Anna is a first-year teacher in a small rural community in Cyprus. Her school serves 89 students, ages 6 to 12, who are crammed into four classrooms. In addition to Anna, there are only three other teachers. The group of students Anna teaches, besides being of varied ages, is diverse and challenging. By the time her difficult school day concludes, she is often tired and overwhelmed with feelings of failure, helplessness, and loneliness.
Sadly, Anna's situation is common among beginning teachers in Cyprus, primarily because we have a structurally deficient system that doesn't prepare or support teachers adequately at the beginning of their careers. Although certain realities in Cyprus cause distinctive challenges—for instance, half of our primary schools serve a small number of rural learners and employ six or fewer teachers—many of the problems our new teachers face are similar to those of new teachers everywhere.
For instance, in a recent survey we conducted probing the professional needs and beliefs of 245 Cypriot teachers who began teaching between 2007 and 2010, we discovered that most feel a disconnect between the academic learning they did in teacher training programs and the pressing realities of their classrooms. Few teachers felt they had enough training or enough in-school help. The teachers we surveyed represent 90 percent of the newly appointed teachers in Cyprus during this period.1
Synthesizing what teachers told us, we identified four changes that would provide better professional preparation and support to teachers in our country: (1) targeted practice teaching; (2) special treatment for first assignments; (3) school-based support and individualized professional development; and (4) knowledge of the diverse student population. We discuss these changes in the context of Cyprus, referencing teachers we interviewed, but we believe these teachers' recommendations apply to many parts of the world.
More Practice Teaching
Although beginning teachers in Cyprus regard education coursework as informative, they told us they don't believe it provides them with the tools and techniques they need during the first pivotal years of teaching. The link between their theoretical knowledge and their classroom realities is tenuous; we seem to prepare teachers to teach in school settings that don't exist. Anna said,
Just two weeks into the job, I realized I had an excellent knowledge of pedagogical theories, but, sadly, I couldn't translate them into action based on what my students said or did. Practical professional knowledge, for example how to manage my classroom, was a glaring omission from my training.
The teachers we surveyed taught, on average, only 14 lessons during their teacher preparation. Most were only in a school during their final year of studies. Few believed this was sufficient. Giorgos, a first-year teacher, lamented, "I taught 14 times during my last year as a student, [and] we were left with no adequate feedback. What can you realistically learn from basically three days of teaching?"
The current practice in Cyprus is to assign student teachers randomly to a single school; each student does all his or her practice teaching at that school. But beginning teachers need to hone skills by teaching in various settings. Beginners told us they wanted to do practice teaching in several schools, and in different classrooms within a school, to get acquainted with various curriculums and with students of different ages, cultures, and ability levels. Andreas, who student taught in only one 3rd grade class, commented, "I wish they could rotate student teachers and place them in various classrooms so that (at least) we get an idea of what tough-to-handle classrooms look like."
Realistic First Assignments
Cyprus has a centralized education system. All major decisions, including assigning teachers to schools, are made at the highest level (Pashiardis, Savvides, Lytra, & Angelidou, 2011). Whereas veteran teachers have a say in their teaching assignments, beginning teachers receive no say and no special consideration for their first assignment. It's common for them to be assigned to isolated small schools or crowded, disadvantaged ones.
Most of the beginning teachers we surveyed reported that they were usually assigned challenging classrooms. Three of 10 beginning teachers were appointed to teach at more than one school in their first year: for instance, teaching at one school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and at another on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Forty percent had to teach classes of different grade levels, sometimes three or more different levels. Fifty-four percent weren't asked about their classroom teaching preferences, and 45 percent weren't asked about subject teaching preferences.
Michalis, a first-year teacher, was assigned to a small rural school and thrown immediately into deep water when he took over as the primary teacher of two age groups in a single room. He recommended that teachers be
assigned to carefully selected schools and have a reduced workload for our first couple of years teaching. If we are eased into the profession, we will have the time and mentality to learn about our school, our profession, and the students, and even have professional conversations with colleagues.
