The Emergence Of Professional Identity Education Essay

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Despite the emergence of professional identity as a separate research area in the last decade, there is no single definition to explain exactly what the concept means (Beijaard et al., 2004). There is common agreement, however, that identity is not a fixed attribute of a person, but is an ongoing process of interpretation and reinterpretation of experiences within a given context. The post-modernist view of self, to which I subscribe, is that self is strongly related to how people organise their experiences in their life history, which could, therefore, differ in time and context, but allows individuals to understand who they are and what they would like to become. As a result, influences of historical, sociological, psychological and cultural factors may all impact on a leader's sense of self as a leader. If this line of argument is followed through, it would, therefore, seem that 'self' is inseparable from a person's life history and, so, it is impossible to speak about 'self' when there is no reflection.


Busher's (2005) research of middle leaders highlights how childhood experiences, parents and colleagues shaped his subjects' views and values on teaching, learning and leading. He also found that promotion shaped their sense of work-related identity, their views of themselves being bound up with the formal positions they held within the school hierarchy. In this way, professional identities were developed through a combination of historical biography and professional experience. However, it is also important to recognise that, when relating this to a life history approach, the narrative of events comes to represent a period of individual's lives, compressed into "one moment of self-narration" (Kehily, 1995, p. 24). Equally, as Kehily (1995) argues, how we see ourselves, our identity, is subject to reformulation in a variety of ways according to the audience and, therefore, we may have a different version of identity according to where, when and how we articulate it. Part of our life history can be omitted, embellished or reframed according to the impression that we want to portray of ourselves. In other words, identity is expressed as outward articulations as a product of the social interaction, rather than an individual's inner thoughts. As a result, a reconstruction of past events is likely to be placed within the 'framework of present concerns' (Kehily, 1995, p. 26). Malus and Wuf (1987, in Kehily, 1995) use the term "self concept of the moment" understood as a "continually active, shifting array of accessible self knowledge" (p. 306).

Similarly, individual memory plays a large part in shaping and telling their 'story'. Memory can be selective, leaving huge gaps and giving moments of extreme clarity. Identity construction is, therefore, an interrelationship between past and present. Olesen (2001), in his study of professional identity as learning processes in life history, also sees identity as being a "field for an ongoing subjectivity" (p. 3). However, rather than it being subjective, according to the audience as a likely interpretation, it is more as a result of the individual's ability to reproduce experience in relation to actual reality. It is this reality which is subject to individual perception, subjective orientations and meanings. He argues that perception of identity is also interrelated to learning processes of individuals within their profession and general development. In this way, 'professional' identity can guide and develop the individual but could also restrict the learning potential.

Usher (1995) believes: "changing and shifting identity is 'fixed' and anchored by the act of writing" and that "life itself is conceived as social text, a fictional narrative production where difference is repressed and time suppressed in a demand for certainty" (p. 2). This view assumes that individuals are almost incapable of resolving the tension between seeing ourselves as the object and how other people influence and present it. Giddens (1991) argues that how the tensions between external and internal views of self are resolved depends on individual "histories and experience and social and psychological needs" (p. 3). My position in this is that although individuals may not be able to resolve the tensions between external and internal views, they may move to a state of cognitive dissonance where they come to accept and recognise the difference without the need for resolving them.

Awareness of Ones Self

Busher (2003) takes a similar view arguing that: "leaders and managers awareness of self is constructed through their interactions with other people, developing a changing awareness of other people's needs and also of themselves as other people perceive them" (p. 3).

