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Clinging to the Edge of Chaos: The Emergence of Practice in the First-Year of Teaching

by Kathryn Strom, Adrian D. Martin & Ana María Villegas - 2018

Background/Context: New teachers must cope with various instructional, personal and organizational challenges, an experience that often leads to difficulties enacting innovative, student-centered instructional practices learned in their preservice programs and contributes to high rates of teacher attrition.

Purpose: Drawing on complexity theory, this review of empirical research takes an organizational or “systems” perspective on the experiences of first-year teachers as they transition from preservice education to the teaching profession. In so doing, we aim to shift away from constructions of the teacher as an autonomous actor and instead build a more complex, nuanced, and layered understanding of the multidimensional influences that work together to shape the practices of novice teachers.

Research Design: We conducted a metasynthesis of 46 studies that met the following criteria: (a) were focused on first-year teachers, (b) offered sufficient description of participants’ professional practices, (c) featured participants who attended a university-based preparation program, and (d) were conducted since 1990. We first recorded each study’s methods, findings, and descriptions of first-year teacher practices. As a second level of analysis, we used a complexity lens to identify the systems comprising first-year teacher practices, noting how those systems and their component or elements interacted to shape first-year teaching.

Findings/Results: We found that common patterns of interactions between and among systems of first-year teaching—including the teacher herself, the classroom, the school, and the larger district, state, and federal environments—tend to reinforce traditional, teacher-centered practices. Yet, in some studies, conditions surfaced that enabled participants’ to enact student-centered and equity-minded teaching practices learned in their preservice programs.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Authors suggest that taking a complex systems view of beginning teaching, rather than singularly focusing on the teacher’s actions out of context, can reveal opportunities for fostering more supportive, enabling conditions for new teachers to enact innovative practices that many preservice programs promote and experience a smoother transition into teaching.

Entrants into the field of teaching, which has been characterized as “the profession that eats its young” (Halford, 1998, p. 33), often struggle for mere survival as they cope with various instructional, personal, and organizational challenges of first-year teaching (Chubbuck, Clift, Allard & Quinlan, 2001; Feiman-Nemser, 1993; Sabar, 2004). In the face of these challenges, new teachers often abandon the student-centered and equity-minded practices that, according to Cochran-Smith and colleagues (2016), are emphasized in many preservice programs. Instead, they adopt transmission-oriented, technicist teaching practices (Allen, 2009; Cady, Meier, & Lubinski, 2006; Flores & Day, 2006; Hong, 2010) that have historically prevailed in elementary and secondary schools (Cohen, 1988; Cuban, 1993) and are now reinforced by a wave of accountability-driven, neoliberal education reforms that encourage “teaching to the test” (Au, 2011). Given the challenges of first-year teaching and the tension that novices often experience between their preparation as teachers and the pressures of teaching in schools, it is not surprising that approximately half of new teachers leave the profession within 3 to 5 years (Ingersoll, 2001, 2003). This attrition creates a “revolving door” of educators that disproportionally affects high-poverty schools serving mainly marginalized populations of students, generating further instability in the schools that can least afford it (Ingersoll & May, 2012; Ingersoll & Perda, 2010).

Although a body of research spanning three decades has detailed the numerous difficulties of first-year teaching (e.g., Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Tait, 2008; Veenman, 1984), the ways in which different factors work together to shape the professional practices of novice teachers remain largely unexplored. Drawing on complexity theory, this review of empirical research, mostly from the United States but also including studies from other countries, takes an organizational or “systems” perspective on teachers’ transition from preservice preparation to first-year teaching—a critical period in a teacher’s career. In so doing, we aim to shift away from constructions of the teacher as an autonomous actor and instead build a more complex, nuanced, and layered understanding of the multidimensional influences that work together to shape the practices of novice teachers. Such a complex, systems-level understanding of the transition to first-year teaching can help teacher educators, as well as school and district leaders, identify ways to support new educators’ entry into the profession and ultimately stem the mass exodus that occurs among teachers during the first few years of professional practice.


Building on the work of researchers who have argued that teaching is complex and contextually situated (e.g., Borko & Putnam, 1997; Britzman, 1991; Cochran Smith & Lytle 1993; Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Wideen, Mayer-Smith, & Moon, 1998), we used concepts from complexity theory in this review to extend the ideas articulated in this body of work by considering first-year teaching practices as part of a complex system. According to Davis and Sumara (1997), a complex system is a dynamic, alive, unpredictable, and constantly evolving network that is more than the sum of its parts. In the case of first-year teaching, complexity theory—the study of complex, living systems—helps conceptualize novice practices as arising from interactions occurring between the teacher and other elements within a larger network. As such, complexity theory enables an examination of the forces that coalesce on multiple planes to produce first-year teaching practices. This perspective provides an ecological approach to conceptualizing teaching practice that examines phenomena as a whole, rather than merely focusing on their parts (Cochran-Smith, Ell, Ludlow, Grudnoff, & Aitken, 2014).  

Complexity theory, in its many interpretations, generally focuses on the nonlinear emergence of phenomena out of what appears to be chaos (Laroche, Nicol, & Mayer-Smith, 2007). For the purposes of this review, we follow other social science researchers (e.g., Byrne, 1998; Cilliers, 1998; Davis & Sumara, 1997, 2006; Mason, 2008) who have used constructs from complexity science as metaphors to explain human behavior. According to this interpretation, human activity—in this case, the practices of first-year teachers—occurs at the edge of chaos and within nested systems.

The edge of chaos refers to conditions that produce enough conflict to spur growth and learning, but not so much as to precipitate a plunge into total disorder (Butz, 1995; Waldrop, 1992). This concept is analogous to Piaget’s (1952) notion of cognitive disequilibrium—an uncomfortable state of imbalance in which the learner is exposed to information or ideas that require her to build new schema or alter an existing schema to accommodate the new input, processes that result in cognitive change (or learning). According to complexity theorists, a certain amount of disequilibrium must be present in a living system (Morrison, 2008) because disequilibrium is vital to the process by which systems let go of their present shapes and reorganize into forms that are better suited to survival in their current environments (Clarke & Collins, 2007). As our review suggests, first-year teaching is characterized by major disequilibrium for novice teachers of one kind or another, not the least of which often entails a misalignment between the learner-centered, responsive pedagogies espoused by many teacher preparation programs (Cochran-Smith et al., 2016) and the realities of schools (Huberman, 1989; Veenman, 1984). However, for new teachers to continue to learn and grow on the edge of chaos and ultimately survive their first year of teaching, the disequilibrium experienced must not be too severe because such instability may precipitate the teacher to change schools or leave the profession entirely to ensure her own psychological and physical well-being.

