Comparing motivations of pre-service and beginning teachers in China: impact of culture and experience

September 2021

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 47:4, 576-589

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The aim of this study is to investigate the teaching motivations of not only pre-service teachers (full-time BEd students) but also of beginning teachers (full-time teachers working in Grades 1–12 teaching various school subjects and having fewer than six years’ working experience), in the context of China, by comparing pre-service and beginning teachers to explore the motivation development process.
Such a comparison has important implications for both teacher education programme improvement and new teacher retention.

This study investigates pre-service and beginning teachers’ entry motivation.
A mixed methodology approach was adopted for a cohort of pre-service teachers and a cohort of beginning teachers.
The first data collection method, a questionnaire consisting of 27 items based on the Factor Influence Teaching-Choice (FIT-Choice) scale (Richardson and Watt 2006) and some questions adapted from Lin et al.’s questionnaire (2012), was used to assess pre-service teachers and beginning teachers’ entry motivations.
Additionally, personal/school information – such as proportion of migrant students, work hours, etc. – were included in beginning teachers’ survey, while the recruitment track to the S University was included in the pre-service teacher survey.
S University, a large and nationally respected teacher education university located in Shanghai, China, was selected as the case, due to its nation-wide recruitment of preservice and in-service teachers to its various teacher education programmes.
The questionnaire was first issued at a summer education programme (a voluntary programme that prepares participants for part-time MEd studies) for beginning teachers held at S University in Shanghai in August 2018.
This study defined beginning teachers as fulltime primary and middle school teachers of various school subjects with fewer than six years’ teaching experience, for several reasons.
First, the first three years of a teacher’s career is widely viewed as the beginning stage of their professional development.
However, Chinese literature reports that teachers view their first five years as the beginning stage (Ye and Zhou 2020).
Some studies have highlighted the need to extend this beginning stage, arguing that Chinese teachers receive too little teaching practice training (Xia 2018).
Researchers directly distributed 125 questionnaires – one for each teacher enrolled in the programme – of which 107 completed questionnaires were later collected.
Next, the questionnaire was randomly issued to full-time first-year preservice teachers in various majors at S University in June 2019 (122 returned; a return rate of above 90% ).
The second data collection method was follow-up semi-structured interviews.
Interviews allowed for greater depth of data collection on such issues as interviewees’ acknowledged strongest motivators and beginning teachers’ motivation changes, and helped compensate for the limitations of using a scale designed for universal use.
Eleven beginning teachers and eight first-year pre-service teachers who participated in the survey were randomly selected (while balancing female and male participants and various subject backgrounds) and interviewed, with each interview lasting around 60 minutes.
The data were collected between August 2018 and December 2019.
While one of this article’s authors teaches at S University and her position allowed her to access the study’s participants, no participants were drawn from any of her courses.

Findings and discussion
First, beginning and pre-service teachers alike reported that meeting good teachers in their prior learning experience, cultivating next-generation value, and personal social utility value were the strongest motivations for their choosing teaching as a career; moreover, both groups similarly viewed teaching profession as a career that is high in demands and low in returns.
These findings resonate with those of other studies, which have reported that student teachers perceived teaching as a high-demand, low-reward career (Richardson and Watt 2006), pre-service teachers saw their prior learning experiences as a positive influence (Watt and Richardson 2012), and Chinese teachers viewed extrinsic motivations as important (Su et al. 2001; Lin et al. 2012).
However, they differ from studies that have reported intrinsic motivations as a primary career entry reason (Watt and Richardson 2007).
These similarities can be partly explained by the influence of common culture – specifically, the combined influence of paternalistic tradition, social stratification policies, and social transition in China.
On the one hand, China’s common culture provides positive perception of the teaching career.
As reflected in this study, the teacher’s role is considered respectable in society.
It offers permanent, stable employment, higher social status, and better welfare provision, as shown in interview data, attracting people to work in the teaching profession.
Moreover, the common culture influenced participants’ entry motivation through important people like parents and teachers – two of the five gods in Confucian tradition (Qin 2014).
Both teacher cohorts reported that their parents’ and teachers’ support and encouragement influenced their entry decisions.
On the other hand, teachers in this study also reported the negative impacts of the common culture, including social transitions that made parents more demanding, the challenge of teaching migrant children, and decreased teacher status.
Second, beginning and pre-service teachers’ differences in entry motivation and career perception can be explained by the two groups’ different subcultures.
Although members of a social group may share common values and/or traditions, subcultures exist within any social group (Spradlin and Parsons 2008).
In this study, such subcultures include one’s level of contact with teaching as a career and school culture.
The BEd pre-service teachers in this study had no prior teaching experience, and their motivation to become teachers was more strongly influenced by such important people as parents and teachers, as well as public policy.
Their view of the teaching profession was largely based on extrinsic factors, which can help explain their lower scores in intrinsic motivation and teaching ability items.
In contrast, the beginning teachers in this study had actual teaching experience, which allowed them to work with children and reflect on their intrinsic motivation.
Beginning teachers’ higher scores on fall-back career items, relative to bachelor pre-service teachers, can be explained as backlash against their beginning-year challenges and the school culture, for instance, they reported problems caused by migrant students, conflicts with students’ families, etc., as revealed in the interviews.
It should be noted that, while facing similar problems (such as internal migration), teachers worked in different subcultures highlighting different values.
For example, an interviewee from Shanghai saw migrant students as their greatest challenge, while an interviewee from central China highlighted caring.

Some implications can be drawn from this study regarding promoting and sustaining teachers’ motivation, which is a theme all countries are concerned about, regardless of cultural backgrounds.
Firstly, given the important role culture plays in shaping teacher motivation, teacher education programmes should explicitly discuss cultural issues, not just targeting the common culture but also its subcultures.
Teacher education programmes should provide formal and informal opportunities, such as early and frequent opportunities to contact frontline teachers, for pre-service teachers to experience the teaching profession early and to adapt to subcultures in different schools.
Through such opportunities, teachers can learn about common culture and its positive impact on their motivation and discuss the influences of challenges brought by subcultures.
Teacher education programmes could also present teachers with dilemmas as opportunities to learn how to solve challenging situations in a changing society and develop their motivation in response to changing teaching and societal contexts.
Secondly, this study provides a cultural lens through which to understand teacher motivation development, and the subcultures that limit/facilitate common culture’s influence on teachers’ entry motivation and push teachers to highlight certain work goals that are important for maintaining their motivation (Butler 2012).
Therefore, the interpretation of teachers’ responses to entry motivation survey scales (e.g., FIT), should not be only judged by their scores, but their experience of culture and subcultures and the influence on their maintaining motivations.
This cultural lens may help educational administrators and new teachers develop a deeper understanding of teachers’ motivation change, formulate practical strategies, provide unique help to teachers of various backgrounds, and enhance the level of teacher motivation.

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Updated: Feb. 17, 2022