This requires conscious reflection and has been encouraged through the centuries to promote a greater understanding of the individual's sense of self, the interdependence of people and with their environment (Busher, 2003; Beijaard et al., 2004). I would also argue that it also depends to what extent individuals are not only consciously aware of the impact of these interactions, but also how much they are able to learn from this and, by doing so, develop their own understanding of people's personal and social needs, views and expectations, in other words, what Goleman (1995) terms as 'emotional intelligence'. For any 'people workers', understanding people's actions in terms of how they construct their self-identity in particular contexts is critical to being able to work with them successfully. For leaders at any level, a sound understanding of other people is central to success in their role (Busher, 2005). These social interactions, as Busher (2003), argues also serve to develop notions of power and that in developing identities, particularly in the work context, people have to "contend with the power relationships that operate" (Smyth et al., 2000, p. 149). Central to self-identity is also their notion of power and how it affects their sense of agency. The degree of empowerment and control all builds upon the person's sense of self and is directly related to the position within which they operate and how much power they are able to enact. Usher (1995) suggests that, maybe, this fragmentation of identity is something we just need to accept and that it is inevitable "that the self will be invented and reinvented" (p. 186).

As can be seen from this discussion, professional identity and knowledge of 'self' is complex. It is made up of a variety of elements, grounded in people's individual life histories, personalities and work-related experiences. The ability to reflect on their experiences and understand their own professional identities allows them to effectively don the mantle of their respective ascribed role and to have a better understanding of themselves and of those they lead.

The Journey to Leadership

When studying life history, education researchers have tended to bring together shared features and anchored them around core themes (Gronn, 1999). Both Kelchtermans (1993) and Parker (2002) use critical incidents, significant people and phases as "heuristic tools in analysing the career stories" (Kelchtermans, 1993, p. 447), while others (Day and Bakioglu, 1996; Gronn, 1999; Coleman, 2002; Ribbins, 2003) have used stages and phases of leadership to develop a conceptual model of leaders within a "longitudinal framework" (Gronn, 1999, p. 22).

Stages of Leadership

Gronn (1999) termed the first stages of influence on a leader as the "Formation" stage and this encompasses the period from "infancy to adulthood", identifying family, schooling and peer reference groups as important in providing the "scaffolding of a character structure" (p. 32).

The second stage, "Accession" (Gronn, 1999, p. 34), is the time of "grooming" where individuals experience a range of roles, equipping themselves with a variety of skills and begin to assemble and rehearse a "role repertoire" (p. 36) which will provide a firm foundation upon which to draw for higher roles. It is in this stage, where an individual's strong motivation to achieve may first be realised, which Gronn (1999) suggests, to be effective, needs to be accompanied by a strong sense of individual self belief and the associated feelings of one's "worth and value" (p. 36) which are developed in the Formation stage.

The third stage, that of "Incumbency", is about the period of headship. Gronn (1999) suggests that if, at this stage, the roles that leaders take are "congruent with personal needs" then they will "be able to go some way to meet their need to self actualize" (p. 38).

The fourth and final stage is that of "Divestiture" where leaders may well lose their "psychological grip" (p. 39), whether this be due to circumstances impacting on them and therefore involuntary or unplanned, or it may be more a voluntary, planned stage of the leader's career as retirement approaches.

Day and Bakioglu (1996), in their study of head teachers' lives and careers, identify a series of developmental phases and sub phases undergone by heads which are compatible with Gronn's (1999) framework. Their starting point, however, is at the "Initiation" stage where heads are already in role and, therefore, could be considered as sub phases or steps within Gronn's Incumbency stage. Like Gronn (1999), Day and Bakioglu (1996) suggest that there are "multiple pathways and trajectories through different phases of head teachers' lives" (p. 206).

There are four stages of Day and Bakioglu's (1996) model: Initiation, Development, Autonomy and Disenchantment. The Initiation stage is characterised by two key processes: learning on the job and working within the existing institution's framework. They suggest that idealism, uncertainty and adjustment are three sub phases within this stage. The Initiation stage is followed by a Development phase where consolidation and extension takes place. Day and Bakioglu (1996) describe this as the "most active, most satisfactory, most rewarding phase" (p. 212) of the leader's career and can be compared to the feeling of "self actualization" which Gronn (1999, p. 38) describes as a possible outcome of the Incumbency stage. The third phase that Day and Bakioglu (1996) depict is that of Autonomy, which can be seen as having both positive and negative effects upon individual development and leadership effectiveness. In this phase, heads still have self-confidence, but their control can be under threat, due to the restrictions placed upon them through government initiatives and institution requirements, so directly affecting their ability to control their own sense of agency. If this lack of control persists so much so that they begin to lose a sense of vision, heads may then enter the fourth phase, that of Disenchantment. Characteristics of this stage include: "lack of confidence, enthusiasm and increasing personal fatigue" (Day & Bakioglu, 1996, p. 224).

