Qualitative research enquiry into teacher professional practice has commonly employed one of the related modes of self-study, narrative enquiry, life history or auto-ethnography. In the use of such methods to investigate work contexts, Denshire (2014) has particularly highlighted the capacity to “destabilize boundaries between a professional’s work and the rest of their life, and break through the dichotomy between selves and others”. The element common to all these methodologies is reflection. Reflection attempts to bring coherence to make meaning of experience, using both observation and inference (Dewey 1933/1986), a critical ‘conversation’ with the self (Schön 1987; 1991), and sometimes, critique of the fundamental assumptions on which our beliefs have been found (Mezirow 1990). Hamilton et al. (2008) represent self-study as a broad field which may use diverse methods to provide the evidence and context for understanding practice. As has been the case in this study, self-study research often begins in discussion that may outline a problem of practice, and then proceeds to select a mode of reflection, in this case, narrative enquiry. Narrative enquiry identifies experience as a story which becomes meaningful through interpretation. The narrative enquiry researcher tracks process, experience and progress of the work through narrative writing. Building on recommendations (Barkhuizen et al. 2013) and the methodology of other studies (e.g. Clandinin and Connelly 2000; Liu and Xu, 2011; Tsui, 2007) this study designed its self-study process into three methodological steps:
Both researchers acted as narrative writers. They independently wrote texts of first person reflective narrative exploring their history and relationship with language and culture teaching and learning, and Chinese language teaching in particular. These texts are the data of the study.
Each researcher individually and alone, read the other’s narrative data carefully. This involved reading and making sense of the narrative data, coding for themes and recurring concepts, and writing up an interpretation.
Using Skype and email communication, the researchers compared their thematic interpretations, engaged in dialogic negotiation, and developed a collaborative analysis. Through categorization and classification, particular instances of events in the data are linked to more general relevant concepts, and relationships can be identified between background influence, community membership and identity. The narratives have been placed within a third person framework of analysis and commentary.
With Armour (2004) we understand that the data are neutral, and it is the analysis, based on researchers’ interpretations and perceptions, that reveals aspects of the narrators’ identity construction and trajectory.
Analysis of data and findings
Analysis of Narrative A data
Narrator A describes herself as coming from a “less traditional” Chinese family in Beijing in the 1980s. Her father’s job in an international company brought the family lots of opportunities to see and try new things when she was young. She notes:
I can still recall how smart and proud he looked when he was typing English on a typewriter. Growing up in a “modern” family, I am not afraid of trying new things and new ideas, and I see learning English as a fun and life-changing experience.
Narrator A identifies strongly with learning English, which represents to her something foreign, new and useful. However, locally, she “soon tasted disappointment in studying English as a major in a university in Beijing”. Her Chinese professors taught strictly by the book, going methodically through vocabulary and exercises in the textbooks, allowing students few opportunities to speak English in class. She was not able to identify herself, or align her imagined bigger picture of what it meant to learn English, with this traditional Confucian pedagogy. However, an important turning-point occurred when she was taught by some Native English Teachers (NETs) from English-speaking countries. These teachers, reconnecting with her initial conception of English as Western, fun, and useful,
… evoked my interest and enthusiasm in learning English, and taught me how to put language into use through engaging activities and authentic materials in life presentation, which has deeply shaped my perspective on teaching. I started to think about being a teacher in the future.
My goal was to be able to teach Chinese in the way that my NET teachers had done, which had motivated me in learning a foreign language.
These role models brought about an investment of the self in her choice of career. They initiate an imagination that Chinese could be taught with the same engaging pedagogy to which she had responded so positively in English. She decides to emulate these role models, in positioning her professional identity as a teacher of Chinese as foreign language. She hopes to belong to an imagined community similar to that of the NET models, where alternative pedagogy is the norm. To achieve this goal, she joined a postgraduate programme to become a certified Chinese teacher. She was again faced with a misalignment of her identity, against the other students’ credentials, as she was the only student in the programme who had not majored in the first degree in Chinese. This difference in her major, the result of her choice for English study, placed her outside what was positioned as the ‘legitimate’ identity for a ‘good’ Chinese teacher. The other students are reflecting the institution’s academic approach:
My classmates constantly made me feel that I could never be as legitimate as they were as a teacher of Chinese. In their view, a good Chinese teacher must have a Chinese major and must be able to teach grammar like a living dictionary.
Her peers bring their practice and beliefs ‘in line’ with the broader institution, whereby the identity of an institution becomes the identity of its conforming participants. This alignment process involves power, which can be adversely exercised towards an outsider whose identity is not “in line”. Varghese et al. (2005) suggest that in teaching contexts, issues of access, participation and social engagement are always reflections of larger institutional and national ideologies.
