Friday, July 15, 2011

Support at the Bottom of the Barrel

The issue of Teacher Retention has been growing for many years, and has ballooned into a serious problem in the last decade. The basic question is, how do we convince highly educated, highly intelligent, highly trained people to stay in school systems and educate our children? 

Right now, the sad truth is that within public education, many teachers don't last five years before giving up teaching for a different career. There are many reasons for this. Some are obvious to the outside observer. Teacher pay is notoriously low, stress levels are high, and there is an ever-broadening spectrum of standardized tests for which teachers must attempt to prepare their students. 

There are other issues which are less obvious to those outside of the teaching profession, such as young teachers who are unfamiliar with disciplinary procedures or writing lesson plans to match department or district standards. These teachers often feel "left out to dry" in a system where asking questions may be perceived as incompetence. There are ways to help these teachers, but districts need to have clear goals and standards, and systems for monitoring to make sure that those goals are being met.

Support from Experienced Mentors

One excellent way to increase teacher retention is have someone to help shoulder the enormous stress that most teachers feel in their first and most stressful year. The first year of teaching is widely accepted to be the most grueling of teacher's career, because it is the first time when teachers are truly on their own for lesson plans and discipline, and often must create lessons and procedures from scratch. There is no worse feeling than being massively overwhelmed and having nowhere to turn. So doesn't it make sense that those teachers who have survived that crucible (and become more capable because of it) should support those who are currently undergoing it? 

Some states or individual districts have attempted to do this by setting up mentorships, whereby their first-year teachers have regular meetings with their mentors to receive support and feedback. These programs are great in theory, but have wide ranging results based on a number of factors. First, how are the mentors chosen? Are they assigned, or do they volunteer? Are the mentors paid? Are the meetings frequent or rare? Can the first-year teachers seek and find support outside of scheduled meetings? How is feedback arranged?

Each of these questions can have a range of answers depending on the district, the building, or even the department in which the mentoring relationship exists. Depending on the answers, we begin to see how the mentoring relationship can be very positive and helpful in reducing stress, or very negative and actually lead to an increase in stress for the new teacher. They can certainly make a big difference in the dedication of the mentor to the new teacher. 

Mentorship Gone Wrong

Imagine that it is mid-August and an experienced teacher has taken the summer to relax and is now preparing to head back to school. She has very little work to do to prepare, because after all these years she knows how her lessons and procedures will work. Suddenly she receives a call from her principal - they've just hired a new teacher with no experience with only a week to go before classes begin, and guess who's been assigned as the mentor? 

How would you feel in this situation? I know I would feel somewhat resentful, and that resentment would then be the starting point for my relationship with this new person. Add to this situation the fact that some mentors are not offered any bonus or overtime pay for these additional duties. Many people in this position would choose to do as little as possible to fulfill their duties. And "as little as possible" is often very little. Some districts require as few as two meetings a year, one per semester, and only one brief in-class observation. Some districts don't even require the mentor to give any feedback at all after the observation! In many cases, there are no requirements for support of the new teachers outside of the official meetings. This could hardly be called year-long mentoring. 

Mentoring Done Right

Now for the positive example: again, it is mid-August, and an experienced teacher is preparing to go back to class. She was a part of interviews in June to fill an open position, and was part of the decision process for hiring. She volunteered to mentor the new teacher, and has been given a modest bonus for the expected additional duties. She was able to be in contact with the new teacher throughout the summer, answering questions and giving suggestions. 

The new teacher and mentor are familiar with each other, and have already set up a weekly time to meet so that they can collaborate on lesson plans and work on any issues that have come up. The mentor has also had time to introduce the new teacher to the rest of the department and the administrators (via phone, email, or in person), and to take him to the school and show him around. She has made it clear to the new teacher that he can ask any questions or bring up any problems whenever he needs to. 

With this system, the new teacher can come into school on day one and already feel comfortable and familiar with his surroundings, knowing he has support if needed. The district has explicit requirements for weekly meetings and observations, and has provided adequate support for the mentor so that she can take the time she needs to complete these requirements. The district has also provided feedback forms so that the mentor can fill them out and then go over all areas of classroom management with the new teacher.

What Makes the Difference

Planning ahead is what truly makes the difference between these two scenarios. Even if the district is simply unable to supply a mentorship stipend, just inviting department members to sit in on interviews and then asking for volunteers to be mentors is a major step in the right direction. Making mentoring a choice, rather than an assignment, goes a very long way toward fostering a more positive attitude in mentors. And the ability to form a relationship between mentor and first-year teacher before the start of the school year is also huge benefit. Many of the problems faced by new teachers in the first weeks of school can be avoided entirely if there is time before school begins to ask questions.

The availability of a mentoring stipend is, of course, a nice bonus. However, there are other ways that teachers can be enticed to volunteer. Some schools can make room in their master schedule to allow mentoring teachers to have an extra free period for planning or paperwork. Others can offer additional personal days. At some schools, a designated mentor parking spot can be a great bonus, or relief from book-room inventory duty. There are any number of ways to offer incentives that don't cost anything, if the school is too hard pressed to come up with a monetary stipend system.

Addressing the Issue

The two above examples don't delve into what actually goes on during the year, but simply show the differences in preparation before the year starts. In both cases, the new teacher is going to face a certain amount of stress. In the first example, this stress falls squarely on the shoulders of someone with no support and no way to get any. It is evident from day one that their mentor wants as little to do with them as possible, and they may even feel like asking questions or bringing up issues is seen as a sign that they cannot fulfill their job requirements. In the second example, the stress can be shared and addressed with the mentor, whenever the new teacher needs the help. He is fully supported, and never has to feel ashamed or afraid to ask for help. 

Which one of these two first-year teachers will go on to be a second-year teacher? Or a tenth-year teacher? It's very simple to guess - and yet many districts continue to use policies and methods for choosing mentors that leave their new teachers unsupported, overstressed, and afraid to look incompetent by asking for help. Would you return to a job that made you feel this way? Would you ask someone you care about to go back to that environment? 

This is a serious issue for teacher retention, and should be addressed in all districts, but sadly is often passed over in the drive to find more funds. This is an issue that cannot be resolved by throwing money at it. It requires times and dedication to mend, and some thought about how we treat others and would want to be treated ourselves. 


  1. SO important. And so little understood outside the system. Thanks for working to fix things the effective way, from the inside.

  2. Such a thoughtful post! And do-able; there is nothing suggested that can't be accomplished with some forethought and a desire to create good environments for teaching and learning. Thanks for giving us all much to ponder, and great suggestions to work with. Brava!