After 20 years of leading the New Teacher Center, the nonprofit that’s nationally recognized for its work mentoring incoming educators, Ellen Moir has learned a lot about what it takes to make a teacher successful.
On Friday, her last day before retiring from the nonprofit that she founded, Moir shared with Education Week some lessons learned about new teacher development and building effective school systems for all teachers. Before founding the New Teacher Center, Moir worked as the director of teacher education at the University of California at Santa Cruz and as a K-12 bilingual teacher.
About 5 percent of all new teachers in the United States work with the NTC, according to the group. Desmond Blackburn, the former superintendent of the Brevard County, Fla., school district, stepped into the role of CEO on Monday.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you founded the New Teacher Center, how were the attitudes toward new teacher mentorship and induction?
When I started the New Teacher Center in 1998, there weren’t many places in the country that were really doing much for new teachers. ... Across the country, we saw buddy systems, where individual teachers were asked to help a new teacher. A lot of it was well-intentioned but not focused on instruction. From the very beginning of the New Teacher Center, I had a vision, and my colleagues did as well, that we wanted to accelerate new teacher development and get new teachers on the path for excellence early to keep them [in the classroom] longer in the states with the greatest needs.
We began to work with school districts across the country to build a much more robust approach to new teacher development and mentoring. ... We wanted to really focus on instructional development for new teachers, as well as providing them the emotional support they needed to be successful. Early on, we realized that social-emotional [competencies] and academic development went hand-in-hand for new teachers and their students. I wanted to build career pathways for expert teachers, so that the most talented teachers in the school district would be able to teach new teachers how to teach.
From the beginning, we really wanted school districts to wrap their arms around not only new teachers but all teachers, and think about a talent-development strategy in the district that meets every teacher where they are and helps them move from good to very good to excellent. Really change up professional development, really turn it into much more contextualized, job-embedded [work], with actionable feedback. Meet with teachers on a weekly basis in their class [instead of just] a person coming in and saying, “I’m your mentor, call me when you need some help.” Most of us don’t want to reach out when we’re in need.
The country brings in so many new teachers every year, we can’t afford to lose them. ... Over the years, we really strived to get a research-based approach and evidence-based approach [to mentoring], and I think I feel most proud that we really introduced the country to a new vision, a new picture of what it means to develop our teachers. What we found is not only do new teachers need support, but all teachers want support.
How widespread are these practices in districts now?
We have a ways to go, but I think that we’re seeing a ripple effect—we’re seeing the practices being used across the country. We’ve been able to [release our] program standards as well as mentoring standards.
I think we just moved the discussion from buddy systems and one-size-fits-all professional development to ... feedback and support and development [for new teachers], and a really strong focus on instruction and standards and social-emotional development and really getting all kids college and career ready. I think the country is moving in that direction, and we’ve come a long way in 20 years.
What are some of the most important lessons that you learned throughout your career?
We need to recognize that teachers are not born, they’re developed. And if we want to really develop them, we need to put that as a top priority and build out the system within the district and the school level so all teachers—not just new teachers but all teachers—get instructional support.
I think that really contextualizing the work to the district, to the school, and to the classroom is hugely important. We want to teach our teachers to know their students well, and ... that’s the way we need to work with teachers—really know our teachers well and know the context they’re in. Within any district, there are so many exemplary teachers, and [we need to] rigorously select them to join the ranks of teaching teachers. It’s a huge lesson that our teachers have so much to offer, and I think we really [need to] look at how we build up the next level of teacher educators.
Another lesson is it’s really not just PD, it’s a movement. I believe it’s about strongly building a better profession. ... There’s been a number of studies showing that professional development doesn’t work, but we’re talking about very contextualized, specific development of teachers [that is inquiry- and evidence-based].
I think rigor and caring can go hand-in-hand. It’s not either/or. You can build relationships, you can really care about your teachers, and you can help them reach the highest level of practice. ... As we think about developing our teachers, I believe that relationships are at the heart of that work. Principals are key to ensuring that kind of learning environment and collaboration that teachers are hungry for.
We all need a coach. We all get up everyday wanting to be the best we can—and to have someone there who’s dedicated to your success. Teachers can thrive in that safe environment.
The time is now that we look at the teaching profession, and we create the kinds of conditions that not only recruit teachers but actually sustain them over their careers. If I could wave a wand, I would increase the salaries of teachers in a heartbeat, and I would develop the kind of learning environments where everyone’s learning, and teachers are at their cutting edge, and ... kids are thriving.
Sustaining the work is critical. I think teachers see a lot of things coming and going, and it’s easy for any of us to become cynical [and think] that “this too shall pass,” but our profession is about teaching kids and teaching teachers and teaching school leaders. [We need] to build a system that can withstand change in superintendents, change in leadership in a school [and is] really built into the DNA of the district.
What do you hope is the next stage for the New Teacher Center?
The New Teacher Center is filled with talent, and the new leader, Dr. Desmond Blackburn, has 23 years experience in education. ... I think that there’s so much ahead. I’d like to get to every new teacher in America. I’d like to be able to ensure that every new teacher, no matter where they land, gets the kind of instructional support that they need to be successful.
I think that not only do new teachers need support, but I’d like to really see us expand our instructional coaching work to more districts. I think the more we can support experienced teachers, the greater the opportunities are for our students. [We need] more engagement with principals. I think we’ve done a good job bringing principals into the mix, and now we’re doing new principal devleopment work with school districts. I would like to see all of those pieces come together, where teacher development and leader development are situated together in the school district.
Early learning is critical [to closing] the achievement gap. ... I think inducting new pre-K teachers and/or experienced pre-K teachers is a really important next phase for the New Teacher Center. ... I think there’s a number of areas around equity that will be critical for the whole country to engage in to make sure we’re meeting every student’s needs. I see the New Teacher Center as really adapting our work to ensure we’re using culturally responsive pedagogy.
What’s next for you?
I’m going with my husband to [spend] three weeks in Hawaii! When I come back, I’ll take another couple months to just pause, and I want to do whatever I can to support Desmond in easing the transition. ... I want to just be there to cheer the New Teacher Center on.
And then I’ll pick my head up and I want to keep making a difference. I have a lot more that I want to give, and I’ll have to figure out what that can look like.
Update, 8/13: This story has been updated with the most recent percentage of new teachers who work with the New Teacher Center. Five percent worked with the group in the 2017-18 school year.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.