Lessons From Beginning Teachers: Challenges for School Leaders

Lessons From Beginning Teachers: Challenges for School Leaders

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In Lessons From Beginning Teachers we hear the voices of new teachers as they recount both helpful and unhelpful experiences and bring to life research-informed suggestions for strengthening induction and mentoring programmes within schools.  This is not a whinging book but it does throw out challenges to school leaders to examine their practice.

The real-life examples and self-audit questions provide a framework for discussion and improvement. And there’s a free-to-copy chapter full of valuable tips for prospective and beginning teachers

From: Lessons From Beginning Teachers: Challenges for School Leaders, by Marie Cameron

Chapter 1 Supportive work contexts: Setting the scene for success

Off to a good start: Rose

Rose had always been attracted to the “helping professions”. She worked as a nurse aide before becoming a teacher. During her psychology studies at university she developed an interest in how children learn. She saw teaching as creative and as “making a difference” to society.

Although her first teaching position was not a permanent appointment, her induction was thoughtfully managed and she looks back on her time as a beginning teacher with gratitude. The teachers and community had shared goals and aspirations for the school and its students and the children were motivated to learn. It was a school where both teachers and children were focused on learning. It was a good school in which to start her career because it had an effective principal and a stable senior management team with practices that enabled teachers to work together to develop their approaches to children’s learning.

Her principal took a personal interest in her progress and ensured that school structures and processes supported her induction into the school community and the teaching profession. Rose felt that he genuinely welcomed her into the school community and wanted her to be successful as a teacher. Rose had timetabled access to a mentor with the dispositions, knowledge and skills to support her learning:

I had a tutor teacher, an amazing tutor teacher. She was the reading recovery teacher, which freed her up to spend quite a lot of time with me ’cause she would only have reading with the children between morning tea and lunchtime … she had an answer for everything, and it was always practical advice. She spent a lot of time observing me and a lot of time teaching with me.

In addition to the dedicated guidance provided by her mentor, other teachers made her feel welcome and played their part in ensuring her transition to teaching was successful:

I felt there was always someone I could go to, to ask questions … I think it might have had something to do with the nature of the school, the special character [of the] school. So there was that atmosphere in the school … a very nurturing sort of atmosphere.

Her colleagues willingly shared their resources with her and welcomed her into their classrooms. She was teaching in an integrated school so she was also expected to teach a religious education class, a new area for her. Her principal arranged for her to observe lessons, both within and outside the school, and provided her with resources and additional support.

She had a manageable class, and was not expected to take on additional roles outside her classroom in the early days of teaching. Her principal stressed that her first responsibilities were to her class and to her own professional development. Rose’s early experiences made it possible for her to experience success in her new teaching role and set her up for the successful career that has followed.

Finding her own feet: Vanessa

Vanessa became a teacher after several years as a full-time mother, anticipating that a career in teaching would combine well with her parenting responsibilities. She lived in a desirable area where teaching positions were hard to obtain, but managed to get a part-time teacher position in a large urban secondary school.

She expected she would have plenty of time to plan “exciting and innovative lessons”. Instead she was timetabled for almost as many hours as a full-time beginning teacher, but without the reduced teaching hours to which beginning teachers are entitled. She was not given a formal letter of appointment or a specific job description, which left her confused about her rights and responsibilities. She believed the practice of overloading beginning teachers was not unusual, especially in workplaces that had no difficulties in attracting applicants to positions:

Because they’re anxious to get a job, especially if they’re not in a permanent position, there are lots of year one and two teachers that can be over allocated—they just seem to have ridiculous workloads, or a bizarre thing is happening with timetables. Of course, when they’re in the midst of just trying to get to their teaching week and plan their lessons and keep up-to-date, often if they are like me they don’t even have time to check up, or investigate whether they’re being treated correctly.

Vanessa now thinks the school took advantage of her. She also wonders, as do some other older students in our study, if her colleagues confused age with experience, thinking that as a mature adult she would not need their support.

Although she participated in some groups for new teachers, her school did not provide a formal induction programme or structured opportunities to observe her colleagues teaching. Vanessa commented ruefully that one of her departmental colleagues was rumoured to be “a stunning teacher, but I’ve never seen her teach”. Vanessa was observed infrequently and only as part of the school’s accountability procedures, not to give her feedback to help her teaching. She was timetabled to teach several classes in different subject areas at different age levels, as well as having responsibility for several extracurricular activities. Vanessa noticed that older teachers in her department tended to have less complex timetables:

I have noticed that there are a few older teachers in our department that seem to have set themselves up quite nicely with quite a minimal input. They still have something on paper but it is not actually a great deal of work.

