Too many constraints: five first-year EFL teachers’ professional identity construction


Source: European Journal of Teacher Education, 44:2, 180-199

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The overall objective of this study was to investigate the constraints that have occurred regarding the first-year English language teachers’ professional identity construction at five Chinese universities.
The study adopts narrative inquiry as a powerful research means of enabling the first-year teachers to tell and interpret a series of experiences using their own language and to construct and reconstruct understandings of themselves as teachers through a complex course of describing their goals and desires, explicating their expectations, analysing their experiences, and negotiating their subject positions (Golombek and Doran 2014).
The author used narrative inquiry as an attempt to explore the professional development of five first-year EFL teachers to facilitate such a gap.
For a longitudinal study of teacher identity construction in the induction phase, the chosen cases centre on displaying difficult beginnings via revealing their reflective narratives of making sense of teaching reality and their roles in it.
Through analysing the reflective accounts, this study aims to map the individual process of EFL teacher identity construction, trying to answer two major research questions:
(1) What factors influence the construction of the first-year EFL teachers’ professional identities?
(2) In what ways do the EFL teachers construct their professional identities during their first year of teaching?
This study started from the 2016 academic school year, which drew on nearly 22 months by collecting and analysing in-depth narrative accounts as the major source of data to explore the process of the five first-year EFL teachers’ identity construction in five universities, which were located in five different locations of China, representing and capturing a cross-section of five geographical locations of universities in China.
In each specific institution, qualitative interviews were conducted to give the five teachers opportunities, respectively, to construct their reflective narratives.
According to Hou and Feng (2019, 3), ‘an analysis is of intersectional identities can be multidimentional as intersectionnality can take multiple forms’.
In the process of intersectional analysis, the five teachers are consciously experiencing the self and coming to ‘know the self’ (Denzin and Lincoln 2017, 246).

This study aims to obtain a deep understanding of first-year EFL teachers in a particular context, and purposive sampling, therefore, seems to be more readily accessible and appropriate.
Five first-year EFL teachers participated in the study.
The participants had similar teacher-training backgrounds: each of them experienced approximately three-month internships before taking up their posts, and three to four weekends when they were employed as EFL teachers at their own university, which consisted of a number of condensed courses regarding psychological knowledge, and general moral education on the basis of lectures without involving dialogical and reflective learning.
Except for this, they had absolutely no past pedagogical experience and this was explored as a factor in their EFL first-year teaching experience.
This serves as a set prerequisite for guaranteeing the adequate purposive sampling as it surely influences their professional identity.

Data collection
To unravel the intricate construction of professional identities of these first-year EFL teachers, the primary source of data came from a set of narratives of the five participants.
In all cases, the participants keenly embraced the opportunity to share views and experiences, voice their perspectives, and share information.
The dialogic nature of the interviews functioned as a subsequent form of in-depth reflection on what they had experienced as a first-year EFL teacher.

Data analysis
The data analysis was inspired by the narrative analyses of Labov and Waletsky (2003).
In line with them, analytic reflection on the categories and codes in the context of the existing literature enabled thematisation, reflecting previous literature, but also allowed for the emergence of new themes.
Exploring patterns and individualities allowed commonalities to be identified, while also giving space for the emergence of contextual and personal differences.
The data excerpts included in this paper were selected for their representative capacity to more fully illustrate themes that emerged through the data.

Findings and discussion
With regard to the first research question, ‘What factors influence the construction of the first-year EFL teachers’ professional identities?’, three types of crucial factors/constraints have been identified: constraints from institutional structures; constraints from institutional norms; and constraints from broader impact of external social context.
As for the constraints from institutional structures, the current research finds that they have to teach 60–70 students College English 28 h per week on average, and examination fixations internally constrained the first-year EFL teachers’ professional identity development.
These constraints from the inside institutional structural elements comprise low professional self-efficacy and a tendency to abandon perceived good or innovative practices, in turn exacerbating the low levels of self-efficacy.
In other words, the five teachers felt they were being treated as ‘a teaching robot’, and eventually working ‘a mechanical clock’ with ‘no time interacting with individual students’.
Apparently, the constraints from institutional structures do not create an easy beginning resulting in the first-year teachers’ struggling and failing to be ‘ideal’ selves (Dikilitas and Yayli 2018; Rodgers and Scott 2008).
With respect to constraints from institutional norms, this research endeavoured to understand the five first-year EFL teachers’ identity development by looking and relooking at in what ways/how they constructed their professional identity and what constraints they have experienced.
It seems that the cohort of five first-year EFL teachers was not suited to the norms of their institutions, respectively, which should have served as the outset of professional identity development and orientation.
This can be augmented from two opposite sides.
On the one hand, the first-year EFL teachers have to adapt to the deep-rooted educational structures and negotiate their new identity.
On the other hand, they could be more aware of their mindsets that have prepared them well to acculturate into their new community (Dikilitas and Yayli 2018; Kumazawa 2013; Livingston 2016).
The institutional norms impose a number of constraints without making any allowance for their beliefs in themselves as the EFL teachers.
This type of constraints is identified by Wang (2010), who mentions that the top-down or power-coercive approach has made the teachers have no say in the decision-making process in Chinese institutions.
In relation to the unsympathetic supervisors’/leaders’ coercive power relationship, the first-year EFL teachers’ identity construction is also interwoven with non-helpful senior staff as well as an inflexible curriculum.
This is congruent with recent research literature (e.g. Dikilitas and Yayli 2018; Kumazawa 2013; Schaefer 2013; Thomas and Beauchamp 2011).
The most severe consequence seen from the data aforementioned is that their personal knowledge was not acknowledged or accepted as knowledge, which might result in an insecure job situation, arousing constant struggles for a professional identity, only failing to be ideal selves.
These five participants’ teacher professional identity (TPI) construction is indeed an experience due to challenges to and changes in one’s professional identity (Kumazawa 2013; Livingston 2016; Miyahara 2015).
As regards constraints from broader impact of the external social context, the five participants explicitly presented themselves as marginalised teachers, for the outer social context impact across institutions, creating the stated dilemma.
With regard to the second research question, ‘In what ways do the EFL teachers construct their professional identities during their first year of teaching?’, this current research backs up the point that initial teacher education should not only help the teacher candidates with pedagogical knowledge but also consciously develop their professional identity and solve the possible identity conflicts (Bannister-Tyrrell et al. 2018; William 2018).
It is obvious that the EFL teacher candidates’ awareness of institutional realities should have been fostered and enhanced before they started their teaching career.
Building such kinds of awareness initially could increase their possibilities to identify what professional identity they intend to have and what changes would be undergone and negotiated when they would pass from the training phase to the phase of being full-time EFL teachers in an institution, whose managerial style would be conducted in such vertical contexts.
On the one hand, the first-year EFL teachers have to adapt to the deep-rooted culture of the educational system and negotiate their new identity.
On the other hand, they were more aware of their mindsets that have thus prepared the well to acculturate into their new community (Dikilitas and Yayli 2018; Kumazawa 2013; Livingston 2016; Norton and Toohey 2011).
To conclude, what has have been identified throughout this narrative inquiry?
First, the ways that the participants as first-year EFL teachers perceive themselves as professionals impact on their professional identity development; second, the ways that their teaching methods conducted in their classroom practices mismatch with the institutional norms constrain their identity formation; third, the ways that they access to inside and outside institutional power have a forceful consequence of undermining or undergirding their EFL teaching.
Although the three perspectives have been, respectively, pointed out here, the boundaries among them are not clear-cut, which means that each of them does not function in isolation or context-free in their entire professional identity developmental processes.

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Updated: Jul. 14, 2021