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From law school to school law: a personal and pedagogical journey.

How do we become the sort of educators we are? Training and preparation undoubtedly play a role. However, no one embarks on a teaching career as a clean slate and no one leaves a teacher preparation program as a finished product. In a still widely-cited review of the research on the professional growth and development of teachers published in 1992, Dona Kagan noted that "case studies of seasoned teachers ... suggest that each teacher represents a unique ecological system of pedagogical beliefs and practices that is inextricably connected to the teacher's personality and prior experiences in life." (1) Prior life experiences are what put some individuals on the course to becoming a teacher and these experiences, including the experiences one has in the classroom as learner and teacher, help shape the sort of person and the sort of teacher an individual becomes.

In this article, I examine three key life experiences that put me on the course to becoming a teacher of educators. Specifically, I consider three experiences along my journey from entering the law school classroom as a student to entering the education school classroom as a teacher of (primarily) school law. These three experiences--studying law; teaching English and other subjects in the US and abroad; and earning a PhD--served as important stepping stones for that journey. Each of these experiences brought me closer to the position in which I now find myself: a junior faculty member in a department of educational leadership. In addition, each of these experiences helped shape the person I have become, in terms of both my broader "self" and my "teaching-self." (2)

"Teaching-Self": Teacher Identity and Teacher Practices

In this article, I am particularly focused on how my life experiences have helped shape my "teaching-self," defined here as a combination of my "teacher identity" and my teaching practices. While the notion of teacher identity is used in various ways across a vast body of literature, I am using the phrase to refer to teachers' ideas and beliefs regarding teaching and learning and their conceptions of what sort of teachers they are. As framed by Sachs, "teacher professional identity ... provides a framework for teachers to construct their own ideas of 'how to be,' 'how to act' and 'how to understand' their work and their place in society." (3) The academic literature suggests that teacher identity has roots in many sources and changes over time. As Beauchamp and Thomas have argued,

The literature on teaching and teacher education reveals a common notion that identity is dynamic, and that a teacher's identity shifts over time under the influence of a range of factors both internal to the individual, such as emotion (Rodgers & Scott, 2008; Van Veen & Sleegers, 2006; Zembylas, 2003), and external to the individual, such as job and life experiences in particular contexts (Flores & Day, 2006; Rodgers & Scott, 2008; Sachs, 2005). (4)

Of course, these internal and external factors are related: what we experience influences our emotions and personal qualities; and our emotions and personal qualities influence what things we experience and how we experience them. In this dynamic way, our experiences and personal qualities interact with each other over time in the production of our fluid ideas about teaching and our identities as teachers.

Along with teacher identity, the other component of your "teaching-self" as I am using the term here consists of your teaching practices. These practices are the products of your life experiences, personal qualities and emotions, and teacher identity (your ideas and beliefs related to teaching). As Kagan has argued, "the life stories of teachers (e.g., Cohen, 1991; Louden, 1991) explain that the practice of classroom teaching remains forever rooted in personality and experience." (5) My discussion of my experiences in this article, then, reflects the assumption that my life experiences have helped shape my teacher identity and my teaching practices. Thus, this article consists of a telling of those experiences and an exploration of how those experiences have helped constitute my teaching-self.

Narrative, Identity, and the Self: Understanding and Constituting My "Teaching-Self"

I recognize that my telling of these experiences, like the telling of any event or experience, is a subjective, interpretive narrative, not an objective description of reality. The process of making sense of your life and telling your story both contribute to the constituting of that story. The process of "narrating the self" may even redirect the life of the narrator. (6) In addition, in telling your story, the self you present may be more of a reflection of the self you would like yourself to be. In other words, I am not asserting that my depiction of my experiences and my teaching reflects any objective "truth" or meshes with the subjective perceptions of others. Rather, my retelling of these experiences is a combination of "facts"--"events that are believed to have occurred"--and "facticities"--descriptions of "how those facts were lived and experienced by interacting individuals." (7) My description of my teaching-self likewise reflects what I believe and have experienced vis-a-vis my teaching. However, in discussing certain dispositions and teaching practices that I think stem from these life experiences, I am relying not only on my own perceptions of my teaching (or aspirational notions of the teacher I would like to be) but also on the feedback I have received from formal student evaluations, informal conversations with students, and evaluations of my teaching by peers.

