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In this blog, Abbie Cairns explores the different identities she has in education and her stereotypical ideas of those roles compared to reality.

Abbie Cairns artist

In this post, I explore my professional identity as an artist-teacher-researcher-student in a series of autoethnographic vignettes, an identity that started to form in childhood and followed me through compulsory and post compulsory education, into the working life and continues to develop today. 

I am an artist: Early Art Memories  

Aged three, at the nursery that my Nan worked in – the only reason I was here, rather than at the village nursery (which I had refused to return to after having a plastic red teacup with large yellow flowers thrown at me). 

An early start and drive by car, arriving with the workers early, rather than with the other children half an hour later. An opportunity which meant I got to unlock the door, press the combination of numbers, turn the lock. 

Sitting at an easel painting a picture with Mary – who it later transpired was in fact called Laura, positioned as close to the nursery room door as possible for a quick getaway – I did not enjoy education at this young age. Three boys on a large blue bean bag sat across from us, we squeezed on one chair and wondered who would get to take home our collaborative masterpiece at the end of the day. 

Four pots of thick ready mixed paint that smelt of chalk and chemicals, large clunkily wooden paint brushes – one for each plastic pot with safety lid, no water. Pastel coloured A3 sheets of sugar paper waiting for a brush stroke, names neatly written in the left corner with a black marker pen. 

The work was taken and hung from the ceiling to dry. 

Was I an artist then? 

I am a teacher: Teacher Aesthetics 

I have a classroom and a whiteboard, the board with the dry wipe whiteboard pens, rather than an interactive one. The art department is, as it was when I was a student in this very room years ago, is now, slightly outdated. However, I have set of four whiteboard pens bestowed upon on me during the PGCE induction, black, red, blue and green. 

I need to stand on a chair to reach the white board. Health and safety out the window. Do not stand on chairs.

Once on the chair, at lunch time, away from the eyes of the student. You really should not stand on chairs; I worry about one of two things; “am I spelling this correctly?” and “why is my text so rapidly slanting diagonally downwards and getting smaller and smaller?” I decide writing on said whiteboard is the biggest challenge so far, but also feels like an integral part of being a teacher, ingrained the image of teachers standing in front of them, in real life or in books. A classic stereotype. 

Maybe I am not a teacher yet? 

As the year goes on the whiteboard gets used less and less, with neither my height increasing, nor the skill set of writing in a straight line being bequeathed upon me, it has beaten me. The consequence being that those four-whiteboard pen remain full of ink in my home office. 

Maybe the whiteboard it is not so integral to being a teacher as earlier assumed. I replace the whiteboard with a projector and PowerPoints. Here, I concede that I have found my thing. PowerPoints become my teacher thing. Planning them and using them make me feel like a teacher. And I don’t even have to stand on a chair.

I am a researcher: Upper case R, lower case r

Despite being a researcher, I guess that I am one. I research things. I sit at my laptop or with a book open. Sometimes both at the same time and research. 

With the start of the PhD, I became one, however I’ve been researching for years throughout every stage of education, and in the art studio.

I’m a Researcher now, capital R. then I was just a researcher.

I am a student: Don’t make me leave 

Being a student is one of my favourite things to be. Not for the student discount, or student nights but for the learning and structure. Each time I complete a course I find myself applying for another. This desire to be within education is part of the reason I ended up teaching. I figured that if I was teaching, I’d never have to leave. 

Turns out teaching in education and being a student are two very different things. 

To be a student gives me purpose and drive, not to mention deadlines. It is an identity that I am very comfortable being in.

The use of autoethnographic writing in my research has allowed me to start unpacking the different aspects of my professional identity and see how I have developed the identity that I have today. I invite you to explore the many parts of your professional identity too.

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The author

Abbie Cairns is an artist-teacher working in Adult Community Learning. She is currently completing her PhD at Norwich University of the Arts, in which she explores the identity (trans)formation of artist-teachers in ACL. Cairns identifies herself as an artist-teacher and is engaged in both art and teaching practices. Abbie is interested in how those that identify as artist-teachers in ACL came to develop their identity and is engaged in narrative research with self-selecting participants. Her research was motivated by her own lived experience of being an artist-teacher in ACL and wanting to connect with others living the same experience. Abbie is a text-based artist who makes, and exhibits work regularly. She sits on the board for Colchester Art Society and work with SPACE to facilitate the Creative Practitioner Support Programme, which supports emerging artists.

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