The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher

, Volume 27, Issue 6, pp 477–486 | Cite as

Pre-service Teachers’ Professional Identity Development Within the Context of School-Based Learning to Teach: An Exploratory Study in China

  • Qian Zhang
  • Anthony Clarke
  • John Chi Kin Lee
Regular Article


This exploratory study examines the evolving nature of Chinese pre-service teachers’ identity in relation to their experiences of school-based learning to teach during an 8-week internship. The results suggest that the identities of the four Chinese pre-service teachers in this study are anchored by two dimensions: their commitment to teaching and their perception of the teacher’s role. After the internship, the four pre-service teachers’ identities all shifted with respect to these two dimensions. The findings address an issue of potential conceptual confusion about the relationship between identity and learning to teach, which is neither linear nor unidirectional, but reciprocal. Further, the outcomes of this study suggest that there is a need to be more sensitive and responsive to identity shifts as students negotiate the transition from being a pre-service teacher to practicing professional. Lastly, this study conducted in a non-Western professional context, that is, a Chinese Teacher Education and Chinese School context, offers a valuable but missing perspective on teacher identity in the Western literature.


Pre-service teacher Teaching practice Teacher identity China 


It is of international concern to address the increasing attrition rates of beginning teachers in many countries. This issue has placed considerable pressure on teacher preparation institutions (Davies et al. 2016; Guarino et al. 2006; OECD 2013). For example, there are growing calls for more clinical or school-based experiences suggesting that context is central to better preparing young people for the profession. However, a growing literature indicates that a more productive way to frame this issue may be in terms of teacher identity (its evolution and shifts) instead of casting this issue in purely contextual terms (Hobson et al. 2009; Nichols et al. 2016; Schaefer 2013). Supporting this idea, Horvath et al. (2018) research on student teachers (STs) in the United States found that one’s identity as a teacher can predict his or her eventual dedication to teaching. Despite the critical importance of STs’ professional identity, worldwide current teacher education programs demonstrate little sensitivity to the evolution and development of STs’ identity. An underlying cause for this inattention is that there is neither a comprehensive framework for understanding teacher identity (Beauchamp and Thomas 2009; Rodgers and Scott 2008) nor the sufficient empirical findings informing the origins of teacher identity, nor the “identity goals” that we might seek to achieve, nor productive pathways leading to such identity development (Avraamidou 2014; Eren and Söylemez 2017; Izadinia 2013; Lee and Schallert 2016). Although the process by which STs develop their professional identity is poorly understood, some argue that field experience is the key contributor to teacher retention, even more significantly than course work (Horvath et al. 2018; Sinclair 2008; Thomson and Palermo 2014).

Given the worldwide concern for teacher retention and the often untapped potential of field experiences with respect to STs’ identity development, the current study was designed to discern STs’ identity development during their internship or extended practicum. Further, as this study is conducted on the Chinese mainland, it is also a response to the call for empirical studies on STs’ identity from non-Western cultural contexts, which is rare in the extant literature but valuable since the identity is inevitably shaped by the socio-cultural and professional contexts (Izadinia 2013, p. 712; Rodgers and Scott 2008).

Theoretical Underpinnings

Given that the focus of this study is on STs’ identity development during the practicum and assumes that identity is constantly evolving, we draw on a postmodern perspective that views identity as substantively dynamic, multiple, and social (Akkerman and Meijer 2011). Each of these characteristics is addressed below.


From a postmodern perspective, identity is shifting, unstable, and continually changing in response to the question: “Who am I at this moment?” (Beijaard et al. 2004; Rodgers and Scott 2008). This reimagining is the result of an ongoing re-interpretation of one’s past, present, and anticipated future (Cooper and Olson 1996). The seemingly unstable nature of STs’ identity is especially salient in light of STs’ professional practice experiences. Danielewicz (2001) argues that beginning teachers’ identities exist in “volatile states of construction or reconstruction, reformation or erosion, addition or expansion” (p. 10) as determined by those experiences. Leaving STs’ identity to evolve and develop by itself is insufficient to ensure STs’ professional growth as educators. Therefore, it is necessary to attend to STs’ identity work in relationship to learning to teach contexts.


