Exploring Identity & Positionality to Support & Empower Students
Returning to the concepts introduced by Jennifer Abrams in The Journey Begins with Me, to be able to support and empower students, we must all be able to know our identities, suspend certainty and take responsibility for our day-to-day actions, choices, and interactions. This is where positionality comes in. Positionality is our identity (the work you did in The Journey Begins with Me) as it exists in the larger world context (socially, culturally, and politically). This larger world context creates each person’s identity in terms of race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality, religion and ability status. Positionality is also based on time and place – your positionality in 1700s France would be very different from your current positionality (even with the same identity) in present-day Kenya.
For each of us, our positionality describes how our identity influences, and potentially biases, our understanding of and views on the world. The purpose of naming our positionality is to ensure that we are mindful of how we use our values, assumptions and beliefs to construct ourselves. Positionality helps us to know that we cannot offer our own lived experience as true for others which opens us up to being able to see others as they tell us they are, instead of as we assume they might or should be. It is through understanding our positionality, through looking at ourselves, that we can offer an inclusive, equitable and empowering space for students. As educators, our positionality influences all of our choices – instructional and pedagogical – before, during and after classroom interactions.
By exploring and understanding our positionality, we recognise the individual identity components that make up our perspectives. This allows us to better understand who are in school – and who we are not; how our positionality influences the ways we see or engage with students and allows us to notice and address our positionality day-to-day.
Positionality starts with recognising who we are when we are in school and how that impacts students. In a school system, adults are already positioned socially and politically with more power than students. Depending on the cultural context of the school’s location, the employee and the student, this power may be given more or less attention.
Positionality, an example
This can quickly come into play when using humour in the classroom. A teacher who shares a successful joke with friends may also bring that joke to the classroom as a teaching tool. However, in the classroom, the consequences (both intended and unintended) are impacted by the teacher’s position of power, the formal school setting, and by a classroom of students with diverse backgrounds and histories.
Positionality also influences how we interact with and interpret student behaviours and actions. Positionality can help us to more easily recognise or feel comfortable with a student who has similar identity components as ourselves. It can also create feelings of discomfort (which can sometimes morph into feelings of dislike) when engaging with students who do not share similar identity components with us. When we are actively aware of our positionality, we are better able to see each individual student as they are, rather than reacting based on how comfortable or uncomfortable we are in any moment or interaction.