Breaking Barriers and Finding Identity: From Rare Disease to Doctoral Candidate

Reflecting on my EdD journey, I am reminded of the determined 16-year-old version of myself who set her sights on becoming an academic doctor. Being a young, black female student in South London, I knew the odds were stacked against me. But, with my Nigerian parent’s nickname for me, “Doctor Kanayo,” ringing in my ears, I remained undaunted.

My environment, family dynamics, socioeconomic status, and cross-section of race and gender all presented themselves as perceived barriers. Despite these challenges, I remained determined to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor. However, a month before starting my doctorate, I was struck by a rare 1-in-3 mortality rate disease called Stevens-Johnson syndrome. This required that I be resuscitated and hospitalised, leaving devastating effects on my body and the BBC (2021) reporting on my case. Yet, my determination from 2009 was enough to keep me going in 2019, and now in 2023, I am writing this reflective blog post as a fourth-year doctoral candidate.

Foundations of Professionalism: A Therapeutic Module

The first taught module in my EdD program was Foundations of Professionalism (FoP), and it was where I was introduced to my academic cohort. I quickly realised that I was not only the youngest but perhaps the most inexperienced relative to my peers, who were headteachers, senior leaders, and expert consultants in their fields. Admittedly, a sense of imposter syndrome overwhelmed me, which was the first affront to how I conceptualised professionalism.

I referred to FoP as a therapeutic module because of the reassurance it offered me in response to my initial unease. Despite completing my PGCE and Masters in Educational Assessment at UCL (with a distinction-graded thesis) or having received an array of awards for my work and service to teaching, there was still a part of me that felt inadequate and misplaced in this new academic community.

FoP exposed me to broad terminology and literature on professionalism, which gave a legitimate voice to my feelings at the time. Most significantly, it was in FoP that we had two guest lecturers who looked like me! Dr. Tracy Allen and Dr. Christine Callender two black women who shared the complexities of professionalism, race, and leadership. I did not realise how much representation mattered to me until this point in my academic career.

Finding myself in the literature

By interrogating my professional identity using Brookfield’s (1998) theoretical lenses and the literature on distributed leadership (Harris, 2004) in FoP’s core reading list, I affirmed my worthy position as an EdD student. I no longer felt like an imposter because I found myself in the literature. I am what Harris (2004) and Harris & Spillane (2008) would describe as leadership from an ‘uncommon place.’

My rapid career and academic progress, such as becoming Deputy head of sixth form after only two years of teaching, as illustrated in Figure 1 using Amott’s (2018) narrative practice task, embodies what Harris (2014) calls ‘leadership by expertise rather than leadership by years of experience’.

These light-bulb moments when reading academic journals were both encouraging and satisfying. In FoP, I developed the skill of reading key texts and locating my experience in the literature. This was evident in the FoP assignment, where I critically discussed the professional ethics of optimising departmental performance in a neo-liberal context. I used evidence to assert that there has been a reform-induced identity shift from ‘teacher’ to ‘assessor’. How prophetic this was, ahead of a year where teachers became the primary high-stakes assessors for GCSE and A-Level students’ qualifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, despite what many called the momentary restoration of teacher autonomy, I had the necessary knowledge from FoP and the applied experience to critically challenge these claims. Teachers as ‘assessors’ provided the illusion of autonomy through what Ball (2003, p. 27) calls ‘self-regulating regulations’. For example, even when I, as Head of department, was given the freedom (autonomy) to assign grades to students based on my overview of their progress, I became my own regulator, working within the performative parameters that were etched into my professional identity. My overview of students’ progress was reminiscent of the same accountability structures and measures, such as keeping calculated grades within the ‘reasonable’ limits of students’ prior attainment. I soon realised that months after FoP the literature still permeated every aspect of my professionalism. The literature illuminated the many ways I had exchanged democratic professionalism based on social justice for managerial professionalism based on ‘performativity’ and accountability.

Identity as a Dual-Professional

Being a dual professional, both a teacher and researcher, the journey to achieving my doctorate in education has been a unique and rewarding experience. Particularly my research into educational assessment has shaped and influenced my professionalism in ways I never imagined.