All people have multiple identities connected to their engagement with and in society (Gee 1990, p. 99). This multiplicity helps explain the struggles teachers go through in making sense of varying perspectives, relationships, expectations, and roles that they confront as beginning teachers (Arvaja 2016; Sachs 2016). These multiple identities can be conflicted or even oppositional, especially for STs, because their sense making as educators has just begun. Teacher identity development is the process of continuous construction, negotiation, and change until a relatively coherent identity emerges (Connolly et al. 2018; Day et al. 2006). Although we found this perspective helpful in understanding identity development, there are yet unanswered and critical questions as to what kind of coherent identity should be pursued and how we can facilitate that process.


The social nature of identity means that identity is constructed and developed through the negotiation of roles within particular social contexts (Hong et al. 2017). Gee (1990) uses the term “socially situated identity” to illustrate this dimension of identity (p. 99). Research shows that how teachers are directly connected with and essentially defined by a number of social factors (Avraamidou 2014). So developing a professional identity is an extremely social and context-dependent process (Ruhotie-Lyhty and Moate 2016). For STs’ identity development, the practicum has been identified by empirical studies as a vital social context that contributes more than any other context of a teacher education program to that development (Horvath et al. 2018; Sinclair 2008; Thomson and Palermo 2014).

Therefore, framed by these postmodern views on identity, the present study focuses on how and why Chinese STs’ professional identity evolves over the course of their internship. From this perspective, ‘school-based learning to teach’ in this study is understood as a process in which student teachers both experience the practice of teaching and give meaning to their practical experiences during that experience. Further, the working definition of STs’ professional identity in this study is their sense of ‘self’ in relation to teaching profession (Avraamidou 2014; Timoštšuk and Ugaste 2010).

Teacher Education in China

As noted above, the process of STs’ identity development cannot be understood without taking into account the context where it takes place. For this study, it is not just the specific spatio-temporal context of the practicum but also the broader socio-historical and political context of teacher education, in this instance, mainland, China.

Teachers’ Social Status in China

There are major differences across countries in the way teachers are perceived by the public. This impacts those who decide to become a teacher. According to the 2013 Global Teacher Status Index, among the 21 surveyed countries China’s teachers are ranked first (Dolton and Marcenaro-Gutierrez 2013). The US, UK, and France ranked 9, 10, and 11, respectively. This survey provides important insights into how particular societies regard teaching. Further, this Index shows that two-thirds of the 21 countries surveyed see the status of their teachers as being most similar to social work (i.e., lowly ranked compared to other professions). Only in China are teachers ranked as being on the same level as the medical practitioners.

It follows that parents in countries that hold teachers in high respect are more likely to encourage their children to enter the profession. This is the case in China where 50% of parents actively encourage their children to become teachers. This ratio is much less in other countries, for example, only 8% of parents do so in Israel (Dolton and Marcenaro-Gutierrez 2013). The origin of this phenomenon in China is the deeply embedded belief that education provides individuals with a competitive advantage as they strive for desirable social position and status. Specifically, the ancient Chinese Imperial Examination ensured that everyone had a fair opportunity to become a scholar-official in early China. As a result, even many years later, in China, teachers at all levels of the educational system are highly respected and possess considerable socio-political status.

Teacher Preparation in China

Given teachers’ high social status in China, teacher education programs have always been attractive to Chinese students. In addition, to ensure teacher quality, the Chinese government has granted teacher education programs (typically situated in important Normal Universities) admission priority over other faculties to extend early placement offers as a way of attracting outstanding students. This means that Chinese teacher education programs enjoy an important recruiting advantage compared to other professions. This strategy has been proved to be very effective in attracting large numbers of teacher candidates into Education faculties (Wang and Gao 2013).

