this reason, teaching always carries inherent dangers of symbolic violence especially prevalent in a pre-Covid-19 world of education policy that reduced to a narrow politics of reflection for a universalist market-led teacher identity (Brady, 2016, 2019). Lawn & Ozga (1981) argued that professionalism is an ideological weapon reducing teacher agency and autonomy in order to folfill the main objectives of the state at any given moment in time. A question running throughout this chapter is how we might avoid the dangers of a debased teacher identity through a new politics of principled resistance for a post-Covid-19 world (Freire, 1972; Thomas & Vavrus, 2019).

My identities as a teacher, educational researcher, and teacher educator are identities that have evolved over a lifetime and are positioned in critical sociology of education where I draw from critical, feminist, and post-colonial perspectives to understand, interrupt, and challenge my ethics of self, my practices, and policy reform constructs in Teacher Professional Learning (c.g., mentoring, learning, leadership, teacher design teams, border-crossing partnerships, communities of practice, etc.). My research studies are concerned with the critical, social, and heuristic purposes of education and

Remaining a student of teaching forever 21 identification of gaps in the rhetoric of policy and the lived reality of practices. My policy analyses reveal the hand of the powerful in Ireland and elsewhere in the contemporary reduction of teaching to a tight, hard, and strong clinical practice in the last decade (Mooney Simmie, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2020).

Good teaching is understood by me as a relational “moral and political endeavor” for a collective non-identieal practice situated in culture and context. This is a very different understanding from current mainstream thinking in Ireland and elsewhere (Sant, 2019). In public policy, teaching is presented as a “moral and apolitical endeavor” in the academy of teacher education. A logic of essentialist thought abstracts education from multiple ways of knowing and from the deeply embedded roots of culture and heritage, the particularity of experience and context, the affective and the feminine, the political and the existential.

Instead the Enlightenment view of the rational thinker, frames research problems in education in (de)contextualized ways away from the messiness of the lived reality of practice settings. These research designs seek to atomize problems and can offer helpful solutions that are at best only ever partial solutions to wider systemic issues. They often tail to include education’s social responsibility as a public good outside of concern for the competitive individual Macrine (2016). In such research designs, poverty and social injustice in the intersectionality of social class, race, gender, religion, and ethnicity are reframed as problems of special concern for the individual and/ or their disadvantaged local community (Petersen & Millei, 2016).

Teaching as a moral and political practice, a collective while non-identieal practice (Santoro & Rocha, 2015), requires not only interrogation of self and practice but also necessitates critical mediation with the wider world (Freire, 1972/2018). It is this commitment to critical mediation with the wider world—not as an add-on but as a central concern of education to interpret the world and to proactively change it—that sets critical theory apart from other ways of viewing education, teaching, and teacher identities.

The field of Critical Pedagogy with emancipatory roots in moral and political philosophies, ongoing struggles for a just global world, is constantly evolving and keeping pace with rapid and unprecedented changes of globalization and technologization in higher education and schooling (Macrine, 2020). Teaching is understood as a relational and intellectual praxis involving rich interplays between theory, practice, experience, policy, and research (Mooney Simmie, de Paor, Liston & O'Shea, 2017; Mooney Simmie, Moles & O'Grady, 2019). This is a very different understanding from mainstream neoliberal/elite discourses of education that Sant (2019) describes and are discussed in the following section. This latter policy imperative compels teachers to deconstruct their existing identities and replace them with a new universalist identity, doing it to themselves for primacy of the markets (Lonergan et al., 2012; Mooney Simmie & Moles, 2011, 2019).

I will structure the chapter as follows. First, I outline the methodology for the study and show how Gee's (2000) four perspectives of identity provide a useful lens to analyze my multiple and evolving identities over a lifetime as a successful teacher in Ireland. Second, I question the purposes of education, teaching, and teacher identities in contemporary times and make the case in this literature review that critical questions concerning purpose set the scene for under-writing the interpretive system of what is meant in the first instance by teacher identities. While I understand teachers have agency and relative autonomy and arc not totally positioned as docile bodies and victims of oppressive structures, nonetheless there are oppressive ways in which a neoliberal/elite imaginary is currently acting downward on teacher identities that urgently need to be revealed, interrupted, and changed. Third, I share some critical reflexive insights from my fields of practice as a teacher, research development officer, and more recently as a teacher educator in a university setting. Finally, I conclude with a reflection on the problem under study and offer an alternative theorization as a politics of principled resistance for the educability of every child and better connectivity between education, teacher identities, reform, social justice, ethics, democracy, and a just global world.


The methodology aims to share identities I bring to the role of teaching in Ireland, a role in which I have a felt sense of success while remaining open to discursive struggles and joys, willingness to question my practices on my own and with critical friends, to engage with a vast literature and research, to consider questions of existential freedom, and to critically mediate practices with the wider world and social justice. It is this notion of a continual discursive struggle and clash between inner and outer work and between my experiences, practices, access to critical theory, and research that I want to bring to the fore in this chapter as I show how they inform my emerging sense of multiple identities Pillow (2003).

Gee (2000) writes about the use of identity as an analytic lens for research in education and at a time when a market-led view of education is dominant in a post-truth viral modernity (Macrine, 2020; Peters ct al., 2020). Gee (2000) explains how “one cannot have an identity of any sort without some interpretive system under-writing the recognition of that identity” (p. 107). He suggests four strands to grasp a deeper understanding of identity within contemporary education: the nature perspective (N-identities); institutional perspective (I-identitics); discursive perspective (D-identities), and affinity perspective (A-identitics). N-identities are bestowed by nature (c.g., genes, neurological), I-identitics by institutions (c.g., formal positions, regulatory bodies), D-identities by discourse and dialogue (c.g., recognition as expert), and A-identities by social affinity groupings (c.g., specialist groups).

In this chapter, I call on these four perspectives as they arc under-written in a policy backdrop of neoliberal/elite policy discourses (Sant, 2019). I explain my teacher identities as a successfill teacher, by self, others, institutions, and the wider society. I will also show how teacher identities are laden with the potential for real and symbolic violence when under-written by a universal bio-psycho-neuro-socio-cultural model of self (Self) that is

Remaining a student of teaching forever 23 abstracted from deep-rooted connectivity to particular social and political contexts and without unconditional responsibility for others (Others).

The domestication and colonization of education by the primacy of the economy in a pre-Covid-19 world reframed human development—teacher professional learning and teacher identity—as a universalist notion of an ideal individual abstracted from context (social class, gender, race, religion), and from an invisible pedagogy' of the immaterial Bcttcz (2015). The interpretive system underpinning higher education and schooling in a pre-Covid-19 world was a market-led mainstream view of human capital theory held in place by neoliberals, neoconservatives, and a growing Alt-Right nationalism (Macrine, 2020).

A neoliberal/elitc governance ideology celebrates competitive individualism and the supremacy of a strong economy underpinned by human capital theory (Tan, 2014). Human Capital Theory takes the primacy of the economy as its starting point and argues that the human being is a utility driven animal out to maximize their own economic benefit and capable of being bent in any direction that will bring the greatest financial reward. While there are numerous efforts to unseat this reductionist view of education and teaching the theory continues to gain traction as a “good enough” theory by policymakers, politicians, and researchers alike as it is found to be most successfill in predicting behavior.

The Covid-19 pandemic offers a global interruption to this discourse and provides an opportunity for a change in direction in public policy in education: either a continuation of human capital theory this time “on steroids” for a more intense focus on the competitive individual or new affordances for a more expansive societal view. It is to this critical question of the purposes of education, teacher identities, and teacher professional learning that I now turn in the following literature review.

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