Systems interacting on the edge of chaos are also nested—that is, they are simultaneously an autonomous system, a system of systems, and embedded in a larger system (Davis & Sumara, 1997, 2006). As we illustrate in the results section with examples from the studies reviewed, nested within the system of first-year teaching are several subsystems. The novice teacher—who brings to teaching personal and professional experiences, beliefs, and skills—comprises the micro-level system. The classroom that serves as the immediate environment for her practice—including the teacher herself, the students, and available resources—represents the meso-level system. The school where the teacher works—including administrators, other teachers, mentors, and parents with whom she interacts as well as the overall school culture and structures—comprises the macro-level system. At the super-macro level is the larger educational system, which includes district and broader policies that filter through the subsystems nested within it to help shape first-year teaching. Because of their nested nature, the boundaries between and among the subsystems are fluid and overlapping rather than fixed (Davis & Sumara, 2006).

For the purpose of this review, we consider the practices of the beginning teacher as phenomena that emerge from interactions on the edge of chaos, within the nested systems comprising first-year teaching. Thus, we refer to teaching practices throughout the article as emergent phenomena. This framing departs from the logic of neoliberal “corporate” education reforms and related positivist-oriented educational research, which conceptualize teaching as resulting from choices made by an autonomous actor (Strom, 2015). From a complexity perspective, the practices of a first-year teacher are constructed from simultaneous interactions occurring within and among the teacher, classroom, school, and larger educational systems. Teaching practices, then, are not static, but are recursively informed by, and in turn inform, the systems in which novice teachers and their work are embedded.

Some educational researchers have recently critiqued reductionist approaches to conceptualizing teacher development (e.g., He & Cooper, 2011; Opfer & Pedder, 2011; Tanase & Wang, 2010; Towers, 2010; Watzke, 2007) and argued for a more complex understanding of the development of teacher practices. Others have utilized conceptual frameworks, such as activity theory (Saka, Southerland, & Brooks, 2009), sociocultural theory (Andersson & Andersson, 2008; Grossman & Thompson, 2008), symbolic interactionism (Allen, 2009), dialogicity (Chubbuck, 2008), and postmodernism (Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995)—which allow for greater attention to interactions between first-year teachers, their contexts, and other actors in their systems—to better understand novice practices. Although these frameworks allow for more textured interpretations, they generally take only one “slice” of first-year teaching, often focusing on topics such as collegial relationships, teacher identity, or the influence of preservice preparation on teaching (see Strom, 2015; Starkey, 2010, for exceptions). By using a complexity lens to examine the empirical literature on beginning teaching practices, our review provides insight into the mutual influence of the teacher and the organizational environment—or embedded systems of which she is a part—on those practices. Such insight not only has the potential to inform more successful efforts to support novices’ transition to teaching but also pushes back on simplistic models of teacher activity that reduce the phenomena of teaching to a checklist of behaviors performed by an autonomous actor (Strom, 2015).


Our definition of “professional practices” follows that adopted by Grossman et al. (2009): “A broad, expanded definition of practice characteristic of sociocultural definitions that incorporates both intellectual and technical activities and that encompasses both the individual practitioner and the professional community” (p. 2058). Additionally, we use the terms novice teachers/teaching, and beginning teachers/teaching interchangeably with first-year teachers/teaching, following the terminology of other researchers who have studied the experiences of first-year teachers.

For this review, we conducted a meta-synthesis of the identified studies, an approach that involves the use of qualitative methods to examine, analyze, and interpret the findings of empirical research to offer new conceptualizations (Schrieber, Crooks, & Stern, 1997; Strobel & Van Barneveld, 2009). We used several strategies to locate peer-reviewed, empirical studies for the meta-synthesis. First, we conducted keyword searches on general electronic databases, such as Ebsco Academic Premier, and in databases specific to education, such as ERIC and Education Research Complete. In our database searches, we used various combinations of keywords, including novice teacher, beginning teacher, new teacher, first-year teacher, practices, challenge, and instruction. To ensure that our search was comprehensive, we also conducted targeted keyword searches of 18 academic educational journals that focus on teaching and teacher preparation and thus were likely to feature research on novice teachers, such as Teachers College Record, New Educator, Urban Education, and Teaching Education. Finally, we also performed hand searches of the past 15 years of three prominent journals of teacher education: Journal of Teacher Education, Teaching and Teacher Education, and Teacher Education Quarterly.

Our preliminary search yielded a total of 138 articles. Of this pool, we selected only those studies that (a) focused on first-year teachers (with some exceptions of longitudinal studies that contained sufficient information regarding the participants’ first year in the classroom; we excluded studies of teachers in their second or third year of teaching, even if the authors referred to them as “novices”), (b) featured the new teacher(s) prominently enough to include sufficient description of professional practices, (c) focused on teachers who had attended a university-based program, and (d) were conducted between 1990 and 2015. We delineated this period because, prior to the 1980s, empirical investigations of teaching and teacher development were characterized largely by linear, process-product research (Borko, Liston, & Whitcomb, 2007) that would likely not yield the type of detail on teaching practices required for our review. Using these criteria, we were left with 46 studies for our review.

A word about the selected studies is in order. Because the review hinged on the availability of descriptions of novice teachers’ practices and the context in which those practices emerged, this body of work comprised primarily in-depth, small-scale qualitative case studies (1–7 participants). Although several studies included direct observations of teaching practices, the overwhelming majority of them relied on teacher interviews as the primary data source. Thus, while these works give detailed insight into the multidimensional influences that combined to shape the practices of novice teachers, the findings are not generalizable in the traditional sense of this term. Moreover, because many of the studies included only cursory descriptions of the participants’ preservice programs, we were unable to analyze the teacher preparation system. Consequently, our review focuses on the factors that influenced participants’ teaching practice within their first-year school settings.

As we previewed earlier in the article, the practices of first-year teachers in the studies examined were shaped by teacher-related factors as well as influences from their classrooms, schools, and broader context. To facilitate coding and sorting of data, we engaged in two levels of documentation. The first level included recording each study’s methods, findings, and descriptions of first-year teacher practices. As a second level, we used a complexity lens to identify the systems and elements influencing teacher practices, and we noted how those elements interacted to constrain or enable practices. We read each study carefully, recording influences on teacher practices that surfaced in each article. We noted recurring concepts or themes, such as the teacher’s sense of isolation or a mismatch in conceptions of teaching embraced by the teacher and endorsed by the school, simulating the process of emergent coding (Miles & Huberman, 1994). We recorded recurring themes and collapsed them into categories that corresponded to the systems of first-year teaching—the teacher, the classroom, the school, and larger policy environment. We take up each of these themes in turn next.


