The Language Teacher
06 - 2002

Beliefs and Professional Identity: A Case Study of a Japanese Teacher of EFL Writing

Sakui Keiko

University of Auckland, New Zealand

Stephen J. Gaies

University of Northern Iowa, U.S.A.


The study of teaching and teacher development has in recent years been undergoing an important transformation. Emphasis has shifted from a focus on the development and use of teaching skills and behaviors to an attempt to understand the formation and modification of teacher thinking and reflective processes, their dispositions, knowledge and beliefs.

A significant construct reflecting this perspective on teaching is personal practical knowledge Clandinin & Connelly, 1986), which is based on the view that "knowing something involves aesthetic, moral and emotional states of mind about that thing" (Clandinin & Connelly, 1987, p. 499). The notion of personal practical knowledge is based on two key assumptions about the nature of teachers' knowledge about teaching:

An important means by which teachers discover what they know and how their knowledge affects their students and themselves is narratives. The value of teacher narratives as tools to understand teachers (and for teachers to understand themselves) is not a new idea (see Dewey, 1916, 1934). In the last several years, researchers, teacher educators and teachers themselves have made use of narratives to understand teaching (see Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). In telling and interpreting stories of themselves and their teaching, teachers confront their professional identity. Issues of identity are inextricably bound up with teachers' development and use of knowledge. Indeed, Connelly and Clandinin (1999:3) assert that teachers' attempts to understand their teaching often focus on questions of identity:

By [teachers'] responses we were encouraged to continue framing our questions in terms of knowledge. However, we began to sense subtle differences. We noticed that teachers seemed to be trying to answer different questions. Their questions were ones of identity. They were questions of "Who am I in my story of teaching?"; "Who am I in my place in the school?"; "Who am I in children's stories?"; "Who am I in my administrator's stories?"; "Who am I in my parents' stories?"; "Who am I in this situation?"; "What do I know in this situation?" Teachers seemed more concerned to ask questions of who they are than of what they know (p. 3).

It might in fact be argued that the way in which teachers activate their knowledge, the way in which they operationalize their beliefs in short, the ways in which teachers' cognition helps to shape their personal practical knowledge are all mediated by their professional identity.

Many factors shape a teacher's identity. Although some researchers have called for greater attention to sociocultural and political dimensions of identity (see Duff & Uchida, 1997), recent studies of professional identity have all acknowledged the complexity of identity. Many have adopted a constructivist view of identity. They have rejected a static view of identity that views a teacher primarily as the product of background and experiential variables. Instead they have taken the position that identity is to a significant extent socially constructed, that is, the dynamic and evolving outcome of a teacher's on-going interaction with the setting in which she works and the interactions she has with other participants in that setting. In addition, it is recognized that a teacher does not have a single identity. A teacher's professional identity emerges out of the interplay of that individual's different identities: an adult, a parent, a member of a community, a former student, to name only a few. The study we are reporting is a case study of a Japanese teacher of EFL writing. The study featured the collaboration of a teacher/researcher with another researcher, an approach that is thought to be effective in illuminating teacher beliefs and cognition from an insider's perspective. In this article we explore how this teacher/researcher's beliefs and cognition are related to her identity and how they are described through her metaphors.

The Study

The research project we are reporting was a self-study by a Japanese teacher of English (Keiko, the first author of this article) of her beliefs about writing and about teaching writing. The setting of this study was a writing class, consisting of some 23 students, in a medium-sized private university in Kansai. The study involved several kinds of data. The principal instrument was a journal that Keiko kept primarily during the first term of the 1999-2000 academic year. It was our feeling that self-study by a teacher/researcher of her beliefs could be enhanced by the collaboration of a sympathetic outsider. The second author (Stephen) was the audience for the journal entries that Keiko wrote periodically throughout the semester. We did not determine in advance how often Keiko should send a journal entry, and it was up to Stephen to decide whether and how quickly to respond to a journal entry. Altogether, Keiko wrote more than twenty entries, some of which were quite long. Stephen responded to several of them. Sometimes the response was intended to have her clarify or expand upon some topic discussed in a journal entry she had sent; but some responses also aimed at eliciting her beliefs about some topic that she had not explicitly discussed. At times, he described his own learning and teaching experiences. Thus, some of Keiko's journal entries were not a series of monologues, but were dialogues co-constructed with her research partner.

