Competence and challenge in professional development: teacher perceptions at different stages of career

February 2020

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 46:1, 36-54

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The present study aims to examine teachers’ perceptions of professional requirements (PRs) at three different stages of their career (students, beginning teachers, and experienced teachers) in four major domains (Keller-Schneider 2010): their role as a teacher (PR1), teaching to meet individual student’s specific learning needs (PR2), classroom management (PR3), and cooperation with others as a team member (PR4).
With a focus on the processing factors of competence and challenge, the authors would expect that teachers at different stages of their career would differ in their perceptions in the four domains.
Specifically, the following research questions (RQs) were investigated:
(1) Do teachers at different stages of their career perceive differently the professional requirements in terms of the four domains?
(2) What differences concerning their perceived competences can be identified?
(3) What differences concerning their perceived challenges can be identified?


A total of 655 primary school teachers in Switzerland (all parts of Zurich) took part in the study, including 167 student teachers (undertaking teacher education), 283 beginning teachers (the first 3 years of their career as fully responsible teachers), and 205 experienced teachers (with 7–30 years of experience).
As generalists, they teach all subjects.
All teachers worked in state-funded (public) schools in Zurich (94% of the students in Switzerland attend public schools).

Survey instrument
A printed survey was used to collect responses from the participants.
In addition to demographic questions, the survey comprised four scales from the Professional Requirement Scales (PRS; Keller-Schneider 2010).
The four PRS scales were developed based on the main tasks for teachers and were identified empirically in a pilot study with a sample of beginning teachers (Keller-Schneider 2010).

Professional requirement scales (PRS)
The PRS intend to capture constructs of teachers’ professional requirements, derived by content analyses of protocols from counselling sessions with teachers.
Each construct is measured in two dimensions: (i) Competence (I succeed in . . .), and (ii) Challenge (. . . challenges me), on a 6-point Likert-like scale (1 = low, 6 = high).
Each of the four constructs in this paper used three items as indicators.

For the pre-service (student) teachers, they were surveyed during their teacher education course. Beginning teachers and experienced teachers were invited by mailing them the questionnaire to their school address. All teachers who volunteered to participate returned the completed survey by post.
The response rate was 51.5%.

Results and discussion
The present study examined teachers’ perceptions of their competence and challenge experiences among four professional requirements at different stages of professionalisation.
The validation confirmed two clearly defined dimensions – competence and challenge – that can be measured by the Professional Requirement Scales (PRS).
The two distinct dimensions suggest that teachers take competence as a resource and challenge as a demand (Bakker and Demerouti 2006).
In addition to examining patterns at different teaching career stages, the study also investigated the interplay between competence and challenge, which will provide insights into teachers’ process of professionalisation.
An understanding of this interplay enables us to identify needs for professionalisation and capacity building and help teachers manage professional requirements at various stages of development, based on their subjective perceptions.
It also enables us to specify areas that need support, from the teachers’ perspective.

RQ1 (whether teachers perceive professional requirements differently)
In answering RQ1, the results showed that teachers were able to differentiate their senses of competence and their experiences of challenge across four different domains.
While beginning teachers tended to be lower in their sense of competence in all four areas of requirement, different patterns were observed for experiences of challenge at different stages, reflecting the changing challenges teachers face at specific phases of their career.

RQ2 (differences in perceived competences)
For RQ2, the comparison across different stages of career indicates high levels of competence as perceived by the teachers, including beginning teachers.
That is, even in the face of the complexity of the dynamics of the requirements, the beginning teachers in this sample are generally confident as a fully responsible teacher.
However, compared to the other groups, beginning teachers seemed to find themselves less competent than student teachers and experienced teachers in all domains.
The relatively lower sense of competence for beginning teachers may imply:
(1) the complexity of the dynamics calling for support for beginning teachers,
(2) a reflection of the beginning teachers’ actual competence, which may not be adequate to handle real classroom situations, and
(3) an actual increase of challenge in the role of a beginning teacher starting to take full responsibility.
In a sense, the lowered competence belief is therefore not surprising.
In the Swiss context, student teachers in a pre-service programme are nurtured in a relatively well-protected environment whereas experienced teachers know their strengths and can build on their successful experiences.
Beginning teachers, however, need to use their limited competence gained from well-protected situations in a much more complex context.
Between student teachers and experienced teachers, there may not be much difference in their competence beliefs.
In fact, if a teacher education programme is effective with an appropriate combination of coursework and teaching practicum, graduates are expected to hold a high sense of competence, which helps to buffer loss of energy and potential exhaustion (Brouwers, Tomic, and Boluijt 2011; Skaalvik and Skaalvik 2010).
However, despite good, theory-based and praxis-oriented teacher education, by the time student teachers join the workforce as beginning teachers, they realise that their actual competence may not be as adequate as they had assumed.
Therefore, continual learning and further professionalisation will always be necessary.
In this sense, the role of teacher education is not only to prepare teachers for starting their career but also to equip them with the capability to professionalise themselves further, to adjust to changing requirements (Darling-Hammond and Bransford 2005), to reassess their own competencies and to build their strengths for optimal professional growth.

RQ3 (differences in perceived challenges)
For RQ3, the data show that beginning teachers feel more challenged by requirements concerning their role as a teacher than experienced teachers.
Role finding is characteristic of teachers at the career entry phase (Keller Schneider 2010).
Hence, this requirement was found to be less challenging for experienced teachers, whose professional identity is already built up and stabilised.
The beginning teachers of the sample also experienced more challenge in classroom management than student teachers.
Classroom management for beginning teachers is clearly a most relevant challenge because it needs to be sustained over a long period in full-time teaching (Author 2010).
During pre-service teaching, student teachers teach in classes with the support and supervision of experienced teachers.
In contrast, beginning teachers must apply their knowledge of classroom management according to the real situation.
Combined with a relatively lower sense of competence, classroom management is clearly an area that needs attention.
For the requirement of cooperation, the data show that beginning teachers tend to experience less challenge, suggesting that cooperation with colleagues is not an issue.
They seem to be able to work with others.
After establishing their identity in the profession, new teachers may progress to contributing to the mission of the whole school, which would lead to higher perceptions of challenge at later stages of professional development (Pas et al. 2012).
The findings on experiences of challenge upon career entry are informative.
Knowing that teaching is a challenging job at all stages of the career, we should understand that teacher education may not diminish teachers’ experience of challenge because of the ever-changing demands in specific teaching situations.

Bakker, A. B., and E. Demerouti. 2006. “The Job Demands-resources Model: State of the Art.” Journal of Managerial Psychology 22: 309–328.
Brouwers, A., W. Tomic, and H. Boluijt. 2011. “Job Demands, Job Control, Social Support and Self-efficacy Beliefs as Determinants of Burnout among Physical Education Teachers.” European Journal of Psychology 7: 17–39.
Darling-Hammond, L., and J. Bransford, Eds. 2005. Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able to Do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Keller-Schneider, M. 2010. Entwicklungsaufgaben im Berufseinstieg von Lehrpersonen. [Development tasks in the career of teachers]. Münster: Waxmann.
Pas, E. T., C. P. Bradshaw, P. A. Hershfeldt, and J. Hopkins. 2012. “Teacher- and School-level Predictors of Teacher Efficacy and Burnout: Identifying Potential Areas for Support.” Journal of School Psychology 50: 129–145.
Skaalvik, E. M., and S. Skaalvik. 2010. “Teacher Self-efficacy and Teacher Burnout: A Study of Relations.” Teaching and Teacher Education 26: 1059–1069. 

Updated: Dec. 29, 2020