SEDL Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

Issues About Change v8.1 - Launching Professional Learning Communities: Beginning Actions

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

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by Sue E. Mutchler, Diane T. Pan, Robert W. Glover, and Kelley S. Shapley

Picture of a female teacher Findings from the research presented in the preceding chapters contribute to increased understanding of teacher mentoring programs, and uncover needs, circumstances, and contexts that affect and are affected by teacher mentoring. Each of the three complementary data sources pursued for this study addresses one or more of the three research questions that SEDL sought to explore at the beginning of this investigation. This final chapter provides insights around those questions. Implications and reflections on the overall research findings also provide important policy and program recommendations and direction for future research as presented at the end of this chapter.

How Have Schools and Districts Planned and Implemented Mentoring Programs to Respond to State Policy on Teacher Induction?

Mentoring of beginning teachers in Texas is marked by considerable variation in terms of planning and implementation strategies and priorities. The Texas state policy on teacher induction provides minimal direction as to the scope of programming expected of schools and districts, and the policy is not backed by state funding or other support except for the recent time-limited TxBESS program funded by the federal government. It appears that compliance with state policy is not a major driving force for districts to develop mentoring activities for beginning teachers. Instead, other more enduring motivations, such as the desire to enhance teacher quality and the assumption that job satisfaction will lead to greater retention, are providing the impetus for the rise of teacher mentoring in the state since 1990.

As outlined below, schools and districts recognize a number of expected and actual benefits from providing teacher mentoring. Program planners at the district level and educators at the school and classroom level also are grappling with a number of challenges to successful implementation of mentoring programs.

Motivations and Challenges

This study identified two primary reasons for mentoring beginning teachers that are corroborated in current knowledge on the beneficial effects of mentoring. The first is the potential for mentoring to improve the quality of skills and knowledge of beginning teachers, thus increasing student achievement. The second is the possibility of addressing the teacher shortage program by stemming the tide of attrition of beginning teachers.

Improving the skills and knowledge of beginning teachers was the most prevalent concern among survey respondents and was the primary perceived benefit of providing teacher mentoring. As critical as the teacher attrition problem has grown in the last decade, districts and schools continue to focus on the needs of the students through teacher quality.

Many districts do, however, see mentoring as an important retention strategy; and they recognize the fact that attrition of beginning teachers contributes to teacher shortages in some areas more than in others. Teacher shortages in certain grade levels and areas of specialization were of particular concern to a large majority of statewide survey respondents (75 percent). In addition, these districts reported that attrition contributes to increased costs for the district and negative effects on campus-level faculty and students. The analysis of administrative data revealed important findings and some troubling characteristics of teacher attrition in the three case study sites--each of which might have implications for how districts might work toward maximizing mentoring as a retention strategy:

  • District teacher attrition rates masked the more troublesome campus-level teacher turnover tendencies. Variation in teacher turnover rates for individual campuses, on average, were far higher than the variation in district teacher attrition rates. (2)
  • Teacher turnover rates were usually higher for middle schools, highly diverse campuses, and low-performing schools.
  • Teacher attrition declined as teacher experience increased. About one-fourth to one-third of inexperienced teachers (i.e., less than 5 years experience) leave the districts. Teachers' degree, ethnicity, and gender were generally not strongly associated with teacher attrition.
  • Turnover rates declined dramatically for teachers with more than six years teaching experience. Across the three districts, high percentages of first-year and developing teachers (30 percent to 58 percent) either left the districts or moved to a different campus.
  • Teachers who were less than 30 years old were significantly more likely to move from one school to another. Teachers' highest degree held, ethnicity, and gender were generally unimportant factors in campus-level turnover.

Successful mentoring programs require careful planning and management, commitment from multiple levels, and sufficient financial and non-financial resources. Even with all of these components, schools and districts face a number of obstacles to successfully supporting beginning teachers.

