A Narrative Inquiry into Practicing Professional Identity in a Japanese EFL Socio-Educational Context
Keith Ford, Japan
Keith Ford has been teaching at various universities in the Tokyo area of Japan for twenty years. He has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and an Ed.D. in Education (TESOL). His main research interests are in the areas of narrative, stylistics, and literature in the language classroom.
The Japanese context
Reflective practice and meaningful narrative
Ruth’s practicing professional identity
This study demonstrates how an EFL practitioner embraces the opportunity to narrate her teaching life experiences in a meaningful and coherent way that underscores her pedagogical beliefs and practices. In so doing, the narrator relates the origins and development of her “benefic authoritarian” approach to language education within a Japanese university EFL environment, an approach combining a strong belief in L2 only pedagogy with a sense of humanistic values. A taped monologue technique was used to record the participant’s teaching life story, which was then analyzed from a perspective of how it supports her fundamental teaching beliefs, practices and principles, using a needs for meaning framework of purpose, morality, efficacy, and self-worth (Baumeister, 1991; Baumeister & Wilson, 1996).
This article reports a narrative inquiry into a process of reflective practice (Schon, 1983) for its participant, Ruth, an EFL university teacher in Japan. It has developed out of my ongoing interest in EFL teachers’ classroom language policies, for example having previously investigated how teachers approach the issue of L1 use specifically in Japanese university English classrooms (Ford, 2009). Ruth’s involvement in the present study can be described using the criterion of extreme case (Goodson and Sikes, 2001, p. 25), where the research participant stands out in some way as having particular attributes or experiences when compared to others. As university teaching colleagues, Ruth and I have often spent time talking about our various classroom issues and approaches, and I became particularly interested in her adherence to a strict classroom language policy of demanding that all student communication is in English. This contrasts to most teachers who seem to follow a growing trend toward making some use of students’ L1 in their classes. Specifically, I was interested in the question of how her policy emerged and on what beliefs and experiences it was grounded. Were there any critical episodes in her teaching career which helped develop and maintain her belief in this policy?
Though L1 use in the L2 classroom continues to be debated, the more recent trend is for when rather than whether to use it, there having been something of a “backlash” (Stephens, 2006) against the L2 only approach in an EFL context like Japan. Cook (2001) noted how a dominance of English only had resulted in the use of such pejorative language as avoid, ban, and confess to describe any L1 use. For many EFL teachers, the issue of L1 use was rarely openly debated, Prodromou (2002, p. 6) observing how it had become something of a “skeleton in the cupboard.” However, recently many university teachers in the Japanese EFL context openly report making some use of the L1 themselves and allowing students to use it in English classes when necessary (Ford, 2009). For some instructors, freedom to use the L1 remains an ideological issue based on assumptions about existing power relations. For others, a dictatorial attitude to L2 only classroom language use may be governed by institutional requirements, or it may be representative of an individual’s pedagogical principles that underline the importance of meaning negotiation and maximizing L2 input. An important practical argument is that in a typical FL environment L2 interaction is highly limited for most students, so classroom time should be best spent actively using the L2 for developing speaking fluency.
In the case of Ruth (I am using a pseudonym), a 58 year-old, British teacher who has spent the last fifteen years teaching at universities and high schools in Japan, she describes her L2 only classroom policy as “benefic authoritarianism.” She sees her approach as a highly rational and justifiable means of achieving a clear pedagogical goal, one that reflects a real sense of mission to change students’ attitudes to English: getting them to appreciate and engage with English for the purpose of real communication, and to recognize English as “a living wonderful organic whole,” as a second language that they can really come to enjoy using and make their own. This is a major challenge in the context of Japanese university English education, where high school language learning experiences have been so overwhelmingly dictated by the demands of passing university entrance examinations. Indeed, for many students the transition from high school English classes to communication-oriented university English classes may be particularly challenging and stressful.
While many students will have experienced a native-speaker teacher of English at high school, it will almost certainly be as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), one with limited teacher training or prior experience, usually working in tandem and doing pair teaching with a Japanese teacher who controls proceedings. Students’ communicative use of English will probably have been limited to copying model dialogues or having highly limited exchanges, such as taking it in turn to do basic greetings with a native-speaker teacher. Students will not be used to a native-speaker teacher who is determining classroom policy, nor to having real communication in English. Almost certainly they will never have been required to adhere to an English only classroom policy and the requirements of active English classroom participation in pair and group work.