As mentioned, our review revealed four nested systems embedded within the larger system of first-year teaching—the teacher herself, the classroom, the school, and larger educational systems, including the district, state, and federal levels—all simultaneously influencing the professional practices of novices. These systems are visually depicted in Figure 1. Consistent with complexity thinking, each system comprised multiple human actors and nonhuman elements that either affected first-year teaching practices directly or created constraining and enabling conditions that shaped those practices. To differentiate between system components, we refer to humans in the system as “actors,” and nonhuman structures or ideas as “elements.” Further, according to Davis and Sumara (2006), these nested systems are not fixed structures, and the actors and nonhuman elements within them do not operate in isolation. Instead, the elements, enabling and constraining conditions of each system, and the systems themselves in aggregate, all interact and combine in recursive, ongoing, and simultaneous coadaptations. Thus, the systems comprising first-year teaching are continuously coevolving in relation to their constituent parts. But, as noted by Cilliers (2000), “how we define any ‘subsystem’ will be dependent on our perceptions and the use of our description rather than a permanent feature of the real world.” In other words, we artificially impose boundaries to represent, define, and discuss each system and its components. This simplification, although necessary for clarity, speaks to the challenges of analyzing and articulating the workings of complex systems.

Figure 1. Systems of first-year teaching



The studies we reviewed showed that teachers bring to teaching a variety of individual factors or elements that help shape their practices. Salient among these were teaching strategies learned from the teacher’s preservice preparation; beliefs about self, students, and teaching and learning; and personal qualities and background experiences. As the studies revealed, these elements functioned as constraining or enabling forces that, in combination with student and school environment factors, contributed to the teachers’ adoption of fairly traditional, transmission-oriented teaching methods and authoritarian classroom practices, even when they had been prepared to teach in ways that involve learners in the construction of knowledge and to create democratic classrooms. Next, we discuss each element in turn.

Practices Learned in Preservice Preparation

Sixteen of the studies reviewed focused on the struggles new teachers experienced as they attempted to enact practices learned from their university-based preparation during their initial year of teaching. These practices were equitable/socially just teaching (Bianchini & Cazavos, 2008; Chubbuck, 2008; Massengill, Mahlios, & Barry, 2005; Strom, 2015) and other equity-minded practices such as differentiating instruction for diverse learners (Beck, Kosnik, & Rowsell, 2007; Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Tait, 2008) and culturally responsive classroom management (Bondy, Ross, Hambacher, & Acosta, 2013); inquiry-based learning (Massengill et al., 2005; Saka et al., 2009; Strom, 2015), collaborative learning (Beck et al., 2007; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995), and other student-centered practices (Allebone, 2006; Massengill et al., 2005; McElhone, Hebard, Scott, & Juel, 2009); curriculum development (Beck et al., 2007; Fry, 2007; Ulvik, Smith, & Helleve, 2009); and developmentally appropriate instruction for younger students (Brashier & Norris, 2008). Two other studies referred to the struggles of first-year teachers to enact “innovative” methods learned in their preservice programs but lacked detail regarding what those methods were.

Even though teachers generally struggle early in their careers to apply practices learned through their preservice preparation, nine studies in this set showed that, given the right contextual conditions, preservice preparation received was a positive and powerful influence on their first-year practices (Andersson & Andersson, 2008; Bergeron, 2008; Grossman & Thompson, 2008; He & Cooper, 2011; Kilgore, Ross, & Zbikowski, 1990; McAlpine & Crago, 1995; McDonough, 2009; Strom, 2015; Towers, 2010). Grossman and Thompson’s (2008) analysis of the use of curriculum materials by beginning teachers illustrates this point. One of the three first-year teachers in this study taught in a school that utilized a writing curriculum that was philosophically aligned with the pedagogical approach to language arts that he learned in his preservice program. Such alignment facilitated the successful transfer of pedagogical practices already familiar to him.

Having the opportunity to engage in preservice education that included work around sociocultural issues also influenced pedagogical practices and instructional interactions with diverse student populations, as shown by Bergeron (2008), He and Cooper (2011), and McDonough (2009). For instance, the study by Bergeron (2008) detailed the case of a beginning White teacher whose culturally responsive teacher education program served as a foundation to help her build a sense of classroom community and provide linguistic support for the mostly English language learner students she taught. Along similar lines, in a qualitative case study of the challenges of five first-year teachers, He and Cooper (2011) found that offering teacher candidates opportunities to inspect their beliefs about diverse populations and to interact with students from diverse backgrounds in their preservice programs helped teachers in their study to establish productive relationships with diverse pupils and their families.  

Practicum experiences also informed professional practices adopted in the first year of teaching, as revealed in seven studies (Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Hebert & Worthy 2001; Lambson, 2010; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; McDonough, 2009; Scherff, 2008; Strom, 2015). In five of these investigations, the participating novice teachers had completed their student teaching at the same school site in which they taught during their initial year, developing a familiarity with the professional context that supported participants’ transition to first-year teaching (Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Lambson, 2010; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; McDonough, 2009; Strom, 2015). The teachers’ familiarity with the school setting also aided in their development of collegial relations (Lambson, 2010), ability to implement preprofessional learning (Luft & Roehrig, 2005; McDonough, 2009; Strom, 2015), and confidence to advocate for oneself (Hebert & Worthy, 2001). By contrast, two studies showed that a mismatch between the cultures of the practicum schools and that of the schools in which new teachers eventually taught contributed to difficulties they experienced (Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Scherff, 2008).

Teacher Beliefs

Teachers’ beliefs regarding self, students, and views of teaching and learning exerted a strong influence on their practices as well. These beliefs may be derived from teachers’ own K–12 experiences and/or their preservice preparation programs (Richardson, 1996; Tanase & Wang, 2010). Notably, however, beliefs developed early in life tend to be resistant to change and difficult to alter through initial preparation programs (Pajares, 1992). Five studies showed that novices’ beliefs about students—whether deficit or affirming—contributed to the type of teaching they enacted (Birrell, 1995; Bergeron, 2008; Farrell, 2003; Kilgore et al., 1990; Luft & Roehrig, 2005). For instance, Kilgore and colleagues (1990) conducted a qualitative study of six teachers’ reflective judgment regarding persistent problems of practices. The researchers reported that teachers who held deficit beliefs about students tended to blame the learning difficulties those students experienced on deficits in their innate abilities or characteristics instead of working to identify instructional practices that would address the academic challenges noted. By contrast, Bergeron (2008), in a qualitative case study of one beginning White teacher’s journey in a diverse, urban classroom, depicted a teacher whose favorable beliefs about students facilitated her enactment of culturally and linguistically relevant practices that successfully engaged them in learning.

Along somewhat different lines, 13 studies discussed teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning (Allen, 2009; Bergeron 2008; Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Bondy et al., 2013; Brashier & Norris, 2008; Cook, 2009; Massengill et al., 2005; McDonough, 2009; Newman, 2010; Saka et al., 2009; Starkey, 2010; Tait, 2008; Towers, 2010). The multiple case study by Starkey (2010), which explored how six beginning teachers used technology during their first year of teaching in New Zealand, provides a striking example of how deep-seated beliefs about teaching and learning can influence instructional decisions. As the researcher shows, one of six teachers featured in this investigation noted that he used technology in mathematics far less than his colleagues because he believed that math should be taught in a traditional manner whereby students use pen and paper to work out problems by hand. This belief, along with the teacher’s lack of experience and confidence using technology in math, produced practices that underemphasized technology in this content area. From a complexity perspective, this example also illustrates how multiple interacting elements in the teacher system—in this case, the teacher’s belief about teaching math and his discomfort in using technology for instructional purposes—can interact to shape teaching practices.

