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