In addition, there is also continued ambivalence among university students toward the need for English. There are contradictions between a perceived need for English as a global language and the reality that the great majority of Japanese can get by in their daily lives without any real need to communicate in English (Torikai, 2000). Also, one needs to have a fundamental understanding that for the vast majority of Japanese university students taking English is not something they choose to do, in that first-year English study is an obligatory course regardless of their chosen department. Consequently, university English teachers need to have the socio-cultural knowledge that helps them understand students’ lack of motivation, purpose, and unwillingness to communicate in English, and to change this situation can involve taking an authoritative approach to training and orienting students to actively participate in the English university classroom.
From a humanistic perspective, teachers need to demonstrate an understanding of students’ previous learning experiences, and of their anxieties about participating in a communicative classroom. To make students feel at ease and confident in their language use it is important to establish a new classroom culture. For Japanese university students this is about breaking away from previous schooling routines and changing study/learning habits which have been based on conformity and passivity in a transmission mode of education. Bringing about a humanistic classroom, and so taking into account students’ concerns and anxieties, involves imagination, creativity and discipline on the teacher’s part, as well as honesty, transparency and sharing about classroom relations and the direction that the class is going in. In Ruth’s case, while also expressing concern for her students’ psychological and emotional well-being, it is essential to rationalize her strict L2 only approach to them and get them “on board” with her policy. It was clear from Ruth’s passion in talking to me about her strict English only policy that it was a fundamental part of what I shall refer to as her practicing professional identity, a construct I use which represents a set of teaching and learning values, beliefs, principles, and practices.
In conducting this study within the field of narrative research, I am taking a humanist perspective on education (e.g., Bruner, 1960; Dewey, 1933), viewing it primarily in terms of emotional development and personal growth. From this perspective, educational research involves not only investigations into classroom practices and educational policies, but also into the process of reflective practice as professional development. As teachers engage with narrative as reflective practice (Schon, 1983), the process provides opportunity for them to “explore and understand how different social, cultural, historical, and personal factors influence their educational values and practices and their professional and personal identity” (Gill & Pryor, 2006, p. 288). Furthermore, it is the telling of a life story that helps our understanding of connecting past experiences with our ever changing present perspectives on life, as the plot may be constantly revised as experiences and events occur that enlighten our understanding of past episodes (Kanno, 2003; Linde, 1993). Indeed, as the stories we tell define our sense of self both at a personal level and for others, and are a reflection of our attitudes, beliefs, behavior and values, various writers have come to describe them metaphorically as the “stories we live by” (e. g., Connelly & Clandinin, 1990; Heilbrun, 1988; McAdams, 1993).
In order to get a free-flowing account of Ruth’s teaching life experiences, I asked her to do a taped monologue using a small hand-held recorder. As she reflected back on some of the critical incidents in her teaching life story she began to consider their effect on her present teaching approach and practices and on her own teacher identity. Prompted only by the request to tell her teaching life story Ruth produced a spontaneous narrative that was nearly two hours long, a fascinating account of her teaching life journey. For the purpose of this particular study, as I listened I focused on sections which referred to revelations and conflicts concerning Ruth’s commitment to L2 only classroom policy. Furthermore, in analyzing these I applied Baumeister and Wilson’s (1996) needs for meaning framework, which highlights a story teller’s sense of purpose, moral values, efficacy, and self-worth.
Finding purpose, as expressed implicitly through the events, beliefs and perspectives related in a life story, is perhaps the main concern for a narrator in communicating a satisfactory sense of identity. It involves telling a life story where critical incidents can be valued based on how they have brought about some positive link to their present identity and future development. As well as highlighting the purposive aspect of life narratives, Baumeister and Wilson (1996) also underline the significance of a moral dimension, as we assign value and justification to our actions. They observe that “if purpose gives meaning to specific events by linking them with subsequent positive outcomes, the second need endows events with meaning by linking them with abstract standards of right and wrong” (p. 323). That is, life stories underpinning identity are a reflection of what we value most because they encourage the self-interpretation and evaluation of our moral and ethical standpoints.