After admission, the majority of beginning teachers enter into a concurrent model of teacher preparation. In contrast to the consecutive teacher education model which has been adopted by the most OECD countries, the concurrent model means that STs acquire academic knowledge alongside professional knowledge throughout their teacher education degrees (Musset 2010). The concurrent model can be more constraining because it requires students to decide whether they want to pursue a career in teaching at the very outset of their universities studies (i.e., in their first year of study). In contrast, the consecutive model means that students do not need to decide upon teaching as their chosen profession until they have completed a degree in their academic content areas. These socio-historical and politic-institutional factors (e.g., teachers’ high social status in China, parents’ encouragement, teacher education programs’ admission priority, and the concurrent TE model) are important in any attempt to understand the context of Chinese teacher education and the students who pursue teaching as a profession.

The Study

Given that, in general, there is very little research on Chinese teacher identity development in either the East or West, and, in particular the uniqueness of Chinese Teacher education context, this study is deliberately exploratory in nature. As such, it focuses on a small number of Chinese pre-service teachers and is guided by the following questions:
  1. 1.

    How do Chinese student teachers initially perceive their identity as a teacher?

  2. 2.

    What happens to Chinese student teachers’ professional identities over the course of a school-based learning to teach experience?

  3. 3.

    What are the main factors influencing the development of and change in their identity?


Setting and Participants

All four participants were chosen from the same normal university. Further, according the literature, we assumed different placement schools and different teaching subjects would offer different insights into identity evolution and development (Beijaard 1995; Burn 2007). Therefore, the internship placements were chosen to provide a degree of variety from which to consider the evolution of teacher identity.

With these basic ‘sampling’ criteria, a provincial normal university in southern China was selected. This program requires their students to participate in an eight-week teaching practicum in placement schools during their fourth and final year of study. Schools A and B were then chosen from a number of placement schools identified by the university. Lastly, the four participants, Amy, Ben, Cindy, and David (all pseudonyms), were selected from the two student teacher groups, one group of 15 in school A and one group of 12 in school B, with consideration given to gender balance, subjects taught, and also their willingness to participate in this study. Amy and Ben were from School A, Cindy and David from School B. Amy and Cindy specialized in Math and English, respectively, both of which are classified as examination subjects in China; Ben and David majored in Music and General Technique, respectively, both of which are classified as non-examination subjects.

Data Collection and Analysis

To explore the STs’ identity evolution and development, semi-structured interviews were conducted during three phases of the practicum. During Phase I (week 1), participants were asked about their understandings of teaching and of the teacher’s role, their aspirations, and their expectations for teaching as a career. Their identity construction at this point is hereafter labeled as their “entry identity.” During phase II (weeks 4–5), participants were asked about their experiences during the practicum, for example, the highs and lows of their experiences, their overall participation in the school, the supports and hindrances encountered. This phase provided insight into how and why their identity was evolving as teachers. For Phase III (week 8), the focus of the interviews returned more directly to participants’ identities as teachers (using questions similar to Phase I). Their identity construction at this point is labeled as their “exit identity.” To broaden our understanding of the participants’ experiences, observations of the participants’ teaching (two per participant) and field notes of ‘corridor conversations’ between the participants and the principal author (between two and five conversations per participant) also became part of the data corpus. In addition, interviews with the university-assigned liaison teachers and school-based mentors at the end of the practicum helped the researchers to better understand contextual features of the practicum that the beginning teachers referred to during the study.

Analyses of the data were performed in a recursive, iterative manner. As the interview transcripts were read and re-read, salient themes and tentative categories were constructed (Strauss and Corbin 1990). To increase the reliability of the data analysis, two researchers (the principal author and an independent researcher) independently read through and coded the transcripts from one participant and identified key emergent themes. The two researchers then shared their interpretations. There was sufficient consistency between the researchers’ interpretations to ensure confidence in the subsequent analysis of the data by the principal researcher. Other than the relationship constructed through this research itself, the researchers were outsiders to the B.Ed. program in question and had no previous relationship with participants or with the placement schools.


The results are reported in two parts: first, a brief overview of each participant’s practicum; and, second, a direct response to the three research questions.

