Constructing International School Teacher Identity from Lived Experience: A Fresh Conceptual Framework

Research Highlighted:

Poole, A. (2020). Constructing International School Teacher Identity from Lived Experience: A Fresh Conceptual Framework. Journal of Research in International Education. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1475240920954044

Dr Adam Poole, Beijing Foreign Studies University

Abstract

This research note offers background information to my recent paper (Poole, 2020) published in the Journal of Research in International Education. The paper argues for the need to move beyond distilling international school teachers’ experiences into a teacher type or teacher typologies, and instead to take teachers’ lived experiences as an end in themselves. Lived experience is characterised by a certain kind of ambivalence, messiness, and complexity that typologies are unable to capture.

In attempting to better convey what I mean by international school teachers’ lived experiences, I make an analogy to The Beatles. Whilst it may seem somewhat irrelevant at first, I ask the reader to indulge me. The connection will become apparent soon enough.

As a teenager, I was obsessed with the Beatles. I knew their music inside and out. My ear became so familiar with their sound that I could name any of their songs within the first few beats. However, when the Beatles released a collection of outtakes and rarities as part of their Anthology series, it felt like I was listening to them again for the first time. I was struck at how clear the initial performances were. Often, the first take would consist of drums, guitar and bass. When listened to in this form, the music was vibrant. It had a warm resonant room sound to it, as if you were in the room whilst it was being played. It was rough. You could hear the mistakes. The fingers fumbling for the chords. A guide vocal leaking into the drum microphones. Takes breaking down. False starts. It was honest. However, once the recordings had been over-dubbed, mistakes corrected, that room sound was gone. It no longer felt as if you were in the room with the band. It did not feel honest. Suddenly, those recordings that my ear had grown so accustomed to felt like imitations.

The above analogy helps to convey what I am trying to do in my research in relation to teachers’ experiences in Chinese Internationalised Schools. I am listening for the resonant room sound of their lived experiences.

The International School arena was once considered to be somewhat anomalous (Pearce, 2013) and something of a well-kept secret. Traditional International Schools, or Type A schools (Hayden & Thompson, 2013), were designed for the children of a global trans-national elite, who required schooling that would enable them to enter a university in their home countries. However, in the last ten years or so, a new type of international school has emerged. Rather than catering to the children of transnational elites, these new schools, referred to as Type C non-traditional schools (Hayden & Thompson, 2013), are frequented by indigenous middle-class families. Within China, these Type C schools have been referred to as ‘Chinese bilingual schools’, or, as I like to call them, ‘Chinese Internationalised Schools.’ Chinese Internationalised Schools typically follow the Chinese National Curriculum until grade 9, with students transitioning to some type of international curriculum (such as International General Certificate of Secondary Educations, Advanced Levels or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) for the remainder of their high school years.

Along with this shift from traditional to non-traditional international schooling, we can also see the emergence of a new type of international school teacher. Typically, teachers in Type A schools will be licensed practitioners back in their home countries and/or have experience of teaching. Whilst this type of teacher can be found in Type C schools, the vast majority (at least in Chinese Internationalised Schools) are not career teachers. Rather, they are what Bailey and Cooker (2019) call ‘Accidental Teachers’. These teachers may not necessarily be qualified teachers, yet they still find employment in Chinese Internationalised Schools, if not always for their professional capital, then certainly for their ‘ethnic capital’, that is, their embodiment and performance of ‘western whiteness.’

I was an Accidental teacher. I did not set out to be a teacher, but by happenstance, I became one. Before my recent transition to the academic arena, I spent ten years teaching in Chinese Internationalised Schools. To return to the analogy of the ‘room sound’, I was in the room with the teachers. I saw the mistakes. It was live, raw and often raucous. In a colleague’s words, teaching was ‘messy business.’ However, as part of my studies and subsequent research, I found that the work I was reading on international school teachers just did not have that same resonance. That immediacy and messiness was absent. I felt this absence most keenly in studies that presented teachers in terms of types or typologies.

I was reading about ‘the Maverick’ (Hardman, 2001), a global traveller or someone seeking to escape from national constraints and other issues in their home country. It is likely that we all know a teacher who fits this description. I was reading about ‘Type A’ , ‘Type B’ and ‘Type C’ teachers (Bailey & Cooker, 2019). Type A teachers see their job as supporting travel and mobility. Type B teachers see their jobs in ideological terms. Type C teachers view their primary attachment as being to the locale in which the international school is situated. I was reading about the ‘adventurer’ (Rey et al., 2020), young teachers who, to escape the debts they had accrued in their home countries, often due to university fees, flee to teach overseas.

However, I was not reading about me or my colleagues. I was not reading about teachers in Chinese Internationalised Schools. Here were we, complex, dynamic and evolving human beings, reduced to a letter or a type. Where did all the experience go? It was like the label or letter was some kind of cookie cutter, trimming away the superfluity of lived experience.

To return to the analogy of The Beatles and their recordings, I could not hear the resonant room sound of our lived experiences in the literature. This absence was partly due to the novelty of Chinese Internationalised Schools, but also due to a paucity of work that critically engages with the International School Teacher experience (Bailey, 2015). These typologies could be thought of as a form of quantizing or auto-tuning that renders the contradiction and messiness of the lived into processed experience. The Accidental teacher (Bailey & Cooker, 2019) label comes close to capturing our experiences, but is not sufficiently nuanced to capture the heterogeneity within our group.

All of this points to the need for researchers to not only listen to the voices of teachers, but also to capture the resonance of their lived experiences. This is what I attempted to do with my recent paper, and what I am planning to develop in an upcoming book, provisionally entitled International Teacher Identities: Examining Internationalised Schooling in Shanghai. If I can retain the energy and vibrancy of teachers’ lived experiences in a form where theory helps to capture rather than smother the resonant room sound of lived experience, then I will have finally produced something that speaks to both teachers and researchers.   

References

Bailey, L. and Cooker, L. (2019). Exploring teacher identity in international schools: Key concepts for research. Journal of Research in International Education, 18(20), 125-141.

Hardman, J. (2001). Improving recruitment and retention of quality overseas teacher. In S. Blandford, & M. Shaw (Eds.), Managing international schools (pp. 123-135). London: Routledge Falmer.

Hayden, M., & Thompson J. J. (2013). International Schools: Antecedents, current issues and metaphors for the future, in R. Pearce (Ed.), International education and schools: Moving beyond the first 40 years (pp. 3-23). London: Bloomsbury.

Pearce, R. (2013). International Education and Schools: Moving Beyond the First 40 Years. London: Bloomsbury.

Poole, A. (2020). Constructing international school teacher identity from lived experience: A fresh conceptual framework. Journal of Research in International Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/1475240920954044

Rey, J. Bolay, M. & Gez, Y. N. (2020). Precarious privilege: personal debt, lifestyle aspirations and mobility among international school teachers. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-13. doi.org/10.1080/14767724.2020.1732193

Author’s bio

Adam is Director of Research in the Institute of Impact Studies in Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU). Along with his colleagues in the institute, Adam is currently developing a project to establish the pedagogical needs of teachers and stakeholders in BFSU International. His research interests include international teachers’ experiences in international schools, teacher professional identity, and developing the funds of identity concept. He is currently writing a book, which explores teachers lived experiences in Chinese Internationalised Schools in more depth. Adam can be reached at tyger106@hotmail.com and via his profile page at Research Gate. His ORCID identification is orcid.org/0000-0001-5948-0705.

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