Survey results reveal the challenges facing districts in providing a supportive structure for mentoring activities. More than half of reporting districts (52 percent) assessed their own mentoring programs as work in progress (i.e., still in the planning stages, in need of improvement, or a new and growing effort). Only 11 percent of respondents felt that their mentoring program contains a broad range of activities and positively affects all beginning teachers. Expectedly, these districts readily identify a number of needed supports. Funding for stipends and staff time for mentoring activities are the most prevalent barriers. Respondents also report that limited expertise in the area of mentoring, lack of training for mentors, and lack of state guidance and assistance create obstacles for implementing mentoring activities.

Challenges in implementing mentoring activities at the school level are diverse and depend on the local circumstances of beginning teachers. Interviews at the case sites reveal that logistical realities of school structures cause problems for effective mentoring, For example, late hires to a district or teachers that take over classes in mid-academic year create difficulty in matching new teachers to mentors. Special challenges to new teachers and mentors include:

  • School-wide use of unique or innovative instructional approaches with which the beginning teacher has little or no prior preparation,
  • Assignment of the new teacher to a subject or grade level in which he or she had no prior contact or field preparation, and
  • The presence of many new teachers, all of whom need some degree of mentoring.

The lack of time for learning new skills and for getting or giving support is another prevalent obstacle for beginning teachers and their mentors. The most common expression of novice teachers who are teaching their own classes for the first time is "feeling overwhelmed" by their students, by lesson planning, by new responsibilities, by paperwork, and more. At this stage, time is a most precious resource.

Finally, challenges exist in the matching of beginning teachers and mentors. An appropriate match is important for a successful mentoring relationship, however, this is often difficult to achieve due to teachers' schedules and lack of time outside the classroom. In general, mentors and protégés are best matched according to academic subject and/or grade level taught, physical proximity of their classrooms, and/or common conference periods to facilitate interaction and contact. Specialized teachers often work in isolated situations (e.g., solitary new elementary school teachers in physical education or music) and often must be assisted through the engagement of their professional organizations.

What are Characteristics of District and School Mentoring Programs?

Mentoring programs in districts and schools vary widely in program philosophy, structure, resources dedicated to mentoring, and distributions of roles and responsibilities. Despite these differences, certain mentoring program features appear to be common at the district level and at the campus level across most local implementations.

District Characteristics

Districts play an important role in determining local policy regarding mentoring, overseeing and assisting with campus-based activities, and providing support such as resources and mentor training. With the exception of some of the larger ones, districts leave the primary responsibility for carrying out mentoring activities to campus administration.

Districts secure outside support for their mentoring programs in the form of financial and non-financial assistance. Regional Education Service Centers, teacher preparation programs, and state government are the most prevalent sources of outside support. As contributors of non-financial assistance to well over half of the districts SEDL queried, service centers and teacher preparation programs may be directing much of this support through their participation in the Texas Beginning Educator Support System (TxBESS) and the state's alternative teacher certification process.

Key mentoring program resources identified by district staff included time, mentor training, materials, and direct funds. Although the greatest number of districts perceive mentors' time as being a major resource in a mentoring program, districts recognize also the considerable investment of time by beginning teachers and administrative staff. Direct funds are used in over a quarter of the districts responding to SEDL's survey to provide mentor stipends and/or wages for substitute teachers who make release time possible for mentors and protégés.

Mentoring program features in SEDL's three case study sites provide a closer look at the different ways in which school districts provide direction and support to the mentoring of beginning teachers through:

  • Training for both new teachers and mentors
  • Incentives in the form of mentor compensation and formal recognition of mentors and protégés
  • Program materials and other resources
  • Evaluation through new teacher assessment and ongoing program evaluation
  • Dedication of special staff and leveraging of additional assistance from entities outside the district.

