Professional Relationships Influence Preservice Teacher Success
Preservice teachers typically enter a school placement with enthusiasm to influence the lives of their students, but they soon find themselves facing psychological and social demands from students, mentor teachers, and university supervisors in a challenging work environment. Indeed, the teaching practicum is rated as the most stressful experience during teacher preparation (Chaplain, 2008).
For preservice teachers, success in teaching is closely linked to the quality of the key relationships that define their practicum (Bloomfield, 2010). A sense of belonging or relatedness can positively influence teachers' engagement and commitment to the profession (Klassen, Perry, & Frenzel, in press). On the other hand, problems with key relationships can result in emotional and professional withdrawal.
Any attempt to understand preservice teachers' practicum success and overall well-being must include a study of their professional relationships.
Research in Preservice Teacher Development
Our research program at the University of Alberta explores the motivational and emotional characteristics of preservice teachers as they make the transition from student to teacher and then traces how motivations and emotions develop over time for practicing teachers. We pay particular attention to teachers' motivation and emotions as key markers of teacher engagement and well-being. Using a longitudinal approach combined with quantitative and qualitative data collection allows us to examine overall trends and patterns in teachers' professional trajectories and to drill down to look at specific instances that illustrate participants' own perspectives on their teaching experiences.
The key factors we measure in preservice teacher development are
- Self-efficacy and stress. Self-efficacy—beliefs in the capacity to influence student learning—has been shown to reduce the effect of classroom stress in preservice and practicing teachers (Klassen & Chiu, 2011).
- Engagement. Teaching engagement reflects the level of energy and dedication with which a teacher addresses daily work.
- Commitment to the profession. Occupational commitment refers to longer-term decisions about teaching as a career.
Four Key Findings from Recent Research
We recently completed a mixed-methods longitudinal study that followed final-year preservice teachers as they progressed through their nine-week final practicum. Our sample consisted of three cohorts of preservice teachers in elementary and secondary schools (150 participants; 77 percent female) who completed weekly electronic reports about their practicum experiences.
In addition to numerical responses to valid measures of self-efficacy, stress, engagement, and commitment to the profession, participants also responded to open-ended questions about their practicum experiences. Here we highlight four key findings emerging from our research and provide illustrative quotes from participants.
First, we found that most preservice teachers showed a typical pattern of measurable weekly increases in self-efficacy and weekly decreases in stress over the practicum. This result matched our predictions: we expected that most preservice teachers would report increases in confidence and decreases in stress.
However, numerous preservice teachers also showed atypical patterns, with decreasing self-efficacy over time and increasing stress throughout the practicum. When we examined these atypical cases more closely, we saw how the relationship with mentor teachers helped or hindered development. Participants said, "My mentor teacher models numerous effective assessment strategies on a consistent basis, and I have learned a lot from her in this capacity" versus "My [mentor teacher] often thwarts my attempts to assess effectively … I don't know if my instructional strategies are effective."
Second, we identified four types of changes associated with key relationships:
- Positive, which focuses on positive independent change.
- Assisted, which focuses on change with support from the mentor.
- Hindered, which focuses on hindrance from key relationships.
- Professional withdrawal.
The results highlighted the crucial importance of supportive relationships with mentor teachers, but they also raised the uncomfortable finding that for a significant group of preservice teachers, the relationship with mentor teachers was among the top stressors that adversely influenced their levels of motivation and well-being.
Third, we found that most preservice teachers showed a U-shaped pattern of engagement and commitment over the practicum. Initially high engagement and commitment was followed by a sharp drop. The drop is associated with the reality shock of the classroom and a subsequent rebound, eventually finishing at a higher level than at the beginning. One participant said, "The feedback from my mentor teacher and others around me tells me I'm doing an awesome job."
Our fourth finding, however, was that a minority, about 4 percent of preservice teachers, showed a conspicuous decline in commitment and engagement during the practicum. The relationship with mentor teachers was a crucial influence on engagement and commitment. "My experience with my mentor teacher has drained both my motivation for the profession and for the day," according to one participant.
Past studies (e.g., Chaplain, 2008) have emphasized that being paired with a supportive mentor teacher is a decisive factor influencing preservice teachers' work stress but is perceived by preservice teachers as a matter of luck. In our study, preservice teachers emphasized the importance of mentor teachers through several factors.
A positive practicum experience, as expressed by preservice teachers, involved supportive mentor teachers who modeled effective assessment and management strategies, created a collaborative practicum environment (e.g., working together on unit and lesson planning), provided several opportunities for practice and success (e.g., increasing preservice teachers' responsibilities in the classroom) and offered constructive feedback (as opposed to demotivating feedback, e.g., … " being told my lesson plans are fluff").
Increased attention to careful, purposeful selection of experienced teachers for the role of mentor would go far in increasing preservice teachers' self-efficacy and well-being during the practicum, and it may also influence their long-term engagement and commitment to the profession. We recommend that partnerships between teacher education programs and school districts much more strongly emphasize selecting the best mentor teachers possible, with an additional focus on building mentorship skills of prospective mentor teachers through targeted professional development and training.
Bloomfield, D. (2010). Emotions and 'getting by': A pre-service teacher navigating professional experience. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 38, 221–234. doi: 10.1080/1359866X.2010.494005
Chaplain, R. P. (2008). Stress and psychological distress among trainee secondary teachers in England. Educational Psychology, 28, 195–209.
Klassen, R. M., & Chiu, M. M. (2011). The occupational commitment and intention to quit of practicing and pre-service teachers: Influence of self-efficacy, job stress, and teaching context. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36, 114–129.
Klassen, R. M., Perry, N. E., & Frenzel, A. C. (in press). Teachers relatedness with students: An underemphasized component of teachers' basic psychological needs. Journal of Educational Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0026253
Tracy L. Durksen is a doctoral candidate and Robert M. Klassen is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 10. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.