Educational Life History and Teaching Metaphors

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 3.12.08 PMWhat do life history and metaphor have to do with each other? Years ago, I shifted my orientation to teacher education to emphasize the significance of personal, educational-life history and self-development in becoming a teacher. Although many factors nudged me in this direction, my growing dissatisfaction with the limited impact of my own teaching on students’ thinking about teaching and themselves as teachers was the major influence.  It slowly dawned on me that prospective teachers picked and chose what content they responded to in my courses, based upon unarticulated assumptions or “implicit theories” about teaching, learning, students, and themselves as teachers. Most embrace content and activities that confirm their implicit theories and ignore those that do not.

This realization should not have surprised me. Early in the twentieth century, John Dewey discussed the tendency among people to respond selectively to events based upon their prior experiences, to develop “private theories” to make life meaningful. In my journey to become a teacher educator and increase the influence of my teaching on my students’ development, Dewey’s concept of “teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstruction of experience” has been pivotal. My essential task is to induce prospective teachers to identify the assumptions–most of which are hidden–that compose their implicit theories about teaching and themselves as teachers. Most of these are embedded in their personal educational-life histories. I then prompt them to reconstruct these assumptions–via the articulation of a personal teaching metaphor(s) — in ways that are likely to lead to increased control over their future professional development. In particular, my aim is to help them develop the kind of understanding of self as teacher that will enable them to establish a role in school within a community of educators that is educationally defensible and personally satisfying — in other words, congruent with their desired teaching self or personal teaching metaphor.

Below I illustrate this process by sharing an abbreviated version of my own educational-life history, analyzing it for personal teaching metaphors, and then engaging in “action research” to explore my own teaching in relationship to my teaching metaphors. What follows is more than just an illustration of an approach to the study of a teaching self however; it is part of an on-going journey for authenticity in teaching, a journey driven by my desire to integrate personal and social identities and discover the truth of who I am as a teacher. Following Robert Bullough’s advice to teacher educators in Becoming a Student of Teaching: Methodologies for Exploring Self and Social Context (1995, 2001), we need to both shift our emphasis to attend to the individual student and how s/he make teaching (and our programs) meaningful and also engage in a parallel study of our own practice.

My “Initial” Educational-Life History

Fall 1968, I could never have predicted my degree of personal transformation my first two years at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War and marches for civil rights peaked during this time period. For me, it was a time of unprecedented social consciousness and activism, especially among those of the draft age. I participated in as many demonstrations as possible. Though I loved going to class, I thought I learned most discussing social issues in the dorm with my friends and during sit-ins and teach-ins. Spring 1969, there was a student strike. I now faced the possibility of failing the courses that I did not attend and, more important, failing out of school and becoming eligible for the draft. When I supported the strike and quit going to class, I had made one of the most difficult decisions of my young life. When I received my grades a few weeks later I found I hadn’t failed out of college. My professors had awarded me A’s, rather than F’s, as an informal “conscientious objector.” But I found my relationships to my friends and family strained, to say the least because of my new politics. Ultimately, I severed some of my hometown friendships and my relationship with my family was damaged that first summer vacation.

Campus politics and attendant thoughts of how to help make a better world were not the only factors leading to my developing interest in teaching my sophomore year. After being embroiled in a debate with his students about grades and grading before they were to take a test, a political science professor finally accused them of only being concerned about grades and not with what they were learning. Evidently, the class disagreed. He then told his class that if they ate their blue books they would automatically receive an A for the course and that class attendance was now voluntary. Twenty-three of twenty-five students promptly ate the test. Word about this swept through campus. I remember discussing this incident and the “meaning of education” for days on- and off-campus. When the political science professor was dismissed shortly thereafter amid little fanfare, I became very disillusioned with my “educational institution.” I felt an urgent need to discuss “blue book” issues in a formal classroom setting, either now with my own teachers or in the future with my own students. At this point I was even more sure that teaching was the vocation for me.

During the early 70’s, the army research center at Wisconsin was bombed, an innocent student was killed, and Richard Nixon and others successfully deflected and deflated the antiwar and civil rights movements. Disillusionment with social activism and its impact began to affect me profoundly. Slowly, college and becoming a teacher lost much its meaning. I simply ran out of gas by the end of my senior year and couldn’t muster enough energy to apply for, let alone take seriously, a teacher credential program. I graduated with an English major and math minor but the future looked bleak. Filling out Vista and Peace Corps applications, I become aware that I had no “marketable skills.” 

