The Study of Educational Psychology

Teacher Development

How does a beginning teacher develop into a mature, confident, and competent professional? What conditions must you experience? What knowledge must you acquire? What skills must you develop? Educators and educational psychologists have studied the developmental process of teachers from pre-service to in-services and have found that it unfolds in some predictable ways. We will discuss the stages of development that all teachers go through on the way to becoming expert practitioners.

Stages of Teacher Development

At this point in your training, you probably see yourself in the role of a teacher, and you may have constructed some images or pictures of your first class. You may have promised yourself that you are going to be better than some of the teachers who taught you when you were in elementary or high school. You probably hope to be as good as some other teachers you have known. But as you begin your first regular teaching assignment you will find that there is a difference between your student teaching experiences and the “real world of teaching.” First, the classrooms you have been in came with a made-to-order instructional and behavior management system. All you had to do was adjust to it. Soon, no such system will exist, and you will have to create one of your own. Second, during student teaching, you have had instructional materials and lessons to draw on as aids to help you plan and teach. This may not be the case when you start your first teaching assignment. You will have to make many decisions about what, for how long, and in what manner to teach a group of learners you know little about. Finally, your cooperating teacher has been an important advisor and confidante during your student teaching experience, someone you could approach for advice on how to teach particular learners or how to cope with the psychological and physical demands of teaching. It is possible that such a mentor may not exist in your first regular teaching assignment.

The Survival Stage

This transition to the real world of teaching ushers in the first stage of teacher development, sometimes called the survival stage (Borich, 1993; Burden, 1986; Fuller, 1969; Ryan, 1992). The distinguishing feature of the survival stage of teaching is that your concerns will focus on your own well-being more than on the teaching task or your learners. Bullough (1989) has described this stage as “the fight for one’s professional life” (p. 16). During this stage, you will typically have the following concerns:

  • Will my learners like me?
  • Will they listen to what I say?
  • What will parents and teachers think of me?
  • Will I do well when the principal observes me?
  • Will I ever have time to myself?

Typically, during this time you become so focused on behavior management concerns that you feel like you are struggling merely to survive the day-to-day give-and-take of classroom life. Listen to Kerrie, a first-year teacher, reflect on some assumptions she made during the fall semester of her first teaching assignment:

…I thought that if you planned the curriculum really well, the management just falls into place. I really thought that when I was student teaching. If you are not well planned you are going to have problems, but planning well doesn’t solve those problems; you still have management problems. At first…I thought that you could plan your curriculum and [good] behavior would fall into place; you could handle it as it comes. But you really can’t. The other half of planning is what you will require behaviorally and you can plan for that. Now [sixth month] I plan a lot more things, like transition time and walking into the other room [to check on students]. (Bullough, 1989, pp. 25–26)

The Task Stage

For most teachers, survival concerns and concerns about self begin to diminish rapidly during the first months of teaching, but there is no precise time when they are over. What signals their end is the transition to a new set of concerns and a gradual diminishing of concerns about your own well-being. This new set of concerns focuses on how best to deliver instruction. Various labels have been used to describe this second stage, such as the mastery stage of teaching (Ryan, 1992), consolidation and exploration (Burden, 1986), and trial and error (Sacks & Harrington, 1982). Fuller (1969) described this as the task stage: the stage in which the new teacher focuses on the teaching task itself. At this stage, you begin to feel confident that you can manage the day-to-day
routines of the classroom and deal with a variety of behavior problems. You are at the point where you can plan your lessons without an exclusive focus on managing the classroom. Your focus turns toward improving your teaching skills and achieving greater mastery over the content you are teaching.

Typically, your concerns during this second stage of teacher growth and development are these:

  • How good are my instructional materials?
  • Will I have enough time to cover all the content?
  • How can I add variety to my presentations?
  • Where can I get some ideas for a learning center?
  • What’s the best way to teach writing skills?

The Impact Stage

The final stage of teacher growth and development is characterized by concerns that have to do less with management and lesson delivery and more with the impact of your teaching on learners. This point in a teacher’s career is sometimes referred to as the impact stage. At this time, you will naturally view learners as individuals and will be concerned that each of your students fulfills his or her potential. At this stage, your principal concerns might be these:

  • How can I increase my learners’ feelings of accomplishment?
  • How do I meet my learners’ social and emotional needs?
  • What is the best way to challenge my unmotivated learners?
  • What skills do they need to best prepare them for the next grade?

If you are a typical beginning teacher, your thoughts and concerns will focus at first on your own well-being and only later on the teaching task and your students. Fuller (1969), for example, found that during the early, middle, and late phases of student teaching, preservice teachers’ concerns shifted from a focus on self (Will the students like me? Can I control the class?) to concerns that emphasized the teaching task (Are there sufficient instructional materials? Is there time to cover all the content?) to concerns that emphasized the needs of pupils (Are the pupils learning? Can they apply what they’ve learned?). Fuller speculated that concerns for self, task, and impact are the natural stages that most teachers pass through, representing a developmental growth pattern extending over months and even years of a teacher’s career. Although some teachers pass through these stages more quickly than others and at different levels of intensity, Fuller suggested almost all teachers can be expected to move from one to another, with the most effective and experienced teachers expressing student-centered (impact) concerns at a high level
of commitment.

