early career teachers

Why every new teacher needs someone to trust

In this blog, we draw on our insights as teacher-educators listening to the voices of early career teachers (ECTs) to reimagine the transition from ‘becoming’ to ‘being’ a teacher. In 2020, we began a longitudinal research project to investigate the experiences of early career teachers in their first three years of teaching. We have now worked with our participants for the past two years and four interviews have been conducted with each of the 18 participants from Australia and New Zealand.

Our interviews with ECTs reveal that there’s always more to discover about the art of teaching and the unique needs of educators. Understanding and fitting in with the cultural, logistical and administrative nuances of the education site were all sources of challenge and anxiety noted by graduates. These elements include questions like, How does the school librarian connect with my role? What is the process for organising an excursion? What are the unspoken rules of photocopying in this school? These are identified as simple yet impactful parts of being a teacher, “…it’s just things like…Where do I get that from? Who do I go to for that?” (Katie, First-year graduate, 2021). However, not all early experiences are as easy to navigate. We interpret Katie’s question of “Who do I go to for that?” as more significant than where the whiteboard markers are kept, signalling ‘Where do I find what I am looking for in this unfamiliar context?’ Multiple graduates participating in our study identified the challenges of finding support that they felt comfortable and safe to access.

“Find your support system … finding someone you can trust and go to. Even if you need to cry … having that time to be able to debrief with someone that you trust and will support you … really important.” (Sophie, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021)

In another example, one participant was so overwhelmed by the expectations and workload of her first teaching context, she resigned from her permanent position and left the teaching profession seeking a career change, typical of so many ECTs.

“… no one could really prepare me for what that looked like [being an ECT in a remote school context]. I had no idea … it was across three grades, I was teaching … you had to do the fundraising, assemblies, all that type of thing, and so I just felt like … I was drowning … you’re a dump zone for every task that nobody else wanted to do”
(Lucy, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021).

Lucy wasn’t able to source support in her school. She felt she was given too much responsibility as an ECT with limited experience or guidance.

 “…[I was] feeling used and abused” (Lucy, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021).

The overwhelm impacted her health to the point where she felt that resignation and a career change were her only options.

“My mental health suffered too much. I just thought, if this is what teaching is like…I cannot be a healthy person” (Lucy, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021).

The power structures inherent in the school system can have a significant impact on the experiences of ECTs and their capacity to advocate for their needs, as was the case for Lucy. While many schools have well-established induction and mentoring systems for ECTs, the intersection of ‘graduate’ and ‘teacher’ can be a professionally vulnerable place. The disparity in power can deter graduates from speaking up or seeking support. This is exacerbated in some Australian and New Zealand schools when ECTs may be appointed on short-term contracts and feel they have to prove themselves to gain a permanent position.

“At the end of the day you’re a first-year teacher … you want to impress and you don’t want to come across as though you can’t hack it … so you’re constantly trying to put on … a bit of a front to prove that you can do it and that they’ve made a good decision to invest in you.”

(Daniel, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021)

Beginning teaching is widely accepted as a time of significant personal change as ECTs move into full-time employment, often leaving the family and friends who have sustained and supported them during their studies. Accessing the professional support that was available during their studies is more complicated once in school employment. Our observations as teacher educators are that currently, we are filling a gap in new teachers’ support networks. This isn’t a problem, but it is largely informal and under-recognised.

An unexpected outcome of our research was that the opportunity for ECTs to speak with a known and trusted teaching professional once or twice a year was embraced by participants. This suggests that there is a place for ITE educators in the process of a “scaffolded transition” from ITE to full teacher accreditation. The ECTs in our research valued the opportunity to share their successes and concerns during the dedicated time for dialogue. This afforded ECTs a dialogic space to grapple with and reflect on becoming and being a teacher, without fear of consequences.

We propose that initial teacher education educators are well-placed to be independent and trusted professionals who make a fertile contribution to supporting ECTs to thrive in the early stages of their careers. Notwithstanding the programs, initiatives, and efforts of so many who work tirelessly to support our new teachers already, we can do more to ensure conditions are such that all new teachers are afforded the conditions to thrive and grow.

