Matthew Byrne

Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only


Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Education and Arts


Teaching is a challenging profession. Teachers and schools that deal primarily with disadvantaged students are faced with a unique set of challenges that make their work more complex and demanding, and consequently make these schools harder to staff. According to Angus, Olney & Ainley (2007), “The supply of able teachers prepared to teach in challenging schools is perhaps the most important issue facing primary education” (p.110). The word ‘challenge’ is often used by people in relation to teaching but lacks a clearly understood meaning.

This exploratory research examined the experiences of Western Australian teachers in situations they described as ‘challenging’ in a difficult to staff school in the metropolitan area. An interpretive study using case study techniques was conducted in a primary school for a year. Through engaging with teachers in dialogue throughout the course of a school year, an understanding of the construct of ‘challenge’ in the context of a difficult-to-staff low socio-economic status (SES) school was developed. It was found that there was a consistent, social construction of this term.

Findings suggest that the teacher challenges could be organised into a structured schema that reflects the events and situations the teachers found challenging. These challenges were found to be overarching and were represented as Pre-eminent challenges that encompassed the significant teacher challenges at the school. The Preeminent Challenges were found to provide a common vocabulary and framework of reference to describe and discuss significant teacher challenges. The findings of the study suggest that challenges were multidimensional in nature and were intricately tied to how teachers responded to them. The key factors that influenced teacher responses were also identified in the study. It was found that challenges that had a clearly understood meaning could be better responded to and resolved.

These findings have led to a deeper understanding of the day to day lives of teachers, particularly the challenges that they face when working in a low SES, difficult-to-staff school. This new understanding has lead to a greater awareness of how to better support teachers in these challenging contexts, and this has pertinent implications for the teaching profession. In particular, the critical need for extra support for the social and emotional wellbeing of teachers who work in challenging contexts was demonstrated. Furthermore, the profound impact of the local community on the school was detailed as was the importance of reflective practice for teachers in these contexts. Valuable insights were obtained into how teachers can work more effectively with students from disadvantaged and diverse cultural backgrounds.

LCSH Subject Headings

Primary school teachers - Job stress.

Primary school teaching - Psychological aspects.

Primary school teaching.

Teacher turnover.

Children with social disabilities - Education.