During 2019, the Department for Education (DfE) published a number of policy documents: ‘Teacher recruitment and retention strategy’, ‘Early career framework’ and ‘ITT core content framework’. Rigorous attention on early career development is welcome (Allen and Sims, 2018), particularly with continued high levels of stress leading to issues of retention in the profession (Teacher Wellbeing Index (Education Support, 2019)).
This research-informed article focuses on how the resilience of trainee teachers is challenged and eroded, but also sustained and nurtured. Chandler (2014, p. 46) describes resilience as ‘an increasingly ubiquitous concept’ and Neenan (2009, p. 3) refers to resilience as an ‘intriguing yet elusive concept’. Through my own research inquiry, I have come to view trainee teacher resilience as a continuum, with grit and determination at one end and openness and vulnerability at the other. Both aspects are important in the professional learning journey and demand the support of a positive mentoring relationship (Lofthouse, 2018). The honesty of the trainee teachers in this research inquiry is a powerful reminder of the need to listen to their voices as we respond to recent government policy documents.
My research, exploring the resilience of 100+ secondary trainee teachers at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, was undertaken over a three-year period. I chose to explore their experiences through a variety of lenses, using bricolage as my methodological approach. Wibberley (2012, p. 1) suggests that ‘the emergent nature of bricolage allows for bite-sized chunks of research to be carried out that have individual meaning for practice, but which can then be pieced together to create a meaningful whole’. Bricolage does not lead to a ‘magic answer’, but rather allows different and complementary understandings of a phenomenon to emerge through a variety of research activities, only ever as a basis for further reflection and investigation. Although some limited quantitative analysis was used for the research (see below), it was mainly thematic analysis of the extensive qualitative data that led to rich and informative insights.
A range of approaches were used to explore the experiences and perspectives of trainee teachers:
Drawing on four key components to maintain and build resilience – confidence, adaptability, purposefulness and social support – a free online test (robertsoncooper.com/iresilience) was used to generate a personalised report, providing awareness of an individual’s resilience and examples of how this might impact on responses to challenging situations at work. Although the test is not aimed at teachers specifically, the report identifies an individual’s strengths and areas for development, including an action plan, and this seems entirely consonant with the formative approach to professional development in initial teacher training (ITT).
Trainee teachers completed a short questionnaire at four key points in the ITT year, designed to capture experiences at significant moments of transition:
- at the end of the first phase of university-based training, prior to starting the first school placement
- in the period between first and second school placements
- at the mid-point in the second school placement
- in the final week of the ITT course.
Each questionnaire followed a similar format, as trainees identified a particular situation where resilience had been needed and how they had felt challenged, but also how they had coped with the experience to grow as trainee teachers.
Four creative writing activities were also completed at the same time as the questionnaires:
- free writing for five minutes to capture initial emotions and reflections
- metaphor writing to describe first school placement experience
- haiku poem to capture significant experiences in the first half of the second school placement experience
- short story to describe the ITT period as a whole.
The creative writing activities offered rich and complementary insights into the questionnaire responses and proved ‘a valuable method for getting in touch with [the] inner life’ (Hunt and Sampson, 1998, p. 12) of the trainee teachers.
Key findings and analysis
Carter (2015, p. 44) notes that ‘important competencies such as resilience can be difficult to assess’; although the responses to the online resilience test were analysed in relation to gender and subject specialism, there were no statistically significant differences, and I remain unconvinced about the value of collating aggregated quantitative data. However, the resilience reports were effective at an individual level for trainee teachers to reflect with their tutors and mentors on what might hinder or support their resilience. As one trainee commented:
“The report highlighted things that I had not really thought about myself before. Let the reflection begin!”
Analysis of the questionnaires revealed a recurring theme of coping and surviving in challenging situations, rather than the thriving developmental process leading to personal and professional growth that would be expected at different stages during the ITT period. This highlights a need for more time and space for the trainee teacher, particularly in the areas that were identified as challenging: managing workload, working with a difficult mentor or colleague, coping with negative (and sometimes contradictory) feedback, and managing the behaviour of pupils.