Ribbins' (2003) more recent study confirmed this broad pattern of career stages, incorporating both Day and Bakioglu's (1996) four phases and Gronn's (1999) four stages to propose a modified framework which suggests "two ideal typical pathways or routes to and through headship" (Ribbins, 2003, p. 63).

Like Gronn (1999), Ribbins (2003) suggests a formation stage where key agencies impact and shape the kind of people "that prospective head teachers become" (p. 64). Similarly, Ribbins (2003) describes the second stage of "Accession" as that time when individuals seek experience and leadership roles in preparation for future headship positions. Ribbins (2003) notes that, in hindsight, few leaders actually see this stage as one of deliberate planning in order to pursue a course leading to headship. This can be compared to McCall's (2000) "serving time" (p. 23) in order to achieve their final destination. Coleman (2002), in her study of women as head teachers, suggests that there is a "lack of planning and even an element of surprise in finding themselves a head teacher" (p. 33) and, thus, the 'grooming' stage may go unnoticed by the participant at the time.

It is in the third stage, that of Incumbency, where Ribbins (2003) suggests an alternative to Gronn's (1999) model and builds on Day and Bakioglu's (1996) four phases. Ribbins (2003) suggests that leaders can take one of two main routes at this stage, each of which consists of four sub phases. The first three sub phases are the same as Day and Bakioglu (1996) suggest: Initiation, Development and Autonomy, but with a fourth sub phase of Disenchantment or Enchantment. This is dependent on whether the leader has negative feelings (disillusion and loss of commitment) or positive feelings (confidence and competence) at this stage. Whereas Day and Bakioglu (1996) depict a downwardly spiralling process leading to disillusionment, or in Gronn's (1999) term 'Divestiture', Ribbins (2003) suggests that although this disenchantment indeed may happen, there is also an alternative, that of enchantment. If this latter phase occurs, the leader will remain enchanted with headship and will continue to be motivated by professional satisfaction, relationships with colleagues and maintain a balance between home and school life. The final phase, that of 'Moving on' focuses on leaving headship. It deals with the direction that head teachers take once they divest themselves from office. If the head teacher is able to remain motivated and 'enchanted' then they can look forward to reinvention and pursue a different interest or occupation. However, if the head teacher becomes 'Disenchanted' they face the prospect of Divestiture and, to some, welcome retirement.

Coleman (2002) merges her earlier model of career stages (Hall, 1996) with the Van Eck (1996) model, to produce her version of distinct career stages of head teachers. She suggests a preparation stage where initial qualifications may be obtained, an establishment stage of entering teaching and the lower levels of management, an advancement or development career stage involving gaining new experiences, further qualifications and a final acquisition stage when headship is achieved.

Taysum (2004), on the other hand, proposes a framework to identify the formation of the leaders self. She argues that there are four dimensions which are "vital to understand how leaders learn" (p. 10) and that it is necessary to move beyond a linear analysis to one which explores the interplay between " the exercise of agency and the structure that shape and control that agency" (p. 10). In this way, she argues that leadership is deconstructed to give a greater insight as "to how leaders learn to become leaders" (p. 11). Similarly, Johnson (2002) in her study of higher education leaders, did not refer to stages in leadership development but to incremental stages where, over time, leadership becomes more appealing as experience and an increased academic profile rendered them eligible for more senior positions.

