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How do trainee teachers perceive their future selves as teachers, and how can we support them in their careers?

Written by: Kate Sida-Nicholls
8 min read
Kate Sida-Nicholls, Secondary PGCE course leader, Suffolk and Norfolk SCITT, UK

This scoping study involved 103 initial teacher training (ITT) primary and secondary trainees as they started their school-centred initial teacher training programme in September 2020. The purpose of the study was to capture views about novice teachers’ identity and consider whether their perception of their future teacher identity provides any insight into the current retention issue in teaching, as outlined in the Department for Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy (January 2019).

Within our context, the trainees involved in this research are a mixture of primary and secondary, salaried and tuition trainee teachers. We work in partnership with approximately 130 primary and secondary schools across Suffolk and Norfolk and, due to the number of schools in our school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) partnership, we are very aware of the different experiences that trainees have during their training year. Training to be a teacher is very context-driven and the opportunities that are provided to novice teachers to ‘learn to think like a teacher; learn to know like a teacher, learn to feel like a teacher and learn to behave like a teacher’ are crucial parts of the development of an early career and of trainee teachers’ professional identity (Feiman-Nemser, 2008, p. 698).

The stimulus for this research derives from my interest in the varying contexts in which trainees find themselves training and how their experiences during their training year inevitably influence their expectations of their ‘future selves’ in teaching. I wanted to find out whether a continuous conflict between the vision of ‘future selves’ as a teacher and the reality of becoming a teacher could create any insight into the retention issue that we face with early career teachers. Trainee teachers’ identity starts to take internal positions, ‘I as teacher’, alongside the growth of their external ownership of ‘my students, my colleagues, my classroom’ throughout their early years of teaching. However, what is crucial to the constructing and negotiating of these identities is the trainees’ interactions with students, mentors, colleagues and parents, and the conventions and social rules with which they find themselves working (Lee and Schallert, 2016).

The trainee teachers were approached via email with an outline of the aims of the research, and asked to complete an anonymous three-question questionnaire. Out of 127 trainees who were asked to be involved, 102 responded and completed the questions. The questions link with the possible selves (expected and feared selves) theory from Markus and Nurius (1986). This is a well-established psychological framework and one that lends itself well to studying how the future-orientated thinking of trainee teachers might affect their self-regulation towards future possible goals (Hamman et al., 2013a, Hamman et al., 2013b). Possible selves theory, by Markus and Nurius (1986), is centred around the representation of self in the past and includes representations of the self in the future. Possible future selves is focused on specific individual hopes and fears but is also highly socialised. Possible future selves can only be imagined by an individual due to the previous social interactions and comparisons that an individual has had within their social context. The questions were created based on the reading that I have carried out in regard to professional identity for my PhD, and I wanted to capture the trainees’ views about teaching at the very early stage of their training year. At the stage in mid-September when the trainees were asked the questions, many of the trainees had not started their placement in schools due to the delay that we had put in place to support our partnership schools in adjusting to COVID restrictions in schools at the start of term.

I looked at all respondents’ data and grouped the answers from each question into broad themes that emerged from my analysis, and I was able to generate percentages from the number of trainees whose answer fitted into the broad categories.

Based on the answers from the first question about what had led them to this point of wishing to become a teacher and why they decided to become a teacher, this research group showed many of the expected reasons for wishing to become a teacher (see Table 1). These range from desiring a more valuable career to wanting to help make life changes for young people. However, 39 per cent of the research group stated that it was their previous experience in some kind of role in schools that had helped them to decide to become a teacher. Therefore, based on this small-scale research, it is perhaps relevant for schools to think about being proactive in providing roles for unqualified teachers, as this might be a successful recruitment strategy.


Table 1: What has led you to this point of wishing to become a teacher? How and why did you decide to become a teacher? (Note: only significant numbers included)

Passion for subject Experience of teaching, e.g. TA/unqualified teacher More valuable career Making changes to lives of young people
Secondary trainees 29% 35% 17% 17%
Primary trainees 0 42% 8% 19%

The second question that the trainees were asked was about what kind of teacher they wanted to become (see Table 2). Various answers emerged – for example, making a difference, addressing disadvantage, creating a positive learning environment and, predictably from the secondary trainees, having a passion for their subject. However, 50 per cent of the trainees answered this question with what I ended up defining as ‘positive teacher attributes’. The kind of teacher that trainees want to be is ‘kind’, ‘funny’, ‘fair’, ‘organised’, ‘sensitive’, ‘approachable’, ‘nurturing’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘compassionate’, ‘supportive’ and ‘engaging’. It appears that they are less concerned about being committed to the role, being a positive role model or putting learning into a real-world context. They are focused on developing the attributes that some of the trainees described as being a ‘teacher that students remember’.

