Personal Narratives and Professional Development

Article excerpt

Personal narratives are a viable means for understanding one's teaching and for supporting professional development along the path of "lifelong learning." Several recent books demonstrate the acceptance of teachers' stories as a tool for examining and understanding the complex nature of teaching. For example, William Ayers' The Good Preschool Teacher (1989), Judith Newman's Finding Our Own Way (1990), Robert Bullough's First Year Teacher (1989), Margaret Yonemura's A Teacher at Work (1986) and Carol Witheree & Nel Noddings' Stories Lives Tell (1991) all promote the role of personal narrative in understanding teaching.

A story empowers a teacher/writer to "frame" a teaching question or discussion. Because of this framing, teachers can explore their own work in a personal, meaningful manner that draws upon their idiosyncratic and often unrecognized storehouse of knowledge. Margaret Yonemura (1986) regards this "hidden wealth of knowledge" as a decision-making guide.

Narratives are the expression of teachers' practical and personal knowledge and can become avenues for constructing meaning. Through narratives, teachers reflect upon their teaching and confront their values as they develop and change during their professional career.

As narratives allow teachers a means to examine their own practice, they simultaneously provide others with a glimpse into the world of teaching. Because of this bi-directional nature, both a teacher's own professional development and that of others are enhanced in a personal, meaningful way. Writing and reading narratives constitute a dialogue with oneself and others that fosters reflection. This "teaching conversation," a personal structuring of the teaching experience, results in practices that promote appropriate learning environments for children.

Engaging in Public Discourse About Teaching

Narratives help make teaching public, open and honest. Through the discourse process of listening and responding, change can occur (Cinnamond & Zimpher, 1990).

Traditional forms of discourse that promote professional development include professional journals and books; professional memberships; professional meetings/conferences, workshops and inservice programs; and classroom observation and discussion. All of these efforts contribute to a conversation about teaching. Yinger (1990) emphasizes the importance of "conversation" about teaching practice because ". . . conversation is not only a means of interaction and a way of thinking but also a type of relationship with one's surroundings" (p. 82). Conversations also contribute to one's own learning and professional development.

Thus, narratives provide a story to be told and an audience to listen. They allow sharing of the implicit and intuitive nature of teacher thinking and limit the isolationism of teaching. Teacher narratives express the breadth and diversity of teaching. Revealing images are drawn through storytelling and story-hearing. This airing of teacher voices results in the consideration of one's practice and one's ongoing professional development. Yonemura (1986) affirms the importance of examining teachers' practice and "practical knowledge" in relationship to professional development. She states that ... much of this practical knowledge is held implicitly, unavailable for conscious assessment. Even more serious, teachers' actions in the classroom often go unexplored for the hidden assumptions and untested hypotheses growing out of this amalgam. Without access to more of the thinking that underlies teaching, its deep structure is lost to us, and we compensate by drenching ourselves in surface observables. (p. 6)

Making teaching practice "public" by using narratives, teachers become responsible for their own professional development. Careful narrative reconstruction of teaching practice promotes examination of the intent, beliefs and values embedded within teaching decisions and behaviors. …