The Discursive Positioning of Primary School English Language Teachers: An Exploration of the Perspectives of Teachers in Vietnam

Abstract

Set against a background of international concern about teacher stress and attrition, this paper reports the results of a qualitative study which investigated the experiences of one group of primary school English language teachers in Vietnam. Drawing upon positioning theory and Bakhtin’s dialogism, results suggest that the professional positioning of these teachers takes place within a struggle for centripetal status between multiple discourses circulating within Vietnamese society. These results also indicate that this struggle results in emotional dissonance for many of the participants—reflected in feelings of stress, frustration, and sadness—which lead some to reconsider their long-term commitment to the teaching profession. Arguing that proposals for English language teacher professional development in Vietnam which are limited to enhancing teachers’ linguistic proficiency and teaching competency do not adequately respond to the needs of these teachers, the paper sets out suggestions for supporting teachers of English to young learners in ways that address their emotional struggles. Suggestions for future research in Vietnam and other analogous settings are also considered.

Introduction

Teaching is often considered a stressful occupation (Tsang 2019). Research suggests that teachers around the globe confront a range of challenges at different levels (Skaalvik and Skaalvik 2016). Macro-level factors, such as policy agendas and requirements, mean that teachers face heavy workloads. In school settings, teachers may be required to deal with limited resources or the need to use new pedagogical tools. At the individual level, low levels of teacher self-efficacy have been reported (Beltman and Poulton 2019). Tsang (2019, p. 1) summarizes the findings of recent research:

In the past three decades, thus, we have witnessed that the population of unhappy teachers, who suffer from stress, exhaustion, frustration, depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in teaching, is increasing all over the world.

One implication of this “population of unhappy teachers” is reflected in reports of growing rates of teacher attrition internationally, with associated negative implications for student achievement (Ronfeldt et al. 2013).

Research also reveals that teachers in some parts of Asia are not immune to such stress and frustration (Bullard and Hosoda 2015; Cheung and Hui 2011; Ko et al. 2000). In particular, English language teachers (ELTs) in several Asian countries appear to face especially stressful working environments. In the case of Hong Kong, for instance, ELTs have shouldered a major portion of the responsibility for the perception of many in the community that English language standards are declining in the territory (Trent et al. 2014). ELTs in other parts of Asia, such as Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, are also facing concerns about their competency to teach the language, which in turn is thought to negatively impact their confidence, pedagogical skills, and the motivation of their learners (Jin and Cortazzi 2019).

In Vietnam, similar uncertainty exists about the linguistic and pedagogical competency of ELTs at all levels of the education system (Manh et al. 2017). Reports of limited opportunities for teacher professional development compound these doubts (Nguyen 2017). These factors, in addition to reports of poor working conditions and the low social status of teachers, are likely contributors to the high rates of turnover among early childhood teachers in some Vietnamese provinces (Thao and Boyd 2014). Suggestions for overcoming these challenges include reforming teacher education to place more emphasis on teaching practice, the strengthening of mentoring programs for both pre- and in-service teachers, raising teachers’ level of language competence, and fostering teacher collaboration by establishing clusters of schools in which best practices are developed and shared (Cahn and Chi 2012; Nguyen and Nguyen 2007).

Given the importance the Vietnamese government has placed on providing all students with “a good command of foreign language” (Manh et al. 2017), together with the concomitant challenges facing English language teachers and teaching in Vietnam, it is not surprising that calls for additional research are common. Phelps et al. (2012), for example, note that limited research has been conducted into teaching and learning within Vietnam and that it is important to consider the views of stakeholders, including teachers, of “how values, attitudes and beliefs shape the learning environment” (p. 300). Nguyen and Hall (2017) echo these sentiments, believing it is imperative that teachers be “engaged in the discussion about the characteristics that Vietnam wishes to see in its teachers and education system” (p. 254). Thao and Boyd (2014) suggest that this research should explore teachers’ motivation and engagement at a time of educational change, noting that “few studies have been conducted in Vietnam on early childhood teachers” (p. 194; see also Nguyen 2016)).

Therefore, the current paper reports the results of a study that explored the perceptions and experiences of one group of primary school English language teachers (hereafter ‘PELTs’) in Vietnam. A contribution of this study is to understand such perceptions and experiences using the analytic lens of positioning theory and dialogism. The paper begins by describing a framework for investigating the positioning of teachers, which is then used to understand how one group of teachers position themselves, and at the same time believe they are positioned by others as PELTs in Vietnam. Suggestions for supporting the professional development of PELTs in Vietnam and analogous settings are then described and implications for future research proposed.