Table 2: What kind of teacher do you want to become? (Note: only significant numbers included)

One who makes a difference One who shares passion for subject One who makes learning enjoyable Specific attributes listed
Secondary trainees 10% 25% 0% 63% listed positive attributes
Primary trainees 6% 8% 25% 37% listed range of positive attributes
Most common were:

Firm and fair



Finally, the third question was about what kind of teacher they did not want to become (see Table 3). Some answers that might be seen as predictable became clear, such as that the trainees did not want to be uncaring, to only teach to the exam or to be unable to build relationships with students. Once again, a clear response emerged from the data and it was what I ended up defining as ‘negative teacher attributes’. Sixty per cent of the research group stated that they did not want be the kind of teacher who was ‘boring’, ‘negative’, ‘disorganised’, ‘lazy’, ‘strict’, ‘jaded’, ‘stuck in their ways’, ‘long-winded’, ‘confusing’ or ‘old-fashioned’. When thinking about their possible future selves, trainee teachers were mainly concerned about being described as ‘boring’. I did not ask them to state who they thought would define them as boring but I have assumed that it would be the students that they would teach in their future teaching career.

Table 3: What kind of teacher don’t you want to become? (Note: only significant numbers included)

One who has low expectations Stressed by the job Only teach to the exam Specific attributes  listed
Secondary trainees 12% 20% 8% 72% listed negative attributes
Primary trainees 10% 10% 13% 48% listed range of negative attributes
Most common were:


Not respected

Old fashioned

Not respected by the students

This small-scale research has highlighted how trainees, when thinking about their possible future selves, are more focused on developing personal attributes rather than pedagogical and assessment skills and knowledge. Should we be reflecting on how more of a balance can be reached between the content of the ITT and early career framework and what novice teachers perceive to be important in their career? As Hamman et al. (2013a) suggest in their research, the training of teachers is context-driven. Perhaps we should start to encourage mentors and other experienced teachers to explicitly discuss with the trainees and early career teachers the view that they have of their possible future teaching selves? If mentors can have these types of conversations, then they might be able to offer solutions and strategies for when a conflict arises for novice teachers between their possible future selves and the reality of teaching.

Markus and Nurius (1986) also point out that possible selves can both inform and motivate. In the case of teaching, early career teachers inevitably check their progress against their perceived future self. This is where frustration, anxiety and, worst-case scenario, desire to leave the profession can originate. However, the flip side is that it can also be motivating, as individuals can be empowered by their future selves. In the case of novice teachers, providing them with regular opportunities to discuss and share the type of teacher that they want to be and being very clear about the steps that they need to take could be something to develop when thinking about how to retain early career teachers.

The intention of this scoping study was to support trainees and, subsequently, early career teachers to create a schema about the type of teacher that they would and wouldn’t like to be. Within this schema, and with support from their tutors and mentors, they can put into place tangible steps that allow them to complete their goals. Our intention is that it will enable us, as a training provider, to provide more personalised ongoing support to trainees during their training and newly qualified induction years. We hope that by encouraging novice teachers to acknowledge the fact that aspects of their possible future selves as teachers might not be attained in the early years and by providing them with steps to address any conflict, we can encourage them not to leave in the first five years of their career.



Department of Education (DfE) (2019) Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy. Available at: (accessed 8 December 2020).

Feiman-Nemser S (2008) Teacher learning: How do teachers learn to teach? In: Cochran-Smith M, Feiman-Nemser S, Mclntyre DJ et al. (eds) Handbook of Research on Teacher Education: Enduring Questions in Changing Contexts, 3rd ed. USA: Routledge, pp. 697–705.

Hamman D, Wang E and Burley H (2013a) What I expect and fear next year: Measuring new teachers’ possible selves. Journal of Education for Teaching 39(2): 222–234.

Hamman D, Wang E and Burley H (2013b) What I expect and fear next year: Measuring new teachers’ possible selves. Journal of Education for Teaching 39(2): 222–234.

Lee S and Schallert D (2016) Becoming a teacher: Coordinating past, present and future selves with perspectival understandings about teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education 56: 72–83.

Markus H and Nurius P (1986) Possible selves. American Psychologist 41(9): 954–969.


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