Socio-Cultural Identity of EFL Teacher in Nepal
Ashok Raj Khati
Many school authorities rejected Shiva Luitel, a member of one of the teachers’ union and a 15-year teaching professional, when he sought for confirmation for his transfer from the present workplace. Moreover, he was immediately provided permission for transfer from his present workplace. Shiva Luitel, who holds a strong sense of socio-cultural facets of Nepalese society, is not understood as a ‘professional’. Manushi Dahal, a young EFL teacher, on the other hand, is much concerned with her students, English language teaching (ELT) pedagogy, content and new trends in the field. Despite of being highly professional, she had to quit teaching job in her 3rd year, as she was not ‘preferred’ by a community in Nepal for several reasons. She faced the problem of identity reformation in a new situation. Many teachers face socio-cultural and professional challenges in different stages of their career. It is more significant in Nepal where the sense of professionalism is very weak and the writ of the concerned authorities is ineffective. If someone gets him or her jobless and failure in other professions, then he or she is expected to join teaching. Further, majority of teaching professionals bring fixed assumptions, beliefs and attitudes to the profession which remain unchanged throughout the career.
This write-up attempts to provide a basic insight on teacher identity. It further examines the socio-cultural identity of English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher in Nepal.
Identity generally refers to special characterization of something or someone. Wenger (1998) views identity as showing social, cultural and historical aspects of a person. She stresses the role of social settings; through our attendance in social situations, we construct our identities and learn to understand ourselves, our actions and our mind. Identities are therefore temporary, constructed in social settings, constantly in process, containing historical, present and future experiences of a person. In many respects, identities are about negotiating new subject positions at the crossroads of the past, present and future. Individuals are shaped by their socio-histories but they also shape their socio-histories as life goes on (Block, 2007). Hence one’s identities are products of the culture that one is born into or one’s identities can be considered to exemplify cultural aspects (Wenger, 1998).
EFL teacher identity in recent literature has been described as an immensely complex phenomenon and a profoundly individual and psychological matter. EFL teacher identity is closely linked with foreign language learning itself. Becoming a teacher is often considered a constantly moving and developing process; one needs to develop constantly and adapt to new situations, development and changes in the area. Many foreign language teachers are migrants. They have traveled and lived in other countries either to learn or to teach a foreign language. Language teachers in any setting naturally represent a wide array of social and cultural roles and identities: as teachers or students, as gendered and cultured individuals, as expatriates or nationals, as native speakers or non-native speakers, as content area or TESL /English language specialists (Duff and Uchinda, 1997). EFL teachers, like other groups, also get stereotyped which may be based on gender, age, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, social class. In many instances, socio-cultural identities of teachers have been found split, hybrid and mixed.
Native and Non-native Identity
Teachers’ identity is not fixed but is developed and accentuated by being compared with others. Native vs. non-native is related to the center and the periphery. The Center/Peripheral dichotomy was imported into ELT by Philipson (1992). To the center belong to powerful Western countries where English is native language, whereas, the periphery is constituted of underdeveloped countries and English is the second or foreign language. In recent years, the glory once attached to the native English speaking teacher (NEST) has faded, and increasing numbers of ELT experts assert that the ideal teacher is no longer a category reserved for NESTs. It is becoming a generally accepted view that outstanding teachers cannot be squeezed into any pigeonhole: all outstanding teachers are ideal in their own ways, and as such are different from each other (Medgyes, 2007). Nonnative teachers usually feel a sense of threat and otherness with a marginalized line that might be given by themselves and their students; as in a lot of English as second language (ESL) programs, the majority of the students showed a decided preference for White teachers over non-White teachers (Amin, 1997). When the students put out a message that they consider their teacher to be a nonnative speaker and therefore cannot teach them “native-like” English, the teachers are unable to effectively negotiate a teacher identity. Their confidence that teachers are supposed to have before their students is harmed, resulting in their construction in the identity of teacher less successful. The concept of native and non-native English speaking teachers has been gradually declining in Nepalese contexts; nonetheless there are many occasions, when these EFL teachers and even students themselves do prefer NESTs. However, in recent decades, there has been a greater global mobility of people for education, and Nepalese EFL teachers seem to be fully confident in diverse socio-cultural settings in terms of proficiency in English, content and pedagogical knowledge. Some theoretical and historical foundations interest me to examine primarily the socio-cultural identity of Nepalese teachers from inside and outside perspectives.
An inside viewpoint entails a more uniform and pre-scientific nature of professional identity. Connelly and Clandinin (1999) have studied teacher identities from a narrative point of view. They stress that identities and stories depend on the life situation and social situation one happens to be in. There are multiple identities that appear in different situations, e.g. at work, home, with friends and relatives and so on which are considered to be fairly fixed but in case of tensions or conflicts they can change. The narrative approach has similarities with the structural stage approach. There have been multiple ways of analyzing structural stage approach of identity but the main thing remains the same; identity is considered to develop through stages over time (Kroger, 2000). These stages change and develop but the basic structure remains the same.
A teacher brings certain qualifications, training skills and experience when he or she is employed. University degree or pre-service training plays the most important role in building teacher identities where content knowledge, pedagogy, teaching philosophies and practice become interwoven. But there are always some gaps between teacher education and what teachers actually do in their classrooms. Teachers’ personal beliefs and attitudes toward truth is also important part of it. They hold a set of moral values, and right and wrong concepts in Nepal. They commonly bring some positive attitudes to the profession, love of children, for instance. They are passionate, creative, fair, kind and happy. In the psychosocial philosophy, professional identity is seen to be developed and internalized gradually. It is considered as a part of one’s individual development. Thus, personality also plays a huge part in one’s identity formulation. For instance, the choice of a profession can be taken as an expression of one’s personality. Each teacher’s personality can affect the way they perform and the way they feel their roles. But this view does not take account of the social settings, past experiences, each school, class and students separately, culture, socially set ideals. In our context, female teachers are more favored in lower grades as they are supposed to be loving and they handle children with care, it seems to be uniform as the gendered identity across the country. Another inside perspective of identity is the necessity to choose teaching for survival. Teachers live in a highly competitive and materialistic world where ‘helmet teacher’ identity is popular in urban areas. At their workplace, they find themselves as actor, poet, author, manager, singer, dancer, researcher and orator and so on.
