Mentor, principal support are keys to keeping new teachers

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

Kelly McNamee, a recent college graduate, landed a teaching job this fall at May Elementary in Austin. A native of downstate Belleville, Kelly was nervous about moving to Chicago and, being white, about teaching in an inner-city public school. But McNamee was determined to make a go of it—even when friends wondered why she took such a job at all.

A unique orientation program for new teachers in West Side schools eased her fears. The four-day orientation included visiting students at their homes, getting to know them and their parents, and learning her way around students’ neighborhoods.

When it was over, Kelly says she felt more comfortable and even enthusiastic about the new school year ahead. She was further heartened when, on the first day of school, a student she had met on the one of the home visits recognized her and gave her a welcoming hug.

Yet weeks later, Kelly quit, becoming another statistic in a long-standing city challenge: hanging on to new young teachers.

In an analysis of school district hiring and retention data, CATALYST Associate Editor Debra Williams found the problem is getting worse. New teachers are leaving the district at a faster rate than they were five years ago. This fall, a whopping 31 percent of teachers hired two years ago had left, up from only 18 percent over the two-year period beginning in 1996-97.

While Kelly got a better-than-average head start, she hit a brick wall when she stepped inside May. The school had 10 new teachers, and, at the time Kelly left, Principal Sandra McCann-Beavers had not taken advantage of a recent Chicago Public Schools initiative to pair every new teacher with a mentor to help guide them through the difficult first year inside a classroom. By the end of September, at least half of the newcomers were gone.

The CPS program calls for every principal to appoint a lead mentor to create and oversee a support plan for new teachers. Yet the program lacks the teeth and funding that could force or entice schools like May to follow through. Meager funding is one reason why the number of mentor training days was cut down from four to two. Schools don’t get extra money to pay substitute teachers to cover mentors’ or new teachers’ classrooms when they observe each other teaching or go to training. Difficulties like these make follow-through tough even for schools that make mentoring a priority.

In the end, children pay the price through loss of continuity and having a string of novices teach them. And while money is a big part of the solution, it won’t fix the problem entirely.

Early this summer, when teacher contract talks were in the early stages, the Chicago Teachers Union released the findings of a study it had commissioned to find out why teachers leave CPS. Respondents, who tended to be older and more experienced members of the profession, pointed strongly to lack of principal support, particularly when related to student discipline.

If those things drive out seasoned teachers, it’s fair to assume that they are a major factor in the loss of young blood. So once again, the quality of principal leadership takes center stage. The School Board, along with its external partners, can move none too quickly to bring coherence and vision to the task of improving that leadership through training and support, expectations and accountability. Working more closely with local school councils would make a difference, too.