School Characteristics

With sixty-five percent of Texas districts giving primary responsibility for the mentoring program to their individual campuses, school-level characteristics become particularly important to understanding the present implementation of beginning teacher mentoring across the state. As might be expected, this decentralized approach results in diversity not only within the total sample of schools included in SEDL's three case study districts but also among schools in the same district. Among the Texas schools visited by researchers, however, the focus of mentoring was reported to be remarkably consistent during the first few months of a teacher's first year in the classroom. This is true regardless of level of schooling (elementary, middle/junior high, and high school). Four overarching themes were apparent from interviews with beginning teachers, mentors, principals, and other school-based staff involved in mentoring programs.

First, regardless of their variation in preparation path, experience, needs, and circumstances, beginning teachers typically are overwhelmed.

Second, all mentoring programs at SEDL's case study sites centered on taking care of first things first. That is, they recognized that beginning teachers' immediate needs, not so surprisingly, are not curriculum-oriented but rather concern managing their place in the workplace itself. Classroom management (both classroom organization and student discipline) is the most common area of concern for new teachers. In addition, mentoring must acquaint new teachers with school procedures (i.e., formal and informal campus work rules, culture, and practices and district-level policies) during the first few days of classes. Such information is best conveyed at--or preferably just prior to--the time it is needed. Third, the power of a mentoring culture in the school cannot be under-emphasized. The two schools profiled in Chapter Five each use a unique mix of strategies to create a school-based structure for professional support that includes one-on-one mentoring as only part of a multi-faceted approach to inducting new teachers into the profession and fostering their development. Mentors, protégés, and administrative staff alike seem to be confident that the school structures and ways human resources are allocated "work" for them. Further, mentoring-type support is extended to all staff, in the belief that all teachers need to work with each other if they are to provide high quality instruction and contribute to improved student performance. As the principal of one school said:

    ... mentoring has to be ongoing ... the language and the craft of teaching and learning with children and ourselves is constantly developing. It doesn't stop after your first year. And you don't get it after your fifth year [or even] after you've had 20 years.

Effects of Mentoring

Survey results present a mixed picture as to the effect of mentoring on beginning teachers. When asked to identify results of mentoring using a forced-choice list of possible results improving teaching quality, job satisfaction, student achievement, and work environment all were prioritized above teacher retention. When asked separately about retention and teacher quality, however, districts recognized the prevalence of both results nearly equally. This may reflect the nature of a mentoring process that seeks to support the development of beginning teachers that might, in turn, lead to job satisfaction due to success on the job, and by extension to increased retention.

Interviews with staff of the three case study districts provide only anecdotal evidence of effectiveness. Across all schools, however, that evidence is positive. Staff assert that good mentoring can have beneficial effects on the retention of new teachers in their jobs. SEDL's key informants say they look for a turning point in the first year of every protégé--when it is evident that he or she "sees himself as important, as productive." As one mentor says, her hope is that "by the end of the year [her protégé] will feel she's accomplished something with her students and will come back next year, confident in her familiarity with the school and the curriculum." That is, the mark of successful mentoring is often viewed to simply be the return of a first year teacher to the same school as a second year teacher.

Program effectiveness in areas other than retention also is undocumented. Schools struggle with and juggle available resources as they work toward achieving the most important aims of mentoring--fostering the development of high quality teachers who stay in the profession over the long haul. The observation of an elementary school mentor exemplifies the reports of many case study participants who are witnessing good results with this mentoring goal as well. In discussing a colleague whom he mentored three years ago, the mentor says he has shifted from asking questions primarily about curriculum to those that focus on how to approach a child who is having a learning problem. In that mentor's opinion, the beginning teacher who "started out teaching the book instead of the child" is now a strong member of the faculty.

What are the Implications of Current Mentoring Activities for the Retention of Teachers in Districts or schools with Increasingly Diverse Student Populations?

Because one research focus for this project is teacher mentoring in a context of student diversity, a critical component of the selection of the three case studies was high race/ethnic diversity of the student population. Also, to varying degrees in all three case districts, higher percentages of economically disadvantaged and limited English proficient students were found to be in the highly diverse and low-performing schools.