This outside perspective contradicts with earlier one. It is not the teacher who creates his/her identity, it is made by others. Teachers primarily exist only because of students. Students not only in inside the classroom but also outside the classroom create teacher identity through different interactional discourse. This dialogical perspective emphasizes that teacher identity is formed in social situations, particularly in interaction with others; hence it is constructed in dialogues. Feedback and other’s responses frame conceptions of oneself as a teacher and according to those they mould their future identity (Kroger, 2000). Therefore EFL teacher identity is always relational, dialogical and, socially and culturally constructed. Perception and approval of teachers’ identity around them is always inconsistent. Approval of teacher identity in surrounding assists for more life satisfaction and enhance greater effect in different social activities.
University lecturers, researchers and schoolteachers are perceived differently in terms of recognition and different roles they perform in the society. At the other side, teachers at private English-medium institutions seem to be more hard working and result oriented than government aided ones. Many novice EFL teachers grow professionally in these English-medium institutions in Nepal. Government appointees enjoy more financial and in-service training opportunities as well as complete job security. Teachers in urban setting enhance more professionalism, they enjoy more economical opportunities, they are more techno-friendly and they have adequate teaching resources than those of rural settings. In the past, there was a common belief that Sanskrit language teachers and teachers from Brahmin communities seized more prestige and they were more accepted in the society. But this trend has shifted to the teachers of English education background. Scholars educated in western universities and in Darjeeling are equally preferred particularly in private institutions nowadays. In Nepalese multicultural context, there are very less instances of comparing each other. They are different in terms of ethnicity, topography and schooling, rankings and so on, which ultimately lead the different identities of teachers. This seems to be the most suitable to state that teacher identify is discursive as it takes into account several crucial issues such as history, social settings, interactive relationships and the possibility of reformation. Accordingly, it considers identity to be under constant reformulation where one’s past, present and future have important roles and they together affect the formation of identity. In our society, teacher’s positional and authored identities retain power as an active change agent, and sole source of knowledge and information. They bear more social responsibilities in Nepal like countries in the east than in the west (Poudel, 2013).
Likewise, professional identity of a teacher is formed and reflected through the policies and guidelines of the nation-state, which outlines definite values, duties, and structures of basic education and it gives frames for teaching. When these policies, values and duties are not identical for all teachers, teacher identity will be more heterogeneous. Mid-term evaluation report of SSRP (2012) has raised concern over the substantial variations in pay structures, perks and privileges, opportunities for career advancement and professional development of teachers in Nepal. Multiple identities of teachers ‘manufactured’ so far have deepened ‘endorsed’ divisions in the same profession in Nepal.
Nevertheless, EFL teachers in different social and cultural situations are contributing the society in a larger frame. Rima Magar, an EFL teacher in Ramechhap, leads a language association for Magar community. She is investing her effort to preserve and promote Magar linguistic identity. Another EFL teacher in next village is an active member of association for managing the product of sweet oranges (Junar). Bishal Shah, an EFL teacher in Lalitpur promotes the sale of handicrafts. Shusila Karki from Bhaktapur empowers girls in her community through education and vocational training. Madan Raut in Pokhara, in his free time, guides tourists and arranges their visits to different places. Padam Sapkota from Chitwan advocates for child rights. Kalpana Singh donates to a childcare centre. These different social responsibilities, roles and activities definitely affect the way EFL teachers think and the way they perform in EFL teaching and learning situations. Kalpana seems to be kind and more supportive to the students. Rima always provides the place for learning English for instrumental purposes. Bharat Shah inspires his students for drawing, painting and preparing handicrafts in school where as Madan always gives focus on fluency in spoken English. Shusila always supports the girls in schools who need especial cares and assistance. Teachers carry certain social values, attitudes and aptitudes into their profession. It shows that sociality, ethnicity, gender and other socio-cultural aspects form distinct identities of EFL teachers.
Teacher identity is both an individual and social matter. The discipline of teaching one comes into has its own history, and it cannot remain apolitical. Going back to recent decades, teachers retained charismatic identity in 80s, they were regarded as liberator, inspirational teacher and guardian. In 90s teachers held the role of educator. They were reflective practitioners, teacher as learners and theorists. Later teachers became trainers, skilled craftsperson, organizers and technicians for novice. In post 2000 teachers holds the pragmatic identity as an effective and eclectic teacher, and teacher as a non-political agent. Though the notions of being a teacher are much more personal, they sit inside these historical, political and social discourses (Moore, 2004). Teacher identity is an evolving construct as it is constructed and reconstructed in particular time and context. At this hour, socio-cultural identity of Nepalese EFL teachers is markedly dominant contributing in a wider socio-cultural milieu.
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Government of Nepal (2012). Mid-term evaluation of school sector reform programme. Kathmandu: Ministry of Education.
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Poudel, T. (2013). Class notes: Facet of English studies. Kathmandu: Kathmandu University.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice. Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
I am grateful to Mr. Arjun Basnet, a research scholar at Kathmandu University for his insightful ideas and comments on the topic.