Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 42:4, 437- 454
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This paper reports on a recent inquiry into the professional skills of novice preschool teachers and how these are assessed, both by teachers themselves and preschool principals.
The study was conducted in Estonia for several reasons.
Estonia has high formal qualification requirements for preschool teachers.
The work of Estonian preschool teachers is increasingly regulated by state-level curriculum documents, which clearly define children’s expected learning outcomes, but also emphasize parents’ rights to participate in the planning of the learning process and to receive feedback about the progress of their children (Tuul, Mikser, Neudorf, & Ugaste, 2015).
Estonia is a useful context for such an empirical study and for discussing broader issues of preschool teacher education and the principal’s role.
The authors formulated their research questions as follows:
(1) How do Estonian novice preschool teachers assess their professional skills?
(2) How do Estonian preschool principals assess novice preschool teachers’ professional skills?
(3) What commonalities and tendencies emerge when comparing the assessments of the preschool principals and the novice preschool teachers?
The survey questionnaire
The authors developed a written questionnaire based on the list of skills included in the Teacher Professional Standard (Kutsekoda, 2005).
The questionnaire consisted of 25 statements (items), which they presented as novice teachers’ specific professional skills.
They divided the items into five sections.
The respondents assessed each item on 5-point Likert scales (1 = unsatisfactory, 5 = excellent).
The novice teachers assessed their own skills, and the principals assessed the skills of novice teachers working in their institutions.
The sample of novice teachers was formed of the graduates of the bachelor-level preschool teacher education program in Tallinn University, one of the two universities in Estonia which prepare preschool teachers.
The authors contacted all graduates from the years 2011–2013 who were working in preschool institutions (children aged 2–7) as of late 2013.
They then contacted principals of the same institutions where the responding teachers were working.
The authors posted questionnaires to 110 novice teachers and 110 preschool principals.
The respondents’ participation was voluntary, and their anonymity was ensured.
Sixty-one novice teachers and 57 principals returned the questionnaires filled in.
Findings and discussion
The authors first examined how Estonian novice preschool teachers and preschool principals assessed novice preschool teachers’ professional skills (research questions 1 and 2 respectively).
They then examined commonalities and tendencies emerging from the comparison of the assessments of the two groups of respondents (research question 3).
They first found that, similarly to the findings of previous studies from the school context (Cheng & Cheung, 2004; Harju & Niemi, 2018), their novice preschool teachers tended to rate their own professional skills higher than the principals did.
However, where, as the previous studies detected, only a limited number of areas where the ratings of novice teachers were higher than those of the principals, their study revealed that the novice teachers’ ratings were higher on all but 2 of the 25 aspects examined, with differences in 20 aspects being statistically significant.
This finding also contradicts the results of the meta analysis of Veenman (1984).
Veenman detected certain problematic areas of novice teachers as indicated by principals, but he nevertheless observed a general consistency between the assessments of principals and novice teachers: a finding later confirmed by Brock and Grady (1998).
Given that a great majority of their preschool principals had the same qualification and previous professional experience as the novice teachers had, they do not assume these differences resulted from any differences in the respondents’ professional preparation.
They rather hypothesize that the differences indicate what has been termed an “organizational and cultural divide” between teachers and principals (Rinne et al., 2016, p. 765).
This means principals focus on managerial duties and have reduced their activities directly related to teachers.
In the light of the previously described marketization pressure and the growing influence of parents, it is intriguing to note the considerably low ratings that both groups, particularly the principals, gave on the novices’ skills related to cooperation with parents.
This contrasts with the fact that the principals rated the teachers’ cooperating and communicating skills the highest across the five sections.
The authors conjecture that the principals, perhaps unconsciously, converted part of their stress over parents’ complaints into dissatisfaction with teachers, whom they saw as primarily responsible for daily dealings with parents.
Novice teachers, for their part, may have embraced low self-esteem in regards to cooperating with parents.
In regard to the potentially limited understanding that novice teachers and principals have about each other’s concerns, early childhood teacher education has a specific responsibility to bridge the gap between the assessments of the two groups.
To comprehend the increasing complexity of education policy, teachers and principals need broad sociological, historical, and philosophical knowledge of educational issues, which would reach well beyond the matters of their immediate working context.
Latent policies and power relations form a considerable theoretical challenge.
Several authors have noted that practitioners’ ignorance of theory can actually serve the interests of certain unspoken policy initiatives.
Another intriguing finding from the study concerns the two items on which the ratings given by the principals were higher than those given by the novice teachers.
It is also revealing that the differences between the ratings of the two groups were statistically not significant.
The first of these two items concerns the novice teachers’ skill in adapting learning activities for children with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
The second item concerns the teachers’ skill in adapting learning activities for children with special needs.
These two skills were the only ones that the principals rated higher than the novice teachers did.
Additionally, the combined ratings of the two groups on these two skills were the lowest.
Moreover, the ratings of the two groups on these skills were the most similar of all 25 skills included in the study.
It follows that despite the overwhelming discrepancy between the assessments of the two groups, they agreed that novice teachers’ skills are low in the area of adapting learning activities to the diversifying student population.
This finding is most important, given the current global challenge of increasing student diversity (Darling-Hammond, 2017), which is also considered as a compelling challenge for early educators and early childhood teacher education (Brown et al., 2015).
The findings allow the authors to infer that deficiencies in these two kinds of skills are well acknowledged by preschool principals, as well as by novice preschool teachers themselves.
This acknowledgment, in turn, allows the authors to suggest that preschool teacher education programs need to pay more attention to the graduates’ skills in adapting learning activities to children with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and to children with special needs.
Altogether, the authors’ findings and their comparison with the previous research indicate the need for further research in at least two directions.
First, there is the need to examine, using both qualitative and quantitative methods, the underlying considerations of both groups in regard to assessing novice teachers’ professional skills.
They hypothesize that the principals’ assessments are influenced by the increased accountability pressure on preschool education institutions, which in turn has obliged principals to compel teachers to fulfill accountability requirements.
Second, they hypothesize that the assessments of both groups indicate the increasing global pressure to work with children from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and with children with special needs.
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