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Education

Mentor for America

Thanks to the New Teacher Center, beginning educators gain support that will help them thrive in a challenging profession.

 
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Mentor Shalini Patel, right, meets with Chicago Public Schools teacher Emily Lopez. (Photo by Daniel Shea, courtesy of the New Teacher Center)

When Kaitlin Driscoll started her teaching career at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose, Calif., she thought that she was ready for the challenge. She had done her student teaching in the same demographically diverse, urban school district that includes Santa Teresa, and she looked forward to teaching English to college-bound freshmen as well as “repeaters”—juniors and seniors who hadn’t yet met their ninth-grade requirements. “This is what I’m meant to do,” she remembers thinking.

Then reality hit. “I thought I’d spend most of my time planning lessons and interacting with my 150 students. I was overwhelmed by how much time was required in meetings, contacting parents, and on and on. Then there’s the workload you bring home,” Driscoll says. “Until you see the sheer mass of papers spread out on your kitchen table, you don’t realize what you’ve gotten yourself into. I was trying so hard just to keep my head above water.”

Driscoll found a lifeline when her school district—working in concert with an organization called the New Teacher Center (NTC)—matched her with a mentor. Abigail Soriano, a 15-year teaching veteran, has been a steadying presence in Driscoll’s professional life for the past two years. During weekly one-on-one meetings, they work on whatever Driscoll needs to build her confidence and competence as a teacher. Soriano might help Driscoll plan a lesson unit, coach her on analyzing student achievement data, or talk with her about why a particular student is struggling. “I’ve shared advice with her that I didn’t figure out until five or more years into teaching,” Soriano says.

That advice has found an eager listener in Driscoll. “When it’s going well, I do feel like I’ve found my niche,” she says. “But there are still days when I wonder, How do people do this job for 30 years?”

In fact, people rarely do. Seasoned educators are a minority within the US teaching force. Today’s teachers are “younger and markedly less experienced than a generation ago,” writes Susan Headden, senior associate for public policy at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in a recent report issued by the foundation. In 1987, a typical teacher had 15 years of experience; by 2008, that figure had decreased to one year or less. Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, calls this trend the “greening” of the US teaching force. As Baby Boomer teachers retire, newcomers are flooding into the field. Nationwide, more than 200,000 newcomers enter the profession annually, and nearly half of them will exit within five years—just when they should be hitting their stride as educators. What drives most of them away is not low pay but a “lack of administrative and professional support,” Headden reports.

Ellen Moir, founder and CEO of the NTC, has a plan to rewrite that story. “We have the opportunity to develop a new kind of teacher,” she says. NTC, a nonprofit headquartered in Santa Cruz, Calif., partners with some of the largest school districts in the United States to match fledgling teachers with trained experts for two years of highly personalized mentoring. “From the moment new teachers get the key to the classroom, we want to be there every single week for two years,” Moir explains.

In Moir’s view, the period of induction—when teachers enter and adjust to their new profession—is decisively important not only for retaining rookie teachers but also for ensuring that they’re able to excel as educators. “I want every young person in America, regardless of ZIP code, to get the best education possible,” Moir says. “We know that the teacher is the single most important component of improving student learning. We also know that good teachers are made, not born.”

Going for “the Gold Standard”

Teaching is complex work. Theory matters, but so do the practical skills that enable a teacher to avert classroom chaos. Effective teachers—the ones most likely to boost student achievement—not only know their subject matter but also know how to meet the needs of diverse learners. “You need to know your students and base your instruction on their learning needs. The best teachers keep improving,” Moir says. They continuously search for ways to “individualize, differentiate, personalize, and bring in a rich curriculum that will engage students,” she adds.

NTC grew out of the realization that those skills take time to develop on the job. Moir launched the New Teacher Project (as NTC was originally called) in 1998, when she was a faculty member in the Education Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. From the outset, the goal of NTC has been to replace sink-or-swim induction with structured, long-term support that will equip beginning teachers to work with young people. “Everything needs to map backward from the student,” Moir says.

