Teacher identity (my turn)

In answer to this post from Matthew Noble (in answer to this other post from Tyson Seburn), here I go.

Who are you?

Mark Makino.  Native speaker of English, according to most definitions.  I tend to define myself by my experience rather than my upbringing… of course many would say those are the same thing, but “upbringing” is many of those words like “heritage” which somehow get conflated with ethnicity, which in turn gets conflated with biology, all in an attempt to get to know what you are without knowing anything about you individually.  I have a particularly confusing background no matter which of these terms you prefer, which probably explains some of my sensitivity to those terms and my opprobrium for people who use “biracial” and “bicultural” as if they were always the same thing.

My great-grandfather Iwataro stowed away on a ship from Numazu to Seattle.  In the bay, just before the ship docked, he jumped off with some of his fellow stowaways and swam to shore.  Some of the others died in the water, but Iwataro made landfall, and in the ensuing years had a few children in the USA, including my grandmother (I’m not sure how my great-grandmother made her way across the Pacific).  Before the war they all moved back to Japan, first to Tokyo and then back to Numazu as Tokyo became a more likely target for Allied bombs.  My grandmother had the misfortune of spending the war years in Japan as a repatriated dual national from the enemy nation, a so-called 帰米二世 kibeinisei.  After the war she met my grandfather, had 3 kids, and moved the whole family back to Los Angeles.  My dad was 4.  I see a clear gradient of acculturization in my dad’s generation; he has two older siblings who remember and identify with Japan and Japanese more, in direct correlation with their ages at emigration. My dad, on the other hand, only understands Japanese when it’s spoken by his own mother and seems to prefer Mexican food to all others.

Like in many immigrant families, my younger, thoroughly American generation grew up seeing the “other” culture around the holidays at family gatherings where the kids were no longer the focus of everyone’s attention.  I remember the smells of 竜田 tatsuta fried chicken mixed with cigarette smoke over the whine of enka karaoke by my grandfather and others of his generation.  My aunt, chef at these events, owned a teppan restaurant that I also ate fairly regularly at and later worked at.  Japanese culture was mostly synonymous with the nostalgia trips of older family members and food, certainly nothing close to the identity of anyone my age. To this day, I feel close to the nation and its culture only as a non-member of Club Japan, and feel positively offended that anyone could think it has something to do with my genes.  It has a lot more to do with my jeans, which are from Uniqlo.

I don’t even usually like explaining this all, because any explanation of your non-white family in the USA pigeonholes you as inherently and congenitally destined for mastery of the culture and language of “your heritage” (In Japan it provokes a severely awkward conversation on who the “pure” Japanese and Americans are in my family).  In truth, my early years are dominated by memories of role-playing games (Final Fantasy, Palladium, and Warhammer), Ren & Stimpy, and the usual variety of activities with school and friends.  The part where I weaved through smoking adults for a few hours while hearing unfamiliar speech on New Year’s was quite small, and by the time I became aware that it was unusual I was at least a teenager and fairly invested in my music-and-philosophy identity, the one you are probably most familiar with.  I didn’t hear the Iwataro story for the first time until my 20s, and still relate to that side of the family almost entirely in English.  In truth, the bilinguals I spent the most time around were my mom and brother, both classical musicians who learn(ed) languages partly for work and partly out of intellectual interest.  I myself didn’t really start learning Japanese until college, and then it had nothing to do with enka or smoke-filled living rooms; it was a fairly standard-issue college kid’s interest in building social capital with some worldly experience.  My Japanese abilities now I credit mostly to my continued daily interactions with my wife and occasional emails or facebooking with friends from the dog park.

So my takeaway from the family and personal history I just described isn’t “I am close to the culture and language of my heritage”, but “perception of heritage is one of many ways people can be motivated to learn a culture and language”.  The fact that so many assume that I grew up speaking Japanese, that it’s somehow permanently a part of me, and that rather than hours of study and negotiation with live interlocutors is responsible for my present abilities has made me very sensitive, even touchy, about the distinctions between actual lived experience and the presumptions that the words “upbringing” and “heritage” often contain. If there is a conversational landmine you can step on with me similar to “gender is just biology” with feminists, it is lazy conflation of appearance with affiliation and affiliation with ability.  I think this is an asset as a language teacher in that I am openly hostile to the idea that the identities foisted on visible minorities should prevent them from functioning and identifying as fluent or native speakers of the majority language.  Nobody got as indignant as I did when the judges on American Idol would encourage a Latino/Latina contestant to “embrace your heritage” and sing a bit in Spanish.

What is your teaching philosophy?

Gosh, it’s pretty much an extension of the above, not letting institutional definitions of you and your abilities determine what you can actually do.  When students start acting as if they think they can do the thing I want them to be able to do, I try to act as if I believe them even if there isn’t that much evidence yet.

