The first five years of teaching: motivation, CPD and retention.

24 May 2019

It has been a very quiet few months on this blog. The TES English teacher podcast has been keeping me very busy (this latest episode with Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts on helping boys achieve is a cracker) and I have been trying to finish off my Masters in Practitioner Enquiry. This post is a brief summary of some of the key findings of the dissertation, which I finished this week.

The background

I decided to focus the dissertation on motivation and retention for teachers in the first five years of their careers. As has been widely publicised, the statistics are fairly disturbing in this area, with 33% of teachers leaving in these initial challenging years. I wanted to look in particular at the impact of CPD, and how it could both support and motivate teachers in their first five years.

This has always been a bit of a personal investment of mine and something I am very passionate about.  I had a rather strange initial five years in my own teaching, becoming an Assistant Headteacher in my third year of teaching in an academy in London. Predictably, I was utterly rubbish and I always feel a nagging guilt about how I failed miserably to support new teachers well enough in this role. There is, as this research has illuminated, a huge amount of responsibility on leadership: the ethos has to be right for young teachers to thrive and last in teaching. There are some environments in which this is most definitely not a priority, and that is resulting in the loss of talented teachers from the profession.

I have also always found a huge amount of joy and energy in working with teachers at the start of their careers. This year I have mentored a terrific NQT and worked with some cracking schools direct students. There is nothing better than watching a teacher develop their confidence in the classroom, and discover the various wonderful aspects of teaching. I wanted to examine in this dissertation what teachers really want in their first five years, and how my own work with teachers could improve.

My book, ‘Slow Teaching: Finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom’ was an attempt to put forward a case for giving space for teachers to slow down and become more considered and strategic about how they work. I wanted to think more on this issue of time, and look at how it could be applied to teachers in their first five years in my research. How can we stop teachers feeling relentlessly overwhelmed in these challenging first five years is a question I feel we should all be asking.

I also wanted to understand more about how to structure and run CPD – having both delivered some shockers in the past, and having sat through some less than inspired sessions. I feel that given the pressure that teachers are under, CPD requires serious reflection on how to get it right and not waste valuable investment from teachers.

The Research

First, I delved headfirst into the research on what makes effective CPD, a fascinating project which has taught me a huge amount. There is some terrific reading out there, that has crystallised for me what CPD should involve. I summarised the literature review with some aspects that I felt were particularly pertinent for teachers in their first five years in order for CPD to be effective. Three key points from a range:

  1. The purpose behind CPD must be very clear, and its impact on student attainment. Staff should know why they are completing CPD activities.
  2. There should be reflection and evaluation of CPD in order for it to impact classroom practice. This should be a cyclical process that should last for a significant period of time.
  3. Collaborative CPD can be very useful, but should be structured carefully. This should again be linked back to the impact on student progress.

I then sent out an online survey for teachers in their first five years about their experience in CPD, and its connection with motivation. This gathered over two hundred responses and was hugely revealing in highlighting the varying experience teachers in their first five years have of CPD.

I then wanted to compare this to the experience of my current school, which I used as a case study. I sent the survey round these teachers, and then interviewed a wide range of teachers from both my case study school and the wider school network about their experiences. The interviews aimed to gather more evidence about effective strategies that schools were employing.

The Findings

Teachers are extremely passionate about development at the start of their careers. Even teachers who I interviewed that are leaving the profession (and there was a depressing number) highlighted how much they felt CPD was important to them, and how much more they wanted to learn. There was of course, a significant but: the CPD had to be relevant and useful for their stage of practice. Correlations with Ofsted did not seem to motivate or impact teachers; neither did one-off CPD sessions that were not evaluated. They were seen as more harmful to motivation, perceived as taking up valuable time that could be used to better means.

CPD and well-being are closely interlinked. Teachers, like all professions, feel deeply that they should be always developing and moving forward. There is no doubt that good CPD leads to improved confidence, self-efficacy, enthusiasm and responsiveness to learning and innovation. In schools in which CPD is effective, there is significant correlation with retention and motivation of teachers. It is a vital part of sustaining new teachers.

There are a range of significant barriers that exist to CPD in the first five years. Workload difficulties and the availability of time were recurring themes, alongside the culture of performativity. Time designated to CPD often seems to be taken up by data discussions or perfunctory aspects related to school life. Neither, as you can imagine, are fuelling the motivation of teachers in their first five years. If anything, a lack of quality CPD was a factor in people leaving the profession. Often teachers started their careers keen to throw themselves into everything CPD related, but disillusionment strikes with either poor provision or a fundamental lack of provision.

The findings in the review of the literature demonstrate that effective CPD really needs to cater for the needs of individual teachers. This becomes even more important with the diverse and various needs of teachers in their first five years. This individual ownership of CPD does not appear to be widespread in the teachers I interviewed, or the results of the surveys. Finding ways in which teachers can take more of a lead on their CPD development, or facilitating more coaching opportunities in which teachers are guided on their improvements, would be very useful in motivating teachers in their first five years.

It would appear that one-off insets still seem to be the dominate form of CPD across England. The research highlights that unless CPD is sustained and evaluative, the impact can be limited. While I am sure that there are some one off CPD sessions that are informative and engaging, often teachers commented that the lack of time or planning that allowed for returning to interesting CPD resulted in them losing impact.

Staff want further discussion and to unpick CPD – not having the time or investment to do this can be very frustrating. Schools building in time and opportunity for staff to reflect and evaluate CPD, and setting up cyclical processes rather than one-off events would be much more beneficial.

Schools should also seek to capitalise on a desire for staff to take part in CPD by increasing the provision on offer for staff in a voluntary CPD capacity. Moving away from one-off CPD events, or more didactic CPD events to enable collaborative enquiry would also support the motivation and progress of teachers in their first five years.

Collaborative CPD can be hugely useful, but it again needs to be prioritised over performativity agendas. For teachers in their first five years this is also hugely valued, learning from those with more expertise, having time to discuss what they are doing in their classrooms, is vital to motivation and engagement with teaching and learning.

A recurring comment from teachers was that their training year and NQT year are overwhelming with the amount of CPD and support they receive. The difficulty then is transferring to their second year on a full timetable. They feel that this should be more structured and support should still be given after their NQT year.

Some of the process of the research was quite disheartening, hearing of teachers struggling and not being offered the support they need to thrive in their teaching careers. There continues to be, however, schools that are doing terrific work in supporting teachers – and this needs to be shared more widely.

The recent development with the introduction of an Early Career Framework, which involves a two year package of structured training and support for teachers in their early career, is a really positive first step in the right direction. I would argue that more should be done, and that schools need to look at building in coaching programmes for teachers to support them throughout the first five years. This doesn’t need to be hugely intensive, but these teachers need people with experience to guide them and help them improve. We all feel more motivated and encouraged when we feel we have someone we can speak to and be supported by. All my interactions with teachers highlighted just how much they want to continue to want to learn and improve what they are doing in the classroom, they just need to be given the time and breathing space to do it.

The satisfaction of completing this research this week has also been combined with the odd experience of having my last ever week teaching in the English system. After eleven years of living outside of Scotland, the homeland is calling again, with a move to Edinburgh. Although I am sad to leave my current school, I have been open enough in my own writing about my frustrations with some of the educational policies in England at the moment. I am excited about a new start, and look forward to continuing to learn and write about what I am passionate about. The training and experience of teachers in their first five years is an absolutely integral part of that process. I hope to continue to battle with these questions and hopefully make some positive contributions to the debate.

Thank you for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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