Teachers of Promise

February 2012


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MARIE CAMERON and SUSAN LOVETT discuss the early findings of their research, the Teachers of Promise study: Teachers in their ninth year of teaching.

It’s no longer breaking news that school leaders play a crucial role in how well students learn and achieve. What is sometimes overlooked, though, is that school leaders – principals, senior teachers and those in middle leadership positions – also shape the learning environments for teachers.

Our insights come from a research study, Teachers of Promise. The New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) followed a group of 57 “promising” New Zealand primary and secondary teachers between 2005 and 2008, and in 2011, we returned to the original group to see how they were getting on. The majority of the 57 are still in teaching and of the seven who are not, most are still involved in education, for example, as literacy or numeracy tutors, in road safety education and in sports coaching. In this latest stage of the study, 48 completed an online survey about their working conditions, roles and responsibilities, career decisions, ongoing professional learning and attitudes to their work. We also interviewed around a third of these teachers.

Since the beginning of the study we have been interested in the reasons why teachers change schools. Early in their careers teachers frequently moved because they did not feel that they were supported to become effective teachers and the picture is still much the same. Although teachers move for personal and career reasons, the most common reasons for changing schools include unsatisfactory working conditions and dissatisfaction with the way schools are led and managed. Teachers are much more likely to stay in schools with positive and successful leaders, where they continue to learn and grow and where everyone pulls together for common goals.

Robert is one of the lucky ones. He has been in the same school since he began teaching. He described everyone in the school as providing “heaps of support” from the start and this has continued through his career.

“There is excellent leadership from the principal and a very talented and enthusiastic staff.” Robert has been an assistant principal for six years and half that time has not had his own class, but he still does a lot of teaching. He is curriculum leader for mathematics and responsible for modelling mathematics teaching across the school. He also teaches a maths and science group and leads a student council to enable him to get to know a wider group of students. At this stage in his career he sees his biggest reward in teaching as being able to work alongside teachers to mentor them.

Another teacher, Robyn, has remained at the same school since her first day in teaching. Each time she has considered moving, the school has tempted her with another opportunity and so she has stayed. She has taken on responsibilities in the English department and is now head of faculty. She did not actively seek any of these roles; instead the school realised her potential, asked her to apply and promised professional development to accompany those roles. Initially she was reluctant and accepted on a trial basis, but now that she has settled into the roles she has gained immense satisfaction.

“I’ve found that with the role has come a lot more confidence and strength as I’ve found that I’m actually very good at it.” On the teaching side she has also created her own learning challenges by initiating extension groups with scholarship students and implementing an alternative Level 1 English NCEA class aimed specially at Maori students. She says she would be tempted to shift schools if she started to feel negative about the profession or about the teaching.

Other teachers were vocal in their disappointment at the way their schools are run and a common response was to withdraw into their own classrooms. One secondary teacher told us his school lacked direction, especially in terms of curriculum development. He noted that when schools don’t allocate time for teachers to work together, there is a tendency for teachers to resort to “the same old stuff,” rather than being challenged to think about and develop more interesting approaches.“If anything I’ve become more inward and am concentrating more on making sure I am doing my things properly and not worrying much about the others.”

Ross, a primary teacher, has kept moving from one school to another to deepen his experience. Like others in the study, he has actively sought advancement and embarked on study to improve his chances. He has now experienced a variety of roles, including being a long-term relieving deputy principal. However, the combination of starting a family and wanting to spend more time with his children, missing out on a principal role and working with a tough class prompted him to review his job options. He is now running his own literacy and numeracy tutoring business, which he finds more manageable, less stressful, and which allows him his weekends back.

Another with ambitions is Steven. He was appointed to head of department roles early on and also embarked on postgraduate study in educational leadership to prepare for possible advancement. However, he has since stepped back and is putting all his skill and energy into his teaching. He believes the classroom is the place to make a difference to students’ lives rather than in management roles. Part of his disillusionment has come from observing how such roles were distributed on the basis of ‘who one knows’ rather than ‘what one knows’. Steven is an example of a teacher who tested the leadership waters and found that they detracted from his prime goal of being a great teacher.

Continuing to talk about teaching with colleagues has been important for a number of the teachers beyond their initial years. Despite John Hattie’s research demonstrating the importance of feedback to improve teaching, some told us this did not happen.

“We all do our own thing, we all have our own approaches but ideas are not shared,” Ajay, a male secondary teacher told us. “You need someone to say ‘you do this really well, you need to work on this’. You just have to fumble your way around… I know I can do a better job, so I want to do a better job, but you are not given the opportunity to do it.” This has had a negative impact on what Ajay is prepared to put in to his job. He has stopped coaching sport, arrives just before classes begin and leaves early. “I’m starting to catch that cynical disease that teachers get.”

Several of the female teachers in our study are now parenting full-time and, for the moment, their enjoyment in seeing their own children grow and develop has pushed classroom teaching aside. Having children changes the number of additional hours teachers feel able to devote to the job and makes them more conscious of the hours they work.

For Rose, a primary teacher, becoming a mother has provided her with new opportunities across a wider range of schools as a relieving teacher. She is now experiencing teaching in lower decile schools, deepening her previous experience, which was at the higher deciles. She also firmly believes that motherhood is making her a better teacher because she has gained an understanding of the special relationship children have with their parents, something she lacked before.

More information about the Teachers of Promise study is available on the NZCER website at www.nzcer.org.nz/research/teachers-promise.

Susan Lovett coordinates and teaches postgraduate educational leadership at the University of Canterbury. Marie Cameron is an Auckland-based education researcher who works with NZCER. They have been researchers on the Teachers of Promise study from its beginning.