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Impact of Communication on First Year Teachers

 

Debra Lynn Patterson, California State University Fullerton

 

Debra Lynn Patterson, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University Fullerton

 

Abstract

First year teachers encounter many uncertainties and unexpected challenges. They quickly learn that becoming a teacher is more than preparing for class and teaching students. This qualitative study examined eight physical education teachers and their expectations and perceptions of working with colleagues and administrators. Results demonstrated the importance of communication in assisting first year teachers. These findings provide teacher educators, colleagues and administrators information that can support beginning teachers in developing and sustaining a successful professional career.

 

Introduction

The journey of a first year teacher (FYT) echoes the situational and emotional highs and lows of adolescent development. Perceptions of school life are transformed as they become exposed to the realities of teaching. They soon begin to view life through the lens of a teacher as opposed to a student. Inspecting the educational world as a teacher brings new, and for many, unexpected revelations, insight, and challenges. Liston, Whitcomb, and Borko (2006) reported teacher preparation programs tend to focus too much on theory and not enough on the practical skills. First year teachers struggle with routine tasks associated with teaching that veteran teachers handle in very consistent and effective ways (Liston et al., 2006). Further, many beginning teachers feel very isolated and reported planning and teaching on their own without any structured support from veteran teachers (Kardos & Moore Johnson, 2007).

 

Armed with new skills and a deep desire to change the world, FYTs become overwhelmed with the realities of the profession. They are forced to assume responsibilities of veteran teachers while learning their job with limited experience and enhanced professional expectations (Wang, Odell, & Schwille, 2008). In some cases they are given the most challenging students, required to purchase their own instructional materials, and forced to endure through inadequate or irrelevant professional development experiences (Esquith, 2003; Wang et al., 2008).

 

There has always been a need for well-prepared teachers who radiate a deep commitment toward servicing others, and who have the emerging skills or potential to navigate through the land mines of the teaching profession, but the pool of new teachers, or persons interested in entering the profession have entered critical levels of decline (Banville & Rikard, 2009). Research that provides insight how to best support and guide new teachers is essential as undergraduate, credential, and professional development programs seek to prepare and equip these individuals to navigate those first critical years of teaching.

 

The review of literature indicates that there is a need to continue to update current research with the ever changing demands on FYTs. There are several studies from the 1990’s

that investigated the lack of support that beginning teachers perceived from their schools (Smyth, 1995) and specific interactions with colleagues and administrators that shaped veteran teachers behavior from their first year (Schempp, 1993) to name a few. More recently, Shoval, Erlich, & Fejgin, (2010) explored the professional, personal, and environmental levels of teaching and the impact they had on shaping the behavior of beginning teachers. Kardos & Moore Johnson (2007) reported that over one-half of new teachers in the four states of their study indicated that they planned and taught alone as well as they were presumed to be experts along with the veteran teachers. However, there is still a need to explore the interpersonal dimension of the FYTs realistic expectations, thoughts, and feelings in relation to working with their colleagues and administrators.

 

The purpose of this study was to examine FYTs expectations and perceptions of working with their colleagues and administrators. This research examined their personal journeys from their first days of school to the end of their first year teaching.

 

Methods

Participants and Settings

Eight first-year physical education teachers who completed their undergraduate and credential program from the same university in 2007 were chosen for this study. Sample size reflected the “saturation or redundancy” required bringing legitimacy to the data (Holliday, 2002), and it was determined that “no new information” was forthcoming (Merriam, 1998).

 

Each of the eight participants found employment as a physical education teacher immediately following their credential program. Three female and three male participants taught at the middle school level (students ages 11-13 years old) and two females taught at the high school level (student ages 14-17 years old).

 

Research Design

A semistructured interview format was used to gain the most insight from the participants. The semistructured open-ended questions allowed the teachers to answer a primary set of questions then based on their responses the researcher probed with additional questions (Merriam, 1998). The researchers only asked about questions related to the primary questions that were developed based on the literature about beginning teachers.

