Mentoring program going citywide

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Mentoring for new teachers isn’t a new idea—just one that’s catching on. In an effort to reduce attrition, many districts are doing it, and some states require it. Research says it can work. Chicago’s mentoring program, launched as a pilot project in 1997, included over 200 schools last year and is now poised to go citywide. So far, the effort has drawn mixed reviews from teachers and uneven support from principals.

Newly hired teachers are paired with a mentor at their school, and receive 30 hours of training on everything from record keeping to building rapport with co-workers. The program is a joint effort of the School Board, the Chicago Teachers Union and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The best part is one-on-one attention from a mentor, teachers say. “If I hadn’t had a mentor to talk to on a daily basis, I would be looking for another job,” says Sarah Segall, a Spanish teacher at Austin High School. For one, she was bewildered by shifting class schedules that accompanied each round of standardized testing. Her mentor explained away the confusion over coffee and donuts.

Mentors themselves say the program is long overdue. In the past, music teacher Bob White of Schurz High School saw many new hires driven away by “the paperwork, the lack of guidance, the all-alone feeling, the overwhelming responsibilities that are pressed upon you and you don’t have anyone or anything to help.”

Many new teachers, however, say they would have learned more from a mentor who taught the same subject or grade level. “It doesn’t matter how good the teacher is as a mentor. If they aren’t teaching in your discipline, they can’t help you with curriculum,” says one social studies teacher whose mentor teaches math.

“That’s like having a pediatrician serve as the attending physician for a resident who wants to be a heart surgeon,” agrees Barnett Berry of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. For instance, there are ways to teach algebra to an 8th-grader who hasn’t mastered basic math, he says. But the only way to do that is with content-specific teaching strategies that none but a skilled math teacher can provide.

New teachers need close contact with experts in their content areas, he insists. “Without that support, they become mediocre teachers.”

In Chicago, each mentor works with up to three teachers, who may teach different subjects or at different grade levels. Giving every new hire his or her own mentor in his or her own discipline would be “an extremely expensive proposition,” according to Steven Tozer, a University of Illinois education professor who helps oversee the program. Currently, the program costs less than $1,000 per teacher. Mentors earn a stipend up to $1,500.

Tozer agrees that subject-area matches are desirable, but more importantly, he says, are the inter-personal skills needed for good mentoring, such as the ability to respect a less experienced colleague, listen well and offer criticism constructively. “These [qualities] are crucial. If the trusting relationship isn’t there, a new teacher is not likely to be forthcoming about problems.”

The board requires 30 hours of training—mainly small- and large-group discussions at regional sites—for all new hires. Those not in the mentoring program took workshops under the name “Focus on the Classroom.” Teachers in both programs said workshops provided some useful information, but not enough to fill 30 hours, and tended to be one-size-fits-all.

“Sometimes we would talk about class-room management, and the elementary teachers would say ‘Put Johnny in time out.’ In high school, that doesn’t work,” notes Keith Robinson, an English teacher at Lane Technical High School, who attended Focus workshops.

This school year, the two programs will be folded together and rechristened M.I.N.T., Mentoring and Induction for New Teachers. Tozer promises some changes along with the new name. For one, the workshops will include small-group discussions aimed at specific disciplines and levels of teaching experience. This would accommodate new hires who are veterans from other districts.

The board also is considering converting an optional 15 hours of training for second-year teachers into a requirement. At certain grade levels, that training involves work with the city’s museums.

One of the greatest challenges in going citywide is getting principal support, says Tozer. The board soon will vote on whether to require schools to provide mentoring to new teachers. So far, it’s been up to the principal. Even so, some mentors and mentees ended up with conflicting schedules and no time to meet or to visit each other’s classrooms.

In August, all principals were to have attended a mentoring program workshop that included advice on scheduling. Only 65 percent of principals who participated last year thought that teachers and mentors had enough time to meet, according to Tozer. “Principals are aware of the problem.”

At this point, crafting an effective mentoring program can only be a trial-and-error process, he explains. “All the mentoring programs in the nation on this scale are relatively new. Because every mentoring program is different, we don’t know exactly what are the variables that reduce attrition.”

“The research on what difference mentoring makes is very promising,” he adds, “but thin right now.”