Teacher Preparation

Watch Over Me

By Denise Kersten Wills — December 21, 2005 4 min read
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It’s a Tuesday evening in the early-gathering darkness of fall, and Michael-Jon Rodney sounds weary. The first-year teacher at Matoaca High School in Chesterfield, Virginia, gave out interim grades today, and more than half his world history students are failing. They’ve quit doing their work, and faced with such apathy, it’s tempting for him to do the same.

Rookie educators such as Michael-Jon Rodney often quit within a few years. But experts say Suzanne McLean and other mentors increase retention.

“It gets you down,” says Rodney, who wasn’t prepared for the widespread lack of student effort he’s seen during his first months in the classroom.

According to experts, Rodney’s frustration fits a familiar pattern: Teachers join the profession hoping to inspire students, but their training doesn’t fully prepare them for the realities of the classroom. What’s more, the lifelines administrators provide to new hires aren’t always reliable. Most veteran teachers mandated by state or local officials to serve as mentors are not given time or money to provide more than a cursory orientation to their new peers. Cast adrift to sink or swim, many first-year educators quickly lose confidence or grow disillusioned, then quit. One-third of new teachers leave the profession within three years, and nearly half are gone within five years, according to research by University of Pennsylvania associate professor Richard Ingersoll.

But Rodney’s chances of staying in the profession are significantly better. His mentor, 20-year teaching veteran Suzanne McLean, spends several hours each week observing his classes, discussing his progress and strategies, researching lesson plans, and generally pitching in as needed. She even volunteered to bake treats to motivate students.

It wasn’t just luck that Rodney got such a devoted mentor—that’s McLean’s full-time job. As part of a pilot program funded by a federal grant and inaugurated this year by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Teacher Leadership, she and 11 other experienced educators in the Richmond, Virginia, area are spending two years as “beginning teacher advisers,” all earning their regular teacher salaries and assisting 10 to 15 newcomers.

Although classroom apprenticeships are almost as old as education, systematic mentoring of new teachers in the United States was first widely deployed in the late 1980s and early 1990s in hopes of stemming attrition. But many jurisdictions provided little to no money or dedicated time for mentors. “In a lot of places,” says Terry Dozier, director of the Center for Teacher Leadership, “the best they can do is provide the beginning teacher with a buddy.”

Such “buddy”-level setups didn’t help much, as studies by Ingersoll and others later showed: By 1999-2000, two-thirds of beginning teachers nationwide were working with a mentor—at least on paper—but the percentage of those leaving the profession remained high.

On the other hand, the few schools that did include the collaborative planning, teaching demonstrations, networking, and other elements critics found lacking in buddy-type mentorships had high retention rates. Ingersoll’s study of new teachers in 2000-01 found that offering a broad network of induction support, including mentoring, cut attrition by more than half. Only 18 percent of those given such help left their schools or the profession in a year, he reported, while 40 percent of those with no support quit. Over the longer term, studies of the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Project—a full-spectrum induction initiative by the New Teacher Center at the University of California-Santa Cruz—showed that after six years, 88 percent of new teachers with broad mentor services were still in the classroom.

“You get what you pay for,” Ingersoll says. “If you offer a fuller, richer package, then you get better retention.”

Districts and states are beginning to wake up to the distinction. New York City has introduced a program similar to Richmond’s, in which experienced teachers split their time between classroom teaching and mentoring, that will be expanded citywide next year. Both pilots were developed through partnerships with the New Teacher Center, which is working with districts in 31 states.

But there’s still plenty of room for improvement: Only 16 states finance mentoring at all, and they typically provide only small stipends. In Virginia, for example, mentors working outside the Richmond pilot are paid just $250 annually.

Money may indeed be the bottom line. Using data from schools in California and Connecticut, the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that comprehensive induction costs approximately $4,000 per teacher each year.On the other hand, using national numbers, the group estimates that replacing a new teacher costs an average of $12,500. That may be moot for districts too strapped to come up with the money upfront, but in the long run, says Bob Wise, the AEE’s president and former governor of West Virginia, “You’re going to save more than you’re putting in.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher Magazine as Watch Over Me

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