Harnessing the Rapids: Teacher Identity, Design, and COVID-19

Emergent design is about shaping the future through rapidly changing contexts, like when COVID-19 interrupts your dissertation research on teacher identity and design.


The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it. You have already learned from the river that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek the depths. ∼Herman Hesse1

I love lazy rivers—water park streams that gently push swimmers through the water, allowing them to soak up the sun while they float. I go with the flow, letting the river guide my movements. I move along without much effort. All I have to do is accept the direction the river is pushing me in and I move forward.

Image of lazy river
“Lazy River” by Ramayana Water Park is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In February, I was floating along in my river, beginning my dissertation research on teacher education, identity, and design. I was working with four teachers in a small rural junior high school, trying to help them see themselves as designers who create learning experiences for their students. I hoped that this approach would be empowering; it might help them develop ways of acting and being that would help them be more intentional in challenging contexts.

Then COVID-19 hit. My lazy river changed to Class V rapids—jarring, unpredictable, and fast moving. There was no point in resisting; my world was changing. And so was the world of the teachers I was working with.

Sometimes I can laugh at the fact that my research focuses on supporting teachers in developing a way of being that will help them navigate complexity and uncertainty, and it just so happens that I started right before a pandemic. Other times it feels like I’m smashing into boulders. But it turns out that the turbulent water revealed facets of teacher identity and design that I might never have noticed otherwise. Harnessing the shifting rapids, however, has taken learning new ways of being, acting, and understanding—for me and for teachers.

Rapids, Whitewater Kayaking, and Emergent Design

We are deeply embedded in a fast moving and a complex terrain of knowledge and skill building, information, events, and disruptions. Disorientation is often part of this environment and can be productive when it catalyzes revisions in prevailing assumptions and practices, or generates deeply creative insight. ∼Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown2

First, let’s consider what it takes to not just survive the rapids, but to harness their power.

Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown described people that thrive in the volatility of (literal) rapids: whitewater kayakers. In whitewater kayaking, the kayaker uses the force and pull of waves to propel themselves forward. The rapids are never the same twice—they shift and ebb and flow across times. But rafters know how to perceive and leverage the power of the rapids to progress down the river.

The whitewater kayaker does not have the luxury of time or contemplation, but moves through an environment of highly dynamic flows, deeply embedded in an environment where conditions and constraints change quickly and continually. Diverse forces generate different, often unexpected, conditions . . . the kayaker must be able to rely on skills, tools, and knowledge that are deeply embedded in a way of doing.3

The authors call this way of being and doing emergent design. It’s about taking advantage of changes and using them to shape the future. It requires flexible ways of being, acting, and understanding—a designerly identity.

Image of whitewater kayaker
“WhitewaterCanoe” by Philcanoe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

We might compare rapids to the very real ways that social and educational contexts shift and morph, and teachers as the kayakers that must learn to navigate the turbulence. But teaching practice is often conceptualized as something stable and steady, with research and techniques that apply consistently across time and contexts. Perhaps shifting how teachers view their practice—their professional identity—could help them navigate the complexities of teaching today. Conceptualizing teachers as designers might provide a framework for this change.

Teacher Identity and Emergent Design

Teachers design all kinds of things: curriculum, worksheets, bulletin boards, classroom procedures. They are used to designing lesson plans and enacting them in the classroom. They are used to the gentle waves that occur—when a student raises their hand with an unexpected question or becomes disruptive. Teachers think of new ways to explain concepts, they bring students back on task, they go with the flow.

But what happens when the gentle shifts become turbulent rapids? Teachers must learn to use new tools and practices. This requires trying things out, reflecting on the results, and then trying again. What teachers have had to do during the pandemic is navigate new kinds of rapids (or even waterfalls) with a whole new kind of kayak. It has shifted what it means to be a teacher; it has disrupted the core of teachers’ professional identities.

Teacher identity is about what it means to be, act, and understand as a teacher.4 Educating teachers as designers means helping them develop a designerly identity—ways of being, acting, and understanding that will help them adapt to whatever rapids they are thrown into. We can’t predict what teachers will need to know and do in the future. We can’t give them all the knowledge they will need to teach the students in their particular contexts. But we can help them develop ways of being that allow them to continually learn and capitalize on new situations.

Hitting Rocks and Harnessing Rapids

When I started my research on teachers and design, I never imagined how relevant it would become. Within a month of starting my research, schools had to rapidly shift to online learning, requiring a new kind of teaching practice. The unpredictable context has been a challenge for both me and the teachers I’m working with; we have hit many rocks in our personal and professional lives. COVID-19 has required new tools and skills for both teaching and research; it has demanded flexibility. But COVID-19 has also highlighted new understandings, new ways of being and doing. It has provided new rapids to ride.

In the spirit of silver linings, I’d like to share two things that I’ve learned because COVID-19 reared its ugly head in the middle of my dissertation research and how the teachers and I have harnessed the rapids to move forward.5 First, teachers’ identities are centered on students. We—those who are reading about, thinking about, and influencing education—can use teachers’ student-centeredness in research and design collaborations. Second, perhaps because they are student-centered, teachers focus on synchronous interactions with students. Researchers and teacher educators talk less about what happens before instruction—how teachers design for learning. A focus on design before learning time offers new ways for teachers to support students.

