To thrive, new teachers need environments of trust
Having just attended BERA’s Annual Conference at the University of Northumbria, I have been reflecting on the diverse range of talks I attended, and some of the key research messages that I brought away with me – particularly those regarding the situation of new teachers in the UK. As a final-year PhD student at the Centre for Research in Professional Learning at the University of Exeter, my research explores the sometimes-difficult transitions that early-career professionals experience when moving between formal training and practice, and my current focus is on newly qualified secondary school teachers (NQTs) in England (Foster-Collins 2017). Through narrative interviews and an online survey to elicit ‘stories of workplace support’, I am seeking to establish:
- what types of workplace support new teachers receive from other professionals and wider staff teams
- what support types might be missing
- which factors affect the provision and seeking of support
- any implications of these findings for teacher development, wellbeing and retention.
Before I began this research, I was in little doubt as to the many difficulties that novice teachers face, as evidenced in the current literature, in retention statistics, and in conversations with experienced teachers . The up-to-date research presented at the recent BERA Annual Conference did little to dispel this somewhat bleak picture.
David Spendlove of the University of Manchester questioned the frequently made claims of a ‘recruitment crisis’, pointing instead to problems with steadily increasing attrition rates and a failure to nurture newly trained teachers. Similarly, Jane Perryman of the UCL Institute of Education presented clear evidence that teachers start out with a great deal of professional passion, motivated by the non-monetary rewards of ‘making a difference’ to students’ lives. However, ‘unmanageable’ workloads, seemingly pointless paperwork and insufficient support impact upon work–life balance in ways that are simply unsustainable in the long-term.
‘A recurring finding was of a lack of trust in teachers, which impacted on their confidence, as well as perceptions that schools were “psychologically unsafe” spaces due to cultures of monitoring and constant assessment.’
One theme that was frequently mentioned during research talks was that of a lack of trust in teachers, and the impact of that on teachers’ confidence, alongside perceptions that schools were ‘psychologically unsafe’ spaces due to cultures of monitoring and constant assessment. Maxine Watkins (University of Worcester) examined the influence that school cultures have upon early-career teachers’ professional identities and their long-term professional commitment. Her use of timelines highlighted the dip in morale that newly qualified teachers often experience during their first year, which could lead to otherwise highly-effective teachers dropping out. However, positive stories within this data suggest that such crises are not inevitable, and may be averted with the right support and positive school cultures – ‘safe environments’ in which teachers can learn from ‘car-crash lessons’, and can receive mentoring support distinct from their assessment against teaching standards.
Matt Hutt (University of South Wales; download his presentation here) also talked about trust and autonomy within the context of Welsh schools, and his narrative inquiries highlighted:
- how low-trust environments and constant performance monitoring can result in teachers craving positive reassurance as to their professional worth
- fears over accepting opportunities for autonomy because of what failure might imply
- anxiety caused by constant pressures to ‘improve’ upon improvements.
Kim Gilligan of the University of Sunderland also made an important distinction between different types of mentoring support, with ‘technical’ mentoring being linked to formal evaluation, whereas ‘alternative’ forms of mentoring seek to develop and care for the individual themselves.
My own research on workplace support for secondary-school NQTs in England is still underway, but already I can see contrasts between participants’ stories regarding the degree to which they experience ‘safety’ within their learning environments, with some NQTs feeling that they can ‘never do enough’, or that every move is watched, measured and judged by others. One participant felt dissuaded from seeking support from mentors because they wished to avoid giving away ‘weaknesses’, as those same staff would assess them. On the other hand, another participant described being given explicit permission to make mistakes during her first year, and reflected on how the attainment of children in her classes arose not solely from her own professional capacities as a teacher but as a product of complex multiple factors.
This freedom to grow and develop, with an acknowledgement of how professional learning is an ongoing process, and not one undertaken alone, is surely what every new professional requires if they are to thrive in a new career. In exploring these differences between individual experiences of workplace support, I hope to uncover instances in which teacher support works well or less well. Understanding this support is essential if we are to retain the many good new teachers that teacher educators tell us we currently lose, and so that the strong professional motivations that teachers start out with can continue to flourish and grow.
Foster-Collins H (2017) ‘Interprofessional Learning, Support and Feedback in Early Career Professionals’, Research Intelligence 134: 29–30. https://www.bera.ac.uk/researchers-resources/publications/autumn-2017