Ellen Moir is executive director of the New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Credit: UCSC New Teacher Center
The traditional method of launching a teacher's career rests on the myth that graduates of teacher-credential programs are prepared to teach unassisted in a classroom. Historically, we treat new teachers the same as we do veteran teachers. That means we give them a key to their room and say, "Here you go, and good luck."
That system hasn't worked. Up to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years, and this is at a time when the country is in desperate need of qualified new teachers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 2 million new teachers must be hired by 2010 due to class-size reduction, a demographic bulge of teachers approaching retirement, and a scandalously high attrition rate among new teachers.
But there is a remedy for a system that discourages, rather than encourages, many teachers, and it has been well documented at the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project. The appropriate assistance, counsel, and instruction for fledging teachers can keep them in the classroom and turn disillusionment into enthusiasm.
What we've come to understand in the last decade is that novices entering teaching, like those entering any profession, need what we call an induction phase -- a developmental process in which new teachers receive ongoing support, opportunities for professional growth, and a means of receiving continuing feedback during the first few years.
Regardless of the quality of their preparation, teachers in their first year face an overwhelming number of concerns, such as setting up a new classroom, developing curricula for a new group of students with wide ranges of abilities, grading papers, learning to talk with parents, and dealing with an endless cascade of paperwork and other minutiae. Often, as is the nature of day-to-day classroom teaching, these issues must be dealt with quickly and, in the traditional system, without anyone to turn to for advice. New teachers working in isolation navigate a slow and painful learning curve.
Using this trial-by-fire method exacts a high price on new teachers, their students, and the entire school community. Faced with a multitude of problems and a lack of support, new teachers quickly become disillusioned, and many leave the profession.
We simply can't afford to continue with the status quo.
A Catalyst for Change
We have found that beginning teachers in the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project who have had the continuous support of a talented mentor have greater job satisfaction and are much more likely to continue teaching. Ninety-four percent of the teachers who began our program in 1992-93 are still in the profession.
Our experience in working with more than 2,000 beginning teachers shows their performance in the classroom is greatly accelerated when they receive ongoing support. In our surveys with principals, they often report that first-year teachers from our program perform like third-year teachers. Having the support of a mentor helps a new teacher develop and reflect on classroom strategies, set up long- and short-term curriculum plans, and set the kind of learning environment they would like in their classroom. This type of dedicated support enhances teacher development and satisfaction.
In addition to curriculum development and teaching support, mentors offer emotional support at a time when a teacher is a beginner in a new profession. When someone else is there to say, "When back-to-school night comes in two weeks, these are the kinds of questions parents will be asking," new teachers get boost in confidence and a jump on what is to be expected.
Susan Friedlund, a former participant at the New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz, works with a young student.
Credit: UCSC New Teacher Center
Drawing on Veterans' Expertise
The most significant component of any induction program is the quality of the experienced teacher who works with the new teacher. Like teaching, becoming an effective new-teacher mentor is an ongoing learning process. Building these teachers' skills as leaders is something we take seriously. In the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project, we provide weekly professional development meetings where forty mentors -- known as advisers -- discuss progress and concerns about their development and learn effective strategies to move beginning teacher practice forward.
In our model, we release exemplary teachers for two years to work with a caseload of fourteen beginning teachers, which offers a new role for expert teachers. To give this cadre of mentor teachers the set of skills necessary to be successful, we offer instruction not only about classroom practice but also about group facilitation, conflict resolution, presentation skills, running effective meetings, and collecting and analyzing student work against content standards. The teachers also learn how to use the data -- which may include test scores, report cards, student work, and cumulative files -- to make changes in teaching practice.
The new-teacher advisers are carefully matched with beginning teachers according to grade level and subject matter. The advisers meet with new teachers weekly in their classrooms to observe, coach, and offer emotional support. They help with planning, suggest classroom management strategies, teach demonstration lessons, assist with assessment, and facilitate communication with principals.
A mentor's support can be very explicit: "When I was in your classroom, I was wondering about your grouping strategy. What outcomes did you want for student learning? What did you notice happened?" The mentor also has a vision for what an excellent classroom should look like and might ask, "Is there equity of participation? Do all students have access to the curriculum?"
Advisers work to build strong, trusting relationships which become fundamental to the success of all support and assessment strategies. Online tools such as email and Web sites provide additional opportunities for mentors and new teachers to share questions and concerns and extend their relationship beyond face-to-face interactions.
Mentoring a new teacher helps the veteran learn and grow as never before. Veteran teachers have a chance to step out of their classrooms and observe new teachers in many teaching situations. They broaden their perspective of effective teaching and articulate the expertise they have developed over their career. They also have a chance to reflect on their own practices. And when they return to their district and continue teaching, they return with a new set of skills and knowledge. These teachers emerge as leaders in their district and community.
Collaborative Learning Cultures
Supporting new teachers represents one of the most significant reform efforts that has ever landed in our public schools. By addressing the needs of new teachers, we often remove many of the barriers that traditionally keep teachers isolated. Even in schools where only a single teacher receives support, the message is sent that teaching matters. Teachers see that collaboration and teacher-to-teacher support is important.
Where large numbers of new teachers receive support, we see entire schools engaged in continuous conversations about teaching and student learning. In these learning communities, teachers come together to collect and analyze student work, which then informs curriculum development and instructional practices. These are the processes that promote accountability and improve student achievement schoolwide. Ongoing support of all teachers becomes a regular part of the daily routines of the classroom and the school when the school is responsive to new teachers' individual needs.
Advancing the Teaching Profession
Supporting new teachers represents a major shift in thinking about the teaching profession. Addressing the skills and knowledge necessary to help new teachers be successful raises new questions about how to design learning communities where students, veteran teachers, and administrators can be successful. This work requires new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. It requires new norms and practices of professionalism, career-long learning, and inquiry into the practice of teaching.
The next ten years are crucial for the teaching profession. The reality is that learning to teach is a lifelong process, and it takes time. We need to not only recruit great teachers but also give them the kind of ongoing, steady support and development that sustain them over their career. Money, time, and energy must be focused on creating a profession in which teachers can thrive. Only then will our students reap the benefits and experience the very best education that is central to our democracy.