In 2008, after a decade of field-testing its model, NTC spun off from the university to become an independent nonprofit. With support from NewSchools Venture Fund, New Profit, the Skoll Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and other funders, NTC has expanded its reach by opening eight regional offices. Today, annual revenues of $30 million enable NTC to work with 30,000 new teachers per year in more than 40 states—from urban Los Angeles to rural Iowa to suburban Broward County, Fla. According to NTC data, districts that adopt the NTC model achieve retention rates of 80 percent or more (as against the national average of 56 percent.) “In most cities,” Moir says, “we up retention by 20 percent” over a district’s previous retention rate.

As NTC has expanded, it has kept a laser-like focus on its brand of sustained, strategic mentoring; Moir calls it “the gold standard” for induction. Although most school districts offer new hires some form of orientation, continued support is often brief or practically nonexistent. According to Ingersoll, only 5 percent of beginners receive the kind of support that leads to both higher teacher retention and increased student achievement.

NTC, with its focus on mentoring teachers who have already joined the education profession, bears comparison with Teach for America (TFA), which aims to bring new teachers into the field. TFA, with an annual budget of $300 million, recruits about 11,000 teachers annually and prepares them for classroom work with a five-week summer workshop and ongoing professional development. By their third year on the job, though, about 40 percent of TFA recruits will leave the teaching profession, resulting in a retention rate of about 60 percent. TFA recently announced that in 2015 it will pilot a yearlong training program to improve that rate.

Building “a Better Profession”

The NTC approach starts with a rigorous process for selecting mentors. It’s not that good teachers are hard to find. “Everyone in a school knows who they are,” Moir notes. The trick is to figure out which veterans might be good at teaching not just children but also adults. Once chosen, mentors undergo their own training to “unpack what it means to be an effective teacher,” Moir says. They learn what to watch for during classroom observation sessions, and they practice giving concrete feedback to young teachers.

Districts that partner with NTC agree to release mentors from regular classroom duties. In return, NTC provides professional development services, assessment tools, and other resources. Shelley Winterberg, a mentor in Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, explains that her role is “to coach, to empower” beginning teachers. “I’m not the boss of anybody,” she says. Becoming a mentor provides veteran teachers “with a way to advance in their profession, and to earn more money, without having to leave the classroom for an administrative job,” says Headden. Mentors report that playing this new role reinvigorates them, and they often see themselves “becoming better teachers as a result,” Headden adds.

NTC has earned high marks for its work from a wide range of influential groups. In 2013, the Business Roundtable set out to identify organizations with the potential to improve US education, and NTC emerged as one of five (out of an applicant pool of nearly 100) that showed both proven results and a readiness to scale up. In 2012, similarly, the US Department of Education rated NTC at the top of more than 800 applicants for one of the federal agency’s Investing in Innovation (i3) grants. “Ellen [Moir] and her team have that entrepreneurial spirit,” says Gloria Lee, president of NewSchools Venture Fund. “We think they’re just at the beginning of what they can accomplish in terms of scale and impact. As they share effective practices, the whole field gets better.”

NTC has generated “much more demand for our work than we’ve been able to meet,” Moir says. “We’re ready to grow dramatically.” Today, NTC works with 25 of the largest districts in the United States; its goal is to expand that field to 60 districts by the 2018-19 school year. To broaden its reach, NTC is introducing initiatives that leverage technology. It has developed an e-mentoring program to support new teachers in isolated rural schools, for example, and it has built online communities of practice that enable teachers in high-demand subjects like math, science, and special education to support each other’s professional growth. NTC also has developed classes for Coursera, a MOOC (massive open online course) platform launched by two Stanford University professors.

Although Moir and her team are highly receptive to innovation, their goal is not to “disrupt” public education. On the contrary, they hope to strengthen the current system of education from within—and to do so by supporting administrators as well as teachers. “We’re not inserting something new into the system and then pulling out,” Moir says. “We’re about building the capacity of a system to develop its newest teachers and to create leadership pathways for mentors. This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to build a better profession.”

 
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