In order to ensure triangulation for establishing the trustworthiness of the study, other data were also collected. Stephen interviewed Keiko for more than an hour after the end of the first semester. The interview was designed for her to talk about her class, her students, her goals, and her teaching practices. In addition, Stephen also observed some of the class meetings, and the field notes from these observations were another component of the data pool. The data also included written work that the students did for homework, some of the writing they produced in class (in brainstorming and other prewriting activities), responses to questionnaires that students completed during the academic year, and transcripts of interviews that Keiko conducted with her students. The initial research questions that guided our analysis of the data were: (a) What were Keiko's beliefs about teaching, about learning, and about writing? (b) How were her beliefs related to her planning, her classroom teaching and her evaluation of her class? (c) To what extent and in what ways did her beliefs shape her students' perceptions of writing in English? In our initial analysis of the journal entries and interview data, we found repeated statements of belief about the need for a teacher to believe in what he or she is doing, or about the value of developing in students the ability to be specific in their writing. We also found evidence of evolving beliefs about the degree to which students need to adapt their own beliefs to those of their teacher. In short, we were able, on the basis of the data, to describe a great deal about Keiko's beliefs as a teacher of writing and about the connection between those beliefs and her experiences as a learner and user of English.

However, in our initial analysis the issue of identity arose repeatedly and in a number of ways. We therefore reexamined the data to see whether and to what extent Keiko's beliefs could be viewed as the basis of her professional identity. The idea of using this particular interpretive lens did not emerge purely from our examination of our data; it was inspired in part by a study (Volkmann & Anderson, 1998) we came across of a first-year high school chemistry teacher (Anderson) who kept a journal of her teaching experiences that was analyzed several years later (by Volkmann and Anderson). Volkmann and Anderson identified several dilemmas that this chemistry teacher had had to deal with in her first year of teaching; they viewed the teacher's efforts to resolve these dilemmas as the process by which she was creating a professional identity.

In our case, Keiko had already had several years of teaching experience. Furthermore, the data did not suggest that Keiko viewed her own teaching, or teaching in general, as fundamentally problematic. Thus, instead of looking at dilemmas, we looked in the data to see whether her beliefs provided evidence of what we have chosen to call tensions, competing concerns or alternative perspectives. We sought to discover whether she recognized, was able to manage these tensions. Finally, we tried to determine whether, on the basis of what she had written and said about her teaching, her ability to resolve these tensions would provide insight into the nature of her professional identity.


We found considerable evidence that Keiko's professional identity was closely bound up with her effort to recognize and reconcile several competing sets of beliefs, or tensions.

Tension 1: sense of competence/sense of limitations

On the basis of her narratives, the journal entries and her responses to interview questions we concluded that Keiko's professional identity was related to her conflicting beliefs about her competence. In several cases she judged her background and teaching abilities favorably, sometimes on their own terms, sometimes by comparison with her peers:

Generally, I think students like my classes. I can tell from the atmosphere of each student. (Interview)
I think I have confidence in teaching some areas in writing: for example, business letters. I've done it in the real world situation when I lived in the States.... I'm not just transferring the knowledge that I got from books and giving it to the students. (Interview)

These beliefs in her competence coexist with a sense of her limitations:

