The Research Files Episode 64: Early career teachers' self-efficacy and mentoring

Thanks for tuning into this podcast from Teacher Magazine. I’m Dominique Russell.

It’s no surprise that a teacher’s self-efficacy has a huge impact on their classroom teaching. But what aspects of work as a beginner teacher has an influence on how perceived self-efficacy develops? A research report has looked into this and I’m joined in this episode of The Research Files by two of the paper’s co-authors, Professor Helen Watt from the University of Sydney and Professor Paul Richardson from Monash University.

They write in the report that ‘little is known about the interrelationships of job resources and demands with teacher self-efficacy, and consequences for teachers' professional behaviours’. So, to look further into this, they began a 15-year longitudinal study involving primary and secondary teachers. The participants were surveyed periodically on a range of issues, and while a lot of the data are yet to be analysed, some fascinating insights, with implications for school communities, have emerged.

We’re going to go through all of this in our discussion. To kick things off though, Paul and Helen share why they went ahead with this research. First you’ll hear from Paul and then Helen. Let’s jump in.

Paul Richardson: I’m at Monash University and I’m a Professor there in Education. And why we started the research – well, I was running a program for many years when I was at a different campus of Monash and it took me a long time to realise that we were getting, every year, we were getting a large number of people who came from other careers who were leaving other, much more prestigious careers, coming in to undertake teacher education. I wondered after a while, why would you leave being an accountant, or being a medical doctor, or another career where you’re actually earning quite a lot more money and you had a great deal more status, and yet people were signing up to undertake a degree program that was going to take them at least two years.

So I started asking myself, ‘why would anyone want to do that?’ and then secondly, ‘why do people actually want to be teachers? Do we really, really know?’ And when I searched around, everyone was terribly sure that you basically needed to love children and that you wanted to be working with them. And yet, it didn’t seem like a very satisfying suggestion at the time as to exactly why people would take on a complex job with such small amounts of motivation, if you like, that it seemed to be.

So, when Helen and I started looking at this I was searching around, having done a very small pilot study, and she came along and said, ‘well, I think what you need is a motivational theory’. And I think she can probably tell the story after that, really.

Helen Watt: Yeah, I didn’t come so much out of teacher education and teaching about pedagogy so much to future teachers. I identify as a motivation researcher and I’m very interested in how young people make their future choices, and this seemed to me to be another choice problem – why choose the teaching career? And the motivational theories also talk a lot about not just the choice to enter something, but how, the reasons why you choose it affect what you do once you’re there.

So we were very interested, not only to understand who chooses teaching and why – which is probably what the FIT choice program has been most famous for – but now we wanted to keep following these people to see how their development played out, depending on what different kinds of school settings they were in, who would stay, who would leave. And out of those who stay – because we don’t think only persistence is the issue – who would thrive and flourish or suffer and burn out? Because we want healthy, well teachers, not just people stuck in the job.

Rebecca Lazarides [the report’s co-author] did some post-doctoral research time with me when I was at Monash as well. [So] she became interested in this and has become a colleague and collaborator over the years. Like me, her trajectory was very much being interested in students and youth and their choices and coming a bit later to such a strong interest in teachers. Obviously teachers are a hugely important, formative influence on students and youth, but actually a lot of the educational psychology motivation research hadn’t been so interested in teachers themselves, more just in them as instruments of providing pedagogy to students; and we realised that this was really a gap to understand what are they trying to achieve and how does it matter?

Dominique Russell: And so you followed the participants in your study for 15 years, why was it important to follow them for that long, and who exactly were your participants?

PR: Well we started out with six universities, over a number of years, 2001 or 2002 …

HW: 2002 and 2003 and then 2006.

PR: But our total participants over that time were about 2007 people. We didn’t necessarily think that we would follow them in the beginning, but it became apparent after we were funded for the first study by the Australian Research Council. We then were able to get another grant and we thought, well – we just didn’t just get the grant off-handily, it came as a result of thinking, well, what comes next? We’ve followed them through their degree, they’re now in their early career, and at that time – and it remains the case – many people say in the literature, ‘oh, anywhere between 25 and 50 per cent of beginning teachers leave’. Well, we don’t have any evidence for that in Australia, all of the evidence is very, very, very poorly done. Paul Weldon from ACER really has written about that and done an analysis of some of those claims, and I think, has done a wonderful job at saying the shameful thing is that we actually don’t know what the answer is, because the states necessarily don’t share that data, may even not have the data themselves to know what the attrition rates are.

So we thought ‘well, let’s follow people into their early career’, then we thought, ‘well we should keep following them’. They were hugely invested – in a longitudinal study, maintaining the participants, the same people over and over and over again, is a really tough job. But they were hugely generous and really involved in the study and remained so.

