Why some graduating teachers choose not to teach: teacher attrition and the discourse-practice gap in becoming a teacher

November 2019

Source: Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 47:5, 554-570

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper reports on a qualitative case study that investigated the reasons why one group of graduates from an initial teacher education (ITE) program in Hong Kong chose not to teach.
Implications for how teacher educators can better support preservice teachers as they struggle to construct their professional identities are considered and suggestions for future research are discussed.


Participants - Six participants agreed to take part in this study.
All were born and educated in Hong Kong, spoke Cantonese as their mother tongue, and had successfully completed the same five year undergraduate initial teacher education (ITE) program at a university in Hong Kong.
The aim of the ITE program is to prepare graduates for teaching English in primary or secondary schools in Hong Kong.
During their final year of study all students complete a field experience (teaching practicum) semester, in which they are provided opportunities to practice teaching in local schools.
These students had decided not to take up either a full-time or part-time teaching post following graduation.

Data collection and analysis - Each participant took part in a semi-structured interview. Interview questions explored topics which included the participant’s perceptions of teachers and teaching in Hong Kong, experiences of learning the English language in Hong Kong schools, motivations for entering an ITE program, any critical incidents which occurred during their ITE program – in particular their experiences of a teaching practicum – reasons for not entering the teaching profession following graduation and future career plans.
Data analysis was based on a conceptual framework to understand how participants constructed their professional identities in discourse and in practice.


Constructing identities-in-discourse

Within the discourse of “the teacher as a force for change”, commitment to altering the ways in which students and teachers have traditionally engaged in the practices and activities of English language teaching (ELT) in Hong Kong schools is regarded as a critical requirement for those who take on the identity “teacher”.
The necessity for such change is legitimized through reference to participant’s past, often negative, experiences of learning the English language in local Hong Kong schools.

The discourse of “the teacher as kind and caring” frames the teacher as an individual who has the best interests of each and every child at heart, who nurtures their students’ growth and development as both language learners and as people writ large, and who provide an environment in which children feel safe and protected.
The case for caring and kindness as crucial components of teacher identity construction (TIC) is established through a series of benefits, for both students and teachers, which are thought to result from such teacher traits.

From within the discourse of “the teacher as developing and improving” the need for all teachers to be continually acquiring new skills and competencies and challenging their performance as teachers is an essential element of TIC.

From the perspective of the discourse of “the teacher as relevant”, teachers are positioned as being able to fulfill the learning needs of students and are thus seen by students as adding value to their language learning experiences.

The discourse of teachers as committed and dedicated positions the decision to enter the teaching profession as a long-term commitment; teaching is a profession that a teacher is very likely to remain within throughout their entire working lives.

Constructing identities-in-practice: engagement, imagination and alignment
The model of TIC presented by the researcher argued that engagement in the practices and activities of a community is crucial to identity construction.
However, as Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015, p.20) point out, engagement can represent a force for dis-identification.
For each participant, engagement in the practices and activities of teaching, which occurred primarily through participation in a teaching practicum, was associated with feelings of “painful marginalization” and the subsequent decision to “move on” from a teaching career.
The researcher points out that TIC as marginalization occurred as the result of a series of challenges to participant’s alignment with each of the discourses described above.

The author posits that Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) theory of discourse, which was discussed above, suggests that identity construction occurs through identification with subject positions, or nodal points of identity.
In the current study, “teacher” represents one such nodal point of identity.
Laclau and Mouffe (1985) maintain that different discourses will fill such a nodal point of identity with particular meanings by linking together signifiers within a chain of equivalence.
Thus, the data described in the previous section reveals that one such chain of equivalence identifies a “teacher” as “a force for change”, “kind and caring”, “developing and improving teaching competency”, “relevant to students” and “committed to teaching as a long term career”.
The author states that this study revealed the existence of a second chain of equivalence that uses a very different set of signifiers from those discussed above to define the meaning of the identity “teacher”. Within this alternative chain, which participants commonly associated with their practicum schools, “teacher” is equated with “maintaining the status quo”, “punishing students”, “unable to fulfill the language learning needs of students”, “stagnating in their professional development” and “teaching as a short-term career”.
In the case of the current study, the author notes that the fixation of the meaning of “teacher” reflected the dominant power relations within the practicum schools.
This hegemonic intervention had the effect of displacing the participant’s preferred meaning of “teacher” to which, the data implies, they had aligned their TIC goals.
Furthermore, the fixation of meaning that participants encountered in these schools appeared to deny them agency in their efforts to construct professional identities.
Thus, a repeated theme throughout the data presented above is the perception of being “cornered and trapped” as a teacher and of being positioned in ways that, as another student expressed it, “I could never seem to overcome or counter”.
The author feels that this denial of agency resulted in the blockage of the participant’s goals for TIC (Howarth, 2000).
One student, for example, lamented his inability to “give my students the real me, as a teacher”. The data also suggests that a consequence of this failure of identity construction was the decision not to pursue a teaching career.

Supporting and sustaining preservice TIC
The author posits that as the blockage to identity construction described above does not appear to be attributable to factors unique to English language teachers in Hong Kong, confronting and overcoming such blockade should be of concern to all teacher educators, school authorities and teachers regardless of their subject specialization.
The author suggests that the awareness of being afforded and denied particular identities by dominant discourses could be the first step in promoting pre-service teacher (PST) agency in TIC: “Awareness becomes a sort of political enlightenment that can lead to empowerment, which if turned into social action can become emancipation” (Pennycook, 2001, p. 40).
A critical approach must, therefore, move beyond revealing how PSTs are positioned by particular discourses “towards transformative and reconstitutive action” (Pennycook, 2017, p. 179). Such action could be achieved by alerting PSTs to the fact that the dominant discourses that position them during their teaching practicum, for instance are contingent, meaning that these discourses “can be transformed and rearticulated in different ways” (Mouffe, 2013, p. 45).
The author also suggests that the contingency of dominant discourses might be explored by inviting school-based teachers who are at different stages of their teaching career, including early career teachers and veteran teachers, to discuss the challenges and opportunities they have experienced in TIC as well as the strategies they use to successfully construct multiple and resilient teacher identities.
In doing so, this step could open possibilities for PSTs to exercise agency by allowing them to challenge the view of TIC as limited to the binary “either/or” possibilities suggested by the chains of equivalence described above and, rather, to conceptualize TIC as “and/also” opportunities.
For example, as teachers they might be positioned as having opportunities in some circumstances to change teaching methods and practices and also be positioned as someone who needs to maintain the status quo in other circumstances.
Fostering this type agency is essential because, as the data presented in this paper suggests, the absence of such agency underpins the decision of the participants not to enter the teaching profession.

Howarth, D. (2000). Discourse. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics. London, UK: Verso
Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics. Thinking the world politically. London: Verso
Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum
Pennycook, A. (2017). Critical applied linguistics and education. In T. McCarthy & S. May (Eds.), Language policy and political issues in education. Encyclopedia of Language and Education (pp. 173–184). Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-02344-1_14.
Wenger-Trayner, E., & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015). Learning in a landscape of practice: A framework. In E. Wenger-Trayner, M. Fenton-O’Creevy, S. Hutchinson, C. Kubiak, & B. Wenger-Trayner (Eds.), Learning in landscapes of practice (pp. 13–30). London: Routledge. 

Updated: Mar. 08, 2020