Jane has drafted out the following response in December 2004 for submission to the English Language Gazette in response to an invitation to submit her ideas for publication.



Teachers’ stories

Jane Spiro


English language teaching has always been a magpie, collecting from every field and philosophy which enriches its own field.  Ahead of our time, we were aware of the role of reflective cycles, counselling theories, management theories, socio-cultural theories, and their impact on language teaching.  However, it may be that Applied Linguistics this time hasn’t noticed an exciting new trend in Schools of Education: a refreshingly qualitative approach to teacher research in which teacher’s self-knowledge and personal narrative is at the centre.  It is time personal-narrative based research not only came out of the closet, but also moved boldly into the ELT mainstream.


In what ways is personal narrative useful to us as language teachers? and how is it different from what has gone before?  When Joachim Appel’s Diary of a Language Teacher was published in 1995, it was understood to be a text that had great insights for the teacher.  It was one of the first of its kind to record the real day-to-day trials and crises of the language teacher, and then to drop these personal events into a larger framework.  It was a delight for new and experienced teachers alike, to empathise with his frustrations and then to have the opportunity to draw back and analyse them.


This may have – should have – opened the floodgates for other language teachers to do the same.  But in fact, while Schools of Education forged forward in encouraging state school teachers to tell their stories, the EFL community saw this kind of book as just a pleasant little blip.  I invite the reader to explore websites such as http://www.actionresearch.net - a cornucopia of personal narratives from Bath School of Education: or to explore some of the titles below in which teachers tell their story and, like Appel, deconstruct what these mean to their profession as a whole.


So why are EFL teachers not involved in this development?  Surely our stories will have a unique richness and variety, since all of us are travellers either geographically or spiritually by virtue of the students we teach? Perhaps EFL teachers have not told their story in this richly receptive climate because we are still trying to establish our profession as a carefully-honed science and are a little afraid of what appears ‘wishy-washy’ or ‘touchy-feely’ – for all our flirtation with humanistic philosophies. Perhaps we are so focused on empowering our students and hearing their voices, that we are afraid to place ourselves into the arena as well.  What is good enough for our students is perhaps too good for us.  After all, what if personal narrative simply turns into an insufferable outpouring of subjective drivel?


Those increasing number who believe personal story is legitimate research, have an answer to this.  Bullough and Pinnegar (2001) offer 14 guidelines for the action researcher engaged in self-study. These are practical guidelines which are underpinned by the notion of research as a universalised story. 

                  many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but

                  must be understood in terms of public issues and in terms of the

                  problems of history-making.

                  (Wright Mills C. in Bullough and Pinnegar 2001:14)


After all, being a good action researcher is about telling a good story.          An effective personal narrative will deconstruct ‘personal troubles’ as public ones;  it will politicise observations to show the interaction between teachers and systems, contexts, cultures. What is remembered, selected, and why?  What patterns and connections emerge and what do these teach us? It is different from other kinds of research, because we are emotionally engaged and yet fully informed.  We are story-makers.


The English language teaching profession should be at the forefront of this development. We have an excellent record of political awareness and eclecticism, but where are our real, chalkface stories to illustrate this?  Are Applied Linguistics departments and ELT teacher development and teacher training programmes allowing teachers to explore their stories?  Are their stories being seen as a resource for legitimate study and research?  I think not. What a huge lost opportunity.  


Appel, Joachim (1995) The Diary of a Language Teacher  Heinemann

Bullough R.V. and Pinnegar S. 2001  Guidelines for Quality in Autobiographical Forms of Self-Study      in Educational Researcher  Vol. 30 (3)  pp. 13 – 22

Goodson, I.F. (ed.) (1992) Studying Teachers’ Lives  London, Routledge

Huberman, M. (1993) The Lives of Teachers,  New York:  Teachers College Press/Cassell

Johnston, Bill (2003) Values in English Language Teaching,  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey

Munro, Petra (1998)  Subject to Fiction; women teachers’ life history narratives and the cultural politics of resistance   Open University Press, Buckingham

Witherell, C. and Noddings. N. (1991) Stories lives tell:  narrative and dialogue in education,  New York: Teachers College Press 


If you are interested to help develop a resource of ELT teachers’ stories, please contact Jane Spiro on jspiro@brookes.ac.uk.