Pre-service teachers’ job-related perceptions of teaching in rural areas: a study of the free teacher education programme in mainland China

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October, 2019

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 25:7, 782-799

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this qualitative research, the authors attempt to extend existing research by exploring how pre-service teachers’ job-related perceptions are developed in teacher education.
This study provides an overview of the development of teacher education for rural areas in mainland China and focuses on the implementation of Free Teacher Education (FTE) policies.
It explores how teacher education programmes cultivate pre-service teachers’ perceptions of teaching in rural areas in the context of FTE policies, and it investigates how pre-service teachers perceive teaching in rural areas immediately after taking the pre-service teacher education programmes.
They seek to inform research on the enactment of FTE policies, illuminate barriers to teacher education and recruitment for rural areas, and provide suggestions for future direction.
The study offers deeper insights into the complex process of how teacher education institutions shape pre-service teachers’ job-related perceptions.
Furthermore, it sheds light on rival discussions on the development of teacher candidates’ perceptions of working in rural areas.

Understanding pre-service teachers’ perceptions of working in rural areas in relation to social and economic context entails an in-depth examination of attitudes and prior experience.
The authors therefore adopted a qualitative study approach to explore the nature of pre-service teachers’ job-related perceptions in the context of the FTE programme. Guided by Evans (1999, 2001) conceptual framework of relative perspective, professionality orientation, and realistic expectations, they framed their investigation around three broad questions, which correspond to each aspect of the framework respectively: 

(1) How do teacher education institutions attract students to attend the FTE programme?
(2) How do FTE programme curricula cultivate pre-service teachers’ perceptions of teaching in rural areas?
(3) How do pre-service teachers perceive teaching in rural areas?
These three research questions steered them to collect and analyse data in a temporal manner, covering the key stages of teacher education programme, from programme admission, engagement in the FTE programme, to preparation for job hunting.

Data collection
To cover both the breadth and depth of the development process of the FTE programme and pre-service teachers’ job-related perceptions, the authors employed a two-phase design.
In the first phase, they interviewed 22 teacher educators in the six key teacher education institutions to capture trends in the ways the FTE programme is conducted.
These 22 teacher educators were able to share their perceptions of the curriculum structure of pre-service teacher education programmes and how FTE programme curricula cultivated pre-service teachers’ perceptions.
Among the sampled 22 teacher educators, the interview data from nine teacher educators in a typical teacher education institution (hereafter referred to by the pseudonym ‘Pearl University’) revealed that this establishment had taken relatively innovative steps in conducting its FTE programme.
Based on a preliminary analysis of the initial phase, which gave the authors a holistic picture of how the FTE programme was implemented across the six institutions, they narrowed their concern during the follow-up phase to Pearl University to gather detailed data about how pre-service teachers perceived teaching in rural areas during teacher education in the most innovative of the establishments.
The authors conducted semi-structured interviews with 11 pre-service teachers in Pearl University to gather details of their complex perceptions of teaching in rural areas. Preservice teachers were able to provide first-hand experience of the FTE programme and their perceptions of teaching in rural areas.
The pre-service teachers who participated in this study were from all educational levels of the FTE programme, ranging from Year One to Four, which provided them with temporal information concerning their perceptions during teacher education.

Findings and discussion
This article recognises the significance of individual perceptions of the FTE programme, develops a fine-grained understanding of the fit between students’ demand and FTE programme supply, and yields significant insights into the barriers in these programmes. It shows that the FTE programme has successfully promoted the enrolment of quality rural students into first-ranking universities and then into the teaching profession.
Selecting teachers with local backgrounds expands the diversity of teachers for central and western China.
Influenced by the hierarchical social and educational systems, however, students followed utilitarian incentives to weigh their choices and resisted positions in rural areas.
What pre-service teachers are exposed to in the FTE programme does not match their future teaching context, which amplifies pre-service teachers’ negative perceptions of working in rural areas.
To bridge the gap between policy orientations and FTE programme implementation, teacher education institutions should keep track of preservice teachers’ job-related perceptions, which reflect a complex combination of relative perspectives, professionality orientation, and realistic expectations.
From the aspect of relative perspectives, teachers in primary and secondary education should guide students to transform their inherent values appropriately, prioritise academic interests over utilitarian concerns, and thereby adjust their actions to respond to emerging situations.
From the aspect of professionality orientation, teacher educators should target the rural teaching context, revisit the practices of the school practicum to help balance theory with practice, and strengthen pre-service teachers’ awareness of rural education. Introducing rural experiences could broaden educational experiences for pre-service teachers and are necessary to prepare them for service in rural areas.
From the aspect of realistic expectations, teacher educators should encourage pre-service teachers to challenge themselves, and attain the competency and self-reliance to serve for several years in rural schools.
In addition, effort still needs to be invested to raise the profile of the rural teacher profession, maintain an attractive long-term career pathway, and improve the conditions of work life.
This study found that the FTE programmes in six key teacher education institutions do not connect rural teacher recruitment and retention in China to teacher education.
The authors suggest that teacher education institutions integrate rural pedagogy into the curriculum framework and develop pre-service teachers’ rural consciousness through direct rural professional experience.
What is needed is to provide these preservice teachers with a rural experience, as Hudson and Hudson (2008) assert that first-hand experiences can create attitudinal changes for teaching and living in rural areas.

References
Evans, L. (1999). Managing to motivate: A guide for school leaders. London: Cassell.
Evans, L. (2001). Delving deeper into morale, job satisfaction and motivation among education professionals: Re-examining the leadership dimension. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 29(3), 291–306.
Hudson, P., & Hudson, S. (2008). Changing preservice teachers’ attitudes for teaching in rural schools. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 33(4), 67–77 

Updated: Aug. 29, 2020
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