Negotiating the Tricky Maze of Identity in the Classroom


Today we’re delighted to share a guest post by Dr. Nisha Gupta. You can reach Nisha at

There are many issues that instructors face, including the sometimes tricky balancing act of negotiating personal identity in the classroom.  By “identity” I mean the many ways that we both identify ourselves (e.g., teacher, parent, student, woman, etc.) and the ways we are identified (e.g., black, lesbian, nerd, etc.). Questions of identity affect all that we do in the university such as teachers, learners, and scholars.  See for example this article about LGBT identities in the classroom.

As instructors, there are certain ways that we become identified and there are other ways we can choose to reveal our identity.  We don’t get the option to keep everything about ourselves completely private.  We must navigate through the sometimes tricky maze of disclosing relevant aspects of our identity and deciding how much to share about ourselves, particularly in the classroom.  Working from the assumption that classrooms are more than a place of education, teaching and learning, scholars, such as Stephen Brookfield, will argue the classroom is a place of self-reflective practice: a place for approaching questions of identity while also committing to professional growth, begging questions about how to be authentic. What does it mean to be authentic?

 Following from Parker Palmer, I argue that understanding how to be authentic to yourself involves an intentional practice for “Self-Renewal

Parker Palmer, noted scholar on teaching and higher education calls this work “the divided life.”  He is speaking about our inner truth and outer actions. He calls for teachers to claim the courage to “speak and act in ways that contradict or compromise our identity and integrity.” The POSSIBILITY is that we can decide to live “divided no more,” bringing our inner truth and outer actions into deeper alignment, for our own sake and the sake of those we serve. In this video Palmer discusses the importance of the “undivided life.”

How do we enter into the practice of self-renewal, given the tricky maze of identity:

  •  On one level, part of this tricky maze concerns the value of building trust in the classroom among your students.
  •  On another level this negotiation concerns the visible identities we are called, such as one’s skin color, gender markers, and/or accent.
  •  On yet one further level, this negotiation may also include identities which are private, including one’s status a recovering alcoholic, or a non-visible disability, sexuality or sexual orientation, and others.

We invite you to share your perspective on this topic:

  1. What have you learned about yourself and how you are “identified” in the classroom?
  2. What are ongoing challenges with how students (and/or colleagues) choose to identify you?
  3. Could this be a question of fair-mindedness?  You might ask yourself: to what extent do I privilege my own bias in relation to self-identity issues? (ie. In the classroom, do I keep private some of my key identity markers (such as being gay), yet these very identity makers may may enter into my relationship-building with students or my interpretation of knowledge).

9 thoughts on “Negotiating the Tricky Maze of Identity in the Classroom

  1. Thank you for this powerful and thoughtful topic! I have often thought about the role of self-disclosure (on the part of the instructor) in building a positive learning environment in the classroom: how much is too much (e.g.. seen as narcissistic or “off-topic,” etc) and how much is too little (e.g. not enough to build a trusting and open environment, etc)? One quote from the Palmer article that especially resonated on this topic was: “teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.” In both my in-person and online classes, I would say that I have tended to be fairly high on the “self-disclosure” side, since my identities/experiences clearly provide a context for the critical thinking and lenses and enthusiasm that I bring to the subject. It seems to have worked well with building connectedness and dialogue to be upfront and transparent about my own insights about where my analyses on a particular topic may be coming from, so that students can do the same. At the same time, I’ve had wonderful teachers who were not high “self-disclosers” in an outward sense, but still managed to convey a sense of empathy and build a positive connection among their students.

  2. Thanks for your comments Ann. Since I teach primarily non-traditionals I tend to be a little more open about who I am, my experiences, real-life ethical issues I’ve encountered, etc. (I teach a course in business ethics) — and this is both in face to face and online courses. However, when I have taught courses with primarily traditional aged students, I tend to be much more guarded. I’m not 100% sure why — maybe because they tend to remind me of my 3 children, the youngest of which is a freshman here at U of L! I want to be transparent, but at the same time, there’s something instinctive that prevents me from being so. And I think because of that guardedness I have had virtually no real self-disclosure by my students. I need to study more about the topic — I appreciate Nisha posting this. It certainly gives me food for thought!

  3. It can be said that, as several students have shared with me, that our role as instructors in a class/course can definitely have an effect on what students decide to do in life. I feel that modeling personal characteristics such as acceptance, compassion, and respect is a way for students to “identify” us. However, in keeping with the topic of this thread, I can certainly understand where the visible characteristics that make up who we are externally can create challenges by those that do have a bias about any particular characteristic.