She had no designated teaching space and her classes were typically located a long distance apart, resulting in a wild dash from one end of the school to another and the uncomfortable feeling that she was never as prepared as she wanted to be: “You’re on a permanent level of red alert … sometimes I feel as though my eyebrows have stuck to the top of my head.”

Because the teachers in her department were also overcommitted there were few chances for them to work together. Vanessa felt that her teaching was compromised by “a lack of time to discuss problems or do anything about them”, that “you are more or less told what to do” and that teachers had very little input into decisions that affected them.

Although Vanessa is still committed to teaching and is still working in the same school, the lack of attention paid to her growth as a teacher continues. She has had little access to new professional learning and feels that any improvements to her teaching have occurred because of her own efforts.

Contrasting beginnings to teaching

The employment of beginning teachers marks a new stage of their professional journey and establishes the foundations for their careers in teaching. How well this is managed predicts whether they are going to enjoy the journey or whether they are in for a bumpy ride. We found clear links between what happened right at the start of beginning teachers’ employment and their later satisfaction as teachers. Teachers who felt supported were more likely than other teachers to have stayed in their first school and to feel positive about teaching three years later. Although our study did not gather data on teacher effectiveness, there is some evidence of higher student achievement in the classes of well supported beginning teachers (Villar & Strong, 2007). Two of the teachers in our study who were “left to get on with it” had some teaching issues that required intervention later on. These situations were stressful and demoralising for the teachers concerned and could have been avoided if the right supports had been in place from the beginning.

Beginning teachers who feel supported are more likely to feel positive about teaching in following years.

Older beginning teachers need support just as much as younger ones. It is hard for beginning teachers to forge a path by themselves, whether they are 21 or 41. Each workplace is a unique system, with its own norms and ways of doing things. It feels like a complicated maze to new teachers, and a guide helps teachers negotiate their way. Rose’s school had a common map; it had teachers who knew how to read it and who were prepared to help her along the way. She had a mentor who was a very good map reader, and who could help her to change direction when this was needed. She accompanied Rose on her journey, helped her to set goals for the journey, suggested detours and smoothed out some of the bumps. Other teachers knew it was the first time she had undertaken the journey so they were on hand to identify shortcuts and ways to overcome obstacles.

Vanessa’s school had multiple paths and no maps. Her colleagues were on their own journeys, and although they might offer suggestions as they rushed past, they had no time to stop to assist her. Her start to teaching epitomises the sink-or-swim approach to beginning teaching, where responsibility is laid firmly on the shoulders of the newcomer. Instead of a manageable mix of classes, she was given a complex schedule of classes and myriad additional responsibilities that would challenge any teacher. She developed a pattern of working long hours at home, which had a negative impact on her family and on her work–life balance:

I am a keen tennis player. I haven’t been to tennis for I don’t know how long and I really should just make that my priority. I also like doing yoga on Wednesday night. I haven’t been able to get there for the last three weeks because I’ve had marking to do, reports to write and that sort of thing, so tennis and yoga have been out the window. Often on a weekend we might be going [on] a family trip, and my husband is glaring at me as I am putting a bag of books into the car, saying, ‘Well if I get a spare second I can mark some of these’, and he’s like, ‘You cannot take those on our trip.’

When we last spoke with Vanessa she had finally gained a permanent position in her school, but this brought with it further responsibilities with no additional salary or time allowances. She felt that morale in her school was low, and she still felt pressured and overworked. Although Vanessa’s personal commitment and lack of other employment options keep her in her school, we wonder how long she can sustain the level of effort and what the long-term impact of a restrictive learning environment will be.

The importance of supportive workplaces

“Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” This claim, attributed to a US state governor (Leithwood, 2007, p. 6) and based on regular teacher surveys by researcher Eric Hirsch,6 makes the point that teachers’ working environments have an impact on how well they are able to teach, and therefore on how well their students are able to learn. Because teachers are the most important school factor in student learning, building a professional learning infrastructure and school climate that support teacher learning is likely to pay dividends for student learning. For students to thrive, teachers need working environments where they can thrive too.

