#LTHEchat 237: Who Am I? HE Educator Identities Into and Out of the Pandemic. Led by @LJ_Rees & @hintondm 8 June, 8pm BST

Lego heads

Lego heads photos by @carsonarias via Unsplash


This #LTHEchat post and associated tweetchat aims to explore Higher Education identity. In particular we’d like to explore issues around coping with the change brought on by the sharp shock of the pandemic and making sense of self and role as blended teachers and supporters of learning. 

Pandemic Shock and Disruption

The Covid19 pandemic meant that Higher Education staff were suddenly dealing with increasing challenges and rapid change. This included

  • working at home, in isolation and/or in chaos, many times without equipment (chairs, computers and quiet space)
  • thrust online often with feelings of imposter syndrome, panic, fear, loss and bewilderment 
  • needing to adapt to rapidly changing calls from University management as they reacted to sector and student needs with the pace of change to teaching, supporting learning and assessing being significant
  • personal isolation, fear, changing dynamics and opportunities
  • society in turmoil in all aspects

The shock and disruption of the pandemic has certainly eclipsed the proposed disruption promoted in the early MOOC era. The necessary pivot to online teaching and supporting learning meant that all staff needed to embrace the online space. Arguably some of the biggest shock was felt by colleagues who might have been categorised as being part of Late Majority (34%) and Laggards (16%) in terms of online teaching or supporting learning adoption.

Bell curve

Source: https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/technology-and-learning/misuse-diffusion-innovation 

Educator (teachers / supporters of learning) Identity

Identities are fluid, adapting through experience and this applies to an educator’s professional identity (Beauchamp and Thomas, 2009 cited in El-Soussi, 2020), including those considered to be blended and other third space professionals providing learning support (Azadbakht, E.S., 2021; Whitchurch C. 2009).


The Many Faces of Higher Education Identity Transitions

  • PhD to Postgraduate Teaching Assistant
  • PhD to Academic Research and/or Teacher
  • Discipline / Professional / Industry professional to Researcher and/or Teacher
  • Professional / Third Space role to Teacher and/or Supporter of Learning
  • Researcher to Teacher
  • Research to Researchers who Teach
  • Expert becomes Novice (loss of expertise)
  • Face-to-Face to Online and/or Hybrid teaching and/or supporting learning


Teacher identity and the identities of HE educators has been explored extensively over the years. Academic (including teaching and supporting learning) professional identity is fluid, influenced by multiple factors including 

  • our disciplinary affiliations and norms, 
  • feedback and interactions from students, 
  • the direct work environment, 
  • our own experiences at School and University – including “proper ways of doing it”, experiences positive and negative as a learner,
  • Our transitions into different roles within higher education
  • wider context of higher education and available CPD, including interactions with and expertise of colleagues.

Our confidence and self-efficacy as educators can be undermined when many of these factors are absent or compromised causing feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty of who we are (Henkel, 2000: 251; Becher and Trowler, 2001, 47; van Lankveld et al, 2017, Smith et al., 2022).  

Moving Online: Impacts on Identity

Under the ‘rapid’ move to online teaching, studies (e.g. El-Soussi, 2022; Smith et al, 2022) have confirmed that many academic staff

  • Reconsidered their teaching personas and beliefs about effective teaching approaches;
  • Had feelings of incompetence as they learnt new tools and their status as ‘subject experts’ diminished;
  • Expressed concerns about how they might effectively pastor students given ‘chance encounters’ to check in were reduced;
  • Recognised the importance of ‘seeing’ faces as they taught/supported learners;
  • Had understandable concerns about sharing their home/personal lives through their cameras in particular.
  • Turned more to colleagues and personal learning networks for technological support and ongoing CPD;

These weren’t all new features of the rapid move to online teaching/support however.  Many aspects of identity change were expressed when an online approach was introduced in a planned manner (see Cutri and Mena, 2020, Thanaraj, 2016).

Lessons Learnt: Supporting Staff in Making Sense of Identity Transitions and Challenges

What are some of the lessons learnt then on how we might support staff to make sense of likely impacts on their identity when faced with changes and transition?

Provide assurance that concerns are valid

Providing some emotional support and offering assurance would help colleagues know that their fears and concerns are shared with others and ‘natural’.

Provide a safe environment to explore new techniques

Enabling staff to have time, safe places and peer support to adopt new approaches is key. We need to acknowledge that many new to teaching in HE since 2020, may have little or no experience of supporting learners synchronously and in person.  They will need support and a “safe place” to experiment with in-person techniques. 

Showing the ‘Personal’ Side to Connect with Students

Connecting with students is a key factor in influencing our identity.  There are many different suggestions of trying to establish a connection with our learners both educationally and personally. But there are challenges in doing this with large cohorts in particular (regardless of mode) and showing an insight into your personality and background may not always be comfortable for either staff or students. 

To help strengthen staff confidence, what advice can we offer to staff when efforts to build connections and engage learners do not work?  What aspects of showing insights into your ‘personal’ life might be brought forward to a face to face learning situation?

