Dr Shereen Shaw and Helena Knapton

Changing professional identity is hard work.  It means going through a period when comfortable, known ways of working and a sense of expertise along with colleagues’ respect are at best challenged, but may be diminished as you become someone with new ways of working and new expertise and different colleagues. As lecturers in Education, we recognise these experiences reflect those of our students who are training to become teachers as well as our colleagues who move from teaching in school or FE into ‘the Academy’, becoming Teacher Educators. 

 A useful tool in supporting both students and new academic colleagues to reflect on their experiences, understand their emotions and recognise their changing identity can be seen through Plato’s Allegory of the Cave his book, The Republic. Within the context of education, the allegory offers an insight into one’s changing professional identity. The group of prisoners who have been chained since childhood in an underground cave, with their hands and feet and necks chained unable to move, represent how one’s entire life can be a quest to break free from ignorance to enlightenment or acquiescence to the status quo. The light of the fire aided the creation of shadows reflected on the curtain wall by passing men. The prisoners interpreted what they saw and heard as real – after all this was their only reality and source of knowledge. One prisoner broke free and turned to look at the fire, recognising this state of ignorance, the prisoner changed perspectives to ascend out of the cave. There, Plato used this metaphor for our ability to conceive of the truth and to progress past the realm of darkness to light, in pursuit of knowledge. Had the prisoner submitted and accepted the state of being inside the cave, the dangers of conformity and ignorance would have prevailed. Outside, the prisoner saw objects for what they really were and finally realised the deceit of the shadows created by others. Though the heart was content, the decision to return to the cave to warn others was much more pressing than the truth about reality.

For students, they are learning that their perceptions of education were ‘shadows reflected on the curtain wall by passing men’. Perhaps due to their narrowness of vision – never perceiving the experiences of others – or having been successful in their education they had no reason to question what they thought they knew.  In supporting the transition, the Teacher Educator positions themself as the escapee returning to the prisoners (students) enabling them to distinguish between truth and reality. 

Former teachers who become Teacher Educators learn that their knowledge of schools, or their appreciation of the moral purpose of education is at best partial.  Some had been comfortable in the cave and successful in that environment. For others, who had been questioning their role and experience, this represents a genuine opportunity to escape ‘the cave’ and to liberate not only students but also themselves.