It is also important in one’s life story to reflect a sense of efficacy. It is not enough to see positive outcomes as being accidental, fortuitous or resulting from a twist of fate. Rather, people want their stories to show “that the positive outcomes were to some degree a product of their own efforts and actions” (Baumeister & Wilson, 1996, p. 324). This means that dilemmas and conflicts involving significant decisions and choices are often at the heart of good narrative. Using the Joycean concept of epiphanies of the ordinary, Denzin (1988, 1989) considers such moments of revelation as occurring when an individual has to deal with, resolve, and make sense of such dilemmas. Thus, relating a personal narrative can be an empowering act, allowing us to take full possession and control of how we wish to project ourselves to others.
Whereas efficacy implies making a difference through a sense of being in control of one’s life directions and subsequent outcomes, self-worth suggests that the narrator is in some way privileged or superior. Baumeister and Wilson (1996) suggest self-worth is based on stable attributes of personality and self, properties that are seen to elevate the narrator above others. While this may be done explicitly, it is usually communicated in an implicit way, through incidents or comments that can be easily interpreted as demonstrating personal success or a belonging to an elite or privileged group. This may, of course, be extended to one’s reflections on the influence and affect we are able to have on others, on making a difference to the lives of others, those around us, socially or in the workplace
It is the interlinking of these four needs (purpose, morality, efficacy, self-worth) in creating a coherent narrative that gives meaningful self-interpretation to one’s life. As such, “life stories will presumably be constructed so as to suggest that goals and fulfillments were achieved, actions were justifiable and good, efficacy was high, and self-worth was affirmed” (Baumeister & Wilson, 1996, p. 325).
Now I will explore how Ruth’s taped monologue narrative articulates the pedagogic principles and practices that underpin her “benefic authoritarian” approach to TESOL education, and so takes the opportunity to story her teaching life partly as a rationalization and justification of her present practicing professional identity. Early on in her teaching life story Ruth reveals how her belief in the principle of establishing a strict L2 only classroom environment is firmly rooted in experience. In talking about her first teaching experience in Amsterdam after living there for about ten years and becoming a fluent speaker of Dutch, she demonstrates an example of a teaching principle’s emergence from intuitive understanding rather than the result of an education in teaching methodology. This experience took place on her houseboat in Amsterdam when she was persuaded by a group of English expatriate women to teach them Dutch:
And my first rule from the first day, somehow I’d known that English was not going to work, it was going to be Dutch. Only Dutch, and it was instinctive. Gosh, it’s amazing to me now looking back on it. From the first lesson, from the first moment I said “Gooie middag dammes” and I refused to understand a word of English. And if they asked me something in English, I would answer them in Dutch “I don’t understand. Please explain. Please use the dictionary.” And of course my understanding of English did help because I could steer them in the right direction, but in Dutch. And it created a Dutch environment. And I remember the lesson when I did a class outing. It was only about six weeks into this. And we were doing two hours a week by now. But they were incredible. They were running out. They were leaving the boat speaking Dutch and we went off and we went to a bar, and I said the same rule applies. Dutch only. And we went to this bar if I remember correctly, and, well, they asked for drinks in Dutch. And the bar tender answered, could hear their accents, and answered them in English. And I was furious with him. I just leant across the bar and “No. How dare you speak English to my students? These people are learning Dutch.” He laughed and he agreed with it. He said “Hold on. This is cool.” And we continued and we sat down. And they continued speaking Dutch in the bar and on the street going back to the boat.
We can see how Ruth articulates a strong sense of self-worth and satisfaction in that through taking firm control of the classroom culture and setting “rules” of language use she was able to make a difference to these people’s lives by making language learning a truly experiential and dynamic process. In relating the emergence of her central pedagogic principle as intuitive (“somehow I’d known”), we can interpret that she takes the opportunity to assign a highly positive valuation (“Gosh, it’s amazing to me now looking back on it”) as impacting on her present teaching identity. Furthermore, this incident affords her the chance to present herself as being very much in control: her admonition of the barman (“How dare you speak English to my students?”) may have humorous overtones but it is significant as a tacit self-representation of her identity and sense of agency.
