Career Changers as First-Year Teachers in Rural Schools

By Fry, Sara Winstead; Anderson, Holly | Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online), June 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

Career Changers as First-Year Teachers in Rural Schools


Fry, Sara Winstead, Anderson, Holly, Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)


The challenges novice teachers face as they adjust to inservice teaching are well documented. However, relatively little attention has been given to beginning teachers in rural schools who have had previous careers in other professions. We used qualitative methods to examine the professional experiences and perceptions of four career-changing first-year teachers in rural schools, seeking to identify significant issues in their professional developmental processes. Three primary themes emerged: evidence of effectiveness as teachers; mentoring career changers, and; adjustment to rural school and community. We conclude with implications and recommendations for educators working to support this unique population of educators in preservice preparation programs and rural school districts.

Palmer (1998) identified a primary issue associated with the isolated nature of teaching: "Compared to other professions, teaching has evolved very slowly because of its privatization. If surgery and the law were practiced as privately as teaching, we would still treat most patients with leeches and sink defendants in millponds" (p. 144). This isolation may also be a factor in high attrition rates among beginning teachers. Arnold (2002) suggested that high attrition is a result, in part, of "the isolation that many teachers experience beginning with their first day of teaching" (p. 124). Between 30% and 50% of new teachers in the United States leave the profession within the first three to five years (Luekens, Lytter, & Fox, 2004; Smith & Ingersoll, 2004). Isolation can seem more profound for new teachers in rural communities because of physical remoteness and the insularity of rural communities (Barley, 2009).

Efforts to support beginning teachers early in their careers often come in the form of induction programs. Characteristics of individual induction programs vary widely. Smith and Ingersoll (2004) analyzed the impact of different elements of induction programs and identified the following combination as most effective: mentoring; supportive communication from an administrator; common planning time with other teachers in the grade or content area; participation in seminars for beginning teachers; and one of the following: a teacher's aide, reduced number of preparations, or participation in an external network of teachers.

Research suggests that effective induction programs for beginning teachers can enhance teacher retention (Chubbuck, Clift, Allard, & Quinlan, 2001; Smith & Ingersoll, 2004). However, attrition rates have remained relatively stable over the last two decades (Smith & Ingersoll, 2004). The overall stability in attrition rates may be due to induction programs being unavailable to 20% of new teachers (Smith & Ingersoll, 2004), or the induction programs that are offered may be inconsistent in quality or may not be configured to respond to the unique needs of individual teachers (Fry, 2007).

The challenges early career teachers face as they adjust to a profession are not uniform, and may even be further exacerbated by personal and professional isolation from their new colleagues. Teachers in rural schools are likely to face different challenges than their counterparts in urban schools (McCracken & Miller, 1988). As Eppley (2009) noted, "successful teaching in a rural school is different than successful teaching in other settings" (p. 1). The inherent physical and social characteristics of rural communities can result in novice teachers in rural areas experiencing unique and perhaps more profound isolation. In addition, beginning teachers who enter schools with previous professional experiences in non-educational environments may face different challenges than those novices who enter the career in their early twenties after completing an undergraduate education degree (Morton, Williams, & Brindley, 2006; Unruh & Holt, 2010; Wilson & Deaney, 2010). Thus, the combination of novice teachers beginning their educational careers in rural schools after previous non-educational careers may present a double challenge for many. …

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