Personal Qualities, Background Experiences, and Needs

Personal qualities, background experiences, and needs can be strong influences on first-year teacher practices as well. A subset of studies included in this review identified a variety of personal qualities that first-year teachers who succeeded despite the odds brought to their work, including a strong sense of personal agency, resilience, enthusiasm, positivity, and assertiveness. Eleven studies included teachers with one or more of these qualities (Castro, Kelly, & Shih, 2010; Eldar, Nabel, Schechter, Tamor, & Mazin, 2003; Fry, 2007; Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Hunter, Rossi, Tinning, Flanagan, & MacDonald, 2011; Kilgore et al., 1990; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; Romano, 2008; Starkey, 2010; Tait, 2008; Ulvik et al., 2009). To illustrate, Hebert and Worthy (2001) conducted a phenomenological case study of a “successful” first-year teacher who, despite being isolated and marginalized by her colleagues because of her position as a physical education teacher, became an active participant within the school and built positive relationships with staff through her own positivity, tenacity, and efforts to collaborate with others.

The personal and professional background experiences of new teachers were also shown to influence their teaching practices (Birrell, 1995; Bondy et al., 2013; Cook, 2009; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; McAlpine & Crago, 1995; Newman, 2010; Starkey, 2010). Studies by McAlpine and Crago (1995) and Birrell (1995) illustrate this line of research. Each of these two works depicted a single case study of a White first-year teacher teaching students from backgrounds different from their own (Canadian Aboriginal and African American, respectively.) Both teachers struggled to understand the cultural norms of their students and adopted management practices more consistent with their own White educational backgrounds. In the case of the teacher featured in Birrell’s study, the cultural disconnect was so severe that he requested a transfer to a school where the students had already assimilated to mainstream White culture. At his new school, this teacher commented, “I like the black kids here, most of them act white, and they do their schoolwork” (p. 141). Previous career experiences also help shape instruction, as a study of second-career teachers in the United Kingdom by Newman (2010) demonstrates. One of three case studies focused on a first-year teacher who was a former retail manager. This management experience contributed to a strained relationship with his administrator, about whom he commented, “No one is allowed to challenge him. The staff are terrified of him . . . from my retail training [emphasis added] I can see where he is going wrong” (p. 468). Another possible personal factor impacting teachers’ practices is their age/life experience. For example, in a dual case study exploring two first-year teachers’ ability to implement their culturally responsive preprofessional learning, Bondy and colleagues (2013) found that one of the two teachers experienced difficulty enacting the practices of being a “warm demander” because she never had had to serve in an authority role. The teacher noted, “I’m 24 years old and I’ve never been in an authority position before in my life, you know?” (p. 440).


The teacher does not operate in isolation as an autonomous decision maker. Instead, practices emerge from interactions that occur between the teacher, elements in her environment, and other actors, most of which happen in the closest environment (Morrison, 2008), such as the classroom. As main actors in the classroom system, students influence teacher practices profoundly. Additionally, environmental elements of the classroom system—including available resources, unpredictable classroom events, and the physical environment itself—constrain or enable practices for first-year teachers.

Student–Teacher Interactions

In the studies reviewed, interactions between students and teachers were discussed in terms of student behavior, student response to instructional practices, and teachers’ attempts to address the diverse needs of their students. In 17 studies, student behavior reported as loud or disorderly affected the teachers’ classroom management strategies and instructional practices (Allebone, 2006; Bang & Luft, 2014; Birrell, 1995; Bondy et al., 2013; Brashier & Norris, 2008; Farrell, 2003; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Kilgore et al., 1990; Massengill et al., 2005; Romano, 2008; Romano & Gibson, 2006; Saka et al., 2009; Stanulis, Fallona, & Pearson, 2002; Strom, 2015; Tait, 2008; Towers, 2010; Ulvik et al., 2009). Such behavior often triggered first-year teachers to adopt authoritarian classroom management strategies and/or more teacher-controlled methods despite their inclination to use the democratic practices learned in their preservice programs. A mixed-method study by Brashier and Norris (2008) illustrates these dynamics. Using survey, focus groups, and observations, the researchers investigated the practices of 25 early-grade teachers to identify factors that affected their use of certain developmentally appropriate strategies, including play, learning centers, and recess. Brashier and Norris found that several teachers reduced their use of these practices to quell student-related conflict in their classrooms.

Another important trigger of teacher practices is student response to the teacher’s pedagogy. In 10 studies, the way in which students responded to their teachers’ instructional methods and other classroom actions either reinforced those practices or contributed to their adoption of different ones (Bang & Luft, 2014; Eldar et al., 2003; He & Cooper, 2011; Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; Romano, 2008; Saka et al., 2009; Strom, 2015; Towers, 2010; Ulvik et al., 2009). For example, based on their exploration of the concerns and teaching strategies of five first-year high school teachers, He and Cooper (2011) found that all study participants worked to create connections with students by consciously building relationships with them and learning about their lives and then infusing that knowledge into classroom activities. This, in turn, enhanced student motivation and engagement in lessons, which reinforced both the teachers’ confidence in their teaching and commitment to student-centered pedagogy. Along related lines, in a case study that used a rhizomatic lens to examine the ways one first-year high school science teacher implemented his inquiry-based preprofessional learning, Strom (2015) found that the participant enacted dramatically different practices in his ninth-grade environmental science classes than he did in his 11th- and 12th-grade earth science classes. One of the factors that contributed to this difference was student response to the teacher’s pedagogy. In his ninth-grade classes, students tended to resist activities requiring active participation, and over time, the teacher’s practices became more teacher-centered in these classes. With his earth science students, who responded more positively to inquiry-based, learner-centered lessons, his lessons tended to feature small-group cooperative learning and problem-posing practices.

The challenge involved in meeting the needs of diverse student populations was also a prevalent theme in the classroom system, surfacing in 16 studies. Of these, nine discussed the needs of socioculturally diverse students (Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Birrell, 1995; Chubbuck, 2008; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; He & Cooper, 2011; Kilgore et al., 1990; McAlpine & Crago, 1995; McDonough, 2009; Saka et al., 2009), four others focused on the needs of English language learners (Bergeron, 2008; Farrell, 2003; Luft & Roehrig 2005; McElhone et al., 2009), and an additional three studies addressed students with special needs (Romano & Gibson, 2006; Scherff, 2008; Tait, 2008). Although teachers were aware of the differing responses of their students, which signaled a need to differentiate instruction for them, doing so proved challenging (Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Kilgore et al., 1990; Luft & Roehrig 2005; Tait, 2008). Despite the propensity of first-year teachers to struggle with student diversity, culturally and/or linguistically responsive practices of some sort were clearly evident in five studies, all of which included related preservice preparation (Bergeron, 2008; Bondy et al., 2013; He & Cooper, 2011; McAlpine & Crago, 1995; McDonough, 2009). For instance, in the study by McAlpine and Crago (1995), a White Canadian teacher who had attended an initial teacher education program with a focus on language made her literacy strategies and classroom routines more responsive to her Aboriginal students by using choral repetition, a speech pattern frequently used in their community, to help them gain confidence and thus become more likely to participate in lessons.

