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How can we best support early career teachers? Can collaboration, a social life and autonomy make a difference?

On February 4th 2020 Carnegie School of Education held its second Carnegie Big 6 debate evening, with a discussion on how we can best support early career teachers.

How can we best support early career teachers

It was chaired by Thinking Environment Practitioner Lou Mycroft and it opened with a series of conversations between Lou and each contributor;

  • Rueben Moore, Executive Director for Programme Development at TeachFirst and member of the DfE Early Career Framework advisory group
  • Claire Dutton, experienced teacher Richmond Hill Primary School in The Rose Learning Trust, Doncaster and EdD student at Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University
  • Raj Unsworth, Trustee, HR professional and advisor to @HeadsRoundtable grassroots thinktank
  • Stephanie Siviter, PGCE student at Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University
  • Rachel Lofthouse (Professor of Teacher Education, and Director of CollectivED, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University).

This post outlines some of the thinking behind Rachel Lofthouse’s contribution.

Some schools are toxic

‘Toxic’ is a strong term and even suggesting that some schools are toxic is very uncomfortable. However, if even one school is damaging to the mental health and wellbeing of its staff and students that is one school too many. Unfortunately, this is a reality for some teachers (new and established). In these environments new teachers are especially vulnerable. New teachers can be exposed to this both directly and also through an added fragility in their relationships with mentors and colleagues. High expectations are appropriate but only when they are met with high levels of support and an understanding that new teachers (like all teachers) are still learning and need to be given permission to stumble as well as to develop.

New teachers need space to grow

In many aspects of their professional life new teachers most benefit from being offered space to grow, reflect, continue to observe others, and to work collaboratively with colleagues. Without this teaching can become a lonely endeavour. For example, in some schools issues with behaviour management creates tension for new teachers – either from the children directly or because of the ways that they are expected to manage it. There is a fine balance – new teachers need to know that their more experienced colleagues can offer them sound advice, can help to resolve issues with children and young people and that in effect ‘they have their back’.

However, if behaviour management becomes fiercely policed then new teachers can feel that they are not learning how to build relationships with children or how to develop classroom cultures which draw on their own strengths as a teacher. Instead they may be perceived as being unable to manage a class unaided and they may lose even more confidence. This can be a viscous cycle. Let us also remember that in our current society it is common for young people in their early twenties to have not yet left home (or to have returned) and so in other aspects of their lives new teachers may be still in transition to adulthood. In a school environment they are inevitably thrust into adult roles and this can cause anxiety or lead new teachers to be overly assertive to compensate. Learning to teach and staying in teaching is necessarily a social process and we need to look for ways to foreground this dimension in our work with new teachers.

Putting the social into becoming a teacher

Nowadays it is not uncommon to be told that new teachers should preserve their work-life balance by managing workload better and who can argue with this? But we have to be careful that telling someone to manage workload is not just another impossible expectation that they think they have failed at. One good reason to manage workload is to allow teachers new in to the profession enough social time to continue to see friends and family. New teachers are often entering the profession at the same time as their peers are being recruited into other working worlds and if their friends have more time to socialise, more flexibility over holidays and are less exhausted at the end of the day then new teachers can become restless and wonder where the grass is greener. This is important to wellbeing, but also creates a safe space with friends and family in which they can laugh at the mistakes they make, reflect on what they enjoy about the job, share stories and simply grow into their particular new identities as teachers. Engaging with non-teachers and talking about your work as a teacher can help you realise that you are gaining specific and valued expertise. Who knows – by doing so they may even help sell the profession to others.

Beyond the need to maintain a social life outside school it should be remembered that learning to teach does not need to be solitary. Learning from and with others at the same and different career stages can be a critical way to gain essential insights and also to start to feel that you have something of value to offer. Learning in and for the workplace creates a sense of identity and belonging. It can happen through planned CPD and also through the variety of ways that teachers can usefully work together. Collaborative curriculum and lesson planning is an example of how shared labour for a common purpose can both help individuals to manage their workload at the time of need and also to learn from the experience, and thus make the workload more sustainable over time. New teachers are rightly encouraged to join networks beyond school and to gain opportunities to work with other professionals who can provide them with relevant expertise.

Teacher autonomy

A final reflection here is on the recently published NFER / TDT research on teacher autonomy. One of the most interesting findings to me was that compared to other professions teachers do not experience greater autonomy five, ten or fifteen years into being a classroom teacher. We need intelligent, creative, motivated and capable people in our profession – but we quickly lose some of our most talented teachers when we do not allow new teachers to use and build on these attributes.

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About the Author

Professor Rachel Lofthouse

Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.

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