How can we support students’ transitions into initial teacher education?

Dr Diana Amundsen, Dr Nadine Ballam, and Dr Katrina McChesney, University of Waikato (Tauranga)

Pre-service teacher education programme providers work hard at creating a welcoming, inclusive environment that will support pre-service teacher students into their studies and ongoing endeavours to become teachers. But do we know how students are experiencing their transitions into their teacher education programmes? Certainly, first-year university student experiences are seen as high-priority by universities. Staff recognise that the transition for students typically involves great personal investment and quite often, substantial social displacement. This blog post introduces a study from the University of Waikato which aimed at finding out what pre-service teacher education students themselves identify as most significant for their transition into the first year of their undergraduate programmes.

Transitions into initial teacher education

Transitions into undergraduate programmes more generally have interested researchers for some time now, and have generally been recognised as:  

“…complex processes that demand social, academic, and personal change and integration.”

Ideas from wider research on transitions into universities are also relevant for the experiences of pre-service teachers, yet, there are definitely ways in which pre-service teacher experiences are unique. For example, some researchers have identified that not only do pre-service teachers need to take care of their own wellbeing as a student, they must also prepare for fostering the emotional and social wellbeing of the students they will teach in school contexts – during and after their university training.

However, in general, there is a lack of New Zealand-specific knowledge about how students experience their transition into pre-service teacher programmes, especially in terms of understanding the impacts on their resilience, wellbeing, and likelihood of remaining in their studies. Our research contributed to understanding factors that pre-service teacher students say hinder their effective transitions (barriers) and opportunities that support their effective transitions (enablers).

The importance of development in context

It was important to study the transition experiences through a lens that acknowledged an individual’s development in relation to the context in which they are situated. Drawing on Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) earlier ecological theory, we were able to examine how individual students’ dispositions and resources inter-related with features of the university context and the pre-service teacher programme to be either barriers or enablers, or sometimes both at once.

Firstly, ethical consent to conduct the project was obtained. Next, as part of a ‘transitions assignment’ in a compulsory first-year paper, students were taught about Bronfenbrenner’s theory and invited to use his theory to think about their personal transition into full-time study in a Bachelor of Teaching programme. Their assignment was completed early in the semester (6 weeks). All 60 students were given an opportunity to participate in the study, with 40% taking up the offer. Assignments were sorted, coded, categorised and analysed using Bronfenbrenner’s model as a lens to understand the contexts where students identified transitions barriers and enablers.

Common barriers and enablers to students’ transitions

Students’ transitions into initial teacher education: Understanding barriers and enablers through an ecological lens

The most frequently reported individual level enabler that students said contributed to their effective transition related to having a ‘sense of purpose and drive’:

“My children are the reason that I am at university and they are my biggest motivation.”

In Bronfenbrenner’s ‘microsystem’ level, students identified the value of having supportive relationships as key to their transition:

“Throughout the beginning of the course I met a group of people who were all extremely similar to me who provided support, social interactions, help with assessments, and simply a meaningful friendship.”

The third enabler which stood out was the students’ need for a sense of connection, they identified this as a powerful enabler (e.g. to whakapapa, to the university staff, peers, and interestingly, to nature and outdoors):

“No matter what I’m going through in my life, being there in the bush with the sound of the water flowing brings me peace of mind.”

By contrast, students identified clear barriers for themselves at the individual level which related to their mind-set and mental wellbeing , self-doubt, fear of failure and sense of pressure to perform:

Mental health became a barrier that prevented me from seeing things clearly and positively. This meant I couldn’t focus on my day to day tasks and I was questioning if I was going to be able to handle completing my teaching course.”

Moving out into the microsystem context, the influence of negative relationships on students’ transitions was substantial (e.g., relationships with family, friends, other students or staff in the pre-service cohort).

“Students’ transitions into initial teacher education: Understanding barriers and enablers through an ecological lens I soon became stressed and over-emotional. I was thinking I couldn’t do this, missed my family, and then found myself wanting to move back home where I felt safe and comfortable.”

