Background

There is agreement in the literature that 25% to 40% of graduate teachers leave the profession within five years of their first appointment (Ewing & Manuel, 2005). This is a major social, economic and educational problem because:

  • Educating teachers who leave the profession early is a wasteful and inefficient use of public funds;
  • Educational funding is diverted from school resources and facilities to recruitment and replacement;
  • Schools are destabilised and disrupted by high staff turnover;
  • Schools lose the expertise of new, high achieving graduates;
  • Student learning is compromised; and
  • The individual’s costs are high when graduates’ personal and career aspirations and plans are thwarted due to a negative transition to the teaching profession.

Rather than dwell on the negative causes and consequences of high early career teacher attrition, this project builds on research undertaken in an earlier ARC Linkage project (LP0883672; Johnson, Down, Le Cornu, Peters, Sullivan, Pearce, & Hunter, 2012), which focused on the positive policy and practice contexts that supported graduate teachers in their first years of teaching. Tellingly, that project established the key role played by school leaders in facilitating the successful transition of graduate teachers to the teaching profession. Although significant, the project would have benefitted from a more sophisticated and nuanced portrayal of the thinking, planning and actions of school leaders about how they engage new teachers and induct them into the profession and, in particular, how they engage and retain quality new teachers. What the proposed research seeks to do is employ new and innovative research approaches that involve school leaders as co-researchers of their own practices, to fill a gap in our knowledge about what works at the school level to ‘keep the best’ teachers in the profession.

Effective planning and management of the teacher workforce is an ongoing concern of governments and education systems due to the difficulties of predicting the impact of economic, demographic, and social factors on teacher supply and demand. Even sophisticated attempts at modelling teacher supply and demand at the state level (DECD, 2012), let alone the national level, are confounded by unpredictable changes in:

  • The age, gender and location of qualified teachers seeking employment;
  • Enrolments in teacher education courses, and attrition levels from those courses;
  • Quality of graduating teachers;
  • Teachers’ retirement intentions and behaviour across different locations, schooling levels and subject fields;
  • ‘Non-retirement separations’, or teacher attrition rates;
  • Teacher mobility across, and migration into, Australia;
  • Student enrolment at different locations, schooling levels, and within different education systems; and
  • Student subject choices.

Numerous studies, reports and government inquiries into ‘fluctuations in teacher demand [and] the cyclic pattern of shortages and surpluses in supply’ (Galbraith, 1999) have demonstrated how problematic the field is (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012). The most recent investigation in this area was commissioned by the Australian Senate in 2012, when it requested its Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee to inquire into and report on Teaching and learning - maximising our investment in Australian schools. One of its six terms of reference is to investigate ‘the factors influencing the selection, training, professional development, career progression and retention of teachers in the Australian education system’. This clearly demonstrates the ongoing concern of governments about the workforce planning and management of the largest professional group in Australia – its teachers.

As subject-specific shortages of secondary teachers present the most immediate challenges for education authorities across Australia (Commonwealth of Asutralia, 2012; DECD, 2012), the focus of current recruitment initiatives has changed from non-specific general approaches, to targeted strategies that aim to attract the best quality teachers in specific subject areas (e.g., math, science, design & technology). Most schooling systems across Australia have adopted a labour market approach that focuses on the ‘front-end’ components of the attraction-recruitment-retention triad (e.g., scholarships, financial incentives, offers of permanent employment). However, as a recently-commissioned study of the effectiveness of South Australian teacher attraction and retention programs has revealed, little is known about the school-level factors influencing teachers’ commitment, professional learning, ability to cope with change and, ultimately, their decision to remain in the teaching profession (Simons, Daly, & Johnson, 2012). 

To paraphrase Blase and Bjork (2010), cracking open the ‘black box’ of teacher retention is likely to reveal significant differences between the intent of systems’ workforce attraction and recruitment policies and the realities of school-based support and development practices that may or may not lead to newly appointed teachers staying in the profession. Hence, we have an interest in how school leaders support and work with new teachers who have been attracted and recruited by the current ‘front-end’ quality selection processes, scholarships and incentive schemes. The proposed investigation is timely given the immediate and pressing need for more research into the role that leaders play in supporting newly appointed teachers. As the OECD reported at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (Schleicher, 2012), school leaders have a major and increasing role in establishing the conditions that enhance the retention of quality teachers. 

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