In Australia we have been talking about rates of attrition in the teaching profession for a long time. Yet when we focus on attrition we miss the bigger picture. The key issue is not just who is leaving and when, but how we can improve job satisfaction for teachers so that they can flourish within their role, not just survive.
There are decades of research on this theme and it’s certainly not a new idea—or a simple one to address.
What is new here though is that my team has analysed data from over two thousand Australian early career teachers. We’ve tried to untangle the ways in which satisfaction and attrition are linked to each other, and to preservice education and working conditions.
Yes, the findings do show a strong but unsurprising link between satisfaction and attrition. Far more important though are the findings that suggest ways in which teacher satisfaction might be improved.
To introduce some terms I will briefly describe what is often referred to in a faintly dehumanising way as the ‘teacher pipeline’ but which I will refer to as the ‘teachers’ journey’.
The teachers’ journey
Many things need to fall into place for a system to produce and keep high quality motivated teachers. People need to make a choice that they want teaching to be their vocation, and then those people need to finish their initial teacher education. These recently graduated teachers then need to get a job in a school, get registered, and make it through the first five years of teaching. At this point they will be in the sun-drenched, happy-ever-after territory of being considered an established teacher.
Anywhere along this journey we can find factors that will influence teacher satisfaction and attrition.
If teachers aren’t well prepared for the job, then it may be that we are setting them up to fail—their preservice education (their initial teacher education) might be influencing their future satisfaction.
If teachers get their first job in an environment where they are well supported, then this might help to shield them from the slings and arrows of the first few years of teaching. This early career support,in an ideal world, might look like having a helpful mentor, a quality orientation program, a reduced load in the first year(s) of teaching, and structured time to reflect on the job with peers.
Finally, there are factors that are relevant to the teacher’s current job—their overall job satisfaction and the factors that describe their perception of on the job conditions. These relate to the school as well as external factors and range from things like the quality of pay and the status of the profession (external factors), through to what is going on in the classroom, and relationships with students (inside classroom factors), through to relationships with parents, school leadership, and other teachers, and workload (outside classroom factors)—these are just some of the 17 variables we used in our study.
How this all fits together: our findings
For our study we used a regression analysis of data from 2,144 Australian early career teachers, adjusted for school sector, type, geolocation, socioeconomic status, and job security. Our study was a disaggregation of existing data from the 2010 Staff In Australia’s School Survey . For those wanting details of our methods and findings please find the link at the end of this post.
We made significant findings from our analysis.
1. Teachers who feel they are not satisfied with their job are more than six times as likely to plan on leaving the profession.
While this association (between satisfaction with work and wanting to stay in that job) is unsurprising, having a statistic to back it up is meaningful. It is worth mentioning that, in previous studies, an intention to leave the profession has been shown to be a useful guide to actual attrition.
2. No variable in preservice education was strongly associated with teacher satisfaction.
This suggests that trying to address teacher satisfaction through changes to their preservice education is unlikely to have success. However, when teachers felt that they had been prepared for “working with other teachers”, and for “using a variety of instructional methods for diverse student needs”, they were far less likely to want to leave the profession—but they were not more satisfied with their jobs.
3. Three kinds of early career support were associated with satisfaction in the job
- a helpful mentor,
- a helpful orientation program, and
- a reduced face-to-face workload.
Again, these are not surprising findings (they echo existing research from the past two decades) but the size of the sample gives us increased confidence that this holds true for Australian teachers. Of these, it is only having a helpful mentor that was also a strong factor in teachers being less likely to plan on leaving the profession.
4. Factors relating to job conditions most associated with wanting to leave the profession.
From strongest to least (only considering those variables with a strong effect size, out of 17 variables in total) were:
- The amount of clerical/administrative work required
- What teachers are currently accomplishing with students
- Opportunities for career advancement
- The value that society places on teachers’ work
- Relationships with parents/guardians.
- The amount of teaching expected
- Freedom to decide how to do the job
Where to from here?
Ideas from positive psychology suggest that intrinsic motivation in a job requires having opportunities for autonomy, competence, and relationships with other humans. The paper that my team published makes a few key points that, along with our findings outlined above, can be understood in this context.
1. It seems that reshaping preservice teacher education (yet again) would not be the most effective place to put our future efforts.
2. For all the studies that have been carried out about mentorship programs and their effectiveness, three out of ten early career teachers in Australia in our analysis either had an unhelpful mentor or had no mentor. Yes some states have since established a policy about mandatory mentorship programs, but for some beginning teachers (anecdotally) these can be just box-ticking exercises.
3. The fact that clerical/administrative burdens was one of the strongest factors considered in linking on-the-job conditions to intention to leave the profession suggests that this may be a place to look for improving teacher satisfaction. The literature suggests that administrative burdens have increased for teachers in the last decade. It is difficult for any study to conclusively show that reducing this administrative burden would improve teacher satisfaction; but it is a proposal that certainly passes the common sense test. Again, this is a point made by many scholars before me; but having solid data to back it up adds to the case.
Yet when looking at any dataset the paradigm within which one views it matters. My great hope, personally, is that policymakers across the country can adopt the paradigm of positive psychology, and ask questions about how teachers can be supported to flourish in their jobs—rather than the old paradigm, of asking how we can keep them in the profession. Maybe then we could start to truly transform the conditions within which teachers go about their vital work.
With thanks to my co-authors on the original article: Dr Marcela Cespedes, Dr Marc Clarà and Professor Patrick Danaher.
Dr Nick Kelly is a Lecturer in Interaction Design at the Queensland University of Technology, in the School of Design. His research focuses on the cognition of creativity, the support needs of preservice and early career teachers, and the design of online communities of teachers.