    I am sharing a few articles that gives pause for thought on the visible as well as the private individual characteristics we all have. The first article by Peggy McIntosh (no relation) titled “The White Privilege” ( and really makes us think about the things Caucasians have taken for granted. I can certainly appreciate, and respect, the challenges non-Caucasians face as a result of how we are viewed by our visible characteristics. I use McIntosh’s article to remind me of how I need to “see” others whether they be colleagues, staff, or students.

    Along the same lines, another article that deals with the private characteristics that some may choose to keep hidden is based on McIntosh’s original work and was written by a group of students at Earlham College titled “Daily effects of straight privilege.” In this article ( the students were introspective about the things they (as straight students) take for granted that are the private characteristics not everyone shares outwardly.

    The third article is another offshoot from McIntosh’s work written by an unknown author at MIT is titled “Male privilege checklist” ( and gets at the dynamics gender plays in our world. While it may seem obvious to many, gender differences are more prevalent now than ever before because of the recognition of those that are transgendered.

    I often think about something my mother once said, “Why should what I wear to work affect the ability to do my job and do it well?” I would not classify my mother as one who actively participated in the women’s liberation movement but her statement is a poignant reminder, in my humble opinion, that are outward appearance and even those characteristics that we hold private should not affect our ability to fulfill our job role. It is understandable that our outward appearance can affect our relationships with students because of bias that either party introduces to the relationship.

    Is it wrong that a person chooses to not disclose a “private” characteristic to students? Are we suggesting that as a consequence of that choice we are not being “authentic” with our students? Or, are we saying that by not disclosing certain things we are not being “authentic” with ourselves, or both?

    I do believe that bias creates challenges for people regardless of the situation. I think if we learn to recognize our own biases and accept that humans will continue to be biased for various reasons, we can strive to be more authentic. I do not believe that a person has to expose parts of their character to students just for the sake of trust. After all, shouldn’t it be about mutual respect?

    • Great links! This issue of authenticity is one that I deal with regularly. While all of my friends and colleagues know that I’m gay, I’m not sure that all of my students do. I don’t teach in a discipline where sexual orientation is frequently a discussion topic. Coming out is a highly personal choice and I respect the difficult decisions each person faces when deciding when and with whom to share their story. When asked about where I fit in the spectrum of “outness”, I often quip that I’m a “gay professional” and not a “professional gay”. I have many characteristics, one of which is my sexual orientation. It’s not all that I am and I don’t choose to make it a primary focus in (or out of) the classroom. I don’t hide who I am from my students but I don’t go out of my way to insert it into the classroom. Students that get to know me better, including those that friend me on Facebook, will hear me talk about my partner or boyfriend now and then. Just like they’ll hear me talk about my tennis game and caring for an aging parent. I am comfortable with this level of openness but I know many that are not. I don’t think it is necessary to share all aspects of our lives with our students at all times. We all make choices every day about what we choose to share with others and I think it is important that we acknowledge that. In the workplace, I wear my professional clothes and demeanor (well, sometimes, at least!) and these are just as authentic as the other aspects of who I am.

  4. This is a realy good topic for discussion. Like others have said, depending on the audience (learners) I tend to be a bit more open with non-traditional learners. I do that to convey to them that there are many, myself included, persons that do not fall into the stereotype or ideas of “typical learners.” There are many challenges and characteristics that non-traditional learners experience and I find it helps with doubt, ability, confidence and competence by sharing my non-traditional path to higher education that I can relate to them from one who used to be one of them.

    In face-to-face courses I usually do not share much of a personal nature but find I am a bit more open in online courses. I sometimes share off-line or by personal communication, things about myself that I don’t feel comfortable putting my “business” out in public.It usually happens after a learner has shared something in a discussion.

    I choose to share selectively in both environments and let my gut direct my willingness to share, thanks.

  5. I really enjoy Parker Palmer’s work. I think the greatest gift we give ourselves and others is to bring our authentic self to the classroom. Our willingness to be open assists our students to be open as well.

  6. Really great post and comments. It strikes me that the question about how students and colleagues identify me is a tricky one. It can be really difficult, I think, to know the answer. What are the indicators? Is it that they disclose something personal, so that suggests that they perceive me to have empathy? If they ask for additional help, that they perceive that I truly am invested in their learning? How much do my age, gender, years of experience and even my title affect how my colleagues perceive my competence? Yes, some of our students and colleagues will tell us directly what their experience of us is, but it seems that more often than not it’s a bit of a guessing game as we try to interpret signals and read relationships. And in my experience, when I’m practicing Palmer’s vulnerability, I am probably more apt to over-think and question and less likely to have an objective interpretation. I like the additional resources that you linked to, Warren.

  7. Thank you for this topic and the associated resources. Competent and authentic use of self is part of social work practice. The application with the practice of teaching is strikingly parallel. Students report that the honest dynamic in practice class helps them develop their practice skills in the field. I greatly appreciate this overlap.

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