By: Julie A. Luft, Ph.D., Distinguished Research Professor, Athletic Association Professor of Mathematics and Science Education, University of Georgia
Since the advent of national and state teaching standards (e.g., Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013; Georgia Professional Standards Commission, n.d.), teacher educators have been contemplating how to support teachers from their preservice program through their first years of teaching (Darling-Hammond, 2017). Well-developed programs that contribute to the successful transition of a newly hired teacher often include induction programming and mentoring. In science education, potential program formats during this transitional time can include online induction programs that involve virtual mentors, hybrid programs that include school district mentors and higher education educators, and face-to-face programs situated with school-based mentors (e.g., Luft & Dubois, 2015; Luft et al., 2011).
Research on newly hired teachers is expanding with increasing calls for greater support for these new professionals. Science teacher educators have, thus, taken greater interest in examining the knowledge and skills of their newly minted teachers. By following their graduates into their early careers, teacher educators are better understanding the impact of the preparation experience (e.g., Fletcher & Luft, 2011; Navy et al., 2020). Similarly, those providing professional development for in-service science teachers are learning the importance of differentiating their programs to meet the specific needs of newly hired teachers (e.g., Heredia & Yu, 2017; Jones et al., 2016), which can include instruction on using materials, information about student ideas, and working within school guidelines.
With an expanding knowledge base about newly hired science teachers, science teacher educators can modify or refine teacher preparation programs to ensure their graduates’ careers are well-started. They can also design professional learning opportunities specifically for newly hired science teachers, increasing the likelihood that these teachers will engage in ongoing professional learning throughout their careers. Preservice programs and professional development programs that focus on the needs of early career teachers help them continually strengthen their knowledge and practices consistent with the vision of teaching standards.
For the last 20 years, I have been interested in the development of newly hired science teachers and supporting their continuous learning. Many graduate students (several of whom now hold faculty positions) and I have collaborated to study different models of new science teacher support and the paths by which early career science teachers build their knowledge and practices. From our current and past studies, we continue to gain insights into best practices for supporting newly hired teachers.
What Have We Learned?
Teachers are certified to teach in specific disciplines. In the field of science education, discipline-specific certification is more complex. There are different disciplines of science, and a science teacher is certified to teach a specific discipline or several disciplines. When a science teacher holds a general certificate for the teaching of several disciplines, the teacher can be assigned to instruct a course in which the teacher has only a few hours of coursework (out-of-field). Or when a teacher has a certificate in a discipline that has abundant teachers (e.g., biology), the science teacher may be assigned to teach a course needing a science teacher (e.g., physics). The No Child Left Behind Act (2002) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) were meant to deter out-of-field assignments. Unfortunately, both the ongoing shortage of science teachers and teaching certificates that include multiple science disciplines make out-of-field teaching difficult to avoid.
Dr. Nixon, who worked with me on a newly hired teacher project, wanted to understand how pervasive out-of-field teaching was among a group of secondary science teachers. Using class assignment data from 100 secondary science teachers in their first 5 years of teaching, we analyzed their course assignments (Nixon et al., 2017). Using a descriptive analysis and an ordinal regression, we found that many of the teachers were teaching outside of their content specializations. These out-of-field teachers were ultimately making instructional decisions in areas in which they did not have adequate content expertise.
Approximately one fifth of the teachers (21.7%) were completely out-of-field across all 5 years. A high proportion of the teachers (42.7%) were teaching both in-field and out-of-field over the 5 years. Fortunately, about a third of the teachers (35.7%) were teaching courses all in-field. These data are still troubling, as they reveal the hidden nature of out-of-field teaching. All of the science teachers were certified to teach science, yet over 60% engaged in out-of-field instruction.
A further examination of this data revealed that out-of-field teachers experienced little change in the amount of their out-of-field teaching over a 5-year period. That is, the likelihood of being an out-of-field teacher continued over time. As expected, the teachers most likely assigned out-of-field were middle school teachers, who often have general science certificates. Out-of-field teaching was also prevalent among the teachers when they worked in schools having a higher percentage of English language learners, and when their schools were located in urban or rural areas.