Somewhat panic-stricken I immediately considered going to school to get a license for public school teaching. I enrolled in an introductory education course in a small private school near my home when I realized that I could finish the necessary coursework in one year. It soon became clear that the college was not interested in substantive education — it was interested in student tuition. My course met for a grand total of ninety minutes, aside from mindless independent work that lacked rigor. But I was willing to quietly play the game. I was already heavily steeped in English and math, I was still tired of college, I wanted a license in a hurry, and I was confident that I’d figure out teaching later on-the-job.

In August I was hired as a “temp” to take inventory in city hospitals in New York City. I put my plans for teaching on hold. As I look back now, this temporary, 6-month position was important not only because it paid well and allowed me to live quite extravagantly in an interesting place. More important, it gave me an opportunity to think about what I wanted to do with my life without having to worry about supporting myself. Even though the job was interesting and I was making more money than I knew what to do with, thinking of ways to make some kind of contribution to others, some kind of social impact, continued to bother–or animate–me. Outside of work, I volunteered for McGovern’s campaign in Manhattan, discussed politics and the future of the U.S. with whoever would listen, continued to read novels–in short I realized I missed school and began to think about public school teaching again and much more seriously.

When I returned to finish my licensure coursework spring semester, I was enthusiastic about education. I successfully tested out of nine more credits of coursework and thoroughly enjoyed the three classes I did have to take. In late spring, I was awarded a teaching internship the following fall in English in a culturally diverse, junior high school in Racine, Wisconsin. As I stood outside my classroom the first day fall semester, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t been around or really spoken to junior high kids since I was one. Apprehension, actually dread, began to creep in at that point.

Metaphor Identification and Analysis: Take One

Through a small stream of metaphors, I visualized myself in the classroom world, a “dream” of myself as teacher. I imagined myself in a classroom teaching just as my favorite teachers had taught: I imagined myself as a charismatic expert in English and math; and I imagined that my students would be grateful for my willingness to share my expertise: teacher-is-subject-matter-expert and teaching-is-telling.

The junior high school made short work of these imaginings.  In response, I found myself embracing other metaphors associated with the diverse roles I was forced to play in my journey to make a difference in the lives of students. The unarticulated metaphors that guided my classroom actions were usually contradictory. Teacher is friend and policeman, entertainer and father. I seemed to be all of these “selves” and more. It was when disciplining students that I felt the contradictions most acutely, when I felt most ill at ease and out of character. The counselor, confidant, friend in me rubbed against the disciplining father and “good cop/bad cop.” My loyalties were torn; I was many warring selves, schizophrenic professionally. I punished students yet understood their disengagement, the lacking of meaning, in the classroom. As I look back now, it seems clear that I responded to the situation; I did not control it, it controlled me. I would characterize my beginning teacher self in English and math as a “teacher-as-learner.” I was learning how to be a “teacher-gardener” in English and a “teacher-as-provider” in math.

My Educational-Life History as a Graduate Student and Teacher Educator

After 4 years of turbulent junior high school teaching, I left to pursue a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction full time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One of the courses I enrolled in was self-study group dynamics. Another was critically-oriented teacher education, focused on incorporating class, race/ethnicity, and gender perspectives on school curriculum/instruction. Each course affected me deeply and ultimately shaped my decision to pursue a Ph.D. and focus my program and research on the role of seminar groups in critically reflective teacher education.

To support myself during the seven years of graduate school, I first worked as a librarian teaching research strategies in one-shot presentations. Teaching was “telling” and a teacher was an “information-dispenser.” About halfway through my graduate program, I was hired by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to facilitate small groups composed of individuals arrested for drunken driving. Unable to inject much depth psychology into groups where membership was coerced, teaching became “moralizing.” The year before graduating, I supervised elementary school student teachers and led a weekly seminar, which focused on their school-related concerns. Perhaps because I had never taught in elementary school, I was again unable to elicit in-depth critical perspectives into our discussions on campus or in-school. Like many graduate students in education, I was heavily steeped in meaningful theory but had little idea how to translate it into school practice. Teacher-as-talking-head!

Graduating, I left Wisconsin and assumed a position at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, Mount Union College. I taught language arts methods, social studies methods, and two educational psychology courses to elementary education majors. During my three years at Mount Union, I planned activities and presented materials that prevented me from getting too involved with students. Again faced with teaching unfamiliar material, I put all my energy into being an “expert,” even though (or perhaps because) I felt like an impostor. Unfamiliarity with elementary school practice led me to withdraw more and more into theory. I had no intention of getting involved in the lives of prospective teachers and considering how they made their lives meaningful.

