Content-Area Teacher Candidates’ Identity Work in an Online Teacher Education Course

In an increasingly diverse U.S. classroom landscape, it is crucial to prepare teachers to meet the needs of multilingual learners. However, institutional constraints and a lack of empirical research have left many content-area teachers underprepared in this area.

In this study, we explore how 15 content-area teacher candidates (TCs) constructed their professional identities in a sheltered instruction methods course at a Hispanic-serving university in the southwestern U.S. We conducted deductive analysis of participants’ coursework (e.g., short essay responses, discussion board posts, and virtual field experience assignments) by using Clarke’s (2009) four axes of identity development (telos, authority sources, substance, self-practices).

Our findings demonstrated the complex interplay of the four axes in TCs’ identity work, which led us to offer a more dynamic, contextually-bound modification of Clarke’s framework. The findings call for teacher educators internationally to pedagogize identity by creating classroom spaces in which TCs view their professional learning as part of their identity work and critically reflect on their identities as teachers of multilingual learners.


As socially oriented professionals whose work shapes the identities of our students, we have an ethical obligation to reflect on our identities and engage in ‘identity work.’ (Clarke, 2009, p. 187)

As classrooms in the United States (U.S.) K-12 schools become increasingly diverse, it is more important than ever to ensure that teachers enter the profession equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet the needs of multilingual learners. Teacher education programs are an important avenue through which content-area teachers may develop the specialized knowledge and skills necessary to serve multilingual learners (Laletina et al., 2022).

However, teacher educators and teacher candidates (TCs) often must navigate a myriad of institutional constraints that preclude the development of a multilingual stance (Author #2 & Colleagues, 2022). Additionally, there is insufficient empirical research that teacher educators may draw upon when providing content-area TCs with coursework and field experience that will prepare them to work in linguistically diverse classrooms (de Jong & Gao, 2022; Faltis & Valdés, 2016).

As such, content-area teachers continue to enter the classroom underprepared to work with diverse learners (Barros et al., 2020; Lopez, 2021).

Professional Identity Development

One way that teacher educators may prepare future content-area teachers to work with diverse learners is through the exploration of professional identity development. Research has found that encouraging TCs to critically reflect upon their identities prepares them to confront their own language ideologies as well as those which are pervasive in society (e.g., Banes et al., 2016; Barros et al., 2020; Varghese et al., 2016).

This preparation could equip them to better serve their future multilingual learners. However, more research is needed to expand upon how teacher identity may be conceptualized as it pertains to the learning and growth experiences of content-area TCs of multilingual learners. Additionally, more research is needed to explore the impact of reflective coursework on professional learning and promoting epistemic change in teacher education spaces (Feucht et al., 2017; Mordal-Moen & Green, 2012).

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Theoretical Framework

Our study provides additional evidence for how one conceptual approach to teacher identity, Clarke’s (2009) framework of ethical self-formation, may be applied to the identity construction of future content-area teachers of multilingual learners. To do so, we first discuss how previous studies have applied this framework to other teaching and teacher education contexts. We then review research literature on identity work in content-area pre- and in-service teachers of linguistically diverse learners through a variety of perspectives.

Finally, we present and discuss the findings of applying Clarke’s framework to analyze the teacher education coursework of 15 content-area TCs in a course dedicated to developing strategies to work with multilingual learners.

Our findings contribute new understandings for how different aspects of content-area TCs’ identities may be conceptualized and engaged in teacher education spaces dedicated to preparing them to teach multilingual learners. Although our data come from a socioeducational context in the Southwestern U.S., our findings offer implications for language teacher education practices across the world.


We conducted our research at a Hispanic-serving university in the southwestern U.S. Situated approximately 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the university serves a city in which just over 65% of the population self-identifies as Hispanic or Latino (U.S. Census Bureau, 2022). At the time this research was conducted, more than one million EE-12 public school students in the state and just over 50,000 in the county were classified as English Learners (Texas Education Agency, 2020).


The main purpose of our research was to further complexify Clarke’s (2009) framework to better understand how TCs engage in identity work through reflective practices in teacher education spaces. As such, examples of how each axis of the framework emerged in participant coursework are discussed below.


Our study presented new ways in which the four axes of Clarke’s (2009) framework of ethical self-formation may be examined and exemplified through the analysis of teacher education coursework. Our study is situated within a teacher education program housed in a Hispanic serving institution in one of the most multilingually and multiculturally diverse cities in the Southwestern U.S., but our findings resonate with the findings of previous research from international contexts.

The implications of our study call for teacher educators to create classroom spaces where TCs can view their professional learning as part of their identity work and critically reflect on their identities as teachers of multilingual learners.


The present study investigated how 15 TCs constructed their professional identities in a sheltered instruction methods course at a Hispanic-serving university in the southwestern U.S. Our findings complexify the ways that Clarke’s (2009) framework of teacher identity as a process of ethical self-formation may be applied to analyze TCs’ identity work in teacher education spaces.

Additionally, our findings demonstrate how, by engaging in reflective coursework that leverages their substance, self-practices, authority sources, and telos, TCs can enhance their identity work in teacher education. These findings have implications for teacher education practices globally.

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