Conceptual Framework

Positioning Theory

Ts study uses positioning theory to understand the perspectives of one group of PELTs in Vietnam. Harre (2012) conceptualizes a position as “a cluster of beliefs with respect to the rights and duties of the members of a group to act in a certain way” (p. 196). The social and cognitive process which establishes such positions is termed positioning. As van Langenhove and Harre (1999, p. 16) explain:

The act of positioning thus refers to the assignment of fluid ‘parts’ or ‘roles’ to speakers in the discursive construction of personal stories that make a persons’-s actions intelligible and relatively determinate as social acts.

Positioning theory argues that social acts are rendered intelligible through discourses. Davies and Harre (1990) describe a discourse as “the institutionalized use of language and language-like sign systems” (p. 45). Positioning theory identifies the storylines within conversations that shape the positions people take up, or which they have assigned to them. ‘Teacher’ and ‘student’, for instance, represent positions and a storyline of instruction influences the speech and actions associated with each position.

Dialogism

The emphasis on discourses within positioning theory has parallels with the work of Bakhtin. Holquist (2002) labels Bakhtin’s theoretical contribution ‘dialogism’ to reflect the central role of discourse in meaning making. Dialogism argues that an utterance is “drenched in social factors” (Holquist 2002, p. 61) because, as Bakhtin (1981) explains, “the living utterance cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogical threads…it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue” (p. 276). Wortham (2001) links Bakhtin’s view of the utterance to positioning within dialogue. According to Bakhtin (1981), every utterance is “entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments…” (p. 276). Therefore, the interpretation of an utterance “must attend not only to the represented content of speech but also to the position taken by the speaker in saying what he or she says” (Wortham 2001, p. 21).

Viewing the utterance as an active participant in dialogue means that it is imperative to not only understand social acts in terms of positioning within different discourses but also to consider how the interplay of such discourses makes available and denies positions to people. Bakhtin (1981) considers this interplay as conflictual; an utterance, “finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualification, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist” (p. 276). Bakhtin (1981) describes this competitive interplay as a struggle between dominant centripetal discourses and marginalized centrifugal discourses (p. 272):

Every concrete utterance of a speaking subject serves as a point where centrifugal as well as centripetal forces are brought to bear. The processes of centralization and decentralization, of unification and disunification, intersect in the utterance.

Centripetal discourses, therefore, are taken to be the legitimate representations of social reality. Faced with this outcome, marginalized centrifugal discourses are at risk of being silenced, a situation Bakhtin (1984) warned against in his opposition to monologism: “Monologue pretends to be the ultimate word. It closes down the represented world and represented persons” (p. 293).

Based upon this framework, data collection and analysis were guided by the following research questions:

What are the discourses that position the participants as primary school English language teachers in Vietnam?

How does the interplay of these discourses position the participants as primary school English language teachers in Vietnam?

The Study

Participants

The participants, identified using pseudonyms, are nine ethnic Vietnamese primary school English language teachers: Hang, Minh, and Thi from Danang; Thanh from Quang; Hue from Cao Lanh; and Nam, Linh, Ngoc and Nga from Hanoi. All spoke Vietnamese as their mother tongue and were predominately female as teaching at primary school level is dominated by females. Sampling was characterized by both convenience and purposeful elements (Merriam and Tisdell 2016). Initially, a convenience approach was adopted to sampling in that participants were known to the authors in their role as teacher educators. However, purposive sampling also played a role in our decision to invite particular participants to take part in the study. Specifically, experienced teachers, those with at least 10 years’ experience as a primary school English language teacher in Vietnam, were recruited. It was thought that such participants would have a more detailed understanding of the phenomenon under investigation in this study than would less experienced, or novice, teachers and for this reason would represent examples of what Merriam and Tisdell (2016) refer to as “information rich” cases (p. 96). Thus, at the time of data collection, the teaching experience of the participants ranged from approximately 12 to 20 years.

Data Collection

A semi-structured interview, conducted in Vietnamese by the second author, was carried out with each participant. The length of time for each interview varied from participant to participant, ranging from twenty to forty minutes. All the interviews were audio recorded with the participants’ consent. Each interview began by exploring the participants’ views about the role of the English language in Vietnamese society and their motivations for choosing teaching as a career. Other questions considered their understanding of why and how English should be taught in Vietnamese primary schools, the challenges they face as primary school English teachers, how, if at all, they overcome these challenges, as well as their relations with school authorities, other teachers, students, and parents.

