Reading the book of memory: teacher narratives

Neeraja Raghavan

Which of us has not been influenced by some teacher or the other? And how often do we catch ourselves actually teaching like that teacher? Or even – reminding ourselves NOT to teach like that teacher?

This month, I would like to share with you a chapter from a book which talks of the role of memories on pedagogy. I had read this as a research paper some years ago, but when I recently searched for it, I could not find it. So I Googled the author and wrote to her, asking for a copy. She obligingly e-mailed that chapter. I now treasure this paper amongst my collection.

The author, Kathleen Pithouse has written a remarkable account of post-apartheid South African teachers reminiscing about their own school days.

Read on and you, too, will probably agree with me.

As part of a graduate course in curriculum studies in a University in South Africa, this author facilitated a Teacher Self-Study Project. She worked with 10 experienced school teachers (9 African and 1 Indian) in this project and led them through a process of examining their remembered school experience in apartheid South Africa. Using narratives and group discussion, the author drew out of the participating teachers their strong memories of their own school days, and encouraged them to share these narratives with each other. She took care to ensure that participants revealed only that which they felt comfortable to share in a group.

The entire Project spanned six two-hour sessions. In this chapter, the author describes just two of the six sessions that she held with these teachers. I was struck by the powerful impact of just four hours of engagement with these teachers.

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The teachers had been asked to write (but not send) a letter to any teacher who had had a lasting influence on them. In the first session, they read and discussed these letters with each other, and in the second, they presented these teacher autobiographies with the insights that they had gained in the first session. The second session therefore entailed their looking at how these experiences had fed into and positioned their present teaching practice. In her description of the authority of teachers in apartheid South Africa, I saw striking similarities to the traditional, fearful and punitive role that many teachers have donned in our country as well.

Pithouse had specified that the letter could be written to a teacher who had had a positive or negative influence on them, as students. To her (and their) surprise, every one of the teachers recalled a negative memory, despite their admitting that there had been teachers who had had a positive impact on them, too. She reveals her intent in initiating such an exercise by quoting Allenden & Allenden (2006):
“Unless we are consciously aware of what is driving our choices of behaviour in the classroom, we are all too likely to revert to the ways of the teachers who taught us – maybe for the good, but usually for the not so good.” – page 179

The letters contained descriptions of humiliating incidents when these teachers had been slapped or punished as children, by their teachers. All of them had experienced corporal punishment and they now recognized that it seriously hampered their development as learners. They could see that it had demotivated them and alienated them from their teachers. They recognized that in apartheid South Africa, children had often been treated badly by their teachers in the name of upholding teacher authority. Under the guise of discipline, they recalled how they had felt suppressed and silenced, ignored and undervalued. One teacher wrote in her letter to her teacher:
“I just wanted to tell you that you broke and wounded me and you took a lot of my self esteem with you in that one incident. It took me a long time to know that other people’s opinions of me do not define who I am. I had to learn to love and appreciate myself.” – page 182

The author is Founder Director of Thinking Teacher (www.thinkingteacher.in), an organization that networks with teachers across the country. Thinking Teacher aims to awaken and nurture the reflective practitioner within each teacher. By taking (action) research out of the classroom, Thinking Teacher develops the (action) researcher in the teacher. And then, by bringing research into the classroom – as in this series – Thinking Teacher’s goal is to help build deep inquiry and rich learning into the teaching process. The author can be reached at neeraja@thinkingteacher.in.

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