“Why I Don’t Teach as I was Trained”: Vietnamese Early Career ESOL Teachers’ Experience of Reality Shock

December, 2021

Source: Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 46(12)

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

With regard to the Vietnamese ESOL context where most high school teachers are considered substandard in terms of both English language proficiency and teaching competence (Le, 2019a), this study employed a case study design to investigate novice ESOL teachers’ reasons for not teaching as they were trained in university.
Yin (2018) believes that the case study design best suits research that aims to explain how and why a phenomenon happens.
By its very nature, this research follows an interpretative approach which deems to explore the way the teacher-participants experienced their first years of teaching and constructed their own knowledge of this career stage (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015).
This study expects to address the following questions:
1. What are the differences between the professional learning and teaching practices of Vietnamese early career ESOL teachers?
2. Why are there the differences between the professional learning and teaching practices of Vietnamese early career ESOL teachers?
In particular, the study aims to explore how reality shock was happening for the teacher-participants as well as what internal and external factors drove them to changing their teaching methods.


Context and Participants
This qualitative case study was conducted with four beginning high school English teachers from one district in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
All participants were currently employed as full-time teachers at four different public schools in the same area.
None of them had more than five years of experience at the time of the interview.
The teachers were selected through the purposive sampling technique, mostly to ensure that all participants were in the same group, that is to say their years of experience, teaching context.
The fact that they were no longer fully teaching for communicative purposes was also considered as this study aimed to explore how their change in pedagogical practices was informed by reality shock.
Currently teaching using a different method from the trained one indicates such methodological shift.
Besides, they shared the same geopolitical features as their schools were all administrated by one Department of Education and Training.
Their involvement in this study was entirely voluntary.
Aiming to unveil the obstacles in the most typical context of Vietnamese English education, this study placed emphasis on those who worked at public high schools.
Le (2019a) believes that this public sector well represents the way English is widely taught in Vietnam: compulsory, examination-oriented, and GTM-emphasized.

The author’s personal and educational background, which includes level of education, research interests, professional experience, and publication, was concealed from the participants to minimize any influence on their responses.
The research questions were used to develop a list of interview questions which heavily emphasized the ‘openness’ of the responses and unexpected directions that could lead to deeper exploration were anticipated.
The questions were divided into five sections:
1. Professional background and teaching context (undergraduate training, level of teaching, learners, school culture): to understand the participants’ acquaintance with ESOL teaching methodology and possible influence from previous training, students, stakeholders, colleagues, workplace climate and even parents.
2. Professional practice and pedagogical competence: to understand their current teaching practice as well as to assess their methodological knowledge.
3. Description of reality shock: to depict an overall picture of what happened, specifically the internal and external factors that existed.
4. Sources of professional support: to explore the sources of assistance and professional growth available for the teachers and their autonomy to seek for such opportunities.
5. Attitudes towards professional development: to examine their perception of the value of professional learning and its possibility to improve their current teaching practice.
The semi-structured interview sessions were conducted in-person and were audio recorded.
An inductive coding process, which allows freer exploration and richer description of data, was adopted (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015).
Specifically, after the first interview was performed, transcribed, and analyzed, essential adaptations to the questions were made and the later interviews were respectively carried out.
All recordings were transcribed and checked several times before the transcripts were analyzed.
Initially, open-coding was employed for the first interview and categories were then constructed.
This same process was used for the three remaining interview transcripts.
Modifications were made to rename, upgrade or downgrade categories as the analysis happened.

