This study explored teacher professionalism, perceptions, as well as factors that impact upon their performance and the role of leadership in the enhancement of teacher effectiveness. As the teaching profession has been through harrowing times and the recruitment and retention issue has been a major focus of public attention in the U.K., this study further investigated factors that led to the crisis and sought potential solutions to alleviate the problem. In this study, a focus group interview of six primary school teachers was conducted in order to examine teachers’ viewpoints on four key areas: a) teacher professionalism, values and perceptions; b) teacher motivation, commitment and retention; c) teacher professional learning and development; and d) teacher effectiveness, performance and emotions.
The results highlighted the importance of reward and praise as well as the development of strong relationships within the professional community of educators. The participants mentioned that they feel their professional status being subverted and that when they do not feel valued, they experience a lack of respect and ownership over their job. What is more, a variety of drivers or satisfiers that impact upon teacher effectiveness or contribute to teacher retention were discussed. Teachers mentioned that they perform better when they feel trusted and valued and that they are able to be more creative and autonomous. Although there was little reference found in the literature on the relationships and interactions among peers and school leaders, the research participants identified these as highly important within their context. In addition, the extensive workload, the exposure to high levels of stress, pressure and anxiety, as well as the management of constant changes and reforms seem to be factors that demotivate teachers (Macbeath, 2012). Taking teachers’ voice into consideration, we (school’s senior leadership team) revised the School Improvement Plan and have been closely monitoring effectiveness based on the revised plan.
This study took place in a primary school that is located in an area of significant deprivation in Oxford, UK. The school had a failing performance in 2015 and for the following two years it was operating under the restrictions and demands of the Special Measures category and an intense development inspection scheme. The final inspection report (Ofsted, 2017) was partially rewarding as the school managed to transplant some successful practices and the new inspection outcome was that the school was not in Special Measures anymore but still required improvement. The focus group interview was conducted with teachers in different career stages and with different numbers of years working as educators within the same organization. More specifically, the participants had 5, 8, 14 and 24 years of teaching experience and two of them were Newly Qualified teachers (NQTs). The interview took place at their school environment during school hours.
Research Goal, Method, and Outcome
1. Rationale and Research Strategy
The nature of teacher professionalism alongside teacher effectiveness and the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention has been placed in the public spotlight. Teachers’ unions, education trusts and charities, as well as the government have been preoccupied about the future of this profession. Schools that run under Special Measures, policy changes and reforms, and a shift to a more data-driven system have had an impact on teachers’ perception, motivation, emotions and effectiveness. Ofsted and the Department for Education focus on pupil outcomes as a result of teachers’ and leaders’ effectiveness (Ofsted, 2018). Along with this focus, issues such as performativity, accountability and trust started making their appearance (MacBeath, 2012). Teachers in different career stages show different levels of resilience and perceive the changes in education based on their prior knowledge, experience, background and identity. Frustration and nervousness are emotions that easily occur in school environments with a significant number of professionals feeling pressured and inclined to leave the profession. On the other hand, leaders choose approaches and develop strategies and mechanisms in order to sustain the ideals, values and enthusiasm of teachers for the duration of their careers, while they also have to confront the demands of external factors.
Britain has been seen to have a tremendous issue with teacher shortage. The decreasing number of new recruitments (the lowest in the last five years) and applications for training courses (decreased by a third) are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle where the crucial part is that one-quarter of teachers have left the profession (McInerney, 2018). The Department for Education (2018) published the school workforce census 2017, which shows that the greatest attrition in teacher numbers happens year-on-year in the first three years of a teaching career (approximately 7 percent) and has been consistent for 20 years.
This study was intended to explore teacher professionalism, perceptions, as well as factors that impact upon their performance and the role of leadership on the enhancement of teacher effectiveness in a primary school in an area of significant deprivation. The study also sought to identify potential solutions to the problem of retention and recruitment.
