Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Teacher retention has gained nationwide attention in an attempt to combat the nation's teacher shortage. Although teacher candidate retention is widely recognized as a focus area for decreasing turnover rates, it is still a topic that requires further research into the complexities and interdependencies that impact candidates’ success and willingness to stay in the profession. Dr. TaQuana Williams, Academics Director at The New Teacher Project, has recently completed research aimed to improve the retention of novice teacher candidates, with consideration to their experiences within their preparation pathways. Dr. Williams’ research follows her study in Urban Education and Leadership at John Hopkins University and her time dedicated to teacher educator development in urban school systems. In a recent conversation with Dr. Williams, she described her research and its impact on the education landscape.
Mia O’Suji: Your research on novice teachers is much needed. Tell us about your dissertation topic?
Dr. Williams: My dissertation centers around novice teacher retention. Specifically, I focus on novice teachers in a southern metropolitan city who are enrolled in an alternative certification program and are participants in the United States Teacher Academy (a pseudonym used for the purpose of my study). USTA is a non-profit organization that recruits and trains novice teachers. Members commit to teaching two-years in a low-income community while receiving ongoing professional development in exchange for an education grant.
Throughout the literature review and needs assessment for my study, I found research and evidence to indicate that the experience of a novice teacher actually correlates with the role stressors that are associated with occupational stress (Olson & Osborne, 1991). For example, novice teachers search for an understanding of their roles and pedological understanding of the work (Olson & Osborne, 1991). This is an example of role ambiguity, or lack of clear set of role expectations, which is a role stressor that over time leads to burnout (Anbazhagan & Rajan, 2013). Additionally, novice teachers feel apprehension about their abilities to accomplish tasks associated with their roles (Olson & Osborne, 1991) because they are expected to reach the same outcomes as their veteran peers (Lortie, 2002). This is another role stressor, called job difficulty, where an individual has difficulty performing their job due to lack of training, knowledge, or experience (Anbazhagan & Rajan, 2013).
Understanding that a major cause in novice teacher attrition is occupational stress and burnout, I sought to study the impact of an intervention that targeted decreasing stress. I found a practice called Balint groups. Balint groups are a community of practice originally designed for general practitioners to combat burnout, occupational stress, and retention. Research in other countries have shown effectiveness of Balint groups with teachers and other professions. During a typical Balint group, a Balint group leader, who is typically a psychologist, facilitates the group through a collective inquiry protocol. During the protocol, a participant shares an interpersonal problem they are facing in their role. Following, members of the group pose questions to the participant who shares. The question process helps to establish the question or problem that must be explored. Next, participants talk through other perspectives the individual may not see or could be ignoring while the participant who shared is silent. Finally, we end with the sharer summarizing what they heard and sharing a commitment they will make to resolve their issue.
As a part of my study, participants engaged in monthly virtual Balint group meetings for six months during the 2020-21 academic year. A certified American Balint Society psychologist facilitated these Balint group meetings, and they have served as a Balint group leader since 1993. A former USTA alumnus, who currently works as a general psychiatrist, served as the co-facilitator. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the use of a Balint group model to influence novice teacher self-efficacy, experience with burnout, and intentions to persist in the classroom.
Mia O’Suji: You mentioned a variety of factors related to novice teachers’ experiences. How did your experience shape your approach to this topic?
Dr. Williams: Novice teacher retention is a passion of mine. I taught in an urban charter school. Following that experience, I worked with novice teachers as a coach. In both settings, I witnessed the revolving door of new faces in our urban schools and the impact that has on students. It really inspired me to want to research the factors that influence novice teacher retention and the overall novice teacher experience further. I discovered that it was not just a problem in my own context, but in the field. Approximately 41% of teachers leave the classroom within the first five years of their role (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014). This attrition problem has been coined the “Revolving Door Effect,” where novice teachers are hired, usually in difficult contexts with limited resources, they are pressured to achieve strong results, but ultimately leave the profession only to be replaced with another novice teacher and continue the cycle (Ingersoll, 2004).The turnover rate is higher in low-income communities than affluent ones, disproportionately affecting low-income communities of color (R. Ingersoll & Merrill, 2012). So the problem became more than a problem of quality for me, as the larger issue was equity for communities like my own.
