Introduction: Using Identity Narratives to Inform ECE Practice
You are here
This is the third year that Voices of Practitioners has sought stories from early childhood teachers, administrators, and other early childhood education professionals. This year’s call asked authors to focus on their social identities to interrogate how understanding and connecting with who they are as people have affected their practice as early childhood educators. We received many proposals and have selected six articles that we are presenting in this year’s volume. Five of the articles are single-authored, and one is coauthored. We are so happy to welcome these contributions by Sara Knapp, Angela Aquilizan, Sommer Jabbar, David P. Barry, Maria Mavrides Calderon and Isabel Mavrides-Calderon, and Maria José Beteta.
This year’s issue also includes a full-length teacher research article by Athina Ntoulia, an early childhood educator working in Denmark. Athina uses teacher research to highlight the use of playful participatory research (Baker & Salas 2018) in promoting inclusion in the classroom. The author shares her experience with a neurodivergent student named Morgan. As a teacher researcher, Athina shows how she and the other educators she collaborated with used Morgan’s strengths and interests to engage him in the classroom. Giving Morgan his own space with crafting tools and encouraging his strong interests improved his behavior and strengthened his interactions with others. These changes led to Morgan developing new relationships with peers and an overall appreciation of Morgan’s creativity, hard work, and value as a close friend. The article provides practical strategies for educators interested in promoting inclusion and supporting students with diverse needs and is also an excellent application of playful participatory teacher research.
We began this year’s call for teacher narratives with the concept of identity because we know from our experiences teaching young children (and educating adults) that quality teaching requires an examination of oneself. We cannot fully know the children we care for if we do not know ourselves. As we reflect on who we are and what we have experienced, we gain awareness of prejudices and limiting assumptions about what is possible. This process of learning and unlearning frees up space in our heads and our hearts to be fully present with children (or our adult students) so that we appreciate and acknowledge them in their entirety.
Teaching, then, is a process of discovery where we become better at teaching and colearning with our students through the lens of who we are. Having a genuine interest in who children are and respecting them as whole human beings open doors to self-discovery and to learning from those whose lives may be very different from our own. The authors in this collection examine their own identities by looking at their histories; reflecting on how their identities that arise from group memberships, including race, family structure, primary language, immigration status, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, economic class, and age have affected how they teach; and, more broadly, how they interact with the children and families in their care.
This year, we invited stories that showed how recognizing and reflecting upon the complexities of identity enabled educators to see the wholeness and complexity of children. We also looked for examples where the authors saw those children as situated within the rich contexts of their homes and communities. Practical anti-bias work (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, with Goins 2020) and underlying theoretical work (Esteban-Guitart & Moll 2014) assert that when we can see who we are and validate it, we can use that understanding as the foundation for our connection with others. To put this in more theoretical terms, developing a critical consciousness about our own identities as educators allows us to make more authentic connections and to see the “so what” in our interactions with young children (Derman-Sparks, LeeKeenan, & Nimmo 2015).
As we noted in our call for these narratives, the concept of identity is complex and shaped by individual characteristics, family dynamics, historical factors, social, cultural, and political contexts, and so much more. An important part of our job as early childhood educators is to affirm and validate the identities and the diversity that children bring with them. As we strive to provide culturally responsive or culturally sustaining pedagogy, our teaching must be about the children before us. That’s the beauty of affirming children’s identities for who they are. Yet to understand how to create a classroom or program that is responsive to the children, we have found that educators must begin with a focused exploration of questions about themselves, such as “Who am I?”; “What am I doing here?”; “Where am I going?”; and “Who am I becoming?”
The question “Who am I?” and how we respond to it depend in large part on what the world around us says we are, so we suggested to this year’s authors that they ask themselves, “Who in the world am I?” and then shift the emphasis to ask, “Who in the world am I?” This shift from the individual to the collective helps us see how we connect and how our life stories can serve as the metaphorical windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (Bishop 1990) for others, most especially for children.
We then encouraged this year’s authors to consider these additional possible questions:
- As a teacher, who do the families say I am?
- Who do the children say I am?
- Who do my colleagues and supervisors say I am?
- What messages are reflected in the faces and voices of these people and those around me, including those outside of teaching?
- What do I learn from the media about myself?
- How am I represented in cultural images?
