Navigating and negotiating: Career changers in teacher education programmes

November, 2020

Source: Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 48:5, 477-490

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article focuses on a significant cohort of student teachers, career-changers, to understand their contributions and concerns.
The paper seeks to investigate what this group of students may bring to their teacher education (TE) courses, how their needs and contributions may differ from those of other, younger students, and how they navigate change as students.

Conceptual framework
The study adopted a qualitative interpretive framework to extract rich, meaningful interpretations from the gathered data (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009).
The qualitative approach was grounded in participants’ everyday contextual lived experiences and circumstances, allowing the authors to describe, interpret and draw telling conclusions from career changers’ perceptions and experiences as student teachers.
In addition, Dewey’s Experiential Learning Theory (1938) with its focus on how individuals learn from past experience to grow and gain new knowledge, and Allport’s definition of adult learners’ “Becoming” has informed the research study (Allport, cited in Kidd, 1973).

Study design
The study set out to identify career change student teachers (CCSTs’) characteristics and backgrounds, and to investigate their perceptions and expectations on being a student with a view to informing TE programs about ways to best support this cohort.
Survey questions comprised:
(1) Questions to garner demographic data – Participants’ age; gender; educational qualifications; previous role/s, discipline area and type of teaching course enrolled in.
(2) Likert scales rating response data – Reasons for choosing teaching as a career; attributes participants believe they bring; degree of satisfaction with teaching course and practicum; concerns and support suggestions.
(3) Open-ended questions to gather qualitative data – Participants’ learning needs and expectations; suggestions on personal and professional support, and ways of recognising their prior skills and experiences.

Data collection
Data collection occurred through a national online survey distributed to CCSTs enrolled in 29 Australian Universities.
All 34 Australian universities offering TE programs were approached but five declined to convey the survey to their students.
By the end of the survey period, 508 responses were received.

Data analysis
The study used both qualitative and quantitative modes of analysis.
Qualitative responses were thematically analysed by grouping similar ideas, words and patterns (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) to allow dominant categories to emerge that were relevant to the research study.

Findings and discussion

Summary of key findings
(1) CCSTs hail from diverse professions and disciplines.
(2) Their reasons for choosing teaching are primarily intrinsic and altruistic.
(3) Most respondents are satisfied with their TE program.
(4) Flexibility in course offerings and during professional experience is the most important factor valued by participants with regard to learning needs support.
(5) Acknowledgement and recognition of prior career and life experiences are deemed important by most participants.
(6) A certain paradox in participants’ responses emerged (Varadharajan, Buchanan, & Schuck, 2018).
Many expressed a need to be treated differently while at the same time requiring the same support as any other student teacher.
As much as career changers have sound reasons to join the teaching profession and bring valuable qualities, there seems to be a complex interplay of external and internal factors in their long-term retention.
Career changers’ own beliefs and prior assumptions about teaching and learning as they enter the TE program can be inhibitors in their adjustment to the profession and its adjustment to them.
A compounding factor relates to their knowledge and prior experience.
While some are experts in subject and content knowledge, deriving from their previous work and education, they do not necessarily possess the associated pedagogical knowledge (Tigchelaar et al., 2014).
Others, if they have worked in education or similar fields, or are parents, may have robust “pedagogical instincts” but they are yet to develop the theoretical backdrop to evaluate these.
As a result, knowledge exchange may well differ in dealings both with (in) this cohort, and between them and school leaver entrants.
Suffice it to say that each career change teacher brings to their study and work a maturity and set of experiences greater than that of their erstwhile teenaged selves.
Schools are arguably called upon to fulfil dual roles of both apprenticing young people into the workings of their society and equipping students to be critical of that same society. It stands to reason that career change teachers, with their greater beyond school experience, can be instrumental in achieving this.
As such, they potentially offer considerable threat and hope to the school system. As mature-age students, they may have different attitudes towards their learning (for example, a deep learning approach) compared to the younger cohort (Mallman & Lee, 2016).
Failure to recognise career-changers’ knowledge and experiences, and the challenges they face, can contribute to their disillusionment and consequent decision to leave the profession.
This study and previous studies (Laming & Horne, 2013; Varadharajan, 2014) indicate that this cohort have not taken the decision to join teaching lightly and are typically motivated by intrinsic reasons.
They are eager to form a sense of affiliation with their adopted career (Varadharajan, 2014).
So, when they enter the TE program, they may already come with certain expectations, in terms of being compensated for their sacrifices and choices, as well as some weaknesses in terms of academic literacy.
At the same time, they are hungry for recognition for their prior knowledge and skills and keen to pass on their experiences to future generations.
This suite of factors mediates their transition through TE programs and into teaching.
However, TE providers tend to design their education systems primarily with the younger school leaving cohort in mind, neglecting due consideration for those with work, family and other commitments (Hamilton & O’Dwyer, 2018).
CCSTs’ engagement with the challenges within and beyond themselves is part of their Becoming.
They are navigating the multiple challenges that exist within and around them but retain a determination to succeed in their new career.
It is a process of navigating change, both within and external to themselves, but also negotiating aspirations and growth that have evolved from past experiences.
Both of these can assist CCSTs in their Being and Becoming (Dewey, 1938).
Life has prepared CCSTs with a breadth of experiences.
Their experiences, in turn, have probably equipped them with a certain resilience, so essential to teaching.
These qualities justify their place among pre-service teachers, and speak to the profession’s responsibility to welcome them.
Universities and TE providers need to consider new and innovative ways in which their courses can be differentiated to suit career-changers’ prior skills and knowledge in ways that maximise their learning.
Differentiating the curricular offerings to account for prior knowledge may well pay dividends.
At the same time, consideration must be given to career changers who have not recently undertaken studies and so may have shortfalls (such as academic or digital literacy as evidenced in this study) that are less common among the younger cohort.
All student learners navigate change as they enter university.
The authors propose here that TE providers and accrediting bodies might become more familiar with and more accommodating of the strengths and limitations that all prospective teachers, including career-changers, embody.
Career changers’ trajectories as learners feature elements distinct from those of their school-leaver counterparts.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity.
Evidence-based enhancement of their professional growth is a crucial part of assisting their “Becoming” into the profession.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. London: Collier Macmillan Publishers.
Hamilton, M., & O’Dwyer, A. (2018). Exploring students learning approaches in an initial teacher education programme: A comparison of mature learners and direct entry third-level students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 71, 251–261.
Kidd, J. R. (1973). How Adults Learn. New York: Association Press.
Laming, M. M., & Horne, M. (2013). Career change teachers: A pragmatic choice or a vocation postponed. Teachers and Teaching: Theory & Practice, 19(3), 326–343.
Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.
Mallman, M., & Lee, H. (2016). Stigmatised learners: Mature age students negotiating university culture. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(5), 684–701.
Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretive phenomenological analysis: Theory, method and research. London: Sage Publications.
Tigchelaar, A., Vermunt, J. D., & Brouwer, N. (2014). Patterns of development in second-career conceptions of teaching and learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 41, 111–120.
Varadharajan, M. (2014). Understanding the lived experiences of second career beginning teachers. (Doctoral dissertation). Sydney: University of Technology Sydney. Retrieved from
Varadharajan, M., Buchanan, J., & Schuck, S. R. (2018). Changing course: The paradox of the career change student-teacher. Professional Development in Education, 44(5), 738–749. 

Updated: May. 11, 2021