How internationalised school teachers construct cross-cultural identities in an internationalised school in Shanghai, China

Poole, A. (2019). How internationalised school teachers construct cross-cultural identities in an internationalised school in Shanghai, China. Unpublished thesis: University of Nottingham, Ningbo.

Adam Poole

Dr Adam Poole, University of Nottingham, Ningbo



My doctoral thesis (Poole, 2019) explored how four internationalised school teachers constructed cross-cultural teacher identities in an internationalised school in Shanghai, China. The topic of international teacher identity is of significance to practitioners, researchers and school leaders alike as there is growing consensus that teacher identity and its construction is not only a vital part of developing a professional self, but is a complex, open-ended life-long project, involving cognitive, affective and, increasingly in a globalising world, intercultural dimensions. However, the international education literature continues to position the international teacher as certified (qualified) and Anglo-Western in nature. However, whilst most of the participants in my study were from the ‘West’, they were generally not certified teachers, nor was English their first language. Yet they identified themselves as international educators. One of the aims of the study, therefore, was to problematise the typologies of international schools and international teachers as types by offering a reconceptualisation of both in the form of the ‘internationalised school’ and the ‘internationalised school teacher’ respectively. A number of papers of mine, such as Interpreting and implementing the IB Learner Profile in an internationalised school in China (2018), I am a mercenary now (2018), and I am an internationalising teacher (2019) elaborate on these constructs in more detail.


In order to address the issue above and to bring into focus the complexity of internationalised teachers’ lives, the concept of teacher identity was explored from postmodern, modernist, and cross-cultural traditions, leading to an integrative framework that conceptualised identity construction as experiential and discursive in nature, arising out of personal, professional and cross-cultural domains of experience, and articulated in the form of Gee’s (2014) notion of Discourse (narratives) and discourse (language features). Commensurate with identity as discursive in nature, narrative inquiry was employed as a guiding methodology, with semi-structured interviews utilised as the main instrument for data collection.  Data for the study were collected over a two-year period, with interview data being collected in the first year, and follow-up interviews and supplemental data collected in the second year. An enhanced form of member-checking was employed that ensured that data collection, transcription, analysis, and the writing up of findings proceeded in a semi-grounded and recursive manner, with participants being given opportunities to expand or excise data or interpretations that did not resonate with their lived experiences.


My findings showed that the participants tended to draw upon similar narratives and discursive features in order to construct their identities as international teachers, yet they also mobilised narrative and discourse in an idiosyncratic manner, based on personal, professional and cross-cultural experiences. Another significant finding was that cross-cultural experiences did not necessarily lead to increased intercultural understanding as might be expected after an extended sojourn abroad. Rather, the participants mobilised cross-cultural experiences in order to reinforce existing beliefs that were western-centric in nature or to bid for recognition as ‘western’ teachers in a Chinese school.


Of most relevance to the notion of international teacher (im)mobilities was how the participants narrated their cross-cultural experiences in terms of the accumulation of a range of capitals, including linguistic, cultural and social. Recently, researchers have started to explore international teachers’ experiences as part of the Global Middle Class, a burgeoning construct that is taken to refer to a well-educated, economically and culturally resourced segment of the middle-class population (Yemini, Maxwell & Mizrachi, 2018) who due to operating on a global scale (Ball & Nakita, 2014) have accumulated a range of cosmopolitan sensibilities and, more critically, cultural and social capital (Weenink, 2008). For example, my own research found that international school teachers’ ability to speak English fluently was a flexible form of linguistic capital that facilitated teacher mobility and also increased in value both inside and outside of non-English speaking countries, such as China, where English related programmes such as the International Baccalaureate Programme have become popular (Poole, 2019). However, as my thesis found, the dynamic nature of capital conversation is by no means universal. Whilst certain groups of the GMC (such as Anglo-Western international teachers) may possess such dynamic capital, others, such as non-Anglophone, non-Western international school teachers, possess different forms of capital that are less dynamic, thereby resulting in a paradoxical situation of advantage and precarity. Despite being a part of the global precariat, the participants’ identities as international teachers became a form of cultural capital that increased in value in the cultural, symbolic and physical movement from Global North to the Global South, but not the other way. Within the context of internationalised schools in the Global South, teachers’ identity-capital, which can be depleted or have limited exchange value in the Global North, increases substantially in value.


Future directions


Having completed my doctoral research and successfully defended my thesis, I plan to develop the findings above in the form of two research trajectories.