Despite this experience of alienation, Narrator A was one of the few Masters students to get any teaching practice because the faculty needed teachers with good English skills. She found a part-time teaching job which led to a full faculty position in University X. Struggling with her identity process in this environment, however, Narrator A tries to negotiate meaning surrounding her work. She recognizes that her choices, and her knowledge, have placed her outside the officially accredited and valued knowledge.
It soon became clear to me that I was stuck in a “Chinese-English” dilemma. On one hand, I was encouraged to see that my English ability was regarded as valuable asset in building up a good career path. On the other hand, I found that teachers with a non-Chinese major background were largely marginalized in the faculty because senior scholars deemed our knowledge of Chinese as “problematic and less solid” than Chinese major graduates.
Members whose meanings are consistently rejected and whose experiences are considered irrelevant, and hence not accepted as a form of competence, will develop an identity of marginality (Tsui 2007). Narrator A nevertheless shows a sense of agency in continuing to independently develop innovative practice. While her teaching was highly valued in student evaluation surveys, her efforts to improve teaching pedagogy were never taken seriously by senior scholars. Recognising her marginalized identity,
I agonized a long time before I came to a conclusion that the career trajectory to reach full participation in a Chinese academic department was not exactly what I wanted. Even though the community had offered me a qualification to teach and a job in a university, I was not encouraged to offer new thoughts on teaching.
To innovate in her pedagogy, and to stretch beyond the local, had become the most important elements of her professional engagement, and meaning negotiation. Having this aspect of her professional identity invalidated, Narrator A left the community of University X for a doctoral program in Hong Kong. Narrator A reflects on the change in her teaching philosophy and how the doctoral program changed her perceptions. When she started teaching, she pushed her students to memorize “at least 50 characters a week” and she set up unrealistic goals. But she reflects:
When I look back, I find I was only domesticating my foreign students to be Chinese! Through my doctoral program in Hong Kong, I learnt how to respect individual differences and value the quality of communication in the classroom. I realized I must become a human before I act like a teacher, as teaching is fundamentally a human behavior.
Just as she was negotiating her teacher ‘self’, and the human relationships involved in teaching, she reports that she started to see the importance of creating meaning, rather than just sentence structure, in her students’ learning. Learner construction of meaning through language is a fundamental tenet of Western language education today (Kramsch 1993; 2014). Her pedagogy featured activities and tasks to engage her students in classroom learning and to ensure they could all use the language in the class. Her goal became for them to learn happily and to find learning Chinese meaningful to their personal life and career development.
Narrator A’s academic identity is constructed within both Chinese and English, engaged in the East-west discourse. She uses the negative metaphor “trapped” however to denote her lack of agency, in a space which offers her no community, and no sense of being able to access the outbound trajectory she desires:
It sounds promising as a bilingual teacher but most of the time I feel I’m trapped in a limbo. I belong to neither the English nor the Chinese community.
Narrator A writes that she is willing to learn and work hard to achieve full participation in a community that encourages alternative approaches and free expression of research interests. The academic community frustrated her trajectory, however, in not recognizing her to work in a way that engaged her knowledge and identity.
Nevertheless, Narrator A continues to seek a professional community aligned with her practice and identity outside the Chinese academic community. She has written papers in Chinese on problems in pedagogy, but these have attracted skepticism from the community of academic authorities, and positioned as marginal to ‘serious’ Chinese teaching and learning. In contrast, she has sent English language papers to English journals and they have been published quickly with good impact. This reinforces her perception that her identity and trajectory are exiting from the core CFL community, and heading out towards the international, as this is where they are valued and affirmed.
Narrator A has developed an intellectual independence, and confidence in the value of her innovative teaching philosophy. This has enabled her to understand the difficulty of her students in learning Chinese, and the importance of intercultural communication, not only in the classroom, but also in collaboration with teachers and researchers from diverse contexts. This has thrown critical light on her position in the community of Chinese teaching and research.
Analysis of Narrative B data
Narrator B describes herself as an Angloceltic Australian from a family in which she was the first person to study foreign languages at university. She graduated as a young teacher of French and German in the 1970s. She later took up study of Japanese and negotiated further shift in identity through acquiring her Japanese language self. Armour (2004) has presented an analysis of this dual role of learner-teacher in Narrator B’s language learning experience.
She moved into teaching Japanese in the 1990s and became active in the Japanese teacher community, which she found to be friendly, inclusive, and featuring a balance of native/non-native speakers. Through organising exchange programs with Japanese school groups, she developed a commitment to the broader intercultural development she saw in students and their families, where perceptions, bias, and racism, were constantly challenged:
I saw that learning Japanese particularly changed the sometimes insular outlook of Australian children and their families. A critical intercultural approach to life and language learning became important to me, both personally and professionally.