An Overview of Each Participant’s Practicum

Amy: Passionate Pursuer

Amy had long been interested in teaching, although her parents would have preferred that she had entered a health sciences programs (e.g., Medicine) because of her consistently high academic scores in high school. However, Amy’s admiration for one of her teachers and her encounter with some high school teachers who unfairly treated some of her peers (because of their poor academic performance) firmed her determination to be a teacher. In her words, “I want to be a teacher who would help ‘less able’ students and assure them that I am not the teacher who judges students only by their test scores.” In her first interview, she described the teacher’s role as:

A good teacher can never be reduced to skills to improve pupil’s academic scores. The higher priority for teachers should be making a difference in a pupil’s life. … Being a teacher, the belief in and the attitude to pupils are most important, instead, the instruction is less important. (Amy, Phase I)

Amy had no illusions about the challenges of the teaching practicum: “I knew the practicum would be demanding and possibly exhausting. But if I were recognized by my mentor and pupils as a competent teacher, that would be reward enough” (Amy, Phase I).

Four weeks into the practicum she noted that she was exceptionally lucky to be placed in a “great” school where “people welcomed STs wholeheartedly.” Furthermore, she was assigned to a “nice but very strict” mentor who was an excellent Mathematics teacher and “willing to gradually push her” into becoming a good teacher. Her close rapport with her students and the cooperation of the other teaching staff were the “highs” in her practicum. On the otherhand, some lows included: “I spent the whole week to prepare the lesson but in the actual class I missed the key teaching points. … It’s really frustrating” (Amy, Phase II). At the end of the practicum, she commented upon her experience as being “fruitful” and “brilliant,” and emphasized that her practicum had proved teaching was the career she “was supposed to do.” She noted that: “It is really strenuous… but it is so rewarding when you have your own class and have some kind of ability or magic to influence them…” (Amy, Phase III).

When reflecting on her thoughts before the practicum, she realized that she had become more pragmatic in her outlook:

I was probably a bit idealistic about what I thought teacher should be … you know, someone like Mother Teresa. Now I know if you want to be recognized as a good teacher, you first should prove yourself through making a difference at least in pupils’ academic performance. For your pupils you need to help them pass the highly competitive college entrance examination. It’s cruel but true. (Amy, Phase III)

Amy insisted that this shift in her perception of the teacher’s role, rooted in the Chinese education reality, did not diminish her passion for teaching. She noted that she would make every effort to strike a balance between the broader educative goals and narrower exam-driven pressures she encountered during her practicum.

Ben: Pragmatic Switcher

Ben entered the same placement school as Amy, School A, but never viewed teaching as a life-long career. He felt the practicum was an opportunity to experience what teachers do and learn some new skills as a gateway to other professions:

Teaching is not my chosen career though I totally agree teaching and teachers are just great. As a job, it’s not bad and even meaningful. …I prefer the analogy of “gardening” to describe teaching art, because as a teacher, you should make sure all your students grow well and uprightly, so you cultivate the good part, and cut off the bad…. However, the high social status and satisfying salary were the main reasons for my [rural] family to persuade me to enter the teacher education program. …I myself chose the TE programs as a trade-off because I thought the major of educational technology would offer the possibility to enter other, more challenging, professions with a technology emphasis. … (Ben, Phase I)

A month later, Ben found the “free” yet “warm-hearted” school climate made teaching more enjoyable than he anticipated.

I appreciate my mentor for giving me a lot of chances to practice teaching with no special requirement, like lesson observation, for me. However, I’d rather to spend more time on some admin stuff than on the teaching. …it [the admin stuff] can help me enter into another profession 1 day. (Ben, Phase II)

At the end of the practicum, Ben started to consider teaching more seriously as his principal career option:

I guess if I was about 50% willing to become a teacher prior to the practicum, now it has risen to 60%-70% because the eight weeks of practicum life was enjoyable. … Teachers who really care about pupils will always be popular. In contrast, those who just think about how to impart knowledge effectively may be disregarded by pupils. (Ben, Phase III)