 

Procedures

The research was approved by a Human Subjects Committee and participants signed informed consents prior to the first interview. Pseudonyms were used for the participants. The one-on-one interviews were audio-recorded and lasted approximately 30-45 minutes. Each participant was interviewed two times during their first year of teaching. The first interview conducted in October focused on specific questions about their expectations with colleagues and administrators. The second interview conducted in June focused on working with colleagues and administrators.

 

Data Analysis

Each interview was transcribed verbatim by a trained graduate student. Data was validated through member checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and an external audit (Creswell, 2008). Additionally, the researcher listened to each of the transcriptions to verify that they were transcribed verbatim.

 

Inductive analysis was used to identify and organize the patterns and emerging themes from the data (Patton, 2002). After the researcher concluded with the individual analysis of the themes an additional trained researcher reviewed the themes for consistency. This process demonstrated the rigor involved in accurately identifying the emerging themes within the data.

 

Results

The theme of communication emerged and was interwoven throughout the participant responses in the following interviews.

 

Interview One

Expectations with Colleagues

The first interview conducted in October 2007, asked the participants questions about their expectations with colleagues and their administrators. Several studies have indicated the importance of colleagues in collaborating with new teachers in professional growth and learning to teach (Rikard & Banville, 2010; Kardos & Moore Johnson, 2007). The three themes that emerged from the data were mentoring and communication.

 

The participants expressed their need to have colleagues provide mentoring and support in the transition from student teacher to teacher. Judy expressed that she wanted, “Helpful suggestions on how to be an effective teacher.” The expectation of mentoring was further demonstrated by Kathy who commented, “I expect them to be there to encourage me and inform me of things that I need to know that I may not know.  I also expect them to give me constructive criticism when appropriate.  I have also had the opportunity to sit down and talk about teaching styles.”

 

Having the opportunity to establish their own style of teaching with the support of their colleagues through communication is demonstrated with the following results. Steve commented that besides help and guidance from his colleagues, they provided an avenue for his own creativity, “If I have a question about either what their current policy is on how they do things or about how to teach something better or a different way, I ask them. With all their experience, they just say hey here are some ideas that we have.  Try them out, see what you think.”

 

Expectations with Administrators

The second question in the first interview specifically focused on the participants expectations with their administrators. The two themes that emerged from the data included support and communication.

 

Areas of support ranged from giving constructive criticism, listening and communicating efficiently, to observing them teach. Susie stated, “I’m expecting them to observe me, especially this year being my first year…” While Jack indicated, “Listen and communicate information efficiently, frequently, and repeatedly; repetition is key! [For the administrators to be a] sounding board to pass ideas, concerns, and/or problems that affect the entire school, and to observe and offer constructive feedback to improve teaching styles and techniques.”  Kathy expressed,” I expect my administrators to be understanding that I may not know everything about the school yet but that I am trying to learn so I want to be included in things.  I expect them to be encouraging and give constructive criticism as well.”

 

Interview Two

The second interview conducted in June 2008, focused on the participants views of working with colleagues and administrators. The research clearly indicates the need for supportive colleagues and administrators (Foote & Solem, 2009; Intrator, 2006; Kardos & Moore Johnson, 2007; Kardos, Moore Johnson, Peske, Kauffman, & Liu, 2001; Soares, Lock, & Foster, 2008; Wong & Louie, 2002) in assisting with the development of beginning teachers.

 

Working with Colleagues

Two themes emerged when the participants were asked about how they viewed working with colleagues. They discussed the importance of a positive tone and communication.

 

Casey discussed how beginning teachers need to be objective and avoid thinking that everyone is against you, “To be objective and that everyone isn’t against you, because there’s a lot of parts of things that you don’t see. To not get burned out by the naysayers, or the people that there is always something wrong with them.”  David spoke of staying positive, “I make sure I just don’t complain just to complain.  So working with our faculty members, hear them out and then just try to make things as smooth as possible and don’t burn bridges with the other staff members.”

