Supporting teachers to feel committed to the teaching profession is important at a time where attrition rates and retention difficulties are a reality for many schools in Australia and in many countries worldwide.
Commitment to the teaching profession refers to teachers’ sense of connection and investment in the occupation. When teachers feel committed this is beneficial for their wellbeing. Higher levels of work commitment also translate to teachers’ instructional practice via more supportive and effective teaching.
Identifying ways to support teachers’ commitment, then, is important – not only for individual teachers, but also for students and schools. This is what my recent study, published in Social Psychology of Education (Collie, 2021b), set out to examine.
Three supports and one challenge
The study investigated three job supports that are relatively feasible for schools to address, to ascertain whether they are associated with greater commitment among teachers. The supports were:
- Helpful feedback, which refers to teachers’ sense that the feedback they have received at work has been helpful for improving their teaching practice, including classroom management, content knowledge, and instructional strategies.
- Input in decision-making, which reflects teachers’ sense that they receive adequate opportunities to have a say in decisions made in their school.
- Leadership discipline support, which refers to school leaders’ collaboration with teachers to help with classroom management or discipline issues.
In addition, a common job challenge experienced by teachers was also examined: disruptive student behaviour. This refers to student behaviour that makes it hard for effective learning to occur (e.g., calling out, being noisy and disruptive).
Data for the study came from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013 and involved 12 955 teachers in 827 schools from four countries: Australia, Canada, England, and the United States.
It was anticipated that teachers’ experiences of the three job supports would be associated with greater commitment, whereas experiences of the job challenge would be associated with lower commitment.
The study also investigated whether the job supports might play a more important role in supporting teachers’ commitment when they experience high levels of disruptive behaviour. This was based on the idea that when teachers experience disruptive behaviour, they may need to rely more on job supports to help navigate or manage the disruptions in the classroom. Put differently, when job supports are readily available, teachers are likely to feel better supported and, in turn, the challenging behaviour may have less of a harmful impact on their commitment.
What were the findings?
When teachers felt they had received helpful feedback that improved their teaching practice, they were more committed to their profession. Similarly, when teachers felt they had more input in decision-making and there was greater leadership discipline support, they reported greater commitment. It is likely that receiving helpful feedback, having a say through input, and receiving leadership help with discipline issues allows teachers to feel better supported at work and also to have some influence over their work – which are both important for building commitment to work.
As expected, the reverse finding was apparent for disruptive behaviour: When teachers experienced greater disruptive behaviour, they reported lower commitment to their profession.
Another important finding was that helpful feedback appeared to be particularly important when teachers experienced high disruptive behaviour. This finding suggests that helpful feedback may be one way to reduce the undermining role of high disruptive behaviour on teachers’ commitment.
Notably, the study results were similar across Australia, Canada, England, and the US, suggesting that these job supports play a similar role across the different countries.
Implications for teachers and leaders
This study provides ideas about three job supports that appear helpful for boosting teacher commitment. In terms of practice recommendations, optimising the effectiveness of feedback is one avenue that schools might like to focus on. To do this, research has shown that feedback should be targeted, specific, focused on behaviour, and based on evidence (Brinko, 1993).
Giving teachers authentic opportunities for input is also important. This may include school leaders seeking staff input on school policy, listening to teachers’ needs, and joint coordination of professional learning (Collie, 2021a). Teacher input in decision-making may also help to ensure school processes and policies help teachers feel better supported in relation to challenging student behaviours.
For disruptive student behaviour, professional learning focused on building classroom management skills and positive teacher-student relationships are promising approaches (Spilt et al., 2012).
Brinko, K. T. (1993). The practice of giving feedback to improve teaching: What is effective? The Journal of Higher Education, 64(5), 574-593. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.1993.11778449
Collie, R. J. (2021a). COVID-19 and Teachers’ Somatic Burden, Stress, and Emotional Exhaustion: Examining the Role of Principal Leadership and Workplace Buoyancy. AERA Open, 7. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858420986187
Collie, R. J. (2021b). A multilevel examination of teachers’ occupational commitment: the roles of job resources and disruptive student behavior. Social Psychology of Education, 24, 387–411. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-021-09617-y
Spilt, J. L., Koomen, H. M., Thijs, J. T., & Van der Leij, A. (2012). Supporting teachers’ relationships with disruptive children: The potential of relationship-focused reflection. Attachment & human development, 14(3), 305-318. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2012.672286
Rebecca Collie says optimising the effectiveness of feedback and providing teachers with authentic opportunities for input are two areas schools might like to focus on to boost staff commitment.
As a school leader, think about your own feedback to staff. Is it targeted, specific, focused on behaviour, and based on evidence? How often do you seek teacher input on school policy and professional learning?