All at once, you have to figure out how to get your head around subject content, reporting and paperwork, student behaviour, school culture and staff relationships – at exactly the time that your whole support structure shifts after you leave your higher education institution.
There has been a lot of research published over the years to show that the support that is provided to beginning teachers makes a real difference. For example, having a great teacher mentor (who has the time to help you) can be transformative.
Having a school that is committed to a serious induction programme for every teacher can completely change the experience of starting at a school.
Having a reduced or concentrated teaching load can ease the burden in that crucial first year. The trouble is that many beginning teachers simply have no access to this kind of support.
Along with my colleagues, Dr Michael Ireland and Associate Professor Cheryl Sim, I’ve been looking at data from the Staff in Australia’s Schools survey (an Australian Government survey conducted every three years), to try to come up with a deeper understanding about which teachers are missing out on these forms of support and the impact of this.
The data (from 1863 early career teachers in 2007 and 2477 in 2010) confirm what many teachers probably already know from their own experience: that being employed on a casual basis or on short-term contracts is associated with missing out on access to support.
These are the teachers who ‘slip through the cracks’ and who report that they had no access to any of five forms of support: mentoring, induction, reduced load, follow-up from their higher education institution or time for structured reflection with other teachers.
One-in-ten beginning teachers say that they didn’t have access to any form of support in 2010 and that number rises to one-insix for those who were in casual or short-term contracts.
This matters, because the number of teachers who start in the profession on casual or shortterm contracts has increased dramatically in recent years (eg., the NSW Department of Education says on their website that “[t]he majority of teachers commence their careers in the NSW public education system as casual or temporary teachers”).
The study also says something about the link between teacher support, attrition, and job satisfaction, showing that it is useful to talk about four main types of teacher satisfaction: satisfaction with the context and conditions of work (eg., salary, place in society, and workload); satisfaction with working relationships and opportunities (eg., with other teachers, the principal, opportunities within the school); satisfaction with relationships with students (eg., study behaviour, accomplishments with students); and overall sense of satisfaction.
Using these categories, the data suggest that early career teachers who miss out on support are also likely to report a lack of satisfaction with their working relationships and opportunities and their overall satisfaction – and that this in turn is associated with an intention to leave the profession.
There are lots of caveats for the research: it’s based on teachers’ self-report of the support that they had access to, and we’re still waiting to get access to the 2013 (and 2016) data to see if the results are replicated. It’s complex, and the issue varies between states; but I believe that the work serves as a useful prompt for a renewed conversation about improving early career support.
Whilst some jurisdictions have done much to try and increase support for early career teachers through policies such as mandatory mentorship and induction, it seems (anecdotally) that the quality of the support that is offered becomes highly varied at the school level.
At worst, these policies simply lead to a box-ticking exercise, with teachers in insecure employment the most likely to miss out on receiving meaningful support.
There are important questions that follow from this: if high levels of insecure employment are the norm, then how might we ensure that all teachers, no matter their employment status, feel supported in the ways that matter?
If some schools are better able to provide beginning teachers with support than other schools, what more could jurisdictions do to facilitate broad forms of support that improve the base-level available for all teachers?
I believe there is much creative thinking that could be done to try to increase teachers’ satisfaction with the job, and to lower attrition, by attending to these questions.