My research has focused on investigating the extent to which high-stakes assessments can be aligned with the principles of democratic professionalism. I explored this issue in my empirical work, which involved interviewing students about their perceptions of high-stakes educational assessment by using netnography as a novel data collection method via social media platforms.

Through this work, I have come to understand the complexities of educational assessment and the influence of contextual factors such as the cultural and socio-economic background of students. Furthermore, by examining assessment discourse on social media, particularly Twitter, I have observed that social media use can introduce additional nuances and impact the perceptions and engagement of students and teachers with educational assessment.

Reflections on my Institution-Focused Study

In my A-grade institution-focused study (IFS) thesis, I reported on how I conducted semi-structured interviews with students while using social media posts about educational assessment as artefacts to guide the discussion. The findings revealed several themes that captured students’ experiences with educational assessment during Covid19. One of its defining characteristics was its close connection to my work as an educator and how I now had a unique perspective on students’ assessment experiences through their digital narratives. This, coupled with competing responsibilities and demands on my time, made the research and writing process both challenging and rewarding, which I discuss in the rest of this reflection.

One concern I had was the novelty of my research method. My research was about working with students rather than for them, and I observed the way they discussed important issues with each other. I asked students to interpret tweets, which deviated from the traditional focus group interview structure. I was worried that they might be hesitant or reticent to engage in this creative process, but to my delight, they were committed, engaged so well and yielded data that even exceeded my research questions. The beauty of my research is that it enabled me to ask students questions that I would not typically ask them in school, and it made me think about why we don’t discuss these crucial issues more in education. This research has made me question why we don’t talk more about teachers’ mental health in school with our students. This gave me a strong foundation for my future work in education and my upcoming final thesis, where I intend to bring teachers into the research process and make an original contribution to the literature about interactions between students, teachers, assessment and social media.

The very act of research is a creative endeavour, and I found myself learning new skills, pivoting, innovating and embracing the complexity of my research. When it came to writing, I wanted to write in a way that was accessible to the students I teach, my colleagues, and the students who participated in my study. I was conscious of the complexity and jargon often present in academia, and I strived to make my writing simple and coherent. Finding the voice of my IFS was a challenge, but once I did, the writing process became more manageable. At this point, I feel the reader of this reflective statement asking, “And how exactly did you find your academic voice?”

Finding my academic voice was a journey that required immersing myself in the literature and locating myself within it through lots of reading, listening to research podcasts, the UCL IOE podcast being a favourite, and following relevant research accounts on social media. At first, I struggled to find my place in the vast research landscape and felt overwhelmed by the abundance of information available. But as I delved deeper into the literature and familiarised myself with the different perspectives and approaches, I began to understand how my research fits into the larger picture.

Through this process, my academic voice emerged by sharing my work with others, which I will reflect on further in the next section. By presenting my research to my supervisors, peers and other researchers, I was able to receive feedback, learn from others and gain a better understanding of how my research fits into the larger conversation and contributes to the field of assessment.

Moreover, I found my academic voice by trusting in the importance of my work and by believing that I was worthy of being a doctoral researcher. It was a process of learning to be confident in my own abilities and to trust that my research and perspective were valuable. This belief in the worthiness of my research helped me to overcome the initial fear of being judged and to use my authentic voice to communicate my findings.

The research journey has its ups and downs. Still, I have learned to embrace the eureka moments that come from unexpected places, such as thinking about educational assessment while I was in church listening to the pastor, ha-ha! Switching off and not thinking about the research for a while was just as important as actively working on it.

The process of completing my IFS thesis was a challenging and emotional journey. I had many “vomit drafts” along the way, where I struggled to put my thoughts and ideas into coherent sentences. But with the guidance and feedback from my supervisors, I was able to refine my work and improve iteratively. However, there were moments when the work seemed insurmountable, and I found myself typing through tears, but I persevered and pushed through those difficult times. The final product is something that I am incredibly proud of and believe is beautiful.

I am so proud of the grade I received, an A, and the outstanding feedback from my supervisors and examiners; they believed my work was of a publishable standard. This is a true testament to the hard work and dedication I put into my IFS. But the reaction of the participant students, who were also my co-researchers, made the achievement even more special. They were elated that I had achieved the highest grade, which reminded me of this doctoral journey. The memory of 16-year-old Kanayo, who said she would be a doctor, came to mind, and I felt like I had done something to inspire a future researcher.

