Teachers’ lives: a life history narrative inquiry into Chinese college English teachers’ professional development in the context of Chinese culture
Although each of the life stories and cases of teachers are personal and specific, and although they have already become subjects of attention for anthropologists, educationalists, sociologists and psychologists, there is still a lack of in-depth research examining the actual processes and dynamics of teaching careers as experienced by individuals. This is especially true of China. The actual situation of teachers’ professional development in China remains a mystery. Since biography, the changes in society and their impact on education are intimately connected, this study intends to uncover and explore these connections in relation to Chinese College English teachers. It discusses and studies eight Chinese College English teachers’ professional development stories in the specific context of one university. The main aim of the study is to reveal how those teachers in a Chinese context and at different stages of their careers, construct, maintain and develop their professional identities. The study explores, in particular, how far China’s educational changes over the past sixty years (1949-2009) have impacted on these three groups of Chinese College English teachers’ professional identities. The focus on teachers’ lives in this study will enable the teachers’ voice to be heard. The study draws data from three groups of Chinese College English teachers: early-career, mid-career and late-career, reflecting the footprints of China’s educational changes over the past sixty years. It hypothesises that the professional identity construction of these teachers may be influenced by the Chinese historical background that their professional development may be a microcosm of Chinese history of education and that the career of each group may be in stark contrast with the others. To fully understand their professional development, a life history narrative was adopted. During eight-week’s fieldwork, a series of in-depth interviews combining topical interview with narrative interview were carried out with eight College English teachers at Sun Yat-sen University. A voice-centred approach combining (i) a voice-centred relational method of data analysis with four steps of reading and (ii) thematic narrative analysis was undertaken. Drawing on stories identified from Reading 1 and combining it with thematic narrative analysis method, I looked for what I think to be ‘critical events’. In Chapter 4, teachers’ stories are told in ‘I’ poems generated from Reading 2, which combines longer summaries of the content of the transcript and direct quotes to illustrate diverse and sometimes conflicting factors which influenced the development of teacher identity along with the participants’ professional teaching journeys. The narratives of each individual are guided by the processes they went through in their professional development (becoming a teacher - being a teacher - future development) and therefore were able to illustrate any general patterns that could be found in other interviews. Participating teachers’ stories illustrate the complexity of the experiences of Chinese College English teachers. Their experiences have shown the dynamic nature of teachers’ professional identity construction in times of educational changes. Their stories illustrate how the broader sociocultural and political context shapes teachers’ professional identity and how teachers play out their agency throughout the process of their professional identity construction. Based on roles emerging from Reading 2 which focuses on how the teachers speak about themselves and combining it with thematic narrative analysis, teachers’ professional identity construction is examined through the lens of what they do (their professional role identities) in Chapter 5. The findings show that no matter which career stages they were at, they are all capable of taking on the roles of manager, professional, acculturator and researcher. The construction of role identities is a self-internalised process, which needs continuous negotiation through interactions in specific social settings. In Chapter 6 teachers’ professional identity construction of the relational context of teaching was explored by combining thematic narrative analysis with Reading 3 which focuses on how teachers talked about themselves in relation to others. From the difference between teachers at different career stages, the findings reveal the teachers’ professional identity construction is a process of self-mirroring based on their understanding of how others (especially students and colleagues) perceive them. Moreover, there are two steps of the self-mirroring process: the individual recognises who she or he is and the individual identifies her or his uniqueness. Since the second step only showed in the mid and late-career teachers’ stories, the first and second step appears to be in a sequence. The connection between the teachers’ professional identity construction and the context was investigated in Chapter 7. In this chapter thematic narrative analysis is combined with Reading 4 which sets the context by placing the teachers within the cultural context and social structure. Analysis showed the teachers’ sense of professional identity appears to be largely characterised by their personal histories and experiences and it is constantly reshaped by the new relationships developed within the professional context where the initial conception of teaching and teachers confronts changes. Throughout the participating teachers’ life stories, even though they were unique, they were not disengaged from society and context. On more than one occasion, they made reference to different social and contextual issues that were shaping their selves either consciously or unconsciously. Additionally, when the narratives of all participating teachers are brought together they reveal important aspects of how the broader community - society and context - behaves and evolves. The contextual influences in teachers’ professional identity construction in this study could be classified in three main categories: micro-social, meso-social and macrosocial, which are interwoven with each other. Furthermore, the study provides the evidence to show that teachers’ career stages, employment status and life stage/age all contribute to their perceptions of their professional identity construction. Through each teacher’s stories, we are able to get to know each teacher as a whole person with complex lived realities. Those individual voices can be put together to show the collective voices from each group and those groups can be put together to show the collective voices from the cohort of eight College English teachers. The research is significant in collecting individual voices from Chinese College English teachers, and building their collective voice through exemplification, orchestration and amplification. Individual stories are examples which show how teachers live and struggle in their meso context with cultural uniqueness and the macro context of reforms. The hypothesis (see page iii) was not fully upheld – i.e., personal/individual and meso context seemed much more significant than macro. Teachers’ experiences and interpretations are orchestrated through comparing, contrasting and building theory/theories from the ground stories as an attempt to produce a new but coherent narrative at an intellectual level. The orchestration of teachers’ voices can be amplified in terms of its scope of impact and to inform the public of the subjective reality experienced by teachers. This small-scale, in-depth research project attempts to begin that process. It is anticipated that it will resonate with teachers who lived under the same context, and illuminate their perspectives for those who did not.