University of York, UK
Today’s teachers are subject to pressures—internal and external stressors and expectations—that were unthinkable a decade or two ago. With an increasing focus on teacher quality and the measurement of teaching effectiveness, teachers are expected to excel in improving student achievement even as economic challenges, education policy changes, and the increasing domination of technology on social interactions change the way we teach.
But teachers are resilient, and research has shown that certain internal characteristics make a real difference in how teachers cope with increasing pressures and a changing educational landscape. Over the last 60 years, psychologist Albert Bandura has studied how a person’s beliefs about their capabilities to bring about change—known as self-efficacy—influence how people thrive in challenging situations. In fact, Bandura suggested that self-efficacy beliefs form the key factor in how we act, react, and thrive in challenging circumstances.
For teachers, self-efficacy beliefs play a critical role in their motivation to positively influence student learning. In light of recent findings that teachers make a more important contribution to student achievement than almost any other social or demographic factor, understanding how efficacy beliefs drive teacher engagement and effectiveness is more important than ever before.
Over the last decade, my colleagues and I have studied how teacher efficacy beliefs influence educational outcomes in a range of settings, including Canada, the UK, and a wide range of diverse settings (including Australia, Hong Kong, Oman, Nepal, Singapore, and the United States).
There are four key points that summarize our decade of research on this important topic:
1. Teacher efficacy is a key factor that drives successful teaching.
2. Teacher efficacy changes over a career.
3. Self-efficacy may be matched in importance by collective efficacy.
4. We need to consciously and deliberately build teacher efficacy.
1. Teacher efficacy is a key factor in successful teaching.
Self-efficacy beliefs refer to individuals' beliefs about their capabilities to successfully carry out a particular course of action. In schools, research has shown that students’ self-efficacy beliefs play an important role in influencing achievement and behavior; but, increasingly, researchers are concluding that teachers’ sense of self-efficacy also plays a key role in influencing important outcomes for teachers and students. Teacher efficacy is believed to influence student achievement and motivation, and has been shown to positively influence teachers’ use of the most effective instructional strategies. Teachers with low self-efficacy experience greater difficulties in teaching, lower levels of job satisfaction, and higher levels of job-related stress.
2. Teacher efficacy changes over a career.
Anyone who has spent time in any workplace for an extended period knows that motivation and emotions fluctuate over time. Working in schools is no exception, and teacher efficacy can change as demands increase and energy wanes. According to Huberman, the typical reaction of novice teachers to early classroom experiences combines feelings of survival (“Can I actually do this job?”) with discovery (“I really love/hate this job.”). However, teachers in later career phases experience the classroom differently from new teachers, and mid-career teaching differs from end-of-career teaching, with different motivations and levels of engagement.
Teacher efficacy changes over time. Efficacy may change over short, intense, periods of time—such as during a teaching practicum—but also during longer time frames, such as across the career span. Findings from our own longitudinal study of pre-service teacher efficacy during the practicum showed that teacher efficacy tended to increase through the practicum, but that there was quite a lot of variation based on teaching context. Our cross-sectional study of practicing teachers’ efficacy across career stages showed that teacher efficacy is dynamic, and responsive to the passage of time: teacher efficacy tended to rise through beginning and mid-career, and then decline towards the late-career stage. The changing nature of teaching demands, of children and adolescents, and of societal expectations placed on teachers may influence changes in the level and growth of self-efficacy during a teachers’ career.
3. Collective efficacy is just as important as self-efficacy.
Teachers’ collective efficacy beliefs reflect teachers’ beliefs about the capability of their school to respond to challenges. Research has shown that teachers’ collective efficacy is related to student achievement and academic climate, even in the most challenging environments. Teaching may be an individual act, but the 21st century sees us moving towards an ever-growing emphasis on teaching as a collaborative practice. The idea of a group of teachers gathered around a table working enthusiastically to address teaching and learning issues is appealing for many teachers, but day-to-day teaching can present a different picture. The reality of school structures means that much of a teacher’s work is done in isolation; teachers often plan their teaching or face student problems individually, with little time or resources available to work together. Our recent work in Alberta showed that professional learning opportunities tend to build teachers’ collective efficacy—their sense that they can accomplish important teaching goals as a group in their school.
Collaboration is essential in almost all professions—and teaching is no exception, but experience and research tell us that collaboration by itself is no sure formula for success. The benefits of teacher collaboration are multiplied by building collective efficacy that, by definition, are the beliefs in our capabilities to accomplish valued goals by working collectively. The degree to which teachers develop and nurture their collective efficacy is a critical factor influencing educational outcomes.
4. We need to deliberately build teacher efficacy.
Bandura suggested that teachers’ self- and collective efficacy are formed through four sources:
- Mastery experience: teachers’ interpretations of performance successes and failures affect perceived self-efficacy and can influence motivation to engage in professional development activities.
- Verbal persuasion: teachers who are persuaded verbally that they possess the capabilities to master skills and strategies for overcoming challenges in the classroom are more likely to extend and sustain greater effort than if they dwell on past failures.
- Vicarious experience: teachers at any career stage may benefit greatly from professional development that involves competent and credible models. Modeling that exhibits effective teaching and coping strategies can boost the efficacy of beginning teachers, but also the efficacy of experienced teachers if the models teach them even better ways of doing things.
- Interpretation of physiological and affective states: acknowledging the role of physiological indicators—like stress—in teachers’ efficacy is important since positive emotions can raise efficacy beliefs and increase the likelihood that teachers will choose to engage in more challenging tasks, such as new skill or strategy development through professional learning opportunities.
An evidence-based foundation for improving teachers’ self- and collective efficacy can only be built if attention is paid to the sources of teacher efficacy—the very foundation of the construct.
Our growing conviction is that the time has come to look at system-wide ways to build teacher self- and collective efficacy. We are optimistic about the potential for applied research that includes self- and collective efficacy measures tailored to specific components of the many complex acts involved in teaching. Establishing the relationship between teacher efficacy and evidence of successful practice will open the door for the great challenge of improving the support offered to teachers. Our current and future research is focused on building an understanding of the relationship of teacher efficacy at the beginning career stages (i.e., through induction programs), and also through later career stages, where efficacy beliefs may be subject to different job demands.
We have come a long way in understanding how teacher self- and collective efficacy work in school settings. Much progress has been made in our understanding of teacher efficacy in the last 10 years, but more work is clearly needed to consolidate our findings. A focused attention on the sources of teacher efficacy and a strong push to establish the links between teacher efficacy and educational outcomes will move the research to a place where it can provide guidance for enhancing teaching and learning.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
Klassen, R. M., & Tze, V. M. C. (2014). Teachers’ self-efficacy, personality, and teaching effectiveness: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 12, 59-76.
Klassen, R. M., Durksen, T. L. (2014). Weekly self-efficacy and work stress during the final teaching practicum: A mixed methods study. Learning and Instruction, 33, 158-169.
Klassen, R. M., & Chiu, M. M. (2010). Effects on teachers’ self-efficacy and job satisfaction: Teacher gender, years of experience, and job stress. Journal of Educational Psychology. 102, 741-756.