In addition to the subjective nature of my narration, it is important to note that the selection of these three experiences was purposeful. When reflecting on my life and my teaching-self, these three experiences stand out both for having brought me to a particular place--as a university teacher with particular specialized knowledge--and for helping to shape my teacher identity and teaching practices. However, the process of selecting inherently involves the process of excluding. As the literature demonstrates, the factors that contribute to the formation of teacher identity and teaching practice are manifold. By focusing on these particular experiences, I do not mean to imply that they are the only or even the main factors or experiences that have shaped my teaching-self. Events in my personal life, my positive and negative experiences as a K-12 and college student, and my memories of teachers and others who had an impact on me are a few of the many factors that have contributed to the constitution of my teaching-self that are downplayed or ignored in this narrative.

The Journey

Looking back over the years between the beginning of law school and my career as a teacher in higher education, there are several events or experiences that I believe helped shape my teaching-self. My purpose here is to highlight some of what I experienced over those years, with a focus on those experiences and events that I believe map onto some important aspects of my teaching-self. In other words, while many aspects of my life since entering law school have played a role in shaping my career path, my focus is on those aspects that also have helped constitute my identity as a teacher and influenced my teaching practices. To that end, I discuss my law school experience, my experiences as a teacher of English, and my experience earning a PhD in Education, Culture, and Society.

Law School

Being a law student was a significant personal challenge for me. My motivation to go to law school undoubtedly was complex and was not firmly rooted in an actual desire to become a lawyer. Parental expectations and social approbation both played a role, as did the desire to have a career path, whatever it was. Like many young people coming out of college, I was unsure about what should come next. College, where I majored in International Affairs, had done little to help me determine a future path; rather, it had opened my mind to the plethora of paths one could pursue. After graduating, I found it difficult to just be--to live without having a course mapped out, a plan with a clear destination. Completing law school provided such a destination, one I (perhaps unconsciously) felt would meet with approval and one that also allowed me to put off answering the big question: what are you going to do when you grow up? Being technically grown-up and not having an answer was discomfiting. Going to law school provided both an "answer" for others and the means of delaying the formulation of an actual answer for myself.

Not that I went to law school simply to please others or avoid existential questions. Law, particularly as it related to government and social policy, was something that interested me during and prior to college. However, an intellectual interest in law does not necessarily translate into a vocational interest in being a lawyer. This distinction is something I have raised with my own students over the years when they have approached me to talk about law school or asked for a letter of recommendation for their law school applications. My advice to such students has been two-fold. First, find some lawyers and spend time with them observing what most lawyers actually do. Second, reflect on what you like doing, what sort of activities you enjoy and what sort of roles you enjoy playing: talking with people; reading on your own; pulling together arguments; helping people solve problems. Then ask yourself how well the things that lawyers do match the sort of things/roles you find rewarding. My own interest in law was intellectual, particularly as law related to policy. My interest was also a reflection of a desire to help others and do work that had a social benefit. Working in law provides a path for many careers with a focus on helping others and benefitting society. My decision to enter law school was much more the product of these interests than in any determination that I would enjoy being a lawyer.

Looking back, my experience as a law school student is not surprising given my motivations for enrolling. I gravitated towards, performed best in, and enjoyed most those courses that meshed with my intellectual interests: First Amendment law; international law; human rights law; and courses related to government and the political process. I spent my summers doing public interest law work on behalf of low-income clients. My first summer was spent at a legal clinic in Washington, DC, meeting directly with people having legal problems (particularly those facing eviction) and working with lawyers to help solve those problems. I enjoyed that experience so much that it erased any doubts I was having about whether law school was right for me. While those doubts resurfaced as I began my second year, the ability to enroll in elective courses (as opposed to taking the required core first-year curriculum), coupled with the positive experience I had over that first summer, helped me keep those doubts in check. However, during my second summer, which I spent doing legal research for an office devoted to providing legal services for the poor, those doubts again resurfaced.

