Transitioning between class levels – a way for teachers to connect the dots

January 2013


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TRACEY CARLYON opens the door for discussion on teachers transitioning between different class levels.

“Which class level is the hardest?”

This is a common question asked by the students I’ve mentored during their practicum and initial teacher education programmes, and my response is always the same: “each class level is different”.

I can answer honestly, as I’ve been fortunate enough to have had opportunities to transition between different class levels. Transitioning between different class levels is a topic that I have become interested in from my own experiences and observations as a parent, teacher, school leader, and university lecturer. These experiences and observations have led me to wonder why some teachers stay teaching in the same class and what (if any) impact does teaching different classes have on the professional learning and effectiveness of a teacher.

My experience of transitioning

After teaching in Year 7-8 classes for a number of years, I asked to transition to a Year 1 class for a new challenge. The change of level certainly provided me with the new challenge I was looking for – and more! Even though I was an experienced teacher and in a leadership role, I initially struggled to manage the transition. I found that the younger children were much less independent, made more rapid progress, and finished everything very quickly. In the first few weeks, I had some memorable moments, but in particular, my first experience of taking 16 New Entrant children swimming stays etched in my mind. I was already feeling flustered after a somewhat shambolic lesson, when I discovered to my horror surplus underclothes left behind that apparently did not belong to anyone! These and other experiences helped me to quickly learn that I needed to adapt, and at times, change some of my teaching techniques in order to survive in the new level and best meet the learning needs of the students.

Working in a school culture that was supportive and promoted collaboration helped me to find ways to adjust and adapt in my new class level. Although having to overcome challenges around communication, expectations, and relationships, transitioning became a very empowering and worthwhile experience for me. The experience provided me with many rich opportunities for personal and professional learning. I was compelled to question many of my teaching practices and engage in some deep critical reflection about my own pedagogy. I learned a great deal about the complex nature of teaching early literacy and numeracy that could be transferred to older students.

Transitioning provided me with the opportunity to gain a broader picture of the learning environment and a better understanding about students’ learning across all the levels. I was able to see where students were coming from and where they needed to get to in terms of their learning. The experience opened my eyes up to the different challenges of each class level and gave me a greater empathy for all teachers. For me, transitioning between different class levels was a way to ‘connect the dots’.

Telling research

These experiences and observations of others fuelled my interest in teachers transitioning and I became interested in finding out about other teachers’ experiences. My initial research with a group of teachers indicates that there are a number of benefits for teachers when they transition between different classes. The teachers in my research, who had all transitioned, believe they benefitted from the experience both personally and professionally. Although they described aspects of their transitions as challenging, they all felt they gained a better understanding of the curriculum and improved their teaching practice as a result of the experience.

Transitioning helped the teachers to develop a wider range of teaching techniques and strategies. They also felt more confident in their own ability to teach in different class levels. The transitioning was the vehicle that prompted them to step back from their teaching, reflect on their practice, and develop as more critically reflective practitioners. However, the teachers all acknowledged that having mentors and positive school cultures that encouraged and supported teachers them to transition was critical.

Principals’ perspectives

Further research with a group of principals revealed that many school leaders also see many benefits for teachers from transitioning between different class levels. The principals in the research believed that transitioning was valuable for all teachers’ learning, and in particular, those teachers who aspired to take on leadership roles. The principals described how transitioning helps teachers to bring a greater openness to their professional learning and enables them to gain a much broader picture of all students’ learning needs. They encouraged teachers to consider transitioning and actively promoted and supported them to do so by creating a culture of open communication and collaboration among their staff. School cultures such as these empower teachers to take risks such as transitioning and engage in their own inquiry, gain breadth of knowledge about students’ learning needs, and develop their practice. There was a strategic approach taken by all the principals to foster teacher development and growth and they viewed the practice of teachers transitioning as an opportunity for teachers to gain new experiences.

Unanswered questions

Nevertheless, although the practice of transitioning is common practice in some schools and for some teachers, for others, this may not be so. While research has gone some way to explain the benefits and challenges of transitioning, it has also revealed more questions that I believe we should consider. Why do some teachers only teach in one class level? Are they resistant to transitioning? Are some teachers not given opportunities to transition because they are particularly effective at teaching in a particular class level? Is there a perception that the ‘older’ the children, the more experienced the teachers must be? Why do men often teach in the upper levels of primary schools? Are females more suitable to be teachers of junior classes? Why do some schools actively encourage teachers to transition while others do not?

These and other questions I hope will open the door for much discussion and debate. Whatever our own opinions and experiences have been, it seems that transitioning is a complex endeavour, and although it may be commonplace for many teachers in many schools, it may not be for others and is certainly worthy of further research.

Tracey Carlyon is a lecturer for the University of Waikato’s Department of Professional Studies in Education. She invites teachers to share their perspectives about transitioning in a survey that will be accessible online in mid-2013.