Cindy: Indecisive surrenderer

Cindy’s practicum took place in School B. She chose teacher education mostly because her marks throughout high school were: (1) not good enough for entry to her preferred university program (i.e., computer science); and (2) because of her rural parents’ desire for her to be a teacher. Reluctant to pursue teaching as a career, she was not very excited about entering the teacher education program:

I was just left with no other (career) choice (such as business or foreign trade) resulting in poor academic performance at school. … So you see, it is important for a school teacher to help his or her students achieve high marks. If teacher fails, his students will not succeed in pursuing their preferred careers. I am the case in point for this rule. (Cindy, Phase I)

Surrendering unenthusiastically to both her limited career options and parental pressure, Cindy’s practicum was a “disaster” (Cindy, Corridor conversation).

My needs and concern are always my mentor’s lowest priority. She is busy with her class, her lessons, her classroom discipline, and her daily school book exercise correction … For her, I am a passerby, free labor, who can help her out with her massive workload. … Everyday when I was flooded by the piles of student exercises, I feel isolated, tired and disappointed. (Cindy, Phase II)


My mentor seems to never let go of her class, and like ‘No, they’re mine!’ … When I finally got a chance to deliver my first class, there was no constructive feedback at all. … School B is just terrible. What I can feel in School B is all about the competition, accountability, discipline, test-oriented education… Everybody here including teachers are inevitably under the pressure of this kind of culture. (Cindy, Phase III)

However, Cindy did come away from the experience with an important insight:

My mentor made me realize that what the students need is not a teaching machine but a person with emotion who really cares about them and guides them through the highs and lows of school life, to help them to be confident. (Cindy, Phase III)

At the end of the practicum, Cindy had begun to think differently about the role of the teacher which included a more relational and pedagogical understanding. However, her misgivings about teaching were reinforced by her disappointing practicum experience.

David: Determined Leaver

David, a budding musician, was placed in School B with the coordinator of music as his mentor. He had no interest in pursuing teaching as a career option and hoped to eventually work in the music industry. Teaching was a fall-back option:

I had no definite idea about my future career after the college entrance examination. My parents told me that teaching would be a secure choice, promising a fall-back option if other options did not work out. … Now, I believe [being a music teacher] is more suitable for those who possess less music expertise and lower expectation for salary. … Also teachers should have natural affinity for children and be good at communicating with them. Otherwise you can’t influence and guide them. That’s not me. Therefore I can never be a good teacher. (David, Phase I)

Since David was not committed to teaching, he was not prepared for the high expectations of his very “strict” mentor and the demanding school climate he encountered.

[My mentor] was too strict and had higher requirements than other mentors here. I was required to observe her class and deliver my lessons at least three times a week …I had to spend a lot of time working on this practicum which was out of my plan. …We were placed in a ‘prison’ full of disciplines and obligations. The school even restricted contact with the pupils after class. (David, Phase II)

However, David admitted his opinion of the teacher’s role changed because of the practicum.

I realized that teaching is not as easy as I had thought. The experience here, especially the feedback from my mentor, has made me learn about what is needed to be a good teacher. To deliver a lesson effectively not only requires, in my case, basic music knowledge, but also didactical expertise which can only be accumulated from practice. (David, Phase III)

David’s awakening to the reality of teaching concludes this brief overview of each student’s practicum. The following analysis reveals more fully about why and how their identity evolves.

Research Question 1: How Do Chinese Student Teachers Initially Perceive Their Identity as a Teacher?

To understand their emerging professional identity, we elicited their response by asking questions, such as: “Whether and Why you want to be a teacher,” “What kind of teacher you want to be?”, “What it means to be a teacher,” “How do you (and others) view yourself as a teacher” at different points in the practicum. Their answers converge around two key or anchoring points that seemed to underpin their professional identity evolution and development. One is aspiration for or commitment to the teaching profession (Why I want to be a teacher). The second is the role(s) they will be playing as teachers (What teaching involves and what obligations go hand-in-hand with teaching).