She visited Japan on numerous occasions, for language courses, school trips, and to visit Japanese friends. She writes:
Hindsight may be rose-coloured, but I do not remember anxiety about using my fledgling language, which grew quite rapidly in confidence. I grew into a warm sense of belonging as a competent non-native speaker, with a sense of linguistic and professional agency.
It seems that without tension, Narrator B transferred her teaching style from the European languages to Japanese, albeit with some adaptations, creating activities, games, role-plays, ways of teaching the three scripts, for purposeful enjoyable learning. Japanese was successfully “brought in”, integrated and adapted to the constructivist pedagogy of Australian schools. Rightly or wrongly, this model of adaptation served later as the template of her assumption that the same could be achieved in Chinese.
Following doctoral study, Narrator B transitioned to tertiary teaching in language teacher education in 2009. She enjoys teaching languages methodology to a multi-language group of pre-service language teachers and appreciates the responsibility involved, that in training effective language teachers, she is helping children to eventually experience positive language learning in their classrooms:
In my workshops I model the pedagogies of constructivist learning that I want the pre-service teachers to use in their own classes: active group tasks, enquiry learning, critical thinking about culture, games for meaningful language use. I expected, perhaps illogically, that the CFL pre-service teachers could make pedagogical adaptation as I had done in Japanese, even though they were working with a different education schema in their head.
However, the Chinese pre-service teachers communicated that they had great difficulty in understanding the Australian student, the style of pedagogy she was promoting, and the expected teacher role. With insufficient knowledge of the CFL pre-service teachers’ different educational backgrounds, she had made assumptions, arising from her own Western education, as to the teachers’ understanding. As she increased her background knowledge of China, she realised the gap between educational schema that made understanding difficult for her students. Narrator B felt dismayed by the findings of a national report on CFL in schools (Orton 2008) which had highlighted the alarming 96 % drop-out rate from CFL studies before the final year of secondary school. The report pointed to pedagogy as one factor in this poor outcome, and difficulties in China-educated teachers adapting to local Australian educational culture. In becoming more deeply involved in CFL teacher training and research, Narrator B had two purposes: as a teacher educator, she cared about the struggles that CFL teachers were experiencing and, as a former classroom teacher, she wanted Australian children to experience the same broadening experience learning Chinese, as she had witnessed in Japanese classrooms.
Narrator B also returned to her earlier role as language learner. Her motivation to study Chinese was both the pleasure of exploring a new language and culture, but also to understand first-hand the challenges in learning Chinese from the Australian learner perspective. As she had also done in Japanese study earlier, in addition to learning language, she immersed herself in reading Chinese fiction in translation.
Together with wide reading and several trips to China, I have acquired beginner level Chinese language. I have achieved only patchy progress, but I love the excitement of a new fledgling language persona.
While some simple language ability served to create links with her pre-service CFL teachers, and created a feeling of personal involvement in her research focus, she understands that that without advanced language competence, she cannot consider herself a scholar in the CFL community. Nevertheless, she hoped to create some form of inbound trajectory into the CFL academic community:
I would like to be, through my investment in CFL teacher training and my research, a peripheral contributor to the CFL community.
A negative turning point in this imagined inbound trajectory into membership of the CFL community, however, has been her attendance at two “international” CFL conferences, one in Australia, one in China. In both instances, she was the only non-Chinese academic there. Every research paper was presented monolingually in Chinese, without translation, bilingual presentation slides or abstracts. She is mindful of the perceived arrogance of the L1 English outlook, and that the lingua franca of the community is clearly Chinese. She notes however that although all delegates also spoke English, and were teaching in diverse English-speaking countries, they declined to speak to her:
I have felt alienation, and discouragement through this exclusion. My hoped-for peripheral membership of the community seemed to be not welcome.
She questioned the value of her work, her alignment with the community, and thought about exiting her CFL research. As an experienced teacher in her previous career, however, Narrator B has already established a professional sense of agency, and felt the ‘right’ to be at the conference. She felt the agency to take positive action, in suggesting that the CFL community needed to critically reflect:
Perhaps simply by being there, however, it afforded both the community and myself an opportunity to reflect. At the second conference, at the beginning of my presentation session, I spent a few minutes explaining first my linguistic exclusion from the content of the conference, and second, my commitment to CFL teacher training in Australian schools. Following an introduction in Chinese by my research partner, I presented our paper about an intercultural learning task in CFL, which was well received. Some delegates later quietly offered to me their embarrassed realisation that organisers should make conferences (as a representation of their community) more linguistically inclusive.
Despite her negative experience of marginalisation, she still wants her research studies to contribute in the broader CFL teacher community. She continues to build relationships with CFL teachers, and to publish in the area.