Let’s support, not scare off, new teachers

There is a disjuncture between the school’s expectations and the expectations and needs of the novice teacher.

“New teachers often feel alienated in a school environment, and can easily become traumatised; they expect guidance, but receive ad hoc instructions,” Dr Mduduzi Mathe, principal of Bhukulani Secondary School in Soweto noted at the recent Teachers Upfront seminar.

Ways of improving teacher quality have been under consideration by the government since the launch of the 2011-2025 integrated strategic planning framework. The plan addresses the career of a teacher through a number of phases: recruitment, preparation, induction into the world of work and continuing professional development.

The recent seminar focused on one of these phases: moving from university studies into a challenging workplace context that involves dealing with children and colleagues at school.

The new teacher has usually had only limited – and sometimes superficial and unsatisfactory – exposure to the classroom through a teaching practice placement. How can this transition be supported through induction and mentorship programmes? What should these look like, and how can they benefit the individual teacher, the school and the teaching profession as a whole?

The seminar combined presentations from a panel that included principals, new teachers and teacher education academics with group discussions. This format allowed for extended discussion on induction programmes and the mentoring of new teachers.

Dr Moeniera Moosa, from the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, said that schools expect newly graduated teachers to have thorough curriculum and classroom management knowledge, and an understanding of school policies, structures and functions. Though new teachers may have some of this knowledge in theory, the context for implementation may come as a shock.

Reflecting on his first year of teaching, Abdullah Mayet of Victory House High School said that “trying to negotiate how theory and context fit together is quite a challenge”. He added that he felt overwhelmed by the amount of administrative work required every day, and struggled to balance this with the need to inspire his learners.

Kim Mueller, another new teacher, at a Spark private school, agreed that managing the routines and professional protocols of the school environment turned out to be more time- consuming and challenging than she had expected.

These observations suggest that induction programmes require good design and formal implementation. They should address a number of needs, including practical, emotional and process concerns. But do they?

Professor Felix Maringe of Wits University said that there is, in fact, both a policy and an implementation gap in South Africa in relation to teacher induction.

He shared research findings on the importance of induction, which has been shown to have a number of benefits: it significantly increases retention in the profession, it accelerates progress towards professional competence and confidence (and therefore promotion), it improves job satisfaction and, by increasing teacher expertise and retention, induction improves overall learner outcomes.

And “despite recognition of these benefits, there is still no national policy or programme guidelines for the induction of newly qualified teachers in South Africa. Teacher induction as a field of practice in South Africa is patchy, unco-ordinated and under-theorised and tends to be informal.”

Panellists and participants viewed mentorship as a component of an induction programme and part of an ongoing process of professional development. Dr Deon Oerson from St Benedict’s College said: “Our mentorship model is all about building lasting relationships in order to ensure retention and engagement. It is also linked to the academic and professional development of the staff, to the benefit of the school and its learners.”

Some of the complexities of mentor-mentee relationships were explored. A mentoring relationship needs to be built on trust, open communication and self-reflection; the mentee needs to feel that there is “a safe space” in which difficulties can be confided without judgment or criticism.

Mentors need to be committed to the process and given guidelines on how to mentor effectively. Being a mentor can also contribute to the experienced teacher’s own professional development, learning new approaches and ways of thinking from the mentee. Practical issues such as recognition for time spent in the role also need to be considered.

So, how should induction and mentoring be approached? Clearly, schools should at the very least make an effort to ensure that the school environment is friendly and welcoming to the new teacher, who should feel that he or she can ask for help.

As Mathe noted: “The principal, as first point of contact with a new teacher, needs to make the novice feel welcome and at ease. The principal who builds up trust with his teachers is more likely to retain them.”

Beyond this, however, induction should be designed for the school context and the needs of the new teacher. Initial induction should happen before school opens; if it is left to the bustle of the new school year, no one will benefit as there will be competing demands on everyone.

An induction programme covers, at the minimum, orientation to the workplace and its practices, but mentoring should be a process that continues throughout the year. Novice teachers need to be able to turn to their mentors for help as different challenges emerge.

Teaching is a challenging profession, with a workplace context that demands a range of skills and energies from its practitioners. If novice teachers are to be retained and developed for the good of the profession and the education of our young people, providing induction, mentoring and support at the start of their careers is essential.

Melissa King is a knowledge manager at Bridge. The Teachers Upfront seminars are hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education

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Melissa King
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