Support for teachers: One-on-one online mentoring fills a niche

In the face of teacher shortages, the search for ways to keep those already in the profession on track and supporting students has become more urgent. One solution gaining more traction: teachers helping each other online.

Courtesy of BetterLesson
BetterLesson Coach Romain Bertrand leads a collaborative coaching session with Denver-area classroom teachers.

Second grade teacher Sara Schonfeld carries around a notebook with her during the school day, jotting down questions she wants to remember to ask Daniel. 

For the past three years, Ms. Schonfeld has had biweekly video calls with Daniel Guerrero, a veteran teacher coach with the Cambridge-based organization BetterLesson. Mr. Guerrero, who has been recognized for his approach to classroom discipline, has helped Schonfeld develop lesson plans, learn classroom management skills, and cope with isolation. This is Schonfeld's 13th year of teaching, but she is convinced that every educator – no matter how experienced – can benefit from a coach.

“My classroom really changed because of this,” says Schonfeld, who teaches general studies at the Jewish day school, Magen David Yeshivah, in New York's Brooklyn borough. Her approach changed “from a teacher-centered to a student-directed classroom, where each student not only had a voice in the learning process... but learning also truly became personalized for students.” 

With more emphasis on teacher shortages right now – two new initiatives related to recruitment were announced in California in October – the search for ways to keep those already in the profession on track and able to help support students has become more urgent. Mentorships encourage better student performance and higher retention rates among teachers, studies show, leading school districts nationwide to make this form of professional development a priority. Particularly gaining more traction are online mentoring programs, such as the one Schonfeld is part of. 

“Mentorship, teacher-to-teacher work, is powerful,” says Mary Grassa O’Neill, faculty director of the School Leadership Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ms. O’Neill, a senior lecturer on education with a focus on professional development, says she learned the importance of mentorship when she was a new 9th grade teacher in Dorchester, Mass., and got help with classroom management. 

“We think we have to bring in the consultants, or introduce something new, when there is so much to be learned by teachers showing or explaining what they did that really worked to inspire, motivate, and engage students their class.” 

Mentees appreciate the flexibility of virtual mentorships, scheduling Skype or Facetime calls during either a quick break in the school day or at night from the comfort of their home. Additionally, virtual coaches offer teachers a “safe zone,” where they can openly ask questions without fear of judgment (or even penalization) from district superiors, as well as provide fresh insight from outside their district.

Most important, BetterLesson and similarly structured online programs like EdConnective, Teaching with Soul’s New Teacher Mentoring Project, and New Teacher Center’s e-Mentoring for Student Success (eMSS), were founded by teachers. They all use seasoned teachers specifically trained in the art of mentorship.

“They know the pitfalls and struggles and they are realistic about their expectations,” says Schonfeld. “They have been there and done that.”

Mentors help with retention

According to a 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 10 percent of new teachers quit after their first year, and 17 percent quit in five years.

A study published the same year by the Institute of Education Sciences, the US Department of Education's statistical branch, found, however, that first year teachers who had mentors were 15 percent more likely to stay in the profession. In fact, having a mentor is ranked by the American Institutes for Research as the most important tool to not only keep a teacher in the classroom, but also make them more effective. First year teachers with mentors have proven to be just as successful in student achievement as fourth year teachers.

“We want young teachers to perform like veterans … We can't sacrifice three years of time for a teacher to get up to speed,” says Kent Maslin, principal of Groton Elementary School in N.Y. When he was hired two years ago to turn around a decade of poor test scores, providing meaningful teacher support was his first priority. “I like to think of BetterLesson as a microwave [for new teachers]. We are going to throw these teachers in the microwave to accelerate the process.”

Although Mr. Maslin only requires BetterLesson participation among his new teachers, almost all of his staff has opted to participate. One of the most enthusiastic participants is a 17-year veteran of teaching. Schonfeld says participation in her Brooklyn school has “at least quadrupled," since her first year with the program three years ago. BetterLesson reports seeing a marked increase in users this year over last.

“Everyone can benefit from having a great coach who empathizes, inspires, and holds you accountable… But working with teachers in their first one to three years can be especially beneficial to the district,” says Alex Grodd, who taught in Atlanta and the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, before co-founding BetterLesson in 2008. The professional development he received while teaching was “not helpful in a practical way,” says Mr. Grodd, which inspired him to create the “eHarmony” or “” for teaching. 

“Superintendents are working hard, but there’s a human capital and staffing challenge that is hard to solve,” says Grodd. “That's where we come in.”

Schonfeld says she has tried other forms of professional development over her 13-year career and nothing compares to  this online approach. Unlike the one-day seminars or workshops teachers are often attend, coaches hold their mentees accountable.

“It is consistent because [coaches] follow up. It was never ‘OK work on this,’ ” she explains. “Daniel will always send me things to try, send followups from our meeting, and give me feedback.”

In addition, investing in mentorships saves schools and taxpayers’ money by reducing the costs associated with teacher turnover. A cost-benefit analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 2016 calculated a $39.77 return on every dollar spent on new teacher mentoring programs. But the typical mentorship structure in schools is too underdeveloped to capitalize on these returns. 

“One of the challenges is that most educators in American schools who serve in mentoring or coaching roles, they are asked to perform [these roles] on top of being a full-time teacher,” says Liam Goldrick, policy director at The New Teacher Center (NTC), a nonprofit that has been mentoring new teachers since 1998. “That doesn't leave a lot of time to do the work, or do it well.”

Case study: Kansas

But in rural locations, where teacher shortages are especially acute, distance can make in-person mentoring a challenge.

In rural Kansas, the nearest special ed teacher could be 50 miles away, says Julie Wilson at the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center. So when the Center was awarded a grant in 2011 from the Kansas Department of Education to implement statewide recruitment and retention efforts for special education teachers, Ms. Wilson implemented an online mentoring platform. 

Wilson chose to partner with NTC’s e-Mentoring for Student Success program (eMSS) for its years of experience: It launched almost 15 years ago. Alyson Mike, vice president of Program Strategy and Development at the New Teacher Center says the need for long distance partnerships preceded the available technology. Launched in 2009, NTC’s e-Mentoring program for special ed is newer, but “it’s where we have been humming,” says Ms. Mike.

Six years into their partnership with NTC, 500 new special education teachers have participated in NTC’s. And the success is evident: two years after completing the program 98 percent of mentees were still in the teaching profession, with 93 percent still in special education. 

“There are a lot of: ‘Without this I would not have survived my first year of teaching special ed,’ or ‘My mentor was invaluable for me,’ ” says Ms. Wilson. “I have tons of those kinds of stories. It made all the difference to them to have access to someone because they are so isolated.”

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