Beginning primary teachers, novice teachers, identity shaping, figured worlds theory, sociocultural, induction, mentoring, probation, micropolotical, contextuality, emotionality, temporo-spatiality, multiple-case study, Ireland.
Context: The issue, with international and national overtones, of direct relevance to this study, relates to the shaping of beginning teachers’ identities in the workplace. Each year, approximately two thousand newly qualified primary teachers graduate from a range of initial teacher education programmes in the Republic of Ireland (Hyland 2012, p.14). Possessing the potential to deepen learning that has already taken place in initial teacher education, as well as preparing the beginning teacher for continuing professional development, the first year of teaching, post-graduation, represents a crucial juncture in the continuum of teacher education.
Focus: As the shift from the environment of an initial teacher education programme into initial practice in schools is a period of identity change worthy of investigation, this study focuses on the transformative search by nine beginning primary teachers for their teaching identities, throughout the course of their initial year of occupational experience, post-graduation. Privileging ‘insider’ perspectives, the research goal is to understand the complexities of lived experience from the viewpoints of the participating beginning teacher informants. In doing so, this study seeks to contribute to an understanding of a crucial, yet under-researched, area of Irish school life.
Participants: In selecting nine beginning teacher research participants from among a cohort of approximately thirty volunteers, overriding considerations related to feasibility, manageability and the vagaries of the beginning teacher employment market. Ultimately, the research undertaking included beginning teachers who worked in a variety of primary school settings: single gender, mixed gender, socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged, urban and rural. Thus, the selection of ‘maximum variation cases’ (Flyvbjerg 2006, p.230) reveals more information because more actors and more basic mechanisms are activated in the situations studied. As a consequence, the degree to which the research cohort can be considered to be representative is strengthened.
Methodology: Adapting McNally et al. (2010), the shaping of identity is conceived of in dimensional terms. Accordingly, a framework composed of three dimensions of beginning teacher experience is devised, namely: contextual; emotional; temporo-spatial. Data collection and analysis is informed by principles derived from sociocultural theories; activity theory; figured worlds theory; and, dialogical self theory. As each derives from the cultural-historical tradition, these theories are synergistic, and, utilised together, provide a richer view of the shaping of beginning teacher identity than either could offer in isolation. Subscribing to a need for methodological rigor, in researching the shaping of beginning identity over time [one school-year], and across contexts [nine beginning teachers, in nine varied workplace settings], a multiple-case study research design is employed. Individual, face-to-face semi-structured interviews, and the maintenance of solicited digital diaries (or e-mail logs) by research participants, were the principal methods of data collection employed. In the case of each beginning teacher, a three-cycle, multi-phase interview design facilitated continuing contact with participants throughout their first year of occupational experience, post-graduation. Additionally, throughout their beginning year of practice, participants submitted one digital diary entry every three weeks to the e-mail account of the researcher.
Claims: The use of a dimensional model fragments the integrated learning experiences of beginning teachers into constituent parts for the purpose of analysis: contextuality; emotionality; temporo-spatiality. It is acknowledged that the actual journey articulated by each beginning teacher participant is a more complex whole than the sum of its parts.
Key empirically-based claims are presented as per the dimensional framework employed:
Contextuality: Among participants, a significant degree of variability characterises the decision to teach; perceptions of the ‘good teacher’ as empathetic ‘facilitator’ feature most commonly in perceptions of early teacher role models; probationary-related performativity short-circuits the range of learning affordances potentially available to beginners, with manifestly ‘positional’, hierarchical and status-related considerations, significantly influencing the conceptualisation and transaction of mentoring practices.
Emotionality: School leadership is particularly influential in determining the emotional nature of beginning to teach; while prevailing individualistic school cultures ensure limited and sporadic collaborative practice, beginners, motivated to forge their own reputations as teachers, frequently prefer to determine the degree and nature of their engagements with colleagues; the regulation of emotions or emotional labour are important issues in the first year; tentatively suggestive of the possibility of different emotional identities related to teaching that result in different concerns and intensities of emotions and feelings, interacting with pupils at classroom level trigger emotions related to an ethic of care, whereas engagement at a more systemic level activates emotions related to the profession of teaching; a principal source of the emotionality characterising the beginning year lay outside the school with two, primarily evaluative, probationary-related visits, shaping the emotional tone of the beginning year to a significant extent.
Temporo-spatiality: Participants’ end-of-year retrospective reflections reveal the patterned nature of nominated significant experiences or key episodes; the challenge for beginners not only concerns the transition into and management of the classroom environment but also the negotiation of the micropolitical complexity of a school’s organisational landscape, particularly with respect to coping with the fragmentations and frustrations of organisational life; beginners simultaneously grapple with the core components of the teaching design cycle, manifesting both sophisticated and disjointed qualities in varying degrees, and a tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty; the passage of time is experienced in many different and paradoxical ways.
Significance: Researching the shaping of beginning teacher identity contributes to a robust theory of early professional learning in teaching, is a necessary prerequisite to effecting evidence-based improvements to initial teacher education programmes, and helps foster the development of facilitative, yet reflective and interrogative, school cultures for beginning teachers. As a result of applying the foci of an international literature to an under-researched aspect of Irish education, this study is offered as a context-specific contribution to the knowledge base on beginning teaching. As the developmental needs of beginning teachers constitute an emerging area of intense policy focus in Ireland (Teaching Council 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2012a, 2012b, 2013), this research undertaking is both relevant and timely.