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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The New Teacher Project: Support for Educators During Their First Years

This program based in Santa Cruz, California, gives novice teachers the tools and mentors they need.
By Ellen Moir

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.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am trying to find some support for my boyfriend who is a new teacher in the New York Teaching Fellows program. He is teaching 7th grade English and at this point, only has a mentor who he will see monthly. His first two teaching weeks, he was given no textbooks and not much of a curriculum. I am also a teacher with a few years of experience. I teach 1st grade now, but started by teaching 7th and felt just the way he does, buried, unsupported and frankly, hating my life. Thankfully, after several years of floundering, I finally found my way. He is considering quitting after only 2 weeks because he feels so anxious and overwhelmed. What kind of support is out there for him? How can he find a mentor who he sees weekly? I should add that we are both in our fifties, so we have a lot of life experience that we bring to teaching.

Lora's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know that the first year can be very trying. Your boyfriend definitely needs to find a mentor to help him through this time. Have him start by getting to know the other teachers in the school and building friendships with them. Soon, he will determine which teachers are more open than others. He should find one or two teachers in whom he can trust and start to ask them questions that he has about teaching. Many teachers are willing to share - he just needs to find them. If he cannot find any in his building, then tell him to search in other schools in the corporation. Additionally, he could contact a local college which places student teachers and talk with the education department. He can ask if they know of any good teachers with whom he can connect. The staff in the education programs often know which teachers are good mentors. Furthermore, the college may give him names of their mentors and he can contact one of them to see if they would be willing to give him advice. The Internet has many good websites for teachers, including some with discussion groups. He may be able to find a secondary English teacher there for a mentor. Teachers are some of the most giving people in the world. If your boyfriend expands his search, I am sure that he will find someone who would be willing to help him through this transition time.

Valery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At the beginning of their professional activities novice teachers are faced with certain difficulties. Failure to accurately calculate the time in the classroom, build a logical sequence of stages of lesson, difficulty in explaining the material, the lack of mutual understanding with their colleagues - this is not an exhaustive list of troubles, harassing new teachers.
Novice teacher must adapt to a new team, establish correct relations with children, be able to speak gently and emotionally in the classroom, try to interest their children in their subject. That is, in short, learn to teach. They need to develop their individual style of communicating with children, colleagues and school officials.

julia foree's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I subbed in 7th and recall that discipline issues can ruin the day. (As they can at any level.) Fred Jones Tools for Teaching articles on edutopia or Chris Sergetti (sp)'s web site Classroom Management 101 may be of assistance. Plus of course the wonderful suggestions above about digging out a real mentor no matter what it takes.

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