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Understanding Professional Community and Professional Identity Through The Experiences Of Bahraini Teachers Working With British Teachers In A Partnership Project.

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Abstract

This paper is an exploration into the nature of the professional community that is formed when teachers from different nations work together. The research presented here consists of the findings from a small-scale exploratory case study that is the scoping study for a larger piece of research on this same theme. This larger piece of research is my doctoral study that I am currently undertaking at Cambridge University. This paper specifically involves the presentation of data drawn from interviews with teachers from Bahrain who have been involved in working with teachers from Britain via programmes run by the British Council and others. In this paper I discuss how identity is constructed within a professional community that crosses national boundaries. I conclude by suggesting that teachers who are working with colleagues from other nations build their professional identity together in innovative and exploratory ways. I also suggest that they actively construct professional communities with these colleagues and that they find this rewarding and significant. This paper responds to several of the identified themes of the ECER Conference 2015. These include ‘ways in which teachers learn and develop throughout their professional career’. In relation to this, this paper also addresses issues around the conference title 'education and transition'.
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Understanding Professional Community and Professional Identity Through
The Experiences Of Bahraini Teachers Working With British Teachers In
A Partnership Project.
James Underwood
University of Northampton
and
University of Cambridge, Wolfson College
Presented
at
The European Conference on Educational Research (ECER)
Corvinus University, Budapest, 9th September 2015
‘Education and Transition - Contributions from Educational Research’
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ABSTRACT
This paper is an exploration into the nature of the professional community that is formed
when teachers from different nations work together. The research presented here consists of
the findings from a small-scale exploratory case study that is the scoping study for a larger
piece of research on this same theme. This larger piece of research is my doctoral study that I
am currently undertaking at Cambridge University. This paper specifically involves the
presentation of data drawn from interviews with teachers from Bahrain who have been
involved in working with teachers from Britain via programmes run by the British Council
and others. In this paper I discuss how identity is constructed within a professional
community that crosses national boundaries. I conclude by suggesting that teachers who are
working with colleagues from other nations build their professional identity together in
innovative and exploratory ways. I also suggest that they actively construct professional
communities with these colleagues and that they find this rewarding and significant.
This paper responds to several of the identified themes of the ECER Conference 2015. These
include ‘ways in which teachers learn and develop throughout their professional career’. In
relation to this, this paper also addresses issues around the conference title 'education and
transition'.
KEYWORDS: community of practice, teacher leadership, professional community,
professional identity
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Introduction
In preparation for my doctoral study I conducted a scoping study in which I interviewed four
teachers from Bahrain who over a number of years have been engaged in teacher networking
via programmes arranged by the British Council. The purpose of this scoping study was to
initially explore the ways that involvement in international networking had shaped their
professional identity and their perceptions of the professional communities that they defined
themselves as belonging to. The research questions for this specific conference paper, in
which I discuss the data from these interviews, are as follows:
do teachers who are engaging in networking programmes that cross national
boundaries perceive themselves as belonging to a community of fellow professionals?
if so how do they define this community?
in what ways, if any, does participation in such projects or programmes shape their
professional identity?
This paper is presented in two parts. In the first part I discuss the methodology that informs
this paper. In the second part I discuss the data from the interviews using the five most
dominant themes that emerged during the process of data analysis as sub-titles with which to
structure this section. I then return directly to my research questions in my conclusion.
Part 1: Methodology
In the following paragraphs I describe my approach to data collection and data analysis for
this paper, in the following order: the data collection instrument, then the sampling process
and finally the method of data analysis.
The data collection instrument
The method of collecting data for this scoping study was semi-structured interviews. The
instrument was a first iteration of the interview schedule that I intended to use for my
doctoral research. This is included as an appendix to this paper. This schedule consisted of a
short list of questions and topics that I wished to raise. At the start of the interview the
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interviewees were also asked to draw a diagram in any form illustrating the professional
communities that they perceived themselves as belonging to. There was one exception to this
as one interview was conducted by voice only via skype.
The sample and population
The method for choosing the sample was largely opportunistic. The only requirements I had
for the participants were that they were practising teachers who had been involved in
formally arranged international partnership projects; also that they could speak fluent
English, thereby enabling me to conduct the interviews in English. However, their prior
involvement in such projects meant that as a corollary they may have shared some distinct
characteristics which might not be shared by the wider community of teachers in or
internationally. This is discussed further later on in this paper.
