Mentoring Teachers to Stay in School

An interesting article in today’s news: I knew teacher retention rates were bad, but 50% of new teachers quitting after five years on the job is an extraordinary problem. The mentor program outlined below seems like a good first step.

I remember my own student teacher training: two semesters of theory in the college classroom, followed by six weeks of student teaching. The theory, I’m sorry to say, was more or less useless. There was no connection between what I learned in the halls of academia and what was really going on in the classrooms, or at least, I had absolutely no frame of reference for what the professors were telling me. I remember wishing I had been thrust into the classroom first, for a much longer time, and handed the theories later. We would be much better served training our teachers (and compensating our teachers) the way we train doctors, with an extensive internship and residency program. Teaching children is no less important than saving lives. I have no illusions that will ever happen, but it is a shame. I remember a survey a few years ago in which people were polled about their attitudes toward the teaching profession. A vast majority thought teaching was an important profession and wanted their own children to have quality teachers. When asked if they would like to see their own children grow up to be teachers, an equally vast majority said no. What is wrong with this picture?

States try mentoring to retain teachers
By JULIA SILVERMAN, Associated Press WriterWed Feb 7, 3:07 AM ET

States from Oregon to Georgia are considering pouring millions of dollars into mentoring programs for new teachers, aiming to stop educators from spending just a few years in the classroom before leaving the field.

Researchers estimate as many as 50 percent of teachers nationwide will leave the profession within their first five years on the job, fed up and frustrated.

The classroom churn is hardest on students, especially those in poor, urban schools that are prone to losing the most teachers. Consistently adjusting to new teachers’ quirks isn’t easy, educators and students say, and first-year teachers often find themselves just a few days ahead of their students in their lesson plans or struggling to keep order in their classrooms.
It’s also expensive for taxpayers. The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellence in Education has pegged the national cost of annual teacher turnover at $2.2 billion, including human resources and recruitment costs.

Nearly every state already has some mentor program to pair new teachers with veteran counterparts. But so far just a handful of states, led by Connecticut and California, have put aside significant money for such programs, said Jeanne Kaufman, a policy analyst at the Denver, Colo.-based Education Commission of the States.

The surge of interest in such programs, she said, stems largely from a broad experiment with mentoring in California. In the 1990s, California tried a new retention program after losing about 50 percent of its new teachers every year.

Liam Goldrick, director of policy for the New Teacher Center, based at the University of California in Santa Cruz, said the program is now in place in every school district in the state and the retention rate has risen to about 84 percent.

Other states have taken notice. In Oregon, where only a handful of districts have such programs, Gov. Ted Kulongoski included $5 million in his proposed budget to phase in a three-year mentoring program.

Illinois is funding a pilot mentoring program in 10 school districts, with an eye toward future expansion, Goldrick said. And in Georgia, an education advocacy group recently released a report calling for lawmakers to approve funds for a two-year mentor program costing up to $75 million.

Many mentor programs pair one veteran teacher with up to a dozen new ones. The veteran commonly acts as a sounding board, observing the new teachers in their classrooms and strategizing about what works and what doesn’t.

Melissa Allen, 25, is only about seven years older than most of her language arts students at Beaverton High School in a Portland suburb, one of the few districts in Oregon that hasn’t waited for state money to launch its mentor program.

She said she spends much of her time negotiating a balance in her classroom, trying to land somewhere between friend and authority figure. Having a mentor has helped her navigate everything from whether she’s covering material quickly enough to what to do when she hears through the grapevine about a student’s drinking problem, she said.

“The safety net is huge,” Allen said. “If I mess up, there’s someone to say, `OK, you did mess up, now how are you going to fix it?'”

Her mentor, David Nieslanik, a social studies teacher, said this time of year is when he’s needed most, when the newness of the job has worn off, testing data floods in and calls about failing grades have to be made to parents.

He said he’s seen the mentor program make a difference at Beaverton, which has lost only a handful of rookies in the past few years.

Still, mentor programs don’t come cheap. For programs to have an impact, Goldrick said, veteran teachers need time off from their own classrooms. Nieslanik, for example, only teaches part-time. That means paying other teachers to pick up the slack. Researchers also recommend that schools pay for professional development for teachers, and to test their teaching skills after their first two years on the job.

Doing that can cost between $3,500 to $5,500 per new teacher, Goldrick said.
Some researchers caution that although such programs are proven to help with retention, the jury is still out on whether they help students learn more.
There are no “solid, quantitative studies” that look at whether teachers who participated in mentoring programs have seen their students’ scores on standardized tests improve, said Jeremey Ayers, a policy analyst at the Alliance for Excellent Education. But there is solid research showing that when teachers have at least five years of experience, students do better, he said.

Dan Humphrey, associate director at the Center for Education Policy at SRI, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based nonprofit, said mentor programs are “certainly no magic bullet.”
Most schools don’t track student test scores as they relate to their teachers’ experience level or background, he said. Other factors such as whether teacher aides are present or tutors are available also affect students’ testing performance, he said.

Rick Riordan