The contrast between Rose’s and Vanessa’s stories highlights the importance of school factors outside the classroom to what students and beginning teachers are able to accomplish inside the classroom. Although teachers’ classroom practices have the most direct impact on student learning (Hattie, 2003), a school’s values, norms, structures and processes affect what teachers are able to achieve within their classrooms. The quality of school leadership and the organisational arrangements and decisions that schools make are possibly more important to the success of new teachers than the knowledge, skills and specific attributes they bring to their roles. All schools typically invest effort in choosing their beginning teachers; some schools then support and nourish their particular attributes and skills, while others are less successful at providing the learning and interpersonal conditions to enable them to develop as teachers.

Official educational policy in New Zealand acknowledges that teachers need guidance and support throughout their careers, especially in their first two years when they are working towards meeting the criteria for full teacher registration. When teachers graduate from their programmes of teacher preparation it is generally acknowledged that they are qualified to begin teaching, and that the profession will support them to develop their teaching. Some schools accept this responsibility more readily than others, and it is generally the schools that pay attention to the working conditions of all their staff that provide supportive cultures for their beginning teachers.

Working conditions that matter

Class composition and class size

Class composition can make a significant difference to a teacher’s working conditions. Some of the primary teachers in our study recalled that their schools had allocated them “hand-picked” classes. To set them up for success they were given classes that had fewer children with significant learning or behavioural needs than those of their colleagues. In some schools new teachers are given the classes their more experienced colleagues don’t want, creating a risk that they will be overwhelmed. Vanessa noticed that her older colleagues had organised their workload in ways that advantaged themselves. These practices can mean that beginning teachers—who are the least prepared to handle such difficulties—get the most difficult teaching assignments. By contrast, Rose’s school leaders ensured that her class did not include children who would challenge experienced teachers, reducing the complexity of her planning and teaching demands. Students also benefit when their teacher is on top of classroom demands.

Large class sizes create more work for teachers, and since new teachers take longer to manage their workload, keeping class sizes reasonable can ease the challenge.

Workload and timetables

Decisions made at the school level, particularly in relation to beginning teacher workload and timetables (especially in secondary schools), can make a big difference to their work. It is never easy to create a good fit between the needs of the school and the experience and abilities of teachers, but finding a fair and realistic balance is an essential management responsibility. When we examined the class timetables there were large differences in average class sizes and teaching levels for secondary participants. Some teachers taught large classes of mostly Years 9 and 10 students, some had a mix of subjects and levels, while others taught much smaller, specialist senior classes. Because of the number of new challenges faced by beginning teachers, morale, commitment and ability to cope can be damaged when workloads are inequitable. Secondary teachers need a doable mix of classes, levels and subjects.

Class size, workload and classroom location all make a difference for beginning teachers.

Designing timetables in secondary schools is a challenging and demanding endeavour, but scheduling spaces in the timetable for beginning teachers to observe and meet with their colleagues is important. There are more opportunities for classroom observations and feedback on teaching when timetablers avoid having every member of a department teaching at the same time.

Teaching subjects

A number of the secondary teachers in our study were expected to teach subjects they were not qualified to teach. This was a source of intense stress for them because they felt exposed and inadequate. Olivia recalled how she felt completely out of her depth when her head of department (HOD) asked her to teach a new subject:

I’ve experienced teaching a subject that I didn’t know much about at all. I was just told, ‘You’re teaching it’ and I had an hour session on it. They just said to me, ‘Oh something has happened in the timetable and instead of your colleague you’re teaching it’, and I felt completely left out of the loop. It’s like asking a mathematician to teach physics. Even though certain components and formulas might be the same, it does not mean that you know how to do it, and nobody said to me, ‘We’ll send you to a course first’ … I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this should not be happening, I feel completely incapable of teaching this subject and I know the kids will know it as soon as they see me up there.’

In retrospect Olivia felt that she should have been more assertive in her response to her school’s demands and insisted on appropriate professional support, but she lacked the confidence to refuse. The consequence was a year of anxiety, encroachments into her personal time and resentment:

Often I felt so frustrated, thinking, ‘I hate this school for making me [do] this because I just feel so ridiculous’, but I probably didn’t go to the right people to say it. I felt, ‘I can handle this, surely, it’s possible and if I spend every night after school resourcing and looking it up and doing as much as I can, then probably I will be able to cope with it.’ But that comes at the price of your personal life and at the price of the enthusiasm for the subject, because you feel, every day you stand up in front of the class you feel like, ‘Oh this is a class I don’t know much about, that’s great, another class of bluffing. Let’s get through this and hopefully it’s gonna be better after that.’

