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Creating an environment to support effective learning strategies for early career teachers

Written by: Lisa Vann
11 min read
Lisa Vann, Teaching and Learning Associate, Transform Trust, UK

How do we encourage our early career teachers to engage purposefully with research and in at a time when they are busy establishing their craft in the classroom? How do we also build upon the research-engaged and evidence-informed practice demanded by initial teacher training (ITT)? These were key questions that have refined our early career teacher programme in recent years.

We know that we work in a national climate where teacher recruitment and retention is challenging, and seek to provide our early career teachers with the support and challenge that they need to thrive. Recruitment and retention is in crisis, with one in three teachers leaving within five years (Ward, 2019). In 2017, the House of Commons Education Committee ranked teacher retention second only to budgetary challenges, and the NFER (Worth, 2018) refer to teacher supply as ‘bleak’. The Teacher Wellbeing Index (Education Support, 2019) responses highlight that 72 per cent of educational professionals describe themselves as stressed. Influential organisations, including the EEF (2019), are seeking to support the provision of better training for NQTs, and the Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019a) recognises the need for a two-year training provision.

We know that getting the right professional support is key to retention. As Allen and Sims highlight (2018, p. 28), ‘It turns out that teachers are not fleeing poor pupils but in fact are fleeing schools in which they do not receive the right professional support.’ At Transform, we are determined to provide the best possible training provision for our early career teachers. We know that this makes a significant difference to retention. Our experience had already demonstrated that a two-year training programme gives a strong start to a teaching career, so we welcomed the ethos of the Early Career Framework (DFE, 2019a). We also recognise the need for focus on assessment, behaviour management, curriculum, pedagogy and professional behaviours, and since 2019 have framed our planning around these key areas.

Sustained professional learning

Our early career teachers engage in a two-year programme because we know that teaching is a career of lifelong learning and that one year is insufficient. In their extensive review of CPD provision, Cordingley et al. (2015) reported that effective CPD is typically sustained over a substantial period of time and has a rhythm of follow-up consolidation and support activities. Our programme applies a spiral design, resulting in key teaching and learning being revisited over the course of the two-year programme. Sessions run half-termly with follow-up reading and actions, supported by focused triad visits. We revisit key themes during the two years and regularly model retrieval and elaboration strategies to embed knowledge. Our aim is for our teachers to be confident classroom practitioners who are equipped to succeed in the challenging and exciting world of education.

A professional community

In their study ‘Becoming a teacher’, Hobson et al. (2009) report that there is a statistically significant association between enjoyment of teaching and teachers having positive relationships with colleagues, as well as early career teachers being able to develop a sense of autonomy and ownership. The Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019a) establishes that teachers enter the profession to combine ‘a rich range of professional skills and knowledge, deep personal challenge and a sense of being part of a wider mission’ (DfE, 2019b, p. 4). Our intention is to reflect these elements in our training and integrate this into our programme design. This ensures that our early career teachers experience shared purpose and collegiality from the earliest stage of their career and are aware of the wider community that they belong to. As part of this, our training launches with a two-day residential. This enables us to introduce our NQTs to their wider community, to teaching essentials and to coaching. It helps to establish a peer network from the outset, and learning in collaboration remains a thread throughout our programme.

Engaging with research and evidence

Research and evidence use are at the heart of our early career teacher development. Our approach to using and engaging with evidence and research is twofold: our first method is through our session delivery and our second method is through peer-led action research.

We draw upon a wide range of experts to model and share evidence-based practice at our sessions. This includes senior leaders from our schools and specialist leaders of education, who facilitate training sessions to build upon existing knowledge, refine practice and provide scope for discussion and reflection. This includes exploring curriculum, pedagogy, safeguarding and strategies to succeed.

Our face-to-face sessions have a familiar format. Subject experts share evidence-informed practice for our community of early career teachers to engage with and reflect on, with time to talk and plan. Peer discussion and collaborative action-planning help our teachers to identify next steps. Our teachers then apply this learning and share their reflections at future sessions. We ensure that each session enables our early career teachers to reflect upon professional behaviours. This continues to be a welcome aspect in feedback from our delegates. Often, our early career teachers are beginning to think about taking on leadership roles towards the end of the first two years, and time is allocated in our sessions for leadership and career coaching conversations. This is a conversation supported in schools and therefore supports our common language related to professional behaviours and leadership.

Throughout our sessions, we explicitly model our pedagogical approach for clarity and learning. Our focus on effective learning and use of cognitive science provide a framework for our face-to-face sessions, which we explicitly refer to. Sessions begin with a familiar format of retrieval tasks, elaboration strategies and dual coding to share and deepen knowledge, and are influenced by resources such as Understanding How We Learn (Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019) and Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of instruction’ (2012). By modelling key elements with deliberate and explicit reference, we believe that we are sharing effective teaching and learning models, a mantra of practising what we preach.

