A systems approach to understanding novice teachers’ experiences and professional learning

Keywords: initial teacher education; complexity approach, novice teachers, beginning teachers


The seeming disconnect between what novice teachers learn at university and what their first year of teaching demands has been described and lamented for decades. Researchers, teachers and school managers often blame teacher education programmes for not preparing novice teachers for the realities of school. In this paper, I argue that what a teacher learns from their initial teacher education programme is only one of the complex systems that shape their practice. A more productive way to understand novice teachers’ experiences is to engage with all four nested systems that shape their practice – namely the teacher system, the classroom system, the school system and the macro-educational system. This paper interrogates the data generated from 30 Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) after they had been teaching for 18 months. The data shows that many challenges faced by the NQTs cannot be addressed by ITE curriculum, because they are grounded in other sub systems.  For example, ITE cannot compensate for the growing administrative burden imposed by the state through increasing accountability measures and the pacing set by the curriculum which does not consider learners who still cannot read in the Intermediate phase or cannot understand English (the LOLT from Grade 4). Similarly, ITE can do little about schools that often do not provide formal induction and mentoring for NQTs and who allocate NQTs to teach outside the specialisation and phase that they were trained for.  The main influence of ITE is in developing student teachers’ ethical commitment, professional identity, competences and knowledge, and here the data shows that the curriculum offered by an ITE programme can make a difference to the competence and the confidence that they have in their content knowledge and pedagogical strategies.


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Author Biography

Carol Bertram

Professor, School of Education