Empowerment in career science teachers – A mixed methods approach to exploring the professional growth continuum

Recent education research has focused on new teachers and why large numbers of teachers leave the profession (Borman & Dowling, 2008; Ingersoll & Smith, 2003).  Few studies have targeted experienced teachers in an attempt to identify factors that have contributed to their retention.  Researchers with the Center for Teacher Quality made connections between working conditions, student achievement, and teacher retention.  In the Center’s Teacher Working Conditions Toolkit (2006), the researchers recognized the importance of teacher empowerment and proposed that the connection can help improve the retention of teachers and ultimately, the success of the students they teach. Since the 1980s, teacher empowerment has been one focus of reform in public schools, yet existing research has failed to give much insight regarding what empowerment means to individual teachers, how these meanings are constructed, what events change these meanings, and whether teachers can retain a sense of empowerment in the context of events and changes that occur within and beyond the school setting. Our mixed-methods NSF-funded study, Project I.D.: Instrument Development for Exploring the Professional Growth Continuum, was a continuation of the research begun by Hobbs (2004) to identify those empowering experiences of career science teachers that have caused them to persist in their careers. Initial qualitative data collection was accomplished through the use of one-on-one interviews in conjunction with the systems dynamics technique of utilizing behavior-over-time (BOT) graphing to capture the experiences of science teachers (N = 52) identified as having positively or negatively impacted their feelings of empowerment. Based on teacher input, and in consultation with experts in both instrument development and technology, the researchers developed and tested a quantitative survey instrument that collected similar kinds of data in more efficient ways. The resulting survey data (N = 263) was used to identify pivotal experiences that contribute to long-term teacher retention in a much larger sample of teachers who collectively represent varying years of experience along the professional continuum. The importance of belonging to a community of learners was a statistically significant result in this study. Teachers who had participated in a community of learners program where they received 60 or more hours of professional development annually had a statistically significant higher average Empowerment Score than teachers who did not (t = 2.138, p = .033). In this analysis, the number of professional development hours did matter. By better understanding the paths that successful teachers have followed, the researchers infer some implications for professional development programs and policies for the future, such as, the implementation of tiered professional development opportunities for teachers.

Keywords: teachers; teacher development; teacher professional learning; teacher empowerment; teacher retention