My exposure to different genres in English is limited. My daughter started enjoying an English comic/magazine book recently, which we picked up at the Sydney airport. I think it is good genre to be exposed to so we started to subscribe to it [because she would be exposed to a lot of English in pleasure reading]. I did not have that in English [as a child].... (Journal Entry 99-8) The greatest difference between my Japanese and English is that when I read good writing in Japanese, I can tell it intuitively. And this intuitive (implicit) sense of knowing good writing vs. poor writing is so crucial. In my English teaching, my vision of "good writing" is much, much more blurred. This is where I need to develop further as a teacher and writer. (99-3)

The tension between her sense of competence and her sense of her limitations indicates clearly that Keiko's professional identity is the alchemy of multiple identities. Keiko refers to her abilities and deficiencies not simply as a teacher, but as a nonnative user of English, as an adult whose childhood and education shaped her literacy practices in her native language, as someone who has worked in the real world and as a parent.

Tension 2: Maintaining control/caring about students

A second tension relevant to Keiko's on-going process of creating a professional identity arises from two different beliefs about her teacher persona. There are frequent references to her wish to be identified by her students as a person in control of her classroom:

But sometimes this happens a lot in the computer lab [at another university where I teach]. As soon as they come in to the computer lab, they want to start writing. Sometimes I have to give them instruction... If students are not paying attention, I'll say, "This is not the time when I want to listen to keyboard typing. So don't use your keyboards." I let them know that they are not doing what they are supposed to do.... I don't want to deal with these discipline issues. It takes a lot of my energy. The best thing is just take points off and let them know they might not pass the class. In that sense I am very strict, but that's fine. (Interview)

Keiko acknowledges that her insistence on having students do what she believes they need may lead her students to identify her in a particular way:

Learning might not bring an immediate reward, nor be a fun activity, but I want them to get something out of learning, which I hope will lead to their satisfaction and motivation. Entertaining them or pleasing them makes time go faster/easier, but I don't think students will get a lot out of it. In this sense I am really old-fashioned and traditional. (99-13)

She wants to be perceived (and believes that she is perceived) by her students as a caring person.

I do care and I have things that I want to communicate [with students]. It might be writing, it might be other things. I try to communicate that I do care about my students. I do care about their writings. I think that some students can see it. (Interview)
Everywhere I go to teach, I respect my students. They are there to learn. I respect their abilities to learn and the outside-of-classroom experiences they bring into the classroom. (99-13)

Tension 3: Imagining the ideal/responding to reality

A third tension related to Keiko's professional identity is the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality:

I wrote a lot of [journal entries] before the semester began. I wrote them in March. [I thought,] I can do this, I can do that.... It's funny, but every year I lose a sense of real classroom situation and real student's ability during a spring break. But these journal entries during that month made me think what I could do to make my writing class better than the previous year. So writing journal helped me a lot. Then April came, and then I realized, OK, there are things that students are not capable of doing. (Interview)

Keiko's professional identity is based in part on her belief that it is her role to reconcile the ideal and the reality. Fulfilling this role involves, first of all, acknowledging one's importance as a teacher:

What I think is [that the] teacher is the curriculum. Even if we establish a grand curriculum, if each teacher does not believe in it, or carry it out, then the curriculum does not mean much. But on the other hand, even if there is no tight curriculum, [if] each teacher knows what she is doing, I believe students will get what they need. (99-14)


In addition to the tensions, we identified two powerful metaphors that recurred in the data of the teacher-researcher in this study. Not only being a powerful stylistic device in narratives, metaphors can also provide valuable insight into teacher's beliefs and identity by revealing the teacher's basic pedagogical orientation, her personal identification with teaching and her social orientation (Sugrue, 1996).

The first prominent metaphor was the dual metaphor of learning as a journey and the teacher as a guide: "The most important role for me is to make sure that their learning happens and to facilitate [their moving on] to the next stage of learning and not to spoil their motivation but to facilitate it" (99-7).

The metaphor of the teacher as a guide occurs in other journal entries: A teacher should provide students with guidance for their future lives' (99-11). Part of this guidance is developing in learners a disposition toward lifelong learning, which she believes is the best asset a person can have (99-11).