Building Their Knowledge and Practices
Standards pertaining to what new teachers need to be able to know and do in the classroom include having content and curricular knowledge, understanding learners and learning, creating productive learning environments, producing equitable learning opportunities, and engaging in ongoing professional learning (see, for example, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010). Five years ago, I worked with a research team (Drs. Dubois, Nixon, and Campbell) and used these standards to analyze studies involving newly hired science teachers (Luft et al., 2015). Our goal was to determine if evidence supported the assertation that the standards were attainable by newly hired science teachers.
In looking at over 30 years of research on newly hired science teachers, we found studies showing that these teachers continually built their knowledge and instructional practices while in the classroom. Specifically, by working in the classroom, newly hired teachers contemplated what they knew about the subject matter and their students, and they used this knowledge to create standards-oriented learning environments for their students. For instance, Lee et al. (2007) documented the change newly hired science teachers made in their understanding of the knowledge of their students over a year.
As new science teachers used and built their knowledge and practices, we indeed found evidence supporting the attainment of standards. For instance, newly hired teachers were better able to build their knowledge and practices when they had access to colleagues, learning communities, professional development programs, and instructional materials (e.g., Justi & van Driel, 2005; Ormond, 2011). These different forms of support provided newly hired science teachers with an opportunity to reflect upon their current instruction, focus on student learning, and learn to use instructional materials that aligned with the standards.
In addition, our analysis suggested that newly hired science teachers could create equitable learning environments embedded in their standards-based instruction. Most of these studies followed science teachers from their preservice programs into their first years of teaching (e.g., Bianchini et al., 2003; Zientek & Thompson, 2008). The authors of these studies concluded that preservice programs were critical in launching teachers’ equitable instructional approaches. They also concluded that colleagues and school/state policies could be an unexpected constraint when newly hired teachers tried to create equitable learning environments.
Induction programs are considered important for newly hired teachers, with most new teachers participating in some form of induction program in their first years (e.g., Goldrick, 2016; Ingersoll & Strong, 2011). Among newly hired science teachers, roughly three quarters have reported access to some form of an induction program (Trygstad, 2020). The research surrounding induction programming is varied, but often focuses on the impact of the programs on newly hired teachers and their students (e.g., Davis & Higdon, 2008; Glazerman et al., 2010; Hammerness & Matsko, 2012) and the importance of mentors, mentor training, classroom assistance, and a common planning time (e.g., Ingersoll & Strong, 2011; Kang & Berliner, 2012).
My colleagues and I have explored how newly hired science teachers build their knowledge and instructional practices as they participate in different forms of induction programming. These studies have involved the design of science-specific induction programs, along with extensive interviews and observations that followed the newly hired science teachers over time. Our early studies revealed the benefit in providing science teachers with a science-specific induction program that provided mentors, classroom support, and assistance that consistently focused on teaching standards-based science. Specifically, our study revealed that science teachers in a science-specific induction program enacted more interactive learning environments aligned with the standards than did their peers in other forms of induction programming (Luft et al., 2011).
After 5 years, the science teachers who participated in the science-specific induction program still demonstrated an ability to enact standards-based science instruction, and they were knowledgeable about teaching science. When compared to their peers not in science-specific induction programs, they enacted significantly more of the science practices and demonstrated more knowledge about teaching science than did their peers (Luft, 2020). From this longitudinal mixed methods study, a more comprehensive emphasis on their teaching of science was important in strengthening the knowledge and instructional practices.
The standards for teachers emphasize that newly hired science teachers are only beginning their careers as educators. Preservice teachers are still building the foundation of their knowledge and practices pertaining to the teaching of science. These learning experiences are guided by state and national standards and involve specific instruction in teaching science. These foundational experiences are important for newly hired science teachers and can be further cultivated.
