Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  4

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Efficacy and identification of professional self


Eleanor Peeler and Beverley Jane,  Monash University


Jane, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Primary Science and Technology Education, and Peeler Ed.D. works within International and Primary Education.  At Monash University they work collaboratively on issues relating to mentoring and student wellbeing.   



In this paper we focus on issues identified by immigrant women from language backgrounds other than English, who teach in schools in Victoria, Australia. We show how these women attained proficiency in their new circumstances and how being professional in one’s own mind is closely connected with being perceived as such by students and colleagues. Self-efficacy and identification of self-as-professional are central to classroom practice and student learning.



Immigrant women teachers from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) face many issues when they begin teaching in Victorian schools in Australia. Although employment histories are sparse, the literature suggests that this minority group is severely challenged to adapt in a new educational environment. In many instances, these teachers lack knowledge of local work cultures and are vulnerable to both political and social pressures (Viete, 1999). Not only are their skills and experience under-valued, but colleagues may limit immigrant teachers’ professional articulation, thereby promoting their own superior position (Kamler, Reid, & Santoro, 1999). A barrage of negative forces and implicit racist attitudes can cause extreme insecurity and professional isolation (Santoro, Reid, & Kamler, 2001b) that affect the immigrant teachers’ perceptions of self and self-efficacy. In this paper we report the findings of a recent study (Peeler, 2005) that explored the issues that female immigrant teachers confronted in their new teaching environment. These women’s conversational interview responses reveal how they endeavoured to retain their integrity while identifying their professional self.


Defining self-efficacy

Self-efficacy, the belief a person has in his/her ability to carry out a task, can significantly affect motivation and performance. “An optimistic sense of efficacy fosters psychological well-being and personal accomplishments” (Bandura, 1997:75). People with low self-efficacy believe that failure stems from low ability and such a perception may not easily be reversed. Those with high self-efficacy believe that they can influence and even control their environment, and typically demonstrate the affective characteristic of social efficacy.


A person’s sense of efficacy is immutable, social and situational, in the way it responds and transforms, independently and interdependently, in infinite processes of reconstruction and re-identification. Kostogriz (2004) maintains that situational flows, or other people with whom a person interacts, or are present at a particular time and place, shape the construction of self. A person’s perceptions of self perpetually change and transform, according to each unique interaction and the relationships attained. Efficacy embraces awareness of self (Ivanic, 1998) and through actions and interactions, presents to others the kind of person one is in a variety of situations. For the immigrant teachers in Peeler’s (2005) study, self-efficacy and identification of self-as-professional were central to their classroom practice and student learning.


The challenges facing immigrant teachers

Previous studies have identified that immigrant teachers must bridge any differences in educational cultures, by juxtaposing their own self-knowledge with the social norms of others (LoBianco, 1999).  For immigrant teachers, meeting success on others' terms, or adopting another’s unfamiliar teaching approach, initiates ongoing tension between personal and group positions (Kostogriz, 2002). While trying to maintain their own values, these teachers struggle to understand their new educational culture. Expectations that newcomers must adapt and acculturate to dominant discourses and conventions of social practice, are common (Farrell, 2000) and may be necessary when students’ learning is at stake. Hence, immigrant teachers must acquire appropriate socio-cultural knowledge and suitable teaching techniques if they are to actively engage students in the classroom. However, immigrant teachers’ prior knowledge and experience are frequently under-valued and disqualified. As a result, many immigrant teachers are unable to identify self-as-professional (Kostogriz & Peeler, 2004).


In Victoria, Australia classrooms are multicultural in nature. Despite diverse ethnic blends in the student body, immigrant teachers, comprise only two per cent of teachers (Santoro, Reid, & Kamler, 2001a) and are a minority group. As such, they must contend with language, culture and systems of knowledge that differ vastly from those they previously knew and understood in their home country. While Australia purportedly offers opportunities to immigrant teachers, scepticism about their pasts and their potential, weighs heavily on their attempts to gain acceptance. Censure of their English language competence and credentials, criticism of their teaching style, and not knowing the cultural and social subtleties of teaching, can confuse them and denigrate their morale.


