UM-Flint Faculty Research Examines Teacher Identity

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Teaching graduate students in the Secondary Master of Arts with Certification Program (MAC) at the University of Michigan-Flint, Education chair and associate professor Mary Jo Finney likes to challenge them in innovative ways to develop their own identity as pre-service teachers.

When Finney met Magdalena Novotna, art education professor of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, during an Institute for Innovation in Education (iiE) conference there two years ago, she started a joint educational project that did just that.

The two faculty members began focusing on culture in class and asked their students to consider how their own culture and diverse life experiences have deeply defined themselves both personally and professionally in the field.

The students started creating hundreds of visual depictions of culture and place through photography. Then they picked the photos they liked best and transformed them into short videos which included brief narrative reflections. Finney worked with the students to determine unseen metaphors and symbolism in their work, while Novotna offered her expertise from an artistic angle.

"Individual students from both courses began photographing the city that they live and teach in, and showing what matters to them," Finney said. "The photos were spontaneous and random. We're using digital storytelling as a mechanism for understanding cross-cultural teacher identity development."

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Mary Jo Finney, Education Department chair, enjoys collaborating on an international level on teacher identity research, while working with her MAC graduate students.

"The reflective nature of the project is very important, and it is authentic," Novotna said. She visited UM-Flint recently with two of her students, who took time to display some of their photos on a wall near the Education Department in French Hall.

During the project's first year, the students met near the end of the semester. The second year, they paired up and communicated regularly through email and Skype to share their photos and classroom teaching experiences, and to further discuss the contrasts between teaching and managing a classroom in urban America and in Prague.

Communicating mainly through electronic means enabled these education students from both countries to grow personally while analyzing how place, language, and cultural traditions powerfully influence their identity as teachers.

Magdalena Novotna, art education professor of Charles University (center) and two of her students recently visited UM-Flint and Detroit.

While completing their photographic representations of culture and place, the students in both programs were not necessarily aware of the themes and symbolism present in their sequence of photos. Receiving feedback from faculty and fellow students helped them to analyze their work, and to go one step further by thinking about the choices teachers make every day in class, whether consciously or instinctively.

"We're hoping that as all the students talk about their own video pictures, they discover more about themselves than when they took the pictures," Finney said.

The visual and cross-cultural nature of the project has turned it into a valuable reflective and motivational tool for aspiring teachers. Finney looks forward to working with her Charles University colleague to pull together their research from this collaborative adventure for future publication.

Editor's Note: This profile is the second in our Faculty Research Spotlight series, highlighting the research of University of Michigan-Flint faculty and its benefit for our community and our world. Learn more about research at UM-Flint at To suggest a faculty research project to spotlight, contact UM-Flint staff writer Robert Gold at

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