Is better induction and mentoring the answer to retaining early career teachers?

A national study gets underway early next year aimed at boosting retention for early career teachers through better induction and mentoring.

Attracting and retaining teachers remains a major issue for Australia’s education sector, particularly as a high percentage of early career teachers leave the profession in their first few years.

The study will prioritise “precariously employed” early career teachers – those on casual and short-term contracts – to effectively manage student classroom behaviour.

Learning how to manage student behaviour is one of the most important teaching skills, yet it’s also one of the top-ranked challenges faced by early career teachers.

Professor Anna Sullivan, from the University of South Australia, who is chief investigator of the new project, says the study will propose alternative policy and induction practices that better support the transition of insecure replacement teachers within the profession.

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Professor Anna Sullivan

Sullivan says there are many factors that influence teacher retention.

“For example, the work new teachers are expected to do matters. Most professions don’t expect graduates to do the same work as those who are more experienced. New teachers should have a staged entry into the profession. Currently this doesn’t really happen.

“The teacher workforce is unusual in that it refers to induction as a period for the first three to five years following graduation. It is also unusual in that induction covers: onboarding, tours, buddies, professional learning, and many other elements.”

Sullivan says that what’s required is a more nuanced understanding of what is needed to support precarious teachers and when. 

“Teachers often work in isolation. Research shows that it is better if they work in more collaborative ways. Targeted and tailored professional learning opportunities are critical.

“Very little research has examined what helps to support the retention of casual and short-term contract graduate teachers. It seems like schools are not well placed to take full responsibility for their induction. System wide policies and practices are required.”

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Education policy consultant Barbara Preston wrote in a recent report that for early career teachers to develop and be retained as effective professionals, they should begin their careers in stable and predictable roles in schools with supportive administrative arrangements, effective induction and mentoring programs, and a professional school culture.

“The large majority [of new teachers] are initially employed in insecure replacement work that is inimical to their effective development and retention,” Preston wrote.

“Replacement teaching tends to have poor pay and conditions and to be accorded little professional respect. It is often stressful and unsatisfying, especially for early career teachers without the experience and skills necessary for such challenging and variable work.

“Replacement teaching often adds little to student learning and is disruptive to the educational and administrative work of schools.”

Sixty per cent of new teachers are employed on contracts of less than one year or as casual teachers, and it can take years to secure long-term employment.

Sullivan says in Australia, there is a focus on school-based induction programs: “…and while these may be very good, most early career teachers tend to be employed for short periods, so they miss out on a proper induction.

“As a result, these new teachers may be left feeling unsupported, isolated, and lacking confidence in their abilities, increasing the likelihood of them leaving the profession. Learning how to manage student behaviour is one of the most important teaching skills, yet it’s also one of the top-ranked challenges faced by early career teachers, and something that could be better accommodated through a thorough and ongoing induction process.

“Finding ways to better support, guide and coach new teachers as they start their careers is imperative for Australia’s education sector.”

According to the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, induction programs should be school-based practice-focused to develop teaching skills, embedded in daily practice, and delivered over two years.

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Sullivan says The Australian Guidelines for Teacher Induction emphasise mentoring embedded in daily practice, regular interactions with school leaders, as well as access to targeted professional learning, and extra time allocation for planning.

“Yet most new teachers do not qualify for such induction programs because they’re employed on a casual or short contract.

“Therein lies the conundrum. Newly qualified teachers need a comprehensive induction program, yet their employment status doesn’t enable this.

“Our project aims to find ways to change this so that we can attract, retain and better support new teachers; we must address this issue if Australia is to build a healthier education system.”

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