published Saturday, August 4th, 2012

Keys to the classroom: Program provides training, support to new teachers

Clifton Hills Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Donna Perkins organizes her classroom. Perkins is a first-year teacher at the school, which has the highest concentration of teachers fresh out of college.
Clifton Hills Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Donna Perkins organizes her classroom. Perkins is a first-year teacher at the school, which has the highest concentration of teachers fresh out of college.
Photo by Allison Love.
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Donna Perkins' classroom is stocked with whiteboards, desks and computers, but little else.

It will take a massive amount of work to make her room as bright and welcoming as those of other teachers at Clifton Hills Elementary School, but the first-year fourth-grade teacher finds one consolation in the task ahead.

"The positive thing about having nothing is I can make it my own," she said while looking up and down her bare walls.

By Thursday, Perkins already had spent more than $400 out of her own wallet to buy storage items for her room and supplies for her students because she wasn't sure how many would show up with supplies of their own. As she scoured the building, looking for a missing bookshelf and trying to nail down someone to move a filing cabinet into her room, Perkins also thought about the thing she was actually hired to do: Teach kids.

The struggles and anxieties of new teachers are exponential. Experts say many first-year teachers are overwhelmed when they actually take over their own classrooms. And without the right support, many leave the field quickly -- up to 50 percent leave within the first year, studies show.

Those new teachers can feel isolated, but a Hamilton County program is aimed at ensuring that teachers like Perkins are successful and long-lasting.

"This is a year that some of you might be tempted to leave. But not in Hamilton County. We're going to change that," Clara Sale-Davis told nearly 70 new teachers last week.

Sale-Davis, director of the Benwood Initiative, oversees the Teacher Induction Program, a joint effort of Hamilton County Schools, Benwood and the Public Education Foundation.

For the first time, the program is bringing in all new elementary school core and special education teachers, nearly doubling last year's participation rate. Building a network of new teachers and pairing them with veteran mentors, the program has been successful in retaining new teachers, Sale-Davis said.

Last year, Orchard Knob Elementary School had 10 new teachers. And this year, seven of them will return.

"I'd like to think it's because they were embraced and supported," Sale-Davis said.

In their training, teachers were warned about associating with negative co-workers, given tips on how to set up their new classrooms and how to manage classroom procedures and student behavior.

But there were other tips, like making sure you've got plenty of Clorox wipes and Vitamin C on hand, because those little kids will bring in more germs than you can imagine. And be sure to make time for yourself -- not every assignment needs to be graded.

It's these non-academic lessons that many teachers miss in their teacher education programs, said Chelonnda Seroyer, an Atlanta-based educational consultant who spent a day working with the new teacher group.

Seroyer said research shows classroom management, lesson mastery and positive expectations are the three most important qualities of effective teachers. Most colleges and universities only focus on lesson mastery, not the other two components, she said, but even the best lessons will fail in a mismanaged classroom.

Seroyer sees the lack of classroom management training as a key reason teachers get frustrated and leave the profession.

"If there's no management in the classroom, then there's no learning taking place," she said. "And teachers do not like feeling ineffective."

"Revolving door"

Academic research shows that as many as half of all new teachers flee the field within the first five years.

In his 2004 research, University of Pennsylvania's Richard Ingersoll cited a connection between teacher induction programs and teacher retention rates. Teachers who received a mentor, common planning time with other teachers in the same subject, collaboration with other teachers and an external network of teachers were less likely to leave their school at the end of the first year, according to Ingersoll's paper, "Do Teacher Induction and Mentoring Matter?"

Ingersoll maintained that school staffing problems aren't because of the common notion of teacher shortages -- the idea that there are just too few teachers entering the profession. Ingersoll said a "revolving door" of teachers leaving the profession early is to blame.

Most school districts, either alone or with partners, now have induction programs for new teachers, said Laura Steen Mulfinger, director of policy and research at Communities for Teaching Excellence, a group aimed at closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students through teacher-quality efforts.

Mulfinger said the key to such programs is whether they include enough support systems, and those that do it right see success. In Hillsborough County, Fla., one of the Communities for Teaching Excellence sites, new teacher retention rates increased 14 percent within one year of a new mentorship program.

On the national scene, the teacher attrition problem is even more important because of what experts call the "greening" of the teaching force. Mulfinger said one-quarter of all teachers have been on the job five years or less.

Many new teachers who leave the profession often do so because they feel unsupported by their schools or districts. The very act of teaching, alone in a classroom, can be isolating. Mulfinger said successful programs group teachers together for support.

"The whole idea of mentorship and collaboration with other teachers is they're able to model this for you. They get feedback on their craft and how they're doing," she said.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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