Other Elements in the Classroom System

Other elements within the classroom environment also impact the emerging practices of novices. Seven studies in our corpus showed that teacher practices were enabled or constrained by the classroom resources available to them (Bergeron, 2008; Castro et al., 2010; He & Cooper, 2011; Romano & Gibson, 2006; Saka et al., 2009; Starkey, 2010; Tait, 2008). For instance, in her qualitative study of six beginning New Zealand teachers framed by complexity theory, Starkey (2010) demonstrated that the use of technology in instruction depended in part on whether teachers had access to appropriate technological devices, as well as the availability of the Internet and appropriately placed power outlets in the classroom.

Three studies examined the unpredictability of classroom events (Chubbuck, 2008; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Romano & Gibson, 2006), which further complicates the environmental interactions in the classroom. Although unpredictability is a feature of all complex systems, these three studies explicitly referenced classroom unpredictability in connection to teaching practices, including unanticipated student behavior and response to instruction (Chubbuck, 2008), multiple events and interactions occurring simultaneously (Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995), and frequent classroom interruptions, such as students being pulled out for supplemental instructional services (Romano & Gibson, 2006). Chubbuck (2008) found that the “dynamic, unpredictable nature of teaching, including the variability presented by up to 40 students in a class” (p. 322), added to the difficulties one White first-year teacher experienced in trying to implement socially just curriculum and created a nearly impossible planning situation. As the teacher put it, “I attempt to guess at everything that might go wrong. And in these guess-sessions, I end up expecting the worst and scrapping the initial seed of creativity altogether” (p. 322).

The location and configuration of classroom space can also contribute to teacher practices, as three studies demonstrated (Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Tait, 2008). In Hargreaves and Jacka’s (1995) qualitative case study, which was informed by a postmodern perspective, a new teacher was assigned to teach in an isolated classroom trailer outside the main building, an awkward physical environment “which isolated her from important communications and from sources of informal advice” (p. 55) regarding her practices.  Likewise, in another qualitative case study, Tait (2008) portrayed a particularly resilient first-year elementary school teacher from Canada who felt that her challenging class assignment was made even more difficult by the allocation of a space that had previously served as the home economics room and was configured in a manner that was not optimal for young children.


The pedagogical practice of novice teachers is profoundly influenced by elements in the school system, including the interactions they have with other actors in the local school environment. Their practices are also constrained or enabled by other elements in the school system, including the school culture, school structures, teaching assignment, and presence of school–university partnerships. These elements provide yet another layer of complexity for the first-year teacher to navigate. Making matters more complex, interactions at the school system level occur simultaneously with those at the levels of teacher and classroom systems described earlier.

Interactions With Actors in the School System

Within the school system, novices interact with multiple actors—including administrators, colleagues, mentors, and parents—who can influence their teaching practices. Twelve studies addressed the potential of administrators to impact the practices of new teachers (Bergeron, 2008; Brashier & Norris, 2008; Brown, Bay-Borelli, & Scott, 2015; Eldar et al., 2003; Farrell, 2003; Fry, 2007; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; He & Cooper, 2011; Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Saka et al., 2009; Scherff, 2008; Stanulis et al., 2002). Administrators can be a powerful source of support and advocacy, providing novices with guidance and resources and boosting confidence in their teaching practices (Eldar et al., 2003; Farrell, 2003), especially if the principal also advocates for pedagogy consistent with that valued by the new teacher (Bergeron, 2008). However, more often, an absence or inconsistency of support on the part of school administrators was reported in the studies we reviewed (e.g., Fry, 2007; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; He & Cooper, 2011; Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Scherff, 2008).

Disconnects between the teaching models preferred by administrators and those learned by new teachers in their preservice programs surfaced in three studies (Brashier & Norris, 2007; Saka et al., 2009; Stanulis et al., 2002). This problem was evident in a narrative inquiry conducted by Stanulis and colleagues (2002) that aimed to share the stories of three new teachers participating in a first-year teacher support group. The researchers showed that one of three participants received a negative evaluation for a lesson that used a “writer’s workshop” format she valued. When the teacher discussed this negative evaluation with her mentor, she was told, “Well, usually they [administrators] don’t like to see novice teachers experimenting. They want to see more structure because they are afraid you can’t handle something that is not structured” (p. 77). Such mismatch in pedagogical philosophies was similarly mirrored in the interactions new teachers had with more experienced teachers, with five studies referencing the potential impact of the latter’s more traditional teaching methods on the budding practices of novices (Allebone, 2006; Allen, 2009; Chubbuck et al., 2001; Ferguson-Patrick, 2011; Towers, 2010). For instance, Chubbuck et al. (2001) showed that new teachers were vulnerable to pressure from colleagues to conform to more traditional teaching, which sometimes triggered purposeful self-isolation on the part of the novices. According to the researchers, “several participants expressed a fear that talking about ideas with school based colleagues would lead to being forced to teach like those around them” (p. 372).

Several studies specifically examined the interactions new teachers had with mentors or, in some cases, the absence of a mentor. Four studies cited the lack of a mentor (Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Hunter et al., 2011; Stanulis et al., 2002) as a constraining influence on teacher practices, and seven others (Castro et al., 2010; Farrell, 2003; Fry, 2007; Newman, 2010; Scherff, 2008; Stanulis et al., 2002; Tait, 2008) suggested that being assigned a mentor who was either difficult to work with or ineffective contributed to the struggles of new teachers. For instance, in a multiple case study chronicling the challenges and successes of four novice elementary school teachers, Fry (2007) described the negative impact of mentoring inconsistencies, including a noted lack of mentor observation or time to collaborate and discuss practices, especially postobservations. One of the teachers in the study reported that for a particular evaluation, three weeks lapsed before the mentor was able to discuss the results, thus robbing her of the intent of an observational debrief—to reflect on practices in a meaningful way with an expert “other” while the experience can still be accurately reconstructed from memory.

In contrast, positive experiences with mentors provided much needed support and helped new teachers become familiar with school structures and culture, as six studies demonstrated (Andersson & Andersson, 2008; Bang & Luft, 2014; Hunter et al., 2011; Löfström & Eisenschmidt, 2009; McElhone et al., 2009; Newman, 2010). As one of the 16 Estonian teacher in Löfström and Eisenschmidt’s (2009) study of mentoring experiences commented, “[My mentor] helped me fit into the teacher community and introduced me to other colleagues . . . she tries to make other people realize my worth” (p. 687). Along related lines, Bang and Luft (2014) showed how one of the participants in their dual case study of first-year teachers participating in an online mentoring program benefited from working with her mentor. This novice teacher taught science at an urban charter school and wanted to teach biology, which is often regarded as a “college preparatory” science class and was not offered within the school. With assistance from her mentor, an experienced biology teacher at a different school site, the first-year teacher developed a proposal, which included a well-reasoned argument for the addition of the biology course and a description of its curriculum. The idea, which was well received by her school administrator, was eventually approved. Thus, with the support of her mentor, this new teacher was able to advocate for her urban students by providing coursework they would need to attend college.

