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Better integration of NESB (non-English speaking background) teachers in the Australian education system

Afzal, Bushra (2021) Better integration of NESB (non-English speaking background) teachers in the Australian education system. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In Australia, communities who speak minority languages are referred to as ‘NESB’ (non-English speaking background) or CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse). In the 1980s Australian immigration experienced a sharp turn in preference towards skilled migrants. Among those skilled migrants, a huge number of intakes consisted of professionals from non-English speaking backgrounds (Colic-Peisker, 2009). Like other skilled professionals, more teachers began arriving from non-English speaking countries, and by 1992-93 they comprised 87% of teacher arrivals (Inglis & Philps, 1995). NESB teachers are an important community, especially in a culturally diverse country such as Australia where the workforce should also be reflecting that diversity. Inclusion of NESB teachers in the Australian workforce is particularly important in mathematics and science areas which are experiencing a shortage of teachers from the local market.

I am a NESB high school science teacher who migrated to Australia from Pakistan in early 2006 and experienced many barriers to resuming and continuing teaching in the new country. Based in large part on my personal experiences, in this study I investigate problems faced by NESB teachers in Australian schools that have hindered them from being successful and integrating into the Australian education system. I also explore the strengths and behaviours of NESB teachers who have been successful in their journey, with the aim of seeking solutions and making recommendations for achieving better integration.

For this research, I combine the paradigms of interpretivism, criticalism and post-modernism. A powerful hybrid epistemology emerges from this integration that enables me to explore key problems experienced by NESB teachers and to seek solutions. An auto-ethnographic writing methodology frames the inquiry, and critical reflections, focused interviews and narratives provide me with the necessary research tools. The quality of the research is governed by the qualitative criteria of trustworthiness, authenticity, emergence, pedagogical thoughtfulness, critical reflexivity and verisimilitude. Due consideration is given to ethical issues to protect everyone associated with this study, including myself.

In the thesis, I present the rich contexts of my own learning and teaching journey in the largely collectivist society of Pakistan in which I evolved as a teacher. Then, I present a clear comparison with my teaching experiences as an NESB teacher in the largely individualistic society of Australia, identifying the major obstacles to resuming my teaching practice. Voices of other NESB teachers in similar situations highlight that lack of information, language difficulties, lack of cultural understanding, covert racism, lack of permanent employment, little collegial support and personal efficacy are major obstacles for NESB teachers.

Next, from the perspective of Katz’s (1972) developmental stages of teaching, I present narrative accounts of the lived experiences of NESB teachers who appear to have successfully integrated into the Australian education system. I explore the strengths that enabled them to survive and thrive as ‘culturally different others’ in markedly different classroom/school environments. The key strengths I uncover are: good English language skills (not accent), existing network to help initiate entry into the teaching profession, good classroom management skills, better communication with colleagues and parents, collegial support, constant learning/training, excellent interpersonal skills, and workplace resilience.

Next, I discuss the role of ‘cultural transition’ in NESB teachers’ success, in particular, and in migrants’ lives, in general. From my own perspective, at first, I experienced a sense of loss, dislocation, alienation and isolation, which led to a process of acculturation (Bhugra, 2004). Then, slowly and gradually, I started moving from acculturation to integration. It appears to be important that when individuals attempt to move from a collectivistic society to an individualistic society they face a significant challenge to achieving cultural transition. The transition can be divided into stages of honeymoon, cultural shock, recovery and adaptation. Some NESB individuals seem to be more capable than others at reaching the adaptation stage, which significantly contributes to success in their personal and professional lives in the new culture.

I reveal how I came to understand that cultural integration, which is very different to cultural assimilation, is critical for the success of NESB teachers. It is a process of cultural exchange in which one group assumes the beliefs, practices and rituals of another group without sacrificing the characteristics of its own culture. I explore how extended exposure in the classroom, developing cultural intelligence and the courage to be assertive, and length of stay in Australia can positively increase chances of integration. Our native colleagues and the second generation of migrants can be of immense help to us (i.e., first-generation migrants) in this process. Cultural integration also appears to be closely linked to an individual’s sense of cultural identity, which is better understood as fluid rather than static. This understanding leads me to realise that, by embracing the concept of fluid identity, the process of cultural integration can become far less demanding.

I conclude that, as a result of this auto-ethnographic inquiry, I have achieved growth in my personal and professional competencies. Both my personal reflections and my participants’ experiences helped me to develop professional skills to survive and thrive. While exploring the issue of cultural transition I grew as a migrant in an unfamiliar land. I didn’t just learn a new set of values; I also learned how to reconcile them with my older set of values, thereby paving the way to my own cultural integration. This study proved to be a medium of therapeutic catharsis that helped me to heal from previously unidentified pain, setting me free from possible intergenerational trauma. I also benefitted by growing as a ‘writer’; I learned the art of looking in the mirror and describing what I see and reflecting on how it can help to assess myself and my way of thinking and functioning.

The findings of this study have the potential to help my fellow NESB teachers to grow in their personal, professional and cultural lives, leading the Australian education system towards better retention of NESB teachers, thereby avoiding essential skill wastage.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Education
Supervisor(s): Taylor, Peter
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