Supporting the Growth of New Teachers’ Confidence and Independence

K–12 education is experiencing a variation of what is known as “the Great Resignation”: Since the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers, resulting in an exceptionally high number of vacant classrooms. The attrition rate is particularly high among teachers of color, in schools that serve minority students, and in rural districts. In other words, the demographic groups and regions that struggle the most to hire teachers are also the least successful in retaining them on the job.

Aside from the impact on schools, consider the tragic effect on new teachers. After dedicating years (and a substantial amount of money) to preparing for and dreaming of a career in education, they find their hopes shattered all too quickly. How can educational leaders create the conditions necessary to retain promising new teachers? One approach is to foster a sense of psychological ownership.

What is Psychological Ownership?

In addition to support systems like onboarding and mentor programs, the concept of psychological ownership suggests that employees who have a strong sense of identity and belonging with their workplace are motivated to stay in their jobs. Perhaps you’ve experienced the difference between a job that feels like, “That’s why they call it work,” and a position that brings to mind the saying, “It isn’t work if you love it.”

The distinction doesn’t necessarily arise from external factors, such as working conditions and compensation. In the most challenging teaching assignments, it may be psychological ownership that keeps teachers committed to their jobs.

When employees feel that they have control over their work environment, a strong affiliation with their workplace, and consider themselves integral members of a community, they have a sense of ownership over their jobs. As Jon Pierce and his colleagues explain, employees “feel as though the workplace is ‘theirs.'” Studies have shown that psychological ownership is correlated with greater job satisfaction, resilience, and receptiveness to school reform. With psychological ownership, teachers feel invested in the workplace, actively participate in organizational life, and have a sense of confidence in their ability to make an impact.

Psychological ownership is distinct from the popular notion of “buy-in.” Buy-in is a top-down process where an employee ultimately accepts the institution’s doctrine. On the other hand, psychological ownership is an inside-out process that leads employees to act on their desire to leave their own mark on the institution. Psychological ownership can be an individual or collective phenomenon, such as when a group of teachers shares a common identity, purpose, and belief in their collective ability to effect change.

How School Leaders Promote Psychological Ownership

How can school leaders use the principles of psychological ownership to foster a teacher’s sense of connection to the school? The answer lies in a three-pronged approach: instilling a sense of agency, identity, and belonging.

Agency: New teachers face daily challenges that are unprecedented for them, like their first parent conference or submitting grades for the first time. To promote agency in the face of these novel tasks, school leaders and mentors must problem-solve alongside the teacher. Professional development should be relevant and asset-based, focusing on the teacher’s strengths. Overwhelming new teachers with the most difficult class assignments and an endless stream of demands dampens the development of agency.

In schools where teachers have a strong sense of self-efficacy, their voices matter. They are empowered to make decisions and assume shared leadership. Time and space are provided for collaboration, and teachers are recognized as experts who lead school-based professional development.

Research on psychological ownership advocates for personalized professional development that allows teachers to have control over their own learning. One example is Action Research, which empowers teachers to choose their own research questions and discover the answers for themselves.

Identity: A teacher’s professional self-identity evolves through psychological ownership. The essential question that leads to psychological ownership is, “What character traits and skills do I have to contribute to the school community?” To nurture self-identity, school leaders and mentors must foster a sense of autonomy by allowing teachers to set their own meaningful goals, plan lessons that reflect their teaching style, invite administrators to observe practices they are proud of, and identify roles where teachers are likely to feel successful and fulfilled, such as serving as an assistant volleyball coach, mentoring a homeless student, or sharing expertise with colleagues.

We also suggest that new teachers keep a journal for reflection and engage in occasional reflection with mentors and school leaders. These moments help new teachers recognize the progress they have made and envision the next steps they need to take to reach mastery. While it is important not to overwhelm new teachers with excessive demands, psychological ownership requires a significant investment of time and energy, which should be encouraged by administrators and mentors. As the old saying goes, “You get out what you put in.”

Belonging: Identity speaks to individual presence, while belonging emphasizes group membership and affiliation with the institution. New teachers establish a sense of belonging when they deeply engage in the school culture and embrace their work with colleagues. How can belongingness be nurtured? Professional learning networks help develop group norms and provide opportunities for collaboration and meaningful decision-making. School is not only an academic organization but also a social one. Encouraging new teachers to participate in social activities like breakfasts and holiday parties, or to show school spirit by dressing in school colors on designated days, fosters belonging and a collective sense of “together, we have this.”

Perhaps the most critical element in solidifying professional and social connections that strengthen psychological ownership is time. Devoting time to honing their craft and establishing their presence in schools allows new teachers to build the competence necessary for full participation in the school community. It also enables them to share their expertise, insights, and collaborate with colleagues. School leaders can facilitate this dynamic by minimizing non-teaching responsibilities as much as possible, recognizing and celebrating new teacher accomplishments, and involving new teachers strategically in school initiatives that align with their professional interests.

When we think about the message that educational leaders must convey to motivate and retain new teachers, we are reminded of the Good Witch Glinda’s advice to Dorothy in the penultimate scene of The Wizard of Oz. With her magic wand in hand, she sagely declares, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” Each new teacher contemplates, “Why am I here?” as they begin to shape and eventually own their personal and collective identity as a teacher. It is up to school leaders to help them affirm, “This is my school. I play an integral part. And I make a difference.” Only then can they truly own their job. It is the responsibility of school leaders to help teachers reach this empowering realization.

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