Carnegie Education

A Matthew Effect in Early Career Teaching? How to look to the future with help from ITE

In this new blogpost CollectivED Fellow and SCITT Director reflects on the impact of entering the teaching profession during the pandemic. 

Student studying on a laptop in a library

When I was at school I remember quite distinctly a story told by our Deputy Headmaster during an assembly; I forget the purpose but the story itself stuck with me - a tale of a prisoner of war who was a keen golfer; through replaying a round of his home course every day in his head during his internment he emerged and was able to shoot a par score, despite not having swung the club for many years. Why was he able to do this? Because he had the requisite prior knowledge of the course, its conditions and his swing pattern to enable him to accurately replicate, despite not having physical opportunity to do so. 

Why is that relevant now? Well, that is the situation many of our Early Career teachers find themselves in; they are having to ‘play’ without practice; they don’t have as yet the stamina or emotional resilience that comes through constant rehearsal, experience, interaction. Tennyson wrote that ‘all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams an untravelled world’, and yet many of our current crop of NQTs are not getting these experience; they are not having these learning opportunities, they are not able to make progress in the ‘traditional’ way. There are so many emotional undulations and fatigue-inducing periods in an Academic year that we learn to overcome, and they are not the same in a remote world.

The Matthew Effect was coined in the late 1960s but explored more in education in the early 1980s by Wahlberg & Tsai; the simple outline, drawn from words in Matthew's Gospel, is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Aligned by Wahlberg & Tsai to reading and literacy, the implication for education is that those who have plenty of exposure to reading ad therefore engage more readily with it, interact with words and use them more, have more confidence and will continue to develop; those whose interactions are limited by status, society, access et al will have less confidence, develop at a far slower rate and ultimately fall further behind.

There are messages and implications in this type of effect for Initial Teacher Trainees and those in the Early Career stages who have qualified and begun their practice amid the chaos and fluctuating nature of the COVID-19 pandemic; these messages must be paid heed to. If the rich get rich and the poor get poorer, those who never saw themselves as rich are suddenly Croesus, and those who are new to the profession and vital to its development are under-cooked; we cannot expect the same of them as we would from previous cohorts, nor should we be afraid of offering further support in the early years.

Those who graduated through ITE last year are rich with potential, having experienced and survived an educational environment far removed from the one in which their training began; they showed themselves able to adapt their emerging pedagogical knowledge to suit new mediums of delivery and embrace new technologies, and for this alone they are an asset. Their enthusiasm to learn new methodologies and apply theories and learning science to practical delivery in a world where we were all at odds with what we were faced with does them credit, and for that they are a vital cog in any institution. 

However, training during the pandemic means that most are experiencing fewer hours in the classroom. Berliner (2004) stated that to gain expertise as a teacher takes 5 - 7 years if one works hard, and competence is only achieved a couple of years before that; the COVID situation has interrupted the normally exponential development of teachers in their early career, and this must be mitigated against by professional development, support and mentoring. So much teacher development comes through trial, error and interaction, and this is difficult to replicate in the online community.  Hobbiss et al (2020) argue that ‘understanding why teacher effectiveness begins to flatten off—and how it can be sustained—is therefore important for improving education’, but when the predicted exponential increase in early years is so hampered by circumstance, that exponential curve becomes a mountain, and mountaineers need crampons. Hobbiss also found that ‘growth in teacher effectiveness declines over time in large part because teachers’ practice becomes habitual. That is, practice comes to be triggered automatically by external cues in a way that is insensitive to goals or payoffs’; what dangers ahead for those who are learning their craft as Novices in a world that might not resemble the one they are required to be experts in later down the line?
This is a very real problem that needs to be addressed; ITT providers can help by establishing robust longer term measures of support - professional and emotional - and the implementation of the Early Career Framework will help, but this is very much a problem for now, not later on. Schools must embrace the problem, act swiftly and put in place strong measures of support; if this does not happen - supported of course by ITT providers and a strong 3-year developmental model - their resilience and stamina for full academic years' of commitment, classroom practice and the emotional undulations will be tested, perhaps too much. A stich in time and all that....

Support for schools needs to be driven by local and national ITE to ensure that transitions between phases are judged and suitable, as well as grounded in the contextual need of the demographic being served. There are huge implications for the development of novices into experts, and therefore for the outcomes of our students; we cannot argue that it will be alright because the students have missed time as well and therefore the playing field has levelled; the role of the teacher is to be the expert instructor, the facilitator of knowledge transfer in the classroom environment - this ability can be taught in theory but must be trialled, replicated and then honed in practice. 

In order for us to avoid a massive Matthew Effect within Early Career teachers we must raise our heads now and look forward; as a SCITT Director I am planning to support my trainees and their mentors and schools well beyond their QTS award; I know that we all need support, and the Early Career Framework, although admirable in design, is not perhaps robust or rigorous enough yet to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Through collaboration across the phases and between ITT Providers and Schools, we can look to offset some of the damage that may have been caused. Strategic, focussed and pragmatic development across the first three years of a teacher’s career has never been more vital; clear goals, supportive coaching, sensitive mentoring to help trainees and ECTs re-acculturate themselves into school environments and build relationships, and that all important motivation and drive. 

And what of the mentors themselves? Schools, led by their ITE providers, must ensure that the mentors are given the time, resources and autonomy to do their jobs and to become the best scaffold for any new teacher; all those new into this world receive aftercare, and that is also key with our fledgling educators. Then, perhaps, with support that supports the supporters themselves, these fledglings can fly high and reach greater heights, and take their students with them.


Wahlberg and Tsai (1983); Matthew Effects in Education; American Educational Research Journal Fall 1983, Vol. 20, No. 3, Pp. 359-373
Berliner, David. (2004). Describing the Behavior and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. 24. 200-212. 
Hobbiss, M., Sims, S., & Allen, B. (2020). Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science. Review of Education. 


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