Concerns theory grew out of the analysis of recorded transcripts of interviews with student teachers. Over an extended period of time, these records were used to identify and classify problems that student teachers experienced and the concerns they expressed about these problems. These expressed concerns, when grouped into developmental and sequential stages, showed that student teachers with the least experience were concerned about self and self-survival, while student teachers with more experience and in-service teachers were concerned about student achievement and learning.

Stated in its simplest terms, concerns theory conceptualizes the learning process for a prospective teacher as a natural flow from concerns for self (teacher) to task (teaching) to impact (pupil). The physical, mental, and emotional states of the prospective teacher play an important role in the shift of focus from self to the task to impact. The lack of adequate knowledge or emotional support during the critical pre-teaching and student teaching periods can result in a slower, more labored shift of focus to the task. This, in turn, can result in failure on the part of the teacher to reach a concern for his or her impact on students.

Fuller’s concerns theory has several other implications. A teacher may return to an earlier stage of concern, for example, from a concern for pupils back to a concern for the task as a result of suddenly having to teach a new grade or subject. Or, she may move from a concern for task back to a concern for self as a result of having to teach in a different and unfamiliar school. Thus, teacher concerns may not always be determined developmentally but can be context-dependent as well. The time spent in a given stage the second time may be shorter than the first. Finally, the three stages of concern need not be exclusive of one another. A teacher may have concerns predominately in one area and still have concerns of lesser intensity in one or both of the other stages.

Educational Psychology and Teacher Growth and Development

An important question for any teacher is this: What type of knowledge and experiences are needed to pass successfully from an exclusive concern for self-survival to a concern for the impact the teacher is having on the students? Another question: What role can the study of educational psychology play in this passage from survival to impact?

Shulman (1992) identifies four types of knowledge that are crucial for teacher growth and development: (1) practical knowledge, which comes from student field experiences, student teaching, and regular teaching; (2) case knowledge, which comes from reading about what both successful and unsuccessful teachers have done; (3) theoretical knowledge, which comes from reading about important ideas, conceptual systems, and paradigms for thinking about teaching; and (4) empirical knowledge, which comes from reading what the research says about a particular subject and how to teach it.

Educational psychology is a discipline of inquiry that focuses primarily on the latter two categories of knowledge. We’ll look at how this knowledge is developed and used by educational psychologists to solve important classroom learning problems. But before learning how educational psychologists provide information to help teachers progress through the stages of teacher concerns, you may want to determine your own levels of concern for self, task, and impact at this point in your teaching career. In the accompanying box, you will find a Teacher Concerns Checklist. By completing this checklist and scoring your responses according to the directions provided, you can determine which stage of concern you presently identify with most closely. You may also want to complete the checklist again at the end of your educational psychology course and compare your scores to determine how much your levels of concern have changed from self to impact.

Exercise 1.5 Teacher Concerns Checklist

This checklist explores what teachers are concerned about at different stages of their careers. There are no right or wrong answers because each teacher has their own concerns. The following are statements of concerns you might have. Read each statement and ask yourself: WHEN I THINK ABOUT TEACHING, AM I CONCERNED ABOUT THIS?


not concerned


Little concerned


Moderately concerned


Very concerned


Preoccupied with concern

Whether students respect me.
Doing well when I’m observed.
Managing my time efficiently.
Losing the respect of my peers.
My ability to prepare adequate lesson plans.
Having my inadequacies become known to other teachers.
What the principal may think if there is too much noise in my classroom.
Obtaining a favorable evaluation of my teaching.
Losing the respect of my students.
My ability to maintain the appropriate degree of class control.
Getting students to behave.
Having an embarrassing incident occur in my classroom for which I might be judged responsible.
That my peers may think I’m not doing an adequate job.
Appearing competent to parents.
Teaching effectively when another teacher is present.


Insufficient clerical help for teachers.
Too many extra duties and responsibilities.
Insufficient time for rest and class preparation.
Not enough assistance from specialized teachers.
Not enough time for grading and testing.
The inflexibility of the curriculum.
Too many standards and regulations set for teachers.
The rigid instructional routine.
Having too many students in a class.
Lack of public support for schools.
Not having sufficient time to plan.
Not being able to cope with troublemakers in my classes.
My ability to work with disruptive students.
The large number of administrative interruptions.
Working with too many students each day.


Helping students to value learning.
Increasing students’ feelings of accomplishment.
Diagnosing student learning problems.
Whether each student is reaching his or her potential.
Recognizing the social and emotional needs of students.
Challenging unmotivated students.
Understanding why certain students make slow progress.
Understanding ways in which student health and nutrition problems can affect learning.
Meeting the needs of different kinds of students.
Seeking alternative ways to ensure that students learn the subject matter.
Understanding the psychological and cultural differences that can affect my students’ behavior.
Adapting myself to the needs of different students.
Guiding students toward intellectual and emotional growth.
Whether students can apply what they learn.
Understanding what factors motivate students to learn.


To determine your score, total the number of responses in each of the three categories of concern—self, task, and impact. The higher your score in a category (out of a maximum 75 points), the more you are identified with that stage of concern.

Source: Adapted from Borich and Tombari (1997).



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Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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