It is the complexity of teaching that makes it both a challenging and a rewarding profession, with reflective practice at its core. All those involved in ITT have a part to play in instilling in new teachers ‘a sense of confidence, resilience, and self-efficacy’ (Waddell, 2007, p. 125). The questionnaire responses highlighted ways in which trainees managed challenging situations, and the support of a skilled mentor was frequently cited, echoing other research on the importance of mentoring (Hobson and Malderez, 2013; Lofthouse and Thomas, 2014). Effective time-management and target-setting to identify priorities were also essential as part of a broader approach to reflective practice.
The creative writing from the trainee teachers allowed for an alternative response to the more typical standards-driven, technical-rational approach to reflection. The initial free writing activities, completed early in the ITT course, revealed significant enthusiasm and a strong sense of purpose:
“It is refreshing to be with a real mix of people, different ages, interests, backgrounds, but all with a common goal…”
The range of adjectives used was overwhelmingly positive, with words like ‘excitement’, ‘stimulating’ and ‘thrilling’; this is in stark contrast to the words that were used in the final questionnaire at the end of the course, which included ‘rewarding’, but also ‘challenging’, ‘overwhelming’ and ‘exhausting’.
Initial positivity was subsequently challenged through the ITT programme, as illustrated in the metaphors and haiku that trainees shared at key transition points. When ideas or emotions are difficult to express, metaphor may be a useful form of language to better understand a situation, and the trainees’ metaphors gave a clear insight into how their resilience was both challenged and supported while on school placement. The majority of the metaphors fell into three distinct categories: journeys, extreme sport and creative activities.
Considering the importance of the mentor in particular, this metaphor serves as a good example:
“The observation period is like your way up to the [bungee] jump where you feel like you can do it, but the higher you go the more the doubts creep in about your ability to jump. Then you jump and it’s exciting and dangerous. Then near the end of the jump you feel the tug of the safety cord, you know you are going to survive and, even though there are still more ups and downs, confidence is higher and you can really start to just enjoy the jump.”
Similarly, these haiku poems, written by different trainee teachers, illustrate the significance of the mentor–trainee relationship:
Tired, tears and doubt.
‘You can do it’, mentor said.
Mentor worries, strain and stress,
Through the tunnel light.
The compressed haiku poetry form prompted trainee teachers to highlight their main focus at the mid-point of the second school placement, and workload was a recurring theme:
A train on a track
Can’t go back, can I go on?
I’ll do it, but how?
Analysing the short stories, written at the end of the ITT period, proved challenging. As Bolton (2014, p. 126) comments: ‘All stories are perspectival; no story has only one meaning. They are essentially ambiguous and resist singular interpretation.’ However, the short stories highlighted previously expressed themes. For example, related to mentoring, there were tales of ‘mentor-filled snowstorms’, meeting ogres, and being rescued by fairy godmothers and wise wizards! The short stories also highlighted some of the challenges with managing behaviour, which had dominated the ITT experiences for some trainees, reinforcing the notions that ‘conditions count’ (Gu and Day, 2013, p. 22).
Implications for practice
This research inquiry led to changes in practice at St Mary’s University, which has, in turn, contributed to the national debate in various ways, including a case study in ‘Addressing workload in initial teacher education’ (DfE, 2018). Clear attention is given to an integrated approach to teacher resilience and wellbeing through lectures and tutorial activities, as well as a workshop at the end of the ITT programme on thriving in the transition to NQT. This structured approach has led to positive feedback from trainees:
“It has helped me to refer to activities from our resilience lecture when things have got tough during placements.”
A number of key actions arise from the research that are relevant for discussion in any ITT context:
- A stronger focus is needed on the emotional and affective aspects of teacher training to complement subject knowledge and pedagogical development. How might we ensure that trainees experience the rewarding aspects of the profession without approaching exhaustion?
- More creative approaches to reflective practice would offer alternative insights into an individual’s experiences. Might creative writing be useful for some trainees and mentors to explore needs through a different lens?
- Closer collaboration, including sharing creative approaches with mentors, could ensure a more integrated and personalised approach for trainees. How might mentors work together, within and across schools and ITT providers, to better support trainees?
Many of these actions are implicit in the recent DfE documents; continued commitment from schools and ITT providers, working in close partnership, is needed to meet the bespoke needs of new entrants to the profession. Above all, whatever policy documents and well-structured ITT provision are in place, there remains an ongoing need for the varied experiences and voices of early career teachers to be heard clearly as part of expanding the debate.
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