Students’ transitions into initial teacher education: Understanding barriers and enablers through an ecological lens

The most frequently reported barrier of all was financial strain, which was identified in the macrosystem level. This student’s comment exemplified many:

“…Voluntarily subjecting myself to immense debt for a degree I couldn’t guarantee success in was extremely unnerving.”

The specific nature of the financial strain differed depending on people’s various life stages which was also connected with whether students were direct school leavers or entering their studies later in life.

Direct and post-school leavers

In this research, we studied the differences and similarities between pre-service student teachers who came into the programme the year after leaving high school (direct school-leavers) and those who had done other things since leaving school before entering university (post-school leavers). This aspect really showed the complexities and variation among transition experiences, and how life experience is connected. Some of the students (21%) said that having life experience beyond school make their transition easier, while 13% of the students said recent school experience helped their transition (e.g. using computers, study skills etc). On the other hand, being a post-school leaver was reported as a barrier by some.

What these apparently contradictory accounts teach us is that these students framed their life situation (whether direct- or post-school leaver) as a strength rather than a deficit as they began their university studies.

Conclusions and future opportunities

New Zealand needs more teachers and it is important that students who want to become teachers are supported to effectively transition into their study. Our research highlighted how much student transitions involve their whole-of-life contexts, in other words aspects of individuals worlds beyond the ‘walls’ of the university. This is especially relevant in our Covid-19 contexts as the lines between homes, schools, universities and workplaces have become blurred due to online and digital communication. How can initial teacher education programme providers create an inclusive environment that will support pre-service teacher students in their studies and endeavours to become teachers?

  • Facilitate pre-service teacher students in identifying, naming and understanding various factors (barriers and enablers) that impact their emotional and mental wellbeing (as well as spiritual, social, cognitive and physical dimensions of wellbeing).
  • Encourage students early on to develop reflective practices about their own journey to becoming an educator to promote their resilience capacity and sense of agency.
  • Acknowledge students’ lived realities through practical considerations of timetabling, deadlines, academic preparation and support.
  • Recognize students’ differing cultural backgrounds, diverse ages, gender identification as well as the ways that these backgrounds may position some students as insiders or outsiders in relation to the institutional norms.
  • Promote awareness of the power of students developing a clear sense of purpose for study, intentionally choosing strength-based framings of their life experiences.

While our study uncovered some useful answers, it also raised many more questions such as how we can better understand transition experiences unique to pre-service teachers. Some students may have based their views on their perceptions of the university as a whole, while others could have related their experiences particularly to their education programme. This ‘snapshot’ research just gave us a picture of the early transition experiences and it will be important to explore how these ideas change over time.

The research reported here is an initial small part of an ongoing longitudinal research project which tracks students preparing for, and then transitioning into, caring professions such as teaching and social work. Our wider, ongoing research goals include mapping how the Covid-19 pandemic effects and transitions to online teaching and learning may influence transition experiences over time. We are happy to share more information about this study with others interested in the findings; our contact details are available at the end of this post.

Diana Amundsen is a lecturer in education at the University of Waikato – Tauranga and Hamilton. Diana’s research interests span adult learning and development with a particular focus on transition experiences of marginalised groups. Currently, Diana’s research focus is around transitions into higher education and initial teacher education; transitions in the lives of older adults, positive ageing and longevity issues.

Nadine Ballam is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Waikato – Tauranga. Her research interests span giftedness and talent, risk and resilience, human development, and identity and wellbeing. She has edited two books: Giftedness and talent: Australasian perspectives and Pedagogies of Educational Transitions

Katrina McChesney is a senior lecturer in initial teacher education at the University of Waikato’s Tauranga campus. Katrina’s research explores the lived experiences of stakeholders within educational contexts – whether this is teachers engaging in professional development, teachers working in cross-cultural contexts, children and families at an early childhood centre, or students at a school or university. She uses a range of methods to explore people’s experiences in these settings from an interpretivist stance.

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