What Does It Mean to Be a Teacher-Educator?

Using Self-Study to Understand Teacher to Teacher-Educator Identity Shift During the COVID-19 Pandemic
PedagogyCritical FriendshipSelf-StudyPandemicTeacher-Educator Identity
In institutions of teacher education, the conditions for development of a teacher-educator identity are uncertain (Dinkelman, 2011). Pinnegar et al. (2020) argues that as self-study researchers, our identities are ever emergent – always becoming. This self-study of teaching and teacher education practices examines how I, an early career tenure track teacher-educator, learned to better understand my teacher-educator identity in my COVID-19 impacted first year. Using Gee's (2001) descriptions of contextual identities, I describe how my assumptions about how my identity should develop were challenged by the pandemic response. Using self-study helped me to make sense of my pedagogy of teacher education, and finding an affinity group of critical friends was instrumental in helping me to navigate this challenging time. I encourage new tenure track faculty, mentors, and administrators to consider using self-study practices to help make sense of who we are becoming and why in these challenging times.

Theoretical perspective

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for self-study scholars to investigate the impact of the pandemic on their practice. Berry & Kitchen (2020) called for practitioners to “consider the varying effects of change on education and how we as teacher educators can contribute to the transformation of education” (p.126). Recent editions of Studying Teacher Education reflect that call. For example, Kim et al. (2021) examined the challenges of being mothers and teacher educators during the pandemic while Moorehouse and Tiet (2021) investigated their attempts at establishing a pedagogy of care. Similar to these studies, this study describes how I used self-study to better understand my new identity as a teacher-educator in my first year as a tenure-track professor.

Gee (2001) describes how different contexts shape different identities:

nature-identity – the aspects of identity one cannot control such as gender;
institution-identity – the aspects of identity set by one’s role in an institution;
discourse identity – an active trait that influences identity, such as caring;
affinity-identity – shared experiences and allegiances which occur as part of a group.

In teacher education, identity development is important (e.g., Britzman, 2003), however, while identity development happens, it may not always be part of an explicit plan for teacher development (Hammerness et al. 2005). Through reflection and practice, student-teachers should discover their “teacher selves” (Freese, 2006, p. 100). However, Korthagen (2004) cautions that identity change is a difficult and sometimes painful process. Furthermore, emotion plays a role in the process, expanding or limiting possibilities (Zembylas, 2003). Dinkelman (2011) asserts that how teacher-educators see themselves and their work is integral to the development of teachers who can provide powerful learning experiences for their students.

Labaree (2004) argues the transition from teacher to teacher-educator is complex, as one must shift thinking from normative to analytical. Recent research in the learning of teacher education indicates that becoming a successful teacher educator is more complex than Labaree indicates (e.g. Chang et. al, 2016; Ludlow et al., 2017). Berry & Loughran (2005) view teacher educator development as a private struggle, while Murray and Male (2005) add how teacher-educators encounter feelings of discomfort and isolation. Sometimes emerging teacher educators struggle to reconcile their new teacher educator identities with their existing pedagogical practices (Butler & Diacopoulos, 2016). As they enter their first roles as teacher educators, they must consider their “…knowledge of teaching about teaching and a knowledge of learning about teaching and how the two influence one another” (Loughran, 2008, p. 1180). Loughran’s pedagogy of teacher education is a focal point for self-study inquiries. The connection between identity development and a pedagogy of teacher education resonated with me in my beginning year as a faculty member and teacher educator as I asked my students “What does it mean to be a professional educator?”, while at the same time framing my own self-study inquiry: What does it mean to be a teacher-educator?



This self-study of teacher education practices began in the Spring semester of 2020. This was my second semester as an assistant professor on the tenure track teaching full-time in southeast Kansas. The university is in a micropolitan city in a rural area. Since the 1980s the region experienced economic and social decline. The population is majority white with a Hispanic minority. Socially conservative values are often reflected in the community.

My first year consisted of a four-class teaching load including three Explorations in Education classes consisting of 90 students in total. Classes met for 75 minutes, twice a week, for 16 weeks. In addition, students participated in a 33-hour field experience. Because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to curtail field experiences, and we shifted instruction to an asynchronous online format, followed by a hyflex format the following semester. Since then we returned to in-person instruction in the spring of 2021 and resumed field experiences in the Fall semester of 2022. At the time of writing, we are “back to normal”.