The design of this project consisted of two separate phases. The first was an overview of relevant literature whilst the second featured a case study based on a focus group interview, which involved six primary school teachers. This study took place in a primary school (during school hours) that is located in an area of significant deprivation in England, and after two years of operation under “Special Measures,” it is currently assessed as “Requires Improvement.”
The participants had different years of teaching experiences (5, 8, 14 and 24 years and two NQTs). The views of these teachers likely were biased by the context in which they work, their personal experiences, the stage in their career, their aspirations and the school’s certain expectations. The personal involvement of the researcher was also a characteristic of this study, as I worked in the same school and the initial questions were formed based on the same work environment. The research was constructed on a micro level (Bassey, 1992) and the approach taken followed an interpretive and qualitative methodology. Qualitative research that was utilized in this study examines viewpoints and understanding of a certain issue by individuals or groups (Hitchcock and Hughes, 1995). Questions that emerge throughout the process characterise this type of research, the data collection takes place in the participants’ setting, and the researcher uses inference skills in order to analyse the data (Creswell, 2014).
The interview examined teachers’ viewpoints on four key areas: a) teacher professionalism, values and perceptions; b) teacher motivation, commitment and retention; c) teacher professional learning and development; and d) teacher effectiveness, performance and emotions. In agreement with the head teacher, we had a sufficient amount of time to explore the pre-determined areas, and the interview lasted just over an hour. In preparation for the interview session, the participants also received a document with the four themes for discussion and the related potential questions (see Slides 6 and 7). All of the participants kept notes (see samples on Slides 20 and 21) and commented on the questions that were going to stimulate the conversation before the session, in order to have a smooth and coherent discussion.
Maintaining focus: Student learning
The interview participants described teacher professionalism as in not allowing personal or external influences to affect them as individuals. Teachers agreed that they have to maintain that focus which occasionally seems arduous.
“Not letting feelings on a situation influence how you carry out your job is what professionalism means to me. We all, as teachers, have times when we don’t agree with what we are asked to do in the classroom; however, we have to maintain that professionalism and follow instructions” (Teacher A).
Doing their best, within capacity, to ensure children get the best learning possible, while following school policies and societal conventions, e.g., when/where to have certain discussions, seem to be key parts of the profession. There was a consensus with regards to the teachers’ behaviour, including their use of language, appearance, professional conversations within context and most importantly, the ability to be truthful and be able to bring up concerns appropriately.
Profession and vocation
Although the aim of the profession is to teach children, the word “nurturing” needs to be attached to that. All the teachers concluded that teaching is both a profession and a vocation. They characteristically claimed that: “You can’t do this job unless your heart is there.” The group elaborated on the particular values teachers should bear. More specifically, the list included inquisitiveness, inclusivity, thoughtfulness, integrity, confidentiality, compassion, high standards, respect, responsibility, fairness, understanding, love for learning, patience in abundance and trustworthiness.
According to the participants, people are sceptical about the profession of teaching. Especially in the primary sector, people tend to believe that teachers work for six hours per day, playing with children and colouring drawings or “putting some ticks on a page.” People who are not in the profession often describe teaching as a lazy and easy job. Acknowledging that these perceptions exist and reminding themselves of the reasons for having chosen this profession requires ongoing effort to uphold their focus.
Maintaining relationship with parents
The relationship with parents plays a significant role in the profession. According to the participants, developing strong relationships with parents, maintaining contact and establishing a culture of communication and co-operation are vital.
A teacher described how parents might think of teachers’ job.
“Parents cannot think that in order to spend time with the children at school, you need to carefully plan and prepare your teaching, sort out the classroom etc. They don’t seem to understand that your job is not just physically spending the time with their children. They don’t think that we teach enough” (Teacher B).
Personal experiences of the interaction with parents often were described as negative situations where the former often accuse or blame teachers for not teaching their children appropriately, whereas teachers argue that education is a collective process and parents have to take some responsibility as well. The focus group members agreed that the impact of these conflicting perceptions is huge. The majority agreed that these perceptions have a negative impact and often lead to frustration.