Data Analysis

To discover the different discourses that the participants draw upon to position themselves as PELTs in Vietnam, as well as the discourses they believe they are positioned within by others, we began by following the steps for thematic analysis outlined by Braun and Clarke (2006). First, after reading and rereading the data, codes were identified (Braun and Clarke 2006, p. 88), which included, for example, ‘respectful’, ‘knowledgeable’, and ‘noble’. These codes are instances of indigenous concepts because they are terms “special to the people in the setting studied”. Next, the codes mentioned here, together with other similar indigenous concepts, were grouped together to form a theme, or in terms of the theoretical framework used in this paper, a discourse. In the case of the current example, this discourse was named ‘the discourse of romanticism’. This approach to coding resulted in the identification of a total of six discourses that the participants draw upon as they position themselves, and at the same time believe they are positioned by others, as PELTs in Vietnam.

A key element of data analysis was the identification of the different subject positions within each of the six discourses that the teacher participants associate themselves with, as well as those positions they distance themselves from. This identification drew upon the discourse analytic framework introduced by Fairclough (2003), who argues that modality (what is true and necessary) and evaluation (what is desirable and undesirable) reveal what author’s commit themselves to. For example, in Ngoc’s declaration that “my English teacher (in primary school) was the most knowledgeable people I knew; she inspired me”, a strongly modalized statement of belief is used to position this English teacher, favorably, using the terms “knowledgeable” and “inspired”. It is assumed here that being knowledgeable and inspiring students are desirable traits of English language teachers in Vietnam.

Finally, to explore how interaction between different discourses positions the participants we utilized aspects of Martin and White’s (2005) work in understanding the ways in which utterances either open up or contract dialogic space. While a full discussion of their analytical framework lies beyond the scope of the current paper, the data set suggests that what the authors term “countering” is particularity important in understanding how discursive interaction positions the participants in this study. Countering occurs when one discursive position replaces—or counters—another discursive position that would normally have been expected. For example, when one of the teacher participants declared that “being a teacher is my ideal career; yet the reality of being a teacher here (in Vietnam) is very different”, the term “yet” serves the purpose of signaling the countering, or supplanting, of the initial positioning of ‘teacher’ as an ideal career choice by the reality of “being a teacher”. As Martin and White (2005) point out, conjunctions and connections such as ‘yet’, ‘but’, and ‘however’ typically indicate this type of discursive countering (p. 120).

Results

Turning to the first research question (‘what are the discourses that position the participants as primary school English language teachers in Vietnam?’), the results indicate that the nine teachers mentioned in the previous section position themselves, and believe that they are positioned by others, within six discourses: ‘the discourse of romanticism’; ‘the discourse of reality’; ‘the discourse of primary English language teaching as difficult’; ‘the discourse of primary English language teaching as easy’; ‘the discourse of primary English language teaching as a career’; and ‘the discourse of primary English language teaching as a job’. The remainder of this section discusses these discourses in detail.

The Discourse of Romanticism

The discourse of romanticism affords teaching high social status in Vietnam and associates the position ‘teacher’ with a range of character traits and actions that are thought to be desirable. These views, mentioned by five of the teacher participants, are reflected in the following excerpts:

Excerpt one

I thought that teaching was a lofty and beautiful career. Teachers were supposed to have many good qualities; humane, noble, moral, beautiful, respectful and knowledgeable. (Thi)

Excerpt two

A long time ago, teachers in Vietnam were highly respected. My English teacher (in primary school) was the most knowledgeable people I knew; she inspired me because she taught always with a lot of enthusiasm and made me want to become a teacher, especially an English teacher. (Ngoc)

Excerpt three

When I was young, I admired my English teachers so much; their speech sounded so beautiful and they sounded so smart. I could see their dedication, I know in those days they were willing to sacrifice a lot to teach us. (Nga)

In each of these excerpts, being positioned as a ‘teacher’ is linked to specific character traits and ways of engaging in the practices and activities of teaching. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of this is Thi’s binding of ‘teacher’ to characteristics such as nobility, morality, and beauty. Ngoc joins Thi in this endorsement of teachers and teaching. Thus, it is her association of one of her former PELTs with the attributes of respect and knowledge which inspired her to ultimately take on the position of PELT.

The positions made available to all ‘teachers’, and more specifically to PELTs, within the discourse of romanticism are unambiguously positive. Terms such as “good” and “beautiful” (Thi) represent explicit positive evaluations of these positions. Somewhat more implicitly, the terms “dedication” and “sacrifice” (Nga) also provide a positive evaluation of these positions; it is taken for granted that being dedicated and willing to sacrifice are desirable qualities for teachers in general, and for PELTs in particular.

