What Second-Stage Teachers Want
A new research initiative examines the career needs of teachers who've made it beyond the crucial three-year mark.
In a recent post on his blog “Teaching in the 408,” an ambitious and outspoken teacher-writer who goes by the online name TMAO gave vent to his career frustrations. After five-plus years in teaching, he wrote, he still loves working with “the kids,” but he would like to feel a greater sense of professional growth. “Your level of quality as educator changes, but [your] title, position, [and] responsibilities remain stagnant,” he explained. For all his effort and sacrifice, he feels constrained and unsupported:
I want to grow. I want to excel. I want to feel like I’m not doing the same entry-level job I was six years ago. I want to feel like factors outside my own willingness and drive to improve are at work in shaping my professional life.
The options, he concludes ruefully, are to remain in “professional stagnation” or leave teaching.
TMAO’s frustration—and that of many others like him—points to a curious gap in schools’ treatment of teachers. While school leaders and policymakers have focused a great deal of attention in recent years on recruiting new teachers and supporting them in their first two or three years, there has been relatively little emphasis on what happens to the educators who make it beyond that stage.
This lack of attention is troubling for a number of reasons, experts say. For one thing, according to federal data, the retention rate for teachers in the years four-10 is not all that much better than it is for new educators. Further, the teachers in this group have already been proven, and thus are—or could be—valuable assets to schools.
Finally, with record numbers of veteran educators expected to retire in the next decade, schools will sorely need these “second-stage” teachers to provide leadership and staff continuity.
It is for such reasons that the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard University has launched a new research initiative to study the issues facing teachers in years four-10 and offer recommendations on how schools and policymakers can address them. Thus far, the group—whose work previously focused on new teachers—has produced a series of small-scale, “exploratory” studies tracking the perspectives of second-stage teachers on their job engagement, professional development, and career expectations and needs. A larger study looking at the experiences of 75 second-stage teachers is in the works.
Second-stage teachers have different needs than new or veteran teachers, Susan Moore Johnson, director of PNGT and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says in explaining the project. And, she emphasizes, school leaders and policymakers need to be more responsive to these educators “not just to retain them but to capitalize on what they have to offer.”
PNGT’s research indicates, in fact, that more purposeful interactions with school leaders—and colleagues—may go a good way toward improving second-stage teachers’ career outlook. The long-reigning culture of teacher isolation in schools, the studies suggest, may be particularly ill-suited to this cohort of teachers.
One study, for example, examines the job-engagement levels of 12 second-stage teachers working in a district with a “laissez-faire” culture. The study paints a picture of a group of mostly competent and devoted educators who, in large part, value the independence and flexibility they’ve acquired by virtue of their experience and skills. And yet they are adrift. They receive little or no guidance on how to expand or deepen their expertise, and the energy they put into their work is largely ignored (and even criticized). They acknowledge that their schools’ apparent willingness to let teachers “coast” through the years threatens to “dampen their motivation.”
The study argues, in essence, that the teachers have been given too little supportive structure. To heighten second-stage teachers’ engagement in their work, it says, school leaders need to play a more active and constructive role in their development—but without micromanaging them. “Schools and administrators must guide and support second-stage teachers while allowing them to maintain some of the autonomy they feel they have earned and need at this stage of their career,” it concludes. For their part, teachers must “be willing to open their classrooms to colleagues and administrators to allow examination of their practice.”
A second PNGT study zooms in on this issue of school-based collaboration, looking at the experiences of 10 second-stage teachers whose district gave them opportunities to continue developing their practice through peer coaching and professional-learning communities.
The findings, as the researcher notes, are remarkably positive (perhaps hinging in part on the desirability of the district studied). All the teachers reported that the collegial and reflective learning opportunities provided to them “met what [they] needed at this career stage,” and helped them improve and sharpen their teaching. Perhaps more centrally, these collaborative activities appeared to have a positive effect on the participants’ beliefs about the profession, causing them to change their thinking about their work and “enhance how they experience[d] teaching.”
In short, the study notes, collaborative “professional learning helped [the teachers] to remain confident and satisfied in their current commitment to teaching.”
The Will to Lead
Other studies in the PNGT’s series examine the pressing issue of career advancement within teaching—an increasing source of frustration for ambitious young educators. As one study notes, “teachers hired over the last decade show more interest in taking on leadership roles—and taking them on early in their careers—than did their predecessors.” They often enter the second stage of teaching “seeking opportunities for influence and responsibility beyond the context of their own classroom teaching.”
To gauge more precisely what sort of advancement opportunities are desired—and how schools might provide them—this study tracks the perceptions of eight second-stage educators who took three-year assignments as district-level coaches and then returned to school-based positions.
The participants all found their work as coaches highly rewarding, a fact that likely bolstered their long-term commitment to education, the study says. When their assignments were up, however, most chose not to go back to classroom teaching jobs. “In assessing subsequent job prospects,” the study observes, “they sought meaningful opportunities to work with colleagues, to use their newly acquired skills, and to influence instruction on a broad scale.” Higher pay was an important factor, too.
Significantly, however, most of the participants were not interested in moving into administrative positions, either. Instead, they wanted to be more purely instructional leaders—a goal they tried to fulfill, not always satisfactorily, by taking positions as department chairs or staff-development teachers. “They sought,” the study emphasizes, “a school-based role that has typically not existed.”
The study points to two potential actions for schools looking to give teachers greater career-growth opportunities: provide greater differentiation among teachers so those who excel have more authority and responsibility (and even higher pay), and bolster the “tenuous role of the school-based” instructional leader.
Look Before You Leap
That may be easier said than done, however. A related study in the series cautions that teacher leadership positions created in an ad hoc way, without more systemic change, may prove disappointing for both teachers and schools.
Because the “cultural norms of egalitarianism, autonomy, and seniority” remain strongly rooted in the teaching profession, the study finds, educators who took instructional leadership roles that entailed changing colleagues’ practice were often met with resistance and resentment. In the face of such opposition, the teacher leaders themselves tended to scale back or downplay their objectives. They became “stealth teacher-leaders, deliberately hiding their authority.”
For instructional leadership positions to have a greater chance at success, the study argues, they must be highly formalized in terms of “responsibilities, rights, and selection process” and embedded “in a system of supports,” including specialized professional development and public backing from administrators.
Teachers interested in assuming leadership roles, the study advises, should ensure that such conditions are in place at the school. They should also assess the school environment, since some schools are more open to collaboration than others.
Judging by PNGT’s research, that might be the first step for teachers like the blogger TMAO who are eager for greater advancement and support.
Vol. 01, Issue 02, Pages 27-29
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