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Teacher Identity or Teacher Indulgence?

I could forgive you this indulgence if you were new to teaching, or new to a teaching milieu. Before, say, age 30, it’s quite natural to be asking yourself, ‘Do I really want this to be my vocation? If so, then what type of English teacher should I be? What exactly should my role and function in the ELT/EFL classroom be, and how can I best fulfill it?


But I’m sorry. If you’re over 35 and/or have been in the ELT/EFL teaching game more than, say, 5 years, asking yourself, or your ‘audience’, these ‘profound’ questions comes across as, well, unseemly — like a 40-year old who still drinks until passing out at parties. What we might have once allowed as a youthful indulgence reeks more of deeper personal ‘issues’ after one has supposedly jumped the maturity shark.


Hence my combination of bemusement and bewilderment at the EFL/ELT cottage industry that has spawned around the ‘research study’ of ELT/EFL ‘teacher identities’. Language teaching conferences will inevitably include several of these discourse community navel gazing sessions, while the ‘research’ literature is rife with titles like *‘The Professional Identities of 4 Female Indonesian Tertiary EFL Teachers’ (*I’m making this title up so as not to implicate any one such writer, but it is no exaggeration – go ahead, let Google be your guide).


“There is no need for any further soul-searching or thumb-twiddling regarding my ‘identity’ as a teacher.”


There are several misgivings I have with this ‘teacher identities’ research focus – some professional, some intellectual, and many ethical.


First, let’s address the notion that (to sum up a common rationale): ‘Teacher identity is important because a teacher’s core beliefs will influence their classroom practice’. Well, maybe. If you insist on bringing your ‘beliefs’ (whatever that means) into the classroom.


Or maybe not. In my case, I take with me to the classroom… a personality. And, yes, this affects my teaching style – no surprises there. I also take some effective and well-honed approaches and practices that have worked for me over the years. And I use them. Judiciously. That’s it. There is no need for any further soul-searching or thumb-twiddling regarding my ‘identity’ as a teacher. I’m in a classroom, dammit, not musing at an ashram in Pondicherry.


Next, let’s compare this ELT/EFL identity fetishism with published research in the field of medicine (yes, I work in a faculty of medicine). And let’s use Google sensei again. Take a look. 99.9% (OK, ball-park figure) of all published research coming from MDs is about — big surprise here folk — medical research or practice. Virtually no one in the medical field is writing about the ‘identity of health-care workers’ or similar dalliances in onanism. These people are, after all, out there actually doing or researching health care work. Shouldn’t qualified ELT/EFL likewise people be doing research on actual teaching practices, methodologies, or even linguistics, instead of engaging in bouts of solipsistic, ‘Who am I/Who are you as a teacher’ introspection?


“Are these EFL/ELT identity authors trained in proper ethnographic research and analysis?”


Sure, ethnography (the study of how people interact and engage in communities) has an established basis in the social sciences. But, again no surprise, it is trained, qualified ethnographers who carry out such ethnographic studies. Are these EFL/ELT identity authors trained in proper ethnographic research and analysis?


Sure, one can read compelling and insightful chronicles about individuals in the general public. Studs Terkel is likely the most famous proponent of the narratives of the average American blue-collar worker but the man could WRITE and tell a story. So too can an award-winning novelist like Paul Theroux (I’ve just finished reading his travelogue, ‘The Plain of Snakes’ which zeroes in on the identities and stories of indigenous Mexicans, Mexican artists, and desperate migrants) but, hey, the man is an established, professional, and highly-talented, writer!


And sure, phenomenology (a philosophical approach that focuses upon the validity of our consciousness, experiences, and sensory relations) has established itself as a valid epistemological approach in psychology, but again, this is typically carried out within the domain of trained clinical psychologists, not by your run-of-the-mill ELT/EFL major.


“The current batch of ELT/EFL identity ideologues seek to widen and exploit these differences.”


Having read (or suffered through, perhaps, thanks to my feed) several of these ELT/EFL identity papers recently, several common concerns emerge. One is that they are based upon, umm… well, nothing in particular. Basically, the ‘researcher’ has posed a handful of questions to selected ELT/EFL teachers belonging to some alleged ‘identity community’ (I have news for you—the views on EFL professionalism as expressed by three gay female Vietnamese pre-service teachers does not represent a community or a typology) and then try to generalize some ‘results’.


It appears that most of this ‘research’ utilizes, explicitly or implicitly, that much-abused methodological approach of grounded theory. Although this inductive method of codifying data as it emerges from one’s observations has had significant utility in the soft sciences, it is now widely used as an excuse for the ideologically-addled to ‘ground’ their polemics in pseudo-science. Hence, we have cases of ELT/EFL researchers ‘constructing’ the identities of white male teachers in Japan (as one blatant example of constructing an agenda/narrative purports to ‘identify’) based on a handful of selected interviews (here’s a shocker – those privileged subjects don’t fare well in such ‘studies’).


“This research emperor not only has no clothes, he’s actively exposing himself.”


In short, much identitarian research is actively being used to casually categorize people according to gender, race, and sexual orientation. This is quite the opposite of the intentions of Tajfel, the progenitor of Identity Theory, who sought to use an identity focus to avoid stereotyping and associations of thoughts and behaviours based solely upon one’s membership in a particular community. Rather, the current batch of ELT/EFL identity ideologues seek to widen and exploit these differences.


Occasionally, these research pieces also claim to be grounded in what appears to be a scientific model or principle. Upon further investigation, however, almost all of these models (intersectionality being a prime example) are not based on actual research findings of any sort but are merely ‘ideas’ that some pseudo-social scientist thought up. Likely while shouting slogans at a rally. This research emperor not only has no clothes, he’s actively exposing himself.


The only ‘identity’ I would argue that seems to be to be worthy of deeper reflection, because of the greater possibility of subsequent classroom impact, is that of native-speaker/non-native speaker/local L1 speaker (of any target language). I encourage readers to seek out some of the more highly-regarded papers in this field.


“…not because of who I am.”


But OK, you might say. This oddball corner of the EFL/ELT research industry might be lacking in research scope and  integrity. So what? Let them have their indulgences, even if some of them are wielded as thinly-disguised ideological hammers. What’s the problem?


The main problem I have is the lack of consideration for our students.


Why on earth do well-trained and well-educated teachers focus on their, or other, teachers’ identities when everything about teacher professionalism should tell us that we should be focusing upon other identities – those of our students!


If there is one thing that I aim to consider and employ as a teacher it is to learn about who my students are – both as a group and individually – as best I can. It is only when I know them, and the surrounding teaching environment, sufficiently well that I can orient my teaching so that it becomes more effective for our paying clients.


In other words, my choices of classroom teaching style, content, and pedagogical approach, all arise out of a concern for who I am teaching,  and not because of who I am.




Mike Guest

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