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Early career teachers: stories of resilience

Report


This article summarises key sections of the 2012 book Early Career Teachers: Stories of Resilience, written by Professor Bruce Johnson, Professor Barry Down, Dr Anna Sullivan, Associate Professor Rosie Le Cornu, Dr Judy Peters, Dr Jane Pearce and Janet Hunter .

 

The first year of teaching is notoriously difficult. Many clever and committed beginning teachers find that they cannot endure their early experiences in the classroom, and simply drop out. This attrition not only reflects considerable personal distress for the individuals involved, it also represents a waste of time and money for schools and education systems. Addressing this problem means developing beginning teachers' resilience. However, 'resilience' is too often associated with the idea of purely personal coping strategies and suggests that when individuals don't or can't cope, they themselves are to blame. In reality there are important social, cultural and political influences contributing to attrition and to teachers' capacity for resilience. To lower attrition rates means recognising these influences and reshaping them to guide and support these professionals in the early stages of their careers.

Early Career Teachers: Stories of Resilience describes findings from a study into early career teachers and threats to their wellbeing. The 92-page book reports on research which sought to provide an evidence base for interventions that will increase teacher commitment and reduce attrition. Interviews and professional conversations were held with industry partners, roundtables and workshops conducted in Western Australia and South Australia between 2009 and 2012. Using this evidence the research team drafted a framework of conditions which support early career teachers' resilience. The final Framework of Conditions Supporting Early Career Resilience was developed following consultations in nine schools – five in Western Australia and four in South Australia.

Key sections of the book are summarised in the current article.

The first phase of the project involved 60 semi-structured interviews with early career teachers in terms two and three of the 2009 school year, with a follow-up interview in term four. The second round included interviews with 51 school leaders as well. These 'work stories' were then transcribed to produce over 1,800 pages of rich interview data. Preliminary analysis of the data took place at two workshops held over five days. The research team identified five emergent themes – policies and practices, teachers' work, school culture, relationships and teacher identity – which are now discussed.


Policies and practices

This theme examines how major policy issues are enacted in schools.

Mass education has been directed, managed and controlled through politically mandated policies and procedures for over a century (Cranston, Mulford, Reid & Keating, 2010). These mandates relate to such things as the nature and extent of professional preparation teachers undertake, the age of compulsory schooling for children, student-teacher ratios in schools, and the scope and sequence of year-level-based curricula (AITSL, 2011; Alexander, 2009; ACARA, 2010). Not surprisingly, these broad educational policies have a direct impact on early career teachers. For example, recruitment and deployment policies and processes determine where graduate teachers are employed (metropolitan, rural, remote and/or low SES schools), and under what terms and conditions they are employed (relief, short-term contract, long-term contract, permanent employment).

The graduate teachers interviewed ranked uncertainties over continued employment opportunities as one of the main stresses they face. They were clear that more respectful, transparent, fairer and responsive employment processes were needed to improve the way they were treated in their early careers. Some teachers welcomed reforms in this area by applauding new policies and practices that clearly support early career teachers through internships, induction programs and mentor schemes. They were also positive about employment incentive schemes, reduced teaching loads and targeted professional development activities for early career teachers.

Broader political and economic agendas also impact on the professional lives of new teachers, albeit in ways that are often hidden or obscure at the local level. For example, national priorities to ensure Australia's international economic competitiveness have led to the proliferation of new performance and accountability measures within our education systems (Reid, 2005). These have a direct and daily impact on the professional lives of early career teachers through the implementation of mass compulsory testing (NAPLAN), stringent reporting requirements and 'performance management' regimes.

Even policies and practices that are philosophically grounded have local effect. The inclusive education movement, for example, has encouraged the integration of students with diverse and challenging needs in classes that previously catered for a smaller range of student abilities and behaviours (Forlin & Chambers, 2011). This commitment to inclusive education has intensified the behaviour management demands on teachers, including those early in their careers.

However, as well as telling the researchers of their problems, interviewees also spoke positively of the support they received from other staff (School Services Officers, mainly) and from their school leaders.

To enhance early career teacher resilience it is important to provide relevant, rigorous and responsive preservice preparation for the profession; create innovative partnerships and initiatives that assist smooth transitions to the workforce; and implement transparent, fair and responsive employment processes.


Teachers' work

In previous studies, early career teachers have described how they felt overwhelmed by teaching, particularly its emotional demands (Hargreaves, 1998) and relational dimensions. Teachers' work today is arguably more complex, challenging and difficult than at any other time. There are a plethora of policies, guidelines and directives that contribute to the complexity of teachers' work (Ball, 1993; Reid, 2005). Examples include the forthcoming Australian Curriculum; teacher accountability and performance management requirements; national professional standards for teachers; social inclusion and equity policies; national standardised testing; behaviour management; requirements for students with special needs; and the demands surrounding Indigenous education. All these things impact directly and indirectly on the daily lives of teachers, and throughout this study early career teachers spoke repeatedly about the intense and complex nature of teaching.

In recent times, education systems have attempted to respond to the unique difficulties and needs of early career teachers by putting in place professional learning opportunities and support systems to assist them. However, such responses have often focused on the individual early career teacher and ignored the broader structures, cultures and practices.

To enhance early career teacher resilience it is important to acknowledge the complex, intense and unpredictable nature of teachers' work; develop teachers' curriculum and pedagogical knowledge and strategies; provide support to create engaging learning environments; and ensure access to appropriate ongoing support, resources and learning opportunities.


