Teacher Mentoring

For years, education experts have warned of a crisis when it comes to the number of teachers quitting the profession. And as burnout increases and the teacher exit rates are reaching into the hundreds of thousands, we take a look at one organization that is fighting the retention problem.

Walk in to Abby Miller's third grade class at Sumner Elementary School on Chicago's west side and you'd never guess this is her first year teaching.

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"If he puts them in ten rows, how many chairs should he put in each row? Get to work, I'm setting the timer for six minutes,” Miller told her class on the day we visited.

She exudes the confidence and authority of an old hand in front of her sometimes unruly 8-year-old students.

“My mom and I have this running joke that in my first year of teaching, I actually have 15 years of experience,” she said.

Still, it's been a tough year for Miller and for the Chicago Public School District as a whole.

The year began with a bitter dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel over wages, teacher evaluations and class size.  It was the district's first strike in 25 years.

And then the city's controversial decision to close more than 50 elementary schools sparked renewed opposition from teachers. The closings this fall will be the nation's largest ever.

Amidst all the very public disruptions, about 100 Chicago Public Schools suffer from chronically high rates of teacher turnover, losing a quarter or more of their teaching staff every year. As a result, there are thousands of new teachers, like Abby Miller, who are trying to take charge of a classroom for the first time.

To say it's a challenge is an understatement.

“I think I kind of had a false sense of what I was getting myself into,” said Miller. “You can study it in a classroom, you can say, ‘oh, well, if this student does this, then you should do this. If this student does that, then you should do that,’ but really it depends on where you teach, it depends on who you teach. Things that worked for my fifth graders at the beginning of the year don't work over here. Things that work over here with the third graders didn't work with my fifth graders. And I have a strong feeling that things that worked this year are not going to work next year.”

Her experience of trial by fire in the classroom is increasingly common. 

A recent national study found that the teaching workforce is getting younger and less experienced. Making matters worse is a tsunami of retiring veteran teachers. Between 2004 and 2008, more than 300,000 veteran teachers left the workforce for retirement.

Walk into any classroom in the country today and you're more likely to find a teacher in their first year of teaching than any other experience level. And they're not sticking around.

Experts say at the core of the crisis is that first-year teachers are particularly vulnerable when it comes to buckling under the pressures and frustrations they are sometimes ill-prepared to face once they take to the classroom.

“It's a huge problem. I mean, we lose 50 percent of all new teachers in the first three to five years,” said Ellen Moir.

Moir saw the problem firsthand. As a director of teacher education at the University of California - Santa Cruz, she found that success was eluding even her best and brightest student teachers.

“They said, ‘oh, my gosh, I thought I was going to be a great teacher and I'm not. I feel like a fraud, I shouldn't really be doing this work.' And I thought, ‘wait a minute, there's some disconnect here.’ If you could really get a great teacher ed program and you tee someone up for their first year of teaching, what's the problem?" said Moir.

Inevitably, she says these teachers faced some of the toughest assignments in some of the country's toughest schools, and they were left to sink or swim.

To combat that, Moir founded the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit educational organization that focuses on first-year teacher mentoring and development led by skilled, veteran teachers.

Watch Moir's extended, web extra interview below:



Larissa Bennett is one of those expert teachers and has been mentoring Abby Miller for the better part of the last school year. Mentors like Bennett meet one-on-one with their apprentices to provide professional development, leadership training, and specific advice on classroom management.

“They did below what I expected and it was hard not to see that as a reflection upon my teaching. So, that was a tough day,” Miller told Bennett.

“We want them to know that they have someone that they can go to. Teachers that feel supported, that feel appreciated and valued, stay in the profession,” said Bennett. “So, if we can get to those teachers their first year and make them feel those things, give them the tools to succeed, they’ll stay."

In addition to that support, Bennett says teachers in big districts like Chicago don't have the luxury of taking months and years to become effective.

“We need them great yesterday, so we help them develop skills and strategies to teach in these difficult areas,” she said.

The high dropout rate for new teachers is also expensive. 

For example, the price tag associated with recruiting, hiring, and training replacement teachers is substantial. It's estimated that every time a teacher walks out the door in Chicago, it costs the district about $18,000 to replace them.

According to a report from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF), the total cost of turnover in the Chicago Public Schools is estimated to be over $86 million a year.

Nationally, that figure tops more than $7 billion annually.

New Teacher Center mentors meet regularly with other expert teachers to discuss protocols for supporting their first-year teachers. They partner with school districts and educators to help implement best practices for new teacher induction. 

“As the country's talking about developing teachers, I think there's a much greater understanding and recognition that really talented teachers are not born, they're made,” said Moir. “And we have to be systematic about it, and we need to really build off of the talent that we have in our school systems."

The New Teacher Center has financial support from numerous foundations as well as the U.S. Department of Education. It's one of the largest teacher mentoring resources in the nation.

Today, the organization reaches over 15,000 new teachers, in all 50 states with about 7,000 expert teachers, and is being modeled in countries like Singapore, Finland, Scotland and Panama.

And, Moir says, it's working.

“It's a great idea and it's super successful. I mean, look it's hard to measure teacher effectiveness, but let me talk a little bit about the retention side of the equation,” she said. “We’re easily upping retention by 20 percent in the districts that we're working in. In 24 of the largest urban districts, retention is up significantly.”

And, for teachers like Abby Miller, while this year has tested her resolve, she says the mentoring has helped her retain the grit that got her into teaching in the first place.

“Right now, I see myself still teaching. There’s a reason that I decided to come into teaching. There’s a reason I decided to leave the career I had before and make this switch,” said Miller. “It's tough. There are days where I come home and throw up my arms and say, ‘I'm done, I'm not doing it anymore,’ but those are in the rarity. There are more days when I come home and say, ‘I helped this kid learn this today.’”

Using a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the New Teacher Center plans to expand in Chicago with a focus on high-poverty schools.

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