02 SES 13 B, VET Teachers Experience and Engagement
The teacher is fundamental to the learning experience. FET is no exception (CEDEFOP, 2016, p. 1). Committed, enthusiastic and engaged teachers share their expertise, model professional practice and spark student interest and engagement. This is vital if the sector is to fulfil the demands made of it to a world-class integrated system of further education and training’ (SOLAS, 2014, p. 3) through an approach that includes ‘building skills; fostering inclusion; and facilitating pathways’ (SOLAS, 2020, p. 5). This echoes the aims of the European Community outlined in the Maastricht, Bologna and Riga processes (EC, 2020).
The Irish FET (Further Education & Training) landscape has undergone major structural changes. It emerged from a diverse, ad hoc, locally determined response to a national structure under the control of a single body: SOLAS. Irish FET includes Adult & Continuing Education, Vocational Education & Training (VET), Technical Education, Adult Basic Education and literacy schemes and Community Education. These origins stem from and contribute to a diverse range of cultures and practices with ideological and philosophical differences. Thus, the amalgamation caused challenges to personal ethos and values, as well as shifts in identity, for those working in the sector. Demands to professionalise the sector have resulted in raised academic requirements, including a Teacher Education Qualification and Continuous Professional Development, while maintaining professional learning that supports adaptable responses to constantly changing industry practices and standards. This is on the premise that investment in teachers would improve the system, as well as wider economic and societal issues. However, little is known about the backgrounds, qualifications, engagement, ambitions, and aspirations of those working in the sector and whether their needs are being met and/or supported.
Aims: This research set out to qualitatively explore FET teachers’ perspectives of their engagement in their work, their professional development, and their career progression.
- What are the contributing psychological conditions of engagement for FET teachers?
- What are their experiences and orientations toward professional learning and development?
- What are their perspectives on career progression and their aspirations for their own careers?
Kahn’s (1990) psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement describes the degree to which individuals employ themselves (physically, cognitively, and emotionally) in their work role. Three contributing elements were identified: (i) psychological meaningfulness, (ii) psychological safety and (iii) psychological availability and these were used to consider the ongoing levels of engagement of FET teachers.
Professional Learning & Development, as part of lifelong learning and reflective practice, is critical for the ongoing development of FET teachers in their specialist/disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge and skills. This is “learning in, for and through the workplace” (Evans & Kersh, 2014) and is looked at through the lens of Evans’ three ‘components’ of professional development i.e. behavioural, attitudinal and intellectual development (2014) as part of the process ‘whereby people’s professionalism may be considered to be enhanced, with a degree of permanence that exceeds transitoriness (Evans, 2014, p 188).
Teacher career progression was viewed through the lens of the Fessler & Christensen model (1992). This model reflects the complex influences on career progression in a cyclical process. It is used to explore FET teacher’s definitions of career progression as well as identify the experienced supports and barriers (Eraut, 1995).
The research set out to explore and understand the perspectives of FET teachers and the relationships between their engagement/disengagement in their work, their experience of CPD and career progression. The study took a qualitative approach and purposively sampled participants teaching in FET that represented a range of roles, contexts, disciplinary backgrounds, and experience in a the southwest of Ireland. The sector includes full-time and part-time courses in full and part-time centres across Levels 1-6 of the National framework (Levels 1 – 10) and cover general education, vocational training, and instructor training in a diverse range of subjects from agriculture, outdoor recreation, hair & beauty, psychology, IT, health care and childcare. Two methods of data gathering were used: focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Following a pilot, two focus groups were held in different parts of the geographical area with teachers from Basic Education in one and vocational education in the other. The researcher, as an experienced FET teacher, used the initial focus groups to gain a broad understanding of the wider context and in particular the experiences of working within and across the wider FET sector. Following these the twelve semi-structured interviews were held (face to face) at a time and location chosen by the participant. These were used to gain a deeper understanding at the individual level, without the influences of group dynamics or emotional contagion. Of the twenty-three participants only one took part in both data gathering formats. Digital recordings of each data collection method were summarised (focus groups) or transcribed (interviews) and member checked. The data sets were analysed using a mix of inductive coding and the constant comparative method (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2007; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This allowed the research to “remain attuned to [the participants’] views of their realities, rather than assume that we share the same views and worlds” (Charmaz, 2010, p. 187). This enabled comparisons between contexts and organisations and built a multi-perspective view.
Of the psychological conditions of engagement all participants identified the importance of the high levels of meaningfulness from their teaching work. This was a sustaining factor even in the face of a lack of psychological safety within the centre or organisation. Engagement in the classroom was distinct from organisational commitment. There was also a distinct difference between those who were fully engaged (without boundaries) and those who bounded their work in terms of relationships, time, and mental space (a proactively managed or strategic psychological availability). Participants valued and had a far wider definition of their professional learning and development than the organisation. Their experiences spanned the formal, non-formal, informal, and incidental. Each of these was valued but served different purposes. The experience of the organisational provision was more varied ranging from very negative to positive typically depending on the length of service and role. Similarly, career progression was viewed both in personal (increase in breadth and depth of knowledge and ability and in organisational terms (perceived as very limited). However, it was contested as to whether FET teaching was a career, rather than just a job. Overall, findings from the study identify that engagement, professional learning, and career progression are mutually influential concepts. A high value on, and investment in, one area tends to influence the others. For example, a high level of engagement increases participation in professional learning and development which, in turn, develops expertise that contributes to career development and progression. Each of these concepts is multifaceted and multi-layered and are individually defined, constructed, and evaluated according to personal, professional and organisational standards and expectations. The common influence on all three concepts was local or line management. This influence was greater than organisational or professional policies correlated with the likelihood of burnout or disengagement.
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