Findings and Discussion

Reality Shock Leading to Abandonment of Trained Methods
Returning to the high school context in a new role, those beginning teachers, who had already undergone a perceptional shift in professional beliefs, thought that English should be taught for communication, not examination.
All four of them attempted to implement the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) method, experienced certain levels of reality shock, and eventually chose to “surrender” (in the words of P1 and P3).
Particularly, P2 and P3 gave up after one year while P1 could not make it beyond the first.
The situation was even more peculiar for P4 as he changed to GTM only after his first lesson, claiming teaching that way was “ineffective and costly”.
At the beginning, they were all able to feel the resistance from students, most of whom “did not understand” what the teachers were doing (P1).
While P4 believed that he could no longer spend so much effort for every single lesson during his whole career (both in preparing and gaining students’ collaboration), P1, P2 and P3 started to “panic” when there was too little time left for exam preparation.
Those three teachers visualized a prospect when the students claimed that their teachers did not teach a useful thing (for tests), which could critically influence their reputation.
Although no particularly visible pressure from the senior colleagues or stakeholders was observed, the participants described an “invisible influence” (P1 and P3) from the system itself that forced them to change.
Although none of them had difficulty transitioning to the traditional approach (or GTM), P1 and P3 described certain reluctance and felt uncomfortable as “what I did was completely wrong” (P1).
For P1, P2 and P4, the change happened gradually when they began to incorporate grammar practice into the regular lessons until it took up all the class time.
Interestingly, no noticeable change in beliefs had happened, meaning those teachers still believed that they should not be teaching that way at the time of the interview.
All four mentioned their constant intention of attrition and attributed it to the conflict between their beliefs and reality.
This contrast appeared under the names of “unethical teaching” (P1), “ineffectiveness” (P2), and “disappointment” (P1, P3 and P4).
Both Veenman (1984) and Correa et al. (2015) believe that the disagreement between idealistic and contextual teaching practices is a crucial indicator of reality shock.
It seemed for the four participants that professional obstacles played the major role in driving them to the thought of leaving the career.
Sociocultural features such as school culture, administrators, or colleagues, were not strongly emphasized, which is significantly different from what Farrell (2016) and (Whalen et al., 2019) described.
Although major traits of reality shock exhibited by those teachers were also reported by other researchers (see Correa et al., 2015; Farrell, 2016), the Vietnamese teachers in this study displayed contextually unique behaviors.
While novice teachers are commonly found to adapt to the new environment with changes in attitudes and beliefs, the teacher-participants had a “switch” in action, not in mind, still finding themselves somewhat a paradox.
They knew that their students would not “learn a useful thing” (P1), yet it was a “change or die” decision.
To deal with the gap between theory and practice that happened, the novice teachers chose to stand on one side or the other.
As newly trained teachers, the teacher-participants held a firm professional belief about English language teaching: teaching for communication – together with that, however, they also had certain stereotypical perceptions, possibly due to their level of pedagogical content knowledge or lack of effective continuing professional learning.
Bringing those beliefs back to the high school context, they encountered severe reality shocks that were caused by the complex interplay among internal and external factors.
Contextually, they were all heavily influenced by the ESOL education policy with its own conflicts.
While Vietnamese ESOL teachers are supposed to teach communicatively, the testing system does not reflect such expectation.
Those teachers, as a result, felt that preparing students for the grammar-and-vocabulary exams would be a priority, not just for students’ achievements but for their own reputation as well. Besides, their students’ attitudes towards learning English as a means of communication also played a critical role.
Lastly, the level of professional support did have certain impact on the teachers’ experience of reality shock.
While no induction problem existed at the time of the study, all four participants received very low collegial and institutional assistance and had to seek support on their own.
From the inside, insufficient knowledge in some pedagogical respects not only prevented the participants from properly conducting effective lessons during their reality shock but also resulted in a number of false beliefs about English language teaching.
They exhibited several unrealistic expectations about the ideal class size, students’ motivation and language proficiency, and school facilities as prerequisites for effective communicative teaching.
Heavily influenced by the belief that it was impossible to change the reality, the teachers adopted a somewhat reluctant attitude towards pursuing professional learning.
Particularly, they expected to participate only in practical professional development initiatives, i.e., those that address classroom management issues and student motivation enhancement, provided that they were professionally and financially supported.
The authors suggest the following recommendations.
Firstly, teachers’ beliefs should receive more attention.
This notion is central to forming reality shock but has not been well-studied nor addressed in current research (Blömeke et al., 2015).
Secondly, efforts should be made to understand beginning teachers’ needs in professional development and support.
Current professional development programs such as seminars, conferences, and workshops are primarily expert-driven, one-off, and exclusive while induction programs are totally absent in the context of Vietnam.
Policies that are both top-down and bottom-up should be introduced.
Finally, quantitative and mixed designs should be employed to yield deeper and more generalized conclusions.
Once a more complete understanding of reality shock has been gained, more effective teacher education and induction programs can be initiated and modifications to curriculum and assessment policies can be introduced.

Blömeke, S., Hoth, J., Döhrmann, M., Busse, A., Kaiser, G., & König, J. (2015). Teacher Change During Induction: Development of Beginning Primary Teachers’ Knowledge, Beliefs and Performance. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 13(2), 287-308.
Correa, J. M., Martínez-Arbelaiz, A., & Aberasturi-Apraiz, E. (2015). Post-modern reality shock: Beginning teachers as sojourners in communities of practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 48, 66-74.
Farrell, T. S. C. (2016). Surviving the transition shock in the first year of teaching through reflective practice. System, 61(2016), 12-19.
Le, V. C. (2019a). English language teaching in Vietnam: Aspirations, realities, and challenges. In C. V. Le, H. T. M. Nguyen, M. T. T. Nguyen, & R. Barnard (Eds.), Building Teacher Capacity in English Language Teaching in Vietnam (pp. 7-22). Routledge
Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2015). Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation. Jossey-Bass.
Veenman, S. (1984). Perceived Problems of Beginning Teachers. Review of Educational Research, 54(2), 143-178.
Whalen, C., Majocha, E., & Van Nuland, S. (2019). Novice teacher challenges and promoting novice teacher retention in Canada. European Journal of Teacher Education, 42(5), 591-607.
Yin, R. K. (2018). Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods. SAGE Publications. 

Updated: Aug. 03, 2022