Other Elements in the School System

Nonhuman elements in the school system, including the collective school culture, school structures, and school–university partnerships, can also shape first-year teacher practices by serving as constraining and/or enabling forces. School culture, which refers to the norms, values, and attitudes, or the “inner reality” of a school (Deal & Peterson, 1993), surfaced as an influence in 14 studies. Nine studies provided evidence that the degree of collaboration valued by the school collectively facilitated or hindered the success of first-year teachers relative to instructional planning, implementing instruction, and professional learning (Andersson & Andersson 2008; Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Chubbuck et al., 2001; Eldar et al., 2003; Farrell, 2003; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Lambson, 2010; Löfström & Eisenschmidt, 2009; Stanulis et al., 2002). Predominantly collaborative school cultures were supportive for new teachers and encouraged pedagogical growth and confidence building (Andersson & Andersson, 2008; Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Lambson, 2010; Löfström & Eisenschmidt, 2009), while schools with cultures of individualism and isolation served as a barrier to professional growth or support (Chubbuck et al., 2001; Eldar et al., 2003; Farrell, 2003; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Hebert & Worthy, 2001; Stanulis et al., 2002). The negative impact of isolation is illustrated in a qualitative study of three first-year teachers in a supplemental university induction program (Stanulis et al., 2002). According to the researchers, all three teachers reported feeling isolated as they were left “on their own to figure things out” (p. 79) and indicated limited collaborative opportunities. As one novice put it, “I’m in my little classroom. There is no time to go and collaborate with other people” (p. 77).

Additionally, the degree of alignment of the school staff’s collective vision of teaching with the particular vision of teaching the novice brought to the profession from her preservice preparation affected the ease of transition to first-year teaching. This was a pattern that emerged in nine studies (Bergeron, 2008; Brashier & Norris, 2008; Ferguson-Patrick, 2011; Kilgore et al., 1990; McElhone et al., 2009; Newman, 2010; Romano, 2008; Saka et al., 2009; Stanulis et al., 2002). For example, in a comparative study of two novice teachers that used cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) as a framework, Saka and colleagues (2009) found that the degree to which the teachers implemented the inquiry-based pedagogy they had learned in their preservice programs was related, in large measure, to their school cultures. One teacher taught in a school that was labeled as “failing” under the No Child Left Behind legislation adopted by the United States in 2001. As a result, the school had developed a culture that emphasized testing, privileged rote teaching methods, and promoted an individualistic mentality among teachers. Although the teacher initially attempted to implement inquiry-based lessons, the existing school culture, along with challenging student behavior, influenced his adoption of a traditional, lecture-based pedagogy. In contrast, his fellow graduate took a job with a “high-achieving” school that collectively valued a constructivist perspective on learning, which was consistent with beliefs he had formed during his preservice program. Such a collaborative organizational culture supported his interactions with teachers who reinforced an inquiry-based pedagogy. Not surprisingly, the researchers reported that the teaching of the second teacher mirrored the reform-based pedagogy learned in his teacher preparation program.


Twelve studies provided examples of the potentially constraining influences of school structures on first-year teacher practices (Allbone, 2006; Beck et al., 2007; Ferguson-Patrick, 2011; Fry, 2007; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; McDonough, 2009; Romano & Gibson, 2006; Saka et al., 2009; Scherff, 2008; Starkey, 2010; Tait, 2008, Ulvik et al., 2009). Specific school structures studied included scheduling and time allotment (Beck et al., 2007; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; Saka et al., 2009; Starkey, 2010), tracked classes (Allbone, 2006; McDonough, 2009), prescribed curriculum or curricular focus (Ferguson-Patrick, 2011; Fry, 2007; Romano & Gibson 2006; Tait, 2008), teacher evaluations (Romano & Gibson 2006; Tait, 2008), mandated test preparation (Saka et al., 2009), and grading policies (Scherff, 2008). The qualitative study of nine Norwegian teachers conducted by Ulvik and colleagues (2009) illustrates how school-specific structures might constrain practices for first-year teachers. The school’s “1-1 laptop program” for students required new teachers to heavily infuse their instruction with technology, but the teachers struggled to translate their preprofessional learning into a completely digital teaching environment. Other teachers, such as the two novices studied by Scherff (2008), struggled to meet noninstructional school requirements, such as the documentation needed for the special education students in their classes, making these two teachers feel that bureaucratic and paperwork demands “left little time to actually teach” (p. 1326).

Eight studies demonstrated that difficult teaching assignments constrain novice practices (Farrell, 2003; He & Cooper, 2011; Kilgore et al., 1990; Romano, 2008; Scherff, 2008; Stanulis et al., 2002; Starkey, 2010; Tait, 2008). This pattern is also supported by the studies cited previously regarding teachers’ classroom management concerns and struggles with student behavior, as well as literature documenting the wide diversity of student needs, cultures, and languages that new teachers encounter. The challenging classroom assignments of beginning teachers may also contribute to the high rate of teacher attrition. As the teacher profiled in the study by Tait (2008) explained, “New teachers get the difficult kids that no one wants to teach. They get the split classes, they get the portables. . . . And they wonder why people quit after five years” (p. 12). Echoing these words, a new teacher who left the profession after her first year reflected, “I shouldn’t have been given the worst classes. . . . [I was] thrown to the wolves” (Scherff, 2008, p. 1327).

School partnerships with universities, although only mentioned in two of the studies (Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Lambson, 2010), served as a link between the systems of the university and the school and reinforced the pedagogical practices the teachers had learned at the university. Lambson’s (2010) case study of three novices participating in a school-based teacher professional learning community highlights the potential of such partnerships for continued professional learning and support of beginning teachers. During the yearlong study group led by a teacher educator from the partner university, the beginning teachers had an opportunity to interact with more experienced teachers, first as “peripheral participants” (Lambson, 2010, p. 1662, citing Lave & Wenger, 2001), and gradually assumed a more central role in the learning community. As the year progressed, the new teachers became more confident in their practices.


