A narrative inquiry of teacher educators’ professional agency, identity renegotiations, and emotional responses amid educational disruption

December, 2021

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 108

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper is based on research conducted during Fall 2020 at Qatar University, and specifically at the college of education.
The university had shifted to emergency online learning during the previous semester following total lockdown procedures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the pandemic was far from over, the university grappled with decisions as to whether to return to online learning, conduct face-to-face teaching, or develop a contextually-relevant blended mode of instruction during the Fall 2020 semester.
The study invited teacher educators to reflect on their past experiences; pre-, during, and post-pandemic and retrospectively narrate the ways they enacted various forms of professional agency by exploring their actions, emotional responses, and behaviors, as well as the personal, relational, and contextual factors which either hindered or supported such enactment.
The current study provides understandings about the emotionally-laden agentic nature of renegotiating identities in disruptive educational contexts.
Thus, the current study was guided by the following questions:
1. In which ways do teacher educators' professional agency evolve in the context of intense educational disruption?
2. In which ways have personal, relational, and contextual factors influenced teacher educators' professional identity renegotiations and the practice of professional agency in the context of intense educational disruption?

Research methodology

The article employed a narrative inquiry into the professional agency and identity renegotiations of teacher educators in Qatar.
Using narrative inquiry, researchers are able to investigate the way participants construct past events and actions into personal narratives, impose order on the flow of their experience, and make sense of these events and actions in their lives (Riessman, 2008).
The current study employed narrative inquiry to explore the way teacher educators were able to influence and develop their work and identities, and shed light on the extent to which, at a certain time, they felt restricted in their professional agency as a result of certain personal, relational, and contextual factors.

Context and participants
The context of the current study was the college of education at Qatar University, which was the only teacher preparation institution in the country until recently.
The college offers both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in education and houses several programs which prepare students for teaching at the early childhood, primary or secondary school levels, and within a specific subject concentration, including mathematics, science, social studies, English, Arabic, Islamic studies, physical education, or art education.
Participants were recruited from the different programs by sending an open invitation to all the teacher educators (n= 40).
A total of nine teacher educators gave their consent to participating in this study, including four females and five males.
All participants held doctoral degrees, with different academic backgrounds.

Data collection
Interviews served as the main source of data and included questions pertaining to the dimensions of narrative research: the temporal, social, and spatial dimensions (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).
Participants were prompted to describe their experiences before, during, and after the disruption caused by the mandatory closure of the university.
They explained ways in which they prepared for their courses, their major goals for students, what they valued and considered important for teacher preparation, and confidence in using educational technology.

Participants were also requested to illustrate the relational structures affecting the way they interacted with others.
In this respect, they described their relationships with colleagues, students, and administrative staff.
Finally, they recounted the contextual resources as either supporting or restraining their professional agency.
For this dimension, they described the teacher preparation program, leadership expectations, their own responsibilities, and the material resources made available.
Data collection began with a semi-structured interview protocol, but the interviewees were encouraged to describe their experiences, perceptions, and ideas freely without restrictions (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009).
All the while, participants were asked to describe their emotional state, and their ability to pursue professional interests and make decisions related to their work.

Data analysis
The study aimed to provide a rich description of the phenomena under investigation from the participants’ perspectives (Patton, 2002), and used a constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to understand their narratives and interpret the findings.
Thus, the qualitative content analysis was conducted in an inductive way and included three levels: open coding, axial coding, and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Findings and discussion
The findings from this study offer critical insight into the inherently complex working lives of teacher educators, specifically as they navigated the intense disruption to education caused by COVID-19 pandemic.
The findings further allude to the complex interplay of the factors influencing teacher educators' professional agency and identity renegotiations in their responses to the shifting context of the university, while simultaneously controlling and regulating their emotional well-being in their inseparable personal and professional lives.
Accordingly, teaching in this context was nothing near to being a technical enterprise.
It was inextricably linked to participants' personal lives through the multiple ways in which they invested their selves in their work, thus closely merging their sense of personal and professional identities (Zemblylas (2005).
The narrative approach used in the current study (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) was also useful in exploring the way these factors evolved and changed temporally from the pre-pandemic, during, and post-pandemic phases, and in understanding participants' experiences from the meanings and feelings they associated to them.
A significant contribution of the study pertains to its emphasis on the dynamic nature of professional agency and the interrelationships between agency and identity, and the consequential effects on teachers' ability to feel agentic in their work environments (Ruohotie-Lyhty, 2013).
Specifically, the study further responded to a gap in extant literature with its emphasis on teacher educators’ emotional responses, providing evidence for the notion that their professional agency and identity renegotiations were emotionally imbued (Hokka et al., 2017).
In response to personal and professional challenges, teacher educators were found to enact different forms of agency, including resistant, satisficing, coping, resilient, upholding, and transformative agency.
These findings revealed that participants were capable of taking actions and making choices, but they differed in the ways they responded to similar challenges.
The differences in responses were found between participants, as well as within individuals themselves, enacting different forms of agency in relation to their identity renegotiations, but also in relation to a complex web of other influential factors, particularly emotional responses.
Confirming previous studies (Buchanan, 2015; Hokka & Etelapelto, 2014), participants’ professional agency was intricately connected to their professional identities, as they found ways to enact agency which were compatible with their goals, values, and interest.
When challenges caused a mismatch with their identities, they could not always enact transformative forms of agency, and for these circumstances they resorted to other forms of agency, which led to emerging professional identities.
However, these renegotiated professional identities were in some cases only temporary and mediated by emotional distress.
Particularly, identity renegotiations have generally been associated with either accepting challenges and responsibilities, and developing professionally, or with defending original conceptions of self against contextual influences (Ruohotie-Lyhty, 2013).
In both cases, the current study found emotional experiences to play a significant role in directing the form of agency taken and consequently the consolidation or dismissal of renegotiated identities.
As revealed through the findings of the current study, decision making at the higher administrative level does not necessarily take into account the influences on educators' personal and professional lives.
Careful consideration of these realities is necessary to enhance productivity, commitment, and belonging to the institution (Vahasantanen & Etelapelto, 2015 ), as emotions are powerful responses influencing individuals’ thoughts and actions (Cross & Hong, 2012).
The study provided an illustrative picture of the way teacher educators were able to enact different forms of agency, how they renegotiated their identities, and how they managed positive, negative and contradictory emotions in response to the disruption to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
These emotional experiences played a significant role in directing the different forms of agency taken and consequently the consolidation or dismissal of renegotiated identities.
As work organizations continue to receive recognition as emotional spaces (Vahasantanen & Etelapelto, 2015 ), teacher educators’ emotional interpretations will be important considerations in understanding their future agentic practices and professional identities.

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Updated: Mar. 14, 2022