Soon after beginning her teaching life, Ruth left Amsterdam, aged 28, and then spent ten years living and teaching in the Dominican Republic. She returned to Amsterdam briefly to take an RSA Teaching certificate, and then aged 37 she returned to the UK and took a BA Degree in Education (TESOL), which she completed at the age of 39. Ruth then went to Japan for the first time and she began teaching in a language school, giving classes to a range of levels and ages. Later, she got a position at a private girls’ high school, which gave her the sense of being “a real teacher in a real high school.” Her first day there has left a lasting impression. She reflects on an episode which shows the students she was given were clearly more used to a permissive breakdown in classroom behavior associated with the so-called ‘classroom collapse’ phenomenon rather than to Ruth’s high expectations of discipline and respect:
I was knocked off my pedestal in my first lesson. I walked in and I had this image of a Japanese high school with all of these students in absolute awe of their teacher. I mean already to commit suicide if they failed their lessons. Cowed abjectly. Fearful of any twitch of the eyebrow of disapproval. And I walked into the classroom and they were just sitting around. And I thought first of all they didn’t realize who I was. And I thought oh my gosh they’re going to be so embarrassed when they realize that this is their teacher. They were plucking eyebrows, they were reading. This was before cell phones so they had like these desk diaries, organizer diary things that were in fashion at the time. Sort of filofax things. They were leafing through these things and chatting with each other and plucking eyebrows and checking their hair in mirrors. The body language, draped over chairs, shoulder to the front of the room. And so I walked to the dais and “good morning ladies” and they sort of sneered at me and I just stood there for a moment totally perplexed.
This represents one of those critical moments in a teacher’s career when she or he makes a key decision about the future direction of a class, and indeed about fundamental guiding pedagogic principles. In Ruth’s case, rather than trying to appease the girls by presenting a friendly, perhaps cajoling approach, she takes a hard line, and as a result is able to completely change the established negative classroom culture. At the moment when she finds herself “totally perplexed” by the students’ behavior, and is desperate to find a positive response to these girls’ disillusionment with what an English class is supposed to be like, Ruth draws on her own past schooling experiences to get her through. Many teachers are inevitably influenced consciously or unconsciously by their own teachers and by their own prior learning experiences and classroom environments. For example, when asked to name the teacher who influenced us most when we were young, we may have very different reasons for choosing those educators that we do. For some it may be a sense of freedom and independence that they encouraged; for others a sense of control and disciplined learning behavior that they instilled. In the following section of her narrative, Ruth paints a very visual image of her influential former secondary school teachers hovering around her almost ghost-like as she stamps her authority on the class:
I’d gone to a, and this is where it’s lucky again, secondary modern school but it was a damn good one. A secondary school for girls. We wore uniforms and we stood up when people entered the class and we listened to our teachers and we were basically a very old-fashioned school and we had a pretty good academic record in those days. And so I came to this classroom with my experience of what a group of uniformed girls does, how they act, what their culture’s like, and it came to my rescue. I think another person might have been cowed by it or tried something else. I just looked at them and a phalanx of my secondary school for girls’ teachers behind me, Mrs Johnson and Mary Hall, Helen Morton, were sort of echoing around behind me and just without thinking I came down from the front and I walked up to the girls and to the first girl who had a filofax and I just picked it up and the next girl I took away her eyebrow tweezers and by the time I’d reached the end of the first row the other six rows had all put away their stuff. They’d gathered this woman is confiscating items and I went back to the front of the classroom and I piled the things on the desk and I said good morning ladies and suddenly they all turned around and they sort of sat up. Because to me this is what you should do in a classroom. You sit up, you sit up straight. You’re gonna learn. You don’t slouch. I know this sounds like I’m a sergeant major at heart. At forty years old I sat up straight for my teachers. And I certainly wasn’t going to have it, and I certainly will not have it, that I have young people slouching in front of me. Anyway, so they all snapped to and once I got them all sitting up straight I took attendance and I put out some class rules, and this is how we act and this is how we do things. And we have English only in our classroom and we are going to do this, this and this.