In the studies reviewed here, the bulk of the interactions found to influence first-year teacher practices occurred within and among the teacher, classroom, and school systems, or what Davis and Sumara (2006) called the “local level” of analysis—a term that refers to the systems closest to the teacher. However, influences from larger systems in which the teacher, classroom, and school are embedded, such as the district, regional, and/or national education systems, can and often do play a role in the emergence of beginning teacher practices. For instance, six of the studies we reviewed showed that district-led induction and professional development programs offering support for new teachers influenced their practices (Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Chubbuck et al., 2001; Fry, 2007; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995; Luft, 2009; Saka et al., 2009). The study by Hargreaves and Jacka (1995) of a new Canadian teacher illustrates this line of research. When the participant found her colleagues and school administrator unhelpful with the classroom management difficulties she was experiencing, the district arranged for a consultant to visit her class and “provided positive feedback and long-awaited moral support” (p. 55). This interaction, combined with the teacher’s external support systems, including her university professors, favorably influenced her classroom management capabilities.

Three other studies revealed specific district policies that created difficulty for novices’ enactment of progressive and responsive pedagogies (Beck et al., 2007; Brashier & Norris, 2008; Romano & Gibson, 2006). For instance, in a study that examined the implementation of developmentally appropriate curriculum among early-grade elementary teachers, Brashier and Norris (2008) found that because the district’s guidelines stressed academic skills, even in early grades, and the required district curriculum precluded play activities, first-year teachers were constrained in their use of “play,” a developmentally appropriate instructional strategy learned in their preservice programs. Likewise, in Strom’s (2015) study, the teacher participant, who taught both environmental science and earth science, felt constrained by his district testing policies in environmental science (in his district, earth science was not a tested subject). The rigid pacing schedule required to ensure he covered all the content that would be tested by the district made the teacher feel that he was “rushing” his teaching in environmental science classes and was unable to modify lessons according to his students’ needs.

In the United States, state and federal policies are salient influences on first-year teacher practices beyond that exerted by the elements inherent in the teacher, classroom, and school systems discussed earlier. Such policies related to content foci and standards (Allebone, 2006; Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Brashier & Norris, 2008), accountability and testing (Bang & Luft, 2014; Bergeron, 2008; Bondy et al., 2013; Brown et al., 2015; Romano, 2008; Romano & Gibson, 2006; Saka et al., 2009; Stanulis et al., 2002), and language of instruction (Bergeron, 2008). The work of Bergeron (2008) provides an example of a U.S. teacher of predominantly Spanish-speaking students who faced the dilemma of being legally unable to provide instruction in the students’ native language to support their learning. Similarly, Allebone (2006) showed the direct influence a national policy had on instructional practices, reporting that first-year teachers in the United Kingdom credited a national numeracy policy stressing math achievement for their decisions to group students by ability in math classrooms.


The preceding discussion offers a multidimensional picture of the multiplicity of actors and elements within the nested systems of first-year teaching that affect novice practices. But how do these multiple and unpredictable influences interact and combine to produce practices, and how can we characterize the teaching that emerges from those interactions? The research reviewed here suggests that new teachers experience major disequilibrium, which increases in severity with constraining environmental conditions such as isolating school cultures, challenging class assignments, and unsupportive administrators. These conditions tend to reinforce traditional education philosophies, resulting in the emergence of teaching practices that are consistent with those observed in classrooms for the last century. Thus, we suggest that the organization of first-year teaching tends to maintain its shape over time at the macro-level of the system of education. In other words, throughout the studies analyzed, the patterns of practices that characterize our educational system mainly remain constant. Yet, across the works reviewed, pockets of unpredictability also existed, creating the possibility for the emergence of teaching practices that break with traditional patterns. Within this subset of studies, novice teachers engaged in practices that promoted learning for understanding, ongoing professional growth, and supportive and collegial relationships.

The system of first-year teaching exists at the edge of chaos, a space where one experiences enough disequilibrium to produce change (Battram, 1998), which opens the possibility for even more complex systems to emerge (Byrne, 1998). However, individuals each have their own disequilibrium threshold, their own edge of chaos. Too little disequilibrium and nothing changes, and too much disequilibrium and resistance arises (Opfer & Pedder, 2011), or a plunge into chaos occurs (Battram, 1998). Extending these ideas to the notion of first-year teaching across the literature, the theme of disequilibrium is present in many forms—from the reality shock of actual classroom conditions (Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Chubbuck, 2008; Farrell, 2003; Hargreaves & Jacka, 1995), to the difficulties of actually enacting in first-year teaching what new teachers learned in their preservice preparation programs (Beck et al., 2007; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; Massengill et al., 2005), to the theoretical misalignment between the innovative pedagogy taught in university-based teacher preparation programs and the more traditional methods seemingly entrenched in schools (Allen, 2009; Ferguson-Patrick, 2011; McDonough, 2009; McElhone et al., 2009; Newman, 2010). School cultures characterized by isolation and individualism, lack of guidance or support, assignments of the most challenging classes, and personal feelings of anxiety and failure can interact and combine to culminate in disequilibrium so great that new teachers choose to move to different schools in search of less stressful conditions or leave the profession altogether. These patterns of attrition affected teachers in multiple studies reviewed.

In a complex system, elements must be understood in relation to each other—through their interactions, information is exchanged, which affects what is produced. In the case of first-year teaching, interactions between the teacher and multiple elements present in the systems tend to regulate or encourage certain practices. Largely, the interactions in the literature reviewed served to pressure new teachers to adopt practices that fit the traditional norm of instruction, but the literature does contain evidence of connections that allowed for the support and continued development of progressive practices learned in initial teacher education programs (e.g., Bergeron, 2008). However, the mainly regulatory interactions present in the literature contribute to a pattern of self-organization that maintains the traditional shape of teaching, creating conditions that constrain new teachers in transferring innovative practices learned in their preservice preparation programs and encourage more traditional instruction, patterns of isolation, and current trends of novice struggle and attrition.

The following is an example of a common pattern of interactions between and among systems of first-year teaching that helps maintain the traditional self-organization of teaching. Teachers’ (the micro-level) personal experiences as students in traditionally organized classrooms, their lack of experience with and mastery of progressive pedagogies, and general insecurity as novices interact at the classroom level (the meso) with challenging classroom dynamics and a wide range of cultural, linguistic, social, and developmental student needs. At the school level (the macro), these elements interact with individualistic school cultures, an absence of guidance and support, unfamiliar organizational structures, and traditional norms of colleagues, administrators, and school collectives. At the larger district, state/regional, and federal/national educational system levels, components of the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels interact with accountability and other policies. These multiple, multilevel, simultaneous interactions trigger practices that tend to conform to teacher-centered instructional patterns and deficit-based, authoritarian classroom management patterns. They also discourage patterns of collaborative professional learning among teachers. Ultimately, such patterns contribute to the disturbing trend of high attrition among novices and maintenance of traditional teaching and school organizational patterns that are less than optimal for a global economy and, even worse, maintain and expand entrenched inequalities in the educational system.  

This picture as a whole presents an example of lock-in (Battram, 1998), a situation where a system may continue to produce phenomena that are not optimally effective because of patterns of interactions that reinforce the behavior of the system, thus maintaining its shape despite its ineffectiveness. Battram offers the example of QWERTY keyboards, which were produced originally only to prevent traditional typewriters from jamming but continue to maintain their dominance despite the transition to computers. Our review suggests that in teaching, traditional patterns of instruction and collegial relationships are locked in—the simultaneous interactions of elements at the teacher, classroom, and school levels create conditions that make conforming to the current system the path of least resistance and the best bet for survival in the system.

