The Professional Identity Project

Professional identity is a hot topic. It is also a much misunderstood topic. So let’s clear that up first – what is Educator ‘professional identity’? When I am talking with Educators, we talk about it like this:

“Educator professional identity is how a person identifies themselves as a qualified and knowledgeable practitioner in the field,

and while practicing,

how they, by virtue of their role, demonstrate knowledge, undertake quality actions and maintain an awareness of accountabilities, and

how they engage within the profession”.

What it isn’t – It is not about how others identify Educators, because if you haven’t studied the role, done the role, and been held accountable for the role in some way, how can you hold that role’s professional identity?

‘What is an Educator’ has been in the spotlight in 2020 in a way I have never seen before. I am reminded of this by a post-it note in my study – it’s over there near the ‘next to read’ pile of books that somehow keeps growing – showing a quote from a 2011 paper by Chong, Low and Goh [1]:

Research shows the development of … professional identity to be in a state of flux and that there is a strong correlation between a sense of teacher professional identity and their propensity to stay in teaching.

Sylvia Chong, Ee Ling Low, Kim Chuan Goh

This may be for teaching but for Educators it also makes a strongly held professional identity vitally important.

We know that defining a profession is at the root of understanding the profession and how it operates [2] . Understanding Educator professional identity is important to Educators themselves because it underpins developing a deeper engagement with their practice and performance, and we are told, wanting to stay in the role.

This idea came under a great deal of discussion when we were developing the National Quality Framework. My thinking at the time was that early childhood Educators were taking new steps into being recognised as a profession – with entry qualification benchmarks, a practice framework, standards of practice and a regulated accountability matrix. The schedule of consultations held at the time were an acknowledgement that we couldn’t apply standards and regulations to a profession and to the professionals in it, unless we truly knew how they operate.

What struck me at the time and afterward was that Educators show such a strong connection to their role, so much so that they adopted the National Quality Framework without any sign of recompense – this held up even while the research was showing a high rate of intention to leave (up to 1 in 5).

Under the circumstances, it had to be asked not just how many are leaving, but – why did any of them stay?

Educators struggle with the idea that anyone from outside their role would ever recognise their role for what is actually is, and many feel that no-one from outside the role would ever recognise them as professionals in their own right. They are underpaid and work in a sector that is woefully insecure in its employment profile.

Yet they (4 out of 5) stay!

Could it be that this lack of understanding from ‘the outside’ has inadvertently caused the building of a sense of unity? If so, then we are not starting from nothing. Can we work with this? If we have the baseline for developing a shared professional identity, what do we need next?

I asked this of a group of Educators at a series of meetings over the last weeks. We discussed:

  • Developing a deeper understanding of Educator identity – one owned by Educators.
  • Sharing our understanding of current and possible future range of Educator roles – a career structure.
  • Sharing an understanding of the intersecting knowledge and roles of those who work across early childhood – to develop a shared knowledge and language.
  • Finding a fresh view of qualification (beyond the assumptions about current courses)
  • Finding a fresh view of accountability (beyond the current passive receptivity of top down regulation)
  • and of course, having a bloody great rethink of remuneration – we asked: What are you worth?!
  • and they came up with this:

The Educator’s Professional Identity Project

First – The endgame

What will success look like?

It is that all Educators will own their professional identify.

For some there, this came as a shock. One asked – Are we allowed to do that? Is it legal?

They decided that ‘owning your identity‘ meant that Educators recognised:

  1. that they are clearly differentiated in law and operate within a legal framework
  2. that we prepare would-be Educators with an intellectual basis for their practice through higher education
  3. that we have a clearly developed code of ethics which protects our children and our community
  4. that regulation is a part of our professional accountability agreement with our community

and that looking at possible and future roles, we would need:

  1. professional credentials that mandate the agreed range of knowledge and skills required to do what we do
  2. a career structure that leads us to positions of professional autonomy in:
    1. leadership
    2. research
    3. practice
  3. career outcomes that leads us to professional regulation and self regulation
  4. minimum and protected expectations for workload and remuneration [3]

and that we want those who interact with the profession to:

  1. acknowledge Educator knowledge and skills as much as they do theirs, and that every profession should share early childhood by learning to speak the same professional language
  2. acknowledge the complexity of the Educator role, by not thinking of Educators as a subset of teachers, but as a specialty in its own right
  3. acknowledge that current qualifications are not hitting the mark as they are based on a current thinking and are usually only amended rather than rethought
  4. acknowledge that Educators are as accountable as other early childhood relevant professions.

Finally, that they wanted others to work with Educators and for Educators, but not in a manner that takes the decisions and career directions from them.

To paraphrase Elizabeth Matters, [3] we are naturally aware of our own work and the work of many colleagues in developing Educator practice theories, early childhood research and also specialist knowledge in unique advanced practice areas. Each area demands a huge amount of Educator experience and theoretical knowledge in order to provide unique Educator based solutions.

But who else needs to be aware of this? Everyone!

Elizabeth Matters RCN

What’s next? It all begins with communication.

They are developing a plan to:

  • Reach out and explain – Answer the calls for Educators to communicate their stories through whatever means possible – and to keep this going, for example through:
    • Thrive by Five campaign
    • Early Childhood Australia – Facebook, online meetings, other media and blogs such as The Spoke
    • Big initiatives like the Big Steps – Early Educators United group
    • Targeted initiatives like #365realstoriesfromEC

And at the same time:

  • Look inward and discuss – Work with every Educator on what being ‘professional’ actually means. At every opportunity, early childhood leadership and organisations should build the language of ‘professional’ into role descriptions, professional learning, events, articles, posts, prize giving’s and speeches.
  • Work together – Increase sector networking to provide opportunities to discuss the professionalisation of the sector and what it might look like:
    • Arrange networking sessions in person and online
    • Remove barriers to attending networking outside service ownership types
    • Develop Educator skills in professional communication and enable those who need specific support
    • Encourage every team member to have some access to networking rather than admin only
    • Support professional relationship building across the sector through time adequate resourcing
  • Share information – Develop and share data and analysis. Work on submissions to workforce reviews and professional framework reviews. Review and endorse others positions to promote the image of unity and consistent messaging as it builds professional unity.
  • Reach out – Work with other professional and business organisations to explain who Educators are and what they do. Share articles, host events and post information that engages and involves.

Next week:

Stage 2 We ran a trial – Want to know how it went and what we learned?

References:

  1. Chong, Low and Gow in: Emerging Professional Teacher Identity of Pre-service Teachers https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ937005.pdf
  2. Mike Saks in: Defining a Profession: The Role of Knowledge and Expertise file:///C:/Users/Doreen%20Blyth/Downloads/Defining_a_Profession_The_Role_of_Knowledge_and_Ex%20(1).pdf
  3. Elizabeth Matters FACN in: https://www.acn.edu.au/publications/the-hive-2018/nursing-matters-our-professional-identity

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