The doubts were rooted in two things: my lack of interest in "lawyering" and the tension between my personality and the confrontational nature of the legal system and much of what went on in the law school classroom. Although what I experienced was far less stressful than the law school experience sometimes reflected in popular culture (e.g., the 1970 novel and 1973 film "The Paper Chase"), the competitive and confrontational nature of law school was visible above, and palpable below, the surface. In most law school classes, particularly during the first year, performance is graded on a curve. Thus, your grade reflects your performance relative to the performance of the bright, driven individuals (many of whom may become your friends) sitting around you. Most class sessions consist of "Socratic" dialogue between the professor and one or more students and your performance in class factors into your grade. From my experience, that dialogue often took the form of what felt like mild-to-severe humiliation, as the professor posed questions and students stumbled for the answers. The feeling of humiliation in part grew out of a form of pedagogical inexperience: whereas in the past we were used to questions that measured knowledge recall and other lower-order thinking skills, we were now being asked questions designed to engage us in argument and trip up our thought process, so as to perfect that process. What is meant to be learned is that process, a way of thinking, not the answers themselves (although law school also teaches students a lot of law along the way). Being unaware of this or being aware intellectually but still conditioned to approach learning and the classroom differently, I, like many students, experienced a level of stress that interfered with learning or at least made the process of learning rather unpleasant.

Despite my doubts about a legal career and the anxiety I experienced in many of the classes, I completed law school and passed the bar in my home state of Maine immediately after graduation. At that point, I found myself in a familiar place, pondering what I would do when I grew up. Had law school been a learning experience? Undoubtedly. I left law school with a wealth of legal knowledge and had mastered a way of thinking, both of which continue to influence my teaching. The extent to which law school had impacted me cognitively is suggested by my performance on standardized tests. During college, I had taken the GRE, which, at that time, had three sections (verbal, math, and analytical reasoning), all of which were graded on a 200-800 point scale. I do not recall the exact scores that I got at that time but my recollection is that they all were above average but not stellar. A year or two after finishing law school, when I first began contemplating pursuing a PhD, I retook the GRE. My scores improved significantly across the board, particularly my score on the analytical section, making law school the most expensive and time-consuming GRE prep course ever.

Teaching English

The fact that much of my law school experience was negative had a positive side as well: it prompted me to take an important step along my path from law school to school law. By chance, the apartment I shared in Washington, DC was around the corner from the Spanish Educational Development Center (SED Center). Feeling disheartened by my experience as a law student, early in my second year I decided to respond to a nascent calling to teach and entered the SED Center, hoping to volunteer to help out with their English classes for (mostly) Spanish-speaking immigrants. After a few months as a teaching assistant in a Saturday class, the director of the English program asked if I would like to teach my own class. Thus, I began teaching my first ESL/ESOL class, a basic English class for adults, most of whom had little formal education and some of whom (I came to discover) lacked basic literacy skills in their own language.

If I could see myself now teaching that first class, I am sure I would be struck by all of my pedagogical shortcomings. After all, I had had no training as a teacher other than observing and helping another teacher for a few months. Looking back now, I am certain that I relied too much on my ability to speak Spanish and engaged in too much "teacher talk." I remember having to adapt my teaching quickly in order to meet the needs of the many El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan students in the class. (The primarily Central American make-up of the class reflected the immigration flows of the late-1980s and early-1990s that were connected to the Cold War-fueled conflicts in that region.) The challenges inherent to teaching English were compounded by my own lack of experience and training, particularly related to teaching students with little experience with traditional classroom learning and with limited literacy skills. In addition, many of the students were working countless hours each week, arriving at class on Saturdays or in the evenings very tired. Nonetheless, the feedback from students and the director of the program was overwhelmingly positive and students made good progress in my classes. For whatever reasons, despite my inexperience and countless missteps (for example, writing something on the board is not all that helpful as a learning scaffold for someone with little ability to read!), I felt competent in the classroom.

My experience at the SED Center was the first of many experiences I have had as a teacher. After passing the bar and experiencing a few detours and bumps along the way, I embarked on a path that took me to South Boston, Massachusetts, Manhattan, and the South Bronx, back to Washington, DC, and then overseas to Poland, Ukraine, and Serbia. In all of these contexts, I taught English. However, my law training hovered in the background, making an occasional appearance: when I taught "Street Law" to adult high school "drop-ins" in South Boston; when I taught Legal English in Poland; and when I taught Legal English and American law in classes and workshops at law schools and other locations in Ukraine and Serbia. Across these experiences, I honed my ability to engage (primarily) adult learners.

