The meaning of teacher education in an exam-oriented education system: lessons from novice secondary teachers in Korea

September 2019

Source: Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 47:4, 399-413
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study attempts to examine novice teachers’ views regarding teacher education that are informed and constructed by their own preparation as well as by their current work experiences.
In this way, it aims to understand a vision that teacher education must address – one that reflects the teachers’ conception of good teachers and teaching in a high-stakes testing context.
Two research questions were developed by the researcher in accordance with the phenomenological study method, focusing on understanding the essence (common structure) and meaning of one’s lived experience (van Manen, 1990):

(a) What is the essence of novice teachers’ preparation experience? and

(b) how do novice teachers perceive the meaning of their preservice education in relation to their current experience in the high-stakes testing context?

Study context and participants
At the time of data collection, the teachers were working at Gyeonggi Province and Incheon Metropolitan Area schools, both of which are located in the greater metropolitan area of Seoul.
The teachers were recruited through a combination of purposive and convenience sampling.
The researcher intended to find novice teachers who had fewer than 3 years of professional experience, were working in a public school, and were teaching math or English.
The researcher also aimed to recruit teachers from different working contexts (schools) and varied teacher education institutions, because having a diverse pool of participants in a phenomenological study would be beneficial for obtaining unique, rich stories related to the phenomenon of interest (Laverty, 2008).
Four middle school and high school mathematics and English novice teachers were chosen to participate in the research project.

Data collection
The research project used a phenomenological research design that allows researchers to identify the common structure of participants’ lived experience – which is called essence in phenomenological terms – despite their varied individual experiences and the diverse contexts of their upbringing and workplaces (Laverty, 2008; Schram, 2006).
The researcher adopted a phenomenological interviewing method which involved a series of three in-depth phenomenological interviews devised by Seidman (2012).
The teachers participated in the three phenomenological interviews, each of which had a different focus. Following Seidman’s (2012) guidelines, the first interview focused on the teachers’ past lives before they became teachers, which largely involved their preparation experiences.
The second interview focused on understanding the details of their present lives as beginning teachers in their own school contexts.
Finally, the third interview asked the teachers to reflect on the lived experience accounted for in their first two interviews and to anticipate their future career trajectory.
Given this structure, all three interviews offered significant information about teachers’ understanding of their preservice education.

The teachers unanimously asserted that content courses were a major part of the curriculum, although their programs offered some pedagogy and teaching methods courses.
While mastering in-depth content knowledge, the teachers expected to learn from pedagogy courses about the various issues surrounding their working context and to develop skills for dealing with issues they would encounter as novice teachers, such as school administration, classroom management, and communication with parents.
However, most of what they learned in the pedagogy courses dealt with conceptual theories or research-based evidence, mostly derived from Western countries.
The teachers thought that much of this knowledge was irrelevant to their current work, which involves much interaction with students.
In addition to their comments about the pedagogy courses, the teachers indicated the poor quality and irrelevance of teaching methods courses.
Overall, the author found that teachers’ preservice education strongly emphasised mastering in-depth content knowledge, whereas they had far fewer opportunities to learn and practise classroom management and various teaching methods or to establish their professional identities and vision for teaching.
The author found that three commonalities stood out in the novice teachers’ inservice experience that were related to their preparation: recognition of the three major responsibilities of teachers (subject teaching, administrative work, and homeroom teaching); emphasis on the role of a homeroom teacher (educator); and the constant need to learn the role of homeroom teacher.
Based on their early years of professional experience, the teachers commonly called for teacher education that develops educators rather than content experts.
An educator in this sense means a teacher who is concerned about students, cares about students’ social and emotional development, and is committed to enhancing students’ lives.
Instead of their role as content experts, the author found that teachers commonly emphasised their role as homeroom teachers.
Because they were all undertaking this role at the time of the study and subsequently interacting frequently with students who were stressed out and tired of incessant exam preparation and study pressure, they recognised it as the most important job of secondary teachers.
Although the teachers recognised the significance of their role as homeroom teachers, it was, in fact, the role for which they were least prepared.
Despite their emphasis on and aspiration to become educators, the author found that the teachers faced difficulties because they had not learned much about this role and were still in the process of developing into it.
Their biggest concern was whether they were capable of carrying out this work.
Because they were young novices, the teachers were uncertain whether they were mature and experienced enough to influence students.
For the teachers in this study, after being in the job, they felt that the fundamental task of preservice education was to develop educators committed to enhancing the lives of students whose well-being was at risk from exam pressure, which was largely in contrast with their content-oriented preparation.

The author notes that the preparation experience of the teachers in the study make clear that teacher education curricula have been structured and implemented to provide candidates with the knowledge and skills to teach their subject well. Once the candidates successfully completed the program, they received a teaching licensure in their subject area and became eligible to take the recruitment exam that focused on measuring content readiness.
However, the teachers found the emphasis on the qualification and socialisation functions of teacher education based on content expertise to be lacking in value and meaning after they became teachers.
This was because the teachers primarily employed teaching to the test, which involved lots of memorisation of tested content and drilling on exam problems but less of their in-depth knowledge and content skills.
As the teachers noted, under these circumstances, there was not much meaning for them to exploit their content expertise to teach beyond the test, because the students were not willing to learn if the material taught in the lesson was not on the test.
As a result, the author notes that the teachers’ subject teaching was mostly in the form of simple execution of exam drilling despite their advanced content expertise.

In comparison with the role of subject teachers, the the author found that teachers showed far more commitment and passion about homeroom guidance.
While undertaking homeroom duties, the teachers recognised that many of their students suffered from exam pressure and needed their care and support.
Despite their desire to help, the teachers felt that they were not sufficiently prepared to carry out that role successfully.
In this regard, they perceived that teacher education should emphasise more strongly preparation for the homeroom teacher role by developing the candidates into educators who are committed to and capable of promoting students’ well-being and growth into well-rounded individuals.
The author concludes that in-depth deliberation is necessary regarding the fundamental purpose, meaning, and value of teacher education to identify and devise good teacher education that addresses and encompasses all three functions harmoniously.

Laverty, S. M. (2008). Hermeneutic phenomenology and phenomenology: A comparison of historical and methodological considerations. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(3), 21–35
Schram, T. H. (2006). Conceptualizing and proposing qualitative research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Seidman, I. (2012). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences. New York, NY: Teachers college press
van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany, NY: Suny Press. 

Updated: Oct. 24, 2019