Improving Retention and Quality Simultaneously
Imagine putting new hires alone in an office, isolated from co-workers, giving them a difficult job to do, and then expecting that they perform at the same level as the experienced colleague next door. Hardly a formula for success, but that’s exactly what we do with many new teachers.
Our education system’s shocking indifference to the fate of its newest members is an embarrassment.
As schools open each fall, thousands of beginning teachers receive little more than a student roster and a classroom key. Usually fresh out of college and in their first job, these novices are often subjected to a hazing ritual that involves placing them in the most difficult jobs in the hardest-to-staff schools. They work long hours, planning lessons and learning complex curriculum requirements in isolation. They struggle to manage 30 students, each with individual needs and abilities.
It’s a sink-or-swim experience.
With little support, it’s no wonder that about 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within four years.
We’re paying a high price for not supporting our beginning teachers. School districts, especially urban ones, spend significant sums to recruit high-quality teachers. With each new school year, a staffing crisis looms. Failure to invest in the new teachers who are hired means that the next year the whole cycle starts again, as burned-out and disillusioned new teachers flee the classroom for better salaries and working conditions. Teaching positions at our neediest schools continue to be a revolving door.
Our failure to invest in teacher induction and retention is counterproductive and shortsighted. One recent analysis showed that the cost of teacher turnover has reached $5 billion a year. This figure does not even begin to account for the toll on schools and students whose teachers are constantly under stress and in flux. With the growing number of new teachers needed to replace baby-boomer retirees, we have to start doing a better job now.
Many districts have induction programs for new teachers, but too often these only deal with logistics, or assign a new teacher a “buddy” to provide emotional support for life in the trenches. What new teachers really need is the guidance of successful, experienced teachers trained to mentor. And both mentors and new teachers need time off from other duties to work together to improve teaching.
Effective mentoring requires mentors to work with new teachers in their classrooms and to base their support on the realities of the challenges new teachers face. Since experienced teachers more quickly grasp the needs of a classroom, they can provide options for solving student and curriculum challenges. And they can help novices make better and faster decisions about lesson plans, teaching strategies, and assessment. Beginning teachers who receive this instructional support from the start focus less on day-to-day survival and more on instruction. They become more confident and more skilled.
New-teacher support programs improve retention and teaching simultaneously.
Students benefit from the enthusiasm of new teachers and the experience of senior teachers. New teachers become more effective teachers faster. Parents appreciate that their children are getting a better education. And, with comprehensive mentoring and support, new teachers are more likely to stay on the job. Our program, the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project, one of California’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Programs, is working with 900 new K-12 teachers in 31 school districts in our region. Two studies have shown that, after six years, the retention rate for our new teachers is 88 percent.
Another benefit of new-teacher support programs is that this new mentor role reinvigorates veteran teachers. The training they receive to be mentors and the ability to share their expertise gives them a midcareer boost. Their knowledge and skills contribute to the successful entry of a new generation of teachers—an important professional legacy. They return to the classroom as refreshed and even better teachers or find other avenues to share their new expertise.
School districts benefit from higher-quality teaching, better retention, and faster gains in student achievement. Money poured into recruitment isn’t lost, as new teachers improve more rapidly and return the next year.
We know that quality teaching is the key to student achievement. Yet it is unrealistic to expect the novice to enter teaching with all the skills and knowledge of the 10- or 20-year veteran. Quality mentoring is essential in classrooms with beginning teachers.
Every new teacher in every school district deserves the chance to become a quality teacher. Comprehensive induction programs focused on teaching and learning are a wise investment. These induction programs must also be part of a larger scaffold that includes strong, dynamic school leaders who know how to create environments in which all teachers, new and experienced, can thrive.
Thousands of eager, committed, and caring new teachers entered our classrooms this school year. With the great and growing need for quality teachers, we cannot afford to lose any of them. They are, after all, the key to raising student achievement.
Vol. 25, Issue 14, Page 36Published in Print: December 7, 2005, as New-Teacher Support