HW: We should probably say something about the retention rates. So of the initial 2007 of them, that included secondary, primary and early childhood, but early childhood educators go into a range of settings outside schools, so we have continued to follow them, but we’ve sort of invested our efforts in understanding the trajectories of the primary and secondary teachers.

So at early career, which was up to seven years’ teaching – people still answered different online survey pathways if they’d quit, or qualified and never taught, or never qualified – so we calculated very conservative response rates out of people who had completed their teaching qualification, but didn’t identify as quit or never taught, which was 42 per cent of the initial primary teachers and 46 per cent of the secondary. And at mid-career, which is up to 15 years’ teaching, the retention – similarly conservatively calculated – was 42 per cent for primary and 40 per cent for secondary.

So they’re very conservative figures, because it’s very possible that people who weren’t responding to us to tell us what was happening were people who’d quit, so yeah, it’s actually quite good retention over such a long time frame.

DR: Yeah, absolutely. And so can you talk me through the methods that you used to gather evidence form the participants over time, and really get a picture of their self-efficacy and their work related demands, how did you do that?

PR: Well we’ve had four waves of questionnaires and surveys that people have done. We’ve also done a range of interviews in initial career, a very large number, about 170 interviews with different people, in … their teacher placement, where they’d been as a teacher. And then we’ve done, a group of those people we’ve interviewed a second time, who’ve been out for a long period of time. So we have those. We’ve also been able to do observations of teachers and also get, from those teacher students, some survey around the types of teaching that the teachers are doing.

So it’s been a long term project and we have a lot of data that we still have to analyse as a result of all that.

HW: We actually have a parallel US study because we were working over there for a little while and we thought, ‘oh, it would be a shame to miss this opportunity’.

DR: Let’s go over the findings then of what you have looked at so far. Can you give me an overview of what those findings are?

HW: Sure. The two most core findings were that teachers who started out their career with a positive classroom management approach – so, this was in terms of providing clear expectations and structure and establishing caring relationships with students – those teachers had this positive classroom management structure derailed between their early and mid-career if they suffered excessive demands during their early career. So that’s the first very core finding.

The second very core finding is that teachers’ self-efficacy – their sense of confidence that they’re equipped with the skills and abilities to effectively manage and run a classroom – it was very stable right from the end of their teacher education, through their early career, into their mid-career. From the start of their teaching (so from the end of their teacher education) until their early career, there was a positive impact – which has been often assumed in correlational studies, but we have really long term, longitudinal data to really test this out – there was a positive effect of having higher self-efficacy on this positive classroom management style in early career.

And from early career to mid-career, there was only the same positive effect of self-efficacy to positive classroom management if they were not experiencing excessive demands. So the experience of early career excessive demands, tends, it seems that it really derails people who are engaging in positive practice, feel efficacious and confident, but it derails their positive behaviour and also prevents the stimulating effect of their perceived skills and abilities on their practice. And instead they trended to a more negative classroom management style, which included pretty negative things, such as: the use of sarcasm, yelling at students, and deliberately embarrassing them. So that’s obviously not a classroom management method that we would hope that teachers would adopt.

DR: And so in terms of a teacher’s self-efficacy and how that’s established, I saw in your research that you found that it’s established very early on in your career and obviously the advantage of your longitudinal study shows that remains quite stable, as you just mentioned. So I’m thinking then for all the school leaders listening to this podcast, that could have a huge relevance to them. So is there any message that that could be sending to school leaders across the country?

HW: I think that just because something doesn’t tend to change on its own is not to say that it couldn’t be changed with efforts. But that said, I don’t think the issue is teachers’ sense of skills and abilities and confidence. I think the issue is these early career excessive demands stifling the good behaviours that they would otherwise be able to enact.

PR: And I think in early career, teachers are faced with – like any new person in any new workplace – faced with a large number of tasks. And when you are beginning in any new job, the tasks in teaching, for instance, are not just in the classroom, they’re also in establishing yourself with your colleagues, establishing yourself with the principal, with the leadership in the school, finding ways of also managing your registration requirements that you’re facing.

And some schools do appear, I mean appear to give support to teachers, but we’ve done lots of interviews and people often complain that they’re getting no support to actually meet all of those requirements. So I think they’re often very overwhelmed and where the schools know that, they do tend to try and put in place effective supports.