The following teachers were interviewed, names have been changed.
Tawheeda (teaching in a girls secondary school)
Mariam (teaching in a girls secondary school)
Habib (teaching in a boys secondary school)
Anwar (teaching in a boys secondary school)
All these teachers teach in large secondary schools in Bahrain. Within their schools at the
time of interview all held the post of international coordinator and therefore had
responsibility for coordinating all international partnership projects within their school. In all
cases this post was initially created in response to engagement with the Connecting
Classrooms Programme run by the British Council, which connected their school with
schools and teachers in the UK. However, in all cases the intention with the post was that the
teachers would perceive of it as having a broader scope than simply being to develop this
single project. It was intended that they would actively seek to become involved in and
potentially lead the school in terms of other international programmes.
The Connecting Classrooms Programme at that time was a large partnering programme run
by The British Council that linked 150 British teachers in each new cohort, each year with
150 partner teachers from the Gulf States. Each partnership was planned to last three years
and included a yearly exchange visit to each school by the teachers involved. It was also
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expected that teachers would work together both long distance via the internet and across the
schools they work in to develop shared lesson planning within at least some subjects.
It may therefore be reasonable to presume that these teachers who had chosen the post of
international coordinator, with specific reference to a large British government project may
be people who already perceived themselves as belonging to an international community of
teachers and who also have a specific interest in education as it is practised in Western
nations. This is referred to below when discussing the responses that they gave in interview.
Finally, it should be noted that three of the interviewees are English teachers and one (Habib)
is a maths teacher. As all the teachers come from just one country, Bahrain, it is not possible
to do more than suggest that some concepts that would emerge through these interviews
would re-emerge in other contexts where international teacher networking is taking place.
However, my intention is not to reach broadly generalisable conclusions but in the case of
this specific conference paper, it is rather to generate and contribute to discussion (Robson,
2012).
Data analysis
The interviews were transcribed and coded using NVIVO. The codes that emerged are
discussed in far greater detail below. The second part of this paper is presented under five
subheadings relating to five of the themes that emerged from the analysis of the interviews. I
return to the research questions in the conclusion.
Part 2: a discussion of the interviews
In this section I identify themes that emerged from these interviews. I have discussed these
under five sub-titles that were generated by my analysis of the interviews.
Learning new teaching strategies
I was interested in the role learning classroom strategies would have for teachers for a series
of reasons. Firstly, because it can be argued that it is through the sharing of practice that
teaching moves from being an artisan or craft-based activity to a profession (Frost, 2011).
Also because, I wanted to know whether there was a perception that English or Western
teaching could provide a model of potential good practice and whether this was a reason for
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involvement in working with British teachers. I also wanted to explore whether perceptions
of education in the West, which I expected among these particular participants to be positive,
would mean that there was a stronger or weaker sense of shared professional community with
their British colleagues. Therefore although I was interested in the sub-division of codes that
would emerge from within the boundaries of this broader theme, this was also a theme that
was inserted into the interview process. Therefore it should be noted that this particular code
was predicted rather than found through an inductive process.
All the teachers discussed at length issues around bringing teaching strategies into their own
classrooms from the West. Tawheeda’s first response confirmed my expectations that there
would be a sense in which these teachers from Bahrain would have a very positive perhaps
even an idealistic image of teaching in the West. Meanwhile, the most telling phrase within
Mariam’s answers was the repeated use of “Western teaching methods” to describe more
flexible approaches. This phrase was also used by all the other Bahraini teachers to describe
teaching practice which they considered to be particularly innovative. However, in expanding
their answers a more complex picture developed. Although they defined innovative teaching
with the term ‘Western’, it emerged that their most creative ideas had in fact been their own
or had been inspired by ‘Western’ ideas learned from Bahraini colleagues. I therefore remain
unsure as to why such methods are perceived by them as Western methods rather than simply
good Bahraini practice and also whether ‘Western’ was being used as a synonym for
innovative with no real connection to the geographic West.
If this is the case it could indicate that there is a greater commonality amongst teaching
professionals across nations than might be expected and that differences in teaching practice
between many nations may be more nuanced than I had originally thought it would be. It
could also potentially indicate that part of the professional identity of some teachers could be
a perception of themselves as innovative teachers and even part of a sub-community of such
professionals. If this is the case it could be a significant motivating factor for working with
teachers from other cultures, an experience which they had all found to be very positive.