Perceptions of being a teacher, and understanding what teachers do, differ according to a person’s socio-cultural knowledge. Construction of self as a teacher also differs significantly. Immigrant teachers must construct a new sense of being professional, by familiarising themselves with the culture of schooling in order to understand their roles, responsibilities and relationships with students, other teachers and their broader communities. The processes involved in transferring knowledge, re-constructing self as a teacher, and developing a sense of efficacy in their new environment, are not straightforward.


Immigrant women teachers defining self

In Peeler’s (2005) study, eight immigrant women teachers described the process of becoming professional in a new educational culture. They came from a range of cultural and language origins, and had varied teaching experience both overseas and in Australia. Similarly, their ages were diverse, ranging between 25 and 55 years. They taught Mathematics, Information Technology (IT), English as a Second Language (ESL) and various languages other than English (LOTE).


The teachers participated in a series of three conversational interviews held over a twelve-month period. The interviews were conducted in coffee shop venues and data attained formed narrative, poetic texts, in which the teachers recounted historic, political, professional, social, personal and intimate stories. Set within Victoria’s contemporary education system, the stories acted as a social critique, and offered insights into each teacher’s ongoing process of self-definition (Goodson, 1998). The study revealed co-dependence between the teachers’ self-efficacy and identification in the process of navigating change. Their sense of efficacy thus transformed and shifted along a continuum between positive and negative according to the situation and satisfaction in their task performance.


Kim’s story

Kim came to Australia in 1981 over twenty years ago as a refugee. Her teaching areas are TESOL, Mathematics and Information Technology. She was qualified to teach in Vietnam, but needed additional experience to teach in Victoria. Kim explained


I corrected myself … I changed my thinking and changed my method of teaching. She suffered self-doubt and anguish, felt lonely and inadequate, I didn’t really understand much about the system … I felt like quitting the job.


Kim’s story illustrates the tension immigrant teachers often experience, between current and prior understandings. She felt pressured to adjust and become more Australian by substituting new values for familiar ones. Different approaches to teaching and learning are a major concern (Santoro et al., 2001b; Seah & Bishop, 2001), as are teaching methods, roles and status, which can cause controversy with Anglo-Celtic peers (Hickling-Hudson, 1997). According to hierarchical traditions of Confucian Heritage Cultures (CHC), clear social distinctions mark teachers’ professional and social status. Teachers hold authority, prestige and superiority, and demand utmost respect from their students. In contrast, teaching approaches in Australia sway towards Western philosophies (Seah & Bishop, 2001) and teachers must earn their students’ respect.






Nina’s story

Nina’s story supports some of the concerns identified above. She came to Australia from Armenia in 1994 and her teaching area is Mathematics. She recalls feeling tentative about teaching here.

You don’t have sufficient English to comfortably enter a classroom of 26 students who are normally unmotivated.


Mathematics and computers, her specialist areas, have their own language; they are not so language specific as other subjects. Despite the changes in teaching practice Nina realised you are not alone in your own world. In Armenia, teachers are held in the utmost respect, but in Australia Nina found that her self-respect and professional efficacy are initiated by the respect others offer, as she describes below.


Recognising and exploring a new language, new words, new country, and just re-establishing everything you had there, here too. You win respect for your self too, not only from others, it’s respect for yourself too … [it’s] really rewarding to just being given that opportunity to win that respect. It’s not assumed because you look different because you speak differently, it’s not assumed that respect because you are winning that respect every time in your new workplace and your study place or whatever.


Young Mi, Akiko and Aya

Young Mi, Akiko and Aya are teachers of Korean and Japanese LOTE. Each experienced tension and confusion in their Victorian school situations. Young Mi came to Australia in 1997 and her teaching area is Korean LOTE. She was completely confused because her role in the Australian classroom was not clear. Consequently, she had no sense of professional efficacy, nor did others perceive her professional status.


In Korea they’re hierarchy of teachers and students, so like students always follow and respect their teachers, but in Australia there’s not this kind of relationship, so I feel like I don’t know what I have to do, like what I have to cope with this kind of situation.


