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Personal narratives and professional development.

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.

Making Sense of the Complexity of Teaching

When trying to understand the complex nature of teaching, many education writers use metaphors for the "craft" of teaching. The teacher who uses narratives is often viewed as an artist. If a teacher is a painter and one's teaching practice a canvas, how does one's painting emerge? By sampling rich colors and patterns, one intuitively "plays" with the medium. The painting process, the decision-making, is very much like the teaching process in that it is often "felt" and not always initially understood on a conscious level.

As the painting materializes, however, careful analysis will most likely produce a clearer understanding of the process. Teacher narratives are similar to painting in that they consciously bring forth the "rich patterns" of teaching and teacher thinking. One's experiences are painted through print and become "informal knowledge" (Miller, 1992). Schubert and Ayers (1992) describe this informal knowledge as teacher lore and Miller (1992) stresses its importance ... ... as a way of conceptualizing as well as honoring the intentions and knowledge of wondering, involved, caring teachers.... Lore is what we know to be similar in our teaching experiences, even as we tell our stories in order to point to the differences among us. And, over time, the telling of our stories allows us to hear our own changing and evolving understandings of ourselves as teachers. (pp. 13-14)

By reflecting on our own and others' narratives, we see the complexities of teaching with greater clarity and understanding. Narratives help establish connections in teaching practices. The "lives" of teachers are portrayed and better understood through the reading and writing of narratives, thus contributing to personal/professional knowledge.

Construction of teaching knowledge occurs when teachers consider the purpose of their past personal and professional experiences. Interpreting teaching transactions allows teachers to form and reform their attitudes, opinions and experiences within the history of their perceptual beliefs. Hence, narratives constructed and read over time take on a life of their own, embedded in the immediacy of the experience. By "tuning in" to one's teaching experience and that of others, self-reflection is derived naturally from within one's professional development. Consequently, teaching practice is carefully considered, defined and reconstructed through personal narratives. Reflecting on teaching, Grimmett et al. (1990) suggest: ... understanding a situation is often a matter of "see-as," a process in which practitioners recast, reframe, and reconstruct past understandings in such a way as to generate fresh appreciations of the puzzlement or surprise inherent in a practice situation. In this perspective, knowledge, including personal understandings of practice situations, is used to transform practice. (p. 27)

By writing and sharing narratives, teachers "recast, reframe, and reconstruct past understandings" of teaching activity and promote careful consideration of teaching's complex nature.

Personalizing One's Teaching and Development

Professional development through personal narrative is autobiographical in nature. As teachers write about their teaching lives, they reflect on an individual level and share, through their text, on a public level. As they share anecdotes, teachers frame possible futures and reconstruct their selves in an autobiographical manner. Ayers (1992) suggests:

Autobiographical projects have potential for creating greater questioning, critique, and intentionality in teaching choices, because autobiography highlights the experimental, improvisational nature of constructing a life.

This sense-making promotes a feeling of personal efficacy and a willingness to personalize one's own teaching through reflective writing and sharing in a collegial manner. Reflection on one's practice and the practice of others allows teachers to reconstruct their own professional development in a conscious, growth-oriented manner.

Connecting with a Professional Community

Professional development through the use of narratives is an attempt to discover what teachers learn from their own experience. Teachers apply their knowledge in their own practice and then capture that knowledge in the stories they tell. The use of narratives can build and sustain a community of lifelong learners who focus upon the practice and improvement of teaching. This community of learners becomes much wider as the conversation on teaching expands through the writing and sharing of narratives. By reading each other's narratives, we consider and interpret them within the context of our own teaching.

Although teaching is truly a social activity, much traditional teaching is done in the isolation of the classroom. Narratives are one way to articulate and share knowledge of the craft with colleagues. The exchange of stories creates a support network and promotes consideration of teaching practice from varying perspectives. After considering another teacher's practice, one's sensitivity to the intricacies of teaching emerges. The successes and failures of varied teaching practices are revealed to the teaching community in a supportive manner.


Personal narratives contribute to professional development by giving teachers the opportunity to consciously reflect upon teaching practice, engage in public discourse on teaching, make sense out of teaching's complex nature, personalize their teaching and connect with a professional community that values teaching. Through the use of self-narratives, teaching becomes explicit, beliefs and values are shared, and instructional decisions and practices are examined. In essence, teachers learn about their own practice and make meaningful contributions to their own and others' professional development.


Ayers, W. (1989). The good preschool teacher. Six teachers reflect on their lives. New York: Teachers College Press. Ayers, W. (1992). Keeping them variously: Learning from the bees themselves. In W. H. Schubert & W. C. Ayers (Eds.), Teacher lore: Learning from our own experience (pp. 148-152). White Plains, NY: Longman. Bullough, R. (1989). First year teacher. New York: Teachers College Press. Cinnamond, J., & Zimpher, N. (1990). Reflectivity as a function of community. In R. Clift, W. Houston & M. Pugach (Eds.), Encouraging reflective practice in education (pp. 57-72). New York: Teachers College Press. Grimmett, P., MacKinnon, A., Erickson, G., & Riecken, T. (1990). Reflective practice in teacher education. In R. Clift, W. Houston & M. Pugach (Eds.), Encouraging reflective practice in education (pp. 20-38). New York: Teachers College Press. Miller, J. (1992). Teachers' spaces: A personal evolution of teacher lore. In W. H. Schubert & W. C. Ayers (Eds.), Teacher lore: Learning from our own experience (pp. 11-22). White Plains, NY: Longman. Newman, J. (1990). Finding our own way. Teachers exploring their assumptions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Schubert, W. H., & Ayers, W. C. (1992). Teacher lore. Learning from our own experience. White Plains, NY: Longman. Witherell, C., & Noddings, N. (1991). Stories lives tell. New York: Teachers College Press. Yinger, R. (1990). The conversation of practice. In R. Clift, W. Houston & M. Pugach (Eds.), Encouraging reflective practice in education (pp. 73-94). New York: Teachers College Press. Yonemura, M. (1986). A teacher at work. New York: Teachers College Press.
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Author:Ambrose, Richard P.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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