From her very early teaching experiences when Ruth felt instinctively that having all communication in the second language was of fundamental importance for learning effectively, her strict L2 only principle comes to her rescue as a means of establishing authority and control but with clear pedagogic purpose. It is at this moment when her principle of L2 only use becomes strongly linked to her “benefic authoritarian” approach within an EFL context, a level of discipline strongly impacted by her own schooling experience. While admitting to sounding “like a sergeant major at heart,” laying down class rules and getting these Japanese teenagers to “sit up straight,” the episode also reiterates her authoritarian stance on L2 only policy, as she states categorically “we have English only in our classroom and we are going to do this, this and this.” From then on, Ruth began to develop some key principles in her approach to her teaching and classroom practice concerning discipline, parameters for classroom behavior, as well as the importance of providing a clear rational explanation to students for her approach:
Anyway. So I had these kids and they reacted unbelievably. Obviously it must have been the first day they were trying me out and it spread round to all the classes I think very quickly. This woman is very serious, and if you’re nice to her and you listen, you can have fun lessons. But if you don’t, she’s a monster. You know which is a pretty useful thing to be having around. I think it’s something I still use, in my classrooms, it’s that I’m the coordinator here. I’m setting the boundaries that you want to be set. They want to speak English but in Japan especially they’ve also got this cool street cred thing we can’t speak English, we don’t want to speak English and speaking English is stupid. But if you give them a reason. I say you have to because if you don’t oh god she really is strict about it. So we have to and they’re delighted to go along with this sort of game. And even then you know the ones who say it’s not cool to speak English end up speaking English and they feel good about themselves. And at the end of the year they all speak English. But it only works if the teacher creates an environment in which the students have an excuse to say oh I speak English because I have to. And I’m very clear with them from the beginning, from that time I was very clear, I talk to my students, and I talked to them and I explain to them why I was in the classroom. I talk to them very clearly about the fact that I don’t have to be here for money. I don’t have to be here for any reason. I’m here because I’m a teacher and I want to teach you and I want you to learn English and learning English, learning anything, is wonderful.
Ruth’s view on target language use involves requiring student discipline and the teacher taking authoritarian control of the classroom. While accepting that she is clearly making unilateral decisions regarding her classroom language policy, she sees taking control of establishing an English only classroom culture as a question of taking responsibility as a trained, professional language instructor for her students’ learning. As such, demanding and imposing English only use is about maximizing the use of English and benefiting students’ communicative proficiency. For Ruth, relinquishing that control could be seen as a failure to teach students in a responsible and professional way. In rationalizing and justifying her approach from the students’ perspective, she interprets that she is “setting the boundaries that they want to be set,” boundaries that represent the parameters within which her strict L2 only policy can operate effectively.
Many teachers, however, are not comfortable with taking such control, considering that it may affect their sense of establishing friendliness in their classroom and cause conflict with their students. This is one reason, of course, why many teachers may avoid the enforcement of an L2 only policy, which is so central to Ruth’s principles and practices. Furthermore, Ruth’s language of control, enforcement, and imposition would be certainly unacceptable to many teachers, especially to those who take a more ‘critical’ approach to language pedagogy, and in particular to those who promote the freedom to use L1 in class.
It was while teaching at the high school, and developing a pedagogical platform for her classroom approach, that Ruth began studying part time for her Masters degree in TESOL in Tokyo. It was during her studies that Ruth was able to get her first university position and she subsequently left the high school. At this point in her story she focuses on the transition for students from high school English classes to university English classes, reflecting her cultural understanding of learning background and context, and in so doing she expands on her teaching philosophy and understanding of student psychology:
We’re moving students in Japanese universities from high school where they don’t do any real speaking and they’ve been demoralized. So I think we have to look at the psychology of basically some quite damaged people coming into the class with this feeling of if I don’t speak English, it’s my fault, I’m not good. And so many of them have been in situations where they’ve only answered questions to grammar formats. And we’re saying OK now you’re in university, so for me we have to say OK let’s look at the psychological level you’re at. Most of you are survivors, victims from high schools. And they laugh about this.
