When good advice is hard to find

Being a newly-qualified schoolteacher is no bed of roses, as Sissel Østrem knows. She has often had to impart good advice to classroom beginners shell-shocked by practical teaching.

- It was terrible to feel helpless in a class with 28 pupils, says Anja Wiik, who teaches at Giske secondary school in Sandnes near Stavanger.

- The first thing I had to learn was how to give a clear lead to the class.

She is one of many teachers who have had a bit of jolt in their first job. Moving from university to classroom proved a bigger transition than she had expected.

- Taking care of 28 people simultaneously presented me with a huge challenge, she recalls.

- I had to learn to be decisive and take control. That was tough.

To help tackle the many challenges faced by a new-baked teacher without experience, Ms Wiik was offered mentor support during her first year of work.

- I needed a sense of security. I had to feel sure that I was doing the right things, and wasn’t alone in feeling that I didn’t have the class under control, she admits.

- Through the mentoring scheme, I was able to discuss solutions with somebody who understood me and could see my problems with other eyes.

This support came from Prof Østrem in the University of Stavanger’s department of education. Together with colleagues Brit Hanssen, Lars Helle and Nina Helgevold, she has cooperated with several local authorities on mentoring newly-qualified teachers.

- These beginners explain their needs to us, and we discuss them at a monthly meeting, Prof Østrem explains.

- Topics cover specific conditions experienced by the new teacher.

About 20 newly-qualified teachers are offered such advisory support every year. The monthly meetings are supplemented by contacts through e-mail and on the phone.

One reason why Prof Østrem has undertaken this advisory role is her own experience over many years as teacher, teacher educator and researcher.

She launched a research project in 2001 with Associate Professor Elaine Munthe from the Centre for Behavioural Research at the UiS.

Entitled “From university college student to practising professional”, this work was concluded in 2004 and has provided Prof Østrem with material for her PhD thesis.

- I’m looking at teacher education through interviews with students from the past year, she explains.

- I want to find out what kind of work is involved in the teaching profession and what teachers do when they teach.

- I use video observation of teachers in the classroom for that. Being a teacher is basically about accepting that anything can happen. The teaching profession is characterised by interruptions. You can avoid some of these by planning your lessons and by being committed to the material and the pupils, she says.

- But you can’t do as much about relations between your students, or what the individual pupil has brought with them in their school bag.

Prof Østrem has called her thesis “An impossible education for an impossible profession?”. An important element in this work is the human aspect of teaching.

- Being a teacher is about being together with other people, she says.

- Many students should learn more about this during their education.

- They often fail to see how to apply their subject in the school. It’s too much a case of repeating what they’ve learnt and too little about knowledge of people.

In her research, Prof Østrem is seeking to find out what can be done to improve the transition from university to the classroom.

- I believe students must be allowed to apply their own experience to a greater extent than today, she says.

- Everyone’s been to school, after all, so students have many views about what makes a good teacher. This is something that teacher training can utilise more than other professional educations.

- But student teachers must also be taught to take pleasure in their subject, so that they can infect their pupils with the same enthusiasm, Prof Østrem explains.

- Teaching plans and reforms must also take account of the fact that teachers and schoolchildren are human beings and not robots. It’s impossible to fulfil all the demands which are being made.

Post-graduate advisory support was what Ms Wiik needed in order to find the confidence she required to keep her in the profession.

- I know many other teachers, like me, have considered leaving because of the shock of practical classroom work. None of us were prepared for what awaited us. It was easy to get angry and frustrated, she says.

Although nobody can prepare for everything that could happen in school, she believes that Norway should have a stronger focus on the transition from student to teacher.

Prof Østrem agrees:

- Roughly half of all the teachers in some US states leave the profession for good. Both recruiting and retaining good schoolteachers is an international problem today.

- We’re trying to avoid that outcome by providing counselling for newly-graduated teachers, but a lot could be done before students get that far.

Stavanger and Gjesdal local authorities are due to cooperate with the UiS on providing mentor support for new teachers this academic year. Hå, Sola, Sandnes and Suldal have been involved earlier.

Jone Haarr, director of education for Gjesdal, is a strong believer in the project, which embraces almost 15 teachers at five schools under his command.

- When you’ve completed teacher training, you’re still not fully qualified to teach, he says.

- You’ve got to build up your own experience and learn from the veterans.  Other professions are better at mentoring their new recruits. We want to do something about this in Gjesdal.

A major benefit of the collaboration between the UiS and the local authorities is that each of the latter are able to educate their own advisers through the project.

- We want to have a mentor in each school who can continue the advisory work when the UiS withdraws, says Mr Haarr.

- We see this as an important future commitment in Gjesdal.

Prof Østrem is convinced that both newly-graduated and trainee teachers need a greater sense of personal confidence in their work.

-They’re looking for the answers to a lot of questions. They’re unsure about individual pupils, about their role as class leader, about setting boundaries, about marking and about tailoring their lessons.

- Many of them also want to know how they can make their teaching more practical. In addition to classroom control, they want to feel confident about what the rules and guidelines say, she explains.

- Other questions cover such issues as reading and writing difficulties, practical maths, cooperation between school and home, pupils who speak foreign languages and ones with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

- And they also feel a need to know more about the educational psychology service and the current quality reform in Norwegian schools.

Prof Østrem sees a need to do what is possible to provide answers to all these questions so that the newly-qualified teachers can feel confident in their own teaching role.

She is also involved together with Ms Hanssen and Prof Munthe in a research project focused on education for the profession and how it is exercised.

Called “How newly-graduated teachers master the profession”, this work is being pursued jointly by the UiS, the Centre for the Study of Professions at Oslo University College (HiO) and Volda University College (HiVo).

The project is one of two at the UiS which recently received funds from the Research Council of Norway’s programme on practice-based R&D in primary to secondary schools and teacher education.

Text: Silje Stangeland
Photo: Elisabeth Tønnessen