Teacher identity formation in the Arab region: A key to renewal

by Amin Marei* and Dr. Dan Wagner**

Abstract: According to the United Nations, the publication of six Arab Human Development Reports between 2002 and 2016 has become a “milestone” for guiding reform policies in the Arab region. These flagship reports provide recommendations for addressing the enormous challenges faced by Arab countries in the twenty-first century. In this paper, we investigate how human development policies were considered in these Arab regional reports, including various features of teachers’ professional identity in the public education system. Teacher identity formation has been defined as the “set of reifying, significant, and endorsable narratives that may self-define a teacher.” The impact of teacher identity formation has implications not only for one of the largest professions in the Middle East but also for the millions of students that teachers reach daily.

Historical perspectives

Throughout the history of the Arab region, teachers have played a pivotal role in advancing social change through education.[1] Consequently, teachers have consistently tried to navigate demanding sociocultural expectations related to their roles and responsibilities. These expectations, which were, and are, often conflicting, have significantly influenced teachers’ professional identities. Faced by a taxing school climate, often without the necessary incentives and support, many teachers have felt “oppressed” by traditional educational and social structures. Perhaps, as a result, many of these teachers prefer the convenience or comfort of classical teaching methods that adhere to a “banking education” pedagogy.[2] Following what might be called a traditional pedagogical method, many teachers see student minds as blank slates that they could mould and control through “rote” pedagogy.[3]

Encouraged by cultural norms that promote student obedience and silence, teachers following this system can be seen as “oppressors” of their students.[4] This duality in teachers’ professional identities corresponds to what Freire originally defined as the “oppressor-oppressed contradiction.”[5] In this contradiction, teachers–oppressed by the system–are themselves oppressing their students, thus becoming, simultaneously, both oppressors and oppressed. Some researchers have advocated for the critical examination of this contradiction in the teaching profession in order to promote social justice.[6]

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Arab region has experienced significant economic, social, and political challenges—as widely reported in the press. These developments have exacerbated teachers’ working conditions, employment instability, and more while at the same time elevating the role of teachers as knowledge facilitators and gatekeepers of economic success.[7] Ultimately, these circumstances have considerably influenced policies targeting teachers. To understand how these policies framed and addressed the various features of teachers’ professional identities in the public education system, we closely examined  the Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs), an influential source of Arab education policy.[8] The AHDRs consist of six major reports published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) between 2002 and 2016 and provide policy recommendations for addressing multiple challenges confronting Arab countries in the twenty-first century.[9] In the AHDRs, there are diverse–and at times conflicting–policy narratives related to teachers’ professional identities, as discussed below.

Teacher identity formation

A teacher’s professional identity may be thought of as being continuously constructed and reconstructed through interactions with social actors (e.g., students and administrators), structures, and influential narratives.[10] n early AHDR, states “teachers [are] ‘oppressors’ of their pupils, [and] are, in turn, subject to oppression by the educational administration.”[11] Even though this quote highlights the “oppressor-oppressed contradiction,” it is much less clear how the contradiction mentioned in the AHDRs occurs or how it should be resolved. Furthermore, it demonstrates a failure to recognize teachers’ agency, especially as they  face adverse working conditions. Finally, the AHDRs frame teachers as unaware or passive oppressors who  unconsciously subjugate their students and nurture them to become potential future oppressors.

The AHDR policy recommendations, representing a top-down approach, portray teachers as largely passive and unqualified, rather than recognizing their knowledge and ability to influence change. At the same time, even though the policies in the AHDRs advocate for a “radical change” in the teaching profession that involves assigning teachers with more responsibilities, the policies themselves seem to lack a coherent plan to  foster knowledge dissemination and critical thinking skills. In other words, the AHDRs offer generic professional development policies that assume the presence of a homogenous body of teachers across the Arab region.

Yet, the Arab region spans twenty-two states with divergent histories, resources, languages, and sociocultural conditions, and thus teachers across the region come from a wide variety of backgrounds. The AHDR assumptions concerning the homogeneity of teachers’ professional identities and their respective resources operate as a structural constraint on the adaptation of teachers to local contexts, thus overburdening them with responsibilities without offering the necessary means for success. A teacher’s identity serves as a fundamental building block of their profession,[12] within which there exists three broad and significant variations: ethnolinguistic background, gender, and religion.[13] We turn to each of these now.