From left to right: Michelle Parks, Academic Director of Professional Experience, University of Tasmania; Kim Beasy, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Tasmania; Helen Trevethan, Senior Lecturer, University of Otago College of Education; Jeana Kriewaldt, Associate Professor of Education and co-leader of the Arts and Humanities Education Group at the University of Melbourne; Natasha Ziebell, Senior Lecturer, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne; Wendy Carss, Senior lecturer and Programme Leader, Te Kura Toi Tangata, School of Education, University of Waikato; and Bronwen Cowie, Associate Dean Research, Division of Education, The University of Waikato

Beginner teachers are NOT under prepared and NOT bad at managing behaviour. Here’s the evidence

For years claims have been circulating that newly graduated teachers are under prepared to teach in today’s often challenging classrooms, and that they are bad at classroom management. Thanks to mainstream media interest, and critics within education circles, these claims have led to an increasing array of government interventions in Initial Teacher Education in universities around Australia. What, how and to whom teacher education is delivered has been thoroughly examined and churned in the bid to improve teaching quality and student outcomes.

As teacher educators, intimately involved in teaching our new teachers and supporting them as they embark on their careers, we were deeply concerned about these claims so went looking for evidence of what was going wrong.

This blog post is about our research and what we found.

Be surprised, we found no evidence that beginning teachers in Australia are unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management.  

We believe extensive reforms have been made to Initial Teacher Education in Australia to ‘improve’ teacher quality without any evidence to support the claim that beginning teachers are less competent than experienced teachers.

Our research, carried out in Australian schools, found that most beginning teachers in fact engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues, and for most, behaviour management is not a problem.

Background on government ‘reforms’ to make teachers “classroom ready”

Following the now infamous 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which formalised the (we believe false) claim that graduate teachers were unprepared for the classroom, Australian universities have responded to accreditation requirements by

Various state governments have also made changes that impact universities intake criteria and course content: Queensland, for example, has mandated that students entering primary teacher education degrees must have four semesters of sound achievement in English, Maths and Science. New South Wales has signalled that to be eligible for employment in NSW government schools, students commencing a teaching degree from 2019, must:

  • Receive a minimum credit grade point average in their university degree.
  • Prove sound practical knowledge and ability, which will be reflected by an assessment of every single practicum report.
  • Show superior cognitive and emotional intelligence measured via a psychometric assessment.
  • Demonstrate their commitment to the values of public education in a behavioural interview.

Those doing online degrees are out.

None of these measures are bad, in and of themselves, although they have created significant compliance burden for teacher educators and schools of education, as well as increasing the fiscal pressure on schools and faculties of education.

The problem is that these interventions into university teacher education have come without any supporting empirical evidence that beginning teachers are less competent than their more experienced colleagues.

Our research into the teaching quality and classroom management skills of newly graduated teachers

What research method did we use?

There are different ways of measuring the quality of teaching. The two main ways involve using test scores (like NAPLAN for example) or by observing teachers teaching, and measuring the presence or absence of teaching practices known to add positively to students’ social, behavioural, and academic outcomes. The latter method is, of course, much more expensive because it uses direct observation, but it also can’t be manipulated like test scores can.

One method of direct observation is the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) observation measure developed by University of Virginia education specialists Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta. We used this method in our six-year longitudinal study.

In our paper published in Teaching and Teacher Education this week, we compare the CLASS scores of beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience) and experienced teachers (more than 3 years’ experience) and found no significant differences between the groups.

We used the CLASS system in our study investigating the development of severely disruptive behaviour of students because we were interested in learning the contribution made by the quality of teaching. In the very first year of this six-year longitudinal study, we noticed three standout teachers who were all in their early 20s and wrote about it in the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

That’s also when we decided to ask how many years our teacher participants had been teaching in our research interviews because we were interested to see whether the excellent practice we were seeing bore out over time with a much larger number of participants.

Six years later, we can finally reveal: yes, it does and no, those three early career teachers were not an anomaly. Beginning teachers really do cut it.

We then broke our experienced teacher category into two (4-5 years and more than 5 years) and compared the CLASS scores of teachers in these groups with beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience). This time there were significant differences with the 4-5 year experience group achieving significantly lower quality in three dimensions: Productivity, Instructional Learning Formats, and Negative Climate.

Importantly, there were very few participants in the 4-5 year experience group. While these findings do align with the possibility of a post three-year decline for some teachers, the findings should be interpreted with caution as extreme outliers can have a disproportionate influence on group means.

What’s the upshot?

We followed more than 200 students over six years and very few of their teachers declined participation. Their length of teacher experience ranged from 3 weeks to 38 years.

Basically, beginning teachers performed just as well as, or better than, teachers with more years of experience, regardless of the groups we compared them with. And, while all research is impacted by self-selection to some degree, in this study that was mitigated by our relationship with and presence in seven participating schools and the longitudinal nature of our project.

We found no evidence that beginning teachers were unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management. In fact, we found that most beginning teachers engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues. And behaviour management was the second highest scoring dimension of the 10 dimensions measured by the CLASS.

