Research in compulsory settings suggests that a high percentage of mathematics teachers leave the profession early in their careers. This small-scale research project run by Success North Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (CETT) at Newcastle College aimed to assess:
- the extent to which retention of teachers in the FE system reflected this finding
- the role of CPD in supporting new teachers
- the role of CPD in retaining mathematics practitioners in the FE system.
The project aimed to explore the perspectives of recently qualified mathematics teachers and to:
- identify the professional development needs of mathematics teachers working in further education colleges
- support an informal community of learning to facilitate the sharing of teaching and learning ideas, resources and concerns
- evaluate the impact of communities of learning on the practice of the teachers, their identity as teaching professionals and their commitment to the teaching profession.
- As part of the project a series of focus groups explored:
- the professional development needs of new mathematics teachers
- successful professional development which had been experienced by newly-qualified teachers (post-qualification)
- the features of successful professional development activities
- the impact of interaction within communities of learning.
The project team agreed that in recognition of work pressure on lecturers in the sector, the research project and associated activities would need to be viewed as useful and supportive of the development of individual practitioners. Thus the team aimed for research activities and data collection to be integrated into scheduled professional development events and activities where possible. Success North provided administrative assistance to support two scheduled professional development events. Research data collection was integrated into these two events which were led by mathematics specialists in the region and attended by practitioners from a range of settings in the FE context. The target group for these events were newly-qualified and less experienced mathematics and numeracy tutors based in FE settings:. this matched the target group for this research project.
These two data collection opportunities were in addition to data collection at:
- a forum event at Newcastle College
- two professional development events run by Success North at Newcastle College
- informal data collection from graduates from the Teaching Development centre, Newcastle College
- informal data collection from mathematics lecturers who were unable to attend events
The focus groups were facilitated by members of the project team and were held in three venues across the region to allow access to tutors from a range of institutions.
A strength of the data collection stage was the diversity of delegates at each event who represented Further Education Colleges, Offender Learning, Adult and Community learning provision, work-based learning and university-based mathematics lecturers.
A key message that came from respondents was of the benefits of shared professional development activities with supportive colleagues, and how teachers valued opportunities for mathematics specialists from different working contexts to come together to share experiences, teaching ideas and concerns. For many respondents the status of the subject and of its teachers was an area of concern, and in addition, respondents noted the challenge of the diversity of learners and barriers that they experience.
Since 2007, all those involved with teaching numeracy in the Lifelong learning sector are required to be suitably qualified (by obtaining the DTLLS Additional Diploma in Numeracy/Mathematics). One unintended benefit of lecturers’ engagement with such formal programmes has been the opportunities this has provided for communication with mathematics and numeracy colleagues in a range of work settings across the further education setting.
However, once these initial teacher education programmes end, many teachers/trainers go on to work in relative isolation, and this sense of isolation was noted by practitioners in the research study. For some tutors the end of engagement on initial teacher education programmes also marks an end to practitioner engagement in regular professional dialogue and opportunities for learning through interaction with peers outside the immediate workplace.
The project team was concerned about these reported practitioner feelings of isolation once teacher education programmes had ended.
Traditionally CPD has been viewed as consisting of formal/semi-formal organised events or programmes. Over the last twenty years, however, there has been a recognition of the breadth of activities which support professional learning and a much clearer understanding of the role of professional dialogue in supporting CPD and of situated learning (Lave and Wenger,1991). One aim of the project was to establish the extent to which this understanding was shared by practitioners and whether it reflected their experience of professional development.
The role of the ‘expert’ in leading professional development led to extensive discussion by focus group members. In line with other research findings, delegates agreed that professional development activities were supported by expert input, furthermore some delegates were thought that the role of the ‘expert’ was important (Timperley, 2010) and that the most powerful professional development experiences were supported by more experienced practitioners and teacher educators who shared issues and concerns with them and who understood their teaching context.
Again the perspectives shared by delegates at the event mirrored research literature on the need for CPD to have a clear contextual focus. For example, Timperley (2010: 10) suggests that professional development for teachers will be less effective where it has been ‘developed independently of the participating teachers’ practice contexts and tend to have less impact on student outcomes than approaches that are context-specific.'
Some delegates mentioned a need for more or better resources to support their practice and mentioned budgetary constraints which had prevented access to these. This finding may have been influenced by the content of the preceding workshop which show-cased new and ‘shiny’ resources and may have led to greater prominence of these contributions. The role of resources and professional development were not noted in two of the focus groups.
Delegates stressed the need for regularity of CPD and the need for structured sessions as well as more informal opportunities for exchanging ideas. However data from the project also suggests that engagement with informants at the focus groups and the activities which were completed had some impact on individuals’ understanding of what constitutes professional development, and informants mentioned the value of peer observation, team teaching and conversations with more experienced colleagues as supportive of their development.
The strength of networks and community learning on DTLLS and in professional development following the DTLSS programme came out clearly in the data from the practitioners, and supported network events and potentially the development of alumni networks for FE-based lecturers.
Data from this small-scale resource project suggests that newly-qualified FE mathematics teachers would benefit from post-qualification guidance to support them in adapting to the teaching situation. An alumni network would provide continuity for these teachers, maintaining their contacts with colleagues from other settings and with facilitators with expertise in their teaching settings, and is particularly important in the first year of teaching.
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Department for Education and Skills (2004) Equipping our Teachers for the Future: reforming initial teacher training for the learning and skills sector, London, DfES
Department for Education and Skills (2006) Further Education: raising skills, improving life chances, London, DfES
Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (2007) The Further Education Teachers’ Continuing Professional Development and Registration (England) Regulations 2007, London, DIUS
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