Discovering ourselves is the precursor to being able to tell a compelling and authentic narrative about our identities as educators. That discovery is based on the careful use of artifacts, the authors’ lived experiences, their practices and activities inside and outside of classrooms and programs, and their relationships with others (Esteban-Guitart & Moll 2014). These authors have seen value in classroom artifacts like children’s stories, constructions, paintings, and dances. They have drawn upon experiences in shared communities, such as interacting with neighbors or taking public transit. And these authors have honored relationships—past and present—with family members, colleagues, and peers.
Even as these articles are centered in narrative, they are also small examples of teacher research because these authors looked at particular objects, phenomena, and relationships that have made them wonder, prompting them to remember situations and interactions where they knew that they didn’t have all the answers. These narratives prompted true inquiry.
Indeed, the telling of stories is one of the most important features of teaching and a valid and important way to share knowledge (Bruner 1996). Teachers routinely use stories to describe the events of their classrooms and, more importantly, to interpret and make sense of what happens there. Teachers who see themselves as researchers tell stories of how they deal with issues and problems in their settings. This narrative way of knowing creates storied understandings that cannot be captured via scientific knowledge.
For each of us, the developing narrative of our identities is grounded in curiosity and represents the journey we take throughout our lives. It is an unfurling and becoming where we find inner strength and develop strong beliefs that because of who we are as people, we make real and positive differences in our work with children and their families. This process of becoming through reckoning with the inner strength of our ancestors, dealing with life’s complexities and challenges, and moments of revelation transpires in the best moments of each of these narratives that we are presenting this year.
Narrative inquiry, “the study of experience as story” (Connelly & Clandinin 2006, 477), has been a strong element in our vision of teacher research as represented in Voices over the years. Through “storying,” educators come to know who they are, what they do, and why it matters (Connelly & Clandinin 1999). Thus, telling stories is essentially “doing identity work” (Watson 2006, 525). The narrative form is a particularly powerful way of capturing our voices as people and as thinkers. Narrative inquiry is also one of the alternative methodologies that works well under the larger umbrella of teacher research and one that we have emphasized over many years in Voices. As always, as the editors of Voices, we stress the importance of educators who really see children for who they are and who, as authors of teacher research, find ways to amplify and represent children’s and families’ voices.
Recently, another alternative research methodology called critical ethnographic action research (López-Gopar 2014; López-Gopar, Morales, & Jiménez 2014) has begun to influence our thinking about how teachers can undertake inquiry and, specifically, about the primary role of understanding our own identity in the process of research. López-Gopar works in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which has the largest number of Indigenous dialects spoken. Like Cummins, he begins the process with identity texts (Cummins & Early 2011). These were initially described as multimodal projects that bilingual and multilingual students created in collaboration with their teachers to provide a mirror of themselves that they could share with their peers, families, and communities. Identity texts are self-affirming and reflect a positive and powerful image that gives students a pathway to engage in multimodal literacy learning. For López-Gopar (2014), identity texts should also be the first step for educators who are engaging in inquiry because they provide a process that helps them to acknowledge themselves wholeheartedly. In the articles that we have published this year, Angela Aquilizan presents her identity text at the start of her essay. Her use of Tagalog and English, poetry, and photographs allowed her to reflect on her life, family, and her professional and academic communities. Angela’s article reveals the strength and depth of her funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amati 2005) and identity as a multilingual teacher and educational leader in her community.
The teacher researchers in this collection communicate that their lived experiences matter and are worth exploring to affirm their identities as human beings in the making. When early childhood educators reflect and write about their own stories, they are better positioned to welcome the diversity of lived experiences and cultural, linguistic, and familial knowledge and skills that their children bring with them to classrooms and programs.
We have chosen a quote from each of the articles to highlight the honesty, vulnerability, and insight of this group of authors. To let the voices of these practitioners shine with the strength and particularity each of them brings, we have decided to present these quotes on their own, without framing or analysis from us. We hope you are inspired by their words and that you see the granularity and authenticity in how each of these authors reclaims who they are and presents themselves to the larger early childhood education landscape. In the current idiosyncratic divisive context of the United States, these teachers as authors (Ada, Campoy, & Zubizarreta 2004; Ulusoy 2019) demonstrate both vulnerability and courage in sharing specific aspects, people, and events that have influenced the amazing educators they have become. After all, the power of relationships, as illustrated in the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, is deeply grounded in how we—and especially children—relate to people, places, and things (Ministry of Education, New Zealand 2017).
