Beginning teachers' achievements and challenges: implications for induction and mentoring
Peter Hudson is an associate professor, Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, at the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology. This article is prepared from the author's paper of the same title delivered to the 2012 ATEA Conference.
In Australia and elsewhere, high attrition rates of beginning teachers from the profession are of concern. Reasons cited for teachers leaving the profession include the lack of appreciation from students, parents and colleagues (Gavish & Friedman, 2010), low salary, unsatisfying working conditions and inadequate teacher preparation (Darling-Hammond, 2010). The experiences of teachers during their first year of professional practice also contribute to teacher retention: researchers generally agree high attrition rates indicate that existing support programs are having limited success.
One way to reduce attrition is to provide beginning teachers with quality support, particularly in the form of induction and mentoring. Such support is more likely if induction and mentoring are informed by evidence about beginning teachers' needs and experiences during their first year of professional practice.
This article reports on a qualitative study investigating the achievements and challenges experienced by ten beginning teachers at two points during the school year: April and September. The article is prepared from the author's paper of the same title delivered to the 2012 ATEA Conference.
The participants, eight women and two men, had all completed a Bachelor of Education (primary) at a small university campus in a lower socio-economic community in Queensland. Two participants were over 30 while the others were aged between 20 and 29. Eight participants taught single classes between years 1–7 in the primary school, one taught a year 2/3 composite class, and one taught French to various upper-primary classes. Six of these early-career teachers were based in schools on the outskirts of the city and four taught in schools within the Brisbane metropolitan area.
Data were collected from an extended written response questionnaire, interviews and focus-group discussions. The questionnaire required participants to write about their greatest achievements and challenges, teaching as a career, their sense of their effectiveness as a teacher, and the advice they would provide to preservice teachers entering the profession. Each written response was then discussed between pairs of beginning teachers who organised audio recordings of their own discussions.
Behaviour management and student-teacher relationships
When asked to outline their greatest achievements in the first three months of teaching, six out of ten participants focused strongly on behaviour management (Table 1). For example, Participant 7 included among her achievements: 'Starting my new job and still loving it, building positive relationships with my students, having a behaviour-management plan down pat that works'. Their comments mainly related to individuals or small groups of students. For instance, Participant 9 described 'improving the behaviour standards of some specific students within the class', while Participant 6 wrote about behaviour management in relation to surviving as a teacher: 'Getting a handle on behaviour management (especially the language), working out how to teach grade 1, surviving at keeping on top of most things'. Participant 10 noted that one of her greatest achievements was to develop positive teacher-student relationships: 'I am enthusiastic and passionate everyday and I connect with my students by listening to their needs'. She also emphasised her ability to establish a positive learning environment by providing 'a bright, stimulating classroom the students love coming to – they know they are welcome to come in and discuss anything with me'.
At the same time, nine out of ten also referred to behaviour management as their greatest challenge (Table 1). Participant 4 stated 'I have a few high-behaviour children who are not responding as well to my behaviour-management system'. Participant 3 described 'extremely challenging kids that don't fit into the standard classroom behaviour plan', while Participant 8 was challenged by 'special-needs students' behaviour'. Three participants focused on one student rather than whole-class behaviour-management issues. For instance, 'Dealing with a student who can be quite defiant and bullies [other] students openly but does not recognise it as bullying' (Participant 2). In some cases the issue of managing students was not necessarily about their behaviour as such, but rather its impact on student learning. For instance, Participant 2 noted that most students did not complete homework: 'Have tried many strategies, rewards and detentions and vary the homework each week (asked the students when they preferred to have homework given out and due)'.
By September, participants claimed that they were managing students more effectively and were able to create supportive learning environments. For instance, Participant 3 wrote: 'Developing a behaviour-management program that works and has effective tangible results; developing an online virtual learning environment that supports and fosters learning within my classroom, as well as for homework/supplementary support'. In this context two participants spoke of the support they had received from their mentors.