Akiko arrived in Australia in 2000 as a young teacher of Japanese LOTE. She tells us that in Japan, teachers have a friendly relationship with students, which is central to her construction of being professional. She tried to create a harmonious relationship in her primary classroom in Victoria. However, colleagues considered that the students’ behaviour verged on rudeness. Akiko explains 


In Japan students just call out but teachers don’t really care (laugh) … At first I didn’t realise they are doing something rude in Australian standards to me … I thought they were just being friendly.


‘Doing yard duty’ can be a new experience for immigrant teachers. Sometimes Young Mi felt like a schoolgirl herself, while at other times she felt ridiculed by students. Rather than being friendly places, knowledge communities, such as schools, can thus become hostile environments from which teachers must seek respite, causing their sense of efficacy to be seriously diminished. They are neither seen as professional, nor see themselves as such.


Aya arrived in Australia in 1998 and teaches Japanese LOTE. Aya describes one of several emotional situations she experienced during yard duty.


Often I have to confront with the students … They get quite aggressive … I had to stop fighting among boys, Year 8 boys and Year 9 boys, and I felt really scared … I just went straight back to the staff room and cried. I was really shaking … I don’t feel really safe to go around by myself.


Aya’s ideal was to be a resourceful teacher, who used authentic materials, such as books, photos and magazines, and come up with different ideas for games. Initially, she was happy when she began her first teaching appointment. However, being by myself in class she admits, I really couldn’t teach at all last year.


I just couldn’t do any enjoyable things … I couldn’t get their attention … I felt like there’s this glass or wall in front of me and I almost cried in the class I cried a lot after the class (laugh) … I felt like I was rejected.


Aya now questions her decision to teach in Australia, because her self-esteem and professional efficacy have reached such a low ebb.



Relationships, identification and self-efficacy

Associations with students are central to teacher professional efficacy. However, they are difficult to establish, and delicate to maintain. Relationships are significant in the process of self-development (Gee, 2001) and articulation into a new community. The nature of the relationship affects the ability to share common experiences that potentially lead to a sense of belonging (Alfred 2000). Shared allegiances generate solidarity that aids a person’s articulation of different understandings into new discourse communities. Feeling undervalued can be devastating for immigrant teachers and counters the ideals of multiculturalism that embrace “a sense of self-worth … and optimism for the future … in a socially cohesive and culturally rich society” (DETYA, 1999). In Victorian multicultural schools there is the potential for immigrant teachers to engage students in positive learning experiences by drawing on their personal and cultural knowledge. 


Young Mi, described above, has been unable to confirm her professional status in the eyes of her students, colleagues or herself. She lacks professional and personal efficacy, as well as identity as a teacher. In contrast, Akiko and Aya have been able to establish credibility as teachers of Japanese LOTE in their schools, and are identified as specialists in their field. However, as Aya (above) described, it is not always easy. In Kim’s case, she explains her feelings when she first arrived in this country.


I thought myself I would never become a teacher in Australia, how could I stand in front of the classroom speaking English explaining the lesson, so I gave that idea away.


Fortunately, Kim recognises her own skills and knowledge, so she realises that going back to teaching is easier than starting a new career. At first she suffers self-doubt and anguish, feels lonely and inadequate, I didn’t really understand much about the system [and] felt like quitting the job. She recognises that speaking another language is an advantage so, in time, develops confidence and a positive sense of self, believing that with my talents and with my willingness I can be as good as them (Australian teachers). Kim was able to teach from an ‘undivided self’, which Parker Palmer describes as


an integral state of being central to good teaching. In the undivided self, every major thread of one’s life experience is honoured, creating a weave of such coherence and strength that it can hold students and subject as well as self. Such a self, inwardly integrated, is able to make the outward connections on which good teaching depends. (Palmer, 1998:15)



In Peeler’s (2005) study reported in this paper, it was found that immigrant teachers’ perceptions of efficacy are interdependent on their identification of self as a teacher, and self in relation to various others. Initially, fragile relationships are rife with tension, while in time, greater stability establishes positive self-concepts. In their roles as teachers, the professional status and self-perceptions of these women immigrant teachers were found to be dependent primarily on their relationships with students, but at the same time relations with other members of their community are also significant.



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