This evidence is good news for beginning teachers who must have been feeling pretty bruised in recent years and good news for preservice teachers who are scaling an increasing number of hurdles to prove their worth. It is also good news for teacher educators who work incredibly hard under enormous pressure to continually revise and refine their content and to support their students to do well.

Rather than implementing any more graduation hurdles designed to “vet” entry to the profession or further destabilising university teacher education, governments need to look at the evidence and turn instead to finding better ways of directing support to all teachers and provide intelligently targeted, quality professional learning to those who need it.

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda is currently Chief Investigator on several externally funded research projects including “Which children develop severely disruptive school behaviour?”, a six-year longitudinal study funded by the Australian Research Council. She has published more than 80 books, chapters, and journal articles, as well as numerous pieces published in The Conversation.

Associate Professor Sonia White is an academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education and researcher in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT. Sonia is a registered mathematics teacher and her research investigates children’s early learning and development.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. Kathy has a particular interest in research and practice relating to the development and support of inclusive education, with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children.

Professor Robert Pianta is Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and founding Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). He is a leading expert in the field of developmental psychology with much of his research devoted to supporting teachers use of quality teaching practices that best support children’s academic, social-emotional and behavioural development. With his colleagues at CASTL, he has led the development of well-known measures including the Teacher-Student Relationship Scale and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS).

Want to keep early career teachers in the job? Do this

Beginning a professional teaching career is a complex and challenging process in the current social and political climate in Australia. Graduating teachers compete for a limited selection of full-time positions and many accept casual relief or short-term placements as their only alternative.

Within this context, a number of schools have gone to great lengths to develop a professional culture that fully supports beginning teachers, including those on short-term contracts, and to encourage them to grow in their professional practice through good mentoring and induction.

My research work explored the professional learning of early career secondary teachers in Australia and in particular the value of Communities of Practice to our early career teachers.

What is a Community of Practice?

A Community of Practice consists of a group of teachers who are bound together by a common interest (domain) that links them together and allows them to share their practice and support each other.

As Professor of Education at Auckland University in New Zealand, Helen Timperley, notes it is not easy for teachers to share failures and disappointments, especially for those on contracts who might be fearful of appearing incompetent and not having their contract renewed. But within the trustful environment of a Community of Practice, this is possible.

Most importantly, the early career teachers involved in a Community of Practice appeared to be less inclined to consider leaving the profession than their peers in schools that did not have such a culture of growth.

One school using Communities of Practice is a secondary school in a rural area in Victoria that I call Rural College (not its real name). I want to tell you about Rural College because it has developed an excellent professional culture in supporting its early career teachers. I used Rural College as a case study for my doctoral work on Communities Of Practice.

What Rural College did

In recent years, Rural College has made a significant commitment to the professional learning of its teaching staff through the implementation of two significant ventures. The first was a coaching platform and the second was the introduction of Professional Learning Teams.

The school chose these platforms as they wanted to build a learning culture at their school that moved away from traditional staff meetings and allowed teachers to deal with important issues and develop their practice in smaller, more supportive groups.

Coaching platform

The coaching platform Rural College chose is based on the three principles of feedback, teacher development and cultural change through cognitive coaching where teachers explore the thinking behind their practices.

Following on from training sessions for staff and middle and senior management levels, randomly chosen classes for all teachers were surveyed once or twice a year and the results analysed by the coaching company. Several times a term a trained middle or senior level coach met with a small group of teachers to which they have been allocated. These groups—no larger than four people—formed Communities of Practice. Those involved began to share aspects of their data and work together to support each other to create new goals.

Professional Learning Teams

The second professional learning initiative was the introduction of Professional Learning Teams in 2016. This involved teachers choosing an area of interest or issue that they would like to pursue and other teachers signing up to join them. Each team had a particular focus or domain and consisted of up to ten teachers who met weekly as a Community of Practice.

The research for this case-study with Rural College was conducted in 2016 and involved eight early career teachers at Rural College, some of whom were involved in a focus group, others in semi-structured interviews. The findings from this study are presented below.

You just walk in and you get people smiling

The early career teachers spoke passionately about the welcoming environment they encountered at Rural College from their first day. As one reflected: “I’d say I found a lot of support at Rural College and I think there’s already some great structures in place for supporting the newer teachers.” Another early career teacher who had come to the school from inter-state, found a strong sense of social connection within a supportive community where “everyone was just so friendly and willing to bend over backwards to help me.” This included other teachers and families inviting her home to dinner, which she greatly appreciated.

Strong social connection initiatives by the wider school community are particularly important in rural and remote areas where many early career teachers are away from their family and friends.

