Understanding Ourselves as
Teachers of English
Through Analyzing Narrative and Identity in
“Teacher Man”
Li Zhanzi
China's 5th International Symposium on
ELT in China & the 1st Congress of
Chinese Applied Linguistics,
Language & Identity Symposium May.19.
Abstract: Recent studies in discourse and identity suggest that while
the construction of such major aspects of identity as race and ethnicity
may have striking consequences, minor aspects of identities also
contribute significantly to our sense of ourselves. Through an
interpretation of the multi-positioning in Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man,
the paper tries to illustrate how the highly appraised work reconstructs
identity by appealing to one’s life story. The relationship between
narrative and identity will be explored with reference to the book’s
multi-positioning. It is proposed that for the English teachers in China
to understand themselves in a more flexible and enlightening way,
more teacher narratives need to be elicited and analyzed in the similar
 Key words: narrative discourse, identity, English teaching, reading
I. Introduction: Narrative and identity
Since identity is continuously and
constantly produced and reproduced,
sketched and designed, and often coconstructed by ‘self’ and ‘other’, we
should strive to demonstrate how
identities are (re)produced through
language (and other media) and how
they come into existence through
social interaction. (De Fina, 2006:22)
 …Not only is it within social practice that identities are
shaped, but also the construction and projection of
identities are themselves interactional practices. The
details of these interactions vary, as do approaches to their
analysis. Yet practices as varied as narrative, life story,
interviews, letter writing, and conversation all provide
systematic (yet emergent) means of ‘doing’ things through
talk that simultaneously provide means of ‘being’. (ibid:22)
 So what we are going to do is to analyze the interaction
between narrative and identity in Teacher Man and explore
its implications in our own identifications as teachers of
Self as a narration
rendered intelligible within ongoing relationships
 Self-conception: not as an individual’s
personal and private cognitive structure
 But as discourse about the self – the
performance of languages available in the
public sphere (Gergen, K. “Self-narration in
social life”)
 We live by stories, both in the telling and
the realizing of the self
 Self-narratives function much like oral
histories or morality tales within a society.
They are cultural resources that serve such
social purposes as self-identification, selfjustification, self-criticism, and social
solidification. (Gergen, in Wetherell,
 A growing number of scholars suggest that the
“form of stories (their textual structure), the content
of our stories (what we tell about) and our
storytelling behavior (how we tell our stoeis) are all
sensitive indices “ of our personal, social, and
cultural identities (Schiffrin, 1996:170). Mishler
(1999:20) argues that narratives are performances
in which individuals “speak” their identities . This
way of connecting narrative and identity challeges
prevailing assumptions about the self. (De Fina,
 Narrative analysts who focus on time order have a fancy
for the grand narration which gives our life a unified,
coherence meaning, which is of a higher order. (MacIntyre
1984; Taylor 1991).
 But in fact:“Neither the trajectories of our lives nor the
stories we construct to understand ourselves and others
are smooth, continuous and progressive. Each is marked
by fits and starts, detours and hiatuses. (De Fina, 2006:43)
 This is why we find the author retelling his childhood story,
his story of his mother etc. These form part of the teacher
man and are something he cannot do without.
II. Teacher Man and his narrative
 About the author Frank McCourt and his work --- Born 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish
immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland,
and at the age of 19, returned to America.
Surviving initially through a string of casual jobs,
spending every spare minutes reading books from
the public library, McCourt began a process of selfeducation which led to a career of a high-school
 the final memoir in the trilogy that started
with Angela’s Ashes and continue in ‘Tis;
 On McCourt’s 30-year teaching career in
New York’s public high schools, which
began at McKee Vocational and Technical in
 Frank acquired authority in the classroom through
the telling of his childhood story – which implies
the close connection between self-narrative and
identity; or in his attempt to reach selfunderstanding, he repeats and revises his
childhood stories; in the classroom – an attempt to
construct his teacher identity
 I’m a teacher in an American school telling stories
of my school days in Ireland. It’s a routine that
softens them up in the unlikely event I might
teacher something solid from the curriculum. (p.31)
 As we know, teachers in the traditional
sense do not have self-narration. They are
more often than not stereotyped. A teacher
with a self story fulfills the emptiness of the
traditional teacher image and becomes the
new teacher image, with whom the personal
resources – life stories become their
teaching resource, a multi-dimensional
construction of the teacher image.
