New teachers risk early burnout, and need support and mentoring when they walk into the classroom on day one
Far too many skilled young teachers are leaving their critical profession each year, disillusioned and burnt out by a bruising early experience in schools.
As the new school year begins, thousands of newly qualified teachers are starting careers in a demanding and complex field. They are skilled, knowledgeable, caring and resourceful millennials who have much to offer the school system in the long term. They need to be nurtured into good practice and critical reflection.
Media depict excited, tearful learners starting school for the first time. There are images of parents passing precious offspring to what they hope is a safe space, fostered by effective, caring teachers who will act in loco parentis, planting seeds that enable learning and development. At the same time, we have the release of National Senior Certificate results, with celebrations of successful school careers and homage paid to teachers.
Behind idyllic scenes reflecting visions of a smooth upward trajectory is a structural landscape fraught with pitfalls that are the result of corrupt, ineffective social systems and underresourced, overly bureaucratic education systems that limit the ability of young people to learn and realise potential.
Grade 12 celebrations will include only half of the learners who started Grade 1.
Individual teachers are expected to make a meaningful contribution to the lives of young people despite major structural barriers to learning. The age profile of the profession in South Africa is changing. In recent years, the number of newly qualified teachers has tripled. About 15,000 new teachers enter each year; an important fact in a context where at least half of teachers are expected to retire in the next 10 years.
As teacher educators who work in the Newly Qualified Teachers’ Project, we experience the excitement and trepidation of young teachers. The 100-plus teachers who have registered for our programme this year are highly motivated, qualified professionals, often with multiple degrees, who are passionate about teaching and learning and about social justice. Many have dreamt of this moment from a young age, others arrive by happenstance, and yet others are just desperate for a stable job in a country where unemployment for their age demographic averages 55% (though this does not diminish their value as resourceful individuals who can add value).
In law, medicine and accounting, newly qualified graduates have a dedicated period of supervised apprenticeship, during which they are given a light workload. They are mentored by experienced practitioners. In many parts of the world, such an apprenticeship is a formal part of the teaching profession — but not in South Africa. Newly qualified teachers here are expected to walk straight into classrooms on day one and know what they are doing.
At a small minority of schools, new teachers are allocated subjects, classes, teaching plans and timetables well ahead of time. At an even smaller number of schools, they have access to tools such as workbooks, shared teaching resources and stationery, digital devices and their own classrooms.
Sadly, this is not the norm. Interviews with newly qualified teachers over a three-year period show they typically had to hit the ground running, with two days’ prior notice about their classes. They were handed a file, told not to smile at learners until April and to ask questions if uncertain. In the words of one teacher: “I had to fill out a form which said ‘Induction’ on it and basically it was my HOD giving me information.”
Teachers were expected to know how to engage, even though schools might have had particular, albeit tacit, norms and values.
Also, many new teachers were hopelessly overburdened early on, teaching huge classes, with added administrative, pastoral and extramural duties. Many taught out of phase, in subjects for which they had not been trained, or taught Grade 12 or were made heads of department in their first year.
It seems newly qualified teachers are line-managed and instructed, rather than mentored into good practice and critical reflection over time.
Induction is often a one-off basic instructional event rather than a process that connects to teachers’ experiences and helps them solve problems.
Many new teachers had minimal contact with principals, and “mentors” were often heads of department who conducted the performance appraisals and rarely had time to provide ongoing advice and guidance.
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“They were just too busy to help me,” was a frequent comment.
Subject meetings were often focused on assignment of duties and implementation of new regulations, with little space for reflection and sharing of ideas and resources.
New teachers mainly characterised colleagues as “helpful when asked”. However, for most of the first two terms, their own sense of insecurity, or sense of shame at not knowing, meant they seldom asked for help, even when out of their depth.
One teacher described how she was mocked by older staff as she had been educated at a university and thus ought to know things. Her ideas about child development were dismissed as inappropriate.
As 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 often lead to new teachers experiencing “praxis shock”. Each context (and each class) needs to be managed individually and teaching theory needs constant adaptation.
The path to becoming a good teacher is not linear. Teaching is intellectually, emotionally and physically demanding work that takes years to master.
Because of the increasing “casualisation” of teacher posts, newly qualified teachers are vulnerable and constantly “preserving face”, not asking questions and not signalling when they are not coping. They become frustrated by not being given the space to reflect and exchange ideas among peers.
It is little surprise that, while teacher education is increasingly oversubscribed, and new teacher numbers have tripled recently, hundreds of skilled, young teachers are leaving the profession each year.
Continuity is central to improving educational outcomes. High staff turnover inhibits learning. Poor teacher retention is a major impediment to quality education, the efficacy and stability of schools and redressing apartheid legacies.
The Newly Qualified Teachers’ Project was started in 2016 after feedback from a group of graduates who were burnt out and considering leaving the profession after only one year. The project provides pedagogical, professional and psychosocial support to BEd and PGCE graduates in their first year of teaching — to enable retention and create a new generation of agents of change.
Through a short course, mentoring, peer support and a winter/spring school, we have established a professional learning community. We are drawing on resources of teacher educators from the University of Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, practising teachers, alumni of the project, NGO partners, Western Cape Education Department subject advisers and all three trade unions in the province.
It was exciting to see how newly qualified teachers and earlier cohorts from the programme shared ideas and resources during the Covid period. Many took on agency roles at their schools and used their digital resources and knowledge of social media to reach out to learners and parents in low-resourced and well-resourced homes.
Mentors and teacher educators talk about how much they learn from the new teachers. The fact that enrolment from both UCT and CPUT graduates increases each year, and that experienced teachers participate in our winter/spring school, shows a clear desire for mentorship and professional growth.
Many young teachers are demonstrably well-educated, highly motivated and hard-working. They give their all to the profession, sacrificing their personal lives and sense of well-being.
While they cannot fix the inequities of the system, they can make a huge difference in the life chances of our youth and they have the potential to become school leaders. Too often, they burn out, leave or go overseas.
We need to ask, why are we not fostering and harnessing the resources of these young teachers? Why are we not investing in their futures and those of our children by nurturing, mentoring and supporting new teachers in our schools? DM168
Emeritus Associate Professor Rochelle Kapp, Dr Kate Angier, Judy Sacks and Melanie Sadeck are all teacher educators and part of the management team of the Newly Qualified Teachers’ Project, a collaboration between UCT and CPUT, supported by HCI Foundation and The Saville Foundation. They write in their personal capacities.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.