The challenges of preparing teachers to address the needs of all learners have long been recognized. Demographic changes in the student population are evident in the Southwest region, and in Texas non-white students comprised 56 percent of 1999 enrollments. Additionally, substantial numbers of children live in poverty, have limited English skills, or come from ethnically diverse cultural backgrounds. Teacher demographics, however, are not changing with the pace of changes in student demographics; and "new teachers will be asked to teach [students with] backgrounds and life experiences very different from their own" (Zeichner, 1993, p. 1). In light of this situation, researchers probed the strategies identified by schools and districts to support beginning teachers in classrooms with high diversity and also performed initial analysis of case study schools with diverse student population and teacher retention patterns.

Supporting Beginning Teachers in Classrooms with High Diversity

While several interview respondents prioritized the need to prepare teachers for the unique needs and learning styles of all students and recognized the demographic gaps between teachers and their students, none of the three districts provides explicit support through mentoring in addressing the needs of diverse students.

In Mid-City ISD, for example, respondents at many levels confirmed the awareness of cultural diversity in the district and the need for inclusive teaching practice. Materials provided to beginning teachers during the initial orientation to the district explicitly state this understanding and cultural awareness is discussed during one of the training sessions. Further development of cultural awareness for teachers, however, is not pursued through other established structures, mentoring or otherwise.

Urban and County Wide ISDs similarly have an understanding of the challenges of teaching diverse learners, but explicit activities that support the development of new teachers to meet these challenges appear to be rare. One school addresses the needs of diverse learners by screening carefully during the hiring process for teachers who already demonstrate a level of competency in teaching students of varied backgrounds.

The situation encountered during case site visits regarding the support of new teachers in classrooms of highly diverse students echoes the assessment of the current status of educating teachers for cultural diversity made by Zeichner (1993). He observes:

    attention to the problem of preparing teachers to teach a diverse student body is not a new concern [however] there has been relatively very little attention...to ideas about how to prepare teachers to teach an increasingly diverse student population more effectively (p. 2, emphasis added).

Teacher Mentoring and Retention in Schools with Diverse Student Populations

As presented above, no mentoring activities were identified through this research that focus on the support of new teachers in classrooms with high diversity. Research findings did, however, provide compelling information regarding the patterns of retention of teachers in diverse and low-performing schools. Data analysis of schools in the three case study sites show the following trends:

  • Across all districts, first-year teachers were more likely to be assigned to highly diverse and lower-achieving schools
  • District teacher attrition rates were notably higher for diverse and lower-performing schools.

These findings suggest that beginning teachers are indeed facing difficult challenges in the classroom and are "at-risk" of leaving their assignments when placed in highly diverse classrooms without support from more experienced colleagues. While data are not available to further develop these findings, they signal the need for further attention and study to the needs of beginning teachers in teaching diverse students. By identifying "pockets" of greatest need for mentoring intervention, better decisions can be made about how to allocate the limited resources available for mentoring support.

Implications and Recommendations

A recurring thread that undercuts the findings from this research is that there is no "single best way" to organize the mentoring process. Effective mentoring must be flexible and responsive to individual, school, and district needs. There are important roles for state, district, and campus-level administrators; for mentors and beginning teachers; and for related entities such as regional education service centers and higher education in fostering good mentoring in Texas. A number of common principles for achieving success in this endeavor are evident and are presented below in the form of implications and recommendations.

Implications

First, it is apparent that mentoring is only one of many factors associated with the retention of beginning teachers. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners must consider the range of conditions that undermine teacher stability (e.g., salary, professional status, equitable work assignments, job satisfaction), as well as the other economic and social factors that impact individuals' career choices.