Olivia’s long-term response to this situation and other school factors has been to divert her from classroom teaching into nonteaching responsibilities at the school, which offer additional financial rewards, more prestige and a less intense workload.


The location of beginning teachers’ classrooms makes a difference to their access to colleagues. When teachers have ready access to colleagues they can get informal support on the spot, and it is more likely that they will pop in and out of each other’s classrooms, reducing the isolation that new teachers often report. Two secondary teachers in our study missed out on important information about school teaching and assessment expectations, which created difficulties for them, their supervisors and their students further down the track.

School culture

The most important thing any school can give its teachers to enable them to teach well is a positive and healthy school culture. School culture comprises “unwritten rules and traditions, norms and expectations that permeate everything: the way people act, how they dress, what they talk about, whether they seek out colleagues for help or don’t, how teachers feel about their work and their students” (Deal & Peterson, 1999, pp. 2–3). Every school has its own “personality”; its own rituals and taken-for-granted ways of looking at things; its own set of collective memories that shape how things are done in the present. Practices become firmly embedded in school tradition to the extent that they are difficult to change. One of the most resistant school practices is that of solitary teachers working on their own in isolated classrooms—a practice that cannot meet the needs of 21st century learners or their teachers.

Teacher wellbeing ia a top priority for school leaders.

School culture also affects how teachers are treated. All too often teachers feel that their wellbeing is near the bottom of their school’s list of priorities, yet they are the people whom schools depend on to achieve their goals. Bill Mulford, an Australian researcher, points out that the teaching profession needs to be careful that we are not “eating the ‘seed corn’—consuming our own future by frightening off the brightest and best from teaching and leadership of our schools” (Mulford, 2003, p. 7). Teachers are a school’s most valuable asset, so keeping their wellbeing near the top of the list is needed to protect this asset.

It is also hard to learn in a culture that is resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where mistakes have to be covered up and where teachers pretend that all is well even when it isn’t. Schools with “loose” boundaries, where there is free and open exchange of information and ideas within and across groups of teachers and school leaders, generate many more possibilities for learning. And when it is OK to admit to making mistakes and have a laugh about them, other teachers will be able to help with suggestions so that the same mistakes are avoided in the future.

An apathetic culture where teachers seem to do little work is clearly negative, but sometimes the reverse is also problematic. Some beginning teachers in our study worked in schools where it had become standard practice to put in 10-hour days or longer at school and to work evenings and weekends. In such schools conversations about how busy you are were approved of, and the time teachers arrived and left was noted and commented upon. Olivia told us that in her department it was the norm to work many extra hours a week. As she explained, “Negativity is created when teachers commit to school 24/7 and expect everyone else to do the same.” Expectations for teachers to overwork eventually deplete their creative energy, reduce the time they have to think carefully about their work and prevent them from building an identity they can live with. Several teachers in this study decided to leave teaching and look for work that met their professional needs but allowed them to have a life outside work. Others, like Olivia, sought positions in their schools that took them out of the classroom.

Other aspects of school culture—such as teachers’ collective belief that they can make a difference to student learning, a lack of barriers to effective teaching and genuine participation in school decisions that affect them—greatly influence teachers’ psychological wellbeing and preparedness to invest time and energy into their teaching. Good relationships are essential for teachers to work together in productive ways. Olivia commented that “Teaching itself is amazing. It’s the school politics, procedures and other teachers that contribute to the negative experiences.” School leaders tend to hold a much rosier view of how things are than do teachers, and similarly students may experience teacher actions quite differently from what teachers intended, so it is worthwhile finding out just what teachers, parents and students think about the place. It is not until a school has real information about how its policies and practices affect others, and the extent to which people collaborate productively, that it can begin to address areas where there are problems.

Good relationships are essential for teachers to work together in productive ways.