“Personal narratives …are of interest precisely because narrators
interpret the past in stories rather than reproduce the past as it
was.”(Riessman, 2002:75) (De Fina et al. eds:2006: 234) In
MacCourt’s narration, he keeps making reinterpretations of the past by
telling stories, thereby acquiring his teacher identification – teaching
the interpretation of life experiences.
 As we know, teachers in the traditional sense as a group identity do not
have personal narratives. While making his childhood stories as
resources for teaching, McCourt strives to construct a new teacher
identity – the personal becomes resourceful. The flat teach image
becomes more substantial.
 How he engages, reproduces and resists traditional discourse of
My Life saved my life
 My life saved my life. On my second day at McKee
a boy asks a question that sends me into the past
and colors the way I teach for the next thirty years.
I’m nudged into the past, the materials of my
 “He tried to present a consistent image of
composure and self-confidence, yet he regularly
felt insecure, inadequate, and unfocused. After
much trial and error, he eventually discovered
what was in front of him (or rather, behind him) all
along – his own experience. “—review from
Publishers Weekly
 In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a
johnny-come-lately, new kid on the block.
My first book, Angela’s ashes, was
published in 1996 when I was sixty-six, the
second, ‘Tis, in 1999 when I wa sixty-nine.
At that age it’s a wonder I was able to lift the
pen at all. …(p.3)
 Writing and story-telling
I’m a teacher in an American school telling
stories of my school days in Ireland. It’s a
routine that softens them up in the unlikely
event I might teach something solid from the
curriculum. (p.31)
 I never expected Angela’s Ashes to attract
any attention, but when it hit the best-seller
lists I became a media darling. …(p.4)
 Personal narratives ….they are of interest
precisely because narrators interpret the
past in stories rather than reproduce the
past as it was. (Riessman, 2002:75) In
Macourt’s narrative, he keeps reinterpret the
past to acquire his teacher man identity – he
was actually teaching how one reads and
interprets one’s life experiences.
You are your material
Here ‘s how he persuades his students to write:
Dreaming, wishing, planning: it’s all writing, but the
difference between you and the man on the street is
that you are looking at it, friends, getting it set in
your head, realizing the significance of the
insignificant, getting it on paper. You might be in the
throes of love or grief but you are ruthless in
observation. You are your material. You are writers
and one thing is certain: no matter what happens on
Saturday night, or any other night, you’ll never be
bored again. Never. Nothing human is alien to you.
Hold your applause and pass up your homework.
 The difference between McCourt and the rest of the world
is that he is a teacher with a life story (which has become a
best seller). He owns it and the latter shapes his teaching
style, that is using his life stories in the classroom
whenever the students ask for it. He used his life to teach,
and his job and life became one. How many teachers are
willing to do that, or how many of us are courageous and
candid enough to use our life experiences are worthy of
classroom exposure. That also explains why most teachers
have the split identification of themselves as teachers and
as ordinary human beings. To be integral like the excellent
ones, McCourt is an example.
A Teacher vs. Just teaching
 That also makes the difference between
veteran teachers and new ones; the latter
insists on the difference between teaching
as a job and living a life outside the
 The question is: how we engage in the
ongoing construction of our identities – try
harder, and you become a ‘teacher man’;
otherwise, just teaching.
 “His trademark charm, wit and unself-
conscious self-effacement ensure that the
flashbacks of his dreadful days growing up
in extreme deprivation in Ireland don’t sink
the narrative in self-pity.”
 “one who shares his life stories not only to
establish bridges of experience with his
students but also to get them to open “ –
review by American Library Association
 McCourt recounts his experiences in New
York’s urban classrooms with perspective
and the indomitable flair of a story
teller. …His thirty-year teaching career is
punctuated with small triumphs, pitfalls, and
the difficult choices, but always candor and
respect for his students.
 --Review from AudioFile
III. Construction of teachers’ group
 In section II we discussed how Maccour’s unique
experience made his a charismatic teacher; his life story
becoming a source of personal charm. In this section we
are going to analyze the construction of teacher identity in
the following aspects: American scenario, teachers’ group
image, observation of the classroom, reflections on
teacher-student relationship, showcase of the successful
teaching methodology, thoughts on educational ethics and
description of the dilemmas.
 Stereotypical understanding of teachers;
 Re-cognizing and re-identification of teachers through
McCourt’s writings.