The process of completing any thesis can be challenging, but it is incredibly rewarding. The experience has taught me the importance of persistence, determination, and the power of feedback. I am grateful for my supervisors’ support and the opportunity to conduct this research because, honestly, life doesn’t give you a second chance to conduct a unique inquiry like this. But more so, I am grateful to the students who participated in my research and trusted me.

I look forward to continuing to develop my research skills and building upon the foundation laid by this IFS in my final thesis. I know I have contributed to the 16-year-old Kanayo’s dream of becoming a doctor.

Reflections on sharing my work

Collaboration was also essential in my research journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared my research with other academics and organisations, such as the AQA examinations board, the UCL Poster Conference, Educational Assessment Group Seminars, and, more recently, British Educational Research Association (BERA). As an early career researcher, the opportunity to share my very own research, from my Master’s thesis to small-scale projects during years 1 and 2 of the EdD and my institution-focused study thesis, has been invaluable in refining my skills and boosting my confidence. The process of presenting my research to a broader audience, whether it be through academic seminars or conferences, has helped me develop many transferable skills that will serve me well in my future career, such as communication, critical thinking and networking.

Communicating my research findings clearly and effectively to a diverse audience has helped me become a more confident and effective communicator. Additionally, the process of presenting my research has helped me to become more familiar with the field of assessment, which has allowed me to understand the nuances of my findings better and to convey their significance more effectively.

In addition, the opportunity to share my research has helped me to develop my critical thinking skills. As I prepared for each presentation, I was forced to critically evaluate my work, identify its strengths and challenges, and think about how I could improve it. This process has helped me to become more critical in my approach to research, which will serve me well in my future work.

Presenting my research to a diverse group of people developed my networking skills. I have had the chance to connect with other researchers and practitioners in my field. This has allowed me to build a network of contacts who can provide me with support and guidance as I continue my research journey. Finally, by presenting my research to a broader audience, I have had the chance to showcase my work and demonstrate my research abilities. This has helped me to build a reputation within my field and to establish myself as a credible and capable researcher.

A transformative experience

My EdD journey has been a transformative experience that has shaped and influenced my understanding of professionalism, educational assessment, and the role of teachers and educational leaders. The scope of doctoral research is both exciting and intimidating. The scale of the work is massive, and the different pathways it can take can be daunting. At times this doctoral journey felt bigger than me. Still, in the process, I no longer feel like an imposter. Instead, I have become a stronger teacher-researcher and a resilient, intelligent black woman who could handle this level of academic study.


Amott, P. (2018). Identification – a process of self-knowing realised within narrative practices for teacher educators during times of transition. Professional Development in Education, 44(4), 476–491.

Badia, G. (2017). Combining Critical Reflection and Action Research to Improve Pedagogy.

Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 17(4), 695–720.

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education

Policy, 18(2), 215–228.

BBC. (2021). Why is it harder to diagnose disorders on non-white skin? – BBC News.

Brookfield, S. (1998). Critically reflective practice. Journal of Continuing Education in the

Health Professions, 18(4), 197–205.

Harris, A. (2004). Distributed Leadership and School Improvement: Leading or Misleading? Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 32(1), 11–24.

Harris, A., & Spillane, J. (2008). Distributed leadership through the looking glass. Management in Education, 22(1), 31–34.

Harris, D. A. (2014). Distributed leadership.

2 thoughts on “Breaking Barriers and Finding Identity: From Rare Disease to Doctoral Candidate

  1. Greetings Kanayo,  Great to hear from you , thank God you are alive and kicking , just read a piece of your journal . I will find time a read through all your journals , Interestingly, I remember we used to chat on twitter years ago , even when you came to Kumasi , Ghana  but unfortunately I lost your contact , Anyway, it’s refreshing to find out you are doing great after your health predicaments.  stay safe . Cecil Kwabena .

  2. What a journey! I read this with such a huge smile on my face. You have pushed past and broken down every single obstacle and I am incredibly proud and inspired! Even in the midst of challenges, you absorbed yourself in the right literature and affirmed yourself. This is absolutely phenomenal and reading this really took me on a journey.
    Despite all you have achieved, I truly believe the best is yet to come.

    Thank you for this post!

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