Exploring teacher agency and identity through the Tree of Life approach

Download this insightful report into teacher agency and identity.

This report presents the findings from a participatory research project conducted with a group of ten early career English teachers from Armenia, Brazil, Morocco, Nigeria, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as part of the British Council’s Widening Participation programme.

The project purpose was threefold:

  1. To strengthen teacher development by providing an opportunity for teachers to meet and exchange knowledge and experiences with colleagues from different backgrounds.
  2. To understand early career teachers’ perspectives on teacher identity and agency, including their roles within their local communities and within an international community of teachers.
  3. To understand the value of bringing together a small group of international teachers in this way, with a view to informing new ways of working at the British Council.

These aims, and the ethos of the project, called for a participatory and decolonising research methodology. The Tree of Life is a strength-based tool used to develop collective narratives, which was first used in the context of therapy work, but has since expanded into research methodology.

Through a series of three workshops, we explored participants’ roots, their strengths and capabilities and their dreams and hopes through a visual, metaphorical representation of a tree. The approach proved to be useful both in terms of providing relevant research findings, and more importantly as a way of enabling participants to feel heard and valued. After the workshop series we had individual interviews with all the participants, and a final meeting where preliminary findings were presented and participants provided their feedback.

Our findings focus on four main points:

  • Participants perceive identity as a transformative process, strictly intertwined with agency, (by agency we mean what they are capable of being and doing to change their reality according to their values and aspirations);
  • Participants believe in education for hope and social change, where students can flourish and have a positive impact on their communities and society;  
  • In order to achieve change, participants feel they need to work both within and outside the system, since the education system itself may limit teachers’ freedom in constructing the education they aspire to be part of 
  • While teachers may experience isolation and even despair, participants raised the need to keep their motivation alive and that one way of doing this is through peer-to-peer collaboration.

In relation to the British Council’s work, the research indicates that there are opportunities for the organisation to play a role in nurturing teachers’ sense of agency and strengthening their identity, while also looking at the barriers that prevent them from acting in the ways they would like to and which they consider important. We conclude by proposing the development of further research projects that adopt participatory and praxis-oriented ways of working, which may be increasingly sustainable  and have long-term impact, and with the suggestion that teacher identity and agency are embedded in teacher development.

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