Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 46:5, 664-675
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
Drawing on research in England and Australia, this article amplifies the voices of early career teachers (ECTs) and examines the implications of their experiences for effective transition from initial teacher education (ITE) to newly qualified teacher (NQT) and beyond.
A mixed methods approach was taken for the overall study to reflect the complexity of experiences among ECTs at many levels – contextual, social, psychological and emotional.
The approach was underpinned by a socially constructivist epistemology, as the research explored the experiences and perspectives of ECTs (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009).
Two ITE providers (one in Australia and one in England), with a shared commitment to embedding wellbeing in their teacher preparation programmes, collaborated on a research project to seek perspectives of ITE graduates in relation to their wellbeing in the initial years in the teaching profession.
A comprehensive online survey, which elicited both quantitative and qualitative responses, was developed collaboratively to examine themes including respondents’ understanding of professional wellbeing and career aspirations.
In framing this article, qualitative responses which related specifically to questions about the period of transition from the ITE context to qualified teacher were examined to identify the support and challenges to an ECT’s wellbeing and professional satisfaction.
The anonymous and voluntary survey targeted former trainee teachers who had completed their ITE programmes in the previous five years.
The research teams in England and Australia contacted alumni of their postgraduate and undergraduate ITE programmes by email invitation from academic tutors or the alumni services database.
Overall, 67 graduates responded to the survey, 42 who trained in England and 25 who trained in Australia.
Fifty-seven (85%) respondents were currently in teaching positions with 25 (44%) in fixed term or temporary roles and 4 (7%) in supply teaching roles.
Survey respondents were also invited to participate in interviews to probe research themes more deeply, and interested respondents provided their contact details for this purpose at a second online collection point. In-depth semi-structured interviews (via telephone and Skype) were conducted with five volunteer participants (three from England and two from Australia).
Thematic coding (Miles and Huberman 1994) was used to review the data and identify emerging themes from open-ended responses in the questionnaire and interviews which were transcribed in full.
Findings and discussion
Participants shared multifaceted insights into their transition experiences as ECTs and these have been grouped into four key themes, starting with the initial transition phase and focusing on professional collegiality, mentoring support and workload.
Initial transition phase
Many online survey respondents described the transition from ITE to NQT as ‘rather’ (21%) or ‘very’ (28%) overwhelming.
Given that 54% of the respondents had been teaching for less than two years at the time of the survey, this is noteworthy, particularly as the ITE providers in this study place significant emphasis on teacher wellbeing.
Asked to identify three key strategies that helped them in the transition to the workplace, 24 respondents referred specifically to prior experience of ITE, including teaching and learning strategies and resources from university course and placements.
If these careful preparations during the ITE phase are not providing the necessary tools to manage the transition to, and retention in, the workplace, then alternative approaches may be needed to support ECTs to make more effective links between ITE experience and their roles as NQTs and beyond.
One possible action would be for the ITE provider to share more explicitly the approaches taken during the initial training period with the employing school so that there is a better understanding of prior experience and practice in ITE (DfE, 2018).
The importance of transition documentation was echoed by many respondents but indicates the risk of superficial induction masking the complexities and needs of the new teacher, where bespoke support to ensure a smooth transition is needed.
One participant reflected on the potential benefits of maintaining a more formal link with the ITE provider during the NQT year to provide additional support beyond the specific school context, to ‘have a secure safe space to vent about the system, within the system’.
When describing their understanding of wellbeing, many respondents identified a strong sense of belonging which echoed the literature cited earlier around transition phases in school contexts.
One respondent commented that ‘feeling part of a community’ was a key aspect of wellbeing as a teacher, linking to Gu and Day’s (2013, 22) research findings that ‘conditions count’.
These conditions may relate to school environment, but respondents overwhelmingly related conditions to positive professional relationships with colleagues.
A fragile teacher identity and the negative impact of poor relationships were shared on a few occasions, including one teacher who was content in her current fixed-term role, but nervous of moving to another school, as she had negative experiences from one of her ITE placement schools.
A sense of collegial positivity emerged from ECTs working in schools with a group of new teachers.
This was particularly evident in England, but it must be noted that many of these respondents were employed in large schools in London, whereas some of the Australian respondents were based in more rural contexts.
This raises the important question of how to provide a community of practice (Wenger 1998) for ECTs in more rural settings to share their interest in professional learning with others.
Factors which enhanced school culture for ECTs included social events, action research groups, structured professional development programmes, and support and encouragement from senior school leaders.
Yet there is also a need for personalisation, through high-quality mentoring which focuses on pedagogical excellence and developmental needs, to ensure that individual ECTs do not feel isolated by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy approach.
Power of mentoring
Closely linked to professional collegiality, the power of mentoring to enhance the transition phase represented the most significant difference between respondents in England and Australia.
Mentoring support among respondents in Australia was more variable, perhaps due to the number of fixed-term contracts where accountability for professional progression may be less defined.
Most ECTs in England referred to a comprehensive programme of support with ‘weekly meetings, personalised support, positive approach’, although ‘all this stopped at the end of NQT year’ which illustrates a short-term approach and may explain limited impact on retention in the longer-term.
High-quality mentoring must be integrated into longer-term professional development of new teachers, including during the NQT year and beyond.
A longer-term commitment at a systemic level, as part of a coherent and personalised approach to the mentoring of ECTs, merits further research to monitor impact on ECT transition and retention in the profession.
Definitions of wellbeing provided by participants showed a clear connection with self-efficacy, for example: ‘healthy and sustainable balance between work and life outside work’ and ‘a sense of control and clear positive perspectives for the future’.
The use of the word ‘balance’ in 15% of the respondents’ descriptions demonstrates the very real challenges of maintaining balance alongside a considerable workload.
As one respondent commented ‘(I) tried to teach myself . . . to have a cut-off point’ as a way of avoiding inevitable burnout.
Questions are raised by this research about how many promising new teachers are leaving the profession, not due to their ineffectiveness as ECTs but in response to the heavy workload and perception of their future in the profession.
A sense of guilt and sacrifice emerged from respondents in both Australia and England: ‘there were some times that I thought I was letting them (pupils) down slightly because I still wanted a life’ and ‘I want to do a good job so I want to work that much. But I know that I have to sacrifice parts of my life because of that too. So, it’s become a considered sacrifice, but it is a sacrifice nonetheless’.
Such comments serve as a wake-up call to a complex profession which is serious about valuing ECTs and retaining teachers in the longer term (Ball 2013; Hargreaves and Fullan 2012; Sachs 2016).
This research highlights the need for more formative and personalised approaches to complement formal structures and frameworks, developed in a pragmatic and personally meaningful way.
These should include more explicit links (transition paperwork, for example) between ITE providers and schools, the development of networks and communities of practice, and greater priority given to high-quality mentoring support for ECTs, not least to support new teachers with managing workload.
Such an approach should encourage the development of critical reflexivity and agency among ECTs, able to negotiate inevitable professional challenges and unpredictability with confidence (Britzman 2006).
Above all, the ‘recruit – burnout – replace’ model (Allen and Sims 2018, 20) must be replaced with a ‘educate – mentor – nurture’ model, as ECTs deserve empathy and bespoke consideration to avoid neglect by policy-framed assumptions.
A renewed focus on ECT development may allow the whole profession to thrive.
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