Catalysts for Narrative Reflection from Other Fields
James W. Porcaro began teaching 50 years ago in Uganda. He taught in Los Angeles (USA) for many years and has taught English in Japan since 1985. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Narrative reflection has become a strong genre of expression for teachers around the world through professional publications, workshops, conferences, social media, and informal discussions with colleagues. Teachers tell the stories of their professional lives and explore the meaning of their experiences for themselves as they strive to construct a professional and personal identity. Through such inquiry they can “uncover who they are, where they have come from, what they know and believe, and why they teach as they do” (Johnson & Golombek, 2002, p.5). At the same time as promoting their own professional development, teachers’ stories serve as a resource of accumulated knowledge for the benefit of other teachers as well as an encouragement and a guide for them to engage in their own narrative reflection.
I began teaching more than 50 years ago and have taught at universities, junior colleges, high schools, adult education programs, and a company in three countries. Certainly I have arrived at a clear definition of my work and a firm sense of my identity as a teacher. Narrative reflection has been an important instrument in that process of development. HLT has kindly allowed me to share my stories with its readers (Porcaro, 2015). Yet, this is a lifelong process, as we continually seek to confirm and to refine that definition and identity through ongoing reflection and as we experience new environments and challenges.
I have found the insightful expression of other professionals, craft workers, and people in all sorts of other occupations on the work they do to be helpful in directing my thoughts about my own work and illuminating further and more deeply what I do as a teacher. Some years ago, reading a master woodcraftsman’s account of his shop work habits, for example, I was led to reflect on my own habits that relate to my instructional practice and to understand more how those habits have contributed to the success of my teaching (Porcaro & Porcaro, 2010). Watching many TV programs of the work of an internationally renowned canine behavioral psychologist and understanding the principles that guide his work of training humans, the dog owners, and thus rehabilitating dogs with behavioral problems, has added to my perception of class management and my interactions with classes of students (Porcaro, 2018). (Please note that in this case I do not compare my students to dogs. Such a suggestion would be entirely off the mark.)
Recently I read a piece in The Economist (2018, March 17) about the career of British actor Rory Kinnear and the insight offered “into the making of a Shakespearean actor.” In discussing his stage craft, the article noted that he is “driven by an inkling that ‘there’s still more to discover, there’s something I’m missing’ in the part.” I jumped back in my chair at reading those words. The striking statement immediately clarified for me something I had not been including in comments to others about my own work.
Colleagues and friends have often told me that they wonder at the energy, enthusiasm, and desire that I still have for teaching now that I am into my 70’s and with no intention of retiring from classroom teaching. I usually respond simply by saying that I love what I do, I do it well, it benefits my students, and it gives me much satisfaction. (Besides, retire to … what? I add.)
The approach to his acting craft expressed by Mr. Kinnear made me realize clearly that something else has been going on in my head and in my heart over nearly 50 years of classroom teaching - some other important driving force. It is indeed the impulse to continually seek and discover more that I can put into every aspect of my work and more that I can experience in return as I carry on my classroom practice.
This motivating force applies to the creation of my lessons and their objectives and goals. I own all of my lessons. I never use a textbook for any of the wide range of English language courses I have taught over the years, including literary translation, African area studies, and English for science and technology, along with of course the basic skill areas of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It applies to the instructional materials I make for my lessons and the classroom procedures I direct. It is the urge to formulate, shape, and conduct my lessons so that more than ever before I can enhance students’ understanding and learning, their opportunity to do more with the language, and thus experience for myself a more fulfilling sense of my work.
Just as Shakespearean actors may perform the same role on stage hundreds of times, as performers of any kind may do, veteran teachers present some tried-and-true lessons outwardly unchanged over many years. Yet, just as great performers say, great teachers too know that every lesson presentation to a different class at a different time and in a different space makes it a sui generis lesson which we can deliver with new meaning in each and every classroom, and from which we can discover more and experience more and perhaps greater things than before.
In the aforementioned article, Mr. Kinnear said that in theater “nothing else elicits ‘the exchange of energy that you get at live performance’ … the electric sense that ‘no one else gets to see what you see.’” Undoubtedly teachers recognize the truth of the former point applies to the “live” classroom as well. The latter part of the statement, however, offers a perception of the classroom teaching environment that I had never thought of before, one that frankly thrills me.
After reading the article in The Economist I wanted to reread a few parts of Macbeth, the play in which Mr. Kinnear was preparing to appear in London at that time. Then to renew an appreciation of the work of the great bard, I did a Google search for Shakespeare quotes and was delighted to come across one that complements so well the inspiration I received from the piece on Mr. Kinnear.
In Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5) Ophelia says, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Her words speak to the essence of what and who we are as persons as well as in our roles as actors, teachers, or in whatever profession or craft. Narrative reflection on our work and experiences can bring us to a point of understanding in the present; yet the future is unknown and certainly our place on its stage is ephemeral. However, to some degree we can make our own destiny in the sense that we welcome roles that challenge us and we have the courage to search within ourselves for ever more to give to those roles, and thus advance and deepen their meaning for us and our identity. Undertaking the privilege of following that course is the means by which we can become better and better and better teachers.
I wholeheartedly encourage teachers to step out of the “silo” of the teaching domain that may confine our perspective and thinking, and explore and consider what we can learn from those in other professions, crafts, and occupations of all sorts that may serve to enlighten us and further define our work and our identity as the teachers we are and can become.
Johnson, K., & Golombek, P. (2002). Teachers’ narrative inquiry as professional development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Porcaro, J. (2015). Constructing teacher identity: A narrative reflection. Humanising Language Teaching, 17 (1). http://www.hltmag.co.uk/feb15/sart02.htm
Porcaro, J. (2018). Beyond the silo: 10 things to learn from “The Dog Whisperer”. Explorations in Teacher Development, 25 (1), 2-5.
Porcaro, J. & Porcaro, R. (2010). Work habits of two craftsmen. Humanising Language Teaching, 12 (4). http://www.hltmag.co.uk/aug10/sart09.htm
Shakespeare on stage. (2018, March 17). The Economist.
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