Poole, A. (2019). Internationalised School Teachers’ Experiences of Precarity as Part of the Global Middle Class in China: Towards Resilience Capital. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher.
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Dr Adam Poole, University of Nottingham, China
The purpose of this study was to explore three International School Teachers’ experiences as part of the Global Middle Class (GMC) in China. This group is worthy of study, as their numbers are increasingly growing, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. However, little has been written about the negative aspects of sustained global mobility or how individuals, as opposed to families, accrue and deploy cosmopolitan capital for social advantage. In-depth interviewing was employed in order to bring into focus the participants’ experiences of prolonged mobility. In addition to highlighting the precarious aspects of being part of the GMC, the study also identified and illustrated a new form of capital that emerged during data collection and analysis, which was labelled ‘resilience capital’. Resilience capital is produced when teachers take a more positive attitude towards negative or precarious experiences, utilising them in order to develop skills, dispositions and endurance which also can be converted into more traditional economic and cultural forms of capital.
Background to the paper
Google the term ‘international teachers’ or ‘international teachers in international schools’ and you will find a plethora of recruitment websites offering the intrepid educator a chance to broaden their horizons whilst being more than adequately remunerated for their tenacity. You are also bound to see images of smiling expatriate teachers, surrounded by smiling students. For many, this remains the popular image of international school teaching. Whilst it cannot be denied that teaching in international schools is an emotionally, spiritually and, it has to be admitted, materially rewarding experience, the popular discourse of international school teaching as an adventure or a process of discovery belies the many struggles that teachers must negotiate during an international sojourn. These struggles include culture shock, a failure to integrate into the host culture, unfair dismissal due to the largely unregulated nature of international schooling, and short-term contracts, usually 2-3 years in length (Poole, 2019a).
These problematic aspects of teaching in international schools contribute to what could be called international school precarity (a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare) and the emergence of a global educational precariat (Bunnell, 2016). The term precariat was initially proposed by Guy Standing (2011) to denote an emerging class of individuals whose working lives are characterised by a lack of security. The precariat is a class of individuals who, due to the consequences of neo-liberal practices such as market flexibility and de-regulation, find themselves without an ‘anchor of stability’ (Standing, 2011).
Recently, Bunnell (2016) has extended Standing’s thesis beyond the temporary or seasonal worker who typically characterises the precariat by proposing that the growing numbers of teachers who choose to teach internationally are increasingly forming a sub-grouping of the precariat. Bunnell’s paper was one of those ‘light bulb’ moments we all experience from time to time when we stumble upon a paper that just ‘clicks’ with us. It put into words something that I had experienced and felt myself as an International School Teacher (IST) but could never quite put into words. Engaging with the paper led to the writing of a previous effort of mine entitled International Education Teachers’ Experiences as an Educational Precariat in China (2019b) which sought to give credence to the notion of International School Teachers as forming an international educational precariat.
However, between writing, revising and publishing the paper, my thinking on the subject had developed considerably. Rather than being completely structural in nature (something out there in the world), precarity is also jointly co-constructed by individuals’ experiences of it which in turn is mediated by frames of reference that encompass lived experiences, identities, emotions, and explicit and tacit beliefs about teaching, politics and the world. Moreover, the notion of International School Teachers forming a sub-group of the precariat can be critiqued for assuming that all teachers who work in international schools are part of the same group. Given that international schools take on various guises (see chapter 1 in Bunnell, 2019 for an overview of these different types), it follows that teachers’ experiences of precarity are also likely to be different. Based on this, I hypothesised that expatriate teachers in more traditional international schools were likely to experience less precarity than teachers in what I have come to call Chinese Internationalised Schools. In contrast to more traditional international schools which tend to privilege western ways of knowing and teaching (Lai, Li & Gong, 2016), Chinese Internationalised Schools are characterised by a confluence of national and international orientations that are often in tension, thereby engendering precarity. For example, expatriate faculty members in Chinese internationalised schools often face barriers in expressing their knowledge and can feel that their teacher identities are marginalised by institutional structures (Poole, in press).