Spring 2020 was my second semester as an assistant professor; however, it was my 26th year in education. I am a white, cisgender male educator. Born and raised in the United Kingdom in a culturally mixed (Greek-Cypriot & English) family. I grew up in a lower middle to working-class neighborhood and I was a first-generation university student. My teaching experience occurred in multiple contexts. I previously served as a high school teacher in the United Kingdom for ten years, as a middle school teacher in Virginia for four years, and as a high school teacher in the same state for three years. I also served as a technology specialist, and district curriculum coordinator for the last six years of my career prior to attaining my current faculty role. This post was in a teaching-intensive regional university. Taking the position involved a personal relocation to the Midwest while the rest of my family remained in Virginia. Working at a distance from my family provided an added layer to how I would view my teacher-educator identity. The COVID-19 pandemic directly influenced my (and my students’) experiences of the Spring Semester as instruction shifted to a remote learning model the week of our Spring Break. At the time I was visiting my family in Virginia when the switch to remote instruction occurred. I, therefore, remained in Virginia until the beginning of the Fall semester in August. The majority of my first year as a tenure track teacher-educator was spent away from the campus and community which I served.

Role of Critical Friends

I conducted this self-study alongside other investigations happening at the same time. I was conducting a case study about how my students learned what it meant to be a professional educator through participation in my Explorations in Education course. As they examined their changing student to student-teacher identities, I investigated my own transition from teacher to teacher-educator. At the time I was also engaged in a self-study with colleagues examining our learning of self-study (Diacopoulos et al., 2022) and our use of critical friendship to help us navigate our doctoral experiences. I was also involved in a self-study with another colleague where we examined our experiences of the pandemic through a Deweyan lens (Rice & Diacopoulos, in press.). With their permission, I was able to use our notes, transcripts, and dialogical journals to investigate my own identity transformation and pedagogy of teacher education. Loughran and Northfield (1998) stated that working with an “other” matters in self-study. As such, by working with my community of critical friends I was able to work with trusted colleagues (Branyon et al., 2022) to examine practice, unpack understanding, and gain critical feedback through personal and shared reflection.

As a self-study, this followed LaBoskey’s five characteristics (LaBoskey, 2004). It was initiated by myself and although my understanding was framed through the work of my students and my discussions with critical friends, it was focused on my own development; it was improvement aimed as by understanding my evolving identity I hoped to frame and enact my pedagogy of teacher education; it was interactive in my interactions with students, coursework, the context of a pandemic, and my critical friends all helped me to develop this inquiry; it includes multiple qualitative methods and data sources; lastly it is shared with an audience, gaining validity through interaction with critical friends, peer review, and ultimately it's consumption by others.

Data Sources

I had obtained an IRB exemption to include my students (with their consent) in the study of their identity shift and this self-study. I was initially curious as to how our course experiences not only influenced their development but my own understanding of who I was becoming. I had already begun the data collection process in my first (normal) semester, and the beginning of the pandemic served to add another layer to my inquiry.

Data included recorded conversations and notes with my critical friends. These helped me to frame my experiences in relation to theirs. For example, we compared experiences of institutional reactions to the pandemic, expectations on ourselves as teachers and researchers, as well as sharing concerns and thoughts with those of an experienced other. I used recorded mentor-mentee conversations and email correspondence to track my exposure to institutional expectations and norms. Digital correspondence with students through emails or our learning management system served to provide context about their experiences of my teaching and the course, coursework, and how I enacted my role. These served as prompts for my own reflective journals where I thought “out loud” and attempted to make sense of becoming in this challenging context. In analyzing the data, I conducted an inductive analysis (Creswell, 2012), identifying and coding themes (Saldana, 2021) in the first cycle and theoretical coding in the second cycle (Charmaz, 2014).


After the second cycle of coding, it was noticeable how my identity shifts aligned with the contexts outlined by Gee (2001) while my actions as a teacher-educator reflected my developing pedagogy of teacher education. Therefore, I report my findings aligned to Gee’s four domain descriptions and discuss the main influences on my learning through self-study in the discussion.


As a new faculty member, I was new to the institution and area, having moved from the east coast the previous summer. This micropolitan regional university was in a small town where it can take a while for newcomers to be trusted and accepted. One strength of the area was the synergy between the municipality and the university. There was an established tradition of local cooperation. Historical, institutional, and regional knowledge resided with existing, well-established senior faculty who I was yet to know professionally or personally. Furthermore, I was a secondary educator taking up a position in an elementary program. On many levels in my first semester, I felt much like a fish out of water. I had misgivings about whether I was a good fit for my department, whether my approach to teaching, learning, and scholarship would correlate to the expectations of the college of education, and I worried about how long I would be an outsider in a department of established faculty.

I considered in my journal whether this position would be a “short term steppingstone, until something better came along” (Journal), as my doctoral advisor suggested in conversation, or whether my lack of fit could be a good thing. I noted, “Part of my brief when I accepted the position was to be someone who would speak up and ask challenging questions. But I wonder whether in the long term this might be problematic” (Journal). I did not share the same nature identity as my faculty colleagues, while my propensity to speak up at times was potentially viewed as combative or disrespectful. I described these negative feelings in my journal as “isolating.”