The second prominent metaphor is teaching as planting seeds. In one instance, this metaphor is used to characterize her lack of certainty about how her class will affect her students later on: "Now I am not sure what kinds of seeds in students can bloom later on and what not. Just having a genuine question [about aspects or importance in writing] might sometimes bloom late in their learning career" (99-6).


This case study of a Japanese teacher of EFL writing has provided additional evidence for the view expressed in recent studies of teaching that analysis of teacher narratives can offer valuable insight into teachers' knowledge and thinking. We believe that our study has also shown how one teacher's identity is closely intertwined with her cognition. This teacher views teaching as much more than the transmission of knowledge from teacher to students. Her teaching both reflects and makes use of her various life and professional experiences deriving from her multiple social identities.

Some of the first author's multiple identities (for example, former student, nonnative speaker) over others are foregrounded at one particular moment and influence her decision-making and practice. At other times, these identities are less prominent, and a different set of identities (parent, adult) shape her judgement.

Our analysis of the first author's narratives has led us to assert that her professional identity is bound up to some degree with competing values, goals and needs--what we have labeled tensions. Advocates of the use of teacher narratives and of other types of interpretive studies of teaching generally believe that such research may bring about increased appreciation of the complexity of teaching and of the range and depth of teachers' personal practical knowledge.

In contrast to (or because of) the tensions, her use of metaphor of teacher as a guide of learner's journey seems to serve an important role of creating order in an ambivalent, unsettling and chaotic situation. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 156) have pointed out, this is a basic function of metaphors: to lend coherence to our experience by serving as"a guide for future action." The metaphor of the teacher as guide helps to make Keiko's goals and purposes specific and unified. It allows her to set aside conflicting issues in order to focus on a larger goal in her teaching. The metaphor also allows her to steer attention away from herself to students. Her metaphor reminds her to keep asking an important question: "Who am I in students' learning?" similar to what Connelly and Clandinin (1999) asked. In fact, the metaphor of guide for students' learning seems to be serving as her own guide that she uses in navigating and overcoming the different tensions that she experiences in her teaching.

Studies like this one can serve to raise awareness both within and outside the teaching field about the nature of teacher preparation and development. Teachers' narratives reveal that becoming a teacher and growing as a teacher are processes that involve far more than training. Teachers have complex and diverse life histories and knowledge networks. As a result, any teacher's professional identity is shaped by many influences outside and inside the classroom; in the words of the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset ("Death," 1955), "I am I plus my circumstances." At the same time, however, a teacher's professional identity has many different possible effects on that teacher's work in the classroom and beyond.

We agree that this may well be one of the outcomes of sharing studies like this one. However, we want to temper this view with a cautionary note. We want to point out that a study like ours puts a teacher/researcher in a vulnerable position in two ways (see Carter & Doyle, 1996).

First, a published report of a case study of teaching is a public exposure of a teacher's thoughts, beliefs, values and behaviors. Once such a study is shared publicly, ownership of the data presented in the study is no longer the teacher/researcher's alone. The teacher/researcher whose professional identity has been explored cannot control how others will choose to interpret the excerpts from a journal or from the interview. And under no circumstances will it be possible for any reader to adopt the same ecological perspective that she did.

But the issue of vulnerability goes beyond the fact that different readers will perhaps arrive at very different interpretations of the data. In producing a credible study of herself as a teacher, in sharing her narratives, a teacher/researcher's beliefs, values and limitations are exposed. Once these are shared in print, there is no taking them back and little likelihood of sharing periodic reports of further development.

As we applaud the growing interest in studying teachers as persons, exploring their beliefs and values, their identities and tensions, we must remember that research does not guarantee that the process will foster teachers' self-esteem and confidence or minimize the challenges they face. Not every narrative has a happy ending, either for the teacher who produces it or for those who read it. With these risks in mind, we can perhaps appreciate all the more the unique contribution to be made by research in which teachers explore their identity through narratives.


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