Young teachers need mentoring to thrive, survive

Tim Post, MPR News, October 29, 2014

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As Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, Tom Rademacher recently has appeared before a lot of groups around the state.

At many of those stops he is approached by young teachers. After only a few months on the job, they already are at their breaking point. Their main complaint, Rademacher said, is that they can’t find a mentor to give them feedback on their work.

Rademacher, who’s in his ninth year of teaching, is frustrated with what he considers a lack of support in a teacher’s first year.

“We’re still relying on this kind of bizarre sink or swim mentality,” he said.

Minnesota has a problem retaining young teachers. A third of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education.

Nationwide, 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom.

Some districts and college teacher preparation programs are working to improve the support they give first-year teachers. But research also shows teachers who work with mentors, and receive other forms of support from their schools and districts, are more likely to stick with their careers. That makes them better teachers, and helps their students do better in class.

There are a number of efforts in Minnesota to support first-year teachers, but they’re inconsistent, said Denise Specht, president of the state teachers union, Education Minnesota.

“Everybody does it different,” she said. “Some districts do it better than others, but it’s definitely something that we need to be focused on.”

Specht said the state should concentrate on mentoring and retaining new teachers, especially teachers of color, who leave the profession at higher rates than their white counterparts. Research suggests that might be because teachers of color are more likely to work in so-called “hard to staff” urban schools, where they become frustrated with their working conditions.

Students of color make up 26 percent of Minnesota’s school enrollment, but only 3.5 percent of those leading the classroom are teachers of color.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that minority teachers are better able to increase the achievement of students of color.

Absent a statewide strategy, several Minnesota districts and teacher preparation programs are trying to increase retention on their own.

In Moorhead, Superintendent Lynn Kovash has hired three retired teachers to mentor young teachers this year.

“While you’re supporting the teacher through a relationship, you’re also helping train them, you’re helping work through best strategies, teaching methods,” Kovash said. “Things that we’re doing in our district that we’ve studied, we know that makes a difference for our students.”

In Minneapolis, mentoring teachers is the core of a new effort. At Roosevelt High School, for example, Alexandra Schmitz, who is in her first year teaching geometry and advanced algebra, works with a mentor from the district on how best to handle a classroom.

Schmitz, 23, also has a teaching mentor who helps her develop lessons. If she needs help, she can invite a fellow teacher to join her in the classroom.

She also is still in contact with mentors at the University of Minnesota, where she received her teaching degree.

“If I ever desperately need somebody, you’ve got the list of people I can contact ‘Hey I’m really struggling in this I need some help,'” Schmitz said.

Some education leaders think all new teachers could benefit from the all-hands-on-deck approach.

It’s an approach the University of Minnesota is taking as it prepares students to work in urban schools, like Roosevelt.

“It’s a continuum and it starts the minute they walk in their teacher preparation program and it continues up until they really hit fourth, fifth year, and they’re established as a teacher,” said Jehanne Beaton, school partnership network coordinator for U of M’s College of Education.

The state’s new teacher evaluation system, which went into effect this year, also is being used to give some support to teachers. It provides new teachers, and even veteran teachers, with more feedback on their craft through classroom observations.

Under the new system, schools also set aside time for teachers to study student data, and work with each other to develop new approaches in the classroom.

Northfield superintendent Chris Richardson hopes that guidance will keep new teachers from getting frustrated in their first years on the job.

“All of us have learned the expense of having to go back and rehire for positions every year,” Richardson said. “Or to have someone that you did not provide enough support for and therefore they made a choice not to come back.”

The new teacher evaluation system also sets aside time for teachers to study student data, and work with each other to develop new approaches in the classroom.

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