My sense of isolation was further exacerbated because my immediate family chose to remain on the east coast. While visiting them for Spring Break, COVID-19 restrictions were enacted nationwide, forcing a switch to remote and online instruction. Being remote left me feeling less isolated from my family, but further isolated from the institution. However, with distance came a sense of safety. For example, I was able to speak up in faculty Zoom meetings about the need to be cognizant of our student’s social and emotional needs, and how we would need to work harder to model the dispositions our teacher candidates needed as they would not see them in the field.


In my first semester as a teacher educator, I was able to begin to forge an institutional identity by attending sporting events, recruitment fairs, and cultural programs on campus. I noticed small shifts in my identity as I began to understand the campus and community a little better. As I taught my Explorations classes, I could focus on the dispositions of my teacher candidates, and at the same time question my own dispositions toward them. Toward the end of that first semester, I noted in my journal how I was feeling more “at home” in my office, teaching space, and the town in general, and that heading back to Virginia for Christmas would be lovely, but also disruptive to my sense of belonging. I felt like I did not fully belong anywhere anymore.

Although my relationships with the student and faculty body were positive. The onset of the pandemic severed any in-person connections. Particularly as I was working from a remote location. The uncertainty of the situation and the sense of collective trauma led me to consider if I would ever return to campus, or if I would even remain in an academic position. Sharing this with one of my critical friends who was in a comparable situation (although she was in her second year when the pandemic struck), we noted how we still did not really feel fully connected to our institutions. The physical distance made it hard to feel like we belonged.

As much as technology such as Zoom helped me to see faces and to meet “live,” my belonging to the university, or the community did not feel real. I noted in my journal how, “…everything in my professional life is 1200 miles away. My only connection is through my laptop. If I did not have so much grading and so many emails from students, I wouldn’t think it is real” (Journal).

Discourse Identity

Teaching the Explorations course and discussing issues associated with remote teaching during the pandemic influenced my evolving discourse identity. Explorations in Education afforded participants a chance to wrestle with their understanding about what dispositions educators should have. In teaching the class face-to-face, pre-pandemic, I noticed how my students wrestled with aspects of their transition from student to student-teacher. This led me to consider my own dispositional alignment as I reflected. I began to challenge some of the assumptions made in the course design. I offered critique and perspective on aspects of the class that needed updating, for example, issues surrounding grit and growth mindset needed replacing with discussions around equity and diversity. I worried this was perhaps at odds with traditional practices in my department.

In the second semester, the onset of the pandemic and the switch to remote learning demonstrated to me an urgent need to address these pressing issues. Not all students had access to digital devices or adequate internet for remote learning. With their field experiences curtailed, I had to adjust student reflections to draw on their own apprenticeship of observation. Further, I had students in various stages of crises caused by the pandemic. Some were sick, or caring for sick relatives, some lost loved ones, while others were placed into financial hardship by workplace closures. I tried my best to alleviate or help these pressures with understanding and flexibility on my part.

However, in meetings with faculty, it was noticeable that not everyone appeared to understand or care about students’ needs. In my journal, I wrote how colleagues who had been nothing but kind to me in my face-to-face interactions last semester, were “as much in survival mode as our students are, and as a result they are unable to cut them any slack” (Journal). I made it a point to discuss student wellbeing, both physically and emotionally, the value of accepting late work and why it was necessary, and how to help students succeed rather than create barriers to success. My discourse identity became that of a student advocate and influenced my developing pedagogy of teacher education.


At the same time, my affinity-identity shifted too. As my discourse stance emphasized a student-centered approach based on an ethic of care, I also presented alternative perspectives to my students which were different from what they were learning from my peers. When face-to-face, it was noticeable how students who felt marginalized by others due to their ethnicity or gender identity, or those who were struggling to meet expectations of other instructors, would come to me for help, advice, or just to talk. I shared with a critical friend how my “otherness” and outsider perspective gave a safe space for students who also felt they were different in some way.

With the transition to remote and hybrid instruction, I worked to strengthen these connections. I provided opportunities for students to email or Zoom if they needed to chat. I spent more time helping and listening to students than in meetings with colleagues. I also focused on my critical friendships, conducting self-study research and scholarship. My affinity identity was less with the institution than it was to students who asked for help, and my community of critical friends and co-authors. I wrote that as far as my faculty role was concerned, I considered myself a “contributing outsider” (Journal).


