A shift from 'sink or swim' to mentoring new teachers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ask experienced teachers about their first years in the classroom, and you'll frequently detect an involuntary shudder with the response.

"I faked my way through [the first] four years," says John Wolfe, an instructor at the Bank Street College of Education in New York. "I did fall in love with the kids, but I didn't know what to do with them apart from caring for them."

The whole experience, he recalls, was strictly "sink or swim."

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The American approach to forging new teachers has long resembled a survival course. While many Asian and European schools ease beginning teachers into their duties over a few years - often limiting their time in the classroom and generally ensuring they have access to experienced mentors - new teachers in this country rarely get such support.

But growing concerns about potentially severe teacher shortages over the next several years is causing a reassessment of this practice. A lack of support is a fundamental reason that one-third to one-half of new teachers leave the profession after just a few years. As a result, experts are targeting everything from in-school practices to teacher-education programs in giving teachers more than theory and enthusiasm to handle the challenges of the classroom.

The problem can be acute - in both wealthy and struggling districts. "I've seen schools where considerable effort was being expended on making the bulletin boards look good, while talented first-year teachers were struggling in their classrooms," says Mr. Wolfe. Indeed, many new teachers are often assigned to classes or schools where others are reluctant to teach.

Studies show that even one year in the classroom with an ineffective teacher can slow the academic achievements of some students for years to come, a consideration that compounds concerns about struggling first-year teachers.

A starting point for reform, suggest critics of the current system, would be to require schools of education to more effectively prepare their students for the realities of life in the classroom. In a recent survey by Public Agenda in New York, 66 percent of new teachers said they entered the classroom without sufficient experience, and more than half said their classes in education school emphasized theory at the expense of practice.

Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia, says it can be heartbreaking to watch new teachers' idealism shattered by their early experiences - particularly in the case of those who teach in challenging schools.

"You get a lot of missionary zeal among the most talented young teachers," he says. "They come from good schools, they've done a lot of learning, and they're eager to share it."

Many of these beginning teachers also pick up the idea that if they have invigorating and exciting lessons, they won't have to worry about discipline.

But "it simply doesn't work that way," says Professor Hess. "To be an effective teacher, obviously you've got to make it interesting. But before you can do that, you've got to exercise control."

Too many education schools, he suggests, offer either "boring, meandering education courses" focused on theory, or lofty, inspiring classes that "infuse [the students] with big ideas."

What's needed, he says, is "to give them a sense of the real situation they're encountering," and to focus more on "the tools of [classroom] discipline."

Some observers, however, insist that better support during the early months in the classroom is the true key. That's why "induction programs" are gaining popularity in many districts.

"Districts in the last two or three years are committing more resources to [induction programs] than ever before," says Fred Frelow of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future at at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.

"Some districts got interested in them earlier - like Rochester, Cincinnati, and Seattle - but until the teacher shortage, most policy folks hadn't really focused on it."

Connecticut and California are leaders in the effort, observers say, but at least 18 states now have programs that compensate experienced teachers for entering into a formal mentoring program with beginning instructors.

The quality of the programs varies widely, says Willis Hawley, professor of education and public affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They range from, 'Welcome, here's a person you can talk to,' to elaborate programs with full-time mentors."

The best efforts, in his estimate, are those that include mentors who have received formal training and work within their own disciplines, a systematic evaluation process, and a reduced teaching load for the new teacher.

"Usually the best programs involve a team," says Professor Hawley. "They need to create a condition in which everybody in the school sees it as his or her job to help the new teachers succeed."

Teach for America, based in New York, has made headway in creating a support system for fledgling teachers. The group recruits college students who didn't study education, and then puts them in some of the nation's most challenging classrooms after five weeks of intensive training.

Jessica Nelson, a Teach for America recruit who just completed her first year in an inner-city Houston classroom, says the experience was "definitely more challenging than anything I've ever done. The planning, the grading, the individual attention can really be draining."

But she found the presence of a formal mentor very strengthening.

"[School systems] should definitely put first-year teachers in a formal mentoring program with another teacher in the same grade level and subject matter," Ms. Nelson says.

She also appreciated another special provision that allowed her to take three days off during the school year to observe experienced teachers in her field.

It's encouraging to see such initiatives springing up in different areas, says Mildred Hudson of Recruiting New Teachers. "What we don't know yet," she says, "is whether these programs are having a major impact nationally."

*Send e-mail to marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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