New teachers may even perform principal-like duties. According to government law, a principal is assigned to a school only when school enrollment exceeds 40 students; thus, administrative duties in small schools are typically the responsibility of teachers. Elena explained,
I was assigned to a school serving 27 students in two classrooms. I had to prepare multiple lessons for various age groups each day and run the school at the same time. Nobody gave me a break when something went terribly wrong just because I was a first-year teacher. Everybody assumed that I was ready for the task.
Beginning teachers would certainly benefit from an easier introduction into the profession, especially a lighter load of teaching and nonteaching duties. This is the model used in some Asian nations (Britton, 2006). None of the beginning teachers we surveyed received a reduced teaching workload, and only five received a reduced administrative workload. Teaching fewer classes would provide more opportunities for common lesson preparation, peer observation, and formation of teaching research groups.
Support and Professional Development
Many Cypriot teachers assume that beginning teachers must learn on the job. Teachers complained about the minimal support they received from colleagues during their first years. Katerina said,
My school's culture was a culture of individuality … They learned on their own so I have to follow in their footsteps. Even when I summoned the courage to ask for help, I was told that as a graduate of a teacher preparation program I should be in a position to teach.
Beginning teachers like Katerina would welcome individually structured school-based support, such as mentoring or coaching from experienced personnel. Virtual coaching might help new teachers in rural schools reach out to veteran teachers in other schools and get immediate feedback on problems they face.
There's also room for improvement in professional development. Professional development in Cyprus is standardized; our ministry of education provides mandatory professional development courses for all teachers. Typically, the ministry designs a course for a group of teachers who share a common subject area or grade (for example, those teaching Greek in grade 3). All teachers in this category attend. Courses are usually two hours long, and teachers must leave their schools to take the course. But support for beginning teachers should not be generic; it should be tailored to individual needs. This is especially essential in Cyprus, where there's great variability in what teachers learn in preparation programs, locally and abroad.
Understanding Diverse Learners
Formal preparation should lay a foundation on which teachers construct professional knowledge and hone skills. One of the most important aspects of that foundation is a broad understanding of teaching and learning, including how students learn and develop and how teachers can respond to students' differences and cultural backgrounds. During our interviews, beginning teachers expressed dissatisfaction with how poorly their training prepared them for teaching in contemporary classrooms.
Cyprus society is increasingly multicultural. The percentage of non-Cypriot students has reached nearly 12 percent, whereas two decades ago, it was 1 percent (Ministry of Education, 2010). However, our primary education departments are offering little guidance in the area of reaching diverse students. Maria commented,
Given how our society is changing, how the number of students facing academic difficulties has risen, I can definitely say that our coursework was severely lacking in offering us content knowledge on how to reach out to these students and help them succeed. I feel we needed more on differentiation and how to teach in multicultural classrooms.
Introducing into teacher education programs courses on differentiating instruction, teaching students with special needs, teaching students with learning difficulties, and teaching in multicultural classrooms would go a long way to preparing new teachers for the range of students they'll see in Cypriot schools.
Teacher training should prepare teachers for the schools in which they're expected to teach. Otherwise, we set them up for failure. Clearly, this kind of preparation is too rare for teachers in Cyprus. We hope these suggestions will point the way to changes that will set more teachers up for success.
Britton, T. (2006). Mentoring in the induction system of five countries: A sum is greater than its parts. In C. Cullingford (Ed.), Mentoring in education: An international perspective (pp. 107–120). Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing.
Ministry of Education. (2010). Statistics of Education 2008–09. Nicosia, Cyprus: Author.
Pashiardis, P., Savvides, V., Lytra, E., & Angelidou, K. (2011). Successful school leadership in rural contexts: The case of Cyprus. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 39(5), 536–553.
Cyprus has four four-year teacher education programs, which, combined, graduate roughly 200 new teachers each year.
Author's note: All names are pseudonyms.
Stelios Orphanos is a lecturer in the Department of Primary Education, Frederick University, Cyprus.
Marios Panteli is a primary school teacher and external collaborator with the Pedagogical Institute of Cyprus.
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