‘I’m teaching, but I’m not really a teacher’. Teaching assistants and the construction of professional identities in Hong Kong schools

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Background: In the past decade, educational settings worldwide have experienced a significant increase in the number of school-based teaching assistants (TAs). The deployment of these TAs has been accompanied by reports of confusion and uncertainty about their roles and responsibilities within schools. While the need to reframe the role and purpose of TAs is recognised, it remains unclear how this can be best achieved. Purpose: The purpose of the study is to explore the ways in which one group of TAs deployed in Hong Kong schools construct their professional identities, to understand the constraints and enablements to these processes, and to consider how different stakeholders might be able to best support this identity work. Sample: The primary participants in this study are nine English language teacher assistants employed at different schools across Hong Kong. Other participants include full-time English language teachers who have experience of working with one of these TAs, as well as students who attend English language classes in which these TAs participate. Design and methods: A qualitative multiple case study approach is adopted. In-depth interviews with TAs, teachers and students are used to gain a contextualised interpretation of the primary participants’ experiences of constructing professional identities within schools. A multilevel, multidimensional theoretical framework, which considers identity construction as both a discursive and experiential accomplishment, is then used to understand the constraints and enablements TAs experience in constructing these identities. Findings: Results indicate that TAs face challenges in constructing their professional identities at institutional, interpersonal and intrapersonal levels within Hong Kong schools. In addition, the TAs believe that exercising agency to contest their positionings within schools is often insufficient to place them on a trajectory towards become a teacher. The results also suggest that the identity conflicts TAs experience can lead some to question their decision to pursue a teaching career. Conclusions: These results imply that in order to attract and retain TAs, educational authorities need to, first, problematise identity positions such as ‘TA’ and ‘teacher’ and then reconceptualise these identities in ways that allow for a multiplication of the identity positions potentially available to all stakeholders involved in teaching within Hong Kong schools. Copyright © 2014 NFER.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-47
JournalEducational Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014


Hong Kong
English language
identity conflict
educational setting


Trent, J. (2014). ‘I’m teaching, but I’m not really a teacher’. Teaching assistants and the construction of professional identities in Hong Kong schools. Educational Research, 56(1), 28-47.


  • Teaching assistants
  • Teacher identity
  • Discourse analysis