What Does it Mean for Teachers to be True to Themselves? Can a Critical Creative Process Support our Articulations of Self?

Victoria Inyang-Talbot

As I prepare to share parts of my research at the International Symposium on Poetic Inquiry later this month in Cape Town, I cannot help but meditate on the question that has preoccupied me for a long time, and is key to my research project. The famous quote, ‘to thyself be true’, spoken by Polonius, King Claudius’ chief minister in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, exhorts us to understand much about ourselves, and at such self-knowledge, not to depart from its convictions.

Being true to oneself is, indeed, a noble aspiration. What else could one aspire to be but oneself?

For teachers, this exhortation is ambiguous, both in the literature and in practice. For to be autonomous, teachers need to cast away the yoke of managers, OFSTED inspectors, policy makers, local council interventions. To be professionally distant yet open to self-disclosure, is itself an oxymoron. To be genuine will mean at some point to tell the truth about the inadequacies of the education the students are being provided; at other times the opposite. This risks disillusioning them too early and that in no way would reflect the teacher’s commitment to them. So how does a teacher remain ‘authentic’?

To engage with the question of authenticity in teacher identity, and to provide an avenue for teachers themselves to respond to what makes up their authenticities, the Critical Authenticity Project invited teachers from all over the world to participate in poetry workshops.

Here teachers learnt poetic forms, and wrote about themselves. As a researcher, I was equally confronted with my own self how it plays into the wider social narrative on identity, and how this influences my role as a teacher.

As an example, when asked to write a list poem, one of the teachers submitted the following:

My Authentic Teacher Bag

I will put in my bag my beat-up guitar
Large puppets and stages and little toy cars
I will put in my bag some musical vids
To choreograph, block and entertain kids
I will put in my bag my biggest fake smile
To deal with tough parents who make me taste bile
My bag is made from the laughs of the youth
That wriggle and giggle, and show lots of teeth
I’ll dance and sing loud and bobble about, and trick them to learning then leave with a shout!

Poetry provided the teachers the space with which to be critically concerned about themselves, and to articulate their self-knowledge creatively.

I look forward to sharing some of their words at the conference this May and for those words to fly and take on shape, making those teachers visible in themselves.

Victoria Inyang-Talbot is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Can Poetry Help us Articulate the Universal as Personal?

Victoria Inyang-Talbot

As the spotlight lands firmly on the upcoming COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, I have reached into my poetry collection and dwelt a little on the poems that tell stories of my relationship with the world around me. John Clare’s All Nature Has A Feeling could not resonate more. We are grappling with the day-to-day questions of living – reaching that potential, negotiating relationships, dreams, disappointments, hope. We are, even as we react to issues of environmental crisis, going about our lives, striving, failing, succeeding, defining who we are, as if the fight is out there, apart from our identities.

But who are we?

Lucille Clifton’s Earth Is A Living Thing speaks to the interconnected that is never denied but when asked to define ourselves, we do so in terms of our characteristics – gender, race, age, occupation etc. We name our origins, proclivities, we create boundaries, extend them (binary, non-binary) and some of us are comfortable enough to say that we are not yet sure. Are we everything but the world around us? We tell the stories of our lives around events that are personal to us – a birth, divorce, leaving home, falling in love, bereavement. That these stories have parallels in our non-human world, we often forget to illustrate – new home = another housing estate, another child = more cabbages etc.

Poetry imagines these liminal spaces and the interdependence therein. In Robert Hayden’s A Plague of Starlings, the plight of the culled starlings is juxtaposed with our own ambitions for ourselves:

Their scissoring
terror like glass
coins spilling breaking

And if not careful
I shall tread
upon carcasses
carcasses when I
go mornings now
to lecture …

Carl Phillips’ White Dog calls us to let go, to resist the urge to own more and more of what belongs to the non-human world. To share the earth, as if we too belong here. To see it as a partnership, not a competition, in owning it or caring for it. W. S. Merwin’s To Ashes is a poem that checks our attitude to our environment as the other – to be pitied, fought for. For after all, we are the same, human and non-human, in origin and in end.

In poetry, we can articulate these imaginings – of our lives and that of our non-human world as one ecology. In acknowledgement I write of a flower:

Keep time with me
You blue haven.
Cupped in yourself,
Unencumbered today, I remember
When the May sun unfurled your petals, and you peak through a smile
And the rest of the pot beheld your evocative entrance
And I clapped in glee.
Keep time with me
Today
And when it’s autumn and the wind howls
I’ll remember for you, your tropical home.

The next time you witness a crocus in May, might you write a haiku?

Victoria is a PhD student and a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the dept of Education at Edge Hill University. To hear more of her poems, join us on Wednesday 3rd November at 5pm for the Sustainatiliby Festival event, “How can poetry support our articulation of our relationship with our non-human world?”