For the STs in this study, the fundamental issue that emerged (not unexpectedly) was their relationship to the profession. For Amy, to become a teacher was her earnest desire from an early age. So her entry professional identity, first and foremost, was as a determined and passionate pursuer of the teaching profession. David was also determined: a determined leaver. Ben and Cindy largely viewed teaching as a fall-back position. The difference was Ben seemed to benefit from his practicum experience in positive ways, whereas Cindy seemed mostly resigned to her ‘fate’ as something that was predetermined and over which she had little control. Therefore, these two STs are labeled as pragmatic switcher and indecisive surrenderer.

While Amy exemplified the high level of commitment to teaching, Ben and Cindy’s initial commitment was perfunctory at best; David was quite explicit about his lack of commitment to teaching. Although not all STs were highly committed to teaching, they all had an image of a good teacher as their guide. All participants confirmed that a good teacher is the one that can “make a difference” in their pupils’ lives though they varied in defining that “difference.” At the outset of the practicum, Amy, Ben, and David saw the difference as being largely relational and in terms of making a change in the students’ social, emotional, and moral well-being. For Cindy, the difference was about making a difference in terms of students’ academic performance. These two anchoring points—commitment to teaching and perception of teacher’s role—resonate with previous Western studies of teacher identity (Beijarrd et al. 2000; Eren and Söylemez 2017; Löfström et al. 2010).

Research Questions 2: What Happened to Chinese Student Teachers’ Professional Identities Over the Course of a School-Based Learning to Teach Experience?

Our data indicate that the STs’ entry and exit identities shifted over the course of the practicum with either (1) strengthened or weakened commitment to teaching; and (2) a greater or lesser emphasis on the primacy of academic achievement versus relationships in their perception of teacher’s role. The respective quotes from participants supporting this argument have been highlighted in italics in Sect. 5.1. Here, we just give a very brief summary of the shifts. Amy and David achieved a more balanced role perception. However, while Amy’s commitment to teaching was strengthened, David’s remained consistently weak. Cindy was even more hesitant to enter teaching profession, but at the same time, she learned more about the complexity of teaching and developed a more balanced role perception. Ben kept his incoming polarized role perception but possessed higher commitment. In short, our findings confirm that the practicum has a significant effect on ST’s identity (Sinclair 2008; Trent 2010) but the effect may not always be positive in terms of these two identified dimensions.

To depict the trajectories of participants’ identity evolution and development, we charted the changes on a two-dimensional grid where the horizontal axis represents the ST’s perception of the role of teacher (at one end there is an emphasis on academic achievement and at the other an emphasis on relationships) and the vertical axis represents the ST’s commitment to the profession (ranging from weak to strong) (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Shifts in the student teachers’ professional identity from the beginning to the end of the practicum. The shaded area represents the desired identity ‘location’ for those wishing to take up teaching: high commitment and a balanced role perception

In Fig. 1, our participants’ identity development trajectory can be seen as shifting in different directions over the course of the practicum. As such, the grid provides a simple but useful analytical aid for thinking about STs’ identity shifts: entry and exit points and the directional shift over time. Moreover, with the grid, it is easy to locate participants in relation to a suggested “identity goal” (the shaded area in the figure illustrating high commitment and a balanced role perception). Although we indicate a directionality in terms of identity development, we understand that identity development is neither linear nor simple but complex. The linearity of identity development for our four students is an artifact of plotting the entry and exit points for each of the four STs.

Research Question 3: What are the Main Factors Influencing the Development of and Change in Their Identity?

As noted above, all participants entered the practicum with incoming beliefs about “what is means to be a teacher” (entry identity), which were used to frame, guide, and justify how they approached and reacted to the context in which they found themselves. Our data indicate that the entry identities are related to participants’ initial reasons for embarking on teaching as a profession. Questions about future employment evoked all the participants’ memories of their initial reasons for entering program. It is notable that three of the four participants entered the teacher education program primarily because of their parental expectations instead of their desire to do so. In this sense, parental expectations had a large influence on their entry identity in terms of professional commitment. This finding should be understood in the context of Chinese society, which is heavily influenced by respect for and obedience to one’s parents (Beauregard 2008).