“It is frustrating and you try to explain, yes, they pay you for a certain number of hours but the job is more than that and it needs to get done. If firemen go on strike, or nurses, or junior doctors go on strike, they understand. When teachers go on strike they are negative: “How dare you staying out of school?” You just need to not let that frustration affect the job that you do” (Teacher A).
However, the Newly Qualified Teachers both confirmed that people’s perceptions do not have any impact on them, as they are confident about the job they chose to do.
Impacts of public perceptions of teaching
Statistics on working hours have been regularly discussed by the media, and this has been demoralizing for many teachers. Over the last year, however, the appreciation of teachers appears to have increased. As the subjects of the interview were in different stages in their careers, they were asked whether these perceptions had more or less impact on their effectiveness over the years. Most of the participants agreed that the impact of negative perceptions of teachers has not increased or decreased their performance over the years; they seemed to have developed stamina in order to disenable negative perceptions from influencing their motivation or effectiveness.
The discussion about what motivates a teacher was mainly focused on children and their learning as well as the relationships with colleagues and peers. The teachers agreed that pupil outcomes alongside the ability to instill great values and knowledge are what inspire them the most. Encouraging children’s curiosity and self-worth as well as the idea of doing something with meaningful impact on the lives of people you interact with, appear to be driving them forward.
The discussion also explored the ideal professional environment and more specifically the characteristics of ideal colleagues. Understanding, appreciation, encouragement and support are qualities teachers are seeking in their work partners. They all expressed the need to receive thanks in any form and be respected and appreciated for the work they produce. They characteristically say that they do not want to be treated like “faceless customers” and they need personalised feedback, support and praise.
“For me, it always has to be personal. So the motivation for the children is because I know the children and they are not like faceless customers like you would have in other jobs. They are in front of you and you know everything about them and the thanks also has to be personal. If it is a generic thanks, it doesn’t mean anything to me” (Teacher F).
Most of the participants mentioned that what motivated them to enter the profession was mainly their love for children and the creativity of the profession. The idea of having an impact and improving or shaping children’s futures gives satisfaction and is highly rewarding. The extended summer holiday was mentioned as a bonus but not as a main driver to the profession.
Negative factors that impact teaching effectiveness
The conversation continued with the analysis of the dissatisfiers and the factors that demotivate them or have negative impacts on their effectiveness. The first thing that was discussed was the opposite of the drivers mentioned above: “Things that you do not being noticed.” The need for appreciation and recognition of the hard work they produce appeared to occupy a large body of this discussion.
Workload. The amount of workload, the changes and reforms and the top-down approaches tend to provoke negative feelings and demotivate teachers.
“It is also from higher up as well with all those unrealistic expectations. The fact that goalposts move; every time you achieve something, goalposts get moved. Yes you did it this year but actually next year you need to get it better. And I worked my socks off to get there or to get as close as I could, and then the goalpost got moved. Be it from government, local authority, senior leadership team, whatever, if those goalposts keep getting moved, this is the kind of thing that is going to drive people out of the door” (Teacher A).
Teachers as part of decision making. Teachers’ voice needs to be heard. All the participants claimed that decisions being made by people who do not have daily interactions in the classroom whether these are government, local authority or the senior leadership team, without prior discussion with the teachers, is a key factor to make teachers less eager to continue in the profession. In an attempt to explain the situation, some participants expressed the idea that the role of leadership is changing and it does not allow head teachers to spend a lot of time in the class but their priority is to support teachers outside the classroom. Consequently, the frequent judgments and assessments are based on short observations, “snapshots,” and the participants argued that the stress that arises from that is mainly because the observers might not have an accurate picture of the overall teaching and learning and the quality of the snapshot teaching moment might be suboptimal.
