Rethinking the Teacher Past for the Sake of The Researcher Now

2012-04-19 14.50.02

As I grapple with writing research again, I am appreciative of the experience I had when compiling my arts-based thesis in 2005.  I came across the following arts-based narrative text while reading my thesis and thought it fitting to include the piece here for this blog.  I have edited the original text so as to emphasize the key points that connect to my present thoughts on research writing.

I am currently rediscovering the value of negotiating teacher identity and am looking back at those times when I felt like a naïve practitioner.  This following arts-based narrative details my first official year of teaching in Korea 1996 and the tensions existent in my practice at that time.  Skip ahead almost 17 years, and I am here again in Korea, carrying with me remnants of that past time but with a better awareness of how those experiences have shaped my current practice.

The retelling of my lived history as a novice teacher (1996) as written for my thesis (2005) and its resonance to my future (both in 2005 and the here and now of 2013) are powerful moments of narrative for me in terms of the temporality of experience.  I would like to think I’ve come along way as a teacher but there are certain themes prevalent within my current teacher researcher identity such as travel and negotiation of self that will undeniably always be a part of who I am.  And in hindsight (and foresight), I wouldn’t have it any other way…

Leaving Canada and Teaching in a Foreign Country 1996-1997 Seoul, Korea

The stories that these new teachers tell of their lives as student teachers and beginning teachers [are]…acts of meaning (Bruner, 1990) through which they are making sense of the work of teaching. (O’Connell Rust, 1994, p.9).

The following arts-based narrative account retells my first in-service year as a teacher in Seoul, Korea.  Originally written in 2001 as the third section of a collaborative endeavour, I rework it here with artistic (re)visions.  I present the rewritten piece as a mythical legend, an account of what transpired the year I left Canada unsure of my teacher identity.

There are two points of view found in the story.   The third-person narrative voice written in bold italics centre-spaced italicized font belongs to the character who finds a book lying facing up in a field.  The first-person voice, written in normal font recounts my personal and professional experiences from my first year of teaching.  The two voices merge to tell the tale of my continuing struggles with my teacher identity.

Following the tale, I place a reflective letter that attempts to summarize parts of my past teacher experiences and to further make connections to current in-service ones.  I both begin and end the letter with the address “To Whom It May Concern” because in way, I am speaking to myself and in another, I am speaking to the reader.  I assume that the contents of the letter are for both the reader and I to learn from and so, I chose an appropriate address that represents all “concerned”.

I am continually negotiating my Canadian Teacher identity attempting to make further connections to my (re)conceptualizations of diversity and my desire to find ways of teaching for peace.  I do think that my intentions are a concern for all involved in the classroom but I will let the reader decide.


Once upon a time, a book was lying face up in the midst of dense forestation.

A traveler has left the book behind.  Perhaps the traveler does not know that it has fallen out of his belongings.

From a distance, a reader notices a discolored patch of grass up ahead.  The slow footsteps of the reader can be heard approaching the book.  Upon closer view and through the mist from the waterfall, the reader sees it open to a page.  Quickly thumbing the pages and perusing the story in case its owner returns, the reader makes some mental notes.  This author is definitely a traveler.  He is also a writer and maybe, a teacher.  Sensing solitude, the reader begins….

When my last year of teacher education came to an end, I was so unsure about my career choice.  I did not feel like a teacher.  In early 1996, I researched the possibility of teaching and traveling abroad.  I wanted to enrich my teacher self garnering more experience.   Traveling to a different place seemed reasonable.  I would have more time to think and learn how to teach.  But—I would have to leave Canada.

I put together applications, sent them off and repeated this process at least a dozen times.  Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, Singapore, China, Madrid, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and other lands.  I did not want to limit myself.  I wanted the world!

And so I waited.  I sat on my dream for about three months.

When news about Korea arrived, I felt both excitement and trepidation.  What had I done?  What was I doing?  What was going to happen?

I left for Korea in the fall of 1996.  I hid my anxiety from family and friends.  The 17-hour flight went by quickly.  I arrived three days earlier than my housemate.  Within these first three days, I met the school principal, the staff leader and both the Korean and the Foreign teachers.

The night of my roommate’s arrival, I sat down in my apartment and contemplated this new life.   As I waited for him, I found myself alone yet again.  My first teaching job was to start the next day.   I thought about my new surroundings and started to tear.  I was frightened.

The mist begins to thicken and the reader must take shelter under a nearby tree.  Because of the dampness in the air, the ink on the page appears to be smudging.  The reader hopes the owner will not be perturbed, will not feel violated.  In the journal, his words sound unsure, and the reader does not want to heighten senses of insecurity.  The reader finds a sheltering branch nearby.  Footsteps to the right.  Under the sheltering limbs of a sycamore, the reader continues….

The first days terrified me.  Bombarded with a new culture, I felt overwhelmed.  At the school, some North American teachers were great.  Most offered sound advice.  Others did not.  Some teachers were in Korea to just make money.  Not to teach.  When with them, I felt ashamed to be from North America, from Canada.  Phony teachers.  I felt ashamed to be associated with them…

For a little while, I had to convince people I was Canadian.  It seemed odd.  Because I (proudly) carried physical Filipino traits, I fascinated people.  Yes, fascinated.  That’s a great way to describe it.

By the fall of 1996, I established a teaching pattern.  The Korean Hogwan (Learning Centre) offered ESL programs from Kindergarten to Adult.  As a novice teacher, I taught the 7 to 14 year-olds, a common entry point for most new teachers.

