My question is just how do we treat these newest members of our teaching profession – maybe not as well as we should be if we consider the latest research on attrition rates of early career teachers (ECTs) in Australia.
Current research suggests that as many as 30 per cent of ECTs consider permanently leaving the teaching profession before retirement, with higher figures for male teachers and for teachers in remote areas (Hay Group, 2014, Queensland College of Teachers, 2013).
The implications of this for the teacher personally, their school and society are considerable.
The first years of a teacher’s career are crucial ones in establishing a professional identity, making connections at a number of different levels and dealing with a range of complex issues, both within the classroom and in the wider school community.
The Hay Group (2014) highlight the fact that graduate teachers are in a unique position, in that no other profession expects so much from their newest members, giving them full professional and legal responsibility from the first day of their employment.
They express concern about the consequent poor retention rate of young teachers, particularly those with high potential, suggesting that a possible reason for this is the high expectations many graduate teachers have of themselves and maintain that there is a need to move beyond the ‘sink or swim’ mentality for new teachers, that has traditionally dominated school culture.
The importance of retaining early career teachers (ECTs) is affirmed by a number of researchers. Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) suggest that the highest level of effectiveness of teachers occurs around 8-23 years into their job.
If schools tolerate a high turnover of ECTs, they are disadvantaging students and subjecting them to a continual stream of inexperienced teachers, who leave before they have time to develop their full potential. They argue that the best way to retain ECTs is not so much by providing individual support in the form of mentors, as by giving them the opportunity to work in “dynamic, strongly supported schools” (p. 70).
One way to create these dynamic school communities might be through creating communities of practice. These interactive communities have three key features:
• A domain – this is what initially motivates teachers to gather, with a shared concern or interest. In a school situation, the domain could be a concern about how to engage reluctant learners or to develop an inclusive classroom.
• Community – this is essentially about relationships and particular measures need to be set in place to ensure that this is fostered. This could include providing refreshments, allowing time for less formal interaction at the start or the end of proceedings, and affirming teacher successes.
• Practice – this flows out of a genuine sharing of experiences through sharing resources with the wider school or district community.
The value of a Community of Practice is that it provides a safe place where teachers can learn from each other, share their successes and failures and, for ECTs particularly, know they are not alone in their struggles.
This is a new form of professional learning, locally based and grounded in issues relevant to the teachers who form the community.
We owe it to our next generation of teachers to find ways, such as this, to allow them not merely to survive, but to flourish in a truly collaborative and engaging environment.