Earning a PhD and Bringing it All Together

The experiences I had working with students from all over the world and living in other countries greatly enriched me as a person and an educator. The students I encountered taught me a lot. They deepened my understanding of the challenges facing those who are less fortunate than I and heightened my admiration for their capacity to resist and overcome those challenges. They helped me to better recognize the value of perspectives rooted in cultures different from my own. They humbled me and helped me grasp the limit of my own knowledge and understanding of life and the world. And the experience of serving, failing, learning from, and succeeding in my role as their teacher helped shape me into the teacher I am today.

On another level, these experiences also deepened my interest in learning about and studying the role that education plays in culture and society. After having lived abroad for the better part of six years, I began to contemplate enrolling in a doctoral program. Again after a few detours, I eventually identified and had the opportunity to enroll in what turned out to be the ideal program for me: the PhD program in Education, Culture, and Society at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Focusing on law and education was not necessarily my aim when I began the program. However, my interest in law as a cultural and social phenomenon had deepened as a result of my experiences overseas. In addition, somewhat by happenstance, there was a member of the faculty at Penn who helped me identify ways of combining that interest with my interest in education: Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath, who came to be my advisor and dissertation committee chair. While I might have ended up focusing my research on law without her presence and influence, that focus began as a direct result of taking her Philosophical Aspects of Educational Policy class during my first semester, where I began to examine law from both a normative and critical perspective. Subsequent classes with Dr. Ben-Porath, other program faculty, and faculty outside of the Graduate School of Education, especially political scientist Rogers Smith, helped me develop the skills and knowledge I needed to embark on a research path focused on exploring the complex relationships between law, schooling, and society.

When I had the opportunity to teach School Law at the end of my first year at Penn, I took the last step from law school to school law. I ended up teaching the course at least once during each of the six years I was a graduate student at Penn. Like my experiences teaching English, my first experiences teaching School Law involved some fits and starts. Like teaching English, teaching School Law challenged me to make a subject of which I had a deep understanding accessible and comprehensible to those with little knowledge of it. While none of my School Law students lacked formal education and literacy skills, naturally they lacked much of a background in law, a subject many of them found baffling. Bridging the gap between my knowledge and my students' knowledge of the law posed as daunting a challenge as bridging the gap between my knowledge of English and the knowledge of my first English students back at the Spanish Educational Development Center. As with teaching English, teaching law involved learning the needs of my students and uncovering my own unconscious assumptions regarding what they knew and understood about a world and language that was unfamiliar to them.

What Kind of Teacher Am I? Life Experiences and My Teaching-Self

My experiences in law school, teaching English, and earning a PhD all contributed to putting me on the path to what I teach and how I teach. While these experiences influenced my teaching-self in many ways, my discussion here focuses on five aspects of my teaching practice that stem from or were influenced by these three life experiences:

1. A light-hearted teaching style/demeanor and the use of humor

2. An engaging, "Socratic" approach that incorporates a variety of teaching and learning activities

3. A consideration of the lives and perspectives of the less fortunate and less empowered

4. A focus on critical thinking and reflection

5. An ability to make complex topics accessible but not simple

For the most part, these five aspects of my teaching practice are positive from the perspective of best practice and student experience. However, by focusing on these primarily positive qualities of my teaching, I do not mean to imply that I do not recognize and work to address my shortcomings as a teacher, some of which may be tied to the three life experiences discussed here. In fact, my discussion of each of these aspects of my teaching practice includes a consideration of the negative impact these aspects may have on students and student learning. For example, I am aware that my enthusiasm for particular topics is not always shared by my students and that I may spend more time in class and assign more readings on some topics than students would like. In addition, I recognize that these five aspects of my teaching practice are to some degree aspirational and not necessarily a complete reflection of my teaching. At the same time, most of these aspects of my teaching have been noted consistently in my student and peer evaluations.

