Thinking long-term

Why we need to reduce excessive demands on early career teachers

Excessive demands placed on early career teachers have damaging, long-term impacts on their classroom management according to a new Australian study, writes journalist Jessica Willis.

The study surveyed 395 teachers on how their workload, school resources and confidence to manage student misbehaviour affected their teaching methods across a 15-year time period.

As a priority, reducing excessive demands on teachers in schools, especially during their early career, was the key recommendation coming out of the study.

“Our findings highlight the importance of how teachers begin their careers, as these early experiences showed enduring importance for their professional development,” the report said.

Empirical evidence for reducing workload

The research, led by Professor Helen Watt of the University of Sydney and Professor Paul Richardson of Monash University, adds to growing evidence regarding the urgent need to reduce excessive demands on teachers.

Teachers who felt well-prepared and confident in their ability to manage classroom behaviour were more likely to report the ability to provide their students with clear structure and expectations about behaviour.

They were less likely to adopt negative approaches such as yelling, losing their temper or using sarcasm.

On the other hand, teachers who experienced excessive demands during their early career were more likely to have their positive management methods derailed, instead developing negative approaches to manage student misbehaviour in the classroom.

Professor Watt said the way teachers start out sets up long-term professional behaviours.

“The key message from our findings is that the excessive demands experienced by beginning teachers have long-term, damaging consequences for their teaching behaviour,” Professor Watt said.

The findings demonstrate a teacher’s self-efficacy – their confidence and sense of professional preparedness – is established fairly early and remains quite stable even up to 15 years of teaching.

“This shows that teacher education isn’t just important for equipping future teachers with effective classroom management skills,” Professor Watt said.

“It’s also important to developing their confidence to manage student misbehaviour through positive structures rather than negative reactions.

“But this gets derailed when teachers who are just becoming established are overwhelmed by paperwork and suffer extreme time pressure,” she said.

Pressures vary with school context

The study found that demands and pressure on teachers vary between different school contexts.

IEU members will be familiar with the growing pressures associated with the teaching profession listed by the authors: time pressure, performance pressure, poor student motivation, challenging professional and parent-teacher relationships and decreasing autonomy in the workplace. All compounded by increasing administration tasks as well as government or employer processes and policies.

Demands are more excessive in secondary than primary schools, the study found.

The study also found teachers who perceived themselves working in more ‘advantaged’ schools tended to be more confident in their ability to manage classrooms.

Perceived school advantage was determined by three factors: reported resources and facilities in the school; socioeconomic status; and student achievement level.

Professor Paul Richardson said this may be explained by the better conditions teachers experience in such schools.

“Teachers who work in these settings may be confronted with fewer disruptions and less problematic student behaviours, producing lower levels of stress and a higher sense of self-efficacy.”

Early career mentoring and support essential

Early career mentoring related positively to beginning teachers’ self-efficacy and to less excessive demands, which may suggest it helped the teachers cope better, according to the study.

Professor Richardson said mentoring and appropriate support is needed for early career teachers.

“A reduced allocation of workload, assistance with meeting the initial professional registration requirements teachers face in their early careers, and quality mentoring programs would likely help beginning teachers cope with the initial overload of demands they experience, said Professor Richardson.

IEU-QNT Organiser Caryl Rosser said with the early years often presenting professional challenges, the benefit of quality mentoring and support cannot be overstated.

“Mentoring is a crucial support mechanism for early career teachers; however, anecdotally we know mentoring experiences vary significantly,” she said.

“Our union would add that all teachers – no matter their experience level – need ongoing, quality support and advocacy from their employers.

“The sheer volume of tasks teachers must complete to comply with government or employer regulations is unreasonable and contributing to the overall burnout and in some instances, psychological injury, of teachers across Australia.

“It all comes back to teachers having autonomy over their profession and contemporary working conditions that allow them to do what they do best: teach,” Rosser said.

Don’t just join your union – be active

This study highlights the real impact working conditions can have on professional practice.

Rosser said a strong union presence in your school can help ensure that your working conditions are kept in check according to your collective agreement as well as provide a collective structure for consultation with your employers.

“Workload pressures are a significant issue throughout the teaching profession – no matter what state, territory or system – but most collective agreements have provisions won by members that can help ameliorate problems,” Rosser said.

“Your IEU organiser or relevant union officer can help you and your colleagues collectively identify which provisions might be in breach and how to best hold your employers to account.

“Members should remember they have a right to do this and employers have legal obligations to adhere to collective agreements.

“Teachers only want the best for their students and for that to happen teachers need to be supported and respected in the workplace.

“IEU members should talk to their non-member colleagues about joining our union as well as attend and actively participate in union meetings in your workplace and branch,” she said.

Contact your union branch to discuss how you and your colleagues can respond to this issue.

To read the full study: Rebecca, Lazarides, Helen Watt, Paul Richardson (2020). Teachers’ classroom management self-efficacy, perceived classroom management and teaching contexts from beginning until mid-career, Learning and Instruction, 69(2020) article 101346.

The study is based on an ongoing Australian FIT-Choice program of research and is the only study in the world to track a large sample of teachers from their entry into teacher education until up to 15 years into their teaching career.