Ethnolinguistic diversity has influenced teachers’ identities in the Arab region. This, in turn, influences their practices and relationships with their students. For example, Iraqi and Syrian teachers belonging to the Kurdish ethnic minority and living outside of Kurd-dominated areas often experience structural and social discriminatory practices.[14] These practices require instructors to teach in Modern Standard Arabic, adopt a curriculum that may exclude their own identity, and deal with potentially antagonistic student perceptions. Contemporary ethnic conflicts happening in Arab countries, such as Iraq and Syria, have displaced millions of citizens, exacerbating the ethnolinguistic challenges endured (and perhaps also fostered) by teachers. In Morocco, there is a serious issue of teaching in Modern Standard Arabic, since many of the students only speak Moroccan dialect or Amazigh.[15] Many of these teachers are tasked with the daunting responsibility of educating students with different and sometimes opposing identities while negotiating their own ethnolinguistic identity, often with little or no institutional support.

In terms of gender, sociocultural expectations significantly influence perceptions of teachers and their ability to perform their role effectively. For example, in some Arab nations, teaching is increasingly being perceived as a predominantly female job, especially for  early grade levels.[16] This perception influences the professional and personal identities of male and female teachers and their ability to support student achievement. In Oman, many males refuse to work as teachers because it is not a “socially prestigious career.”[17] This scarcity of Omani male teachers poses limitations on the learning experience of male students who may not feel comfortable in an environment where they do not feel represented. Overall, the gender gap in educational equity in many Arab countries may be reinforced by the differences in how females and males perceive and act in their roles as teachers.[18]

Religion is a central pillar for most communities in the Arab region. Consequently, teachers’ religious beliefs deeply influence their worldviews and professional identities. As a result, teachers’ religiosity can impact teachers’ motivation, instructional practices, and interactions with the community.[19] Religion may also shape socio-cultural perceptions of teachers’ identities in a way that limits their ability to teach certain subjects. As the most followed religion in the Arab region, Islam strongly influences teachers’ views. For example, one study revealed how Egyptian science teachers preferred religious over scientific explanations when both views conflicted.[20] This type of instructional decision-making can have profound repercussions, including the way that students’ do or do not understand the compatibility of science and religion.

Even though the AHDRs mention of communal engagement iss imperative to the success of its policy recommendations concerning teachers, they tend to focus on the development of human (economic) capital without addressing the role of teachers’ social and cultural capital in advancing these same policies.[21] In a region that is heavily dominated by a collectivist culture, such policies appear to have missed an influential component of teachers’ professional identities – namely their social capital. In this regard, a study of Emirati special education teachers provided evidence that teachers with consistent social support experienced less burnout and greater achievement.[22] Based on this and similar studies, it is essential for teacher education policies to include additional ways in which a collectivist orientation can contribute to greater teacher resilience in the contested space of schooling.[23]


In a region where more than 200 million citizens have yet to reach the age of thirty and constitute sixty percent of the population, teachers necessarily can and will play an integral role in shaping the educational and economic futures of the Arab region.[24] Accordingly, understanding the formation of teachers’ professional identities is imperative for devising policies and practices that aim to advance the teaching profession and the prospects of future generations of students. When the initial AHDR was published in 2002, it was one of the first reports to suggest reviewing the United Nations Human Development Index by including more indicators on education and knowledge acquisition.[25] The six AHDRs have provoked important public and policy debates about education across the region over nearly two decades.[26]

Future educational policy recommendations should acknowledge the prominence of teachers as drivers of progress. Such recommendations for teachers must take into account the multiple professional identities in a diverse region, including language, gender, and religion, at a minimum. One way to do this is  to include teachers’ voices in professional development policies. Top-down approaches are insufficient. Further, the negative ramifications of leaving the “oppressor-oppressed contradiction” unresolved remains a serious source of tension in the region. The teaching profession, and its future, will necessarily be a key component of any renewal in the Middle East in the years to come.

*Amin Marei completed his M.Ed. in Education in 2017 from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, with a focus on equity in educational technology. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education, Culture, and Society at The University of Pennsylvania. Amin’s research explores the role of teachers’ professional learning communities and technology in influencing student learning in low-income and marginalized settings in the Middle East.

**Dr. Dan Wagner is a Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the UNESCO Chair in Learning and Literacy, Director of the International Literacy Institute (ILI), Founding Director of the National Center on Adult Literacy (NCAL),and Director of Penn GSE’s International Educational Development Program (IEDP). Dr. Wagner received his Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Michigan, was a two-year postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, a Visiting Fellow at the International Institute of Education Planning in Paris, a Visiting Professor at the University of Geneva, and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Paris.


