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New Teachers Talk

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Lewis & Clark’s mentoring program offers a lifeline to new teachers.

by Sona Pai

Dusty Hoesly B.A. ‘02, M.A.T. ‘06 began his first year of teaching fresh-faced, enthusiastic, and eager to make a difference. Having just completed the coursework and student teaching requirements for his graduate degree, he felt ready to take on the challenges of teaching seventh-grade language arts at Inza R. Wood Middle School in Wilsonville.

“You have no idea what the reality of teaching is until you’re up there in front of your own class, totally on your own,” Hoesly says. “You’re ready to teach, and you feel like you know what you’re doing, but there are so many aspects of the job you don’t get until you’re in it– challenges you wouldn’t even think of.”

For help in navigating this new terrain, Hoesly turned to Lewis & Clark’s New Teacher Conversations program, designed to support beginning teachers and to address the growing problem of teacher retention. According to Education Week, 23 percent of teachers will leave the profession within the first three years and up to 50 percent will exit by the end of five years. The Oregon trend is consistent with these data; 30 percent of the state’s new teachers leave within the first three years, costing taxpayers $45 million annually in hiring and training costs.

“Teachers come to the profession because they love to teach, but they leave because they’re not getting the support they need in those first few years,” says Sherri Carreker, director of the Center for Continuing Studies at the graduate school. “To keep these teachers in the classroom, we need to find out what they need–straight from the teachers themselves–and then deliver it.”

The New Teacher Conversations program supports teachers in districts across the state with two components:

  • Mentoring models for school districts: Teams of administrators and teachers attend a two-day workshop at Lewis & Clark, where they learn how to develop a mentoring program based on conversation and community, and then customize that model to meet their unique needs.
  • On-campus mentoring for first-year teachers: Graduates of Lewis & Clark’s teacher preparation program return to campus monthly during their first year on the job to discuss challenges and successes with each other and with graduate school faculty.

Lewis & Clark’s two-pronged program, which is community-based and conversation-focused, reflects a belief that new teachers don’t leave the profession because of the day-to-day challenges of teaching, but because of a lack of relationships and support within their schools.

MODEL MENTORING

In June 2007, the Oregon legislature passed an appropriations bill to address the problem of teacher retention by providing $5 million in grants to school districts for mentoring programs. The bill, which will support mentoring for 1,000 new teachers and administrators annually beginning in the 2008-09 school year, acknowledges that:

  • Mentoring programs for teachers lead to higher-achieving students.
  • School districts that provide teacher mentoring retain more new teachers.

Based on these same principles, Lewis & Clark’s New Teacher Conversations program helps districts customize teacher mentoring based on each district’s and each teacher’s particular needs. Rather than one-on-one mentoring, the program advocates a community-based mentorship model that gives teachers a chance to learn from each other.

Each summer, school districts around the state send teams of experienced teachers and administrators to a two-day workshop at Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling. During the workshop, faculty members discuss the importance of mentoring through conversations and encourage participants to designate lead mentors within their schools and districts. Team members also have time to discuss their unique challenges and brainstorm solutions.

Educators then use what they learn to initiate conversation programs in their own districts, with consultation from graduate school faculty as needed. To date, Lewis & Clark has worked with more than 15 school districts in urban, suburban, and rural areas of the state.

Robin Kobrowski, who is currently a secondary assessment specialist with the Beaverton School District, attended the summer workshop in 2004 as a lead mentor for Sunset High School in Beaverton. During the workshop, her team developed a mentoring model that focused on observing experienced teachers in action.

“In our profession, teachers in their first year are doing the exact same job as teachers who have been there for 30 years,” she says. “Both have the same level of responsibility. That’s why observation is so helpful. When you observe a veteran teacher, you’re seeing the result of years of practice and trial and error, and you can apply those lessons to your own classroom.”

Kobrowski says the group also spent time discussing the specific challenges all teachers face, including managing large classes, differentiating instruction for students with a range of academic needs, and developing quality assessments that don’t just measure learning, but enhance it.

