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Early career teachers' opportunities for professional learning: Impacts on teaching practice, job satisfaction, motivation, and career decisions

Marie Cameron, Jennifer Garvey Berger, Susan Lovett, and Robyn Baker

In common with many other countries, the New Zealand Government’s priorities include building an education system to equip its school leavers with 21st century skills, by focusing effort on building professional knowledge and strengthening effective teaching.

This presentation focuses on the ongoing opportunities that the teachers in our sample have had to become more effective teachers over time.

Our “teachers of promise” form a sample of 57 primary and secondary school teachers who began teaching in 2003. The project has tracked their progress since they had gained their full teacher registration in 2005, to illuminate the reasons they stay in their schools, move schools, or leave classroom teaching, as well as the factors that encourage and sustain their commitment to develop their teaching.

This presentation highlights the professional learning opportunities that teachers have been able to access, as well as their perspectives on the value and importance of these opportunities for strengthening their teaching, job satisfaction, and career development. In this paper, our focus is especially on those different career opportunities teachers need at different phases in the early part of their careers.

Primary and secondary school teachers have had rather different opportunities to build their professional knowledge, which already appear to be impacting on their teaching practices, job satisfaction, motivation, and career decisions. While most teachers have had informal opportunities to develop their teaching, they have not had the same level of opportunity to have more structured interactions with their colleagues about teaching and learning, or to observe other teachers and obtain formative feedback on their own teaching and student learning, particularly in secondary schools.

These findings are supported by a national survey of provisionally registered teachers (Cameron, Dingle, & Brooking, 2007). Most professional development has been aligned with Ministry of Education priorities, with primary teachers identifying ongoing and sustained school-based Ministry of Education literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology (ICT), and formative assessment contracts as having positive impacts on their understanding of content and how to assist children to learn that content.

Secondary teachers have had fewer opportunities to develop pedagogical content knowledge, with workshops on assessment for national qualifications identified as their most common professional development opportunity. Teachers in schools with conditions and cultures that encouraged their learning generally reported greater satisfaction with teaching at the end of their third and fourth years of teaching and were unlikely to have changed schools. A significant minority of schools failed to offer environments that encouraged teacher learning. This led teachers to move on to other schools with more supportive environments. Other constraints to teacher learning were overinvolvement in nonteaching activities and premature promotion to administrative roles. Teachers also appeared to have limited agency in relation to decisions about participation in school-based professional development, and in taking some responsibility for addressing their particular learning needs. Few teachers reported that they engaged in professional reading, citing “lack of time” as the reason, and few had been encouraged to participate in their subject associations, with the consequence that almost half of the secondary teachers had no involvement at all by their third year of teaching.

While it is not possible to generalise from these findings, they do suggest that a policy emphasis on supporting teacher learning is timely. The characteristics of professional development that increases teachers’ knowledge and skill, and impact positively on their teaching practice and student learning are now well established (Desimone, Smith, & Philips, 2007). The next challenges are to create expectations that teachers will develop their expertise throughout their careers, provide tangible rewards for demonstration of this expertise, and strengthen schools so that they become the sorts of environments where teachers are able to grow and thrive.

Paper presented at the BERA 2007 annual conference, Institute of Education, London, 7 September 2007.

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Publication type: 
Conference paper
NZCER and University of Canterbury College of Education
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Jennifer Garvey Berger
Robyn Baker
Susan Lovett