I conducted all my lessons straight from a teaching manual provided by the school.  I followed the manual religiously, praising it when activities worked and condemning it when they didn’t.  Overall, I was teaching well, received adequate progress reports and seemed comfortable.  Soon, however, the tides began to change.

I was asked to be the new kindergarten teacher.  I told my supervisor that I knew nothing of 4 year-olds let alone ones who barely spoke English.  He believed the work I was doing, my adamant following of the almighty manual, meant I was capable of following the kindergarten manual.  I wanted to shout, “The older kids want to learn, they enjoy the simple activities from the book, I think….I would have to really provoke learning from these little ones.…I would have to work at teaching them.…I don’t want to break my pattern!”

BUT—I didn’t.

For the first few days, teaching kindergarten seemed reasonable.  I followed the manual.  By the second month, I was so tired.  I had no understanding of the kids’ abilities, I was feeling run down, my lessons were scattered and by the end of the term, the chaos was affecting all of my classes and my health as well.  My confidence and my energy dropped.  My once successful pattern disappeared from my classroom.

New tides were necessary.

I decided I could not set a pattern in all of my classes.  Each level had different needs.  Kindergarten class needed numerous activities and so I created activities where I was not the only one talking.  There would be some writing, some drawing, some reading, and some playmaking and so on.  I drew upon my own experiences as a kindergarten student.

I found I could apply some of these artistic activities to the older students as well.  Elementary students enjoyed the playmaking and high school kids loved the drawing.  The Arts were serving a purpose.

I felt it best to yell only to show dramatics, heighten energy or emphasize a point.  I never yelled at a student because I learned it was pointless.

After awhile, my teaching began to change.  I felt a lot of respect from the kids and fellow colleagues.  By the fifth month, my teaching showed no concrete patterns anymore.  There was negotiation of the lesson, of the manual, of the kids, of my past experiences and consequently, I believed I was finally learning to teach.

From these experiences, I learned to negotiate my role of teacher.  To this day, I never forget my place with students.  I am no better, no smarter, and no wiser than these individuals.  There is always room for us, both myself and the students, to live and learn.  And on days when my teaching lacks focus, I know I have resources—my own, from others, from the kids—to help me out.

My time in Korea shaped and continues to shape all of my current teacher practices.  Found in my classroom are remnants of all those past experiences, both good and bad.  They have been collected separately and placed within my teacher suitcase.

Theory, practice, experiences and my life, form a tapestry of my self (ves) within the classroom space.  These pieces are (were) collected over time.  To me, learning weaves experiences within the collage of self(ves).  The maps, the travels, the journals—I feel as if ….

Footsteps in the distance interrupt the reading.  The reader hears frantic steps scurrying through the dense bush as if someone is in search. Perhaps, it is the traveler looking for his book.  The reader rises and runs back to the patch of grass imprinted with the journal’s outline.  Carefully aligning the cover with the imprint, the reader returns the journal to its original position and then hides behind the sycamore.  Shortness of breath and sighs of relief merge in the aromatic misty air.  The traveler collects his book and is gone. 

In the distance, the traveler, writer, teacher walks briskly.  He returns to his immediate task and makes his way to the waterfall with the book safely in tow.

THE END (the beginning)

A Letter about Negotiating My Early Understandings of Teacher Identity

To Whom It May Concern:

I am a relatively new teacher and my experiences collected over the past 17 years in the classroom connect to my past, continue in the present and find themselves in my current and future practices. The narrative about my first-year experiences recount the tensions of learning to teach as well as my constant negotiation of my Canadian Identity.

I currently understand that my time in Korea strengthened the foundation of my layered self(ves); my experience abroad presented more negotiation of my ethnicity and difference from others.  As a Canadian of visible minority status in a mostly homogeneous community, I had to learn how to express my Canadian identity.  In Korea, some people wanted to know the ethnicity behind my Canadian self because my external traits suggested to them that I could not have been 100% Canadian.

Why?  What does a Canadian look like?  Why couldn’t I offer an exact explanation?  How do I define my Canadian Identity?

Learning to Change

As a student in school, I remembered “good” teachers as those that made me feel comfortable.  As Crowhurst (1994) writes, “liking and trust for the teacher are positive forces that can facilitate the learning process” (p.236).  When I lived in Korea, I also had to learn to trust myself.  I had to remember experiences from the past to make positive changes for the present.  I had to remember to allow for change.

In my story entitled “Belongings,” I began to see that classrooms needed to accommodate all experiences. The classroom “cannot be treated as static totality.  It is constantly lived, experienced, reordered by those who move through it…. We must look at kids both historically and spatially” (Nespor, 1997,94).  When I established a pattern within my classes based on teaching directly from a manual, I seemed to think I was successful.  I learned differently however when I took over the kindergarten class; all other classes began to suffer.  Again, I looked back on past experiences and made changes.

I had to learn to be willing to change.

From: To Whom It May Concern



Crowhurst, M. (1994).  Language & Learning Across the Curriculum, (Chapter 10).  Scarborough, ON: Allyn &  Bacon.

Nespor, J.  (1997). Neighborhood Intersections, (Chapter 3, pp.84-117). Tangled up in School: Politics, Space, Bodies, & Signs in the Educational Process.   Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishing.

O’Connell Rust, F. (1994) Professional Conversations: New Teachers Explore Teaching Through Conversation,      Story and Narrative. Teaching and Teacher Education 15(4), 367-80.