To improve our education system, newly qualified teachers need to be nurtured, mentored and supported!
By Kate Angier; Rochelle Kapp; Judy Sacks and Melanie Sadeck.
I had to fill out a form that said ‘induction’ on it and basically, it was my HOD giving me information.
I think I also felt ashamed in a way because I felt like I needed to be able to cope with everything from the get-go, I am supposed to know everything and have all my ducks in a row.
Being a young teacher and having a contract has made me want to prove a lot of things to the principal, SMT, and my grade partners this year. I took on responsibilities when I was asked even when I had lots of other things to do. This often left me feeling overwhelmed and overworked.
These are the reflections of three teachers, describing their roller-coaster experiences of being new teachers in Western Cape schools. The teachers are highly critical of their brief, primarily administrative, induction and of the daunting expectation that they would have “their ducks in a row” as they entered the profession. Their remarks are typical of comments made by the 34 newly qualified teachers (NQTs) we interviewed in 2020. Many teachers described how they were handed a file and told to ask questions when they were uncertain. The teachers mainly characterised their colleagues as “helpful when asked”, but often too busy to help them. They had minimal contact with their principals and if they were assigned mentors, these were often heads of department to whom they were accountable. While subject meetings were held, these were primarily focussed on the assignment of duty and implementation of new regulations. Teachers repeatedly described how, despite being new, it was expected that they would know what to do. As reflected in the quotations above, teachers’ sense of insecurity, or sense of shame at not knowing, meant that they seldom asked for help, even when they felt overwhelmed.
And yet, these teachers were in their first year of work in a demanding and complex field. As a considerable body of international research has shown, the responsibility of being a full-time teacher dealing with varying groups of pupils, the complexities of the school and the classroom context often leads to NQTs experiencing what is referred to as “praxis shock” (Keltermans and Ballet 2002: 105). For teachers, each context (and even each class) needs to be taken and managed individually, so the actual application of ideas and theories learnt needs to be adapted and re-learnt. This is intellectually and emotionally demanding work that takes years to master. Moreover, many of these new teachers were hopelessly over-burdened in their first year, teaching big classes and assigned up to 176 learners at multiple levels. Far too many were teaching out of phase in subjects for which they had not been trained. A small number were even appointed as subject or grade heads in their first year of teaching and many were given extra duties which entailed huge levels of responsibility and administrative coordination. Because they generally entered the profession in poorly paid contract positions (with salaries as low as R4000 per month), they were easily exploited and loathed to complain. It should come as little surprise then, that while teacher education programmes are increasingly over-subscribed, and the number of newly qualified teachers has tripled in recent years, hundreds of highly educated, skilled, young South African teachers are leaving the profession each year (Shibiti 2020). The lack of continuity of teachers, particularly in under-resourced schools, should be a major source of concern to us all. High levels of staff turnover are known to inhibit teaching and learning: poor teacher retention is a major impediment to the provision of high-quality education, the efficacy and stability of schools, and efforts to redress the legacies of Apartheid.
The Newly Qualified Teachers’ Project, or NQT Project, is an initiative of the School of Education at the University of Cape Town and in 2021, is run in partnership with Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The project supports B.Ed and PGCE graduates from all 4 universities in the Western Cape and aims to address the significant attrition rates amongst first-year teachers and to improve their professional resilience. We support teachers in their first year by providing an accredited short course, mentoring and school visits (when possible), peer support and provision of resources. Started in 2016, the project provides both academic, subject-specific help and psycho-social support. It is described by teachers as “a safe space” and as a “lifeline”. The following comment by an SP/FET teacher provides some insight into the value that teachers ascribe to the project:
This course has really been a pillar of strength as a new teacher. It has predicted all the problems and challenges I would have, sometimes before they have even arisen. The course has offered much-needed guidance and instruction on crucial aspects of the teaching profession. The course has helped in terms of informal to formal interactions with the school and other teachers, teacher-learner interactions, legal issues, discipline and behaviour issues. Although, the most important aspect of the course has been the constant support it has provided in the form of regular group meetings with people in a similar position, the various WhatsApp groups which have helped keep me informed and supplied with an array of teaching materials as well as the personal meetings with Judy which gives one the sense that things will be alright. Lastly, the course pushes one to constantly reflect on what the ‘job’ or role of an educator is and how can it be improved or reimagined and for all this I am grateful to all those involved in the NQT course.
Importantly, the teachers all speak of the project’s role in enabling shared learning among peers and facilitating productive reflection on their practices. One of the very exciting developments for us was to observe how these young teachers took on agentic, leadership roles during 2020 and how they used their digital and other resources to facilitate productive teaching and learning in both low-resourced and well-resourced schools. Another exciting development is that graduates of our project are now working alongside us to mentor our pre-service students and our newly qualified teachers.
As several studies have shown, the cost of attrition is high (Centre for Development and Enterprise 2015; Makukata and Mudau 2016 and Shibiti 2020). In South Africa, we have a rapidly ageing teacher population. We also have a cohort of resourceful millennials, committed to change and to social justice. These young teachers are demonstrably well-educated, willing to learn and hard-working. It is these teachers who give their all to the profession, sacrificing their personal lives and sense of well-being. Too often, they burn-out and leave the profession or seek employment overseas. We need to ask, why we are not investing in their futures by nurturing, mentoring and supporting them in our schools?
*The Newly-Qualified Teachers’ project is supported by the HCI Foundation and The Saville Foundation.
Centre for Development and Enterprise. (2015). Teachers in South Africa: Supply and demand 2013–2025. Executive summary. Johannesburg: Centre for Development and Enterprise.
Kelchtermans, G., & Ballet, K. (2002). The micropolitics of teacher induction. A narrative-biographical study on teacher socialisation. Teaching and teacher education, 18(1), 105-120.
Mafukata, A M., & Mudau, A.V. (2016). Exploring teacher mass resignation and early retirement from public schools. Dirasat: Human and Social Sciences, 43(5), 2243–2255.
Shibiti, R. (2020). Public school teachers’ satisfaction with retention factors in relation to work engagement. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology/SA Tydskrif vir Bedryfsielkunde, 46(0), a1675. https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v46i0.1675
This piece was prepared by the University of Cape school of education team as part of the HCI Foundation #HCIF_Reflective_Practice Initiative that encourages organisations and individuals to reflect on their contribution towards building a thriving South Africa for everyone.