 “A dazzling writer with a unique and
compelling voice, McCourt describes the
dignity and difficulties of a largely thankless
profession with incisive, self-deprecating wit
and uncommon perception.” – Shawn
3.1 American scenario
 Everywhere in the book, we read about American
Mr.McCourt, you’re lucky. You had that miserable
childhood so you have something to write about. What are
we gonna write about? All we do is get born, go to
school, go on vocation, go to college, fall in love or
something, graduate and go into some kind of
profession, get married, have the two point three kids
you’re always talking about, send the kids to school,
get divorced like fifty percent of the population, get fat,
get the first heart attach, retire die. (p.292)
3.2 philosophy of education
 In spite of the helpless rambling here and there,
McCourt slipped in his educational ideals:
 This is where teacher turns serious and asks the
Big Question: What is education, anyway? …from
Fear to Freedom…what I am trying to do with you
is drive fear into a corner.
 Such idealistic understanding of education helps
to portray a noble teacher image.
3.3 capturing the elements in
students, classroom, parents
 A generous sharing of love-hate sentiments
towards the students:
 …I don’t want to be bothered by them. I don’t want
to see or hear them….I wish the kids would
disappear. I’m not in the mood.
 Other days I’m desperate to get into the classroom.
I wait, impatient, in the hallway. I paw the ground.
Come on, Mr.Ritterman. Hurry up. Finish your
damn math lesson. There are things I want to say
to this class. (p.303)
 来自读者的评论谈到“每个教书新手都该读
读这本书。… 这本书对热爱教学的人来说,
 As The Globe and Mail (Toronto) commented, his
observations may be a bit repetitive but his depictions of
daily classroom trials is extremely sharp and forms the
core of the teacher man. (Dec.24,2005,p.D5)
 McCourt’s unique description of the classroom experience,
which is likely to be representative of the teacher group:
 The classroom is a place of high drama. You’ll never know
what you’ve done to, or for, the hundreds coming and
going. You see them leaving the classroom: dreamy, flat,
sneering, admiring, smiling, puzzled. After a few years you
develop antennae. You can tell when you’ve reached them
or alienated them. It’s chemistry. It’s psychology. It’s
animal instinct. …(p.304)
 On teacher-student relationship:
 I said positive things about all my students.
They were attentive, punctual, considerate,
eager to learn and every one of them had a
bright future and the parents should be
proud. Dad and Mom would look at each
other and smile and say, See? Or they’d be
puzzled and say, You talkin’ about our kid?
Our Harry? (p.86)
 McCourt brings down the myth of the
teacher image in the mind of those outside
the teaching circle:
 Maids downstairs, side doors, talk about
them with mercy, congratulate them on ‘all
the time off’
Practitioner’s local voice
 Newspapers will ask you, mere teacher, for your opinion on
education.. This will be big news: A teacher asked for his
opinion on education. Wow. You’ll be on television. (p.7)
 In other words, people care little about teachers’ views on
education, although they are in the best position to make
comments. As Paul Gee (2000:77) notes, researchers and
teachers alike always assume that teachers have only a
‘local’ voice on such issues. Rarely are teachers invited
into – or do they have access to – a ‘national voice’. Even
when invited to speak at national conferences, teachers
usually speaker as representatives of their local areas and
their own experiences, while researchers speak as
transcending locality and their own experiences.
You have the makings of a fine
 love of Shakespeare;
 By quoting others’ evaluation, he mentioned
several times:
 You have the makings of a fine teacher)…(p.66)
 A grammar lesson in full – how he tried all out to
teach grammar (p.92)
 English teachers say if you can teach grammar in
a vocational high school you can teach anything
anywhere. My class listened. They
participated. …(p.98)
At the end of the book, he describes the new world he enters when
teaching becomes inspirational:
 我正在寻找自己的声音和自己的教学风格。我正在学习在课堂里感到自
在。像Roger Goodman我的新领导那样, Bill Ince给我尝试写作和文学课
 The revelation appears at the end of the work. Guy’s story made them
realize the grace of being able to live and work with health:
 This is their last high school class, and mine. There are tears and
expressions of wonder that Guy is sending us on our way with a story
that reminds us to count our blessings. (p.306)
3.4 situational and innovative teaching
 Innovative: not only using life stories, but also combining
socio-cultural situations, e.g. inquiry about dinner the
previous day, lunch investigation, review of school canteen
and neighborhood restaurants(p.266)
 Direct, lively, inspirational teaching – in tune with middle
school starting-from-life ethics, though somewhat
contradictory with stick-to-the-curriculum requirements. A
good reconciliation of both his teaching practice.