Recognising Supportive “SuperStars”

Many staff went the extra mile to help colleagues adopt the technology and new approaches. There was also a greater willingness to share tips and expertise across institutions and online CPD became more affordable and practical to undertake. 

How can we capitalise on, support and recognise individuals to be the exemplars of effective pedagogy regardless of mode and discipline?  Where might that initiative and personal commitment fit into institutional reward and recognition policies, for example?

CPD as a planned, integrated approach to practice

‘Training’ and CPD became a vitally important part of supporting staff to adapt to new ways of teaching/supporting learning and assessment.  Smith et al. (2022:10) note that ‘confidence based on mastery and competence will serve to consolidate any sense of self as an assured educational practitioner’.

Significant amounts of time were invested by staff to read, watch, “attend” various sources to equip themselves with both technical and pedagogical skills. It was unprecedented and at a time of incredible response, many staff worked excessive hours (some became the ‘superstars’ as noted above) and overall well-being was negatively impacted.  

Clearly this approach cannot be maintained, but to minimise negative impacts on an educator’s professional identity, it’s in everybody’s interest to encourage and allow time for keeping one’s practice up to date. By enabling CPD to be seen as an integrated part of academic practice* we can mitigate against the shock that the rapid shaft to online approaches brought about. What are effective ways to do this?


Our personal and professional identities remain fluid, influenced by a variety of factors.  Having the knowledge and skills to apply effective teaching approaches is one thing.  But having a safe place to practice, the time to do so and institutional policies which respect trial and error in applying effective teaching practices are significant factors in promoting strong self-efficacy. To avoid staff burnout and/or leaving the academy for these particular reasons, how can we practically mitigate, in advance, against worries about identity disruption and give confidence to colleagues to adopt effective teaching approaches regardless of the mode?  

*A key criterion of HEA Fellowship, Senior Fellowship and Principal Fellowship

Identity Mask Disguise – Free image on Pixabay by John Hain

References/Further Reading

Azadbakht. E.S. (2021) “The Many Faces of Instruction: An Exploration of Academic Librarians’ Teaching Personas”. Communications in Information Literacy, 15(1), 57–74. https://doi.org/10.15760/comminfolit.2021.15.1.3

Becher, T., and P. Trowler. (2001) Academic tribes and territories. 2nd ed. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Cutri R. M. and J. Mena (2020) “A critical reconceptualization of faculty readiness for online teaching”, Distance Education, Vol 41 (3), 361- 380          https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2020.1763167

El-Soussi, A. (2022) “The shift from face-to-face to online teaching due to COVID-19: Its impact on higher education faculty’s professional identity”, International Journal of Educational Research Open, Vol 3 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedro.2022.100139

Henkel, M. (2000) Academic identities and policy change in higher education. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Smith S., Plum K., Taylor-Smith E. and K. Fabian (2022) “An exploration of academic identity through the COVID-19 pandemic”, Journal of Further and Higher Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2022.2072194 

Thanaraj A. (2016) “Making a transition: the development of academics’ role and identity in online teaching” Practitioner Research in Higher Education, 10 (2). pp. 40-53.    https://ojs.cumbria.ac.uk/index.php/prhe/article/view/355

van Lankveld, T., J. Schoonenboom, M. Volman, G. Gerda Croiset and J Beishuizen, J.  (2017) “Developing a teacher identity in the university context: a systematic review of the literature” Higher Education Research & Development, 36:2, 325-342, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2016.1208154

Whitchurch, C. (2009)  The rise of the blended professional in higher education: a comparison between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States”, Higher Education, Vol. 38 (3) 407-418 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-009-9202-4



Louise Rees – Following 8 years in Canada initially undertaking a Masters degree, followed by employment, Louise has worked at Swansea University since 2000, initially in the area of quality assurance/enhancement. Between 2000 and 2015, she oversaw the QA functions for taught programmes and coordinated the preparations for Institutional Review Preparations and supported a number of Working groups and sub-committee and the University’s Learning and Teaching Committee.  It was during that time, in writing policies for learning teaching and assessment and in trying to guide programme directors through their challenging role, that Louise’s attention turned towards academic development. In 2015, Louise took on the role of Senior Academic Developer at Swansea University’s Academy for Learning and Teaching (SALT). She leads on the internally accredited programme for HEA Fellowship recognition and teaches on their PG Cert in teaching in Higher Education regarding professional identity for HE educators and in assisting participants reflect on their PG Cert journey. 

Danielle Hinton  – Danielle is an Educational Developer at the Higher Education Futures institute (HEFi), University of Birmingham. Danielle has worked in a variety of roles in Higher Education over the last 20 years including instructional design, e-learning and librarianship. In particular Danielle teaches on Birmingham’s PGCHE (as module lead and programme lead for our new online PGCHE) supports HEA Fellowship scheme, enhancement projects and CPD provision. She is particularly interested in active learning, the emotions of learning and teaching, enhancement of learning through technologies, distance learning, serious play in Higher Education and Education for Sustainable Development. @hintondm e-mail: d.m.hinton@bham.ac.uk

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