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Using personal narrative as a tool for self-development

After teaching two years in the public school system I experienced both average and poor working conditions. I want to be better prepared to succeed in those conditions. I have designed a plan to use to grow personally and professionally in even the poorest working conditions of public schools. One tool for adult learning called the narrative learning theory seemed particularly suited to my need. Narrative learning is knowledge in the form of a story. It is basically journaling a personal narrative as a means of self development. It is a suggested strategy for growth in many adult learning theories. I have chosen to use Ira Progoff's Intensive Journal method becasue it's development and success is based on research. It stems from his work to understand the process of famous, creative people's lives. It appears to meet the criteria for a good self development tool because it has the potential to meet the self-development needs of a teacher working in poor conditions in the public schools.

Sufficient research on the work environment in public schools concluded that it is not conducive to professional development of teachers and the success of schools. (Boyer and Goodlad 1983) Some of the problems in school work environments are stem from the view of a school as a one room school house was. Isolation of teachers, poor pay, no collaborative opportunities, no career advancement and more work for new teachers and less for the senior, more experienced teachers are all limitations from the one room school house period. Changes necessary to improve conditions are promotion of collaborative work among teachers and valuing self reflection and critical thinking skills in teachers. Also abolishing the heirarchial structure of most school systems in order to empower teachers and students would continue to improve working conditions.

What tools should teachers take into the various conditions found in the schools? What will insure they will grow and survive even in poor conditions? Our text, "Supervision and instructional leadership, a developmental approach" (SAILADA) states that "a clear collective vision for improvement" is the a main objective in creating a successful school. In lieu of a clear vision to work toward collectively what can an individual teacher do? How can an individual make progress towards creating and carrying out the action necessary for common goals? Also, the needs of teachers can vary according to their position in life. New teachers in their early career need the intimacy found in friendship and projects where they can focus their energy and begin to fulfill their dreams for their life. More established teachers need leadership and career advancement opportunities. What if these opportunities are not available in the school situation where they work? These are the tough questions that I think any teacher needs to be prepared to face.

If a teacher is armed with the knowledge that these working conditions exist as well as a solid understanding of what a good school should be she will at least be aware and at best prepared. Further, I believe a teacher could use a plan or a project to help her grow and survive the first few crucial years in the teaching profession. A teacher needs to be armed with the knowledge of what to expect as well as a few tools to take into schools that do not offer real opportunities for growth. As the teachers grow and develop the school grows too.

Whether or not a school chooses to improve is usually not up to the individual teacher. Only an individual can choose to improve them self. This can in turn lead to better schools by improving working relationships between the individual and students and other school personnel. In this way a self-development project could be a valuable means for personal growth and school improvement. It could help the new teacher grasp a realistic view of their current work situation and help them plan personal and professional goals.

As a new teacher I understand the need for a substitute for teacher development. The school environments where I worked before were all had great examples of the one room school house mentality at work. As I prepare to transition back into teaching I wanted to take inventory of what I will need to be more effective than before. I began to look for a self development tool that is flexible enough to bring into any situation in the education profession. I am a do it yourself person and I want to be prepared for my next position. I was looking for something that was self-directed because of the lack of opportunities for true professional development in those previous schools. I thought it should result in real, focused assessment and tangible, life changing results. I decided to explore the possibilities available in recent research on adult education.

Adult education is known in the education profession as 'teacher development', 'administrative development' and they probably have a 'superintendent development'. By experience I know that teacher development can be less than an educational experience and even a waste of time. Supervisors who view teacher development as another activity to check off their long list seem un-aware of the true benefits. Attending to the intellectual climate of the school improves the commitment of teachers to their work. (Gordon, Glickman 2004) Teachers play such a crucial role in determining a school's atmosphere and their growth contributes to the overall health of the school. Therefor a successful teacher development program is an important part of a school's agenda. Teachers need opportunities for continued growth and development with the purpose of attaining their potential and reaching life goals. They will be happier, better people, better equipped to work together toward common goals and therefore better teachers.

There are many interesting theories that are currently being researched in adult education: self-directed learning, transformational learning, informal and incindental learning, context-based learning, women's learning and new postmodern perspectives on adult learning. They are all connected by rabbit trail of similar strategies under the heading of adult learning. Transformational learning refers to the process we go through as adults when frames of reference we have taken for granted grow and change. Strategies like critical reflection and journal writing are suggested to aid in the process. There is a theory specifically called narrative learning also the product of current research. It is basically described as knowing through the use of a story. It is one of the primary ways we make meaning of our life. We understand ourselves through a sort of ongoing narrative.

I began to look at narrative learning with the potential for self-development. We create meaning in our life from our life story. Meaning is developed through how we connect to others in relationships and experiences that shape who we are. Stories are the embodiment of the subjective part of ourselves. To write a narrative about who we are and where we want to go for instance brings about a tangible way to relate to ourselves and our situations. It provides a format in which to record, reflect and even reinvent our lives. A study of the many paths and relationships encountered in one life and begin a process of informed decisions about future paths and relationships. I began to think more seriously of using personal narratives as my self development tool because it stood out as practical and creative. It is integrally connected to how we learn and how we are creative. I thought at first that I only needed to a means for critical reflection. Then I decided that it was, by definition, limiting the reflection to the professional realm and seemed more related to research than teacher development. Although many of the strategies for the traditional view of teacher development focus on the professional side of the person, I believe the whole person should be the focus.