International school focus


The first, and more specific, strand will continue to develop my research into the lives and experiences of teachers in international schools, with a focus on what I term ‘internationalised’ schools’, but utilise the findings for other educational contexts, such as intercultural schools and local/national schools. Given the effects of globalisation (the spread of culture via the internet, increased employer precarity, increased migration and mobility), the line between national and international is becoming increasingly blurry. Therefore, the experiences of teachers in internationalised schools are not only generalisable to the international school context, but have implications for schools the world over, including intercultural schools and local schools. Within my research focus, these implications are centred of teacher development, particularly in terms of professional development that utilises the construct of teacher professional identity in order to foster greater criticality and interculturality (that is, critical interculturality).


I am currently working on two papers that challenge and develop the concepts currently used in the field of international education. The first seeks to add to the typology of international school teachers by drawing upon data from my doctoral research in order to propose a type of international school teacher who sits somewhere between international teachers as traditionally defined (qualified, native, and Anglophone) and so-called ‘backpacker’ teachers who are taken to be unqualified and are often non-native speakers. This research can be read in the form of a working paper, entitled International Education Teachers’ experiences as an educational precariat in China which explores the ambivalent nature of internationalised school teachers as simultaneously part of the GMC and also in a state of precarity. It can also be heard in the form of a presentation, entitled I am a mercenary now which was delivered as part of the Asian Conference on Education, 2018.


The second paper offers a new construct in the form of the ‘internationalised’ school. The notion of the internationalised school in the Chinese context is similar to what Hayden (2006) calls Type C non-traditional international schools, in that they cater to ‘aspirant indigenous elites’ (Lauder, 2007), but differs in respect to asymmetries of power which, in contrast to local schools and more traditional international schools, are typified by organisational narratives that are hierarchical and local in nature, thereby problematising and marginalising ‘western’ expatriate teachers’ professional identities. This internationalised school construct will then be used to inform the second strand of research.


Intercultural school focus


The second broader strand of research seeks to take the findings from the first research strand, and apply it to contexts beyond China and the international education sector. My main focus is to problematise and develop the teacher professional identity concept by showing how cross-cultural mobility is an essential modality of experience for individuals in the twenty-first century that should be analysed in addition to personal and professional experiences, which continues to form the basis of the teacher identity construct (Schutz et al., 2018). My aim is to construct an intercultural teacher identity framework that could be used as the basis for developing greater interculturality in teachers and educational actors broadly conceived. A working paper, entitled Interculturality as a component of teacher professional identity: Implications from the international school context sets out these ideas in more detail.


This research is significant because to date, teacher professional identity continues to be understood in somewhat parochial terms, reflecting an assumption that educational contexts are defined in terms of place rather than space. As researchers have pointed out, increasingly in a globalised world, classrooms are becoming ‘contact zones’ (Pratt, 1991) or ‘transnational spaces’ (Hayden, 2011), in which students and teachers from different nationalities meet and often clash. Therefore, teachers need to develop a sense of (critical) interculturality in relation to their professional identities in order to accommodate the realities of globalisation and, in relation to a social justice agenda, develop sensibilities and strategies for inclusivity.


Selected reading


Author’s work


Poole, A. (2019). I am an internationalising teacher: A Chinese English teacher’s experiences of becoming an international teacher. International Journal of Comparative Education and Development21(1), 31-45.


Poole, A., & Huang, J. (2018). Resituating funds of identity within contemporary interpretations of perezhivanieMind, Culture, and Activity25(2), 125-137.


Poole, A. (2017). Interpreting and implementing the IB Learner Profile in an internationalised school in China: A shift of focus from the ‘Profile as text’ to the ‘lived Profile’.  Journal of Research in International Education16(3), 248-264.



International teachers’ experiences in international schools


Bunnell T (2016) Teachers in international schools: a global educational ‘precariat’? Globalisation, Societies and Education, 14(4), 543-559.


Savva M (2017) The personal struggles of ‘national’ educators working in ‘international’schools: an intercultural perspective. Globalisation, Societies and Education15(5), 576-589.


Tarc, P., Mishra Tarc, A., & Wu, X. (2019). Anglo-Western international school teachers as global middle class: portraits of three families. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1-16.


Author’s short bio:

Dr Adam Poole (Ed. D, University of Nottingham, China) is a practitioner-researcher currently based in Shanghai, China. He teaches IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) English A and B at an international school in Shanghai, and has just completed and successfully defended his doctoral thesis which was undertaken with the University of Nottingham, Ningbo. Adam has published a number of articles on international education and the funds of knowledge/identity approach in international peer-reviewed journals, including Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, Mind, Culture and Activity, Research Journal of International Education, Frontiers of Education in China, and International Journal of Comparative Education and Development. His research interests include international teachers’ experiences in international schools, teacher professional identity, and developing the funds of identity concept. Adam can be reached at

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