 Combination of situational teaching and innovative
teaching: e.g. imaginative assignments -- writing excuses
for historical figures; suicidal notes, singalongs (featuring
recipe ingredients as lyrics), field trips (taking 29 rowdy
girls to a movie in Times Square)
 Writing excuse notes –
 An excuse note from Adam to God
 An excuse note from Eve to God
 ask them to think about anyone in the world
at present or in history who could use a
good excuse note (p.106)
 Evaluation of the principle;
 Top-notch. That, young man, is what we
need, the kind of down-to-earth teaching.
Those kids were writing on a college level.
 Energetic and imaginative teaching;
 Thank you and maybe you should divert
them to remote figures in history …
You have a right to think for
 His insistence on innovation:
 (when he was teaching in a college) That was
something I should have known all along: the
people in my classes, adults from eighteen to
sixty-two, thought their opinions did not matter.
Whatever ideas they had came from the
avalanche of media in our world. No one had ever
told them they had a right to think for themselves.
 I told them, You have a right to think for yourselves.
3.5 identity of middle school teachers
----I didn’t call myself anything. I was more than a teacher.
 An exaggerated list of hybrid middle-school-teacher roles
 I didn’t call myself anything. I was more than a
teacher. And less. In the high school classroom
you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a should to cry on,
a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a
clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dresscode enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a
philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a
politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest,
a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a book
keeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.
Differences between middle school
and college teachers
 I have read novels about the lives of university professors
where they seemed to be so busy with adultery and
academic infighting you wonder where they found time to
squeeze in a little teaching. When you teach five high
school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined
to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose.
After a day of five classes your head is filled with the
clamor of the classroom. (p.4)
 …In college there were courses on literature and
composition. There were courses on how to teach by
professors who did not know how to teach. (p.31)
About differences between universities and middle schools, he
emphasized the necessity of updating teaching notes:
 In universities you can lecture from your old crumbling notes. In public
high schools you’d never get away with it. American teenagers are
experts in the tricks of teachers, and if you try to hood wink them they’ll
bring you down. (p.80)
He emphasized the practice-orientation in middle school teaching:
Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how
to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and
philosophis of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about
the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t
mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the
classroom. (p.19)
3.6 expectations of the principle
---- He put on no airs… He trusted me
 Some afternoon Roger came to the Gas
House to drink with us. He had no
affectations, always cheerful, always
encouraging, a supervisor you could feel
comfortable with. He put on no airs, no
intellectual pretensions, and mocked
bureaucratic gobbledygook. …… He trusted
me. He seemed to think I could teach on
any of the four levels of high school…(p.219)
3.7 dilemmas of teaching
 Whether to tell life stories in class:
 Although his students like his stories,
parents are against his telling them in class.
The different expectations from students
and parents made teachers hard to adjust.
He chose to put students need in priority
and uses his life stories as bail to arouse
their interest in learning.
They have instincts that detect your
 ……They know when they have you on the
run. They have instincts that detect your
frustrations. There were days I wanted to sit
behind my desk and let them do what ever
they damn well pleased. I just could not
reach them. … You entertain them with
stories of your miserable childhood. They
make all those phony sounds… (p.94)
 The heavy load of correcting homework:
 If you gave each paper a bare five minutes
you’d spend, on this one set of papers,
fourteen hours and thirty-five minutes. That
would amount to more than two teaching
days, and the end of the weekend.
 You hesitate to assign book reports. They
are longer and rich in plagiarism. (p.222)
Educational ethics
 to what extent does a teacher holds himself
responsible for a student’s well-being:
 I could give this paper to a guidance counselor.
Here, Sam, you take care of this. If I didn’t, and it
came out later that the stepfather abused the girl
and the world knew I’d let it slip by, important
people in the school system would summon me to
their offices: … they would want explanations.
How could you, experienced teacher, let this
happen? My name might blaze across page three
of the tabloids. (p.224)
Carrier advancement:
Aging teacher… still a student…
 I was twenty-two then and now, at thirty-
eight, I was applying to Trinity College. Yes,
they would consider my application if I sat
for the American Graduate Record
Examination. …(p.193)
 Thirty-eight was on my mind. Aging teacher
sailing to Dublin. Still a student. Is that any
way for a man to live? (p.199)
Identity dilemma for English teachers
 I was confused. I was born in America. I
grew up in Ireland. I returned to America.