Here we can see how Ruth is setting out to justify and rationalize her pedagogical approach, and at the same time reflecting her understanding of the Japanese socio-educational context, of the student and teaching psychology at high schools, and of the affective factors involved in students’ attitude to learning English. Clearly, it is important for humanist teachers that as they confront any classroom dilemma they are aware that “they confront their emotions, their moral beliefs, and the consequences of their teaching practices on the students they teach” (Johnson & Golombek, 2002, p. 5). By using the language of suffering, like being “damaged,” demoralized” and “victims,” Ruth reflects her humanistic angle to her teaching, and at the same time she is verbalizing a moral justification for her approach and the classroom demands she is going to make, indeed suggesting that she represents the high ground position of righter of wrongs. There is then a clear sense of efficacy and self-worth being projected here in a reaffirmation of her strict language policy as a key principle in her teaching career at Japanese universities. She further relates her policy to having a humanistic perspective on her teaching:
And then I say there will be English only in my classrooms. And then we do the easiest topic in the world. What did you do yesterday? And do you know what, after one minute, sixty seconds, there were students who could look at you and say “Finished.” You know this is the extent of my speaking ability. Their concept of speaking is pass the information over like in exercise one, do you like bananas, yes I do, finished. The concept of speaking further isn’t there. The concept of enjoying, of communicating, of using English as a tool, for chatting, for being, is not there. And the idea of everything is at the end of the semester you are going to feel at home in this language, in this target language. You’re going to feel more of a complete human being in this area of your life. It works. It’s amazing. Anyway, so I don’t accept it if you just do one minute about talking what you did yesterday. It’s like oh you guys, let’s change partners and let’s go on and ask questions and talk longer. And by the time they have changed partners two or three times they’ve really got this that they can chat away a bit more. The aim of this class is that when you leave here, you can feel confident about going on to another class. This is what I tell them. I’m very clear about this.
Ruth’s maintenance of her strict L2 only policy is rooted in her understanding of the profound communicative limitations imposed on students by their prior study experience, and of how “the concept of enjoying, of communicating, of using English as a tool, for chatting, for being, is not there.” In emphasizing the potential for her students’ confidence in second language use and proficiency as being concomitant with an actuation of their own sense of self-worth, she is demonstrating the humanistic values that underpin her pedagogical approach (“You’re going to feel more of a complete human being in this area of your life”).
Clearly, Ruth’s narrative demonstrates that L2 only pedagogy is a fundamental principle of her practicing professional identity. Her appreciation of language as a “living wonderful organic whole” and her desire to communicate this to her students, with the “setting of boundaries” for engaging them in real communicative language use, reflects a keen critical understanding and knowledge of their previous high school English experience. Her reflections on her practices and principles within her teaching life narrative can be seen as an example of when “professional practice is located within a whole-life perspective, it has the capacity to transform our accounts and our understanding” (Goodson & Sikes, 2001, p. 71). Her L2 only policy and practices, when considered as part of her humanistic approach to understanding her students, can be viewed as promoting a skill and confidence that empowers them to participate actively in future English classes and in other opportunities to use English as this closing comment shows:
The joy that gives me when I see them on their own doing things without me. And they know they’ve taken control themselves. And that is so empowering for them. Because that gives them the knowledge that when they go on in the future to any English language situation that they are capable of functioning in that. And that should be the aim of all L2 teachers.
While Ruth’s narrative is not typically one of resistance in a critical sense, it does represent a resistance to the recent critical pedagogic trend in TESOL of greater acceptance of teacher and student L1 use. In telling her teaching life story in relation to the socio-educational and cultural context in which she works, her narrative demonstrates a reaffirmation of her unwavering, fundamental commitment to L2 only policy as an essential part of her practicing professional identity. Furthermore, it reveals a pedagogic rationale behind her “benefic authoritarian” approach to managing a participatory and communicative classroom with her teaching mission to engage students in an appreciation of English as a “living organic whole” and as a language that they can start to use for genuine communication. To obtain Ruth’s story of professional development I used a taped monologue technique which allows the participant free rein in structuring and determining content of that story. I hope this technique can offer a useful option for future narrative studies of teachers’ reflective practice.
I would like to thank the teacher referred to in this article as Ruth for her generous participation and willingness to share with others her pedagogic standpoint and some of her story of professional development. At the time of writing, while she is no longer a teacher in Japan, she has moved on to another country to share her valuable teaching skills and humanistic values with others as a teacher trainer.
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