HW: This is only a snippet of all the things we’ve looked at, and my heart is very much in the motivation part of it. What we’re really finding at a broader level, is that the kinds of very positive reasons why people have gone into teaching, that they actually feel that a lot of these demands in their early career are taking them away from what they regard to be their core business. So a lot of administrative and bureaucratic compliance, paperwork and continual accreditations and re-accreditations when the main reasons that they’re there, they tell us, is because they enjoy teaching, because they want to make a social difference, they want to work with young people, they want to enhance social equity and because they’ve had positive role model examples of, you know, the good that teachers can do in young people’s lives themselves.

PR: And they enjoy the interaction with kids, as an important quality in the work that they want to do. They’re actually finding that that’s an enjoyable aspect of their work. Otherwise, I guess, they wouldn’t be there.

DR: So another point that I wanted to pick up on was the fact that you mentioned that early career mentoring emerged to be quite an important factor in improving the self-efficacy of the teachers involved in this study. So can you talk me through the data that you collected on mentoring?

PR: We asked them about whether they had a mentor and a mentoring program and the results were not encouraging in many ways. I mean, when we look at the mean for that, it was really just on the midpoint of the scale – which tends to suggest that it was not terrifically supportive, what they were experiencing.

And I think the experience of not having an effective mentor has meant that it becomes part of the excessive demands if you can’t find out ways of getting around some of these things. So often, they didn’t have a reduced workload, for instance, as it’s often been recommended in the literature. Some did, but a lot didn’t.

And the quality of the mentoring program, we weren’t able to identify from the questions we asked them – but it’s very likely that if you’re a beginning teacher and you are experiencing a lot of overload, initial overload, and you don’t have someone you can go to and get some sage advice from, and also stand back and look at ways in which you might actually deal with some of these issues, then I think you must feel pretty much on your own.

HW: So they responded about the extent to which they agreed that there was an effective mentoring program at their school and that they personally had experienced effective mentoring. So it was a five-point: strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree. The mean is at neutral which isn’t super encouraging. But, we did find a protective effect only in early career where there was a positive association between agreeing more about mentoring and self-efficacy. But it didn’t seem to have an enduring effect on into mid-career.

And it’s quite interesting, we seem to be finding a bit of a pattern that it’s much easier to harm people than to help them. So like the, principal pressure and excessive demands, and these kinds of things really do damage, whereas the support things seem to have weaker and not enduring positive effects.

DR: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I’m also interested then if you’re able to comment on any implications this study has for teachers themselves?

HW: I think if the character of teachers’ work, if policy bodies and if they decide that teachers’ work should be something different than it has been, then it’s pretty important for potential teachers to make an informed choice if that’s the kind of work that they want to do. So selection is something.

Paul was talking about that they wouldn’t still be there if they weren’t finding some satisfaction, but some people, it can become a sunken cost, especially you know with a mortgage, and maybe children, maybe being a single parent, who knows. It might be supremely difficult to take time out from earning an income to retrain and change career tracks. So, I think it’s pretty important to be upfront about what teachers’ work is supposed to be these days.

That said, I don’t think everything is just outside in, and the teachers are sort of helpless victims of external forces. We’ve also been looking at different kinds of coping strategies adopted by teachers and there’s actually a lot that we can learn from the preparation of future school psychologists, other kinds of psychologists, school counsellors, in terms of self-care and boundary setting and having clear demarcation between work and home and referring on – so not feeling that everything is your responsibility, particularly home problems.

Actually teachers may not be equipped or qualified or competent to address some of these issues, which can be terribly stressful for them to try and take on when they care about the students and want to help them. So I think there are lessons in self-care, which I do not think are PD days when someone comes in and you do yoga, and it’s not making people do mindfulness programs online, so I don’t think we’re looking for silver bullets here. But I think that there are ways that teachers can try and restore and refresh outside of work, create boundaries between personal and professional life. Yes, but I really feel there is a responsibility of the system and employers, like if they really think this is the way they think the profession should go, to say what being a teacher really entails.

PR: I think one of the things that teachers do often say is that they feel that a great deal of their professional autonomy is undermined by requirements to record information, provide information, provide reports and they don’t necessarily understand what it’s going to be used for. They also object oftentimes to the idea that it’s not going to help them in their teaching and that they, by the time they get their reports back from a lot of these data collection processes that are going on often across the systems that, you know, the class is gone or they’ve moved on to the following year.

I think teachers as professionals of wanting to do something as extremely important in meeting the needs of the students – now that may seem very idealistic, but I think at the base that’s what people are trying to do. And the moment things become externally motivated all the time, I think you can lose a great deal of the motivation to contribute. And we do see teachers continuing on when they’re being put under, I think, a great deal of pressure by changes within the system, changes within the ways in which they’ve got to report, changes in the way in which their professional standing is being measured, the incursion of metrics – I think those things are having a powerful effect.