Mentors and Induction

All the early career teachers were given mentors, which they highly valued, alongside the support of the rest of the staff. As the Queensland College of Teachers noted in their questionnaire of graduate teachers, having an allocated mentor was one of a several necessary types of support that would encourage an early career teacher to stay on in a school.

In addition, Rural College provided an induction program for beginning teachers that extended over most of their first year. As one early career teacher reflected, “It’s been very good just to go through the things like induction that everybody expects you to know but you don’t necessarily know.” This involved organisational information at the start of the year and on-going group meetings with a senior leader who was given a specific role to work with the new teachers alongside his work in coordinating Communities of Practice at the school.

This aligns well with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership’s priority of a sustained induction that includes on-going professional learning, not just a “short orientation”.

It is interesting to note that the principal was sometimes present in these gatherings. This adds prestige to the group and would appear to give a strong message to early career teachers that their welfare is a priority in the school.

The two different Communities of Practice at Rural College provided invaluable support

The two different types of Communities of Practice at Rural College, the coaching groups (called Group 8 communities as this was the professional coaching company the school engaged) and Professional Learning Teams (where teachers chose an interest group to join) provided the early career teachers with a range of experiences that they valued.

Coaching teams

Being part of the coaching teams was the chance for early career teachers to learn from more experienced teachers in their community.

As one reflected, “The best part about it is that it’s not just all young teachers or all new teachers. I’m in with a quite senior teacher who’s been teaching for nearly 40 years.” The more experienced teachers appeared to be the beneficiaries of tacit knowledge that they had built up over their years of teaching but not necessarily formally shared.

As the coaching group communities were small with no more than four members and a coach, there was a chance for less experienced teachers to engage in intimate, non-threatening conversations about specific aspects of their practice arising from the data that had been gathered from their classes. The fact that these early career teachers worked closely on a regular basis with their coach in their coaching group communities on credible data from their classes, suggests that they were in an ideal position to develop their practice, possibly more so than early career teachers in many other schools.

There would appear to be great value for teachers in engaging in effective professional dialogue, directed, as in this case, by data and a coaching context. This process of data, reflection and discussion was essentially built on a culture trust and appeared to be awakening a sense of professional identity in participants.

When asked if the coaching aspect of the Communities of Practice was the best part, one early career teacher said, “Yes, just in terms of being able to have conversations with people about what we’re really doing in the classroom. You know, there’re not many opportunities that exist in any other area.” She was also reassured to know even teachers with twenty or thirty years’ experience had some of the same issues in the classroom that she did.

Professional Learning Teams

The Professional Learning Teams groups met weekly and provided the early career teachers with the opportunity to gather with others with a similar interest (domain). As one reflected,

“I’ve found the Professional Learning Team really good because it was actually pro-active in what you were interested in and you directed where it was going. And I thought that was better support because the people you were with were actually interested in the same topic as you.”

One early career teacher belonged to a Professional Learning Team that included both English teachers and librarians. The value of librarians, learning enhancement and other support staff being involved with other staff members in Communities of Practice cannot be underestimated.

My case study with Rural College illustrates how one school was able build a culture of growth that fully supported not only the early career teachers but all teachers within the school community. As USA professors Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fuller indicate:

The key difference between those who have good beginnings and those who have painful ones, between those who feel they are getting better and those who are not, is the quality of the school’s culture and its level of support. (p. 69)

Schools with a culture of growth are intentional in their allocation of a mentor to each of their beginning teachers; one who is ideally in the same faculty, geographically proximate and with available time to allocate to their role. They also see the importance of having an induction program that extends over most of the year, rather than just for one or two sessions.

Moreover, within these school communities early career teachers have the opportunity to develop, over time, sustained self-efficacy, a strong professional identity and deeper social connection. These measures come with an attendant cost to the school in providing time for senior leaders to work with early career teachers and reduced allotments of early career teachers to allow for them to participate. However, the value of doing so is evident in terms of the well-being and longevity of early career teachers, the learning culture of the school and ultimately the benefits that can flow on to students.


Dr Bernadette Mercieca is a sessional lecturer and tutor at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne. Bernadette has come from a secondary teaching background. She has recently graduated with her PhD from the University of Southern Queensland in the area of education, with a focus on early career secondary teachers and how Communities of Practice could support their professional learning. Bernadette’s current research interests include peer support of teachers through social media groups and the impact of education in ICT platforms in pre-service teacher programs on the future use of ICT in the classroom. Bernadette has presented her doctoral research at the European Education Research Association (EERA) conferences over the past two years.

Bernadette is presenting her research at the 2018 AARE Conference on Tuesday 3 December at 1 pm .

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