Because a narrative learning project can be autonomous and self-directed, it fit the criteria for my self development project as well as the criteria our text describes for successful teachers 'empowered and self-directed'. It directs the individual to delve into the depths of meaning in life experiences. It promotes the ideas for change from within. There is very little need for outside guidance. It can also be used to create a specific vision for the future and assess the progress of that work.

A narrative learning project also needs to be able to bring about a common vision and goal for other professionals. Narrative learning meets this criteria as well. I believe a narrative project can be modified so it can be used to bring about a common vision in a group of professionals.

Another goal for the personal narrative/self development project should be to help the me develop into a critical thinker. How can a project focused on ones personal narrative help one learn to think abstractly about very complex ideas, develop ordered thinking skills that lead to successful planning, actions and follow-through all in a creative, responsible, circumspect and confident manner? Narrative learning projects can develop critical thinking skills by organizing events and relationships in individuals lives into managable categories. They enable the individual to step back from where they are and see where they are going. Better yet choose where they are going.

I believe the Intensive Journal method narrative project can meet all of the above criteria for a successful self development tool. It uses specific criteria for developing and recording a personal narrative and focuses on specific goals to accomplish. It could be useful in situations where there is little opportunity for professional development or lack of a collective vision and it seems great for developing critical thinking skills. The Intensive Journal method was developed in the 1980's by Ira Progoff. It is taught in a workshop format or learned through reading the book 'At a journal workshop'. Both describe the theory and exercises for using the Intensive Journal workbook. In either situation the various techniques are learned while individuals work privately in their own lives. By working in an inner level the answer to the question "What is my life trying to become?" becomes the focus and is answered. The method assists individuals further develop various facets of their lives that they deem important and in need of direction. It also works to draw their present life situation into focus to answer specific questions like "Where am I now in the movement of my life?". (Progoff 1993) The process also helps them to realize inner strengths, new possibilities for the future and what talents and resources they already possess. An individual can stimulate creative strengths and focus on what these strengths can become not only what they mean intellectually. It also helps individuals gain insights into personal relationships, make decisions about careers and deal with crucial events and situations. Altogether the intensive journal process focuses on helping individuals find meaning in their life. A teacher who is focused on finding meaning in life can also model the same for students. A part of good education is making meaning of the world as teachers and students experience it together.

Individuals engaged in the intense journal method are made aware of whether or not the events of their daily lives are consistent with their values and priorities. Here is where I believe a modification could be made in the process in order to establish group goals among individuals involved in the journal process. By focusing on individual goals and sharing them, finding common denominators and refocusing to work towards those shared goal, teachers can begin to create a clear vision in which to work collectively. This would be a non-linear, organic process of discerning individual goals and establishing priorities for the school as a group. The goals and priorities would change as the culture and needs of the teachers and students changed.

The Intensive Journal method came about late in the career of Ira Progoff. He has been counted among philosopher-theologians like Buber but studied psychology under Carl Jung. He decided to study the workings of famous, creative people's lives in order to gain understanding of the processes of creative events. He gathered large amounts of biographical materials. As he discovered processes that were present in creative events in these peoples lives it lead to a bigger question. Could the processes in the lives of creative people be replicated in everyday people's lives to improve them? He answered that with a system of understanding, arranging, organizing and re-engaging the events of their lives using a narrative form. The method became a combination of meditation, journal exercises and activities organized in the Intensive Journal workbook. The effects were that the intangible, subjective experiences in an individual's life become tangible material with which to work. The individual can then meditate and react to, write about again and engage in activities with and conversations with the events in their life.

An experimental work program in New York City was developed using 300 recruits who were on welfare or received unemployment. The Intensive Journal workshop was used as part of their on the job training for work in elderly care facilities as nurses aides, dietary workers, housekeepers, security guards and maintenance people. Most of the participants were people of color from the southern U.S. or recent immigrants from the Caribbean who were at risk of failing in the big city. Ninety percent kept their journals for over six months and met once a week. They also finished their training and stayed on at their hospital jobs. After a year 80 percent were still on their jobs or had gone on to better jobs. One third had moved to better housing and one fourth had started school. The program directors credited the Intensive Journal workshops with the succsess. Ira Progoff believed that poverty is not simply the lack of money, it is a person's lack of feeling for the reality of his own inner being. In the journal workshops these people found a way to remedy feeling poor and alone and devoid of ultimate meaning in life. (Blair 1981) By implication the journal program also seems useful for teachers making their way through their first years in the average public school system who find themselves working in poor conditions. The success of the workers in the New York City program was not due to their working conditions at the hospital.

Most of the successful, motivated teachers that I have met seem to have a sense of purpose and a strong drive to reach their goals. They seem professional in that they understand their discipline and take their responsibilities seriously. They have a sense of purpose and I think they exhibit a sense of meaning in their life. These qualities are present whether or not their school has a clear collective vision or a great supervisor who fosters critical thinking and collaborative action in the teachers. It seems to come from within. In contrast some of the teachers who do not like their students or their school or teaching do not have the same drive or sense of purpose. I felt that way most of the time I was teaching. Stepping back and examining my teaching experiences has been a valuable time for me. I plan to use the Intensive Journal method as I go through this current transition back into education to sort out my priorities and make sure my every day experiences are consistent with those values and priorities.


Glickman, Carl D.,& Gordon, Stephen P. (2004). SuperVision and instructional leadership: a developmental approach. Pearson Education Inc: Boston.

Kaiser, Robert Blair. (1981), Psychology Today, March. Retrieved April 21, 2004 from The way of the journal.

Gibson, Krysta. (1993), The New Times magazine, Vol. 8, #8. Retrieved April 21, 2004 from The Write to a Fulfilling Life: An Interview with Ira Progoff

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