Student behavior. In a school that operates in an area of significant socio-economic deprivation, children’s behaviour is a presiding issue and was noted as a dissatisfier. The challenging behaviour might lead to frictions in the relationships with parents as well and the inconsistency of approach in relationship or behaviour policies might cause unfortunate results.
“We don’t think about what we need to implement for behaviour before initiating changes or reforms. You need to think that behaviour is going to change. Society doesn’t sit still, technology doesn’t sit still and it has a massive impact on how children behave and we need to think about that before it happens. We are always doing it afterwards” (Teacher F).
Accountability and responsibility. The group generated new questions that led to the discussion of accountability. The pressure is intense, and although teachers identify with the parts they should be held accountable for, they feel like they have to take responsibility for what is happening in and out of the classroom as well as pupils’ outcomes. They claim that they would like to have more ownership and be accountable for what happens within their capacity.
“You have a certain degree of how you execute it when you are in the classroom but some of the decisions that have been made for you might not be the ones that you might have agreed on and are not the right ones for your children and your year group which stop the accountability. You reach a point when you have to say there’s not much I can do about it because I was told to do this. I would like to have more ownership of ideas, of creativity” (Teacher D).
They also highlighted the view that the degree of accountability should be relevant to the individual’s experience and expertise. However, some of the participants explained that teachers should be held accountable for the job they are doing and take full responsibility. On the contrary, others claimed that teachers should be accountable to do everything they possibly can within their capacity and resources. For example, they explained that one should not be held accountable for a child with severe special educational needs who has not made expected progress or has not managed to reach age related expectations.
Commitment and effectiveness. Commitment and effectiveness were discussed under the prism of time and different stages in a teacher’s career. All of the participants agreed that they are more committed in the beginning of the year. However, as the year progresses, exhaustion hampers motivation and effectiveness decreases. Both the NQTs claimed that they were not performing as well as in the beginning of the year, especially after pupil progress meetings, when they realised that some targets were not met or when other pressures arose, such as data, tests, etc.
Recruitment and retention Issue. Three themes emerged: (1) constant changes, (2) exhaustion, and (3) ways to improve.
(1) Constant changes
The group discussion also examined the reasons that led teachers to leave the profession or why this profession is not appealing to more people. Constant changes and reforms have a huge impact on teachers’ effectiveness, resilience, motivation and willingness to stay in the profession.
“Every year you think that next year is going to be better and it is going to be more steady but it is a lie because you get to July and you say ‘oh, what has changed again,’ whether that would be curriculum or staffing. And this has an impact on my effectiveness. And you can’t help anyone else because it is new to you as well”(Teacher D).
Teachers claimed that fear arises from the unknown of what is going to happen next. The system has become more data-driven and the school leadership teams’ and teachers’ mindsets have to change.
However, changes and reforms are not the only reasons for widen the crisis in the profession. The levels of exhaustion due to workload, stress-related issues and anxiety as well as mental, emotional and physical tiredness seem to play a crucial part. Teachers are exposed to a significant amount of pressure, chasing deadlines and trying to perform highly, while focusing on data and outcomes; a highly demanding job with no financial incentive for this amount of workload. Interview participants often feel undervalued or experience negative behavior directed towards them.
The NQT teacher explained that universities “don’t sell it or don’t prepare you for the difficulties you might encounter.”
(3) Ways to improve
Although most of the reasons seem to be system-based and teachers or schools do not have the power to make needed changes, the group explored actions, ways and approaches to improvement from a leadership perspective. Good communication and relationships based on constructive feedback whilst in a nurturing environment seem to come first on their list. Furthermore, bespoke approach, motivation and feedback, as well as modeling of the expected standards appear to be effective approaches to improvement.
Continuing Professional Developing (CPD)
A key component of teacher effectiveness is the teacher’s CPD. The CPD needs to be relevant to individual needs and has to be differentiated, according to the group. Effective CPD needs to happen perpetually and be revisited, in order to ensure consistency and success. Time plays a significant role in order to embed knowledge gained.
