Understanding university-based teacher educators’ boundary crossing experiences: voices from Hong Kong

August, 2020

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 26:2, 193-213

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper reports on a qualitative case study focusing on a group of English language teacher educators’ boundary crossing experiences in Hong Kong.
One central question guides the present research, i.e., how do the teacher educators engage in boundary crossing in their situated work contexts?

Research context and participants
As part of a large research project on English language teacher educators' professional practice and expertise (see Yuan, 2020), the present study adopted a qualitative multicase study design to answer the research question focused on their boundary crossing experiences.
Data was collected from six language teacher educators from four main universities that offer language teacher education programmes for pre- and in-service teachers in Hong Kong.

Data collection and analysis
First, each teacher educator participated in a semi-structured interview.
In the interview, the participants were invited to share their professional backgrounds and experiences about English teaching and English teacher education as well as their professional gains and challenges in their past and ongoing work.
After gaining a general understanding of each participant as a teacher educator, specific questions were asked about their professional practice and social interactions across different sites (e.g., university and schools).
The participants were also asked to recall and reflect on critical incidents in their boundary crossing with their personal feelings and reflections.
The interviews, each ranging from 60 to 100 minutes, were audio-recorded and conducted in English.
In addition, the participants were observed in their own teacher education course(s) and/or workshops conducted for English teachers to enrich and triangulate the interviews.
The observation, which lasted for one academic semester, were audio-recorded with field notes taken.
Based on emerging themes in the interview data, the observation data was reviewed, and related episodes were selectively transcribed and analysed.

Findings and discussion
While boundary crossing can be highly complex and challenging for teacher educators situated in both teacher education and higher education (e.g., Trent, 2013), this study presents a group of agentive teacher educators who actively transformed and enhanced their professional knowledge, pedagogy and identities through identification, coordination, reflection, and transformation across different communities (Akkerman & Bruining, 2016; Flynn et al., 2016).
For instance, in the face of discontinuities between different sites, the teacher educators tried to analyse their own strengths limitations as well as situational demands to manage their boundary crossing.
Such a form of identification gave them an opportunity for critical reflection (Bakker & Akkerman, 2014), which resulted in increased knowledge and improved practices.
For example one teacher educator who identified the different learning styles of students in Mainland China and Hong Kong and learned to cater to students’ needs in her current teacher education classrooms with the support of her mentor in her new university.
In some cases, the discontinuities between multiple sites pushed the teacher educators to coordinate different and potentially conflicting rules, practice, and culture (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011b).
The process of coordination in turn resulted in positive transformation for the participants (Yuan, 2020).
For example, one novice teacher educator, encountered challenges in his work given his lack of practical experience and knowledge about the local school context.
Through boundary crossing (i.e., his teaching practicum in local secondary schools), he took on the role as a ‘student teacher’ and engaged in classroom teaching, while he also conducted an action research as a ‘classroom researcher’ by collecting data from his students, colleagues and school leaders.
Such experiences contributed to his enhanced self-efficacy and transformed identity as a teacher educator with insights about local educational system and culture (Swennen et al., 2008; Yuan, 2020).
Therefore, teacher educators’ engagement in the four learning mechanisms is a recursive and interactive process.
Teacher educators may first identify differences between sites and move to reflect upon their own knowledge and abilities.
Such identification and reflections can become a useful source of information which further help them coordinate and transform their own practices and identities and even give rise to another cycle of identification and reflection (Tsui & Law, 2007; Wenger, 1998).
The analysis of the study further contributes new knowledge to our understanding of boundary crossing, which can manifest in two different forms, i.e., horizontal and hierarchical, as the teacher educators navigated ‘sociocultural differences’ (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011a, p. 133) between various communities.
In one case, a teacher educator encountered school teachers’ resistance to his proposed teaching ideas due to tight school curriculums and their established practice.
However, he managed to communicate and coordinate with the teachers to reach a middle ground in order to push the teaching reforms forward and enhance student learning.
This example reveals a form of horizontal boundary crossing, or boundary crossing between sites that were of relatively equal power, which allows the teacher educators to openly communicate their values and needs with important stakeholders and engage in meaningful negotiation in order to promote mutual learning.
On the other hand, hierarchical boundary crossing took place when the teacher educators worked in a hierarchical system and moved between communities with different power influences on their professional work.
Due to such power differentials, hierarchical boundary crossing may be challenging and disruptive for teacher educators in their professional engagement and identity construction (Andersson & Andersson, 2008).
For example, some teacher educators in this study were driven to focus more on academic research and publishing (required by the academic community) instead of engaging in practical work such as classroom teaching and collaboration with schools (required by the teacher education community).
This could be attributed to the strong power attached to the academic community, which tied the teacher educators’ academic performance to their job security (i.e., contract renewal) and career advancement under the ‘publish or perish’ discourse in higher education (Chetty & Lubben, 2010; Yuan, 2017).
This challenging situation was especially prominent for the novice teacher educators, who had to devote their time and energy to publishing papers because meeting the research requirements (i.e., publishing articles in Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) journals and securing research grants) were the prerequisite for surviving in the university ( Lee, 2014).
When boundary crossing became too stressful and demanding, practically and/or emotionally, some teacher educators might choose to shut it down and take sides with a more ‘powerful’ community.
As shown by one teacher educator’s experience, he decided to stop developing his teacher educator identity and mainly focused on writing and publications to gain a tenured position.
The suspension of boundary crossing can be a loss for teacher educators’ professional development, because their work is highly social and practical in nature (Trent, 2013).
As shown in the research literature (e.g., Dinkelman, 2011; Williams & Berry, 2016), teacher educators cannot avoid traversing across contexts in their professional work.
Once they decide to stop boundary crossing, to some extent they stop being a teacher educator in their situated communities.

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Updated: Oct. 23, 2020