The strength of the commitment each of these participants makes to the possibility of positioning teachers within the discourse of romanticism in contemporary Vietnamese society is, however, unclear. Doubts about this positioning of PELTs surface, linguistically, because each of these excerpts contains what Bakhtin (1984) refers to as “the word with a sideward glance” (p. 196) at another, alternative, discourse. As Bakhtin explains, a sideward glance is “indirectly striking a blow at the other’s discourse, clashing with it” (p. 196). In the case of excerpt one, for example, this sideward glance is suggested by Thi’s use of the expressions “I thought” and “supposed to”, which have the effect of tempering his commitment to truth of the positioning of teachers within the discourse of romanticism. In doing so, this uncertainty opens possibilities for alternative positionings of teachers and teaching. Another form that this sideward glace takes can be seen in references to the distant past: “A long time ago…”; “when I was young…in those days…”. These linguistic moves leave open the question of whether such positioning remains valid in contemporary Vietnam.

A possible explanation for such doubts about the positioning of teachers and teaching within the discourse of romanticism can be found in the theoretical framework used in this study. Grounded in Bakhtin’s dialogism, this framework implies that the positioning of ‘teacher’ within this, or any other, discourse necessarily encounters a hostile world: “the living utterance…enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words (and) value judgments…(it) mergers with some, recoils from others” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 277). The realization of such discursive tension in the positioning of the teacher participants in this study is considered in the next section.

The Discourse of Reality

The results of this study suggest that the self-positioning of PELTs within the discourse of romanticism encounters what one participant termed “the reality of being a teacher”. This alternative discursive positioning emerged during interviews with three participants: Nam, Minh, and Hang. Their perspectives are presented below:

Excerpt four

It’s very idealistic of me to be a teacher; people are meant to look up to you as a teacher. Being a teacher is my ideal career. Yet, the reality of being a teacher here (in Vietnam) is different. Society is very materialistic these days. As a primary school English teacher, I can’t compete against such jobs as lawyers or doctors, this is the reality for us (teachers) in our materialistic society…so I always feel not as good, inferior, compared with friends who make more money and can afford more expensive things…as a teacher today (in Vietnam), I feel depressed to choose this career in such a society. (Nam)

Excerpt five

I accept that some want to teach English in a primary school because of very lofty and ideal goals, to serve the society and the next generation to promote. It sounds good. But, can you possibly survive in modern society in a big city on a teacher salary? I can hardly do it. So of course today’s society means that for teachers, especially in primary schools, life is a struggle just to get by day to day….it might, I feel, get so overwhelming that I want to leave (teaching) (Minh)

Excerpt six

For me, the image of a primary school teacher is someone who has caring and compassion in their heart. On the other hand, the reality today is that Vietnam is more materialistic and more expensive to live and being caring does not help us buy what we need; a home, cars and other goods that we all expect to have today, especially working in the big cities (in Vietnam)….for the young people, it’s not a good time, economically, to be a teacher….it’s easy to feel disappointed being a teacher. (Hang)

The discourse of reality draws upon beliefs concerning the nature of contemporary Vietnamese society in order to position PELTs. For instance, this discourse characterizes society as one dominated by materialistic concerns. In this case, materialism is reified in practice through the social value placed on achieving a high income and the acquisition of, as Nam puts it, “expensive things”, which are defined by Hang as “a home, cars, and other goods”.

The positions made available to teachers, including English language teachers, within this discourse are assessed by each of these participants as distinctly negative. Nam, for instance, emphatically declares that he “can’t compete against such jobs as lawyers or doctors”. His self-positioning as “not as good” and as “inferior” underscore his commitment to this negative evaluation of a PELT in contemporary Vietnam. Minh and Hang are also convinced about the undesirable positioning of PELTs within the discourse of realism. Linguistically, terms such as “struggle” (Minh) and the observation that “it’s not a good time, economically, to be a teacher” (Hang) leave little doubt about these teachers alignment with a negative assessment of PELTs in Vietnam.

Tensions between the positioning of PELTs in Vietnam within the discourses of reality and romanticism are also revealed in each of these excerpts. In the case of Nam, his initial positioning of teachers and teaching in idealistic terms, and the declaration that people are “meant to look up to teachers”, draws upon a discourse of romanticism. Linguistically, however, his use of the term “yet” serves the purpose of countering this discursive positioning, replacing it with descriptions of society and the positions available to teachers—including “inferior”—that are framed by the discourse of reality.

Minh and Hang also initially grant legitimacy to the discourse of romanticism in their depictions of primary ELTs. However, as was the case for Nam, they both subsequently counter this view, a move signaled, linguistically, by the terms “but” and “on the other hand”. The effect of such discursive countering, that is, of the discourse of reality superseding the discourse of romanticism, is apparent from the participant’s descriptions of several negative emotional consequences they each associate with the different positions offered to them within this latter discourse. Nam, for instance, reports feelings of depression. Minh claims to be overwhelmed. For Hang, the positions the discourse of reality affords her are associated with disappointment.