Early career teacher action research

We are also keen to allow our teachers to engage in their own research, and our second method of engaging with evidence and research is by creating an environment for early career teachers to embark upon purposeful action research. We group our early career teachers into triads and they create their own enquiry questions. This enquiry question acts as a focus for an investigation throughout the autumn and spring terms. Teachers visit each other’s schools whilst they focus on their enquiry question. This structure enables our early career teachers to feel a sense of ownership for an area of teaching and learning that is relevant to them. This means that they are less likely to feel that this is CPD that is wasting their time, something that NQTs find a frustration and hindrance of CPD (Hobson et al., 2009). It enables them to take ownership of their professional development whilst building strong working relationships with peers and to experience working across different school communities. Teachers visit each school with their chosen line of enquiry as a focus, and explore how that translates to different school and classroom settings. This is subsequently shared with the wider early career community using an enquiry poster template. This helps to refine thinking and structure reflection and feedback. We also introduce this enquiry poster strategy to our teachers to prepare them for future CPD opportunities, when this approach is replicated and completed by an individual, rather than as a triad-based task. This continuity helps the learning curve of teachers in their third year onwards to continue to grow rather than plateau in supportive environments (Allen and Sims, 2018).

This format feels positive. It helps us to capture the key learning and establish a defined purpose for the triad work. In previous years, we have used the triads as an opportunity to visit different schools to identify best practice. Teachers were sharing their learning in a TeachMeet format and the session was really positive, energising and supportive, but the learning was at risk of being lost once the session ended. Whilst this triad visit and feedback was always popular and useful, we were reminded of the variation of experiences of the novice and the expert (Didau, 2018). A structure to support the enquiry could guide the novice to be better able to explicitly draw out key learning. Our poster template structures the enquiry and manages workload at a busy time in a teaching career. We’re keen to ensure legacy in our learning, so this structure helps us to capture learning with purpose. We are also keen for our early career teachers to engage in their own research to further develop their confidence and competence.

A further effect of this enquiry-based focus on a pedagogical question supports the shift from a feeling of being observed by others to a feeling of a collaborative study, similar to that of Japanese Lesson Study models (Hanford, 2015). Japanese Lesson Study focus is on teacher research followed by professional discussion and collaborative planning, which our triads also seek to achieve, and our triad design is influenced by this. In summary, teachers are able to concentrate on a key aspect of teaching and learning that is of interest to them and see how this translates to different classroom and school contexts.

Figure 1: Poster template for enquiry question

The poster template (see Figure 1) records the enquiry question, and the triad explain their focus and approach, sharing a summary of research with references to support. This encourages engagement in research in a low-threat manner, linking to and building upon ITT, and provides an opportunity to engage in evidence-based practice. The triads apply the research to their own classroom experiences, with the benefit of visiting different school settings to gain a fresh perspective. Triads share their key learning points in relation to their enquiry question and this helps to capture learning from three different settings and to identify key themes. By working in a group of three, we minimise workload at a time of a steep learning curve (Allen and Sims, 2018), and maintain collaborative learning. The triad provide their recommendations and next steps. This element proves essential, as it is recognised that our early career teachers have developed expertise to share with their peers and wider school community. Individuals also generate personalised next steps for their own practice. Triad posters are shared with our schools and create a record of enquiry-based learning cohesive with peer-based learning. As Allen and Sims note (2018, p. 16), ‘Learning from peers is the single most important characteristic of schools that manage sustained growth in teacher expertise.’

We sought feedback on our approach from our early career teachers using an anonymised open-text end-of-session survey. Twenty-seven NQTs out of 45 attended this live session and all provided feedback. Typically, our attendance rates are much higher, however, during lockdown some NQTs watched the recorded session at a later date due to teaching commitments and were therefore unable to offer live feedback. Some examples of the questions and responses are outlined below.

Q1: What did you learn from your triad discussions?

  • The importance of recapping previous lessons and ways to do this.
  • Strategies to help children use maths manipulatives appropriately and effectively.
  • The influence of the wider community on children in school.

Q2: What are your next steps following your triad discussions?

  • To continue to develop own CPD using recommended resources in addition to further training and research.
  • Use Rosenshine’s principles in my own practice.
  • Always evaluate everything I’m doing. Is it effective? Is it having the effect I wanted it to? Am I wasting time and energy?

In conclusion, when considering effective learning strategies for collaborative learning, we have found that there are key elements that support efficacy. In our face-to-face sessions, we find that an established, repeated format to model learning whilst applying explicit and deliberate teaching pedagogy aids our sessions. Expertise is shared and evidence-informed practice modelled, with particular reference to its application in the classroom. Furthermore, a clear, concise structure is provided for our early career teachers to engage in their own evidence-based enquiry, with the support of peer triads and a research-based poster template to structure enquiry and reflections. This creates legacy by capturing learning. Furthermore, it helps our newer practitioners to continue to engage in, critique and reflect upon purposeful research and evidence as they progress in their careers. Our next step is to undertake further studies in relation to the confidence and satisfaction levels of our early career teachers as they progress through the first few years. This will explore how our teachers continue to develop their curriculum and pedagogical expertise as they progress in leadership roles, as the introduction of the Early Career Framework promises to provide further support for our early career community.

Transform Teaching School Alliance consists of 50 primary schools in Nottingham and Derby.


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