Mia O’Suji: Knowing the impact that teacher turnover has on low-income communities of color, what were your findings?
Dr. Williams: My study was a mixed method study, using both qualitative data from focus groups and open-ended questions and quantitative data from a pre- and post-test. I found that participants' trust in one another increased throughout the intervention. They felt that the Balint group space was a non-judgemental climate where they were able to authentically share their experience with others who could understand. Ultimately, they felt a part of a community that could affirm their experiences while also pushing them to see problems beyond their own perspectives. Participants shared that through the Balint group they were able to deepen their understanding of others’ perspectives and this increased their abilities to build strong relationships with students and colleagues. This was a major benefit of the intervention as the ability to build strong relationships was a strength of this study. Furthermore, positive relationships correlated to a decrease in occupational stress. Due to the fact that we were in a pandemic, where relationships were weakened by the impact of work-from-home orders, this was even more of a highlight.
In addition to participant responsiveness, my study centered on three outcome constructs--change in burnout, change in self-efficacy, and change classroom persistence intentions. Quantitative data analysis revealed no significant change in any of the three constructs; however, the qualitative data revealed that participants' self-efficacy on their instructional strategies and ability to build meaningful relationships increased. Additionally, participants all wanted to persist in the classroom for the following year and all wanted to pursue roles in education as their lifetime careers. One participant shifted from wanting a role outside of the classroom to wanting to be a lifetime teacher. They contributed the change to her participation in the intervention. For the final construct, burnout, participants shared that the pandemic exacerbated administrative and systemic pressures, leading to more occupational stress.
Overall, participant perception of the intervention was positive, and many expressed interests in participating in the experience for the 2021-22 academic year. The quantitative data also suggest that longer, more sustained participation would lead to increased results. Additionally, participants expressed a desire for in-person meetings over the virtual platform.
Mia O’Suji: How might these findings transform the field of education?
Dr. Williams: While the findings had positive outcomes, I think it sparked additional research that should be explored. Specifically, the findings suggest further research on supports for novice teachers to feel their role requirements are sustainable. In focus groups, participants shared that they do not feel like their roles were sustainable, especially during the pandemic. They revealed that schools need more counselors and on-site support like therapists. They also stated that they did not feel valued nor recognized from their administration nor society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, there is previous research that indicates both of these factors influence teacher attrition. However, I have not found research on interventions or structures that can shift these perspectives. I’m curious to see studies around the increase of counseling support and wrap-around services in a district on the district’s staff retention and the staff’s experience with burnout. Likewise, I’m interested in seeing how regular praise from an individual’s administrator influences their experience with stress, self-efficacy, and ultimately persistence.
Mia O’Suji: What advice might you give to educator preparation programs looking to adjust their support of teacher candidates?
Dr. Williams: The study's findings indicate that Balint groups provide opportunities for educators to strengthen their relationships with students and build community with their peers. Thinking about occupational stress, job satisfaction, and even classroom culture, having strong relationships with your students and colleagues is pivotal. The results of the short intervention suggest that PK-12 school districts and educator preparation programs should implement Balint group structures as a part of their novice teacher programming.
Participants desired to expand the intervention beyond novice teachers to include their veteran peers and even administrators. They shared that they lacked the perspectives of these groups, so including individuals in these roles would allow the group to include additional voices and expand the community of practice. However, if you were to develop heterogeneous Balint groups, I would suggest that individuals do not engage in Balint groups with their own administrators or supervisors. This will prevent individuals from being transparent and trusting. Instead, I recommend administrators or supervisors engage in Balint groups with other leaders, occupying the same role, across the district.
Mia O'Suji serves as the Director of Content Development and Programming at CTAPP. She leads organizational efforts related to teacher preparation programming and strategic project planning.