The Discourse of primary ELT as Difficult

Within the discourse of primary English language teaching as difficult, teaching English to young learners in Vietnam is understood as a particularly challenging task. Those who position PELTs within this discourse emphasize the need for high levels of skills and attributes, including patience and attention to detail. All of the teacher participants invoked this discourse in their self-positioning as PELTs in Vietnam. Excerpts from interviews with Linh and Min are illustrative of their views:

Excerpt seven

In fact, teaching English to young learners is quite hard because I have to do two things at the same time, teaching and soothing…I not only provide them with knowledge as teachers at higher levels do, but also take care of them like a mother. Whatever activity I ask them to do, I have to instruct step by step like holding their hand to show them what to do in detail. I have to keep an eye on every pupil in every activity. (Linh)

Excerpt eight

It’s not easy being an English teacher in a primary school; you have to be many things, language model, mother, role model, counselor, and big sister…I have to be patient, handle not just academic matters like teachers of older students do, my students also need to be taken care of emotionally as well as intellectually, so my job is multi-skilled. (Min)

Linh and Min employ strongly modalized statements of belief that leave no doubt about their opinion of the position PELT. According to Linh, primary English language teaching is “quite hard”, a view Min echoes in declaring that “it’s not easy being an English teacher in a primary school”. The positioning of PELTs by both teachers is authorized by invoking the authority of experience. For example, describing what she has “to do”, Linh argues that as a primary English language teacher she must take on multiple positions: teacher, soother, and mother. Each one of these positions is positively evaluated by her. For instance, as she lists terms which include caring, instructing, and “keep(ing) an eye on every student”, she presents each one, tacitly, as a desirable practice for teachers of young learners. Similarly, Min positions herself as taking on multiple responsibilities, some of which are understandable from the discourse of romanticism discussed earlier, including mother and role model. She too implicitly evaluates this self-positioning positively using the term “multi-skilled”.

The Discourse of Primary ELT as Easy

The discourse of primary English language teaching as easy considers the teaching of the English language to young learners to be a low-skilled profession. From the perspective of this discourse, primary English language teaching can, as one participant expressed it, “be done by anyone, and no special talents or knowledge are needed”. The discursive positioning of PELTs within this discourse was mentioned by five of the participants and is elaborated on here by Thi and Hue:

Excerpt nine

Teaching the very young students English in Vietnam must surely be one of the most challenging jobs…I have to work really long hours. However, it’s surprising to me that in my dealings with parents, many will look down on us as English teachers; they think teaching primary school English is so easy, a low-skill job, just a few vocabularies and simple grammar, and if their children don't get good marks we (teachers) are certainly blamed, they care only about exam results...they really make me frustrated, they don’t understand the job (of teaching) at all but I can’t change their mind so this is stress for me. (Thi)

Excerpt ten

Hue: Even though I worked more than 60 hours most weeks teaching in a primary school and it's a really very, very demanding job, many (people) in the society think that teaching English in a primary school is a simple, easy job, so we are seen by them (parents) only as their servants. It’s sometimes terrible; they say ‘do what we say, get good grades for my children or I’ll complain to the school that you are not a good teacher’.

Researcher: What are your feelings about that?

Hue: Well, it’s very sad; sometimes I think, in the future, there will be a time when I’m no longer a teacher. (Hue)

Thi assigns to herself the position of ‘English teacher’ and refers to being negatively positioned by some parents using expressions such as “looked down on” and as engaged in a low-skilled occupation. These are outcomes understandable from the viewpoint of the discourse of primary English language teaching as easy. Hue also discusses positioning as a PELT by some parents in explicitly negative terms. In this case, she is convinced that, within the discourse of primary English language teaching as easy, the only position made available to her by these stakeholders is that of a ‘servant’, an outcome that is taken to be unquestionably undesirable—“terrible” in the words of Hue—for any teacher.

Excerpts nine and ten also reveal the existence of a discursive struggle taking place within contemporary Vietnamese society between the positioning of primary school English language teaching as difficult or, alternatively, as easy. As was the case in the previous section, this struggle plays out, linguistically, as the countering of one discourse, in this case the discourse of primary English language teaching as difficult, by another discourse: the discourse of primary English language teaching as easy. In excerpt nine, this countering is signaled by Thi’s use of the term “however”. Thus, although she initially aligns herself with the positioning of teachers within the discourse of primary English language teaching as difficult, portraying her chosen profession as “one of the most challenging”, she proceeds to counter this self-positioning by arguing that it is, in fact, the discourse of primary English language teaching as easy which holds sway with many parents. For Thi, one consequence of the dominance of this latter discourse is to assign blame to teachers for students’ poor examination scores. As a result, she reports feelings of frustration and stress, being convinced that she is unable to bring about change to such negative positioning of PELTs.