Work groups

Although teachers are part of a school culture, they typically belong to smaller subcultures as well. The learning of secondary teachers is strongly influenced by the culture of the department to which they belong (Hodkinson & Hodkinson, 2002). Some departments have cultures of openness and trust, where teachers share information and resources, visit each other’s classrooms, solve problems and talk about their work together, which contribute significantly to their satisfaction with their work. In our study Leah, a beginning secondary teacher, found her department in her first year of teaching to be “not very inspiring at all, and it just dragged me down”. A passionate learner herself, she did not think that her department took teaching seriously and said “it just wasn’t as good as I needed it to be to stay there really”. She left her first school for a position in a teaching department she described as being:

a really cohesive department who really look after each other and help each other out. There is a whole feeling of working together collaboratively here … The difference is that at [previous school] the HOD never really noticed or offered to support me unless I asked for something. It’s just the way he was … Here you feel like the HOD really is working for you and working to help the whole department and thinking about how we work as a group and thinking about what we do as a department a lot. It’s more cohesive and we organise all the junior programmes together so that gets delegated. That was a big relief, because the Year 9 and 10 programmes are organised across the board so everyone teaches the same thing and someone organises the resources. It wasn’t like that at the other place. There is a real support for professional learning and developing yourself as a teacher here. You feel like you’re in a process of becoming a career teacher and it feels like your job is taken really seriously by everyone.

A few teachers left departments dominated by the “old guard”—disgruntled veteran teachers who resisted new school initiatives and directed their energies towards preserving approaches that had worked for them in the past. Although these “old ways” worked well only for a small minority of students, they resisted more inclusive teaching approaches and undermined beginning teachers who were attempting to use these methods.

The most satisfied teachers were those who worked in teaching syndicates or departments that tackled teaching tasks together and where problems were always shared. They felt that other members of their team valued the fresh ideas and expertise they brought, while contributing their deeper knowledge of student learning and offering generous feedback and ongoing support. The more that schools support and encourage collaboration among teachers, the more likely teachers are to be satisfied in their work.

Collaborative workplaces assist beginning teachers.

Support for learning

Schools vary in many ways, with a wide range of sizes and different mixes of students, all of which influence “how we do things around here” and shape the opportunities teachers have for interaction with one another. Regardless of how well prepared beginning teachers are to begin teaching, they have to learn to teach in a particular context. They have to understand their school’s specific expectations for behaviour and learning and what to do when things go wrong. They have to learn to plan hundreds of hours of teaching each term, and figure out ways to streamline the process so that they aren’t swamped by the workload. Each teacher must develop an understanding of the particular group or groups of students they teach, make positive connections with them and create a classroom where they can be successful.

School cultures differ in the extent to which they view their teachers as learners. Beginning teachers need special attention to engage them in activities that stimulate their thinking and professional growth.

Teacher time

Teachers are busy people, and time is precious. We were not surprised to find in our surveys and focus groups that time remained the consistent and number one issue for teachers. In a survey in their fifth year of teaching virtually all teachers identified the lack of time to focus on their work with students as their single biggest frustration in teaching. They made comments such as:

•  “Not enough time for effective planning and sharing with other staff”

•  “Lack of time to plan or make new resources or change lessons that are ineffective”

•  “Not having enough time to evaluate and discuss assessment data or anecdotal notes”

•  “Lack of time to think about what I am doing. Rushing from one priority to another without time to clear the headspace.”

The way schools (particularly secondary schools) are organised creates intensive working environments. As Olivia told us, she was typically exhausted after teaching several classes in a row:

Energy, my god! After the bell goes I feel like they’ve literally sucked it out of me. It’s gone. I can sit for half an hour in my office thinking what do I need to do now, where did the time go?

There is intensive work inside class, and outside class teachers often end up photocopying, or gathering resources for the next lesson, rather than taking a break to replenish their reserves. Time management is an essential skill for beginning teachers, and they can be helped to prioritise any discretionary time so that it is used productively, as well as ensuring they are not reinventing the wheel or doing unnecessary work.

Time is a number one issue for beginning teachers (and indeed, all teachers!).

It can be professionally satisfying for teachers to engage in school activities in addition to their teaching, but care needs to be taken with beginning teachers that these activities do not have an adverse impact on their classroom teaching. The out-of-class demands that workplaces make of teachers, especially those who are beginning their careers, require monitoring and management. Donald, who left primary teaching to operate his own sports franchise, told us: “Although hugely satisfied with teaching in many ways, I could not have predicted the way that teaching would consume such a large part of my out-of-school life.” He considered that these extra demands left little time “to be creative and make learning exciting for both students and teachers”.

When teachers are stretched too thinly, the time for them to focus on learning shrinks. In Vanessa’s view, collective teacher efficacy in her school is continually eroded by “a lack of time to discuss problems or do anything about them”. The sad irony is that these teachers are being prevented from engaging in the very activities that have been linked to improving learning in schools. When workplaces prioritise teacher learning, time is protected to permit staff to engage in the activities they have identified as key to the success of their students.