The final step in the paper’s development came in the discovery of a recent study entitled ‘Anglo-Western international school teachers as global middle class: portraits of three families’ by Tarc, Tarc and Wu (2019). This paper was instrumental in enabling me to overcome some of the limitations in my previous paper. Whereas previously I had focused almost exclusively on the negative aspects of international school teaching, Tarc et al.’s paper made me aware that even though teaching in international schools is fraught with precarity, International School Teachers are nevertheless in an advantageous position to accrue cosmopolitan, cultural and social capital with which to strengthen their position as part of the GMC (or in the case of the some of the participants in my work, to become a part of the Global Middle Class). The GMC construct, therefore, has utility in terms of highlighting the strategic and advantageous aspects of teaching in international school. However, a capitals approach tends to preclude the exploration of the more problematic aspects of working in international schools, which the notion of precarity and the precariat brings into focus. Hence the need to mobilise and synthesise these two constructs in order to capture the complexity and ambivalence of teachers’ lived experiences in international schools.
This leads to my current paper, Internationalised School Teachers’ Experiences of Precarity as Part of the Global Middle Class in China: Towards Resilience Capital (2019c) which draws upon both GMC and precariat constructs. Because the experience of living and working in international schools is inherently ambivalent and complex, it requires a number of lenses in which to bring into focus the complex relationship between the material advantages of internationally teaching and the positive and negative psychological transformations that occur as a result of an extended sojourn abroad.
The advantages of being an Internationalised School Teacher (such as capital accrual and conversion) are generally consistent with findings on other groups who are part of the GMC. However, the disadvantages of Internationalised School Teachers are somewhat different from other studies on the GMC. In addition to short-term contracts and a lack of employment opportunities in the participants’ home countries in common with studies by Poole (2019) and Bunnell (2016), my findings also shed light on the psychological and emotional side-effects of global mobility. The symbolic capital available to Internationalised School Teachers, as well as its exchange potential, are considerably different to that available in more traditional international schools. This suggests that the GMC is itself stratified, and can be broken down further into sub-classes, corresponding to Bunnell’s (2016) notion of International School Teachers as ‘middling’ actors.
In addition to exploring the positive and negative aspects of working in international schools, the paper also proposes the notion of ‘resilience capital’. This concept emerged during data collection, and was completely unexpected. What I began to notice, or perhaps what the data wanted me to notice, was how despite being mired in precarity, the participants not only remained optimistic, but drew upon their negative experiences in order to develop dispositions, skills and competencies that would make them more employable. Resilience capital unites the notions of cosmopolitan capital and precarity, which, as the findings show, are not simply two sides of the same globally mobile coin, but overlap on the level of lived experience. This is captured in the oxymoronic phrase ‘advantageous exile’, which was part of the paper’s working title. Resilience capital is produced when teachers take a more positive attitude towards negative or precarious experiences, utilising them in order to develop skills, dispositions and endurance which also can be converted into more traditional economic and cultural forms of capital.
As the findings are currently more suggestive than conclusive due to the limited sample size – three participants from two internationalised schools in Shanghai, future research would need to increase the sample size by researching other groups of international teacher from other international/internationalised schools in China and beyond. Future research would also need to ascertain whether resilience capital is a feature specific to members who cruise on the margins of the GMC or whether it is a more general byproduct of global mobility. Finally, research would also need to develop the notion of resilience capital in more detail by exploring other groups of expatriates in educational and non-educational contexts.
Poole, A. (2019a), How Internationalised School Teachers Construct Cross-cultural Identities in an Internationalised School in Shanghai, China, Doctoral thesis, University of Nottingham, UK.
Poole, A. (2019b). International Education Teachers’ Experiences as an Educational Precariat in China. Journal of Research in International Education, 18(1), 60-76.
Poole, A. (2019c). Internationalised School Teachers’ Experiences of Precarity as Part of the Global Middle Class in China: Towards Resilience Capital. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher.
Poole, A. (in press). Negotiating Intercultural Spaces and Teacher Identity in an Internationalised School in Shanghai. Intercultural Communication Education.
Bunnell, T. (2016), Teachers in International Schools: A Global Educational ‘Precariat’?, Globalisation, Societies and Education, Vol. 14 No. 4, pp. 543-559.
Bunnell, T. (2019). International schooling and education in the ‘new era’: Emerging issues. Bingley, England: Emerald.
Lai, C., Li, Z., & Gong, Y. (2016). Teacher Agency and Professional Learning in Cross-cultural Teaching Contexts: Accounts of Chinese Teachers from International Schools in Hong Kong. Teaching and Teacher Education, 54, 12-21.
Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The new Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic, London.
Tarc, P., Tarc, M. A. and Wu, X. (2019), “Anglo-Western International School Teachers as Global Middle Class: Portraits of Three Families”, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp. 1-16.
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 Mind, Culture and Activity, Research Journal of International Education, Culture and Psychology and The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher. 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 email@example.com and via his profile page at Research Gate.