Initially, Hue also gives voice to the discourse of primary English language teaching as difficult, recalling long working hours and characterizing her chosen profession as “difficult”. However, her opening remarks (“even though…”) signal the countering of this discourse within contemporary Vietnamese society, and the centripetal positioning of a view in which teaching English in a primary school is considered to be “simple”, a conclusion that is congruent with the discourse of primary English language teaching as easy. According to Hue, the outcome of this discursive struggle to position PELTs in Vietnam leaves her feeling saddened.

The Discourse of Primary ELT as a Career

An understanding of primary English language teaching as a career invokes aspects of time and is expressed as a desire to remain within the teaching profession throughout one’s professional life. Excerpts eleven and twelve illustrate these views:

Excerpt eleven

I hope that I can have this as a long term career…I’m very passionate about this career of teaching, it's a joy teaching the very young children and it makes me so happy; I don’t want to have to, or be forced to, leave (teaching). (Linh)

Excerpt twelve

Although it’s not easy, I always try to tell people teaching English here (in a primary school) is my career and I’m determined and committed to be here for the long run…this is my wish, but wishes don’t always come true. (Ngoc)

This discourse frames the position PELT as a long-term career commitment.

Therefore, intelligible within this discourse are the intentions of Linh and Ngoc to take on this position “for the long run” (Linh). Their alignment with this discourse is evident in the positive evaluations they provide of their career decision. For instance, primary English language teaching as a career is linked to qualities such as dedication, commitment, and passion, which are all taken to be praiseworthy traits for teachers. Linh’s positioning of primary English language teaching as a career is also positively associated with feelings of happiness and the joy of teaching young learners.

As discussed earlier in this section, utterances can contain sideward glances (Bakhtin 1984) that hint at the possibility of other discursive positions being available to these PELTs. Linguistically, Linh’s use of the term “hope” (“I hope that I can…”) represents such a sideward glance, indicating a weakened commitment to belief in the possibility that primary English language teaching can represent her “long term career”. As noted, Ngoc shares this wish to position herself as a PELT “for the long run”. Yet, her closing exclamation—“wishes don’t always come true”—also appears to call into question her belief in the possibility of achieving this aim. In both cases, the sideward glance acknowledges the presence of what is termed in this paper ‘the discourse of primary English language teaching as a job’. Its role in the positioning of the teacher participants in this study is considered in the next section.

The Discourse of Primary ELT as a Job

In a similar manner to the discourse of primary English language teaching as a career, the discourse of primary English language teaching as a job also invokes issues of time in its positioning of the teacher participants. This latter discourse, however, considers the decision to take up the position PELT to be limited in its temporal duration. Taking into account this temporary positioning of the participants as PELTs, this discourse legitimates the replacement of their decision to pursue primary teaching as a long-term career by its positioning as a short-term job. The discursive tension implied by these two alternative positionings, which was mentioned by several teachers, is captured in excerpts thirteen and fourteen:

Excerpt thirteen

Is primary English teacher just a job or more than that, a career?…to some it might be only a job, for a short time, then move on to something else, but to me, it’s a career, which means it’s for the long term. However, many times I feel that I want to leave teaching because I know that the society (in Vietnam) really does not think very highly of us; we are seen as unskilled, not very smart, it’s not a respected profession; now I’m also convinced it’s not a good profession. I’m saddened…I can see a time when I’m out (of teaching). (Hang)

Excerpt fourteen

My family does support my career choice. I think perhaps they worry about why I can’t find a more prestigious career. Maybe they hope it's a short term job for me, as a primary school teacher…I do understand their views and that makes me feel bad if they are worried about me, even if they don't say it…it leaves me all a bit confused about what to do, to stay a teacher or not. (Nga)

Hang’s opening rhetorical question highlights tension between the positioning of primary English language teaching as a short-term job, one that she considers, implicitly, to be negative (just a job…”), as opposed to a long-term career, which, she alludes, is a more encouraging positioning (“more than that, a career”). Although initially siding, personally, with the latter (“to me, it's a career”), she uses the term ‘however” to immediately counter this decision. Thus, her consequent declaration that “society really does not think very much of us (primary English teachers)” displays an unswerving commitment to the belief that, in the position of PELT, she is negatively positioned by others within contemporary society, a conclusion underscored by her claim that a PELT is considered “unskilled”. In addition, the lack of respect, which Hang is certain Vietnamese society associates with the position PELT, contributes to her ultimate decision, which is to concur with society’s negative positioning of these teachers. As she puts it, “now I’m also convinced it’s not a good profession”. Her closing self-positioning as “saddened” underpins the uncertainty she now experiencers over her long-term ability to commit to this profession.

