Mentoring Program to Put Arkansas Teachers on Path to Success

by John V. Pennington
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIII, Number 2, October 2001, Teachers - They matter most

They enter the field of education with a "missionary zeal," but many teachers in Arkansas leave the profession shortly after they begin, says Dr. Melanie Kennon, mentoring program advisor for the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE).

Nationwide, one-third to one-half of new teachers quit teaching before completing their fifth year. At the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year, 250 Arkansas classrooms stood vacant due to a lack of qualified teachers.

"The teacher shortage has hit Arkansas squarely between the eyes," Kennon reports.

Reality Bites

Photo of a teaching showing a world map to a group of students. Kennon credits much of the shortage to the reality new teachers often face during their first few years in the classroom. Novice teachers, who have had only one semester of student teaching experience, are commonly given scarce resources and troublesome students whom long-time faculty members don't want in their classrooms.

"New teachers get in the classroom and think that the kids are going to be as excited as they are about the content and that the students are all going to sit there and listen," Kennon says. She notes that novice teachers are surprised when they find they've got students who don't want to be there, students they can't seem to reach, and parents who don't appreciate what they do.

That frustration, often combined with limited support from administrators and the hectic pace of trying to keep up with everything, can cause teachers to "slip into survival mode," where they "just try to make it until Christmas or spring break," Kennon notes.

"That's when salary becomes an issue," she adds. "That's when they begin to wonder, 'Why in the world am I doing this for this amount of money?'"

To keep Arkansas teachers out of survival mode and in the classroom, the state has invested $2.9 million in the Pathwise Mentoring/Classroom Observation System, which has been piloted in 30 school districts across the state since August 2000. Developed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey, the Pathwise system is the main component of the state's new performance-based teacher licensure system, to become effective January 1, 2002.

The state education department selected school districts in every geographic region of Arkansas to participate in the Pathwise pilot study - large districts, such as North Little Rock with 8,311 students and Texarkana with 4,306 students, and small districts, such as Hamburg with 1,656 students and Waldo with only 454.

"We wanted to make sure it was fine-tuned to the large variety of school districts we have in Arkansas," says Kennon.

Under the Pathwise system, first-year teachers are given trained mentors, who help them through their first one to three years of teaching - traditionally the most difficult years. Pathwise provides new teachers the opportunity to get objective feedback and ideas from an experienced teacher. Arkansas currently has 185 qualified Pathwise mentor trainers and more than 4,300 trained mentors.

The state provides school districts with $2,000 per year in Pathwise funding for each new teacher. Of that money, $1,200 is used to compensate the mentor and $800 is reserved for the new teacher's professional development. Professional development might include funding memberships to professional organizations, subsidizing journal subscriptions, or paying a substitute teacher to give the novice teacher more time to spend with his/her mentor. ADE provides all Pathwise materials to school districts free of charge.

Allotting time for mentoring is key to the Pathwise program's success. Kennon says teachers must have time during the school day to meet with their mentors in order for "collaborative problem solving" to occur.

"You can't do this on the way to the teacher's lounge," she explains. "You can't do this standing back to back on the playground watching the kids."

The Pathwise system is already being implemented this school year in districts that are on ADE's academic distress or watch list. Beginning January 1, all school districts in Arkansas will implement the Pathwise Mentoring Model for any teacher hired with less than one year of classroom teaching experience.

Preparation for Praxis III

The Pathwise system focuses on preparing teachers to pass the Praxis III Classroom Performance Assessment. The Praxis III has three components: observation of classroom practices, review of written materials, and interviews with the teacher before and after being observed. Under the new teacher licensure system, Arkansas teachers must pass the Praxis III to receive their standard license.

Upon college graduation, new Arkansas teachers will receive a non-renewable initial teaching license, good for no less than one year and no longer than three. During this time, the teachers will participate in the Pathwise system, giving them time to grow professionally.

"This is about making sure that folks meet the competencies that are outlined in the Arkansas Teacher Licensure Standards and that they can meet those in a real-life situation once they get in there with kids," Kennon says. "Sometimes people look really good on paper. They can pass the test, they can bubble in the answers. But when they get in the classroom with real kids, they fall flat on their face."

Teachers in other states who have been inducted through the Pathwise system have had great success on the Praxis III. In Ohio, 98 percent of new teachers passed the Praxis III after one year of mentoring. The Arkansas Department of Education hopes for similar success.

"We feel like most of our teachers, after one year of good-quality mentoring, will be able to pass the Praxis III and get their standard license," says Kennon.

By producing better teachers, the state expects to see higher test scores in the future.

"We know that the single most important factor in raising student achievement is the quality of the instruction," she acknowledges. "We know that if we provide focused professional development for teachers, support for teachers, and the tools they need to do the job we ask them to do, then we're going to see the results in increasing student achievement."

The author of this article, John V. Pennington, is a freelance writer who lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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