Let’s take them one at a time.

1. The professional identities of teachers are closely tied to students, and teachers intuitively make empathy-centered moves.

The junior high teachers and I had several discussions about how teachers are feeling during the pandemic. In short, they are struggling. They feel guilty and frustrated. They want to be with their students; helping students in a classroom is at the core of who they are. The changes in their practice—and the misalignment with their professional identities—have felt devastating.

Harnessing the rapids: When advocating for change, we should capitalize on the center of teacher identity: the student.

There has been much talk6 about how teachers need to move from the “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” The theory is that instead of teachers delivering information from the front of the classroom (i.e., sage on the stage), they should be working next to students to help them solve problems and come to their own understandings (i.e., guide on the side). This is more difficult to implement than it might seem. For example, sage on the stage approaches better support the types of things we measure with standardized tests. However, it has been a bit puzzling to me that this approach has been talked about so much with so little change in instructional methods. But let’s capitalize on the rapids here; let’s move with teachers’ student-centered identity. Consider two implications, one for research and one for practice.

First, because students anchor teachers’ professional identities, teachers naturally want to place students at the center of their work. However, the persistent focus on applying research to efficiently teach content and raise test scores interrupts their ability to do so. If we recognize and validate teachers’ innate tendencies to focus on students, teachers might feel empowered to leverage this piece of their identity. Teaching practice would be centered on supporting particular students in a particular classroom. Supporting them academically, yes, but also socially and emotionally.

Importantly, teachers provide new perspectives for research and educational design because of their close connection to students. Too often we are telling teachers they need to be student centered, when they could tell us much about how students learn and grow.

Second, most design thinking models emphasize empathy at the beginning of the design process. Although I’m not a huge fan of these types of process models, I do recognize the importance of empathy in human-centered design. However, my experiences suggest that empathy is not necessarily where teachers need the most help—teachers seem to make empathy-based moves intuitively. This isn’t to say we should ignore empathy or assume teachers do not need practice with it. Rather, from a pedagogical perspective it is not necessarily where design needs to start. Early design work might focus more on other types of design activities—prototyping, testing, analyzing—that can leverage the empathy-based approaches teachers gravitate to. Later work might then return to empathy to enhance how it is used intentionally for design.

2. Asking teachers to design for learning rather than deliver content is difficult—but critical to the profession

Teachers struggle to see what they do other than work with students during instructional time. Although at their hearts they are student-centered, their training often focuses on content delivery rather than creating opportunities for learning. Leading a class is what it means to be a teacher; direct interaction with students is at the center of their professional identity and how they make a difference. When teachers moved online, particularly in cases where “school” became “packets” of work for students to complete and return, teachers felt disconnected and powerless.

Harnessing the rapids: Reframing what teachers do can be empowering

Most who talk about teachers as a “guide on the side” emphasize what teachers do during instruction, but what about what teachers do before instruction? How do they design for learning7, setting up the classroom experience that allows them to move aside?

Teachers focus on impacting students during instruction; they give less attention to the impact of learning materials and lesson plans. In other words, they rightfully see power in what they do while working with students. Thus, the primary place where they attempt to make improvements is in instructional time. In teachers’ pandemic-ridden practice, that option became limited, and, in some cases, removed all together.

Throughout July, the teachers and I experimented with asynchronous activities for building connection and relatedness. We participated in each other’s activities, interviewed each other about our experiences in the activities, and made revisions. Revise, review, repeat. We found ways to change the learner experience by changing the activity, even though we weren’t next to the learners while they worked. It was a new type of power: the power to design an experience for learning. It allowed teachers to see their practice in new ways, supporting a shift in professional identity.

Finding New Ways of Being 

When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come. ∼ attributed to Leonardo DaVinci

Both the teachers and I developed new ways of being and doing because of the pandemic-driven rapids. My dissertation is no longer a traditional research study; there were too many rapids to follow a detailed research plan. However, the teachers have helped me navigate the rapids by sharing their challenges and struggles, highlighting new topics for investigation. We have developed new skills, tools, and knowledge and begun perceiving our practices differently. We converted these new perceptions into new ways to be, do, and understand, developing our professional identities in productive ways. It has been challenging, frustrating, invigorating, fascinating, and empowering.

Together we have harnessed the rapids, leveraging emergent currents to propel us forward.

  1. Siddhartha, 1922 

  2. Design Unbound Vol. 1, p. 143 

  3. ibid, p. 142 

  4. See Sachs, J. (2005). Teacher education and the development of professional identity: Learning to be a teacher. In M. Kompf & P. Denicolo (Eds.), Connecting Policy and Practice: Challenges for Teaching and Learning in Schools and Universities. Routledge. 

  5. A quick caveat, the ideas here are based on my work with four teachers in a small, rural middle school as well as other conversations I have had with teachers and those who work with teachers (including my sisters). So when I say “teachers,” think of it as “the teachers Melissa is working and talking with.” 

  6. See, for example, EdSurge, Higher Ed Revolution, a fellow named Peter Stanton  

  7. see Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013). In medias res: Reframing design for learning. Research in Learning Technology, 21(0). https://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v21i0.19909 

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