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Blog post Part of special issue: The ECR journey: From inspiration to impact

Inspired by top trumps and tarot: A playful response to the teacher retention crisis

Kathryn Spicksley, Research Fellow at University of Birmingham

Teacher retention continues to be a significant policy problem in England, and indeed worldwide, with many countries in the Global North reporting difficulties in sustaining their teaching workforce. Recent policy responses to teacher attrition in England have focused on increasing pay, reducing workload and developing the (recently revised) Initial Teacher Training and Early Career Framework (ITTECF) to provide additional support to new teachers. Less evident in policy responses to the teacher retention crisis are systematic efforts to support early career teachers (ECTs) in developing a robust, secure and positive sense of professional identity; this is despite research which indicates that successful identity work is crucial in enabling teachers to remain committed and motivated within the profession (Johnson et al., 2016). My postdoctoral fellowship, the Playing Teacher project, aims to address this gap by creating a playful resource – a card deck – which can be used by those mentoring ECTs to open up dialogic conversations intentionally focused on teacher professional identity.  

Why a deck of cards? Will it really help?

The Playing Teacher project was – at least in part – inspired by the Metaphor, Cancer and the End of Life Project, which involved developing a ‘metaphor menu’ that visualised different metaphors used by people diagnosed with cancer. The metaphor menu was understood as a tool for supporting people to come to terms with their illness, recognising that different metaphors can be helpful for different people, or at different times. Similarly, the aim of the Playing Teacher project is to give people supporting new teachers a flexible, engaging resource which can be used – with little or no planning or preparation – to open up important conversations about becoming a teacher. Such conversations might easily be backgrounded, particularly in the context of the highly structured ITTECF.

‘The aim of the Playing Teacher project is to give people supporting new teachers a flexible, engaging resource which can be used … to open up important conversations about becoming a teacher.’

Discursive constructions of teachers

The first part of the Playing Teacher project involves exploring the myriad ways in which teachers are discursively constructed through a corpus-assisted discourse analysis of a selection of textual documents focused on teachers and teaching. The way teachers are spoken about in the public space has an impact on ‘the material-economic realities of teaching’ (Mockler, 2022, p. 169). Teachers have also been invited to contribute their views and perspectives through an online qualitative survey.

Developing a card deck to support new teachers

Findings from the first stage of the research will inform the development of the cards. I imagine these to be a bit like tarot cards or top trumps cards – with each card showing a different archetype of the teacher which has emerged from the previous textual analysis. A pilot card, derived from Mass Observation data included in the corpus, can be seen in figure 1.

Figure 1: Front and reverse of pilot teacher card – ‘The Storyteller’ (illustration by Simon Reid)










This second part of the project involves further developing these cards with a small group of ‘teacher developers’: mentors, teacher educators and ECTs who are interested in co-creating this deck of cards with me to ensure they are functional, useful and attractive.

By itself, a card deck will not solve the teacher retention crisis, just as a metaphor menu will not cure cancer. But in developing this set of cards, I aim to heighten awareness among ECTs, school mentors and teacher educators of the importance of talking about teacher professional identity. We know how important having a positive sense of professional self is to teachers, and how difficult it is for teachers to disentangle their personal and professional lives (Day et al., 2007). Issues of pay, workload and classroom management are necessary factors in helping new teachers to remain resilient through difficult times – but they are not, in themselves, sufficient. New teachers need a positive sense of who they are as teachers in order to succeed in the profession.

The research project Playing Teacher: Developing a mentoring intervention to support early career teachers is funded by the British Academy, PF22\220048. If you would like to get involved in this project by trialling and developing the card deck, Kathryn would love to hear from you – please email


Day, C., Sammons, P., Stobart, G., Kington, A., & Gu, Q. (2007). Teachers matter: Connecting lives, work and effectiveness. Open University Press.

Johnson, B., Down, B., Le Cornu, R., Peters, J., Sullivan, A., Pearce, J., & Hunter, J. (2016). Promoting early career teacher resilience: A socio-cultural and critical guide to action. Routledge.

Mockler, N. (2022). Constructing teacher identities: How the print media define and represent teachers and their work. Bloomsbury.