What role can teacher training play in keeping teachers in teaching, from Henry Saunston.

There are some startling recent statistics relating to teacher retention:

  • Only 85% of teachers who qualified in 2029 were still teaching one year after qualification. This retention rate has gradually declined since 2011.
  • Only 3 in 5 (60%) teachers who qualified ten years ago are still teaching.

Why? Such an outpouring of experience from the sector is not a positive thing – it is concerning and damaging to the prospects of many.

What is Initial Teacher Training?

Initial Teacher Training (ITT) is just that: the first stage of training for those who will become fully qualified teachers. Teach East offers School-Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) courses in both Primary and Secondary sectors and works closely with a range of local partnership schools to place and train the teachers of the future within Peterborough, supporting educational outcomes and maximising student potential. In a sector beset by the poor retention rates outlined above, and under constant and intense scrutiny from many areas, never has there been a more pressing time for teaching. Students have a right to a high-quality education delivered and facilitated by effective, expert practitioners who are sensitive to the various needs, contexts, and environments in which learning takes place.

ITT is therefore the gatekeeper to the future of education.

Teacher retention ensures consistency and continuous improvement, but it must also be supported by high-quality recruitment of appropriate people who can be nurtured by a system that allows them to constantly adapt and improve, with clear goals in mind and clear principles underpinning everything. The quality of the professional environment is, after all, found to be the biggest contributing factor to teacher retention, not the outcomes, budgets, facilities or student behaviours that manifest in the setting.

 

The impact of COVID on education

COVID has had a massive impact on all sectors of society and has been keenly felt in education. During lockdown(s), hundreds of thousands of students were attempting to access teaching materials and instruction online, often in less-than-helpful home circumstances. The attainment gap widened yet further as those who ‘had’ access made more progress than those who ‘had not’ – a Matthew effect for a modern age.

However, whilst the effects of the home-schooling episodes on students have been highlighted, debated and discussed, not much has been said about the effect on those who are (or will be) doing the teaching. Whole cohorts of trainee teachers have been taught online and practised their craft (as best they can) in false learning environments, not truly manifesting theory into proper classroom reality. We now have a swathe of ‘undercooked teachers’ – through no fault of their own – who have qualified but have not experienced practice in the physical classroom. For example, it is far easier to manage behaviour from another room and via a screen. We cannot afford to assume that they will be ‘fine in the end’. As ‘teacher educators’, we have a duty to ensure that this gap in teacher quality does not extend too far, nor have a detrimental impact on the quality of student outcomes. We have to act at every stage, support early career development, offer guidance where it is needed and celebrate success when it occurs.

Creating momentum

ITT must provide the momentum for career progression, creating a firm foundation of theory and initial practice on which subsequent years of development and support will build. A spiralling curriculum of improvement in which core concepts are revisited at increasing levels of complexity, each augmented by ever-growing confidence and experience. The latter also drives the mechanisms of reflection, shifting from a distanced reflection-on-action to a more reactive reflection-inaction – the ability to make better and more informed decisions in the moment, as opposed to looking back on ‘what should have happened’.

David Berliner1 stated that “it takes 5-7 years to acquire levels of expertise in teaching; competence perhaps may arrive a year or so sooner but only if one works hard!” 1 This can be set against ideas recently explored by those such as Hobbiss et al. that we actually begin to form habits as teachers – not all good ones – and can indeed ‘stagnate’, reaching a plateau on the development curve after an initial period of exponential growth.

Managing growth

Research cited in a recent paper by Gorard et al. (2021) 2 shows that premature departure from the profession can be attributed to the lack of adequate preparation for dealing with and managing the workload and associated stresses that come with teaching. International research cited by Toropova et al. (2021) 3 suggests that the profession itself actually has a diminishing prestige which, when combined with a less-than-satisfactory working environment, is the prevailing reason for high turnover. In his article ‘Teacher Quality: why it matters’, Dylan Wiliam 4 states that in some countries ‘teaching is such a high-status occupation that recruitment into the profession is highly selective.’ He argues that we must make efforts to raise the status of the profession whilst acknowledging that the job is hard; ‘a job so difficult that one’s daily experience is of failure, but one where, each day, to quote Samuel Beckett, one can “fail better.”’

There is very little evidence to indicate that financial incentives or lack of adequate compensation have anything to do with teacher retention (or lack thereof ), so it’s clear that people aren’t in it for the money! If that’s the case, we have a duty to harness the intrinsic motivations of teachers to teach and enable the development of these to enhance teacher practitioner self-efficacy. As Wiliam famously stated 4, all teachers can improve, ‘not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better’. However, this oft-quoted phrase needs its first few words including more regularly, as they are often missed off: ‘if we create a culture where every teacher believes they can improve…’. Through the cultures, we can manage the growth, stir the pot and avoid sediment; we can avoid stagnation by providing such energy and catalyst in ITE that professional development becomes an innate aspect of all teachers, which in turn passes into the schools and settings where they practice their craft and the classrooms in which they inspire their students. As I said, ITT is vital to the profession!

What can we do?

As an ITT provider, we care about the quality of initial input and the motivation trainees get. Often, trainees embark on their pursuit of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) with limited relevant understanding of what education looks like ‘on the ground’, and we have to ensure we adequately prepare them for the realities of the profession and what it expects of us as practitioners. We build our curriculum around the ITT Core Content Framework but add an extra layer of contextual gloss. We know that everyone is different and all our settings have their own challenges; one size fits very few in education and therefore we must look after the individual at the heart of the course, not the generic framework of standards they must adhere to. By focusing on communication and clarity through the efficiencies of shared language and culture, we enable trainee progress towards common goals, but with the naturally fluctuating pathways of individual development.

As in classrooms, where no single strategy or pedagogical mechanism works in isolation, we in teacher education must acknowledge that no-one succeeds on their own and that clearly aligned support is essential. Returning to Wiliam, he argues that we need a culture change; an understanding that teaching is ‘such a complex craft that one lifetime is not enough to master it’ – a need to commit to continuous improvement. 4 Ultimately, we must collaborate to ensure coherence across both our internal curriculum (the content we teach and its connections) and our external curriculum, which is the relationship between the taught curriculum and those that implement it across our settings. Trainees and Early Career Teachers will hear many different voices of perceived wisdom and experience during the early stages of their development and the way those voices are tuned must be carefully managed to ensure that teachers feel supported and empowered to remain in our profession. To conclude again with Wiliam4, we must turn schools from talent refineries into talent incubators and talent factories; ‘it is not enough to identify talent in our schools anymore; we have to create it’. That’s a process started by ITT, and therefore it has to be good!

References

  1. Berliner, David. (2004). Expert Teachers: Their Characteristics, Development and Accomplishments.
  2. Stephen Gorard, Ourania Maria Ventista, Rebecca Morris & Beng Huat See (2021): Who wants to be a teacher? Findings from a survey of undergraduates in England, Educational Studies
  3. Anna Toropova, Eva Myrberg & Stefan Johansson (2021) Teacher job satisfaction: the importance of school working conditions and teacher characteristics, Educational Review, 73:1, 71-97
  4. Wiliam, Dylan (2009); Teacher Quality – why it matters; Spectator ‘Schools Revolution’ conference, March 2009

Author

  • Henry Saunston

    Henry is the director of Teach East SCITT, developing new teachers for Peterborough Schools. His specialism is secondary English, and he has worked as a teacher for nearly 15 years. He is a fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and of CollectivED, and has contributed many articles to publications such as Impact and TES.
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