Uncovering Paths to Teaching: Teacher Identity and the Cultural Arts of Memory

By Florio-Ruane, Susan; Williams, Linda G. | Teacher Education Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Uncovering Paths to Teaching: Teacher Identity and the Cultural Arts of Memory


Florio-Ruane, Susan, Williams, Linda G., Teacher Education Quarterly


Audacity had liberated them. They were pioneers, though they never walked an American plain and never felt real soil beneath their feet. They moved in a sadder wilderness, where the language was strange, where their children became members of a different race. It was a price that must be paid.

--Mario Puzo, The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1964

So kindly were all the teachers with whom I worked and the children whom I taught that I actually had to look in the mirror to realized that I was colored.... I loved my boys and girls. I taught Negro, Jew, and German as they came to me in the many changes that 45 years in one district will bring. The mixture was interesting to watch in the classroom....

--Fannie M. Richards, as quoted on the occasion of her retirement, June 20, 1915

Introduction

This article reports our collaborative research on teacher identity as revealed by examining paths to teaching. When individuals enter the teaching profession, they appear to be making a personal career choice. Beginning educators look ahead, envisioning the teachers they hope to become. At this time it is rare to look backward, to revisit the path that led to the decision to teach. Yet who we are and where we stand as we begin our teaching career is shaped by history, society, and culture. To understand the teachers we are or will become, it is helpful to understand the larger picture that encompasses our personal histories. It is important to know about those who came before us: to uncover the paths they broke, to understand the circumstances of their decision to teach, and to examine the nature of their educational commitments. We began this research as a search for the legacies of literacy and teaching that lead teachers into the profession and that ultimately influenced our own decisions to teach.

This research acknowledges that apparently personal decisions are supported by and heavily influenced by previous sociohistorical events and ongoing cultural processes. When individuals enter a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), they join others who bring their own particular histories with them. Knowing the stories of our own paths and the stories of the paths taken by others is a significant part of the development of one's identity not only as a teacher--but as a member of the larger teaching profession. Thus we began our inquiry both autobiographically and collaboratively, seeking to uncover our own paths to teaching through historical and cultural investigation. The collaborative nature of this work required that we conduct our research in conversation with one another, seeking to "connect the webs of our local microcultures into a much more complex network of webs linking human beings over time and across distance and difference" (Florio-Ruane with deTar, 2001). This article reports on that work and also discusses what we see as its implications for teacher education.

Uncovering Paths to Teaching

To uncover the paths each of us have taken to teaching, we turned to our ancestors. For Williams, these included African American women who migrated from the South to Detroit between 1850 and 1920. Florio-Ruane investigated women from Southern Italy who immigrated to New York between 1870 and 1920. These pioneering women were all but invisible by virtue of gender, ethnicity, poverty, and newcomer status, yet their granddaughters and great-granddaughters now comprise sizeable segments of the teaching forces in their cities of entry. Curious to know more about our figurative "grandmothers" who broke paths for us into careers in teaching, we traced two mother/daughter pairs.

We crafted a hybrid genre for our research-based accounts of our foremothers' paths to teaching. Influenced by Mary Catherine Bateson's (1989) case studies, we borrowed her term, "life compositions," as we wrote accounts to recover what our predecessors' experiences might have been. In particular, we focused on what led them to want an education and to want to educate others. …

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