Beginning a professional teaching career is a complex and challenging process in the current social and political climate in Australia. Graduating teachers compete for a limited selection of full-time positions and many accept casual relief or short-term placements as their only alternative.
Within this context, a number of schools have gone to great lengths to develop a professional culture that fully supports beginning teachers, including those on short-term contracts, and to encourage them to grow in their professional practice through good mentoring and induction.
My research work explored the professional learning of early career secondary teachers in Australia and in particular the value of Communities of Practice to our early career teachers.
What is a Community of Practice?
A Community of Practice consists of a group of teachers who are bound together by a common interest (domain) that links them together and allows them to share their practice and support each other.
As Professor of Education at Auckland University in New Zealand, Helen Timperley, notes it is not easy for teachers to share failures and disappointments, especially for those on contracts who might be fearful of appearing incompetent and not having their contract renewed. But within the trustful environment of a Community of Practice, this is possible.
Most importantly, the early career teachers involved in a Community of Practice appeared to be less inclined to consider leaving the profession than their peers in schools that did not have such a culture of growth.
One school using Communities of Practice is a secondary school in a rural area in Victoria that I call Rural College (not its real name). I want to tell you about Rural College because it has developed an excellent professional culture in supporting its early career teachers. I used Rural College as a case study for my doctoral work on Communities Of Practice.
What Rural College did
In recent years, Rural College has made a significant commitment to the professional learning of its teaching staff through the implementation of two significant ventures. The first was a coaching platform and the second was the introduction of Professional Learning Teams.
The school chose these platforms as they wanted to build a learning culture at their school that moved away from traditional staff meetings and allowed teachers to deal with important issues and develop their practice in smaller, more supportive groups.
The coaching platform Rural College chose is based on the three principles of feedback, teacher development and cultural change through cognitive coaching where teachers explore the thinking behind their practices.
Following on from training sessions for staff and middle and senior management levels, randomly chosen classes for all teachers were surveyed once or twice a year and the results analysed by the coaching company. Several times a term a trained middle or senior level coach met with a small group of teachers to which they have been allocated. These groups—no larger than four people—formed Communities of Practice. Those involved began to share aspects of their data and work together to support each other to create new goals.
Professional Learning Teams
The second professional learning initiative was the introduction of Professional Learning Teams in 2016. This involved teachers choosing an area of interest or issue that they would like to pursue and other teachers signing up to join them. Each team had a particular focus or domain and consisted of up to ten teachers who met weekly as a Community of Practice.
The research for this case-study with Rural College was conducted in 2016 and involved eight early career teachers at Rural College, some of whom were involved in a focus group, others in semi-structured interviews. The findings from this study are presented below.
You just walk in and you get people smiling
The early career teachers spoke passionately about the welcoming environment they encountered at Rural College from their first day. As one reflected: “I’d say I found a lot of support at Rural College and I think there’s already some great structures in place for supporting the newer teachers.” Another early career teacher who had come to the school from inter-state, found a strong sense of social connection within a supportive community where “everyone was just so friendly and willing to bend over backwards to help me.” This included other teachers and families inviting her home to dinner, which she greatly appreciated.
Strong social connection initiatives by the wider school community are particularly important in rural and remote areas where many early career teachers are away from their family and friends.
Mentors and Induction
All the early career teachers were given mentors, which they highly valued, alongside the support of the rest of the staff. As the Queensland College of Teachers noted in their questionnaire of graduate teachers, having an allocated mentor was one of a several necessary types of support that would encourage an early career teacher to stay on in a school.
In addition, Rural College provided an induction program for beginning teachers that extended over most of their first year. As one early career teacher reflected, “It’s been very good just to go through the things like induction that everybody expects you to know but you don’t necessarily know.” This involved organisational information at the start of the year and on-going group meetings with a senior leader who was given a specific role to work with the new teachers alongside his work in coordinating Communities of Practice at the school.
This aligns well with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership’s priority of a sustained induction that includes on-going professional learning, not just a “short orientation”.