About that time, I suddenly realized that in my own teaching I was not seeking communication as much as domination, a means of maintaining my distance from students and of legitimating my position as professor. Put succinctly, I had lost my passion for teaching and found too little pleasure in it. Lecturing lost its luster; theory disconnected from practice lacked power. Pleasure in teaching, I realized, would only come by making an effort to connect with the students in more than superficial ways.

I moved to St. Cloud State University in Minnesota in 1989. This represents more than just a switch from an elementary to a middle school one but rather an emotional and intellectual transformation. When I assumed coordination of the middle school program in 1990, I found myself intimately involved in teacher education program development, and I liked it. Theory and practice could be linked.

The program was a “cohort” which meant I would be with the same students on-campus and in-school for a quarter. Almost despite myself I became involved in their lives as I attempted to help them gain the understanding and skills needed to begin teaching. As a result of these students, and subsequent cohorts, and of the caring relationships I developed with them, I crossed the psychological and intellectual barrier that separated me from meaningful teacher education and led me to escape into theory. It was my growing interest in my students’ and their professional development that came as a result of working with the middle school cohorts and my concern that the program was having too little impact on that development that led me, eventually, to begin to emphasize personal history and self development within the program.

Metaphor Identification and Analysis: Take Two

Despite all the shortcomings, all the visions of education as social reconstruction and continuing personal commitment to social justice, “teacher as expert” dominated my teaching during my first few years as professor. I was clearly not an expert, but in the classroom I acted as though I was one, or at least tried to act like one. Despite all I knew, teaching was telling and students were vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. Drawing on Freire’s (1970) metaphor, education was a form of “banking” where knowledge is deposited in the heads of passive students.

Growing dissatisfaction with “banking” education was prompted by spending a few years in a cohort where I could not escape the obvious shortcomings of the “teaching is telling metaphor” and my concern for the lack of program impact. Continued reading on critically reflective teacher education enabled me to reconsider my thinking about myself  as a teacher. Increasingly, I came to think of teaching as critically reflective dialogue, and then discovered that dialogue easily becomes disputational, in conversation terms. Although there are times when I find it necessary to be a “teller” and engage in “dialogue” in the classroom for what I consider legitimate reasons (such as when a substantial amount of information needs to be presented), for the most part, my current metaphor for teaching is “Teacher-as-critically-reflective-conversationalist.”

Engaging in Action Research:  A Self Study

As I plan my university course work, I explicitly attend to my teaching metaphor, seeking to create the conditions necessary for its implementation and being mindful of when I must set this metaphor aside temporarily to achieve a different end.

After class begins, I find myself from time to time stopping to evaluate the course and my performance through simple audio-taping. Some of the conditions necessary for a rich, interesting, and worthwhile conversation to take place only emerge over time, and I monitor this progress always hopeful but never being quite certain that a decent conversation has or will result. The process of stopping to take one’s bearings and to evaluate one’s classroom performance, particularly as it relates to the achievement of personal teaching metaphors, is formalized for me in action research.

Consistent with the requirements I have established for the preservice teachers (and now graduate students) with whom I work, I periodically use action research as a means of studying my practice, particularly for exploring the relationship between my teaching metaphor and my classroom performance. I require that they focus their study upon a class or classes that are particularly surprising or troubling. 

As I continue to explore my personal teaching metaphors and seek to improve my skills associated with achieving my personal and professional ideals, I find myself returning from time to time to my education life-history for insights into who I am and what I am becoming as a teacher. It is from this story that I make my actions sensible; and changes in the story reverberate outward, affecting how I think of myself in the various roles and, institutional contexts I inhabit. With each return I discover something different and new about myself as a teacher. Just as I expected teacher education students to explore their own educational-life histories and personal teaching metaphors, I expect continue to study my own. To do so is but to recognize something that I previously had ignored and I that is too often forgotten in teacher education, that becoming a teacher is inevitably and always an idiosyncratic and profoundly personal affair. For my student and me, the writing and analysis of educational-life histories, the identification and analysis of personal teaching metaphors, and action research have proven to be powerful means for encouraging professional development.

Walter J. Ullrich is Professor Emeritus at CSU Fresno. His professional interests and expertise now center on equity-oriented teacher education (preservice and graduate) in online environments.

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