School culture

The early career teachers in this study described varied experiences of school culture. Some of the teachers were carefully and deliberately inducted into school cultures with shared visions of learning for both staff and students. At these schools, supports were put in place to help all teachers achieve the best they could with their students. Unfortunately others experienced school cultures that were isolating and disempowering.

It was clear from this study that early career teachers were best supported in school cultures that operated as professional learning communities where all teachers were expected to be leaders of learning. However, professional learning communities do not just happen, they have to be nurtured. One issue is a sense of place: feeling connected to the local setting. One of the participants, for example, described how he acquired a sense of place partly through his own initiative – by jumping in the deep end to coach the school football team – and partly through the support of the 'cultural awareness lady' who organised introductions and offered a point of personal support. Another issue is whether the new teacher feels a sense of empowerment. This can be nurtured when a school leader recognises and values the expertise that an early career teacher brings, while also ensuring that they receive support from more experienced teachers.

Although he is an advocate for school professional learning communities, Fullan warned that when they operate in isolation they can 'unwittingly represent tunnel vision, reinforcing the notion of the school as an autonomous unit' (2011, p1). He argued that development of a true culture of professional learning requires systemic change and resourcing to enable schools and districts to learn from each other. This is one of the challenges for education systems, as they strive to develop learning cultures across their organisations.


Relationships

Teaching is first and foremost about relationships – teachers' relationships with students, parents and teacher colleagues, and also the relationships that exist between students. It is not surprising that this study found that the quality of relationships in which early career teachers engaged was a key condition influencing their resilience. Schools are complex interpersonal workplaces and there are differences and conflicts that need to be negotiated continually. It is only in romanticised readings of schools that schools are seen to be unproblematic caring and nurturing environments (Groundwater-Smith, Ewing & Le Cornu, 2010).

The challenges associated with this aspect of teaching are magnified for early career teachers. To enhance early career teacher resilience it is important to promote a sense of belonging, acceptance and wellbeing; for example, when the principal takes care to connect with them and takes personal interest in their induction.

Student–teacher relationships need to be placed at the heart of the teaching/learning process. Early career teachers can be assisted, for instance, when colleagues model positive relationships with students, share tips on relationship-building, draw out their success stories and are there for them in the event of stressful experiences.


Teacher identity

In their first year in the classroom, teachers face the challenge of developing a professional identity that enables them to gain recognition and acceptance as teachers. It takes time for the new teacher to understand the balance and interplay between personal and professional identities; for example, how to balance the personal and professional when establishing relationships with parents; how to deal with expectations of others; realising and accepting that others will have interests and motivations different to one's own; and understanding how context influences identity.

For early career teachers it might be helpful to seek out opportunities to work with colleagues who share their philosophies. It is also important to realise that becoming a teacher is an evolving process. Teacher colleagues can help them by getting to know them as people, as well as fellow professionals, and by acknowledging how emotional teaching can be. School leaders should explicitly model ways to behave professionally, challenge narrow or fixed views of what it means to be a 'good' teacher, and encourage new teachers to explore different ways of being a teacher. Employers, unions, universities and other professional groups might consider providing courses on resilience and teacher wellbeing.


Conclusion

The aim of this research was to take on a systemic and structural perspective to explain early career teacher stress and burnout: to avoid the pitfalls of individualistic explanations that shifted responsibility for human wellbeing from social institutions and culture to the individual. These traditional psychologised approaches to resilience were felt to offer overly individualistic, depoliticised and decontextualised explanations divorced from the broader social and institutional context of teachers' work. The study promotes a more balanced, complex and sophisticated conception of resilience capable of recognising the importance of social, cultural and political influences at work. At heart, this socially critical orientation advances the view that teacher resilience must engage with the institutional and social structures of schooling, not merely the preparation of early career teachers to 'fit in'.

It is hoped that the insights and the practical advice provided in Early Career Teachers: Stories of Resilience will be sufficient for education systems and school leaders to develop successful interventions to support and sustain our graduate teachers in their first few years of teaching. Interpreting and applying this information will be a challenging and vital mission to improve the professional lives of newly appointed teachers in the next few years.

Note: The ideas and practices outlined in the book were developed from a large Australian Research Council Linkage Project (2008–2012), 'Addressing the Teacher Exodus: Enhancing Early Career Teacher Resilience and Retention in Changing Times'.


References

ACARA (2010) The shape of the Australian curriculum (version 2). Sydney: ACARA Copyright Administration.

AITSL (2011) Accreditation of initial teacher education programs in Australia: standards and procedures. Melbourne: Education Services Australia for the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA).

Alexander, R. (2009) Children, their world, their education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. London: Routledge.

Ball, S. (1993) Education policy, power relations and teachers' work. British Journal of Educational Studies, 41(2), 106–121.

Cranston, N., Mulford, B., Reid, A. & Keating, J. (2010) Politics and school education in Australia: a case of shifting purposes. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(2), 182–195.

Forlin, C. & Chambers, D. (2011) Teacher preparation for inclusive education: increasing knowledge but raising concerns. Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1), 17–32.

Fullan, M. (2011) Leading professional learning. School Administrator, 63(10), 1–4.

Groundwater-Smith, S., Ewing, R. & Le Cornu, R. (2010) Teaching: challenges and dilemmas. Melbourne: Cengage.

Hargreaves, A. (1998) The emotional practice of teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 14(8), 835–854.

Reid, A. (2005) The regulated education market has a past. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1), 79–94.

KLA

Subject Headings

Teaching profession
Educational evaluation
Educational planning