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A critical authenticity: Facilitating teacher self-articulation through poetic inquiry

Victoria I. Ekpo, Lecturer in Secondary English Education at University of Essex Online

Have you ever wondered what is in a teacher’s bag? The following is a ‘found’1 poem compiled from the chat transcript of one of the four online poetry workshops which formed a part of the critical authenticity project.

A Teacher’s Bag

A sense of humour

A slice of humble pie

A poem made of silk.

A bag big enough to fit everything.

Patience

Their beat-up guitar

A whistle

A string and a wire

A laser pen.

A treasure chest

A wallet of motivational quotes

Enough hands to hold every child.

An eraser

Roses

Character accents for reading aloud.

A to-do list that is never completed

Bags from under their eyes

Their biggest fake smile.

In the first workshop, I asked teachers what they would put in their bag, as a way of directing a discussion towards teachers’ intrinsic values and exploring the liminal spaces in teachers’ self-conceptions and their link to their identities as teachers. The list gives us an insight into the complex iterations that is the teacher self.

In the literature on teacher identity, the concept of teacher authenticity is submitted as a well-accepted phenomenon – a binary construction of the self that is either authentic or inauthentic. Teachers are either passionate or not, experienced, or inexperienced, and so on. It is not that the set of values enumerated by researchers such as Kreber et al. (2007) and De Bruyckere and Kirschner (2017) on teacher authenticity, or indeed the government’s Teacher’s standards, are not desirable, professional or even morally germane. The problem with homogeneous systems of reference is that they tend to speak for all, ‘ignoring the importance of personal impulse and desire’ (Dewey, 1997, p. 70) and the simple fact that we can sometimes be inexperienced and passionate, or vice versa. The exhortation is also often ambiguous, both in the literature and in practice. For instance, to be genuine will mean at some point to tell the truth about the inadequacies of the education the students are being provided; at other times, the opposite. To be professionally distant yet open to self-disclosure, is itself an oxymoron. Yet, in all of these instances, teachers are also expected to remain true to themselves.

‘To be professionally distant yet open to self-disclosure, is itself an oxymoron.’

The critical authenticity project was conceived to wade into the definitions in order to question, redefine and/or dismantle the notion of teacher authenticity. The project responds to Bialystok’s (2015) call for a return to the philosophical understanding of authenticity within teacher identity discourses, and offered a critical space for teachers to recognise the political implications of dominant interpretive frameworks on teacher identity, and how expressive action on their part can disrupt the narrative. For teachers whose daily lives are a constant noise and whose work is overseen by apparatuses that narrativises the teacher self (Rose, 1996), to allow themselves the opportunity to awaken to the possibilities of seeing things differently, and speaking of them openly, is in itself transgressive.

The project developed the concept of a critical authenticity within the context of teacher identity and self-formations, self-articulations and the relationship between articulation, power and resistance. Based on the understanding that articulations of self is political (Gee, 2011), the concept of critical authenticity presents opportunities for individuals (teachers in the case of the project) to take control of their self-definitions and in this way make themselves visible. Critical authenticity as a concept, allows for a type of existential response that emanates from ones’ confrontation with tensions in the relationship between oneself and ones’ world. It is the speaking in-to-being of ideas and actions geared towards navigating beyond binary definitions of self. Critical authenticity is, in summary, the careful exploration, understanding and articulation of self.

I see the process of political self-articulation as craftmanship. When I imagined an empirical study that engages with philosophical inquiry, it is because I believe philosophy to be a way of life. I came to the idea of using poetry as the technique for critical authenticity vis-à-vis my own practice. For me, poetry is how I make sense of the world. It is how I record my experiences and my interactions. It is also how I articulate my struggles with the tensions around me and how I respond to them. Since poetry responds to this desire to share what is innermost in us and can function as a ‘an effective tool to talk back to power’ (Prendergast, 2009, p. xxxviii), I understood that it would help participants to perceive, construct and carry their conceptions of the self to utterance.

Fifty-three teachers from all over the world responded to the call to participate in the project. In online poetry workshops, teachers learned poetic forms and wrote about themselves. Their poems spoke beyond the demands of existing knowledge and power (Westerink, 2020), and as a researcher I was confronted by my own self-understanding and how my self-articulation plays into the wider social narrative on identity. I concluded that the teacher self is an evolving entity, one constructed in a strong sense of the care of others.

At the BERA 2023 conference, I will be presenting a paper that continues to tell the story of this project. Focusing on the philosophy of courage, I will explore how self-articulation revives a philosophical discourse that connects the self with critique and courage. Come along to join the discussion.

[1] A poem composed from a non-poetic research data.


References

Bialystok, L. (2015). Should teachers be authentic? Ethics and Education, 10(3), 313–326. https://doi.org/10.1080/17449642.2015.1099801

De Bruyckere, P., & Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Measuring teacher authenticity: Criteria students use in their perception of teacher authenticity, Cogent Education, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2017.1354573    

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. Free Press.

Gee, J . P. (2011). An introduction to discourse analysis theory and method (3rd ed). Routledge.

Kreber, C., Klampfleitner, M., McCune, V., Bayne, S., & Knottenbelt, M. (2007). What do you mean by ’authentic’? A comparative review of the literature on conceptions of authenticity in teaching. Adult Education Quarterly, 58(1), 22–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713607305939

Prendergast, M. (2009). Introduction: The phenomena of poetry in research. In M. Prendergast, C. Leggo, & P. Sameshima (Eds.), Poetic inquiry: Vibrant voices in the social sciences (pp.xix–xlii). Sense Publishers.

Rose, N. (1996). Inventing our selves: Psychology, power, and personhood. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511752179 

Westerink, H. (2020). The obligation to truth and the care of the self: Michel Foucault on scientific discipline and on philosophy as spiritual self-practice. International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, 81(3). https://doi.org/10.1080/21692327.2020.1749871