Negotiating Intercultural Spaces and Teacher Identity in an Internationalised School in Shanghai

Poole, A. (2019). Negotiating Intercultural Spaces and Teacher Identity in an Internationalised School in Shanghai. Intercultural Communication Education, 2 (2), 59-70.

Adam Poole

Dr Adam Poole, University of Nottingham Ningbo, China


There is now a general acceptance that schools need to prepare students for the realities of a globalised world, which necessitates developing intercultural competence. Such an educational mandate is felt particularly keenly in internationalised schools, where the work of teaching and learning involves the negotiation of diverse cultural assumptions, practices, and identities on a daily basis. Whilst schools are in a position where they need to formulate some kind of understanding of what intercultural competence means and how it is expected to be developed with educational content and pedagogical practices, the notion of intercultural competence is perpetually contested. Critical scholars have critiqued the tendency for theorising on intercultural competence to adhere to “solid” notions of culture and assume that there is an end to the intercultural process at which point an individual will become interculturally competent. This paper, however, argues that it is important to understand the ways in which solid notions of culture surface in the lived experiences of teachers working in intercultural contexts. The paper draws on findings from a qualitative case study of international teachers’ cross-cultural experiences in an international school in Shanghai, China to highlight the ways in which individuals draw on notions of solid culture as a resource for claiming an identity position in relation to dominant cultural practices in the local context.


This paper is designed as the final installment in a series of papers that have focused on various aspects of teachers’ experiences in internationalised schools (the reader can check out another paper for discussion of the differences between international and internationalised schools, and characteristics of what I have come to call Chinese Internationalised Schools.) In my previous work, I explored teachers’ experiences of precarity and constructions of cross-cultural identities in internationalised schools in Shanghai. As part of this project, I developed a framework for analysing international teachers’ identities, by appropriating the concept of teacher professional identity, which has been understood as being comprised of professional and personal experiences. In order to capture the ‘international’ dimension of international schools as transnational spaces of education, I added a third modality, cross-cultural experiences, which was informed by the notion of intercultural competence. However, in writing this current paper, I have come to question my assumptions about intercultural competence, particularly the idea that an individual can master a certain set of skills and dispositions after which he or she will be able to negotiate any intercultural encounter. This process of questioning led me to the concept of critical interculturality, which is defined as ‘a never-ending process of ideological struggle against solid identities, unfair power differentials, discrimination and hurtful (and often disguised) discourses of (banal) nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism and various forms of -ism. Critical interculturality is also about the now and then of interaction, beyond generalisations of contexts and interlocutors (Dervin, 2017, p. 2).

The paper develops my previous work by drawing together the concept of teacher professional identity construction with critical interculturality. In contrast to most studies on international schools which tend to focus on expatriate educators, this paper also draws upon data from a local teacher, Daisy who taught the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) English. Previously, I had focused on Daisy’s identity development (see ‘I am an Internationalising Teacher’) in isolation, but this paper places her voice alongside other expatriate teaching staff. For me, Daisy has become a significant figure in my research. She is representative of numerous Daisies in internationalised schools who are often not recognised as international educators, due to contracts that label them as ‘local-hires. Even though the paper set out to focus on the expatriate experience, it is her voice that is the most significant.

The paper found that Daisy was the most interculturally competent of all the participants despite being the youngest and least experienced. This was attributed to her familiarity with Chinese and English culture and her linguistic ability in both languages. As she was habituated to the local context, she could utilise her solid identity as a foundation on which to develop new hybrid identities that incorporated aspects of both Chinese and western education. The paper proposes that schools should utilise teachers like Daisy as cultural mediators. Exploring cultural differences with a cultural mediator enacts the very processes of being intercultural, such as being interactive and reflexive. There are also a number of other advantages of utilising mediators like Daisy for facilitating the development of interculturality. Cultural mediators add an affective dimension to the intercultural process, which is often missing from your average workshop and training sessions on interculturality, which tend to be rushed and often abstract in nature. Because mediators like Daisy are able to decentre and combine different cultural perspectives, they also model and scaffold the intercultural process for monocultural teachers, who may approach intercultural interactions from the perspective of solid frames of reference.


Despite being cast as the antagonist, solid identities and ethnocentrism still have a part to play in the development of critical interculturality. For example, the findings suggest that at the level of lived experience, culture is both solid and fluid. Hybridity is not just related to fluid identities, but also the co-existence and interpenetration of fluid and solid identities. Daisy, for example, positioned her teacher identity in relation to a former identity as a ‘teacher-centred educator’. Moreover, this former identity could be described as the bedrock on which Daisy constructed her present identity as an ‘internationalising teacher’ and an emerging identity as a ‘real international teacher.’ On the one hand, culture and cultural identity is not something that exists independently of individuals but is embodied and instantiated by individuals through interaction (culture as process) and is therefore hybrid in nature. On the other hand, culture is utilised solidly as a frame of reference by individuals and is therefore perceived to be solid in nature (culture as product). It is also necessary to caution against the polarisation of liquid and solid identities by viewing liquid as positive and therefore desirable and solid as negative and therefore undesirable. Solid identities are not inherently ‘wrong’ or counterproductive. Rather, they are necessary for developing intercultural identities. Furthermore, solid identities also play a psychological role in bolstering professional identities that are perceived to be under threat and developing greater resilience and a positive sense of self in terms of self-efficacy.

The paper also problematises the notion of critical interculturality as ‘a never-ending process’ by arguing that it minimises the importance of the relevance of cultural knowledge and cultural identities in the here and now. It has to be asked to what extent individuals can be critically intercultural without bringing these ‘solid’ frames into play. Given the salience of solid notions of culture and related cultural identities, it is important to understand how solid notions of culture and identity become intertwined in intercultural encounters. As the paper argues, solid notions of culture take on particular significance for teachers of different national backgrounds who might see themselves as representing particular educational cultures and use claims around culture and identity to advance their own pedagogical agenda or to resist change.

Author’s work

Poole, A. (2019). International Education Teachers’ Experiences as a Global Educational Precariat in China. Journal of Research in International Education, 18(1), 60-76.

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 Development, 21(1).

Critical interculturality

Dervin, F. (2017). Critical interculturality: Lectures and notes. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Author’s short bio: 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 Chinese Internationalised School in Shanghai, and has recently defended and passed 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 and via his profile page at Research Gate.


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