Who do I think I am?

I just read Tyson Seburn’s post “Who do you think you are?“, loved it, and decided to have a go myself. The other day I’d also watched the recording of the discussion panel on teacher identity at the IATEFL/TESOL Joint Webconference Tyson was a part of, so I read the post with interest. It in, Tyson responds to and reflects on the same questions which guided the discussion bringing forward a lot of interesting issues.

The questions and my own scribblings, then…

Who are you?

First name Matthew, last name Noble. Son of Chris and Bette. Chris is retired now, but was a lawyer. He decided to go to ‘go square’ and attend law school only after studying the drugs Indian mystics took to make sure they had the best visions (it’s that sort of cheating?). Bette (1944-2002) was doing a project on sustainable agriculture when they met at Benares Hindu Univeristy…so I’m a ‘child of India’ in that way. Bette was mostly a freelance writer during her life. Bette was also a sometime ESL tutor in our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Maybe that had something to do with my interest and who I’d become?

I was raised in a multicultural environment. We often had international tenants living in our house,  I went to a progressive and diverse Quaker elementary school, there were a lot of former civil rights activists around for dinner. I chose Malcolm X as “my hero” to write a paper about in 6th grade. I remember being most amazed, reading his autobiography, by a sense of how much freedom he finally found in leaving the US and meeting a larger, meta-national community of people in Mecca. I had a real sense, even then, that it was extremely important to leave the US, to burst the bubble of one’s one environment, culture, familiar world. Maybe that had something to do with my interest and who I’d become?

I could write several more paragraphs, all ending with “maybe that had something to do with my interest and who I’d become?

…but I don’t wanna. Instead, I’ll get back to where I started and the concrete sense of being a member of a particular family in a particular place. That family and that place definitely had something to do with my interest and who I’d become. Reading that back, I’m actually sort of surprised at myself. I guess I’m getting older. I supposed I’ll add that I’m 38 right now.

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What is your teaching philosophy? 

To this question Tyson Seburn wrote: “Ugggh. That one’s the worst” and for my part I’d say: not a truer word could be spoken. I wholeheartedly agree, which is ironic because I recommend the composition of one to trainee teachers all the time. I suppose it’s more of a feeling-based reaction than an intellectual one, because I know how important it is to articulate beliefs. But really the important thing isn’t the paragraphing of some kind of bold, thorough statement of beliefs as if it would hold as a ‘constitution’; rather, it’s the process, the actual brain- and heart-power and exploratory intent directed towards the bright (though dim at times) light of “what do I believe in?…what makes me want to teach, and teach the way I do?” and it may or may not be easy or even worthwhile to capture in paragraph form. I’ve attempted to compose a ‘final’ type of teaching philosophy statement several times, but perhaps inevitably they really don’t seem to have much staying power – they weaken as soon as I cap the pen or minimize the window…because I’m so busy, instead, instead, trying to live those questions constantly (which may contribute to accounting for of my high levels of interest and engagement in the field existing alongside relatively low levels of very conventional/concrete productivity…like, actually attempting “answers” to the questions in article or book form, for example..but I digress).

I loved the image Tyson used for his blog, which really animates this sense of something moving to much to pin down, composing and eroding simultaneously, in flux:

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From: http://bit.ly/2gW8yJe

But right now I am writing, and the make-up of my mind as it is now has me thinking about three of the many puzzle pieces (that keep changing shape) which I can say fit together, mostly, to form an image of me, mostly, as above:

 > Pacifism: I mentioned the Quaker school above, but not my dad’s overtly non-religious but sincerely pacifistic Quakerism (expressed, for example, in his conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war). That was passed down to me. And I do, I think, clearly perceive and frame my activity in the ELT realm as a pacifistic, peace-building endeavor. Basically I want to avoid soulless work buying, selling, or processing stuff, just like Lloyd Dobbler…but more than that, I want to do work that I feel promotes peace. (I’ll add that I’ve literally had to ‘make peace’/mediate potential in-class violence once in my career, and it was a room full of teacher-learners, not English students).

