Academic journal article English Journal

Embracing Enduring Tensions in English Education

Academic journal article English Journal

Embracing Enduring Tensions in English Education

Article excerpt

The language used to define the focus of this issue of English Journal, "investigating the spaces of struggle that mark the heart of inquiry" and sharing "enduring tensions of our practice," may seem a relatively distanced, even sanitized description of what happens when thoughtful teachers consider the contradictions of our daily work. The contradictions become even sharper when the topic embraces not just classroom practice but also the preparation for that practice within university and college programs. Perhaps more than other comparable professions-medicine and law come to mind- the fit between theory and practice, that is, what the education profession espouses and what then is enacted in the classroom, is often widely uneven. Thus "enduring tensions" are central to education, and, while our stories are markedly different, we, Lisa and Leila, agree that neither of us is able to fully embrace those tensions nor even completely reconcile them.

But we do have some ideas.

Both of us, Lisa and Leila, have paths into the classroom that are different and yet may illuminate some of the tensions and what we think are some of the approaches to solutions.

Who We Are


Coming out of five years teaching high school in two very different settings, my transition from being a classroom teacher to a doctoral student and working with prospective teachers was mostly a smooth one. Early on in my career, my commitment to the real world of first period was energizing and grounding-I loved the reality of the classroom and was comfortable integrating that with my nascent understanding of educational theory. Doctoral study allowed me to examine the choices I had made as an early career teacher and helped me understand their implications. I was able to write directly about what I felt was the fit, or lack of fit, between the real and the ideal, the research I was reading and what I had practiced in my own teaching for five years. It was a satisfying place to be.

This fit, for me, also meant that when I started my university career as an assistant professor, I felt more than somewhat prepared for what turned out to be four decades of work as a teacher educator.


I was fortunate to go through an excellent English education program; what didn't work out so well was my student teaching placement, a rural school with a 45-minute drive each way and a department that was not the friendliest. I quickly applied to graduate English literature programs, forgoing a secondary teaching career. It would be six years later before I started teaching. Three years into fulltime teaching, I realized there was still so much more to know-especially when it came to working with struggling readers. Thus, I returned to school, working on a doctorate in reading at night while teaching high school English during the day.

This set up a wonderful laboratory for me in that the theories and ideas I learned about and discussed at night could be put into practice-and researched-during the day. This shift in thinking led me to seek a position in teacher education upon graduation. However, after just over a decade in higher education, the high school classroom called to me. So, I returned to my roots and my hometown to be an English teacher.

The above trajectory and experiences create quite a bit of tension because, at times from 2013 to the present, it would be easier to be "Lisa the high school teacher" circa 1997 than "Dr. Lisa Scherff, the teacher who learned so much obtaining her PhD and working in higher education." Why? Before my doctorate, there were no high-stakes tests. I didn't know the politics of education. And, I was naive to the full effects of systems that disenfranchise students. In other words: I taught in a bubble that made my teaching life pretty easy. However, now I question-on a daily basis-things that I knew and espoused while a university teacher educator.

The Central Dilemma


As I continued to stay in higher education, some of the aspects of my role and its satisfactions began to fray. …

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