Early-career teachers may find it difficult to perceive challenging situations as learning opportunities

The teaching profession requires active learning continuously throughout the career. At the same time, the complex nature of teacher–pupil interaction sets challenges to teachers and to their efforts to learn in the classroom, particularly in the early years of their careers. Early-career teachers may find it difficult to perceive challenging situations as learning opportunities. According to a doctoral thesis completed by Lauri Heikonen, teachers’ professional agency is the key to teachers’ intentional learning and their capacity to support pupils’ learning in the classroom.

Professional agency comprises the teacher’s motivation to learn (I want), self-efficacy beliefs for learning (I am able) and strategies for learning (I can and I do). Teachers are seen as active learners who intentionally develop their professional expertise as well as pedagogical solutions and the learning environment together with pupils.

“My study focuses on the classroom, since it is a central context for teachers’ learning,” Heikonen says. The research was carried out as a multimethod study utilising both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Perceived inadequacy poses a challenge to teachers’ professional agency

In the classroom, teachers establish positive experiences where they succeed in engendering situations that are productive in terms of learning for both pupils and themselves.

However, recurring experiences of failure in the classroom can reduce teachers’ occupational wellbeing and commitment to the profession. Early on in the teaching career, experiencing inadequacy in teacher–pupil interaction was associated with giving consideration to leaving the profession.

“It can be difficult to perceive challenging situations as opportunities in learning. My research shows that early-career teachers who perceived inadequacy in teacher–pupil interaction experienced  less professional agency in the classroom,” Heikonen says.

Becoming more experienced seemed to reduce experienced inadequacy.

Learning from others boosts teachers’ perceived teaching competence

The study also examined the development of professional agency in the beginning of teacher education.

According to the study, teachers’ capacity to analyse and evaluate their actions and those of their pupils in the classroom constitutes the foundation for their professional agency early on in their careers. Teachers’ capacity to reflect on their actions enables them to intentionally learn by modelling other teachers.

“Active intentional learning from and with others boosts the teaching competence of early-career teachers, or their experience of wanting and being able to develop and adapt  their pedagogical approaches situationally,” Heikonen says.

Furthermore, the study examined strategies employed by teachers in classroom situations that they considered successful and challenging in terms of their learning during teaching practice periods.

In situations which teachers considered beneficial, they utilised proactive strategies, such as active perceiving, monitoring and interpreting of pupils' actions.

“Such strategies can make situations suitable for learning and establishing professional agency.”

In situations that were considered difficult, reactive behavioural strategies, spontaneous reactions that were quick, rigid and survival-oriented, were more prevalent.

“In turn, they can result in difficult situations that leave little room for learning and that can feed feelings of inadequacy,” says Heikonen.

Focus on learning in teacher education

The study demonstrates that professional agency in the classroom is a functional concept for examining teachers’ learning.

“It can be used to bring teachers’ active intentional learning systematically to the fore when developing teacher education, teachers’ mentoring programmes and teachers’ professional development,” Heikonen sums up.



Lauri Heikonen, KM defended the doctoral dissertation entitled "Early-career teachers' professional agency in the classroom" (Uran alkuvaiheen opettajien ammatillinen toimijuus luokkahuoneessa) in the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki, on 23 October 2020 at 12:00.

Prof. dr. Jan van Tartwijk, Utrecht University, served as the opponent, and Professor Auli Toom as the custos.

The dissertation has been in the series Helsinki Studies in Education.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form in Helda.

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