However, it could also indicate that this definition of professional identity may be dependent
on a defined other group of non-innovative teachers and that as the geographical boundaries
for those teachers that we define as belonging to the same community of practice widens,
other boundaries narrow its membership in other terms. It may be that in exploring this
further Wenger’s definition of a community of practice may prove to be a useful conceptual
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lens Wenger (1999) defines ‘a community of practice’ as an entity which is more tight-knit
and has a stronger identity than may be implied by the term professional community.
However, it may be as he suggests that integration into such a community can only occur
when boundaries that define those outside as well as inside are created and shared by its
members.
Reflection
Three of the participants referred to reflection as something which defined the community of
teachers that they belong to with the use of the word ‘reflection’ in their diagrams. All
identified an ability to systematically reflect on practice as something that is distinct in
helping to create their own professional identity as a teacher and something that they
expected to find in colleagues they worked with from other countries. To this extent it
emerged as a trait or characteristic, which perhaps identifies teachers as being part of a shared
professional community, or even as referred to above, a community of practice. However, in
relation to this, when asked directly about whether they saw themselves as conducting
research, none of the interviewees perceived themselves as doing so. Indeed, Tawheeda
insisted that the more appropriate word was reflection, yet in the following sentence
explained how this reflection was a public process as she would frequently engage in online
discussions and wrote a blog, therefore fulfilling one commonly accepted definition of
research (Stenhouse, 1981). Her response perhaps demonstrates how hard it is for teachers to
perceive their reflective thought processes as unprocessed research and that they do perhaps
see these two as distinct.
When discussing the process of reflecting upon lessons and refining them, Mariam described
herself as “rebellious sometimes”, she also described herself as creative. In fact each of the
other interviewees also described themselves in similar terms possibly affirming the
importance of individuality as well as of professional community to teachers. This raised the
issue of whether part of the professional identity of some teachers is one of being ‘rebellious’
and what role this may play. If a significant concept for teachers self-efficacy is a perception
of themselves as rebellious it possibly presents obstacles for teachers in terms of developing a
sense of belonging to a professional community. However, other discourses have developed
the concept of the possibility of a community of teachers that is based on both community
and individual self-identity and which does not see these as irreconcilable opposites. An
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example is the description of the teacher who is embedded in a community and leads change,
which is discussed in research into teacher leadership (Frost, 2014).
An international audience for teachers' work
The significance of creating an audience for students' and teachers' work was touched upon
by all the interviewees without prompting. As just one example Anwar felt that having
teachers in a school in Bahrain networking with colleagues in Britain across a range of
subjects could potentially impact upon school culture by building an audience in which
teachers' professionalism could be celebrated beyond the boundaries of their own classroom.
Mariam saw it as significant in that it provided students as well as teachers with an audience
for their work beyond just their teacher. Perhaps most significantly though she also found that
by using the Connecting Classrooms Programme to create a culture of innovation it enabled
other ideas to be developed within the school that were not directly related to the original
project. To this extent the value of international networking could be that it leads to a process
of creating a new sense of professional community rather than revealing a common
professional community that already exists. This sense of being part of an international
community of professionals, that provides an audience for each other’s work, seems to have
been seen by all the participants as being positive and enabling.
Equally though it seems that where international networking is part of school culture it has
fragile foundations often based on an individual or a small group within the school
community. All the interviewees spoke about feelings of isolation and of feeling that they
were putting forward a vision that was not bought into by the entire school. It is perhaps the
case that some teachers perceive themselves as belonging to an international community of
professionals and actively seek engagement with this community but that many others do not
and do not see any gain in becoming so. This may explain the significance to these teachers
of this broader international community of teachers who they perceived as having a distinct
set of shared values.
Building relationships locally
As I expected, these participants related international networking to a goal of building
relationships with colleagues from other nations. However, more surprisingly two of the
interviewees also raised the importance of involvement in this programme in terms of
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building relationships locally; whether that be with colleagues within the same school or
other schools or with their own students. Tawheeda described how being part of the
programme helped her build relationships with her students. She also spoke about how this
programme linked to her work with other teachers engaged in public reflection or practitioner
research. Anwar, spoke about the importance of the ‘networking’ between Bahraini schools
that had developed through this programme.
It is possible that the process of engaging with colleagues from other nations, as well as
building a sense of international community, creates a new culture of teacher relationships
locally. It may even be the case that by throwing light on similarities and differences with
other nations a coherent sense of local teacher identity is built through identifying differences
and that this is more professionally significant than reaching commonalities with teachers
from other nations.