I’m wearing the American uniform. I feel
Irish. They should know I’m Irish. They
should not be mocking me. (p.189)
 -- As non-native teachers of English, the
identity gap may be bigger. Our students
look at us with suspicion when we try to
teach how the Americans do this and that.
Recipes or curriculum?
 For English teachers, teaching language and teaching
analysis has long been a dilemma. McCourt was satirical
about the helplessness of the situation and ironical of the
teachers’ efforts at digging deeper meaning:
 The other thing I like about the recipes is you can read
them the way they are without pain-in-the-ass English
teachers digging for the deeper meaning. (p.247)
 Sometimes, but this is a poem and you know what English
teachers do to poems. Analyze, analyze, analyze. Dig for
deeper meaning. That’s what turned me against poetry.
Someone should dig a grave and bury the deeper meaning.
 His uneasiness about reading aloud recipes in the
 You bear a heavy responsibility as you go forth
and it would be criminal of me, the teacher, to
waste your young lives with the reading of recipes
no matter how much you enjoy the activity.
 I know we’re all having a gopod time reading
recipes with background music but that is not why
we were put on earth. We have to move on. That
is the American way. (p.255)
 On the A train to Brooklyn I feel uneasy over
the direction this class is taking, especially
since my other classes are asking why can’t
they go to the park with all kinds of food and
why can’t they have recipe readings with
music? How can all this be justified to the
authorities who keep an eye on the
curriculum? (p.249)
English teachers:
words or meaning;
language or encyclopedia
 As substitute for analysis, he asked students to respond,
like after a movie. (p.265)
 After a self-irony of digging for deeper meaning, he
mentions people, esp. students’ high expectations of
English teachers for their encyclopedic knowledge.
Obviously, this is a demanding expectation for teachers
with heavy workload:
 …Also, I ought to scan a newspaper in order to keep up
with the world. An English teacher should know what’s
going on. You never knew when one of your students
might bring up something about foreign policy or a new OffBroadway play. You wouldn’t want to be caught up there in
from t of the room with your mouth going and nothing
coming our. (p.223)
In sum
 McCourt speaks for himself when he is
speaking for teachers as a whole, vice versa.
The teacher man he constructs is
complementary to the protagonist in his
previous two works – unique and yet
ordinary. His understanding/identification of
himself is achieved through his efforts to
speak for the teachers.
In Johnson’s study of “the
discursive construction of
teacher identites in a research
interview”, the finding is that:
As the interview proceeds the
teacher’s identity construction
becomes increasingly agentive.
She shifts from a dilemmatic
(how she and others at the
school are affected by parental
expectations for good student
results when students are not
academically able) discourse
to a more positive construction
of how her teaching practices
help students to fulfill parental
expectations, therefore
positioning herself as a good
practitioner. (Johnson, G.C. in
De Fina,2006:214)
V. Reading positioning:
identity construction of
Chinese teachers of English;
English teachers in China;
teachers of English in China;
China’s English teachers
 With more non-natives teaching English as a
second or foreign language, researchers are
noticing the unique contributions these people
make to the field and their advantages.
 Reading Teacher Man, especially exploring the
connection between his narrative discourse and
his identity construction gives us revelations about
how to understand ourselves as English teachers
in China.
Joseph, John E. 2004. Language and Identity – National, Ethnic,
Religious. Palgrave:Macmillan.
Bethan Benwell & Elizabeth Stokoe 2006 Discourse and Identity
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Fina, Anna De, Schiffrin, D, Bamberg, M. 2006. Discourse and Identity
Cambridge University Press.
Llurda, Enric. 2005. Non-Native Language Teachers. – Perceptions,
Challenges and Contributions to the Profession. Lleida, Catalonia,
Spain: Springer.
Johnson, Greer C. “The discursive construction of teacher identities in
a research interview” in Fina et al. eds. 2006. Discourse and Identity.
Gee, Paul. An Introduction to Discourse Analysis.
Gergen, Kenneth “Self-narration in social life” in Wetherell, M et al. eds.
Discourse Theory and Practice. 2001. London Thousand Oaks New
Delhi:Sage. 247—260.
 Thank you all
 for coming to our symposium!