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Situated professional learning for retention and success in early career teaching

Written by: Diane Mayer
8 min read

This article argues for a situated perspective of new teachers’ work and professional learning, and highlights important considerations for retention and success in early career teaching.

Attrition rates of early career teachers

The attrition rate of new teachers is an ongoing concern for governments across the globe. More than 10 years ago it was reported that 10 per cent of teachers in OECD countries in their first three years of teaching leave, sometimes at a rate 150 per cent higher than for other teachers (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development, 2005). More recent figures indicate that attrition rates might be even higher now. In the USA, data shows that 30 to 46 per cent of new teachers leave teaching within the first five years (Gouldring et al., 2014), while current figures in England suggest that around a quarter of newly qualified teachers who join state-funded schools leave within four years (Department for Education, 2018). Moreover, there is evidence to show that attrition rates are particularly high for early career teachers in science, mathematics and languages (Worth and De Lazzari, 2017).

Why are they leaving?

While early career teachers’ motivations for entering teaching usually reflect a strong ethic of care and a commitment to students, increasing regulation of their work and associated workload issues seem to cause many of them to reconsider their chosen vocation soon after commencing. Currently, in England, the main reasons teachers give for leaving the profession are workload pressures, government policy and lack of support from leadership (Foster, 2018). Government attention has been focusing on issues of teacher workload, and a recent report from the DfE’s Teacher Workload Advisory Group has questioned the use of widespread data practices that don’t help student progress but do increase teacher workload (Teacher Workload Advisory Group, 2018).

While workload is often cited as a reason for leaving the profession, it is arguable whether some of the current initiatives intended to develop early career teachers’ coping strategies are beneficial in the long term or helpful for the profession. They focus attention on the individual teachers rather than rethinking aspects of the system within which they work that might be causing the situation. The increasingly regulated nature of teachers’ work, along with the narrowing of curriculum in ways that curtail opportunities for teachers to engage their professional knowledge to make informed teaching and learning decisions for the students in their particular context with their particular learning needs, often influences beginning teachers’ career decisions (Mayer et al., 2017).

Induction and retention

Recent concerns about a predicted shortfall in the numbers of teachers needed for schools in England (Worth and De Lazzari, 2017) have resulted in intense government focus on recruitment and incentives to become a teacher. More recently, attention has moved to ways of supporting and keeping early career teachers, alongside a continuing focus on recruitment. Over the past year, the government has managed a consultation process on proposals to introduce a strengthened qualified teacher status, intended to support teachers at the beginning of their career and improve career progression. As a result, the government plans to extend the induction period for new teachers and introduce an Early Career Framework of support and mentoring.

Certainly, there is evidence of the importance of induction for new teachers. Ingersoll and Strong (2011) reviewed a number of studies examining the effects of induction for new teachers, including support, guidance, and orientation programmes, and concluded that most of the studies reviewed provide empirical validation for the claim that support and assistance for beginning teachers have a positive impact on teacher commitment and retention, teacher classroom instructional practices, and student achievement.

Professional learning: A situated perspective

Early career teachers often feel that they are spending less time than they would like on teaching and learning in their classrooms. For example, in the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), new teachers reported spending less time on teaching and learning and more time on classroom management (Jensen et al., 2012). This situation does not allow them to establish a professional persona that reflects their motivations for entering the profession. Moreover, and possibly relatedly, these new teachers reported significantly lower levels of self-efficacy than experienced teachers. This is particularly noteworthy given that work engagement and a sense of self-efficacy are positively related to job satisfaction for early career teachers and negatively related to job burn-out and intention to leave (Hoigaard et al., 2012).

Often the response to concerns about teacher efficacy is to implement measures intended to develop teaching competence. This usually means designing and delivering professional development programmes for new teachers to develop their teaching skills and classroom management strategies. However, I argue for a shift from thinking about what can be done for (and to) early career teachers to thinking more about early career teachers’ professional learning within the context of their schools. Such an approach is more likely to result in higher levels of engagement with colleagues and connectedness with the profession, in addition to ongoing learning and developing competence. A large-scale, longitudinal study in Australia showed that career decisions and progression are closely linked with practices in school settings and the opportunities that these workplaces create for beginning teachers’ continuing professional learning (Mayer et al., 2017).

In this context, it is important to consider the terms professional development and professional learning. Too often, they are used interchangeably. However, as Kennedy (2016) reminds us, professional development is usually conducted outside of the classroom, and whatever is said, modelled or shown during a professional development session is meant to alter behaviours inside the classroom (evidence that learning has occurred). If the focus moves to learning as the main goal, professional learning within the context of new teachers’ schools requires a different way of thinking about induction and retention of early career teachers than simply designing more induction programmes that offer professional development sessions.

Drawing on Wenger’s (1998) view of learning as authentic participation in the practices of a professional community, teacher learning can be understood as a socio-cultural activity in which teachers seek to make sense of experiences as they participate in the practices of schools with and in relation to their colleagues. This situated perspective of collaboratively ‘learning teaching’, while at the same time ‘doing teaching’, establishes individual teacher ownership as well as a collective and shared sense of purpose that not only improves teaching effectiveness but also enhances teachers’ commitment to their work (Mayer et al., 2017).

The role of school leadership and school culture is critical. In their research, Day and Gu (2007) found that while new teachers showed a high commitment to teaching, their sense of efficacy was most strongly linked to positive support from the headteacher and colleagues, to recognition of their work and progress, and to the school culture. Concerningly, however, there is evidence to suggest that new teachers actually receive lower levels of support than their more experienced colleagues (Caspersen and Raaen, 2014). A recent NFER report similarly highlights the importance of a supportive whole-school culture (Walker et al., 2018).

We also know of the benefit of professional learning that recognises teachers’ starting points for learning and develops their ownership of their learning (British Educational Research Association, 2014). Importantly, in this situated and collaborative perspective of professional learning, which seems to have a higher likelihood of helping to build commitment and connectedness to both their schools and the profession, new teachers need the time and space to identify their professional learning needs and to engage in relevant activities within the school context to develop their professional knowledge and professional practices. The benefits of peer observations and other types of collaborative work have long been acknowledged (for example, Avalos, 2011; Bowe and Gore, 2017; Lewis, 2016).

Supporting early career retention: Situated professional learning

In this article, I have argued that a situated perspective of new teachers’ work and their professional learning has particular relevance for addressing issues of retention and success in early career teaching. From this perspective, both school leadership and school culture become key to the ongoing professional learning and formation of new teachers and their retention. Moreover, it also involves a close attention to the discourses in schools related to roles and purposes, as well as resourcing, that ultimately enable beginning teachers to increase their participation in the school community and to continue to learn effectively. Central to this approach would be considerations about:

  • the role of school leadership in creating a learning culture in which the school becomes a place of learning for teachers as well as for students
  • the types and levels of support from the headteacher and colleagues, including induction, school-based CPD and mentoring
  • opportunities for early career teachers to work and learn collaboratively with school colleagues on context-specific problems of practice
  • the time and space for new teachers to identify their professional learning needs and to selectively engage in relevant activities to build their professional knowledge and professional practices.

Taking a situated perspective of new teachers’ work and their professional learning provides some insight into the ways in which new teachers can thrive as highly effective teachers, able to support the learning of all students in their care, and ultimately how they therefore stay connected to their workplace and to the profession more broadly.


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