Personal history and personal friendship
One of the interesting aspects of the teachers’ motives for participating in this programme
was the importance of personal history. I had not included a focus on this in my original
interview schedule nor had I included questions directly related to the building of friendships.
However, all the interviewees referred to their personal history on the diagrams that they had
originally drawn and all described their own stories with detail and enthusiasm when
interviewed. Tawheeda saw involvement in the programme as part of an ongoing journey of
personal development connected to the UK and Mariam had a similar experience in that she
identified a transformative period in her life, in terms of her approach to teaching, as being a
year that she spent in the USA teaching Arabic. Neither of the two male teachers interviewed
had been to the UK or any other English speaking nation before joining this programme.
However, one of them Anwar still connected his interest in these projects to his personal
history and interest in the English speaking world. For all of the interviewees, commitment to
the international programmes they worked with was perceived as being connected to
developing personal relationships either for themselves or their students.
Conclusion
To return to the research questions posed at the beginning of this paper it seems that those
teachers involved in international networking programmes do strongly perceive themselves to
be part of a community of fellow professionals that crosses borders. They describe this
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community in highly positive terms as a community that is innovative, reflective and
supportive in that it enables an audience that takes interest in each others’ work to be
developed. It is appropriate to use Wenger’s (1999) concept of a community of practice to
define such a community. However, issues raised by Wenger also emerge when defining this
community. As the geographical boundaries become more fluid other boundaries are created,
to the extent that these teachers perceived themselves and this community that they belong to
as distinct from that of those who they perceived to be their less reflective and less innovative
colleagues. However, these boundaries are also permeable and one of the benefits these
teachers saw with international engagement was that it enabled the creation of stronger
relationships locally. Finally the term ‘Western’ remains problematic and this also indicates
challenges when working with the West. These teachers were deeply interested in dialogue
with the West but wanted that dialogue to be equal and not to consist of one way traffic in
terms of learning strategies as they had a high degree of self-efficacy and were confidently
aware that they had considerable skills in teaching and lesson planning. It seems that for these
four teachers perception of belonging to a community of practice that is international and
scope was entirely positive, whether the boundaries of such a community in other senses can
be broadened to encompass a larger proportion of the international teaching workforce is
more open to debate.
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REFERENCES
Frost, D. (2014). Non-positional teacher leadership: the miracle of the perpetual motion
machine, a paper presented in the symposium: 'Changing teacher professionality: research
and practical interventions in Europe and beyond' at European Conference on Education
Research 2014, Porto 2nd-5th September.
Frost, D. (2008). Researching the connections, developing a methodology in J. MacBeath and
N. Dempster (eds) Connecting Leadership and Learning: Principles for Practice, London:
Routledge
Stenhouse, L. (1981). What Counts as Research. In British Journal of Educational Studies. 12
(2) 103-114.
Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge:
CUP
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APPENDIX A
Interview Schedule
Purpose
To explore the ways in which teachers perceive themselves as belonging to an international
community of teachers.
To explore the ways that working with teachers from other nations have shaped this
perception.
Nature of the interviews
The interviews will be semi-structured. They will last between 20 and 40 minutes. The interviews will
be recorded. The themes below will provide prompts for the interview, this is instead of a
schedule of questions.
Preliminaries as follows
Prior to the interview I will explain some points relevant to the interview process.
Explain the purpose of the research.
To understand more about teaching as a profession via the experiences of individual teachers.
Explain relevant ethical practice related to the interview
That the interview data will be anonymised.
That they will have the opportunity to comment on a summary of my thesis before submission.
That they can withdraw from being a participant at any stage.
Visual presentation
Prior to the interview they will be asked to sketch in any form they want the professional groups and
communities that they perceive themselves as belonging to and how these inter-relate. I will refer to
this during the interview.
Themes
Their personal story including their experiences of working with teachers from other nations:
Their reasons for involvement in international programmes.
Their experiences working with teachers from other nations.
The nature and requirements of programmes that they have been part of.
Whether they built long-term professional relationships through such programmes.
Their definitions of success or otherwise for such experiences.
Definitions of professionalism:
Whether the way of working is different to that they have with colleagues from their own nation, in
what ways.
Whether it was easier or harder in any way to build relationships with colleagues from other countries.
What it means to be an education professional a 'teacher'.
Learning new strategies:
Whether they learnt new teaching strategies by working with teachers from other nations.