Nga’s opening statement regarding the view of her family is understandable from the perspective of the discourse of primary English language teaching as a career. Nevertheless, her family does not view her professional life solely from the perspective of this discourse. Using the term “perhaps”, she also entertains the possibility that family members draw upon other discourses in their positioning of PELTs. Thus, in accordance with the discourse of primary English language teaching as a job, this family hopes that Nga will take up a “more prestigious career”, thereby lending a negative assessment of her positioning within the discourse of primary English language teaching as a career. Indeed, the confession that her family positions PELT “as a short term job” and that she “understands their views” confirms this potential for the existence of different, equally legitimate, positionings of PELTs. Nevertheless, being caught in the middle of these different discursive professional positionings offers her no relief from the negative emotional consequences that, this section has shown, afflict many of the teacher participants. In this case, Nga reports feelings of uncertainty and indecision when contemplating the future likelihood of remaining in the position of a PELT.

Discussion

Addressing the second research question mentioned earlier (‘how does the interplay of discourses position the participants as PELTs in Vietnam?’), the results reported in this paper confirm that the position ‘PELT’ in contemporary Vietnam is a contested site, characterized by the interplay of several different discourses. As discussed earlier, the theoretical framework used in this study, informed by the work of Bakhtin (1981, 1984), conceptualizes this discursive interplay as a struggle between centripetal and centrifugal forces. The particular significance of this from of interplay for the positioning of PELTs in Vietnam lies in Bakhtin’s belief that these different forces are of unequal power: centripetal discourses assume dominance due to the fact that the meanings they attach to positions, such as PELT, move to the foreground.

The perspectives of the nine teacher participants discussed in the previous section suggests that from within the discursive struggles in which they engage, several discourses emerge to occupy this central, centripetal, status in the positioning of PELTs in Vietnam. These discourses are ‘realism’, ‘primary English language teaching as easy’, and ‘primary English language teaching as a job’. Drawing upon insights from Martin and White’s (2005) framework, particularly their description of discursive countering, linguistic evidence in support of this finding was presented that illustrates the ways in which other, alternative, discourses are supplanted and marginalized, and thereby assigned centrifugal status, within Vietnamese society.

These discursive struggles for centripetal status have implications for the participant’s perceptions of their self-positioning, and their positioning by others, as PELTs in Vietnam. In particular, the positions that each one of the centripetal discourses mentioned above makes available, and denies, to PELTs gives rise to several different, negative, emotional responses amongst the teacher participants. The countering of the discourse of romanticism by the discourse of reality, for example, resulted in some teachers feeling depressed, overwhelmed, and disappointed (excerpts four to six). The centripetal status accorded to the discourse of primary English language teaching as easy, in countering the discourse of primary English language teaching as difficult, left other teachers saddened and frustrated (excerpts nine and ten). The countering of the discourse of primary English language teaching as a career by the discourse of primary English language teaching as a job resulted in feelings of sadness (excerpt thirteen). Nor were such negative consequences fully dissipated when more than a single discourse was entertained. Thus, Nga reported feeling confusion and uncertainty in balancing the alternative positions made available to PELTs by the competing discourses of primary English language teaching as a career and as a job (excerpt fourteen).

The negative emotional consequences stemming from the discursive struggles described in this paper will be of interest to stakeholders, such as educational policymakers and school authorities, wishing to support the professional development (PD) of PELTs in Vietnam and other analogous settings. In particular, the results mean that PD opportunities will need to address PELTs ongoing concerns about their initial decision to enter teaching, as reflected in the discursive struggle between romanticism and reality, as well as how they experience being positioned as a PELT in Vietnam, as seen in tensions between primary English language teaching as easy and as difficult. Also at stake in this discursive interplay are the participant’s decisions about whether to remain in teaching or to leave, a tension that surfaces in the struggle between primary English language teaching as a career and as a job.

These findings, therefore, advance our understanding not only of the need for ongoing PD for PELTs but also the form this PD might take, both conceptually and in practice. For example, as mentioned earlier in this paper, suggestions for the PD of English language teachers in Vietnam have frequently centered on the need for additional language support and the enhancement of teaching skills (Canh and Chi 2012; Nguyen and Nguyen 2007). The results of this study mean that, conceptually, PELT PD must be grounded not only in the need to address these issues but, moreover, will have to also recognize the implications that the discursive positionings discussed in this paper have for PELTs. In particular, designers of PD programs will be required to acknowledge the ways in which the interplay of different discourses makes available and denies certain positions to these teachers, along with the accompanying emotional consequences reported above. The urgency of doing so is underscored by the finding that at stake in this discursive positioning are people’s decisions about whether to enter, and to remain, within the teaching profession.