Sara Knapp, in "From Feeling Like an Imposter to Knowing I Am Indispensable: Embracing My Identity as an Educator," writes,
While there was some cultural diversity among the families and children, I struggled with how and if I should share my identity in the classroom, especially as I was trying so hard to follow the children’s lead. At the same time, the lab school provided preparation time, a high level of professional development, and a real focus on how the children were learning and developing, all of which allowed me to learn so much as a professional. Yet I was losing my identity. The more I tried to assimilate, the less joyful I became as a teacher. I was hiding who I was from my colleagues and the children in my class and missed so many moments to connect because of my uncertainty.
The truth is that I cannot leave my identity at the door, nor should any educator do so. I have never had a Latino/a teacher and continue to notice the lack of other Latino/a teachers in the field. Yet I know that my cultural background and all the social identities I embody help me be aware of the many strengths and struggles of the children and families I serve. I am not an imposter; rather, I am indispensable.
In "In the Process of Affirming My Identity: A Critical Ethnographic Action Research Project," Angela Aquilizan writes,
As the children shared conversations about our class brit with their families, families organically began to create identity texts in the form of their very own family brits. One family shared the hope that their child would continue being himself and using his voice to stand up for what is right. Another family shared that they were supporting their own children in coconstructing a sibling brit. As one of the family members said, “What we love about how you created the classroom brit is that the children were involved. It wasn’t just the teacher telling them what to do, but their voices were heard and valued.”
David P. Barry, in “Learning to Train Surf," writes,
I convinced myself that other people’s negative perceptions of me could help me better understand my students’ marginalization. I know now that this is quite naïve, particularly because many aspects of my identity (White, cis male) grant me effortless privilege that most of the children in my class did not have. Further, I failed to see how my own experiences as a kindergartner in Storrs influenced my beliefs about my students’ capabilities. Though with time, I was able to prove I was a safe and good teacher to myself and others, these additional hurdles related to my identity complicated my induction.
I was in third grade when the tragedy of 9/11 occurred. The entire day, week, and month after this event occurred was a blur. I remember my mother frantically coming to the school my brothers and I attended and pulling us out. We didn’t return for some time. I didn’t understand it then, but reflecting now, I know my mother was fearful: We were the only Palestinian-Muslim family in the school. My mother feared retaliation, confrontation, misunderstanding, and so much more.
My brothers and I stayed home for what seemed an eternity. Our teachers stopped by to bring us homework, check on us, and offer their love and support. This seemed so small to me as a child (homework, yuck). Now, as an adult, I look back and see that the actions of my educators took great courage and bravery.
These events molded my professional career goals. I wanted to grow up and make other children feel the love I had for my teachers, but I also wanted to ensure no child ever felt as if they didn’t belong—as my brothers and I had felt.
In "Embracing Disability Identity: Representation in Literature as a Tool Towards Inclusivity," which is coauthored by Maria Mavrides Calderon and Isabel Mavrides-Calderon, Isabel writes,
In order to survive as teacher candidates, preservice teachers may try to hide their disability by “masking” their identity to avoid the stigma that comes with being disabled (Siuty & Beneke 2020). As someone with an invisible disability, who has the choice to disclose it or not, I face this internal struggle every time I apply for a teaching job. I know that, as a student, having a disabled teacher to look up to would have been beneficial for me, but at the same time, I know all too well the stigma that comes with being a disabled teacher. For one, I am afraid of being seen as subpar or burdensome. In the moments where I do feel ready to remove the “mask” and express my disability, I struggle with the same fears that I faced when telling kids that I use a wheelchair. Much like children, many adults do not know how to respond.
And finally, in "An Innocent Question Packed with Opportunity," Maria José Beteta writes,
I was an immigrant trying to find my place as a minority, and I had to prove that I was as capable and knowledgeable as any other member of the group. For the first time, I experienced the concept of otherness. This motivated me to clarify my beliefs, including about the quality of education I received in Peru, my accent, and the challenges I had to face as a bilingual person having uncomfortable conversations about fairness and equity in this country.
Kellen’s question about the color of my skin gave me the strength to talk about myself in an open, caring learning community. However, I was not alone in facing these challenges; I had a group of powerful children who were brave enough to speak up, ask questions, and respect each other.
In conclusion, how each of us makes sense of and meaning of our lives and experiences may be among the most significant aspects of human development. Reflecting on how our identities intersect and influence our teaching and administrative practices in early childhood education can help us understand and challenge how systems of oppression and privilege operate. By sharing the experiences and insights of the authors of these six articles, we hope we have contributed to creating a deeper understanding of how to build more equitable and inclusive learning environments for all children. Most importantly, we invite you to reflect on your own educator identity and explore how this plays a role in your teaching philosophy and teaching practice, either to uplift or suppress the wonderful wholeness of all the children in your classroom, school, or learning community.
