Degree Name

Doctor of Education


Faculty of Education


Focus on the professional status of English teachers in higher education contexts in Japan is often overshadowed by more confronting challenges facing universities in Japan, such as a decline in student enrolments or pressure on the financial sustainability of universities (Doyon, 2001; Arima, 2002; Amano & Poole, 2005). If, however, we accept Hattie’s (2004) argument that teachers are the most significant influence on students’ learning experiences, then efforts focused on addressing these challenges would also need to include a greater understanding of teachers. It is the aim of this thesis to contribute to this understanding through its exploration of the professional identities of teachers of English at a university in Japan and the ‘objects’ that influence significantly the process of negotiating professional identity.

Professional identity is an ongoing process of interpretation and reinterpretation of experiences (Beijaard et. al., 2004). The research literature on the notion of professional identity is growing but tends to emerge from studies on early career teachers or identities developed through teacher education (Connelly & Clandinin, 1999; Alsup, 2006; Cohen, 2010; Devos, 2010). There remain, however, a number of issues that need addressing in order to provide greater clarity of the concept in terms of its definition and the factors that significantly affect the process of negotiating professional identity (Beijaard et. al., 2004), such as its relationship with professional development and quality teaching. These are often viewed as tools and measures of teaching practice that influence how individuals’ own perceptions of professional identity as teachers and those of others are interpreted (White, 1998; Rowe, 2003; Arnon & Reichel, 2007; Ingvarson & Rowe, 2008; Connell, 2009).

This study draws on symbolic interactionism (Mead, 1934; Blumer, 1969; Herman-Kinney & Verschaeve, 2003; Hewitt, 2003; Charon, 2004) to explore professional identity and the ‘objects’ that significantly influence the process of negotiation. Although current literature on identity and professional identity draw on other research traditions (Duff & Uchida, 1997; Coldron & Smith, 1999; Norton, 2000; Agee, 2004; Lasky, 2005; Clarke, 2009; Ilieva, 2010), symbolic interactionism was chosen because it provided a useful way to allow meanings to be explored in the richness of the context of this study. Within this framework, a qualitative research design employed semi-structured interviews to collect and analyse the responses of fourteen participants, drawn from the language centre of one large, well-established private Japanese university. Data were analysed and interpreted using an inductive approach to identify emergent themes, patterns, and ‘objects’ used to negotiate and manage professional identity (Blumer, 1969; Vryan et al., 2003; Beijaard et al., 2004).

The study found that in terms of practice, the teachers were professional, but recognition as professionals through their own interpretations and those of others was fragmented. This confirms claims in the literature that EFL teachers still have some way to go before they can be truly defined as professionals (Pettis, 2002). Teachers were found to have limited space to reflect on their teaching practices, often viewed as an important aspect of teaching that would otherwise contribute to the process of developing professionally (McArdle & Coutts, 2003; Beijaard et al., 2004; Farrell, 2011). This study instead found the teachers possessed degrees of professionalism that characterised temporally and spatially their depth of engagement as teachers of English. While formalised forms of professional development were found to have some influence on their professional identities, it was not the most significant contributor.

The study mapped the multidimensional process of negotiating professional identity and identified ‘objects’ that influenced significantly this process. The findings highlighted the complexity of the process and the importance of social interactions as reflective tools for teachers to develop professionally. Several key aspects were found to characterise professional identity: connection, commitment, apprenticeship, resourcefulness, independence, and enthusiasm. The key aspects provide elements for consideration to strengthen activities designed to professionally develop teachers, such as work-based professional development activities.

This thesis contributes to current understanding of professional identity in ELT contexts in Japan and provides a point of departure to focus on the quality of teaching that is needed to achieve the desired outcomes by all stakeholders in ELT in higher education in Japan.