The great escape
Teachers are fleeing their jobs faster than ever before. Schools, once worried about hiring, now ask: How do we keep them?
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But Professor Ingersoll's research shows that the way the teaching profession is structured also contributes to the problem. Teachers have little decisionmaking power at their schools and generally get no special help in their early days on the job.Skip to next paragraph
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Education expert say K-12 education suffers from an entrenched "sink or swim" model unique to the profession. While doctors serve long residencies and attorneys may work years under senior partners, new teachers can be thrown into the most difficult classes and worst schedules without support.
"We've not done a good job of creating entry conditions to help them learn their job well," says Pat Wasley, dean of the University of Washington's College of Education in Seattle. "We have to acknowledge them as novices."
The notion that rookie teachers need support isn't necessarily new. Some schools have offered mentoring programs for first-year teachers for decades.
But in the past, schools tended to give such programs too little money or time to allow them to work effectively. In most cases, simply pairing up a new teacher with a more senior buddy who might write encouraging notes or commiserate in the faculty lounge didn't prove sufficient.
Eventually, however, a handful of districts hit on a more successful mentoring formula. In 1986, the school districts and teacher unions in both Columbus and Rochester adopted more substanative programs.
In Rochester, mentors have been relieved of half their course load, which often allows each of them time to help four new teachers. The result: Retention rose from 66 percent to more than 90 percent.
Columbus went even further, relieving its mentors of teaching duties entirely in order to focus on their caseloads of 12 to 15 rookies. They are required to observe each new teacher 20 times in the classroom and schedule 10 conferences.
Mentor Pam Snyder says she winds up seeing each one at least once a week.
Ms. Snyder says that kind of support is much different from what she received when she began teaching 26 years ago and saw her administrator briefly perhaps once or twice.
"I felt very lonely," says Snyder, who is starting her fourth and final year as a mentor. The most common issue for new teachers is getting students to do what you want them to, Snyder says.
"We're another set of eyes and sounding boards for tips, suggestions," Snyder says. "A lot of them would be fine teachers with or without us. But with us they get there faster."
Sometimes, helping a new teacher requires more. Julie Almquist's first mentee four years ago in Santa Cruz County, Calif., was overwhelmed from Day 1. After spending all summer preparing to teach arts to middle schoolers, the rookie had her teaching assignment switched to high school language arts two days before school started and she scrambled to teach five classes in four different classrooms.
By November, Almquist says she saw the warning signs of a teacher ready to quit. Yet she stuck it out after Almquist helped her control the classroom, deal with parents, and craft a curriculum.
Experience suggests that kind of support does make a difference. In both Rochester and Columbus retention rates have improved since the mentoring programs began.
Intensive mentoring isn't necessarily expensive - at least, not in the long run. In Columbus, for example, costs were actually reduced by cutting annual hiring from 1,000 to 250 new teachers.
There are other benefits besides savings. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz found teacher and student performance both improved through mentoring programs.
New teachers who participated developed the skills of second- or third-year teachers, while their students' test scores were comparable to those of peers learning from veterans.
In addition, mentors say the job comes with its own rewards. "I really feel I make a difference," Almquist says. "It made me feel great."