Despite these reports of progress, behaviour management continued to be a challenge for more than half the participants. For example, Participant 9 wrote: 'Managing the behaviour of a few students in my class, trying to keep students engaged when there is so much going on outside and around them' and 'dealing with home issues with students', while for Participant 8 one student's physical violence was an issue.
In April, none of the participants cited learning differentiation as a challenge, and one mentioned it as an achievement: 'Figuring out how to differentiate for and include all the students in the class by catering to their individual needs, behaviour management – individual strategies for individual students and positive relationships, being flexible and organised with reading groups'.
By September, however, three participants raised it as a challenge. Participant 2 stated: 'Learning to successfully handle grouping and differentiate in my classroom – such a large range of learners in my room'. Two highlighted the challenges of providing appropriate learning for students with disabilities. For example, 'Managing the learning of one of my students with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder]' (Participant 9).
Curriculum and assessment
Dealing with curriculum and assessment were challenges for these beginning teachers. For instance, three participants mentioned 'NAPLAN pressures' (Participants 4, 8 and 9) and 'coping with assessments' (5 and 10), while others stressed over 'covering everything that needs to be covered for the term – there are so many concepts in the curriculum [but] not enough time to teach them all in depth' (Participant 4).
Creating a work-life balance
In April, four participants found the creation of a personal work-life balance to be a challenge: 'Personal time management – haven't had a weekend for nine weeks' (Participant 7); 'balancing my work life with my social life particularly – learning how to work smarter and not harder' (Participant 3). Indeed, the only participant who attempted to create a work-life balance appeared to suffer from guilt. To illustrate: 'Knowing I might not be doing all I can for the kids in my class because I choose to put time aside for me and my family/friends' (Participant 6).
In September, two more participants indicated that work-life balance was becoming a greater issue. For example, 'work/life balance – I need to stop living at the school' (Participant 3), and 'keeping up with the workload and having a family life' (Participant 6).
Working with parents
In April, parental liaison was not remarked on as a challenge, and in fact two participants considered it as an achievement. By September it had become a challenge for half of these first-year-out beginning teachers, arising in the form of 'cranky' parental behaviour (Participants 1, 6, 7 and 9).
Discussion and conclusion
The study investigated beginning teachers' perceptions of their achievements and challenges in their first year of teaching, with a view to inform mentors, school leaders and those inducting early-career teachers about how they could more effectively support them in their new educational environments. The evidence highlighted the significance of student-behaviour management in the minds of these beginning teachers, and suggested that mentors need to be proactive in guiding their practices. The findings also revealed other concerns, such as differentiating their teaching to meet the needs of various learners, particularly those with disabilities. Indeed, there are numerous disabilities in society, many of which would not be covered within preservice teachers' university coursework or professional school experiences. Consequently, beginning teachers require support around students who have disabilities, particularly as each case will be unique. Furthermore, creating a work-life balance can be difficult for those new into teaching positions. Experienced staff can provide strategies they have developed to create this balance to ensure work is maintained at a quality standard and that beginning teachers are not overwhelmed and overworked with little recreation to alleviate the fluctuating pressures. Understanding how to balance professional and personal life without feeling guilty may help the beginning teacher avoid burnout early in their careers.
The evidence indicated that different issues emerged, or intensified, at different points of the beginning teachers' first year. For example, the issue of dealing with parents became more problematic in September, after half-yearly reporting. Support from experienced colleagues on this issue would have assisted their development as the year progressed.
Some of the participants spoke about the need to observe teaching practices, but also having a mentor or school executive observe them teach and provide feedback for advancing their practices. School executives need to be vigilant in providing their beginning teachers with support, particularly as they may not seek support with a sense that this could be an indication of failure. Other studies are needed to understand early-career teachers' achievements and challenges, including qualitative research from mentor and school-executive perspectives, and quantitative studies using surveys to gather information about the commonalities of their achievements and challenges.
Gavish, B., & Friedman, I. A. (2010). Novice teachers' experience of teaching: a dynamic aspect of burnout. Social Psychology of Education, 13(2), 141–167.
Subject HeadingsTeacher training