Understanding My Changing Identity With Self-Study

Berry & Kitchen (2020) situate self-study as a methodology well suited for the examination of teacher education during a pandemic. It allows us to better understand situated human activity from the perspectives of those engaged in it. My experiences described are a selective snapshot of what influenced my evolving identity in this challenging time. I contend that other first-year teacher educators may have felt similarly disconnected as I did. However, by framing my experiences within Gee’s framework I was able to challenge my initial assumptions. For example, had the pandemic not struck, I assumed that transitioning to a new role, in a new institution, and in a new professional context, would mean that my affinity and institution identities would be where I would see the most change. Learning the cultural norms and expectations of my new institution should have influenced me the most. Yet formal induction was dropped in my second semester because of the pandemic. As I was physically disconnected from the institution, I was not able to acculturate to the university or the geographic area as I might have done if I was present and connected.

Crafting My Pedagogy

As colleagues were remote and undergoing their own pandemic responses, I missed opportunities to learn from their experiences. Thus, my pedagogy developed through my discourse identity. For example, I took this as an opportunity to go beyond “giving grace” and attempted to rework coursework, class delivery, and learning around students’ direct needs. It is unlikely I would have taken such risks so soon. For example, I abandoned assignments which did not address teacher candidate dispositions as future teachers (which was the focus of the Explorations course). I incorporated more opportunities for collaboration and community building, and constantly asked questions about whether what we were doing in our coursework “really mattered.” Not all changes were successful, yet the lack of physical connection to my institution and oversight from colleagues left me looking for guidance in other spaces. As we later navigated a return to “normal,” I had to reconcile my prior decision-making with institutional expectations which I was yet to be acculturated to. This made for a confusing, “hit and miss” process.

Importance of Critical Friendship

Examining one’s own identity is not something that is done in isolation. I am thankful that I was able to examine my practice within several critical friendships. The conversations, questions, and trust in these spaces allowed for me to think aloud, seek encouragement, and know that novice and experienced faculty members in other institutions were in similar situations. When I began this study, I wanted to investigate my dispositions and identity shifts as my own teacher candidates wrestled with theirs. However, as I examined the data, I noticed how our conversations were more about our practice as teacher educators and how the pandemic influenced and framed our pedagogies of teacher education. Without the opportunity to investigate and delve into these issues, I would not have asked questions about my pedagogy and practice. I could not look to mentors within my institution to provide answers. Thus, the context of the pandemic response forced me to strengthen my discourse identity. These outside perspectives still influence my decision-making today, and I sometimes still ask “Does this matter?” when making learning decisions.


I framed this inquiry around the question “What does it mean to be a teacher-educator?” In the context of the response to COVID-19, it meant that my identity was shaped less by my institution or physical space. Instead, it was shaped by discourse and reflection rooted in self-study. Separated physically from institutional onboarding forced an examination of my own assumptions of what it means to be a teacher-educator, alongside my assumptions of what the institution expected of me. My teacher-educator identity was formed through trial and error, then examined through reflection and discussion with colleagues not at my university. Self-study helped to provide answers to the immediate problems faced by myself and my students at the time, allowing for a more considered approach to my teaching during this emergency. At this point in time, I can attribute my decision-making, my attitude to the pandemic, and ultimately my navigation of such a stressful and confusing time to self-study practices. Thinking about my identity helped me survive during the pandemic.

Now that we are back to “normal”, I have gradually developed more of an institutional identity. My exposure to institutional and local cultural norms frames my decision-making more than it did in my first year. My perspective is still influenced by self-study practices; however, my affinity identity is stronger, which grounds my decision-making in the context of the institution as well as my and my student’s needs. This is probably more akin to what new teacher-educators experienced pre-pandemic and does create a more nuanced “bigger picture” understanding of what teacher-educators do. Ultimately, learning to be a teacher-educator is not easy. It is shaped by the contexts that influence our identities. Learning to be a teacher-educator during a deadly pandemic is even more complex. In terms of Gee’s descriptions, the pandemic made me rely on and develop my discourse identity to navigate my first year in a tenure-track role. This was because my feelings of not belonging were strengthened by remote instruction and feelings of disconnection. My affinity identity was not fully formed. Through self-study, I was able to make some sense of the situation and develop a pedagogy that would get me through the situation as best as I could. I contend that my experiences were similar to those of other new faculty who experienced complex and confusing shifts in identity as they navigated not only a new institution but also new course loads, while remote and physically disconnected, with little idea of what was truly expected of them.

As the pandemic continues, albeit in a more manageable form, what it means to be a pandemic teacher-educator also shifts, as do our identities. Self-study is a tool that can help us make sense of our context, understand who we are, and make decisions. I ask that mentors, administrators, and those who are responsible for helping new faculty transition into teacher education consider how the ongoing pandemic challenges existing assumptions about acculturation and institutional identity. As we transition to a post-pandemic era, I encourage new teacher-education faculty to use self-study to help them better make sense of their identity and purpose as teacher educators in increasingly challenging times.


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Mark Diacopoulos

Pittsburg State University

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