A light-hearted classroom style/demeanor and the use of humor

I firmly believe that learners, particularly adult learners, learn best when they are not overly stressed. While learners may benefit from being challenged and pushed outside their comfort zone, these experiences may also be stressful and such stress, especially in high doses, may inhibit learning. The degree to which I am aware of and concerned about student stress stems in part from having felt undue stress in earlier learning contexts, including as a law school student. During law school, I learned more and performed better in classes when professors used a less confrontational but still Socratic style. My experience teaching English to adults reinforced what I took away from my law school experience: learning often involves vulnerability and risk-taking, both of which may make learners uncomfortable. At times during my English teaching, I saw students struggle with the embarrassment of making mistakes and being unable to do something they had been able to do for most of their lives: speak. These experiences and beliefs related to stress and learning have been further developed by my studying of learning theory, particularly adult learning theory.

Recognizing that a school law course can be particularly challenging to students, I am aware that students may feel more stressed in the course than in other courses. Students have confirmed that the course, particularly at the beginning, involves a steep learning curve as they are immersed in a "different world." The stress they feel may be compounded by other aspects of my teaching style (discussed below) that may make students feel "on the spot" or under pressure to perform. Learning something that is challenging is stressful under the best of circumstances. For these reasons, I strive to create a supportive, light-hearted environment during class. This involves calibrating my questions to make them challenging but adding scaffolding where necessary to minimize undue student stress. I also find that humor helps to release tension in students and make them feel more comfortable. Thus, I do not hesitate to make funny and even silly comments that are related to the topic we are covering. This may involve, for example, developing silly or outlandish hypothetical situations to illustrate particular legal principles.

An engaging, "Socratic" approach that incorporates a variety of teaching and learning activities

Given that I spent three years immersed in law school, perhaps it is not surprising that my approach to teaching has "Socratic" elements. When used in appropriate ways, I believe that a Socratic approach has many merits. However, as I learned as a law student and while doing a project for a research methods course as a PhD student, the term "Socratic" may be used as a synonym for "confrontational." (In that project, law students I interviewed often used the term Socratic to describe those professors who were harsh questioners in class and had a gruff demeanor.) Here, I refer to the dialogic nature of the Socratic method. My approach reflects that of the professors I had in law school who used the Socratic method in ways that did not cause undue stress. I say "undue" stress because I recognize that the method may be more stressful than other approaches to teaching in which students are primarily passive. The method engages students by involving them in co-constructing an understanding of the material, thus enhancing learning. As Palmer Parker has described the value of the approach, "Forced to listen, respond, and improvise, I am more likely to hear something unexpected and insightful from myself as well as others." Especially when coupled with having students read interesting cases involving something they care about (education), I find that students in my School Law class are highly engaged. This level of engagement also has been noted consistently by students in their evaluations of my teaching. (8)

In addition to being less confrontational, my approach differs from that of many law professors in at least two other ways. First, I do not call on students but, rather, allow students to volunteer to respond. Since (unlike many law school professors) I do not have large classes, I am able to monitor participation to make sure that a few students do not dominate the conversation. I find that most students, left to their own devices, freely participate in our dialogues. For those who are more reluctant, I find ways to encourage them. This might involve something as simple as making eye contact with a particular student after asking a question, in this way inviting them to respond. I also provide other ways in which students may participate in class via group work and other activities. Which brings me to the second difference between my approach and that of many law professors: I do not rely on one approach to teaching and learning. Socratic dialogues are only one part of what goes on in my classes. I also have students do things like work on problems in groups; present cases to the class; and write short responses to prompts. My experience and training in teaching English, as well as my courses in education as a PhD student, have provided me with a level of knowledge of teaching practice that I am able to draw on in designing classes.

A consideration of the lives and perspectives of the less fortunate and less empowered

Working with lower-income clients in legal aid offices, teaching immigrants in several US cities, and living in countries that continue to struggle with economic and political crises all helped make me more aware of the difficulties facing those who lack the resources and opportunities that others have. Seeing people face, resist, and, at times, overcome such difficulties left an indelible impression on how I see the world and how I understand the role of education. While my teaching of School Law does not always directly involve issues of poverty, power, and privilege, I bring these issues and an overall critical stance to my classes. While many of my students have come to my courses very aware of these issues, having faced them themselves or worked in communities facing such challenges, many of my students have lacked this awareness. In some ways, the lack of a direct focus on these issues in the course provides some advantages in terms of engaging such students. They seem less quick to put walls up and I am able to engage students with these issues indirectly, without seeming to be "preaching" to them. (I may also have another advantage here, being a white male, but that is a topic for another essay.)