Learning from peers and other sources
Teachers learn from each other, from practising and performing and from a combination of internal and external inputs. Teachers claim, “We still learn daily, especially if you change year groups or Key stages and in the same idea of different children learn in different ways, different adults learn in different ways. Some days I learn nothing, other days I learn loads.”
“You get so motivated when you come back from a course or you watch a Ted-ed talk and you say I am going to try these new things and then a huge pile of marking, and you have got to do this letter, and the data update and ultimately you lose motivation. You need to be given that opportunity to share what you have learned with other members of staff and cascade what you did as you are working at the same environment and are all applicable” (Teacher F).
Emotional reactions and sources for improvement
The final part of the discussion was focused on teachers’ emotions, how they deal with them and their impact on teaching effectiveness. The list of emotions included frustration, curiosity, happiness (when children achieve their targets), annoyance, being upset, excitement (in the beginning of a new topic), exhaustion, worthlessness (sporadically, when other people or themselves feel like they are not effective enough). Teachers experience a variety of positive and negative emotions on daily basis, and all of them inevitably impact upon their performance.
All the participants agreed that developing positive emotions is of utmost importance. This can happen by intrinsic motivation or external influences. Teachers want to feel valued and have their work appreciated and recognised. When this is not happening, then emotions fluctuate and might lead to frustration with the profession.
The focus group interview results highlight the importance of reward, praise and development of strong relationships within the professional community, on teachers’ effectiveness. The participants confirmed Hargreaves’s observation that although teachers are able to identify with the professional aspects of their job, they feel that their status is subverted when they do not feel valuable and there is a lack of respect for and ownership over their job (Hargreaves, Cunningham, Hansen, McIntyre, and Oliver, 2007).
The data showed that there are a variety of drivers or satisfiers that impact upon teacher effectiveness or contribute to teacher retention, supporting the discussion by Macbeath (2012). Among others, teachers mentioned that they perform better when they feel trusted, valued and are able to be more creative and autonomous. Although there was little reference found in the literature about relationships and interactions with peers and leaders, the research participants classified these as highly important within their context.
On the contrary, the extensive workload, the exposure to high levels of stress, pressure and anxiety as well as managing constant changes and reforms seem to be factors that demotivate teachers (Macbeath, 2012). When the context changes, the level of commitment alters as well (Huberman, 1995). The participating teachers explained that they are more reluctant to remain committed when changes happen, which often leads to frustration. Dealing with changes that increase workload has a negative impact on teachers’ emotions and well-being (Day, 2004).
Continuous professional learning and development is vital to the effectiveness of the teachers, leaders and ultimately the school. According to Lieberman and Miller (1999), teachers learn from direct teaching, in and out of the school.
Although it has been reported that teachers operate differently in different career stages; for example, teachers at later career stages tend to find it more challenging to maintain commitment (Sammons et al., 2007), this was not obvious with the teachers who participated in this project. Perhaps the environment of the participating school and/or uniqueness of participating teachers were factors; continued research on the effect of teaching years needs to be investigated.
Finally, the role of school leaders constitutes a key component in relation to the effectiveness of the institution. Teachers consider certain factors that could reduce the negative feelings and support teacher retention, which were supported by literature. For example, facilitating an emotionally intelligent and supportive culture (Beatty, 2011) and promoting a positive culture where relationships are based on trust, personal and professional support as well as individualised and bespoke approaches (Stoll, 2011) would make a difference.
A question that might come inwardly is “Would the results be the same if the participants were working in a different primary school; in a different area; in a different context?” Although this question cannot be addressed in this project, it certainly provides an intriguing benchmark for future research initiatives that approach the issue under a different prism altogether.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Stavrea, E. (2019). Leadership and school effectiveness: Teachers’ work lives and professionalism. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge-base/leadership-and-school-effectiveness-teachers-work-lives-and-professionalism/