Although traditional instruction and isolation from colleagues tend to be the reigning pattern, unpredictability exists on several levels. For example, elements of teacher, classroom, and school systems are not uniform across school contexts. Teachers may have different personal attributes or beliefs, students present a range of varying needs and dynamics, and schools offer a dizzying array of personalities, values, and organizational structures. Even across contexts that may appear to be similar, such as schools in neighborhoods with comparable economic levels or classes that share cultural characteristics, actors and elements may interact differently or trigger unexpected responses (Strom, 2015). This inherent unpredictability provides opportunities for adaptation, which may result in systems producing new phenomena of increasing complexity. Examples of such emergent instructional practices in this review included collaborative learning (Ferguson-Patrick, 2011), culturally responsive teaching (Bergeron, 2008; Bondy et al., 2013; McAlpine & Crago, 1995; McElhone et al., 2009), equitable teaching practices (Chubbuck, 2008; Cook, 2009), and student-centered and inquiry-based teaching (Bianchini & Cazavos, 2007; Luft, 2009; Saka et al., 2009; Towers, 2010). In some instances, one or two nonuniform components, such as continued support from the university preservice program throughout the induction phase (Luft, 2009; Luft & Roehrig, 2005; Stanulis et al., 2002) or a school culture that values inquiry and collaboration (Saka et al., 2009), could lead to unexpected interactions in the local system, interrupting the status quo of transmission instruction.  

The patterns across studies that seemed to support the emergence of progressive practices included school partnerships with university-based teacher preparation programs, collaborative school cultures, supportive administrators and colleagues, and quality induction and mentoring experiences. Although the emergent phenomena of practices is never predictable, teacher educators and school/district leaders can pay attention to these enabling conditions of educational environments and build on them by, for example, expanding structures to promote connections between universities and schools as both equally invested in the professional preparation and development of teachers, from preservice to the novice years and beyond. Educational stakeholders can also attempt to alleviate constraining factors. Preservice teacher preparation programs can work to more explicitly tie university coursework to clinical practice (Zeichner, 2010), a stance that many programs already are moving toward (Cochran-Smith et al., 2016), and help teachers preemptively analyze the multiple personal and professional factors that will converge to shape their practices as they begin teaching. School leaders can work to address factors that adversely affect new teachers, such as the reigning isolationism and individualistic school cultures and assignment of the most difficult classes to novices. Ultimately, however, only by shifting away from conceptualizing the practices of novice teachers as the result of decisions made autonomously by individuals and adopting a systems view of novice practices can the education community begin to provide more supportive, enabling conditions for new teachers and alleviate the instability resulting from the constantly revolving door of novices leaving and entering the field of education.


I’m walking away. I’m walking away from all the time I spent in school, all the files and supplies I have, many sweet students, health insurance, all of it. Teaching is just not worth the constant stress that crushed my very soul and being. (p. 1327)

These sentiments come from Scherff’s (2008) study of two first-year teachers who left the profession after their initial year of teaching. The name of the study, “Disavowed,” could be applied to the many stories of first-year teachers who leave the profession every year because they often find themselves with the most difficult class assignments, isolated, and without proper supports. Despite this dominant systemwide pattern, as this review showed, the emergence of progressive practices provides hope and possibility for making lasting changes that include collaborative school environments, multilayered supports, school–university partnerships, and other elements that enable new teachers to thrive professionally rather than constraining them to the status quo.

In this review, we analyzed studies of first-year teachers using a complexity perspective, which not only provides educators and researchers with a holistic view of teaching practices on an organizational level but also can inform policy, teacher education, and school-level reforms that support first-year teachers and improve novice retention. By considering teaching as emergent phenomena informed by multiple, ongoing, recursive, and reciprocal interactions of elements within the nested systems of first-year teaching as coemergent and connected, we can begin to see the possibilities of shifting our focus to reforming the system as a whole rather than maintaining the individual teacher as the sole focus. The current market-driven approach to educational reform positions the teacher as the autonomous actor in full control of her own practices and, by extension, the learning of her students. However, as shown by the studies reviewed, the teacher is not an isolated actor. She is an actor within a system affected by, and affecting, a multitude of variables in unpredictable ways. By adopting a view of the teacher as an actor within a complex system, we might begin to support endeavors that have the potential to transform the teaching profession from one that “eats its young” to one that nurtures, supports, and sustains novices during the early years of teaching and throughout their entire teaching careers.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 7, 2018, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22322, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 4:01:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Kathryn Strom
    California State University, East Bay
    E-mail Author
    KATHRYN (KATIE) J. STROM is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership Department at California State University, East Bay, where she serves as core faculty in the Educational Leadership for Social Justice program. A former K–12 educator in urban settings, her research interests encompass teacher and leadership preparation for social justice, equitable pedagogies for linguistically and culturally diverse students, and nonlinear theories and methodologies for studying teacher development. Her recent publications include “Teaching as Assemblage: Negotiating Learning and Practice in the First Year of Teaching,” which appeared in the Journal of Teacher Education in 2015, and “Pursuing Lines of Flight: Enacting Teacher Learning in First-Year Teaching,” a coauthored article with Adrian Martin published in Policy Futures in Education (2016). Her book, Becoming-Teacher: A Rhizomatic Look at First Year Teaching, also coauthored with Martin, was published in December 2016.
  • Adrian Martin
    New Jersey City University
    E-mail Author
    ADRIAN D. MARTIN is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at New Jersey City University. Dr. Martin’s academic interests are informed by his earlier professional experiences as an urban elementary classroom teacher and educational leader. His scholarship attends to promoting equity and social justice in education, teacher preparation and development for linguistically and culturally diverse students, teacher identity, discourse analysis, qualitative and postqualitative inquiry, and the self-study of teacher education practices. Recent peer-reviewed publications include “Toward a Linguistically Responsive Teacher Identity: An Empirical Review of Teacher Identity and English Learners” in International Multilingual Research Journal (2016) and “Pursuing Lines of Flight: Equity-Based Preservice Teacher Learning in First-Year Teaching” (2016) in Policy Futures in Education, both coauthored with Kathryn Strom.
  • Ana María Villegas
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    ANA MARÍA VILLEGAS is professor of education and director of the Teacher Education and Teacher Development Ph.D. program at Montclair State University. Her scholarship focuses on culturally and linguistically responsive teaching, policies, and programs for diversifying the teaching force, and teacher education policy. Villegas has published widely. Her recent publications include “Research on Teacher Preparation: Charting the Landscape of a Sprawling Field,” a coauthored chapter in the 2016 Handbook of Research on Teaching, and “Framing Teacher Education Research, Part I and Part II,” two related coauthored articles in the Journal of Teacher Education.
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