For example, the issue of race and discrimination is one that we all know is controversial and capable of triggering visceral, emotional reactions. While such reactions are understandable, they also may get in the way of having students engage with the issue and examine their own assumptions and biases. A School Law class provides an excellent opportunity to examine the historical and social aspects of racism indirectly, alongside the learning of an important area of law (equal protection). When students bring in a perspective that downplays the importance of racism or emphasizes the alleged plight of the majority and the more powerful resulting from special treatment for minorities or others who are oppressed, a direct approach is unlikely to cause them to question their assumptions. Examining the legal framework related to racial discrimination reminds students of the historical context and political ideals that inspired that framework and that might undercut some of their own assumptions.

A focus on critical thinking and reflection

Engaging students, even indirectly, on issues like race and discrimination sometimes involves challenging students' beliefs and assumptions. Getting students to reflect on their beliefs and assumptions and consider different perspectives is one of my goals in all of my classes. Students in my School Law course consistently note that the course "makes them think." This aspect of my teaching is somewhat rooted in my experience in law school. Law school develops a person's ability to make a clear argument through the use of precise language and careful reasoning. I instill these skills in my School Law students by pushing them to hone, explain and defend their statements in class and in their written work.

As a student of the relationship between education, culture, and society, I honed my own critical perspective, something that also influences my teaching. I encourage students to critique the law and recognize that it is the product of human beings and a reflection of a particular history and social system. In class, I ask students to think about the social consequences of the law and the American system of public education. When examining the law related to school funding, we talk about funding inequity. When talking about student rights, we talk about the meaning of citizenship and the relationship between citizens and the state. When talking about special education, we talk about how the special education legal framework treats parents and children with resources differently from those without resources. My hope is that these experiences will help students develop the skills and disposition of a critical thinker and an engaged, critical citizen.

An ability to make complex topics accessible but not simple

Learning English and School Law both involve learning a complex set of knowledge and skills. Early on, I was struck by the similarities between the experience of my students in School Law and the experience of the students in my English classes. In both cases, students were faced with learning a different way of doing something that had become second nature. In the case of English learners, the students came to the classes with the sophisticated capacity to communicate in at least one other language that is typical of adults. As adult learners, their mother tongue had become cognitively hardwired, entwined with their innate process of thinking. Learning English involved the sometimes jarring experience of incorporating another complex system of communicating into their mind, a system that was, in some ways, at odds with their preexisting system. My School Law students have expressed similar, albeit less drastic, experiences. For them, the course has involved more than just acquiring content knowledge. It also has involved acquiring a new language (both in terms of vocabulary, style, and genre) and understanding a different way of thinking about the world and about education.

To facilitate learning in both contexts, my early teaching experiences first involved becoming aware of all that I knew, all of the mental short cuts and assumptions involved in speaking English and thinking legally. This process has been on-going, as I have faced the challenge of making something that is second nature to me comprehensible to students who lack the seemingly invisible background knowledge I rely on in both contexts. Like native speakers and the speaking of their mother tongue, law school graduates come to master a way of thinking that becomes engrained. For example, asking someone who is a native speaker of English to explain the use of definite and indefinite articles to someone with limited English proficiency might leave the native speaker at a loss. Likewise, asking someone with a legal background to explain the law regarding, for example, searches of students by public schools to someone without a legal background could create a similar problem. Both situations require the teacher to first understand what the novice learner asking the question knows and doesn't know. Then, the teacher would devise a way to bridge that gap.

Taking the issue of student searches, for example, if the learner also has a legal background, a quick recitation of the legal standard from the TLO case (9) might answer the question. That learner likely would have an understanding of the general principles involving searches under the Fourth Amendment plus the vocabulary associated with constitutional standards in general. Thus, that learner would have a frame of reference for understanding the legal standard from TLO. However, if the learner lacked that frame of reference, a more detailed explanation would be required, one that considered the principles upon which the Fourth Amendment is based, the legal standards associated with it, and the difference between those standards and the standards applicable to searches in schools. As a teacher of English, I honed my ability to identify the gap between my understanding and that of my students and then devise a learning experience to bridge that gap. That ability has informed and supported my teaching of School Law: after learning how to design learning experiences to teach the use of articles to speakers of other languages (including languages that do not use articles), designing them to teach educators the law of student searches was comparatively straightforward.

