Mentors, internships wave of future

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In recent years, the Board of Education has mandated extra help for new teachers, but it’s just been more class time. Novices had to seek out a university course or staff development workshop, including one recently developed by the board called Focus on the Classroom. If they didn’t pick a board offering, they had to pay the bill themselves.

This system, many experts contend, is wholly inadequate. “The first year teaching is extremely stressful,” remarks Steve Tozer, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You have to master the curriculum in a system. There are the complex relationships to forge with the students, parents, colleagues and administrators, at the same time you’re expected to behave competently and nurture the growth of all these children. Talk about an explosive time. You need help.”

In 1991, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. surveyed teachers across the country and asked them what would have helped them most during their first years on the job. The top response, given by 47 percent of teachers, was “an experienced mentor teacher assigned to provide advice.” (Another 39 percent said “more practical training,” and 13 percent said “better training in working with students and families from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.”)

What Tozer and other observers have in mind is “induction,” an internship along the lines of what medicine demands to ease the transition from student to professional. The concept is gaining credence as reformers shift from the mindset of accountability (the trigger for installing the teacher certification tests during the 1980s) to a recognition that unstable fledgling teachers need coaching and a tryout of sorts. Instituting induction in Illinois tops the list of recommendations being crafted by a state task force on post-graduate training. And Chicago is planning a pilot program to begin next year.

Nationally, the move toward induction began as a way to reduce the stress felt by neophtyes and to cut their relatively high dropout rate. The U.S. Department of Education reports that about 8 percent of full-time public school teachers leave the profession within two years.

Chicago’s school administration has not calculated a dropout rate for its newcomers, but it reports that an average of 64 teachers with two or fewer years of experience have quit each year since 1989, suggesting rather modest attrition.

In 1981, Florida became the first state to institute an induction program. All new teachers there get hooked up with a three-member team: an administrator, a colleague either in the same discipline or at the same grade level and some other educator. In some school districts, mentors get extra pay for the extra work.

In the fall, the team diagnoses the yearling’s strengths and weaknesses and then comes up with a plan to patch the weak spots. Each new teacher has to collect a portfolio of material testifying to his or her competency, including, for instance, a videotape of either a lesson or a session with a parent. If, at the end of the year, the newcomer receives a positive recommendation from her team, he or she applies for status as a regular teacher. Almost everyone makes it, according to Ava Belitzky, the director of the orientation program.

Other states are following Florida’s lead. In Michigan, for example, a new teacher is assigned a mentor, often a colleague or a university figure, for three years. “In effect you get a buddy for awhile,” cracks Joan May, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education. New teachers also have to receive at least 15 days of professional development training over the period.

In 1990, the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington, D.C., established a subgroup devoted to bringing some uniformity to induction and teacher accountability. Called the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC), the group lists the involvement of 36 state agencies, including the Illinois State Board of Education under Supt. Joseph Spagnolo.

INTASC director Jean Miller is convinced that student teaching is inadequate to set a beginner on sound footing: “Just because someone has student-taught, you can’t be assured of quality. Six or eight weeks isn’t enough preparation. Anyway, is a student teacher really teaching, or just being a gofer in the classroom?”

To rectify matters, INTASC is identifying the top 10 principles of good teaching and will soon move to redesign the method of entry into the profession, according to Miller. She predicts the new model will spell out a year of induction, either folded into college as a fifth academic year or stipulated as a period of internship, as in Florida and Michigan.

The model likely will scrap current certification tests in favor of a more complex procedure of accountability. “There may be several ways of assessing people,” says Miller, citing pen-and-pencil subject tests and portfolios that might include videotapes of teaching and the teacher’s assessment plan on one child. Miller expects INTASC’s findings to be promulgated and adopted by the year 2000. Then it would be up to states to follow the council’s lead.

Locally, induction is underway in several forms. Teachers for Chicago, a collaborative among the Board of Education, the Golden Apple Foundation, the Chicago Teachers Union and area education schools, recruits career-changers from around the country and screens them on their abilities to weather urban classrooms.