Contributing to the lack of time problem are administrative demands. Our study found that some of the best new teachers left in frustration at the way these demands detracted from their teaching. Managing student assessment was frequently identified as a source of frustration. Teachers were positive about assessment practices that informed their teaching, but reported frustration when assessment practices were cumbersome and repetitive, or were not used to inform teaching approaches. As one teacher explained, “My biggest frustration is writing documents for school management that are filed away and never read.”

Teachers in our study also identified the need to guard teaching time from encroachment. Frequent unplanned interruptions can lead teachers to conclude that other activities are seen to be more important than classroom teaching and learning. Barrie, a primary teacher, pointed out:

They just spring the interruptions on you. Suddenly someone is coming in to tell a story, or there is a show that is being put on for free, or suddenly there is a hearing test that has to be done on all of your kids throughout the day.

Secondary teachers with high-stakes assessments frequently on their minds were frustrated when colleagues removed all or part of their class for other purposes, thus creating additional time pressures. Steven, a secondary school history teacher, described the “habit of taking pupils out of class for lengthy assemblies, ‘special’ assemblies, visiting speaker and travelling road shows” as “death by a thousand cuts over the course of a school year”.

Creating supportive workplaces

Here are some steps for creating workplaces that provide the best possible teaching contexts for beginning teachers.

Basic employment practices

Getting beginning teachers off to a good start involves attending to basic employment practices, such as providing a letter detailing conditions of appointment and ensuring entitlements to release time. Supportive workplaces have well designed induction folders for all new staff that detail annual school goals and targets, people in key roles and their responsibilities, expectations for management procedures and discipline, meeting schedules and other key documentation.

Visible and supportive leadership

The teachers in our study who got off to a good start in teaching typically had helpful meetings with their principals when they began work. Simply having a meeting is not enough: a recent study found that fewer than 50 percent of beginning teachers who met with their principals as part of their school orientation found this to be helpful (Cameron et al., 2007). Meetings are a chance for principals to communicate what the school values and stands for, to share important aspects of the school context and expectations for teachers and to show beginning teachers they are welcome and valued. Principals can give an overview of how the school supports beginning teachers and encourage them to ask questions and identify any particular areas where they might appreciate some specific assistance. Meetings can be a good start to an ongoing relationship, where the principal continues to show an interest in the progress of their beginning teachers, including informal conversations and regular visits to their classrooms. Knowing about teachers and their students is a way to engage teachers in conversations about learning, and to provide educational leadership.

All teachers—not just beginning teachers—want to feel that their school leaders are willing to share their own ideas and are interested in them as people as well as teachers. Supportive leaders keep in touch with how things are going and are sensitive to when a teacher needs a helping hand. Sam, an older primary school teacher who had previously worked in business, compared the role of leaders in business and school leaders as follows:

All teachers need to feel understood and supported by their leaders.

Take a parallel from the business world. A really good company depends on the boss. If the boss is an encourager, he gets in there feet and all, he’s positive, he’s creative, he can predict situations coming with people and assignments. [When there’s a problem] the boss is there and can get around a person, pull them out and say, ‘No, no, no let’s pull back here, you’re stressing out here, just leave that, don’t worry about that. I’ll get this relief person to do that for you, just pull back. You don’t need to do it.’

Take a school culture stocktake

When a new teacher joins the staff it can be an excellent time for a culture stocktake. This is a time to listen to the conversations in the staff room and hallways with fresh ears. Ask: What would a brand new teacher make of this place? How do we talk about the profession of teaching? About one another? About parents, students and community members? People everywhere want leaders who “walk the talk”; that is, leaders who act in ways that are aligned with the ideals they talk about.

More schools are now thinking about their schools as workplaces and are seeking data on teachers’ perceptions of their working conditions. There are surveys that generate information in areas such as:

•  Do teachers agree that the school emphasises student engagement and success?

•  Do they feel valued, trusted, respected and acknowledged for their efforts?

•  Do teachers share a strong commitment to similar educational priorities, and norms for relating to colleagues, students and parents?

•  Do they think the school facilitates sharing and extending teaching practices that help young people to become better learners?