 > Multiculturalism:  I also already mentioned the multiculturalism that my marked childhood environment. I suppose I see myself as a ‘multiplier’ of culture(s), not so much as a cultural ambassador for any kind of monolithic cultural entity competing with others. I try to be very sensitive about when and how materials I may be using seem to be presenting some problematic cultural bias. I originally became a teacher of English initially as a way to be a student of culture and language and history different from my own. I feel as though I am still the student in many ways no matter what position I take in a classroom or courseroom.

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 > Buddhism. My best friend’s family was Buddhist and I started to read about Buddhism and Buddhist texts and started joining in Buddhist meditation retreats when I was sixteen.  I found the psychology very helpful and the cosmology very fascinating, and of course the pacifism resonant. I ended up with a BA in Comparative Religion, but really focused on Buddhist philosophy (along with a minor in Conflict Resolution). Clearly, I wasn’t all that career-oriented! But what I was was interested in what happens in those spaces within and between people. Perhaps this explains why my favorite ELT quote of all is Earl Stevick‘s “Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”. I perceive and make sense of many of the most crucial skills I’ve developed (no – am developing) as a teacher in terms that I originally found in Buddhism, like the mindfulness required to facilitate and scaffold instructional conversations, or give explicit corrective feedback in a radically non-judgmental fashion with a sense of a non-duality between right and wrong. And most concretely, it was the opportunity to teach English to Buddhist monks at a rural Sri Lankan monastery school that made me take my first dive into language instruction.

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Image from: https://literacyteaching.net/2015/07/10/

What does it mean to you personally to have a professional identity?

It gives me a feeling of purpose, and of self-worth. Going back to family, I think it is likely very important for me to feel like a “professional” on a deep psychological level because both of my parents had clear professional identities. They were both always extremely open to whatever I might ‘become’ in terms of work and career, so I don’t think I ever felt explicit pressure to make choices based on expectations. But I’m aware that I do expect myself to “live up” in some sense to the challenge of establishing a professional identity…based on work that you believe in, that is perceived as valuable to yourself and your community.

I recently read this blog post  from Elly about the experience of friends and family not quite taking this career seriously:

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And boy can I relate. I think some kind of positive, concrete identity can be a kind of bulkhead against these waves, as wont as I am to ‘go with the flow’ and make it ‘not about me’ in all sort of ways. Actually, it IS about me – it’s my career.

But I don’t think that developing and maintaining a positive professional identity is particularly easy in ELT. It certainly has not been for me. Listen to me and my understatements. Shall I re-write those last two sentences? Developing and maintaining a positive professional identity in ELT is possible but as far as full-spectrum professional resources and support it’s a fucking shitshow people.  I’ve clawed tooth and nail, through thick and thin, to get to this special happy place where I can even consider myself vaguely accomplished. Goddammit! 

Whew. Okay…we’re back. Hey, I feel…cleansed. Back to our regularly scheduled program:

I have probably experienced more overall identity insecurity and negativity since I started in 2004 than the opposite, but at some point I tipped the scales towards a positive, productive, and healthy sense of self as an ELT person and it’s ‘snowballing’ now.

Although I’m working as a teacher trainer right now, I would say that my identity is primarily based on the feeling of a joyful absorption (jhana in Buddhist terms) I feel in an ESL classroom as a teacher/guide working with the ‘inside and between’ stuff and language knowledge and skills that can connect people and cultures across boundaries. *I wrote that sentence thinking about how I felt this morning given the opportunity to sit down with a learner one to one for 30 minutes. It stuck me so viscerally: this makes me feel happy. As does working with new and potential teachers, knowing that I’m introducing something that I know to be so wonderful.

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How far is it useful to be conscious of your identity as a teacher? 

I think Tyson makes great points about how non-static/fluid identity is, and how it’s a “starting point” for new experiences and new growth. I think it’s a starting point for connecting with others. At the annual TESOL shindig you meet 100s of other teachers and the first thing you do is share where/who you teach (or play “spot the info on the name tag without seeming rude”)…but it’s anywhere from there.

And with students – they want and need to know you as a complex, sometimes contradictory, normal person, sure, but also as a known amount: a teacher who does this because they believe this, who doesn’t put up with this because this is their stance on this.