 

Open communication and professional relationships were vital components in working with colleagues. Karen stated, “So I think it’s just keeping those pathways of communication open, rather than shutting down and being our own little P.E. Department only.  It’s just made it so much nicer of a first year.”

 

Just as the FYTs in this study indicated the need for mentoring and support from their colleagues, the reality for most was that their colleagues just wanted to do their own thing and let the beginning teachers learn on their own. Kardos et al., (2001) also found that some of their new teachers were told by veteran teachers not to concentrate on teaching until their second year and to use the first year to focus on discipline and management. There is no doubt that this information highlights the needs for specific support and guidance for beginning teachers with their colleagues at their school sites and in their departments.

 

Working with Administrators

Developing professional relationships and communication were two themes that emerged from the data when the participants were asked about their thoughts in working with administrators. Casey discussed that administrators should be treated fairly, “The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that administrators are people too and they make mistakes and that every day they learn how to do their job better.” Susie commented on the importance of showing effort in getting to know the administrator, “That they aren’t as scary as they might have seemed at the beginning.  I know, for example, my principal, I was really intimidated to go and talk to her about things and I think that’s because I felt, she’s my boss and I just didn’t want to say something wrong around her or something.  Once you do communicate with them and, for example, I chaperoned a dance and I was able to talk with her at a more personal level and it just opened things up. They’re not that scary.  I was scared at first.” Judy reiterated, “Get to know them and basically getting involved.”

 

The participants discussed the importance of communicating with their administrators. The actual learning to know when and when not to bring discussions to their administrators was demonstrated by the following comments. Jack stated, “The most significant thing I was always taught was to try to solve as many things that I can on my own but then always keeping the administrator in loop of things in regards to any situation even if it might seem a miniscule.” David reported a unique and positive experience, “We have a small school here, mainly just the principal.  I work directly with him.  Our offices are right next to each other.  I pretty much speak with him every day so we have a great relationship … But he’s a key...one of the big reasons why I’m planning on sticking around here longer than I think I originally planned on doing.”

 

Discussion

The participants in this study reinforce beliefs imparted by beginning teachers across all disciplines. Communication plays a vital role within the day to day work at a school site with colleagues and administrators. Results from this study indicated that colleagues are the primary source of support and guidance, and that relationship becomes critical. These findings are consistent with Hewit (2009) who reported that new teachers are less likely to leave the profession if they feel supported by the school and have developed friendships with their colleagues. New teachers feel very isolated and need to develop a safety net of support.

 

Interestingly, the results of this study do counter previous findings that beginning teachers rely on principals as the primary source of support and guidance (Brook & Grady, 1998). The participants in this study clearly suggested that principals need to be approachable, supportive, and incorporate face to face discussions.  

 

First year teaching is a challenge, and more needs to be done to help these young professionals as they assimilate into the field of education. The open communication and professional relationships forged that first year appeared to be vital for their retention. Colleagues and principals need to work hard to make that socialization process as seamless as possible to ensure our best teachers stay in the profession and continue to educate effectively. Teacher preparation programs need to address the findings of this study with preservice teachers who will be entering the teaching profession. Emphasis must be placed on educating preservice teachers on the essential communication skills necessary to develop effective relationships with colleagues and administrators.

 

Conclusion

The first year physical education teachers in this study expressed their expectations of working with colleagues and administrators. They discussed their personal journeys and how they learned to work with or without the support of their colleagues and administrators. Communication emerged as the most important aspect in supporting new teachers. Open communication between veteran teachers and beginning teachers must be encouraged from the start of the school year. Administrators must play a key role in providing opportunities for both groups of teachers to work together throughout the year. Advantages of first year teachers may be their ability to bring new ideas and strategies to share with the veteran teachers. In return the veteran teachers share the realities of teaching in their school and strategies to support the needs of their specific students. Teacher educators, colleagues, and administrators must all share in the responsibility of providing a supportive environment that will nurture first year teachers into successful professionals.

 

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