There’s a big difference between what prospective teachers learn at university and what they find when they enter the world of work. Some scholars have called this a “reality shock”, and pointed out that it could “account for the frustration, anxiety and self-doubt many early career teachers are thought to experience”.
Other researchers have found that early career teachers who are just starting out often lack the subject knowledge that’s needed for effective teaching. There’s a discrepancy between the content they’re taught and the curricula they find already in place at schools.
And, in perhaps the grimmest description of all, some researchers have called teaching an occupation that “cannibalises its ‘young’ and in which the initiation of new teachers is akin to a ‘sink or swim,’ ‘trial by fire,’ or ‘boot camp’ experience”.
Yet despite these very real challenges, some early career teachers have managed to effectively teach their subject and have remained in the profession. Given that their university training alone didn’t seem to be setting them up for this work, we wanted to know how early career teachers obtained the knowledge they really needed to succeed and even thrive.
Working with early career high school English language teachers from Zimbabwe, we found that teachers obtained their knowledge about their work from three sources. First, they drew from theories of education they’d learned at university. They also explored the nature of their subject and built up knowledge from that. And they identified problematic areas in how their subject is usually taught, then found new and different ways to tackle these difficulties.
These findings emphasise teaching knowledge as emanating from personal, practical, reactional and contextual experiences. This means teacher preparation programmes might better prepare pre-service teachers by exposing them to multiple contexts which have the potential to develop their professional practice.
Different ways of learning how to teach
We worked with a group of early career teachers in Zimbabwe’s Bulawayo East district. They work at schools which we once reserved for white students before Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 and the education system was desegregated. Today the district is largely occupied by middle-class black people and a few white families.
We collected data using semi-structured interviews, conducted our own observations and had the participants keep reflection diaries. Then we analysed this material to identify common areas of knowledge and the sources of that information.
University study is not entirely without value for early career teachers. The participants in our research said they sourced some information from their academic courses and activities. This included general knowledge about psychology, sociology, learning and communication. They then reconstructed this knowledge into their personal philosophies and teaching styles.
The second source of knowledge was the very nature of English language as a subject. For example, when it came to the literature component of the subject, teachers said it was important to know about the history of literature since this informs its nature. This knowledge made them more aware of the scaffolds their pupils required to perform well in the subject. This knowledge was not easily accessible through comprehension of the university curriculum only. These teachers reinterpreted their theoretical knowledge into their contexts as means of enhancing effective learning.
The knowledge of the history and nature of their subject motivated these teachers to embrace specific teaching methods that facilitated problem solving, critical thinking, competencies, skills and values synonymous with someone who has studied in that area. They were aware of the robust ways in which knowledge is acquired in English learning.
Through this continuous process of refining their ability to teach a subject by paying attention to their context, the pupils and the curriculum objectives, the early career teachers become more than subject teachers: they were subject knowers.
Finally, the participants in our study learned to be better teachers by understanding which areas their pupils struggled to grasp. They reached this point by really getting to know what each of the pupils in their classes needed to be academically successful. Then they created teaching strategies that motivated their learners and boosted their self-esteem and efficacy.
Implications for teaching
Our study offers a deeper comprehension of how early career teachers develop and gain knowledge. It also highlights the symbiotic relationship between theoretical knowledge in teaching and the role of teachers in the construction of their teaching knowledge from classroom-based experiences.
Simply put, it’s not enough for teachers to get a degree and believe they’re prepared for life in a classroom. There should be more chances for teachers to develop skills as professionals on how to teach. This development process occurs only when teachers are nurtured in supportive school communities.