Student Well-Being

For Rural Teachers, Support Is a Click Away

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 26, 2013 7 min read
Linda Dixon, a teacher at MacArthur Elementary School in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., mentors less-experienced teachers via the Internet. "It's like our own little family, our own little community," she says.
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Though located hundreds of miles apart, only one thing separated Kansas teacher Linda Dixon from the six novice special educators she advised last year: bandwidth.

Day and night, the veteran teacher offered personalized advice and support to her junior colleagues in all corners of the Sunflower State, as well as stimulated discussions among them and pointed the group toward resources through the online platform that kept them all connected.

“The whole purpose is to try to get them engaged,” Ms. Dixon said. “It’s like our own little family, our own little community.”

Online mentoring—or E-Mentoring for Student Success, as it’s called by the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based New Teacher Center, which facilitates the Kansas initiative—is beginning to catch on as states seek ways to support new teachers that aren’t limited by geography or time. Those two factors have been particularly challenging for teachers in rural locales, where the nearest physics, calculus, or special education teacher might be in a school or district hours away.

“We are not a unique state, in that we have a large land mass and that we have districts that are small with great distances between them,” said Colleen Riley, the director of early childhood, special education, and title services for federal programs at the Kansas education department.

Program History

Kansas’ program began last year, but the roots of the E-Mentoring for Student Success initiative go back a decade.

The New Teacher Center, the National Science Teachers Association, and the Science Math Resource Center at Montana State University, in 2002, with support from the National Science Foundation, came together to create an online platform for math and science teachers.

The goal: to learn how technology could support teachers during the tumultuous first years in the classroom.

Gaining a classroom footing can be particularly tough for teachers of specialized content areas when they are isolated by geography or stretched by local needs. That was the case with the last cohort advised by Catherine Stierman, a mentor in the life sciences.

“Most of them were in small schools or had more than three courses to prep,” said Ms. Stierman, an instructor at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, who is now writing her doctoral dissertation on the program. “If you’re one of only a couple of science teachers, it’s hard to get the help you need. You know the other person is really bogged down, too.”

The New Teacher Center matches each teacher with an experienced peer in his or her field, selected through a competitive application process. (About five people apply for each mentoring spot.) It trains the mentors on how to build trust with the novices and how to probe in the online discussion among their cohort members.

Mentors are compensated up to $3,000 annually depending on how many teachers they support.

Each mentor is expected to interact with the members of his or her group at least twice a week, through private messaging or a conversation by phone or Skype. The mentor also poses questions for the group each week for reflection, leads weekly online conversations, or leads an “exploration” of a particular instructional problem over several weeks. The Web portal that helps the new teachers connect also gives them access to other content experts and training opportunities.

Over the decade, the program has grown and evolved. The science teachers’ group continues to use it as part of its New Science Teacher Academy, which supports teachers in their second to fifth years in the classroom.

The New Teacher Center has expanded the e-mentoring program to other content areas such as math. And in 2010, with help from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs and several state education departments, it tailored the program for special educators. They are matched with mentors who specialize in exceptionalities, such as behavior or autism spectrum disorders.

In all, some 1,500 teachers across all 50 states now participate in the center’s e-mentoring program. Sources of funding differ: Districts and states usually pick up the tab, but even some businesses, such as Boeing, have chipped in to support educators in their communities.

A Special Need

Kansas’ involvement was born out of a specific desire to curb “churn” among special educators. The state requires mentoring for new teachers, but the vagaries of local control and budgeting mean that district implementation varies from the well-thought-out to the haphazard.

State data show that, in recent years, more than 800 special educators in Kansas have turned over annually, according to Julie Wilson, the coordinator of statewide recruitment and retention for the Greenbush Education Service Center, in Girard.

And a significant number of special education hires have held nonstandard qualifications. About 14 percent of special educators in 2011-12 did not hold qualified licenses, far higher than the 2 percent in math and 4 percent in science, Ms. Wilson said.

Improving beginning support for such teachers seemed an attractive solution, but it posed logistical obstacles.

“We knew if we tried to do face-to-face mentoring, it would be challenging,” Ms. Wilson said. “We couldn’t get matches in our rural areas because there weren’t enough experienced teachers to go out and serve as mentors. And it would be shooting ourselves in the foot because we’d be taking an experienced educator out of their position.”

The solution was to help practicing classroom teachers like Ms. Dixon spread their expertise further through e-mentoring.

Kindra Rowley, in rural Lyons, Kan., was one of six teachers Ms. Dixon mentored last year. With only limited exposure during her teacher-preparation program to individualized education programs, or IEPs, Ms. Rowley sought extra help navigating the complex documents, which set out goals and supports for each special education student.

She usually was able to receive help in less than 24 hours, either from Ms. Dixon, who checks her messages several times a day, or from other special educators in her cohort.

Ms. Rowley believes e-mentoring has a distinct advantage over more traditional types: the ability to seek instructional guidance without the discomfort of inquiring from a supervisor.

“I save my questions for Linda,” she said.

Ms. Stierman, the Iowa-based life-sciences mentor, believes the layer of anonymity can help novices build resilience.

“You see that there are other people out there that are having the same struggles, and it’s OK to ask for help,” she said. “It’s a confidence builder for them.”

Designs Evolving

Research linking the effects of online professional development to student learning remains relatively thin, but a few newer studies support the notion that teacher coaching done remotely can be effective at changing practice in ways that benefit students.

A 2011 study conducted by University of Virginia researchers linked student gains to changes in teacher instruction that occurred after the teachers received support keyed to a teaching framework from an online mentor.

“There are advantages from the standpoint of ensuring intensity, focus, alignment with teacher goals, and time, all of which make the intervention more effective, I think,” said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the university and one of the authors of the study.

That online program has expanded to train Native American teachers in rural Head Start programs, he added.

More recently, University of Michigan researchers found that professional development on an inquiry-based environmental-sciences curriculum was equally effective delivered online or in person. The primary author of that study, Barry J. Fishman, said the findings suggest that the design of professional development may be the most important question for other scholars to probe.

“The research focus should not be on comparing one thing to another. It should be on trying to understand which designs are more effective than others at accomplishing your goals,” said Mr. Fishman, an associate professor of learning technologies.

Video Analysis

The New Teacher Center’s program isn’t resting on its laurels. In an echo of Mr. Pianta’s work, it has been piloting the use of cameras in e-mentoring. New teachers in Kansas participating in the program this fall will begin uploading taped portions of their lessons to a secure website, where mentors can access them.

The mentors will be able to annotate time stamps on the videos, so they can discuss with the teachers specific pieces of instruction or interactions with students.

It’s an important evolution, Ms. Stierman said, that will provide more insight into the questions new teachers have and make the mentoring more relevant.

“It’s getting to know them and the context of their teaching,” she said. “In my experience, they’re way harder on themselves and they see things on the videotapes that bother them that I might never notice.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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