This approach I would argue, is more akin to Parker's (2002) and Kelchterman's (1993) approach of not only considering life phases but also other aspects such as critical incidents and people. Although Taysum (2004) affirms this, she also goes beyond this approach and explores it within an intellectual, emotional and spiritual context.

Critical Incidents

According to Tripp (1993), critical incidents in educational research are created and are not something existing independently of an observer awaiting discovery. Critical incidents are produced by the way we look at a situation, an interpretation of the significance of an event or incident. What makes an incident 'critical' is that it is memorable and interpreted as significant by what it means.

Much of the research on life history, which incorporates critical incidents, reaches a similar conclusion. Gronn (1999) discusses "critical turning points" (p. 28) in his phases of leadership development. He suggests that they can be in the form of temporary set backs which is part of the course within career progression.

Likewise, Parker (2002) in his study of the impact of life history on leadership, termed critical incidents as "defining moments" (p. 25). The importance of these are illustrated in his concluding remarks about the head teachers in his study, where he suggests that such experience "helped them define their educational philosophies and hone their skills" (p. 25) and so believed much of their life history influenced their leadership style. These defining moments were seen as "motivational drivers" (p. 33) which: "created the deep-seated sense of vocation that these heads have carried with them throughout their careers" (p. 34).

Goodson and Walker (1991) reached a similar conclusion when studying the life history of teachers arguing, that critical incidents in: "teachers' lives and specifically in their work which may crucially affect perception and practice" (p. 24). Knight and Trowler's (2001) review of the roles of leader-academics in higher education argue that they need seven types of knowledge and suggest some ways in which leaders might develop them. Reviewing critical incidents and significant friends are some of the ways they suggest to develop and sustain the first form of knowledge in their list, that of 'control knowledge' (p. 168).

Reflection on incidents is, therefore, required if some experiences are to become 'critical incidents'. The study of life history allows this reflection to take place and the construction of their own perceptions of personal experience and thus the meaning these experiences have on the respondent. According to Angelides (2001), it is also an efficient technique of gathering qualitative data because a large amount of qualitative data can be collected covering a wide time span.

Significant People

There is general agreement within the literature that critical people are "strategically located personnel" who "contribute to the mode and speed of career advancement" (Gronn, 1999, p. 28).

Dhunpath (2000) discusses how the "interpersonal context" describing critical people as "significant others" such as parents, mentors, colleagues and peers as: "both powerful positive and negative influences that shape an educator's practice" (p. 546). Similarly, Parker (2002) also discusses the importance of mentors who were responsible for shaping the thinking of those leaders that he studied "at intensely formative moments of their lives" and goes on to say they "were crucial to preparing these heads for leadership roles" (p. 35). Ribbins (2003) reiterates this importance at the formative stage and believes that they are partly responsible for influencing and shaping "the kinds of people that prospective head teachers become" (p. 63). Coleman (2002) suggests that the significance of critical people is particularly important for female leaders, as they also provide role models for them. One of her respondents illustrates this by saying that the critical person for her was a head that: "encouraged me to go for headship and probably more than any other person in my career" (p. 26). Kelchterman (1993) finds the use of critical people as well as incidents and phases as "very useful heuristic tools in exploring the career stories" (p. 446) but also as theoretical concepts. He uses both concepts to illustrate the influence they have on the professional commitment and job satisfaction of the teachers in his study, both in a positive and negative way. It also proves useful in "reconstructing the (development of) the professional self from the career stories" (p. 448).

In the latter stages of their career and, particularly, for more senior leadership roles, Johnson (2002) found that leader-academics' contact with experts in their field was of great help in learning how to lead. These people became significant in shaping and developing their leadership capability, particularly in the absence of any formal training or development.

