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Building resilience: navigating the early career landscape in further education - Stephanie Marshall-Whitley

By Stephanie Marshall-Whitley, beauty therapy lecturer at Truro and Penwith College and Research Further Scholar

In the professional context of further education in Cornwall, where mornings unfold against the backdrop of rural serenity, new teachers grapple with the challenges of their early careers. During my quiet autumnal commute, I contemplate my research objectives aimed at understanding and improving the experiences of these educators in their initial years of teaching. Expanding my reflections, I consider the national experience of early career teachers, each navigating their own distinctive settings. This exploration is more than an academic pursuit and a burning personal interest; it plays a crucial role in deciphering the complex professional terrain faced by new teachers in an already challenging phase of education. As these early career teachers confront professional hurdles, it becomes apparent that resilience is not only the cornerstone for personal growth but is pivotal in fostering a robust educational environment.

Resilience in the context of teaching embodies adeptness at navigating the complex web of challenges and setbacks pervasive in our profession; for new teachers this may involve managing an enormous workload effectively, engaging diverse groups of learners, encouraging parental involvement all whilst updating our professional development and keeping abreast of current research. This resilience is a dynamic trait, maintaining a constructive outlook whilst confronting challenges. It is testament to the new teachers abilities to adapt at the drop of a hat, learn and embrace change that establishes a foundation for a thriving and enduring career in further education.

Levels of resilience in the education workforce are low (Education Support, 2021), with just 26% of teachers self-reporting medium resilience. How can we improve this for our new recruits? My own Masters research is examining mentoring schemes, analysing a structured support system wherein seasoned teachers provide guidance, share experiences and impart valuable insights from both subject specific perspectives and cross department support. Complementary to this, stress management workshops may provide tangible tools and coping mechanisms tailored to the experiences of new recruits, empowering them to navigate the demanding landscape of further education in a community of similarly minded others.

Mindfulness sessions further contribute to the creation of resilient teachers and can be done in solitude if socialising is not your strongest talent; mindfulness cultivates self-awareness and promotes emotional regulation, qualities that are essential in the face of unpredictability inherent in teaching. A lunch time walk if you are fortunate enough to have some green space, a five-minute breathing exercise or your favourite song on the way home.

Taking a practical approach, my workplace exemplifies a commitment to both teachers and learners through its wellbeing timetable. The offering extends beyond the traditional realms of education, offering wraparound activities such as knitting, gym sessions, board games, swimming and yoga. Early career teachers have opportunities to socialise with mid-career teachers and senior leaders they may never have interacted with before, sharing valuable cross-generational knowledge and accessing a network of friendly faced support.

What sets it apart however is the deliberate inclusion of learners alongside teachers. This integration not only breaks down traditional authoritative barriers but encourages a sense of community, in which learners and teachers partake in activities that promote physical and mental resilience together. Teachers role model active participation in preserving their own resilience and wellbeing, reinforcing the notion that self-care is not just preached but practiced and is an integral component of a fulfilling academic journey. In approaching these strategies collaboratively, new teachers and learners contribute toward the educational environment wherein the ethos of resilience extends beyond the individual, creating a shared foundation for growth and success.

The engagement of a new teacher in extracurricular activities can have several positive effects on professional and personal wellbeing; Latino, Cataldi and Fischetti (2021) found evidence to suggest that teachers practicing yoga showed fewer signs of burnout and instead demonstrated improvement in mental clarity and energy. Interestingly, their study also highlighted a positive link between yoga and sense of career satisfaction. Currently, 59% of staff have considered leaving the sector in the past year due to pressures on their wellbeing (Education Support, 2022); could a well-rounded and accessible personal enrichment programme support a reduction in staff turnover and ensure we nurture our new teachers on their path to mid-career quality teachers? While establishing or improving a wellness programme may not possess the allure of a magic wand, it necessitates institutional commitment and dedication to employees’ resilience, mental health and wellbeing that will be attractive to new recruits.

In wrapping up my final reflections, it is clear that resilience is a game-changer for early career teachers in the professional arena. Their ability to navigate the unique challenges they face is a testament to the dynamic quality of resilience, crucial not just for personal growth but for shaping a robust educational environment. Acknowledging the stark statistics concerning our workforce calls for strategic intervention at its earliest opportunity. By coming together to strategise, we lay the groundwork for progress and success, where resilience is not just an individual trait but a vital part of our educational ethos. Within this shared community, everyone from senior leaders to learners can contribute to building both physical and mental resilience. I also want to emphasise the positive impact of extra-curricular engagement on teacher wellbeing; it’s a key factor that could help alleviate staff turnover, addressing the pervasive issue of burnout and dissatisfaction among new teachers in the sector.

In essence, the proposition for a comprehensive wellness programme is not a finite solution; but rather requires institutional dedication to the resilience, mental health and wellbeing of its teachers, new and established alike. Such an initiative may hold the promise of retaining new teachers and creating a supportive environment conducive toward development into mid-career resilient teachers. On that note, I’m off to my yoga group!

Education Support. (2022). Teacher Wellbeing Index 2022. Available at: https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/media/zoga2r13/teacher-wellbeing-index-2022.pdf (Accessed on 23/10/2023).

Education Support. (2021). Teacher Wellbeing Index 2021. Available at: https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/media/qzna4gxb/twix-2021.pdf (Accessed on 24/10/2023).

Latino, F., Cataldi, S. and Fischetti, F. (2021). Effects of an 8-week yoga-based physical exercise intervention on teachers’ burnout. Sustainability, 13(4), p.2104.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.