[1] United Nations Development Programme and Arab Human Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab Human Development Report: Towards Freedom in the Arab World (New York: United Nations Publication, 2004), 147.

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1970), 72.

[3] Daniel A. Wagner, Learning as Development: Rethinking International Education in a Changing World (New York: Routledge, 2018); Daniel A. Wagner, Rediscovering “rote”:  Some Cognitive and Pedagogical Preliminaries (New York: Plenum, 1983), 179-190.

[4] Sadegh Pordanjani and Laode Guntur, “Investigating the Implementation of Critical Literacy Approach in the Middle-East Education Contexts,” ELS Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 2, no. 3 (2019); 410-418.

[5] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1-43.

[6] Kevin K. Kumashiro, Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning toward Social Justice (New York: Routledge, 2015).

[7] William A. Rugh, “Arab education: Tradition, growth and reform,” The Middle East Journal (2002); 396-414; Muhammad Faour and Marwan Muasher, Education for Citizenship in the Arab world: Key to the Future (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011); Emma Dorn et al., Drivers of Student Performance: Middle East and North Africa Insights (Dubai: McKinsey & Company Publication, 2017), 8-55.

[8] United Nations Development Programme and Arab Human Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab Human Development Report: Building a Knowledge Society (New York: United Nations Publication, 2003), 1-13; Randall Kuhn, “On the Role of Human Development in the Arab Spring,” Population and Development Review 38, no. 4 (2012); 649-683.

[9] “Impact of the Arab Human Development Reports.”

[10] Douwe Beijaard, Paulien C. Meijer, and Nico Verloop. “Reconsidering research on teachers’ professional identity,” Teaching and Teacher Education 20, no. 2 (2004); 107-128.

[11] UNDP, AHDRs: Towards Freedom, 2004.

[12] Beijaard et al., “Reconsidering,” 107-128.

[13] Khaled Asbah, Muhammed Abu Nasra, and Khawla Abu-Baker. “Gender perceptions of male and female teachers in the Arab education system in Israel,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 10, no. 3 (2014); 109-124.

[14]Abdulkafi Albirini, Modern Arabic Sociolinguistics: Diglossia, Variation, Codeswitching, Attitudes and Identity (New York: Routledge, 2016), 39-43.

[15] Daniel A.Wagner,  Literacy, Culture and Development: Becoming Literate in Morocco (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[16] Asbah, “Gender perceptions,” 109-114; World Bank, “Primary education, teachers (% female),” accessed November 1, 2019, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.PRM.TCHR.FE.ZS.

[17]  Ali S. Al-Issa, and Ali H. Al-Bulushi. “English Language Teaching Reform in Sultanate of Oman: The case of theory and practice disparity.” Educational Research for Policy and Practice 11, no. 2 (2012); 141-176.

[18] Elbadawy, Asmaa, Dennis Ahlburg, Deborah Levison, and R. Assaad. “Private and Group Tutoring in Egypt: Where is the Gender Inequality?” IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc, 2007.; Audrey Osler, and Chalank Yahya, “Challenges and Complexity in Human Rights Education: Teachers’ Understandings of Democratic Participation and Gender Equity in Postconflict Kurdistan-Iraq.” Education Inquiry 4, no. 1 (2013); 189-210.

[19] Kimberly R. White, “Connecting Religion and Teacher Identity: The Unexplored Relationship between Teachers and Religion in Public Schools,” Teaching and Teacher Education 25 (2009); 857-866.

[20] Nasser Mansour, “Science Teachers’ Views of Science and Religion vs. the Islamic Perspective: Conflicting or Compatible?” Science Education 95, no. 2 (2011); 281-309.

[21] UNDP, AHDR: Creating Opportunities, 18.

[22] Osamah Bataineh and Ahmed Alsagheer, “An Investigation of Social Support and Burnout among Special Education Teachers in the United Arab Emirates,” International Journal of Special Education 27, no. 2 (2012); 5-13.

[23] RosieLe Cornu, “Building Resilience in Pre-Service Teachers,” Teacher and Teacher Education 25, no. 5 (2009);717:723.

[24] United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report: Towards Freedom in the Arab World (New York: United Nations Publication, 2016), 59.

[25] UNDP, AHDR: Creating Opportunities, 15-33.

[26] Kuhn, “On the Role,” 649-683.