It's time to change the way we think about new teachers

By Alejandro Paniagua
Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Most teachers across the world say they're satisfied with their jobs. But the picture is more complex for new teachers, whose workplace experiences are often described, in the research, with terms like “disillusionment”, “reality shock” and “survival”. Such portrayals are not inaccurate; teaching is a complex and often uncertain profession – especially during the first years – and there is no clear methodology for success. Many teachers also spend much of their early careers cycling through temporary positions at often challenging schools, making it difficult for them to grow into the profession.

To ease the transition into teaching, most initial teacher preparation programmes are trying to implement induction initiatives. In diverse ways, robust induction programmes can effectively address some of the problems associated with the initial years of teaching. But in focusing exclusively on new teachers, and framing their challenges as short-lived, these initiatives risk ignoring the way part of these problems affect all teachers, regardless of their experience – and they could also stunt the potential of new teachers to transform school practices.

As we argue in a new working paper, many of the challenges that new teachers face are not exclusive to the initial years of their career, but are illustrative of the teaching profession more broadly. Stress, for example, arises not only at the beginning of one’s teaching career, but whenever new challenges present themselves. Even experienced teachers still struggle to motivate their students, and seek new ways to create meaningful classroom experiences. Rethinking the scope of these initiatives targeting new teachers to connect them with the broader challenge of innovation in teaching would deliver broader benefits to schools, as well.
Schools will only reap these benefits if they actively support early career teachers.
As we note in our paper, teachers do not necessarily need years of experience to develop innovative practices, but they do need experience in meaningful and collaborative contexts. Developing a culture of inquiry, innovation and exploration, and promoting team learning are ongoing processes that always benefit from new contributions.

In fact, new teachers are uniquely positioned to contribute to innovation because they typically enter the profession with enthusiasm, idealism and recent training. More experienced teachers would also benefit from the supportive environments that should characterise induction programmes, and which should be part of a culture of collaboration and reflective practice in schools.

But schools will only reap these benefits if they actively support early career teachers. In our paper, we propose recognising the first five years of a teacher’s career as a form of in-service “residency”. Such a residency would link new, on-the-job experiences with fieldwork practices learned during initial teacher preparation, and provide new teachers with much-needed stability by anchoring their affiliation to schools as much as possible.

Ultimately, successfully integrating and retaining new teachers will require a broader change in the way we think about them. Rather than viewing new teachers as a particular group with unique needs, schools should instead see them as an important component of a collective effort to continuously reflect and improve teaching practices. Doing so would mark an important first step toward rethinking how schools are organised and promoting innovation among all teachers – regardless of how many years they have under their belt. 

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