What does it mean to you personally to have a professional identity?

Like being a recognized speaker of a language, considering myself a professional language teacher means I can “pass” among other people who also consider themselves professional language teachers.  This sounds meaninglessly tautological, but people who consider themselves professional language teachers usually have some hard-won insight from experience or training (those who don’t generally consider language teaching a hobby or a gap-year pastime and don’t think being a “professional language teacher” is even possible).  Having a professional identity, sending and responding to signals in a way other language teachers expect and knowing their jargon, means that I get to listen to and interact with these people.  This adds to my own insight, and making me a better language teacher as well.

How far is it useful to be conscious of your identity as a teacher?

Having that identity motivates me to participate in its upkeep by reading journals occasionally, responding to blog posts, and buying books to keep on my kindle so that I can explain that I’m going to get started on the next Dörnyei book just as soon as I finish the book I’m reading now (Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar).  Ironically, these are all things that happen outside the classroom.  Inside the classroom, it is my sense of professionalism that reminds me not to suck up all the air in the room and give students much more space to interact.  This may strike some as contradicting a teacherly identity, but I believe this ceding of control is one area that language teachers’ sense of proper conduct differs from that of, say, history teachers.

For the record, Sammy’s range opened up a lot of Eddie’s songwriting potential, but Eddie plays more the way the world wants him to with Dave.

How far is a teacher’s identity linked to their sense of value, and how can teachers’ associations foster this sense of identity and value?

I’m not sure I understand the question (besides the notable use of “their” as a singular pronoun – that I understand), but in general teachers’ associations succeed when they give lay members validation by letting them speak and share.  Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of the way we generally conduct ourselves in class, but we expect to be able to add our 2 cents, feel validated for voicing our opinions even more than being technically correct, and above all feeling like we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves.  We are also usually more than happy to cede our spot to give someone else the chance to succeed, and in this sense it’s important that teachers have novices and less experienced members to watch grow.  I was one of those in my earlier months as Chapter President.

What experiences have most deeply affected your own sense of professional identity?

The MA was a big one, mostly because it for the first time in my teaching career put me in regular contact with other ELT professionals from around the world, gave me an identity in that community, and as I mentioned earlier giving me motivation to keep up with developments in the field.  It also led directly to my becoming involved with JALT, as I kept reading articles from something called “JALT Journal” and looked it up, only to discover there was a chapter near me.

As far as my identity in the classroom, I think having been a language learner and a learner in general myself informs quite a bit of how I see my role and the range of behaviors I’m comfortable exhibiting.  Part of the reason I was very interested in Dogme was that virtually everything I still remember of my own junior high and high school years was off-script, things that the teacher said or did outside the carefully planned lesson which many man-hours at all levels of government were expended in crafting.  I don’t think it’s safe to say that the curriculum should be totally scrapped because of this, first because I don’t have conscious access to all my brain and can’t be sure if the “main” parts of past classes actually affected me in some other important way, and also because I think part of the reason I remember these moments is that my teachers generally stayed on message, making these moments stand out as a result.  I don’t think it’s possible or advisable to compose a class entirely of off-kilter but memorable moments, but I think the ratio can be tilted a bit more in their favor.  As a result, I prefer randomness to plannedness and memorable chaos to forgettable tranquility.  All this because Mr. Madrid used to have us rub a certain spot on his desk every day for a year to illustrate what happens to the remains of ancient civilizations and classical art when they’re not cared for.

6 thoughts on “Teacher identity (my turn)

  1. Hi Mark – I don’t think we’ve interacted that much, if at all, but I’m glad to have read about you, your family, and your experiences. Thanks for being involved in this identity post. I noted how you weren’t sure of the question related to teaching associations and/or how identity is related to value. As a member of several teaching associations, some in leadership type of roles, one of the bigger struggles I’ve found is always communicating the value of membership to someone who’s not part of one. On one hand, you want to say something about value for money as a lot of people think that way. On the other, it’s more abstract perhaps. It’s the connections with a greater ELT world, like you say about your MA, that teacher associations help in fostering a teacher’s sense of ‘their’ value. Having said that, I’ve found that value began with my involvement in social media (Twitter, blogs, etc.) instead. TESL Toronto, TESL Canada, IATEFL, whichever… they’ve helped build a concrete link between the people I’ve grown to know, share ideas with, and respect (and sometimes not). Associations have connected me with other teachers who aren’t part of that online community, too. Anyways, I think I’m rambling. Point is, thanks for letting me into your perspective. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree it’s very hard to convince non-members to fork over $100 per year for something whose benefits are somewhat nebulous. In my case, I at the very least got a part-time uni job out of it, so there’s that. I think many JALT members could say something similar.


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