Professional Development and Training for Leadership

The increasing emphasis on 'managerialism' in which education institutions are given greater autonomy, are exposed to market pressures and are expected to manage continuous improvement in their performance, places an emphasis on the importance of leadership and the management of education change. Equally, the range of responsibilities attributed to the leader-academic role demonstrates how much leaders need to learn in order to lead. The volatility of the higher education climate also adds a further layer to the need for learning, development and support for the leader-academic. Despite this, there is a surprising shortage of research or books on professional development for middle-level leader-academics. Those which do cover different leadership activities (for example: Bolton, 2000; Smith, 2002, 2005; Prichard, 2000) tend to treat leadership as a generic activity, with details of what leaders do rather than how they should develop in order to learn to lead, although Smith (2007) does begin to address this in his most recent work. Perhaps it is even more surprising that many universities provide little or no formal training (Johnson, 2002; Smith, 2005). A common difficulty identified by many new leader-academics in Smith's (2007) research is that the majority lacked preparedness for the role and had received no leadership or management training before and following their appointment. The training that did exist tended to be on issues related to health and safety, equality and administration systems rather than specifically leadership development. This finding may explain why few in the study by Rhodes et al. (2007) held notions of professional development as an agency of motivation or satisfaction. Similarly, Aziz et al. (2005) lament the lack of training "despite it being an issue that has been discussed by researchers for over thirty years" (p. 573). This is in stark contrast to the increasing national emphasis placed on leadership development at school and further education level (James and Vince, 2001). For example, leadership features prominently in school inspections (Office for Standards in Education: OFSTED), it has an important focus in the scrutiny of local education authority (LEA) monitoring and review (Teacher Training Agency, 1998) (TTA); a leadership college for schools has been established and a national professional qualification for head teachers (NPQH) has been developed. Further to these initiatives, programs have also been designed to support and develop head teachers who are both new to the post and for longer serving head teachers. Similarly, in further education, 'The Centre for Excellence in Leadership' (CEL) has been established since 2003 to "ensure world-class leadership within the learning and skills sector" ( While it is recognized that the 'Leadership Foundation for Higher Education' has been established more recently to highlight the importance of leadership development within higher education, nationally the focus appears to be much lower key than in the school and FE sectors.

Arguably, leaders in higher education are subject to equal change as that in the school and further educational sectors and so the importance of effective leadership is as important. However, due to the complexities of leadership at department and faculty level which have developed since the 1992 Education Reform Act, it would seem that learning to lead needs to be far more bespoke and contextualised for each leader and within individual faculties and universities. Blackmore and Blackwell (2006) concur with this view, arguing that a generic approach which assumes that leaders all have the same concerns and motivations and that these are unchanging, is unlikely to be successful.

It is likely that leader's time will be dominated by tasks that are quite different from the interest in research or teaching that vivified their careers to date (Knight and Trowler, 2001). As a consequence, Knight and Trowler (2001) argue that learning to lead should include recognition that the leadership role has the potential to: "erode the self identity that has brought career success" (p. 166).

They also suggest that part of learning to lead will involve being more isolated, to put the interests of the institution as high or higher than their faculty or team. As a consequence, it may also involve being criticized for the decisions that they will have to make. Keeping up with the needs and wants of the university's customers and managing the relationships with the external world is ever more demanding for the leader-academic. As collegiality still operates to some extent, gaining general consent for the way forward is more difficult even though it is still seen as a: "vital part of the middle manager's job in higher education to gain the co-operation of staff" (Hellawell and Hancock, 2001, p. 195).

Aziz et al. (2005) note that, although studies allow some sense of the responsibilities of the leader-academic, there appears to be no consensus existing as to which dimensions are most important or around which dimension training programs should be designed. To go part way in rectifying this, their study details the design, implementation and findings from a formal process of assessing the training needs of the leader-academic within one American university. Although they do this for only one university, the model is useful in that it could be built upon and tailored to other universities.