Unlike the biographical factors that impacted entry identities, contextual factors play a mediating role in STs’ identity development by offering them learning opportunities and role scripts, bringing them classroom experiences and triggering reflection in and on the teaching profession. Among the diversified contextual factors that emerged, mentor and school culture stand out and became recurring themes for participants’ lived experiences of school-based learning to teach. For example, Amy valued lesson templates as important learning opportunity offered by her mentor and the feedback she got from her mentor after that. She recalled how the experience and the feedback challenged and finally changed her understanding of the teacher’s role in the classroom. “The comments and questions (from her mentor) really made me think a lot about the role of the teacher in the class. I have been told a teacher should be learning facilitator (not just lecturing). But when I were there, I just can’t really take care of my students’ learning needs, instead, I tried so hard to finish my teaching plan.” However, Cindy was not so lucky to have that kind of learning opportunity and helpful feedback, but nonetheless changed her role perception because of her mentor’s role performance: “my mentor made me realize that what the students need is not a teaching machine but a person with emotion who really cares about them and guides them through the highs and lows of school life, to help them to be confident.” Further, lack of support from her mentor, unsatisfied hunger for practicing teaching, and unreasonable workload made Cindy feel ‘isolated, tired and disappointed’ and finally caused her lower commitment to teaching profession. Our data indicated that how mentors assign tasks, support, and give feedback to their student teachers, encourage, and guide their student teachers’ reflection have a great influence on the shaping and reshaping of student teachers’ emerging identity.

School B’s environment is another reason that helps explain Cindy’s disappointment with her school-based learning to teach experience. In fact, school B was later accused of providing limited classroom teaching experience thereby restricting student teachers’ interaction with pupils. In these circumstances, student teachers cannot “feel the calling” and feel like they are situated in “a prison full of disciplines and obligations.” In that school environment, Cindy and David’s professional identities seem to have been negatively impacted. On the contrary, the collegial school ethos in school A made Amy and Ben feel welcomed and supported, which was reported as the main cause of Amy and Ben’s enjoyment for teaching and firmer commitment to teaching. An environment of inclusion and support has also been identified in Western studies (Hobson et al. 2009; Johnson 2003) as one of the undoubtedly contributory factors associated with STs’ positive development of a strong professional teaching identity.

Discussion and Implications for Teacher Education

This study provides a window into how Chinese STs develop their professional identity over the course of an eight-week teaching internship or practicum. Two key dimensions of that development were identified in this study: commitment to teaching and perception of the role of teacher. The STs’ identities all shifted during the practicum with respect to these two dimensions, but the desirable outcomes (strong professional commitment and balanced role perception) can only be achieved with the positive influences from their prior experiences and current professional context. Some inspirations for future study and implications for teacher education to facilitate student teachers’ professional identity development, drawn from the findings, are outlined below.

First, the two-dimensional framework for teachers’ professional identity development helps to capture and better characterizing identity shifts during field-based experiences, and could provide a way of approaching longitudinal research on teachers’ identity. Mapping identity shifts overtime could be very instructive, particularly in light of teacher retention within or loss from the profession.

With the proposed framework, identity shifts can be more explicitly articulated, something which has been a challenge for researchers exploring identity (Beauchamp and Thomas 2009). This study presented four forms of identity shift, each illustrating either a strengthening or weakening professional commitment, and a more balanced or polarized role perception. This is supported by research from other contexts and countries. For example, professional commitment has been identified as one of the key components of student teachers’ identity in the studies from the US and Europe (Hong 2010; Lamote and Engels 2010; Day and Gu 2007). Beijarrd et al.’s (2000) and Löfström et al.’s (2010) studies also confirm role perception as an important dimension of professional identity development. This study brings these two together in important ways as illustrated by the proposed two-dimensional framework.

