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Teachers’ Careers Go Through Phases. They Need Support in Each

How can school leaders make sure that teachers are motivated and engaged throughout their careers? The first step might be better understanding the different phases—and associated needs—of teachers’ professional lives.

Recent survey data shows that teachers, on average, experience a dip in job satisfaction a few years into their careers. The EdWeek State of Teaching survey, which polled a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,500 teachers in October 2023, found that teachers with three to nine years of classroom experience have worse morale than their peers who have either more or less experience. Federal survey data show a similar trend.

Those findings align with research from key scholars in the field, including Christopher Day, a professor of education at the University of Nottingham in England. Day’s work delineates the way teachers’ commitment, well-being, identity, and effectiveness can vary throughout their careers.

Understanding the needs and experiences of teachers in different phases of their careers can help improve what Day calls “quality retention.”

“All classrooms need to be staffed equally by well-qualified teachers who are fully committed to the academic progress, wellbeing, and achievement of every student,” Day said in an interview.

His research builds on the foundational work of Michael Huberman, a professor of education at the University of Geneva in Switzerland who categorized the stages of teachers’ professional lives based on interviews with secondary Swiss teachers in the 1970s and 1980s.

This work matters, Huberman once wrote, because if we “identify the conditions under which a particular phase in the career cycle is lived out happily or miserably,” we can “put together an appropriate support structure.”

Here are teachers’ professional life phases

Day conducted a mixed-methods study of 300 primary and secondary teachers across England who were in different phases of their careers. The study, published in 2007, sought to investigate variations in teachers’ effectiveness over their careers through interviews with the teachers and analyses of student data that were collected over three years.

He identified six professional life phases for teachers that remain relevant today.

  • In years zero to three, new teachers are developing their sense of efficacy in the classroom. They’re getting a handle on the workload, the scale of which can come as a shock. They’re also beginning to form their teacher identity.
  • In years four to seven, teachers are continuing to build and sustain their sense of identity, self-efficacy, and effectiveness. But teachers may struggle to remain resilient in the face of a heavy workload or a lack of support in this period.
  • In years eight to 15, teachers likely experience changes in their role and identity. For instance, they might become parents, prompting an adjustment to their work/life balance. At this stage, they might also doubt their commitment to their career or feel like they’ve hit a plateau.
  • In years 16 to 23, teachers are often in the thick of trying to balance their personal responsibilities (such as raising kids or caring for aging parents) with their work. Work/life tensions can contribute to a decline in motivation and commitment, especially if paired with a feeling of career stagnation. But if teachers see good results in their work or more career opportunities, they will be more likely to see increased motivation and engagement.
  • In years 24 to 30, teachers are likely committed to staying in the profession until they retire. They will either sustain a strong sense of motivation for their last few years in the classroom or hold on half-heartedly. Health and energy issues can contribute to flagging morale, as can a loss of moral purpose.
  • From year 31 on, retirement is in sight. Teachers either maintaintheir commitment or feel tired and trapped.

There’s not an exact cut-off between phases, Day said—there may be some overlap and intersection. And the journey of job satisfaction and morale isn’t linear.

“Teachers will move backward and forwards within and between phases during their working lives for all kinds of reasons concerning personal history, psychological, social, and systemic change factors,” he wrote in a 2012 paper. “Taking on a new role, changing schools, teaching a new age group or new syllabus, or learning to work in new ways in the classroom will almost inevitably result in development disruption, at least temporarily.”

But school leaders should understand these general trends to know how to best meet their staff’s needs, Day said.

What takes a toll on teachers’ well-being

Effective school leadership, supportive colleagues, and a strong personal support network are the main factors that contribute to teachers maintaining a positive sense of agency, resilience, and commitment, Day said.

Meanwhile, a heavy workload, poor behavior from students, and ineffective and unsupportive school leadership are all negative factors that contribute to teachers feeling like their effectiveness is at risk or declining, he said.

Also, he said, it’s important for teachers to maintain a strong professional identity. School leaders who value and respect teachers, and involve them in decisionmaking, play into that, he said.

Teachers “need to be driven by values,” Day said. “Those values—whatever else they are—have to be values of care and values of ambition for the learning and achievement and well-being of the students they teach.”

Teachers’ energy levels—intellectual, emotional, and physical—contribute to their motivation and commitment, too, he said.

“What you need in teachers are teachers who care, teachers who are knowledgeable—they’re lifelong learners,” Day said. “You can’t teach well in school if you’re not a learner yourself, especially with AI coming on stream. Teachers are going to have to adapt their roles. … Where teachers aren’t valued, they’re less likely to want to adapt.

“When they’re not supported in terms of their own professional learning, the same will apply,” he continued. “All those are kind of a plethora of connections between the capabilities, the responsibilities, the motivators that teachers have for staying.”

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