Whether they shared teaching ideas without learning strategies.
Goals other than those related to teaching:
Whether they had other goals for working with teachers from other nations:
... Also in the Kingdom of Bahrain, Underwood (2015) presented findings from a small-scale exploratory case study data drawn from interviews with teachers from Bahrain who have been involved in working with teachers from Britain via programmes ran by the British Council and others. The author discussed how identity is constructed within a professional community that crosses national boundaries. ...
Chapter
This edited book offers an updated insight into a number of key elements of educational leadership and teachers’ professional development topics.
... These colleagues were all primarily involved in international work via the International Teacher Leadership project (Frost, 2011) connected to the HertsCam programme in the UK. Then in 2015 I presented a further two papers on this theme, one focused on a scoping study into the experiences of Bahraini teachers (Underwood, 2015), the second one was the first iteration of this paper. In keeping with an approach which perceives writing even a single authored paper as being a collective process involving developing ideas with others, often primarily in conversation. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
This paper is the second iteration of a paper that was first presented at ECER 2015. As it wends its way towards where ever and in whatever form a final iteration is published or disseminated, I would welcome comments and thoughts from colleagues and friends. I enjoy writing as a public process, so feel free to comment. This paper is linked to a doctoral study focusing on the impact of international networking and knowledge exchange on the professional identity of teachers. It explores the experience of teachers from the Balkans working with colleagues in the UK. In this paper I first outline a conceptual framework which illuminates some of the challenges and rewards of constructing a professional identity within a professional community that crosses national boundaries. Previous studies have often portrayed professional relationships as being by definition unequal when involving nations in differing economic positions but these have not presented the entire picture. In fact the levels of self-efficacy and self-confidence amongst teachers engaged in such programmes from all nations can be very high. The paper explores the proposition that these teachers may not primarily be interested in transferring practice but may have a broader democratic agenda reflecting a self-perception as skilled professionals and societal leaders and also that they may have valid reasons for participation in terms of their own professional growth. The data for this paper was drawn from interviews with three education professionals from the Balkan nations (specifically from Macedonia) who have been involved in working on and developing teacher leadership programmes in their own settings in connection with larger international programmes. The discussion of data includes an exploration of a series of interrelated themes derived from the concept framework. These encompass a discussion of the extent to which these teachers share a common professional identity; whether this therefore constitutes a professional community and whether involvement in networking projects was significant in shaping their professional identity in other ways. Also discussed are issues and challenges related to the exchanging of knowledge between teachers working in different cultural contexts.
Article
Highlights This study explores features of professional learning community (PLC) models in the educational contexts in Bahrain and Oman. Findings based on the case studies of PLCs in two private schools in Bahrain and Oman, and theoretical input from international PLC literature has implications for policy and practice. Study recommends promoting PLC approaches in the Bahraini and Omani educational systems in pre- and in-service teacher training programs, adapting best international PLC practices to the specific educational contexts of Bahrain and Oman, preparing school principals to lead PLC in their schools, providing human and financial support to these communities, and making school cultures more collaborative. This study highlights the importance of the PLC approach, expands the existing conceptual/analytical framework, demonstrates how this approach is being used in two schools, and encourages other practitioners and researchers to embrace PLC.
Non-positional teacher leadership: the miracle of the perpetual motion machine, a paper presented in the symposium: 'Changing teacher professionality: research and practical interventions in Europe and beyond
  • D Frost
Frost, D. (2014). Non-positional teacher leadership: the miracle of the perpetual motion machine, a paper presented in the symposium: 'Changing teacher professionality: research and practical interventions in Europe and beyond' at European Conference on Education Research 2014, Porto 2nd-5th September.
Researching the connections Connecting Leadership and Learning: Principles for Practice What Counts as Research
  • D Frost
Frost, D. (2008). Researching the connections, developing a methodology in J. MacBeath and N. Dempster (eds) Connecting Leadership and Learning: Principles for Practice, London: Routledge Stenhouse, L. (1981). What Counts as Research. In British Journal of Educational Studies. 12 (2) 103-114.
Researching the connections, developing a methodology in
  • D Frost
Frost, D. (2008). Researching the connections, developing a methodology in J. MacBeath and N. Dempster (eds) Connecting Leadership and Learning: Principles for Practice, London: Routledge Stenhouse, L. (1981). What Counts as Research. In British Journal of Educational Studies. 12 (2) 103-114.