Second, the findings bring some clarity to the conceptual confusion about the relationship between student teachers’ learning to teach and identity development (Luehmann 2007; Nichols et al. 2016), and demonstrate that identity development is a complex process which is influenced by the interactions between STs’ entry identity and the situated contexts in which they find themselves. The practicum is commonly reported as impacting positively on STs’ identity development (Sinclair 2008). However, the relationship between school-based learning to teach and identity development is often implicitly understood and shared with STs as a linear and unidirectional process (Luehmann 2007). Moreover, most studies only focus on the positive changes of STs’ identity shifts (Izadinia 2013). However, this study followed the STs’ learning trajectory (both positive and negative) and presented the possible counterproductive effect of school-based learning to teach. By looking into what happened with identity, this study found that, on the one hand, STs’ entry identities can act as motivator or demotivator for STs’ professional identity development. On the other hand, the experiences of school-based learning to teach allowed for a ‘trying on’ of a new identity within a community of practice, which may trigger deeper reflection, questioning, and adjustment of entry identities in terms of ‘self as teacher.’ These findings indicated that learning and identity are mutually reinforcing and inextricably linked to each other through an ongoing multidirectional, transactional process and help address conceptual confusion about the relationship between identity and learning to teach (Luehmann 2007).

These findings also hold important implications for teacher preparation and suggest that it is critical to examine and respond to pre-service teachers’ entering identities as early as possible to maximize the contribution of teacher education experience. Further, the differences among entry identities, as illustrated in this study, require both university and school-based supervisors to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” strategy; in short, there are implications for tailoring guidance and support to the unique and evolving identities of the pre-service teachers. In addition to working on entry identity, teacher educators should be sensitive to the contextual factors that promote or hinder the evolution and development of a beginning teacher’s professional identity. Our data suggest that support and feedback from mentor in concert with a collegial school ethos are important components for a ST’s identity development. However, in general, there is still much to learn about the nature and characteristic of the practicum contexts in terms of their impact upon STs’ identities (Avraamidou 2014; Izadinia 2013). Future research that investigate the roles of the various contexts in which STs learn will allow us to begin to address the impact of these contexts (i.e., teacher preparation context, field experience context, micro-teaching context).

Lastly, the study discerns a notable feature of Chinese pre-service teacher’s identity. Although this is a very small sample, it was interesting that three of the four participants entered their programs with uncertain aspirations for teaching. This finding is consistent with a similar study by Su et al. (2001) who note that “only 12% of the Chinese teacher candidates versus 51% of the American education students were committed to teaching as a lifelong career” (p. 625). The findings from our study suggest that parental pressure and the early offer of admittance to teacher education (before other program offers are made) are two factors that may partly explain the relatively low entry-level commitment to teaching. With regard to parental pressure, as mentioned earlier, 50% of Chinese parents encourage their children to become teachers. In contrast, for example, less than 20% of Germany parents and only 8% of Israel parents do so (Dolton and Marcenaro-Gutierrez 2013). Further, given the highly competitive nature of university entrance in China, an early offer from teacher education program is quite attractive. Obviously, both of the these motivations are extrinsic in nature (Sinclair 2008), so it may come as no surprise that a larger than might be expected number of Chinese STs’ commitment to teaching is potentially weak upon entry. A recent survey also supported this claim that a ‘love of teaching’ is only mentioned by 36% of Chinese STs as one of the main reasons for entering teaching (Sui 2013). The statistic stands in contrast to well over 50% in North America (Zumwalt and Craig 2005). We believe that more focused empirical studies are needed to investigate this rarely examined phenomenon in Chinese teacher education. So far, our findings suggest Chinese teacher education policy and programs need to consider strategies that attract suitably motivated teacher candidates who have a greater intrinsic desire to become teachers, since STs’ entry motivations are relative stable and could decide their desire to purse teaching as a profession (Sinclair 2008).



This paper is based on the Ph.D. study, supervised by Prof. N. Y. Wong of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, of the principal author.


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Copyright information

© De La Salle University 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationCapital Normal UniversityBeijingChina
  2. 2.Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of EducationUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.Department of Curriculum and InstructionThe Education University of Hong KongTai PoHong Kong

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