“One of the best things to come out of the workshop was the idea that we could learn as much from new teachers as they could learn from us,” says Kobrowski, who has been teaching for 13 years. “They’re learning things now that we didn’t 10 years ago, so making time for new teachers and veterans to collaborate is a good thing for all of us.”

Ruth Shagoury, Rogers Professor of Education, says this two-way benefit is a key facet of the program. By initiating conversations, new teachers get support from veterans, who in turn become reinvigorated by the experience.

“In the old mentoring model, a veteran teacher inculcates a new teacher. This is not necessarily the ideal because it just perpetuates the same culture in our schools and in our profession,” she says. “What if a new teacher can make a positive new contribution? Conversations that value new teachers’ wisdom make this possible.”

Shagoury says Lewis & Clark faculty and students also benefit from the program, as faculty members apply what they learn about the challenges new teachers face to the teacher preparation curriculum.

LISTENING, NOT LECTURING

Stephanie Swenson, a math teacher at Linus Pauling Middle School in Corvallis who taught for 10 years before moving to Oregon, worked with a mentor for support during her first year in the Corvallis School District. At a workshop in 2006, she participated in a panel discussion about new teacher mentoring programs.

“This model was different from what I had seen in the past because it was based more on listening rather than lecturing,” she says. “Lewis & Clark provided a detailed model that went beyond just providing advice or articles to read.”

Swenson says the group setting gave experienced teachers a chance to reflect on the challenges that new teachers might be struggling with, such as first parent-teacher conferences, complex grading situations, the daily barrage of parent e-mails, and time management issues.

“There’s a myth that this job is easy because you have the summers off, but the reality is that when teachers aren’t in the classroom, they are grading student work or planning the next lesson,” she says. “This is not a nine-to-five job. The amount of energy it demands can be overwhelming.”

Jennifer Duvall, a human resources administrator in the Corvallis School District, attended the 2006 summer workshop along with a team of 14 teachers and administrators. She says the sheer number of new teachers in Corvallis led her to seek help from Lewis & Clark. In the 2006-07 school year, nearly 50 new teachers entered the district. In 2007-08, that number rose to 93, of which 37 are first-year teachers.

“New teacher mentoring and the idea of just talking with each other sounds like such a basic thing, but you truly have to build it in,” Duvall says. “The model has helped us provide direct assistance to teachers, but it also brought about a culture shift. By learning and sharing together, our teachers start feeling like part of a community.”

CONVERSATION BEYOND GRADUATION

The New Teacher Conversations program also provides support for Lewis & Clark graduates during their first year of teaching.

New teachers return to campus for monthly meetings with their peers and with graduate school faculty. The meetings give first-year teachers a chance to reconnect with classmates, learn from each other’s successes, help each other solve problems, and seek support from faculty for real-world challenges in the classroom.

Erin Ocon M.A.T. ‘07, a first-year language arts teacher at Brown Middle School in Hillsboro, shared her own success story with Shagoury on the evening of her first monthly meeting at Lewis & Clark. A student in Ocon’s class had been misbehaving and not completing his writing assignments. After hearing how Ocon had handled the situation, Shagoury encouraged her to write about her experience and share it with other literacy educators.

“Rather than punishing the student, I tried to focus on why he wasn’t writing,” Ocon says. “He said he knew he was a bad writer because of his test scores. I told him he couldn’t fail in my class if he tried. I told him that I want to hear what he has to say and that his voice is important.”

Ocon’s strategy worked, and the student began contributing in class. The experience provided a helpful confidence boost for both the student and Ocon. Since then, she says, the new teacher mentoring meetings have given her a valuable forum in which to discuss other classroom challenges that she might have struggled with on her own.

“It sounds corny, but when you start out as a teacher, you dream of changing the life of every kid,” Ocon says. “When the reality of the job sets in, it’s tough to sustain that dream. With this community, I feel like I’ve had a better start than a lot of teachers get. I know where to go for support, and I have others to celebrate the fact that at least one student is more confident in class because of my help.”

Sona Pai is a freelance writer in Portland.

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