Nevertheless, whichever model to which one subscribes, it is apparent that contextual learning is going to be important for leaders. It would be logical to assume that this "contextual learning" (Hellawell and Hancock, 2001) can only be achieved by being exposed to leadership duties earlier on in their career; thus they have a better understanding of the role of leadership before they are appointed (in the case of the statutory university) or have it imposed on them (in the case of the chartered university). While it is relatively straightforward to teach process and knowledge of leadership, as evidenced by the number of generic courses (e.g. and texts (e.g. Bolton, 2000) available in these areas, it would appear that situational knowledge is as important but more difficult to teach. Knight and Trowler (2001) list the seven types of leadership and management knowledge that they believe leader-academics should gain. These include the following:

Control knowledge

Knowledge of people

Knowledge of educational practice

Conceptual knowledge (knowing about management and leadership concepts and research)

Process knowledge (processes of leadership and management)

Situational knowledge (understanding contingencies that have made the faculty what it is and affect what it might be)

Tacit knowledge that integrates the other six forms in expert practice Adapted from Knight and Trowler (2001, p. 168).

This provides a useful framework from which leaders can begin to establish what they need to learn in order to lead effectively.

However, while experience is a widely regarded method of learning and development, Johnson (2002) points out that individuals must be mindful that existing knowledge, skills and practices are quickly outdated and as new problems and constraints emerge, new forms of expertise are needed.

This type of informal learning is likely to be unstructured, unclear, unplanned and it is, therefore, doubtful how much development actually takes place. Such experiential learning cannot be just an aggregate of time spent but knowledge needs to be gained through the active interpretation of experience by the learner (Burgoyne and Stuart, 1991). What Johnson (2002) found particularly worrying in her study of leader academics was their inability to articulate what they had learnt and how it had come about. Lessons learnt remained tacit knowledge which could be especially problematic if there was the need to rethink their approaches and practices.

I would suggest more beneficial to development is 'Integrated managerial' learning (Mumford, 2004) which still occurs within managerial activities but there are clear development objectives identified and the development is planned and reviewed. This is because research indicates effective learning is embodied in the 'doing' (Sugrue, 2002). Critical reflection is an important component of this process if the experience is to take on particular significance. In this way, learning is real, direct, conscious and probably more substantial than by the accidental method of informal, unplanned learning. However, the challenge here is to bring informal processes of learning in to the development of leaders in keeping with leaders preferred ways of learning. Blackmore and Blackwell (2006) take a similar view suggesting leader-academics need support to learn on the job through mentoring, reflective evaluative review and planning which allows learning and tacit knowledge to be identified, shared and extended. Indeed, Muijs et al. (2006), when looking at leadership development in highly effective further education providers, discuss the perceived effectiveness of experiential forms of professional development which build on the leader's background and needs. They particularly advocate embracing technological developments which allow cost effectiveness and consideration of development opportunities for the individual.

The dichotomy of leadership learning in situ is that, although it becomes a product of practice and is gradual over time to allow in-depth understanding of academic culture and work, there remains the potential that when leader-academics take on leadership roles there is still a steep initial learning curve (Johnson 2002). It would, therefore, seem that learning to lead comes from a range of sources. Given the current volatility and change in higher education, training and support should be made available in the form of advice, opportunities for structured individual reflection and regular formal and informal interaction with their peer group. Those who are not as successful at learning to lead may cope and rely on their positional authority to achieve compliance. Those who can learn from the wide spectrum of sources should do more than cope and, instead, be leaders of successful faculties.


It would seem that researchers are in broad agreement that leaders, certainly within the compulsory education sector, do go through distinct life stages and that critical incidents and significant people do have an impact on how leaders learn to lead.

As can be seen from this discussion, while leadership and development has become one of the main themes of national education management at school level, little has been done to support the development of leaders within higher education. There are a number of ways in which development can be implemented, both formally and informally, to assist leaders in their role. However, it has also been seen that the skills and knowledge for effective leadership develop over time and through experiencing a variety of roles on the route up to a leadership position. Given the importance attached to leadership within education, ensuring a supply of able middle and senior leaders is vital to individual educational institutional success. As a result, such organizations need to embark on systematic succession planning to ensure there is a supply of able leaders not only to fulfill those departing but also to develop leadership at all levels throughout the organization, not necessarily just for filling specific posts.