Closing Reflections: My Students and My Teaching-Self

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the role that students have played in enabling me to enact these aspects of my teaching practice. While I believe that people are inherently motivated to learn, various factors in students' current lives and prior experiences may undermine that motivation and interfere with students' ability to engage with the learning experience. While my personality and experience may be the sources of my teaching-self, each of the aspects of my teaching practice discussed here could be problematic if students did not respond positively to them. For example, being lighthearted and using humor impart a lack of gravitas that could give students the impression that they do not need to take the course seriously. I have been fortunate in that the majority of the students in my School Law classes have not responded in that way. My adapted Socratic approach also poses potential pitfalls. If students were unprepared for class or unwilling to engage in dialogue, the approach would fall flat and possibly fail. While I think that my teaching practices encourage students to be prepared and participate, I nonetheless am thankful that students have risen to the challenge and been willing to take risks in class.

This willingness to engage and take risks also has supported my focus on critical thinking and reflection and helping students make sense of complex legal principles. Thinking and reflecting critically is hard work. It requires not only engagement but also openness to different ways of thinking and a willingness to question, revise, and sometimes reject your own assumptions and beliefs. It requires you to defend and provide support for your positions. For adults, assumptions and beliefs are the engrained products of a lifetime of experience. They help us make sense of those experiences and the world around us. Therefore, questioning them can be disquieting. This is particularly so when those beliefs and assumptions relate to highly charged issues like discrimination, inequality, and power. I am thankful to those students who have been willing both to reflect critically on their own positions, assumptions, and beliefs and to push other students and me to do the same.

Which brings me to my last thought. Writing this narrative of my teaching-self has reminded me of three things that affirm the value of this sort of reflection for teachers. First, I have been reminded that I carry my own set of beliefs and assumptions regarding my identity as a teacher and my teaching practices. Writing them down has encouraged me to reflect critically on these beliefs and assumptions, a process in which I have engaged over the years but to which I could dedicate more effort. Second, I have been reminded that the process of developing and discovering our teaching-selves is an ongoing and aspirational process. As part of reflecting on my assumptions and beliefs regarding my teaching-self, I recognize the ever-present gap between the teacher I would like to be and the teacher I am. Third, I have been reminded of the important role that students play in my enactment of my teaching-self. The degree to which I am thankful to those students who have joined me for parts of my journey reminds me of the reason I first embarked on a career as a teacher: supporting student learning.


(1) Dona M. Kagan, "Professional Growth Among Preservice and Beginning Teachers." Review of Educational Research 62, no. 2 (1992): 159.

(2) Michalinos Zembylas, "Discursive Practices, Genealogies, and Emotional Rules: A Poststructuralist View on Emotion and Identity in Teaching." Teaching and Teacher Education 21, no. 8 (2005): 937; Anne R. Freese, "Reframing One's Teaching: Discovering Our Teacher Selves Through Reflection and Inquiry." Teaching and Teacher Education 22, no. 1 (2006): 100-119.

(3) Judyth Sachs, "Teacher Education and the Development of Professional Identity: Learning To Be a Teacher," in Connecting Policy and Practice: Challenges For Teaching and Learning in Schools and Universities, ed. P. Denicolo and M. Kompf (Oxford: Routledge, 2005), 15.

(4) Catherine Beauchamp and Lynn Thomas. "Understanding Teacher Identity: An Overview of Issues in the Literature and Implications for Teacher Education." Cambridge Journal of Education 39, no. 2 (2009): 177.

(5) Kagan, "Professional Growth": 163.

(6) Stanton Emerson Fisher Wortham, Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001), xi.

(7) Norman K. Denzin, Interpretive Biography: Qualitative Research Methods Series 17. California and London: Sage (1989), 23.

(8) Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. John Wiley & Sons, 2010, 49.

(9) New Jersey v. TLO, 469 U.S. 325, 105 S. Ct. 733, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720 (1985).

Phillip Buckley

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
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Author:Buckley, Phillip
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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