Ada, F.A., F.I. Campoy, & R. Zubizarreta. 2004. Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Baker M., & G. Salas. 2018. “Inquiry Is Play: Playful Participatory Research.” Young Children 73 (5): 64–71.
Bishop, R.S. 1990. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6 (3): ix–xi.
Bruner, J. 1996. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Connelly, F.M., & D.J. Clandinin. 1999. Shaping a Professional Identity: Stories of Educational Practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Connelly, F.M., & D.J. Clandinin. 2006 “Narrative Inquiry: A Methodology for Studying Lived Experience.” Research Studies in Music Education 27: 44–54.
Cummins, J., & M. Early, eds. 2011. Identity Texts: The Collaborative Creation of Power in Multilingual Schools. Stoke-on-Trent, England: Trentham Books.
Derman-Sparks, L., D. LeeKeenan, & J. Nimmo. 2015. “Building Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: The Role of the Leader.” Young Children 70 (2): 42–45.
Derman-Sparks, L., & J.O. Edwards, with C.M. Goins. 2020. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Esteban-Guitart, M., & L.C. Moll. 2014. “Funds of Identity: A New Concept Based on the Funds of Knowledge Approach.” Culture & Psychology 20 (1): 31–48.
Gonzalez, N., L.C. Moll, & C. Amanti, eds. 2005. Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. New York, NY: Routledge.
López-Gopar, M.E. 2014. “Teaching English Critically to Mexican Children.” ELT Journal 68 (3): 310–320.
López-Gopar, M.E., N.J. Morales, & A.D. Jiménez. 2014. “Critical Classroom Practices: Using ‘English’ to Foster Minoritized Languages and Cultures in Oaxaca, Mexico.” In Minority Languages and Multilingual Education: Bridging the Local and the Global, eds. D. Gorter, V. Zenotz, & J. Cenoz, 177–99. Vol. 18 of Educational Linguistics. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.
Ministry of Education, New Zealand. 2017. Te Whāriki: He Whāriki Mātauranga Mō Ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early Childhood Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
Siuty, M.B., & M.R. Beneke. 2020. “Authoring Dis/Ability Identities: Mapping the Role of Ableism in Teacher Candidate Identity Construction.” Proceedings of the 2020 AERA Annual Meeting.
Ulusoy, M. 2019. “Pre-Service Teachers as Authors and Elementary School Students as Readers of Self-Published Picturebooks: A Formative Experiment.” Early Childhood Education Journal 47 (6): 751–67.
Watson, C. 2006. “Narratives of Practice and the Construction of Identity in Teaching." Teachers and Teaching 12 (5): 509–26.
Barbara Henderson, PhD, is the director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at San Francisco State University and a professor of elementary education with an early childhood specialization. Her research interests include practitioner/teacher research, self-study research, participatory research, and narrative inquiry. Barbara is one of the founding editors of Voices of Practitioners, NAEYC’s journal of teacher research, established in 2004.
Isauro Escamilla, EdD, is assistant professor in the Elementary Education Department of the Graduate College of Education at San Francisco State University, where he teaches Language Arts in K–5 Settings and Spanish Heritage Language and Pedagogy for Bilingual Teachers, among other courses.
Megina Baker, PhD, is a program developer for the Boston Public Schools Department of Early Childhood. Megina has been an early childhood educator, teacher researcher, and teacher educator with a focus on playful learning and multilingual learners. [email protected]
Amanda Branscombe, EdD, retired as an associate professor at Athens State University. Branscombe has researched and published on topics related to teacher education, social justice, young children’s writing, teacher research, and constructivist teaching. In addition to her teaching research and writing, she currently serves on the editorial board of Voices of Practioners and on several boards that address issues related to early childhood, social justice, teacher research, and action research.
Maleka Donaldson, EdD, is an assistant professor of education and child study at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She has taught in preschool and kindergarten classrooms, is a teacher educator, and is author of the book From Oops to Aha: Portraits of Learning from Mistakes in Kindergarten. [email protected]
Debra Murphy, PhD, is faculty and program coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Program at Cape Cod Community College. She is an executive editor for Voices of Practitioners and uses teacher research in her practice as a teacher educator and in assignments for her students. [email protected]
Andrew J. Stremmel, PhD, is professor emeritus in the School of Education, Counseling, and Human Development at South Dakota State University. He is an executive editor of Voices of Practitioners.