HW: I’m just thinking of one striking finding – not this paper, something else – when we were asking teachers (it was in their early career), about their perceived goals achievement (so, to what extent do you feel able to achieve those things that are really important to you as a teacher?). The supports that they expressed/rated in helping them to achieve their goals were personal qualities and less so, much less so, things to do with school supports. And this was reversed when we asked them to think about very core goals that they felt unable to achieve and to rate about supports and barriers. And it was far less anything to do with, you know, lack of skills, abilities, motivation, whatever, and far more to do with obstructions in their school context.

I really think the real importance of this study is showing that it’s an investment to make sure that teachers are set up and start out well. Because, you know, look at the cost years down the track. So, to have a reduced workload seems an obvious thing, for early career teachers, but why not all teachers? A lot of the ‘adminis-trivia’, couldn’t it be dealt with by administrative or professional staff? So I think, teachers are, in general, our work has shown teachers are committed, motivated, skilled individuals, and we should let them get on with it.

DR: Obviously this research has displayed some really useful data so far. So is there anything next for this body of research? Anything that you’ll be interested in looking a bit closer at?

HW: Something that we’re very interested in right now is for teachers who are burnt out, is there a way to recover? You know, can you come back from that? And …it was actually supportive leadership. So, supportive leadership actually was a predictor of people moving from a burnout profile to actually an ambitious profile. So, the profiles were located along two dimensions of ‘striving’ and ‘wellbeing’. So the group that was kind of high/high (high striving/high wellbeing) that was the ambitious; the high striving, but low wellbeing was the burnout.

So actually that move from burnout to ambitious, the change is in their wellbeing, the striving stays the same. And we were interested in the four different types and the different kind of levers that could move people from one to another. The sparing type (which is people with fine wellbeing, but very low striving), they actually also became ambitious with supportive leadership. So, it’s not all a bad story, there is stuff that leaders can do.

PR: And I think one of the things that we will obviously be looking at – and we’ve got a lot of interviews to look at as well – what sustains healthy, effective teachers? Or at least sustains them in that way within the job after a long period of time?

I think we’re starting to look at, and context seems to be incredibly important. You can find yourself as a teacher, and we’ve interviewed people who were talking about if they’d stayed in their previous school they would have left. Now they’re in a context where the principal and the school leadership have a great deal of – they don’t have no rules and regulations or no external controls – but the teachers talk a lot about being able to achieve their goals, achieve the vision they have for what they want to be able to do and to be able to teach well in the classroom without feeling that they’re being surveilled, or getting principal performance pressure all the time to do better and do better.

So I think it’s a balance between external controls and the top down and bottom up that we’re really interested in at the moment. And it does seem that [certain contexts], characterised by leadership and by the principal, do seem to make a huge difference to what keeps people in the job.

HW: Things like authentic consultation with staff, and participatory decision making. A lip-service approach to it is actually just going to add another time strain for teachers, because they’re having to attend these so-called consultation meetings, where nothing they say is going to say is going to make a difference and it’s just using up time where they need to be getting on with their busy work.

… Just in case any of our wonderful participants are listening, we could never do any of this without you and thank you so much.

PR: And I think if we’ve learnt anything from COVID, when things go bad, teacher autonomy and teacher competence really does come to the fore. And you saw amazing displays, I think, from across the country of teachers who really did show that level of ingenuity and commitment and really encourage a sense of belonging in their schools, even though their schools weren’t meeting. I know there is the sort of digital divide in their as well, but I think it’s quite extraordinary what became apparent.

That’s all for this episode. If you’re interested in finding out more about this topic, you can access the full transcript of this podcast, with a link to the report, at our website, Considering there was quite a bit of discussion on the excessive demands placed on early career teachers, you might also be interested in Episode 50 of The Research Files where we look into results from a survey into principal health and wellbeing which puts the spotlight on the demands placed on principals. To stay up to date with our Research Files series, be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Apple podcasts, Spotify or SoundCloud, so you can be notified of any new episodes.


Lazarides, R., Watt, H. M. G., & Richardson, P. W. (2020). Teachers’ classroom management self-efficacy, perceived classroom management and teaching contexts from beginning until mid-career. Learning and Instruction, 69.

One core finding of this research were that teachers who started out their career with a positive classroom management approach had this derailed if they suffered excessive demands during their early career. In interviews conducted as part of the study, many teachers revealed they were getting no support to actually meet all of the requirements of an early career teacher.

As a school leader, reflect on how your school is supporting beginner teachers. What are your strengths and weaknesses in this area? Have you sought feedback from beginner teachers on the adequacy of the support they have been offered?