Second, we suggest that the goal of teacher mentoring should be focused on improving teacher quality and improving student success. Retention is a higher profile goal, especially during this time of teacher shortages. A focus on retention alone, however, may compromise quality teaching by retaining teachers who might be more appropriately counseled out of the profession.

Third, mentoring of beginning teachers should be considered one piece of a larger focus on teacher development. Thoughtful reflection on practices by mentor and protégé, school and district administrator, and teacher preparation entities, contribute to the development and continuous improvement of all teachers.

Recommendations

  1. It is likely that retention and quality goals associated with beginning teacher mentoring cannot be met by schools and districts alone. In particular, successful mentoring programs may require resources beyond those presently available to most districts. Were states to provide tangible assistance to districts and schools through financial support, mentor training opportunities, technical assistance, and necessary materials and equipment, more would be learned about the true potential of teacher mentoring.
  2. Policymakers and district and school administrators should make available another critical resource in teacher mentoring that is currently in short supply: time. Mentors, administrators, others who are part of the educator support system, and beginning teachers all must be afforded the time to devote to effective mentoring and induction.
  3. Mentoring programs rely on the availability of well-qualified, veteran teachers to serve as mentors. Evidence from this study shows that in many at-risk schools, about half of the teaching force will probably be inexperienced. State and local planners must determine how to ensure that these schools, in particular, have adequate human resources to support high-quality mentoring for their beginning teachers.
  4. The preparation of mentors and development of their capacity to mentor effectively are issues that require attention. Some school districts are able to provide some training, but others need assistance in training their mentors. Support, guidance, and resources should be prioritized for mentor training.
  5. An array of support strategies for beginning teachers should be available for use in a teacher mentoring program. For example, reciprocal classroom observations; model teaching; team teaching; collaborative curriculum development; and teaming all offer important vehicles and techniques to develop the knowledge and skills of new teachers.
  6. Finally, effective mentoring is more than a one-on-one relationship between mentor and protégé. New teachers benefit from the support of other teachers, administrators, and higher education partners. Teacher mentoring is best developed within a professional culture that favors collegiality and collaboration.

Areas for Future Research

This research effort represents a step towards better understanding beginning teacher mentoring. While questions remain regarding many aspects of mentoring in Texas and implications for other states, researchers identified three issues in particular that merit future research.

First, there is a need to collect information about how time is created for mentoring, whether it be in the form of release time or creative scheduling. How much time is needed and how structured should it be? This single element of "time" is likely to be a critical determining factor of program success.

Second, are questions of how to create an appropriate relationship between mentoring and evaluation. Most pressing is the question of whether mentors of new teachers can, or should, also be their evaluators. Constructive criticism is certainly appropriate in mentoring, but if mentors are perceived as evaluators, they can be intimidating to vulnerable novice teachers. The dynamics of evaluation and mentoring and ways to avoid negative results should be further studied. Also, there is a need for more sophisticated program evaluation at all levels including individual campuses, districts, and the state. Since mentoring activities vary so greatly at the individual campus level, efforts should be made to investigate the correlation between mentoring support and retention at this level. When this relationship is better understood it will become more feasible to weigh the costs and benefits of teacher mentoring.

Finally, a number of questions must be addressed regarding teaching diverse student populations. First, how do districts make decisions regarding beginning teacher assignments and what are statewide trends regarding placements of new teachers in highly diverse and low-performing schools? Second, what are the key reasons for high attrition in diverse or low-performing schools; and third, how might mentoring support relieve the pressures faced by new teachers in diverse classrooms? Answers to these questions can help policymakers make policy and resource allocation decisions in order to direct attention to the most critical areas of need.


Notes:
2: Campus-level teacher turnover in Mid-City ISD, however, was markedly lower than the rates for County Wide ISD and Urban ISD. Mid-City ISD schools, which typically were more ethnically and socio-economically balanced and had more equitable distributions of beginning, developing, and veteran teachers, had teaching staffs that were more stable than the comparison districts.

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