It is interesting to note that the principal was sometimes present in these gatherings. This adds prestige to the group and would appear to give a strong message to early career teachers that their welfare is a priority in the school.
The two different Communities of Practice at Rural College provided invaluable support
The two different types of Communities of Practice at Rural College, the coaching groups (called Group 8 communities as this was the professional coaching company the school engaged) and Professional Learning Teams (where teachers chose an interest group to join) provided the early career teachers with a range of experiences that they valued.
Being part of the coaching teams was the chance for early career teachers to learn from more experienced teachers in their community.
As one reflected, “The best part about it is that it’s not just all young teachers or all new teachers. I’m in with a quite senior teacher who’s been teaching for nearly 40 years.” The more experienced teachers appeared to be the beneficiaries of tacit knowledge that they had built up over their years of teaching but not necessarily formally shared.
As the coaching group communities were small with no more than four members and a coach, there was a chance for less experienced teachers to engage in intimate, non-threatening conversations about specific aspects of their practice arising from the data that had been gathered from their classes. The fact that these early career teachers worked closely on a regular basis with their coach in their coaching group communities on credible data from their classes, suggests that they were in an ideal position to develop their practice, possibly more so than early career teachers in many other schools.
There would appear to be great value for teachers in engaging in effective professional dialogue, directed, as in this case, by data and a coaching context. This process of data, reflection and discussion was essentially built on a culture trust and appeared to be awakening a sense of professional identity in participants.
When asked if the coaching aspect of the Communities of Practice was the best part, one early career teacher said, “Yes, just in terms of being able to have conversations with people about what we’re really doing in the classroom. You know, there’re not many opportunities that exist in any other area.” She was also reassured to know even teachers with twenty or thirty years’ experience had some of the same issues in the classroom that she did.
Professional Learning Teams
The Professional Learning Teams groups met weekly and provided the early career teachers with the opportunity to gather with others with a similar interest (domain). As one reflected,
“I’ve found the Professional Learning Team really good because it was actually pro-active in what you were interested in and you directed where it was going. And I thought that was better support because the people you were with were actually interested in the same topic as you.”
One early career teacher belonged to a Professional Learning Team that included both English teachers and librarians. The value of librarians, learning enhancement and other support staff being involved with other staff members in Communities of Practice cannot be underestimated.
My case study with Rural College illustrates how one school was able build a culture of growth that fully supported not only the early career teachers but all teachers within the school community. As USA professors Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fuller indicate:
The key difference between those who have good beginnings and those who have painful ones, between those who feel they are getting better and those who are not, is the quality of the school’s culture and its level of support. (p. 69)
Schools with a culture of growth are intentional in their allocation of a mentor to each of their beginning teachers; one who is ideally in the same faculty, geographically proximate and with available time to allocate to their role. They also see the importance of having an induction program that extends over most of the year, rather than just for one or two sessions.
Moreover, within these school communities early career teachers have the opportunity to develop, over time, sustained self-efficacy, a strong professional identity and deeper social connection. These measures come with an attendant cost to the school in providing time for senior leaders to work with early career teachers and reduced allotments of early career teachers to allow for them to participate. However, the value of doing so is evident in terms of the well-being and longevity of early career teachers, the learning culture of the school and ultimately the benefits that can flow on to students.
Dr Bernadette Mercieca is a sessional lecturer and tutor at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne. Bernadette has come from a secondary teaching background. She has recently graduated with her PhD from the University of Southern Queensland in the area of education, with a focus on early career secondary teachers and how Communities of Practice could support their professional learning. Bernadette’s current research interests include peer support of teachers through social media groups and the impact of education in ICT platforms in pre-service teacher programs on the future use of ICT in the classroom. Bernadette has presented her doctoral research at the European Education Research Association (EERA) conferences over the past two years.
Bernadette is presenting her research at the 2018 AARE Conference on Tuesday 3 December at 1 pm .
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