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Mentoring Matters: Why We're Losing Good Teachers and How To Keep Them

When students enter the classroom on the first day of school, they are anxious and impatient. They have a million thoughts and fears. For new teachers, it's much the same. But while students can take their seats and settle in slowly, first-year teachers cannot. There are lessons to be taught, schedules to learn, supplies to be found, curricula to be followed, names to memorize.

Like those before them, first-year teachers are thrown into the profession with two jobs to do -- to teach and to learn to teach. How well they do both often times determines how long they will last in the profession.

"The beginning teacher must perform the full complement of teaching duties while trying to learn the duties at the same time," says Harry Wong, one of the country's leading education speakers and author of The First Days of School. "That's like asking a pilot to learn how to fly while taking passengers up for the first time."

Challenging first years linked to attrition

In professions such as medicine and law, new hires spend much of their first years learning from and interacting with veteran colleagues. In education, however, the predominant induction method for beginners has been "sink or swim," which has prompted many observers to dub the field "the profession that eats its young."

Mark White, a fifth-grade teacher in Omaha, Neb., remembers this challenging time: "No amount of lectures, books or student teaching could have prepared me for the enormity of teaching," says the third-year teacher. "I felt very alone and very scared."

Critically-acclaimed author Esme Raji Codell, in her book Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, says: "They talk about the rewards and gratification in teaching school -- they don't tell you it's like joining a monastery or going to hell or sleepwalking or being afraid, as afraid as you were when you were small."

Few teachers, in fact, relate positive experiences about their first years. Most experienced teachers shudder to remember their inductions, and newer teachers tend to tell of survival despite, rather than because of, the support they received. Individual anecdotes of new-teacher stress are backed by statistics on teacher migration and attrition. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of today's beginning teachers will quit the profession within five years. A recent report by Education Week suggests that the most talented new educators are often the most likely to leave. Experts warn that while school districts are clamoring to hire their share of the projected two million new teachers needed because of increasing teacher retirements and a booming student population, a more pressing problem remains. It's not how to attract new teachers into the field, they say, but how to keep them once they are on the job.

"Teaching is the only profession that expects its novices to fly solo," says NEA Past President Bob Chase. "New teachers need practical, ongoing support in the classroom."

New teacher support pays off

One in every five teachers is new to the profession in recent years, according to Market Data Retrieval. But if the staggering teacher attrition rates continue, less than half will become career teachers. Among the many reasons: little on-the-job support. New teachers often get the most challenging assignments in hard-to-staff schools. They enter school systems with a dreamlike vision, only to come face-to-face with harsh, unexpected realities (See Why Do New Teachers Leave? ).

Almost two-thirds of beginning teachers are younger than 27-years-old. As a group, they seek careers that will bring personal development, growth and experience. They value being part of decision-making processes, working in teams, having variety in their routines, being praised and rewarded for work well done, and having the freedom to be creative, not stymied, in their jobs. Unfortunately, that climate is too often not present in schools.

One thing is clear: when veteran teachers take the time and energy to incorporate new teachers into both the school culture and the Association, everyone wins. Pam Lillie, a second-year teacher in Armada, Mich., agrees: "A lot of new teachers don't understand the union, so they don't get involved."

"Because a veteran teacher took the time to educate me about the union's history, and encouraged me to share my views and concerns with others, I'm now convinced of its value," she says. "By helping me link my interests with those of the union, she helped me get involved. I'm now using that involvement to speak up for what I believe."

Lillie is also finding value in collaborating with her colleagues, which research has found most important to new teachers. Beginning teachers thrive where open, collaborative professional practice is the norm and tend to struggle in schools that are characterized by a culture of closed classroom doors and teachers who are forced to function as "independent contractors."

Ellen Moir, director of the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project, agrees: "Schools must transform into institutions that nurture new teachers and their students, that sustain teachers and the teaching profession," she says. Moir says that the best way to retain good teachers is by designing schools that are good places in which to teach -- for both the novice and veteran.

In many cases, creating a positive induction experience for new teachers is an essential component of this reform. Moir's Santa Cruz New Teacher Project, a 16-district consortium led by the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a good example. Since 1998, it has been supporting the efforts of new teachers with mentoring programs, cohort meetings and one-on-one counseling. In 12 years, less than five percent of participating teachers have left the profession.

It is also working here. Gail Dion, mentoring coordinator for the Agawam public schools and a member of the MTA Executive Committee said, "Our retention has been excellent, and our new teachers have really responded to the mentoring program." Dion says the Agawam mentoring program, which is now in its third consecutive year, matched 38 new teachers with one of the 80 trained mentors who ideally teach the same grade or subject in the same school building. In cases of music, art and foreign language, new teachers might have mentors in neighboring schools. So far, 86 new teachers have gone through the mentoring program, and according to Dion, the few teacher losses have been due to the relocation of a spouse or because of a teaching opportunity elsewhere, and only one of the new teachers has left the profession since the program began.

"Our candidates have been very good, retention is excellent, and we're thrilled with the new teachers," said Dion.

Across America, school officials are working in concert with Associations to establish systems that will give new teachers the nurturing and support they need to survive the critical first years. According to a recent U.S. Department of Education study, this effort is working. They have found that beginning teachers who participate in new teacher induction programs are nearly twice as likely to stay in the profession as those who don't.

Helping each other to advance the profession

"There may be differences between veteran and new teachers, but when it comes to what is really important - the children - almost all of us are on the same page," says Teri Dozier, senior advisor to former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Richard Riley. A 20-year veteran teacher, Dozier works on the department's new teacher efforts.

"Despite other lines of work that promise high status, rapid advancement, and quick riches, the majority of new teachers enter the profession for the same reason those before them did: to make a difference in the lives of children," she says. "Whatever our differences may be, we must use this commonality - this passion for teaching - to advance the profession."

By that, Dozier means putting into place mechanisms by which teachers, like other professionals, share and collaborate with each other: for example, common planning periods, shared office space, and forums to exchange ideas.

"We're not teaching in our grandmother's classrooms, and in 30 years, new teachers won't be teaching in ours," says Dozier. "In order to redefine and revolutionize our profession, we must collaborate, share support and resources, and use each other's unique talents and interests to make this the best profession it can be."

Sue Wallace, a veteran physical education teacher at the Barbieri Elementary School, and a member of the Framingham Education Association, reports that Framingham has had a formalized mentoring program in place for four years. This year, 130 new teachers (nearly one-sixth of all Framingham teachers are new!) are going through the mentoring program, with between 100 and 130 trained mentors. Each principal recruits mentors within the same department and building. The mentors, in return for their service, receive either a small stipend or a one-time bonus of three salary credits. They also receive one credit for professional development for participating in the mentor training program.

Wallace says that in the Barbieri Elementary School, nine new teachers started two years ago with mentors. As of this year, all nine are still in the Framingham school system and they have positive feedback about the program.

The Educational Association of Worcester is a partner in a unique program that gives even earlier support to the mentor concept. Over the past eight years, the Worcester Future Teachers' Academy has grown from a summer residential experience on the Worcester State College campus for high school students to a year-round citywide program serving both middle school and high school students. Students participate in after-school tutoring and academic enrichment, field trips, special events, and the summer program. To increase interest and provide high school students with teaching-like experiences, a number are selected for employment as tutors in the after-school academic enrichment program at the middle schools. Worcester public school teachers supervise these after-school programs.