These surveys can identify areas of school culture that can be strengthened for the benefit of those who work and learn in them.7

Protect time

Time-consuming practices encroach slowly on schools. Often it is the small amounts of time that leak away that create the feeling of far too many tasks with no space to breathe or think. Beginning teachers can be assisted with time management by recording their activities over the course of a week and then figuring out ways to go on a time diet—that is, to cut empty or less useful time “calories” out of their day. Sometimes this is about individual teacher practices, but very often systemic cuts need to be made—new ways of thinking about paperwork and how it gets done, clerical duties and who might assist with them. As leaders help beginning teachers reclaim time they can often reclaim time for all teachers, thus increasing the possibility that the school culture will be more reflective and healthier than it was before.

A useful way to protect time is to evaluate the impact of any new practices before deciding to go ahead with them. Most decisions, however well intended, have an impact on teachers’ working conditions. There is a tendency to add new practices without taking out old ones. Proposed new approaches or interventions should be carefully analysed in terms of their potential benefits, and possible negative consequences on teacher time.

Take teacher learning seriously

Teacher learning is the focus of Chapter 2, but some general aspects of teacher learning are introduced here as part of the work contexts that support beginning teachers.

Staffrooms communicate subtle messages to beginning teachers about the extent to which adult learning is valued and acknowledged. What does the term overview posted on the notice board suggest? Is there a section of the staffroom where opportunities for professional learning are promoted? Is there a notice board for beginning teachers keeping them up to date with courses, visits, meetings? Are there indications that this is an intellectually stimulating place to work? For example, can people read about teachers and/or students who have been involved in interesting projects? Is there teacher-produced material to be shared (e.g., an account of the last teacher-only day, an analysis of a student engagement survey or a trip report)? What professional reading is available?

What is talked about in meetings can be an indicator of workplace learning. Effective learning organisations use school or team meetings to talk about current professional readings, discuss student results and share teaching practices, and they use email for most of the administration.

Teachers benefit from a wide range of opportunities to build their skills in areas that are important to them as well as to the school. Time for teachers to learn together should be woven into the fabric of their day-to-day work. The expertise of people within and outside the school should be identified and used to build collective knowledge. School leaders and teachers are connected with the wider educational community and have access to potentially beneficial networks. Subject departments (or learning teams) within the school are not insulated from other groups of teachers—they have access to the expertise of others within and outside their teaching teams.

Take student learning seriously

For schools to work for both teachers and students, an ongoing process for collecting broad and useful data about how students are learning, interpreting what the data appear to be indicating and deciding how to act on it is fundamental. Are students engaged in solving real problems in meaningful contexts? Do students get an opportunity to showcase their knowledge and skills to their peers and their community, or is it restricted to the grades they earned? Student surveys can provide data on key aspects of student learning.8

Hang on to optimism

In healthy work contexts beginning teachers are surrounded by people who enjoy their work and are optimistic about the impact they all have on students. Attitudes are contagious: negative ways of thinking and talking tend to be “caught” from others, and even if teachers actively resist these ways of talking, negative attitudes are very dispiriting for any teacher, particularly beginning teachers. They are also contagious to young people, who pick up and respond to what their teachers think they are capable of.


Teachers’ working conditions matter—not just to the teachers themselves but also for the achievement of our country’s educational goals for all children and young people. Teachers who worked in performance-enhancing schools, with systems that worked, cultures that encouraged a focus on effective teaching and realistic work assignments, were likely to report greater satisfaction with their careers and to be proactive about their professional development. Their working conditions fostered success and the fulfilment of the intrinsic rewards that had attracted them to teaching.

This chapter has looked at aspects of school leadership, culture, organisation and structure that together frame the environment that beginning teachers enter. Whether it is a turbulent white-water rafting journey in a single canoe or a well planned and orchestrated team event reflects how schools value their teachers and the difficult but rewarding work of teaching.

Taking stock: How are we doing?

Setting up beginning teachers for success is an important responsibility for schools. The following questions may help you to ensure that you have set up the necessary school-based supports for their teaching.

•  What kind of welcoming orientation do we offer beginning teachers?

•  What documentation is available for them? ( e.g., orientation manuals, curriculum documents, planning frameworks and resources)

•  How do beginning teachers get to know about school values and expectations?

•  How are classes selected for beginning teachers? ( i.e., do they match their qualifications? Is the mix of classes reasonable?

•  What support structures are in place for beginning teachers? In the short term? Ongoing?

•  What opportunities are there for beginning teachers to interact about teaching and learning with other colleagues?

•  Time management can be an issue for beginning teachers. What systems are in place to help with this?

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