Newly hired science teachers benefit from both consistent and strategic supports when they are teaching in both familiar and unfamiliar topics and settings. Here is one example of a way that can play out: Samantha completed a year of student teaching in biology in an urban Title I school during her preservice program. Her cooperating teacher encouraged her to use many of the science practices in her lessons, she learned how to take into account the learning of students, and she focused on creating equitable learning environments.
Samantha was hired to work in a rural Title I school, teaching four biology and two physics classes (out-of-field), and she was assigned a mathematics teacher mentor. Throughout her first years of teaching science, a few of her former classmates and the science teacher educator from her college met monthly. While they had discussions of the trials and tribulations of teaching, they also discussed the science practices, using the practices in physics and biology classrooms, attending to student learning, and creating equitable environments (consistency). This support reminded Samantha to draw upon what she experienced as a preservice teacher. Along the way, she was encouraged to attend physics webinars to help build her content knowledge and collaborate with one of her classmates who was teaching physics in a nearby school (strategic). Over time, Samantha excelled at supporting the learning of her students and eventually provided instructional guidance to other science teachers.
The standards provide a vision of professional growth for an early career teacher. Just as newly hired teachers need to consider the learning of their students; those who work with newly hired teachers need to consider their learning needs to achieve the vision of the standards. Fortunately, newly hired science teachers are often knowledgeable of sound science instruction. They only need consistent and strategic support that cultivates their expanding knowledge and instructional repertoire.
Shared responsibility for teacher educators and induction providers – Providers of this support should include those associated with the preparation of the science teacher, as well as those who work closely with the teacher at the school or the district. In other words, learning to teach requires a community and it does not stop at preservice education.
- A skillful science educator can emerge from expanded efforts to develop content knowledge. From our experience, discipline-specific supports (which include science mentors, science teacher educators, and opportunities to reinforce foundational knowledge and instruction) are essential in strengthening the instruction of newly hired science teachers. This type of support creates a continuous learning opportunity.
- Most newly hired science teachers will have access to a mentor and instructional materials (Tyrgstad, 2020), and they will rely heavily on the human supports (Navy et al., 2020). The human supports will ideally ensure consistency between a teacher preparation program and a new teacher’s first years in the classroom. Consistency in this case means an ongoing emphasis on the teaching of science as espoused in the preservice program and local/national science standards. This type of support can come from colleagues, instructors/educators, or other individuals who are knowledgeable about teaching in the science discipline. Within these supports, newly hired science teachers need to receive feedback and reflect upon their science instruction. This support should echo the instructional outcomes advocated during the newly hired science teachers’ preservice program. The result is a reinforcement and expansion of an instructional orientation and repertoire of the newly hired teacher.
- Newly hired science teachers also need strategic support. Being strategic means monitoring newly hired teachers and providing appropriate and adequate support to ensure they enact the instruction they are prepared to enact in the context in which they are working. Most newly hired teachers will be in school settings in which they are new to the instructional materials, unfamiliar with the content that will be taught, and unfamiliar with the students.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when supporting a new teacher. Instead, it is important to consider what support each newly hired science teacher needs to build their knowledge and science practice.
Next steps for researchers – We are only beginning to understand how best to support newly hired science teachers. In the upcoming years, we will learn more about how to support their learning, which will result in different ways to provide consistent and strategic support. As we look toward the future, science teacher educators should share what they are learning – through social media (e.g., ResearchGate, Twitter), conferences, and publications. While many different questions are worthy of investigation to build the field’s understanding of early career science teachers, some of the questions that have our attention include the following:
- What are the variations of consistent and strategic support that can ensure the learning of an early career science teacher?
- How can a community of support be configured to ensure that early career teachers build their practices, knowledge, beliefs, and identity towards a vision of the standards? What are the core components of such a community?
- How do different anchoring/core/high leverage practices impact the instruction or development of an early career science teacher? Are there essential practices?
We look forward to finding the answers and encourage the ARISE community to join us.