What are the implications of this discursive interplay for the implementation of PELT PD programs in Vietnam? Recent work by Assen et al. (2018) indicates that dialogues, which are stimulated by asking teachers to reflect upon video-episodes of their actual teaching behavior, can be effective in assisting them to de- or re-position themselves and to promote the construction of their professional identities (p. 138). In particular, the author’s observation that “teachers need a dialogue with others” (p. 138) resonates with the findings of this study regarding the emotional consequences for PELTs of their negative positioning by other community stakeholders.

Who, then, might be invited to join teachers in these dialogues? The results of this study imply that any dialogue must include parents, students, and other local community members, in addition to school authorities and other school-based teachers. Theoretically, the inclusion of this expanded range of community-based stakeholders in these dialogues is consistent with a crucial tenant of positioning theory; namely that individuals not only position themselves but are also positioned by others.

These results also suggest how these collective dialogues might achieve the re-positioning of PELTs in Vietnam. For example, consistent with the suggestions of Assen et al. (2018), the different stakeholders mentioned above would meet for the purpose of reflecting on actual, recorded examples of PELTs teaching behaviors. In particular, this reflection could serve as means of revealing, and possibly challenging, PELTs negative positioning by some community members, such as parents. As one example, collective dialogue about these teaching behaviors could reveal how and why some community members negatively position PELTs within discourses such as ‘primary ELT as easy’. In addition, this dialogue must consider examples of actual teaching behavior that positions PELTs within alternative discourses, such as ‘primary ELT as difficult’. If awareness of these alternative positionings, and the relations of power that underpin them, can become “a sort of political enlightenment that can lead to empowerment” (Pennycook 2001, p. 40), then collective dialogues can represent a forum for all stakeholders to critically reflect on their current positioning of PELTs in Vietnamese society and to consider how PELTs can be re-positioned in ways that overcome the negative emotional consequences of their contemporary positioning in Vietnam. Finally, the importance of this collective re-positioning of PELTs by addressing the type of emotional dissonance reported in this paper is underscored by Day and Gu’s (2010, p. 36) observation that:

Teachers’ emotional capacities to rebound from disappointments and adversity and sustain their commitment to the profession…are fundamental to their ability to promote achievement in all aspects of students’ lives.

Conclusion

Set against a background of increasing international awareness of the stressful nature of teaching and concerns about teacher attrition, this paper reported the results of a study that considered how one group of PELTs position themselves, and at the same time are positioned by others, in Vietnam. Informed by positioning theory and Bakhtin’s dialogism, it was found that the teacher participants use multiple discourses to position themselves as PELTs in Vietnam. These discourses are ‘romanticism’, ‘primary ELT as difficult’ and ‘primary ELT as a career’. In addition, as people are also positioned by others, the results of this study revealed that these teachers believe that they, as PELTs, are negatively positioned by community stakeholders within a set of very different discourses, which were identified as ‘reality’, ‘primary ELT as easy’ and ‘primary ELT as a job’. The use of Bakhtin’s framework sheds light on how the interaction of these different discourses shapes the positions that are made available, and denied, to the PELTs who took part in this study. In particular, a dialogical approach indicates the existence of a centripetal–centrifugal struggle that results in emotional discord for the participants, leading some to question their commitment to the teaching profession. Therefore, suggestions were made for an approach to PD that addresses this emotional dissonance and which therefore goes beyond recent suggestions for supporting PELTs in Vietnam that are limited to enhancing their English language competency and teaching capabilities.

The limitations of this study should be acknowledged. In addition to a limited sample size, data were collected only from PELTs. Therefore, future studies can include the perspectives of other community stakeholders, in particular students and their parents. Nevertheless, the findings of the study have implications for supporting the positive positioning of PELTs in analogous settings. For example, future research should be conducted into the positioning of PELTs in a range of countries in Asia, and beyond. When taken together with the results reported in this paper, research of this type would contribute to a comparative database that should be of interest to educational stakeholders wishing to enhance the professional standing and development of PELTs internationally.

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Trent, J., Nguyen, C.D. The Discursive Positioning of Primary School English Language Teachers: An Exploration of the Perspectives of Teachers in Vietnam. Asia-Pacific Edu Res 30, 71–81 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40299-020-00515-z

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Keywords

  • Teaching english to young learners
  • Vietnam
  • Positioning theory
  • Teacher education