In New Hampshire, a statewide task force on effective teaching is publishing new guidelines to improve the quality of teaching. One issue that’s getting a closer look is teacher mentoring programs. In Nashua, one mentoring program works to groom better teachers and keep them in the classroom for years to come.
Picture this: the first day on your new job. You’re prepared. Energized. But after a while, an uneasiness creeps in. You’re losing control. You’re not making progress.
That was the case for Inge Thomas — and almost every new teacher like her — when she first began teaching chemistry at Nashua High School South five years ago.
"You do feel isolated. The first year was really hard. Because there’s more to it than just presenting information to students – which I knew – but just the interaction with students and how to build on that and create a classroom environment was huge."
As a new teacher, Thomas paired up with a mentor, a veteran chemistry instructor.
"I watched her more than she watched me. I picked up a lot of things from her: how to get students to go to the board, not just asking one student because they’ll freeze, but if you get a group going up, it’s better."
But that still didn’t temper the isolation. For that, Thomas needed to cast a wider net.
"And that’s where the cohorts come in. You meet and you share what’s working in the classroom and what’s not."
New to Nashua teachers must attend a cohort group in their first three years, but many like Thomas continue on voluntarily.
New Hampshire’s Department of Education doesn’t provide any support for school districts, but a statewide task force on effective teaching does encourage mentor programs like the one Nashua runs.
Virginia Clifford is with the department’s Bureau of Credentialing. She says transforming the way we train teachers is part of a national dialogue.
"There’s a conversation that thinks about educator development somewhat like how we train medical professionals, such that there be a longer period of time like a residency or internship, to think less of, you walk out of a college, and now you’re a teacher, and good luck."
For Nashua, that means creating the cohort program. Dianne Vienneau is a cohort leader. Before that, she taught for 15 years. Vienneau may be a master at her craft, but she doesn’t give new teachers the solutions.
"The minute you give someone the answers, the learning stops."
Instead, she lets the teachers brainstorm ways to turn around difficult situations.
Vienneau says about 50 percent of new hires leave the teaching profession within five years. She’s been tracking Nashua’s retention rates since 2002, when the district was on par with national averages.
But three years later, after the district began requiring new teachers to join cohort groups, the retention rate jumped to just under 80 percent. Then in 2010, the district raised the cohort commitment from one to three years.
"At this point, we’re looking at a 94 percent retention rate. We’re excited by that and feel that our students are best served by teachers who are coming and staying and are growing in their classrooms in front of their kids into highly effective teachers."
In the western part of New Hampshire, one school is molding new hires even before they get their jobs. The Marlborough elementary school and Keene State College are launching a real-world immersion that begins in an undergraduate’s freshman year.
Here’s how it works: College students take a class with their professors at the nearby elementary school. Early on, they can imagine their careers as teachers — or realize it’s not their cup of tea. The goal is to have them continue on as interns, then as teachers, and finally, as graduate students taking courses — all at the Marlborough elementary school.
Melinda Treadwell is the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Keene State College. She says that Keene State plans to create what she calls faculty fellows:
"Those people get leave from normal teaching to be mentors to their colleagues. If we have teachers in training and faculty from the college at the schools, you have people who can help lift some of the work burden so that the teachers in the schools can have the space to be mentors. That, we know, works in other professions. And so I do think this is going to be a game changer."
The state’s task force on effective teaching encourages schools to follow Nashua and Marlborough’s lead.
But in a sour economy, administrators have to face tough choices. For example, in Manchester, shrinking budgets squeezed out the district’s two full-time mentors. But as more schools struggle with finding good teachers and keeping them, they may campaign louder for teacher support programs.