Four years ago, one out of three science teachers in Oakland was a first year teacher. Due to a combination of the lowest pay in the Bay Area and some of the most challenging conditions as well, we have had a tough time retaining teachers, especially in the field of science, where well-educated individuals have so many options. Many of our science teachers enter through an internship program that only asks for a two-year commitment. Three years after they begin, 75% of these interns are gone.
This high turnover creates serious problems. Novice teachers have energy and spirit, but usually lack the curricular and management tools to teach well. We have many small schools, so it is not unusual to have a school where the science department chair is a second or third-year teacher. When I started teaching, I survived in part because of a few experienced colleagues who shared tips and lessons with me, and reassured me when I had a tough day. Our novices are often surrounded by other novices, and lack that reservoir of expertise.
In the year 2008, we formed a partnership with the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, and, with funding from the Sidney Frank Foundation, launched TeamScience. We recruited twenty veteran teachers from across the District, and assigned them each one or two novice teachers to support. Our goals were to increase collaboration and collegiality across the District, to build the leadership of the mentors, to increase the effectiveness of new teachers, and to reduce the level of turnover.
Each mentor is expected to meet weekly with his mentee, and work with them closely to develop lesson plans, observe them teaching, reflect on student work and figure out ways to be more effective. We use the induction process that is embedded in California’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) system, which has a powerful set of tools that support this work. We hold mentor forums where we meet to practice and develop our skill as mentors, and occasional weekend retreats to build our sense of community. This video shows some of our work.
In the first year, we were focused on learning basic mentoring skills. How do we talk to our teachers about the issues they are facing? How do we use these mentoring tools? We had to learn to be good mentors first. Now that we are in our third year, we are learning what we can do as science mentors. Many of our beginning teachers have been trained to “cover” large amounts of material, because that is what is on the test. Sometimes they do not understand how to teach or assess their students’ deeper understanding. So we have spent time this year probing how much our students are really grasping, and developing strategies to deepen this.
I have served as a mentor myself to more than a dozen teachers over the past three years. It is amazing to watch a teacher grow from those nervous and awkward beginning months into confident practitioners by the end of their second year. And several mentees have made the transition to becoming mentors themselves, in their third or fourth year of teaching.
We have seen our mentors grow in their expertise, and they are true leaders in our District. And we have started to see some results in the level of turnover. In the year prior to TeamScience, 32% of our secondary science teachers were in their first year. This year, we have that portion down to 13%. Some of this may be due to hard times in the economy, so we cannot take all the credit. But we feel as if we have had a real impact, and our mentees indicate that they feel more effective as a result of our work. And while the state tests in science are not a full indicator of student learning, we have seen the portion of tenth graders proficient in science rise from 20% to 30%, and eighth graders go from 35% to 45% proficient, just in the past two years.
The greatest credit for this success goes to our mentors, who, as full time classroom teachers, take on the responsibility of supporting their colleagues, sometimes even at school sites across town. Sarah Young and Mike Russo of the New Teacher Center have worked closely with us from the start to develop our mentoring skills. And my colleagues, Caleb Cheung and Phil Cotty have provided steady leadership to the project.
Retaining science teachers in an urban district such as Oakland is a tough task. TeamScience draws on the most precious resource we have - the expertise and dedication of our own teachers. It has indeed taken a team effort to make a difference here.
Have you experienced the challenge of teacher turnover? What do you think of the TeamScience model?
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