Those accepted—182 made the grade for 1995, from a field of 1,500—automatically get classrooms of their own in one of 80 participating schools. Each participating school gets four interns at a time and a mentor-teacher whose entire job is to support the starting foursome. After school hours, the interns study for a master’s degree in education at one of 10 participating universities.

Interns are paid $18,000 a year plus benefits, well below Chicago’s starting salary of $28,742; the “savings” pay for the mentors and university tuition. The interns also must make a commitment to teach an additional two years in the Chicago public schools after completing the two-year program.

Since Teachers for Chicago began in 1992, it has generated 80 certified teachers, with another 95 due for certification this summer. In addition, 310 candidates are in the pipeline.

Program coordinator Fred Chesek is heartened: “We are bringing people into the profession who are changing the schools, whether it’s starting a soccer team or experimenting with classroom practice. And the mentors have found themselves transformed into better urban educators.”

Golden Apple also runs a program that recruits minority high school students to go into teaching. Participants work in classrooms during the summer as well as student teach, increasing their hands-on experience four-fold.

The Urban Teacher Corps, run by DePaul University, sends college graduates—half of them returning Peace Corps volunteers—into a dozen city schools, where they earn $16,000 a year to assist regular teachers in math, science and music. “We have a different philosophy than Teachers for Chicago,” notes Charles Doyle, an assistant dean at DePaul. “We feel new people need more time before running a class.” Of the program’s 86 alumni, says Doyle, 80 percent are still in Chicago public schools.

Also through DePaul, the Glenview public schools take a dozen career-changers, including accountants, bankers and ex-servicemen, and run them through a three-year internship. During the initial year, each participant works side by side with a mentor. During the subsequent two years, the person takes over a classroom, yet remains under some supervision. With the modest $10,000 salary comes tuition for graduate courses in teaching and learning at DePaul, leading to a master’s degree.

After Illinois enacted early-retirement legislation four years ago, eight south suburban school districts felt such a loss that they took steps to make sure their beginners didn’t flee as well. Through Governors State University, the districts are giving a boost to their new teachers (who number 46 this year) by sending them to four after-school workshops, releasing them to observe colleagues and setting up meetings on such topics as parent conferences and IGAP testing. The cost, pegged at $35,000 annually, is covered by regular staff development funds, says program director Karen Peterson.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education, with funding from The Joyce Foundation, has established a task force on teacher professionalism and development in cooperation with the University of Illinois at Chicago. Chaired by Donald Monroe, former superintendent in Winnetka and now principal of the private Francis W. Parker School, the task force is readying recommendations to overhaul induction in the state.

‘Dreaming big’

A draft of the panel’s proposals, being circulated in May, calls for scrapping student-teaching in favor of “longer and more varied field experiences.” A new teacher would receive an initial license and then undergo a three-year internship. During the first year, the teacher would have a reduced class load in exchange for mentoring and other types of aid devised by schools, universities and state regional education offices.

The class load would pick up in the second and third internship years, with full licensing coming after an outside assessment of the teacher’s abilities. Certificate renewal would be predicated on fulfilling a four-year professional development plan rather than simply paying a fee.

“For now, we’re dreaming big and seeing what the costs for all this will be,” says Steven Tozer, a panel member. “We will address the question of expense in the final report. Some money can be picked up through reorganization by school districts, but if there is to be a serious difference, there will be a pricetag attached.”

The Chicago school system also is getting into the act. New plans call for monthly workshops for recruits and a pilot mentoring program. “We are completely revamping what we offer new teachers,” says Judith Foster, director of teacher development, who forecasts August sessions in classroom management for new hires. Separately, the Chicago Teachers Union is considering whether to spur a Florida-like initiative, according to spokesperson Jackie Gallagher.

Officials at local education schools applaud the new direction. School systems should hire mentor-teachers, pay them a stipend and pair them with novices to offset “the isolation and fright” that attend starting out, says Victoria Chou, UIC’s associate education dean for academic programs. In addition, suggests Chicago State University Dean Genevieve Lopardo, new teachers should receive a reduced class load as well as a shot at better, more controllable classes. “Too often it’s the old hands who get those classes now,” Lopardo points out.