And of course the more conscious of the fluidity of your identity as a teacher, and the conditionality of it, the more able you are to try to set conditions that favor growth. Even when they sometimes cause pain. I remember asking to be observed and fellow teachers looking at me like I was crazy to want the extra stress and likely pain of critique. But I was looking for experiences that I knew would likely instigate some kind of growth. These days I try to ask assessors for extra bits of criticism they might give of my feedback session, or whatnot. I think to the extent that I’m conscious of my identity – or rather, the open-ended and open-to-change nature of my identity as a teacher – the hungrier I am for not just critique specifically but…dunno, identity-instigation. Things that will force me to ask, yet again, who am I? Why do I do this?

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How far is a teacher’s identity linked to their sense of value, and how can teachers’ associations foster this sense of identity and value?

I’ve been to a few state-level conferences and 6 TESOL conventions. Sadly, I’ve never been to IATEFL or any other conference outside the US (we all need goals). But I’ll say this: when I walk down the corridors from session to session at a TESOL convention I feel a very strong sense of tribal communion. A near-spiritual humming of identity-confluences and overlapping egos…it’s great. It’s important. It’s invaluable, really. And I stay plugged into the ELT borg-matrix through the greater PLN on twitter and FB, the blogs, iTDi.pro, etc. All of it fosters a sense of identity which, without any of it, could really be weakened (let me also just mention here the precariousness of ELT and ground all this idealism in a reality of sometimes looking for abstracted satisfactions where for many, well-apportioned vacation travel does the trick).

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What experiences have most deeply affected your own sense of professional identity?

So many. I think I’ll just list a bunch, whatever springs to mind, in no particular order…joining in iTDi webinars (for teachers, by teachers!) as both presenter and participant, having an ELT book sent to me by a member of my online PLN, once being walked out on by unhappy students before turning it around to be a great class, starting to have courage to submit proposals..and have presentations accepted, being encouraged by trainees to write a book, being contacted by fellow teachers with questions and “i thought of yous”, positive feedback from ESL students, finding a well-professionalized position, having my dad say he was proud of me and the work I was doing, moving back to the US and maintaining/evolving an identity I’d developed abroad (I wasn’t 100% sure about this), marrying a ‘non-native speaker’ and across cultures, writing this blog, finding old materials I created in piles of papers and seeing their value afresh, feeling like I can (and will) move to any number of places to follow the paths of the work, seeing trainees succeed in their work, knowing someone out there is reading this…and so many more…each and every day…and by saying that there are so many I hope not to water the whole thing down. Of course there are big ones, with real, lasting impact, and then there’s “the little things”. But it all matters. It’s just how I feel, because I’m pretty much ensconced and as my brother used to say, I’m a ‘meaning junkie’.

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Finally, I’ll say that many of the experiences that have most deeply affected my own sense of professional identity are not directly mine; they are those of other teachers sharing their stories and their own expressions of identity…but these things don’t feel so other. In fact, they almost feel like my experiences – like shared experiences between members of a ‘tribe’ who share a bond that verges on psychic. Which is why the joint webconference was so great, especially sessions 3 and 4 on teacher identity. And why iTDI is so important, and all the connections between teachers and experiences on twitter and blogs, not to mention in the staffroom at work. We’re in this together, and our identities as professionals don’t only exist inside us alone, they’re also between us teachers and between us and all of our learners. Maybe this is actually what we ‘buy, sell, and process’ in this work. Just don’t tell Lloyd Dobler that. And it’s almost as good as kickboxing, but don’t tell Lloyd Dobler that either. 😉

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How does any of that resonate with or against your puzzle pieces? Consider a blog post with the question prompts, or simply leaving a note in the comments section…

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6 thoughts on “Who do I think I am?

  1. Matthew – thanks for this amazing reflection on the questions I answered! It’s so nice to get to know more about you through this post that I may not otherwise have known (at least not yet–until we have convo in person too). One part that struck me was “In fact, they almost feel like my experiences – like shared experiences between members of a ‘tribe’ who share a bond that verges on psychic.” Well put. Our identities are shaped by and with others; its our connections where our strengths lie, both in celebrating our differences and our similarities. I hope the world remembers that.

    Liked by 1 person

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