Coaches keep rookie teachers on track

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Jensen Elementary

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Jensen Elementary

Stephanie Hansen, a new kindergarten teacher at Jensen Elementary, was having problems in her classroom. Getting 23 rambunctious youngsters to concentrate on their work was quite a feat, and Hansen admits she wasn’t doing it very well.

“I was walking around trying to see what [one] student had written, while keeping [other students] focused on the assignment. And they all wanted my attention,” says Hansen.

She took her concerns to Arthi Rao, her teaching coach, who suggested she meet with students in small groups every other day to ensure that she spent a fair amount of time with each child. The strategy worked. Once students knew they each would have personal attention at some point, they settled down and concentrated more diligently on their assignments.

“It is a much more organized workshop, and my students’ writing has improved,” Hansen reports.

Hansen is among 56 new teachers in Area 8 in North Lawndale to get coaches from the Chicago New Teacher Center, the two-year-old branch of the well-regarded teacher induction program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. After starting out with a small-scale pilot serving just 18 teachers, CNTC merged with the now-shuttered New Teacher Network and quickly expanded: Almost 300 teachers are now participating, from schools in Area 8, Area 14 in Englewood, Area 13 in Grand Boulevard, and Area 15 in the Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn communities. 

For next year, plans are in the works to move into Area 17, which includes South Shore, Calumet Heights, South Chicago and Chatham. Ultimately, CNTC hopes to provide mentoring and coaching for new teachers throughout Illinois (the program expects to receive about $480,000 this year from the state, which is increasing its support for better teacher induction).

Still, the 279 teachers now being served by CNTC are a drop in the bucket compared to the 2,000-plus new teachers typically hired each year. Most of these newcomers are still being mentored through GOLDEN, the district’s own program, which critics say is underfunded and cannot provide the highest-quality induction. And the high cost—about $6,000 per teacher for a top-notch induction program like the Santa Cruz model—is a barrier to expansion.

Taking the challenge

CPS leaders see the work as key to retaining and developing new teachers in schools that have had high attrition and low performance.

“You can probably do less intensive support than we do and retain teachers,” says Lisa Vahey, the director of CNTC and the former head of the New Teacher Network.  “We want to impact teacher practices. The number one impact on student achievement is teacher quality.”

Ellen Moir, who heads the center in Santa Cruz, affirms this view. “By partnering with CPS, we can together accelerate new teacher development, support principals and support the district’s focus on literacy,” Moir says. “Ultimately, children benefit.”

Leaders in Santa Cruz approached Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins two years ago about working in Chicago. Eason-Watkins threw down the gauntlet, and they accepted. “I asked if they were willing to work in our most struggling communities,” she says.

 First-year results were promising: Just four of 87 beginning teachers in Areas 14 and 15 left, a 5 percent attrition rate that compares favorably with the districtwide rate of 7 to 9 percent for beginning teachers. (See Catalyst Chicago, April 2006.) Eason-Watkins then got the group to move into Areas 8 and 13. 

That first year, as the University of Chicago began to focus on charter development rather than teacher induction, university officials met with Moir and Eason-Watkins to forge the merger—giving teachers greater support.

“We went from some coaching and some development, to a lot of coaching and a lot of development,” says Vahey. “This is a huge change, and Santa Cruz has made the difference.  It is much more rigorous.”

Principals in the mix

New teachers get online support through a special teacher listserv, monthly group meetings and a two-day summer institute that focuses on planning the first weeks of school. The one-on-one weekly coaching visits, however, have had the most impact, teachers say. For Hansen and Rao, the visits include discussions about lessons and classroom concerns. Rao also observes Hansen’s teaching and gives feedback.

Jensen Principal Catherine Jernigan, who has four new teachers in CNTC, sees “better teaching, differentiated teaching and growth in classroom management. My new teachers used to send disruptive students to my office.  That hardly happens any more. They know what to do. The coaching is working.”

Principals get professional development to help them understand what beginning teachers need, and new principals—14 this year—even get a coach.

Second-year principal Paula Powers at Wentworth Elementary in Area 14 is working with Virginia Vaske, the former Area 15 instructional officer.

“Having an experienced person who has a vision like yours, who is able to help you make changes and implement structures that you want, and to have someone to talk to about ideas and strategies has been great,” Powers says.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail williams@catalyst-chicago.org.