"What are you?": Troubling the Notion of What it Means to Be a Teacher

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A few weeks ago, I decided to (again) change my final project. The impetus, though, began with a question I was asked last semester in a core course for my program. As I was beginning a presentation on my research proposal, a fellow student asked me what I taught. In a program in which most students are or have been PK-12 teachers, that question is about what grades and/or subjects one is licensed to teach--or what classrooms one is currently in. I answered that I am not now nor have I been a licensed PK-12 teacher. Her response was, "What are you then?"

What am I? An existential question, although she did not mean it that way. I answered that I would address her question in the course of my presentation, as it has everything to do with both why I am pursuing a Ph.D. in education as well as how I am reconceptualizing what I have been spending most of my time and passion on in the last decade. I am now coming to realize that I am a teacher and have been acting in pedagogical ways and spaces for a long time. And yet these spaces and methods of pedagogy trouble traditional notions of what it means to be a teacher.

Therefore, for my final project, I am troubling what it means to be a teacher. I would like to do this for multiple reasons:

  • to help me articulate to colleagues (and myself) what I do and why I am in education

  • to push the boundaries of what a degree in education means, which my particular department and track make room for

  • to try to figure out what makes for successful teaching in a variety of spaces

  • to ask questions about why the university often neglects pedagogy and why those in the university are not encouraged to spend time thinking about their own pedagogy

  • to trouble what it is that I--and my department--am doing

  • to find ways of weaving in my own story and experiences that may disrupt the common narrative of teaching

In other words, I want to explore "being a teacher" along the lines of what Tavia N'yongo was doing in attempting "to express creative discontent with settled categories" (2005, p. 20)

What I have done so far is a lot of free-writing on what I think it means to be a teacher, what spaces of teaching look like, what most important ways I learn from teachers are. I have talked with a number of colleagues, mostly in my department, about what they feel is successful teaching or what they feel makes for a good teacher. I have also found a number of writers who address questions of what teaching means. None of these has anything to do with teaching content, classroom management, best practices, or other common strategies and buzzwords around education.

I am not sure yet how I will organize the final project. It may take the form of short essays on different aspects of what I believe teaching is, e.g., asking good questions, creating a space that empowers others to self-appropriate knowledge, sharing of yourself, fostering humanness. (I simultaneously like this because it troubles "traditional" academic writing.) A final goal may be to produce a succinct statement of what I do and what I hope to do, to be able to answer the question "what are you?"

And, if anyone wants/needs a break from their big project and paper writing and grading and end-of-semester craziness, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on troubling what it means to be a teacher.

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