Understanding professional vulnerability in higher education: A multiple case study of EFL teachers at a university in Mainland China

Zhan Zhu GAO

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Theses


Teaching is a vulnerable profession. Not only are teachers vulnerable to unfavorable workplace conditions that constrain their professional practice, but they are also vulnerable to an ever-shifting sociocultural context which is beyond their sphere of control. Thus, it can be said that vulnerability constitutes an integral part of being a teacher. The past twenty years have witnessed a steady growth of research interest in teachers’ professional vulnerability in the field of teacher education and development. Nevertheless, how teachers perceive and respond to their professional vulnerability has not received due attention from academia. Scant research examines the vulnerable experiences of university teachers in such countries as China, where performativity plays a dominant role in higher education. To fill these gaps, this doctoral thesis reports a multiple case study on the professional vulnerability of five English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers at a university in northwestern China. Informed by an integrated conceptual framework of teacher vulnerability and teacher agency, this study addresses three questions: (1) Do university EFL teachers experience professional vulnerability? (2) How do university EFL teachers agentively respond to their professional vulnerability? (3) What factors lead to university EFL teachers’ professional vulnerability?
Drawing on data collected from multiple sources, including semi-structured interviews, field observation, reflective journals, documents, and social media (WeChat), this study shows that the participants experience vulnerability in different aspects of their professional lives. They do not resist being labelled as a “vulnerable population” and tend to perceive vulnerability as a dynamic, conflicted, and multidimensional state accompanying their professional development. The study also shows that, as “agents of change”, the participants adopt cognitive and behavioral strategies to cope with their professional vulnerability. Specifically, their cognitive strategies include reflection-in-action and manipulation of personal belief systems, while behavior strategies include disengagement, compliance, fabrication, ingratiation, adjustment, experimentation, rapport-building, resource-mobilization, investment, and confrontation. These strategies reflect the participants’ diverse orientations towards certain aspects of their professional vulnerability and indicate the dominant role of the “practical-evaluative” dimension of their agency. Furthermore, this study unpacks a constellation of personal (career stage, educational background, academic position, and personality), institutional (managerial technique, power relation, collegiality, and university attribute), and sociocultural (educational reform, “publish-or-perish” mantra, the cultural tradition of teacher-reverence, and face) factors mediating the participants’ experiences of professional vulnerability. The study adds to our knowledge of the complexity of university EFL teachers’ professional vulnerability in an era of intensified performativity in higher education. It also offers some recommendations for supporting university EFL teachers to withstand professional vulnerability and sustain professional development amidst unrelenting educational changes. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • The Education University of Hong Kong
  • TRENT, John Gilbert, Supervisor
  • YUAN, Rui Eric, Supervisor
  • WANG, Lixun 王立勛, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Professional vulnerability
  • Agency
  • University EFL teachers
  • Higher education
  • Performativity
  • Thesis (Ph.D.)--The Education University of Hong Kong, 2022


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