Confrontation, negotiation and agency: exploring the inner dynamics of student teacher identity transformation during teaching practicum

November, 2020

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 25:8, 972-993

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The present study, as part of a large-scale research project on school counselling teachers’ (thereafter SCTs) preparation and development, adopts a qualitative case study approach to investigate the inner dynamics of four pre-service SCTs’ identity transformation during their teaching practicum in China.
Adopting the qualitative case study approach (Creswell, 2007), this study seeks to answer one research question, i.e. how did the pre-service SCTs construct their identities during the teaching practicum?
Focusing on naturally emerging languages and meanings individuals assign to their experiences (Taylor & Bodgan, 1998), this approach can help us achieve a nuanced understanding of student teachers’ identity (trans)formation in their situated practicum settings.
The study is situated in a four-year pre-service SCT teacher education program in X University in China.
The program which incorporates both coursework, teaching practicum and final research project aims to equip student teachers with sufficient knowledge and skills for their future work as SCTs.
At the outset of the project, research invitations were sent to all fourth-year pre-service teachers (n = 50) and 14 agreed to participate in the project on a voluntary basis.
The 14 student teachers were invited for focus group interviews to explore their general learning experiences (Yuan, 2017), following which, four participants were purposively selected for an in-depth inquiry of their identity construction experiences during the teaching practicum (hence the present research).
The four participants, namely Anna, Francis, Loretta and Simon (all pseudonyms), were chosen as they were regarded as active and reflective during the focus group interviews and they shared some interesting stories and thoughts that were relevant to the research questions.
More importantly, their sharing revealed differences among their practicum schools in terms of supporting resources and structures for school counselling and student teachers’ professional learning.

Data collection
The study was conducted in the fourth year of the program when the participants had just completed their teaching practicum and their memories about their practicum experiences were still fresh.
Multiple forms of data were collected by the first author, including focus group interviews, individual interviews, as well as the participants’ personal reflections.
At the first stage of the project, the 14 student teachers were equally divided into two groups for a focus group interview (each around 100 min) to explore their learning experiences and needs in the pre-service SCT program.
The four participants’ individual sharing and reflections in the focus interviews were extracted for this study.
In addition, the first author conducted a semi-structured interview with each of the four participants to probe their professional engagements in school counselling, their social interactions with others (e.g. students, colleagues, school leaders and parents), as well as their self-perceptions as future SCTs.
Specifically, the participants were asked to share any critical incidents with possible identity conflicts during teaching practicum (Timoštšuk & Ugaste, 2010).
Furthermore, as a program requirement, the participants kept a weekly journal (in Chinese) during their teaching practicum, where they delineated their field experience, such as their learning progress and the challenges they encountered, and shared their inner thoughts and beliefs as future SCTs.
A total of 48 journals (12 for each participant) were thus collected to triangulate and enrich the dataset in order to shed light on the student teachers’ identity transformation in field schools.

Conclusions and implications
While the multiple and fluid nature of teacher identities have been well documented in current teacher education literature (e.g. Day, 2011; Gaines et al., 2017), this study contributes to the hitherto limited understanding of the dynamic and contested process of pre-service teachers’ identity construction through teaching practicum.
The study also provides practical implications on how to develop competent teachers with strong and robust professional identities.
First, teacher educators need to help student teachers explore the core identities that play a dominant role in their sense-making in the process of learning to teach.
With an enhanced awareness of their core identities, student teachers can develop a better knowledge of their relationship with the surrounding context, enhance their reflective abilities and problem-solving skills, as well as construct a sense of direction in their ongoing professional learning and practice.
This requires an explicit focus on teacher identities in current teacher education programs where teacher educators can intentionally design and implement different tasks to facilitate student teachers’ reflective learning and identity building.
For instance, dialogic journal writing, teaching portfolios, and self-study (Loughran, 2007; Lunenberg & Korthagen, 2009), can serve as useful tools for student teachers to continually examine their views about the subject matter and its teaching, develop their practical wisdom, track their self-images as prospective teachers, as well as explore the underlying factors that contribute to their identity change.
Given the critical role of ideal identities in influencing student teachers’ professional learning, it is important for teacher educators to help student teachers create a meaningful connection between their ideal identities with the teaching profession.
The findings show that school environment can exert tremendous impacts on student teachers’ identity construction.
In an unsupportive and hostile work context, student teachers are likely to suppress and even forgo their ideal identities.
This calls for teacher educators and school mentors to work collaboratively in complex school settings to examine the learning opportunities and challenges afforded for student teachers and find ways to extend and enrich student teachers’ ideal identities through their learning experiences.
Furthermore, the study shows that the contextual influences experienced by the student teachers could be so overwhelming that counteracted the positive impact of teacher education programs and led to their identity deficits.
Although it takes great time and efforts to change entrenched social practices and systems, university supervisors and school mentors and leaders might need to find ways to foster student teachers’ critical reflective abilities and contextualised understanding of their future work environment (Yuan, 2016).
For student teachers who may experience an identity deficit, teacher educators may consider bringing in different role models, such as excellent new teachers and expert teachers, to help them learn about teachers’ real lives and find authentic meaning in teaching.
During the teaching practicum, school mentors can also provide opportunities for them to build up confidence and self-efficacy through either observing or experiencing success in teaching practice and acquire necessary coping strategies so that they can develop negotiated identities in face of difficult situations.

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Gaines, R., Choi, E., Williams, K., Park, J. H., Schallert, D. L., & Matar, L. (2017). Exploring possible selves through sharing stories online: Case studies of preservice teachers in bilingual classrooms. Journal of Teacher Education.
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Yuan, R. (2016). The dark side of mentoring on pre-service language teachers' identity formation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 188-197.
Yuan, R. (2017). Exploring pre-service school counselling teachers’ learning needs: perceptions of teacher educators and student-teachers. Journal Of Education for Teaching, 43(4), 474-490. 

Updated: Feb. 27, 2021