To new teachers who recently began work: Congratulations! You have chosen an honorable profession that rewards hard work in the classroom with admiration and dedication from your students.
But let’s be clear-eyed about a few things.
Like many in your teaching program’s graduating class, you are likely working in a school with high rates of students who have been through trauma, poverty and neglect. You may lead classes with over 30 students at a time, most of whom have struggled for years with high teacher turnover and a lack of stability in their school lives. You might have an inkling of what needs to happen to establish yourself as a teacher, but have only a few worn-out and dated textbooks to start this process.
Quite simply, you’ll need help. And the stakes are high: A lack of targeted support for teachers as they start their careers is a major contributing factor to why 23 percent of New York City public-school teachers leave the classroom in their first two years.
It doesn’t have to be this way. What if, instead of leaving new teachers to fend for themselves and figure everything out on their own, we tapped into the expertise of their colleagues?
Every school has passionate and successful teachers, and decision-makers can create hybrid roles that allow these savvy pros to mentor new hires while still meeting personal responsibilities in the classroom. Experienced teachers are already members of their school community and familiar with the students. Giving these teachers the space and support to work with their colleagues would create schools that encourage all teachers to work together in honing their craft.
Not only could a strong statewide mentorship program built on hybrid roles retain new teachers, but it could also keep our best teachers in the classroom. A survey of U.S. teachers this year found that 93 percent wish there were more opportunities to further their careers and professional skills while staying in the classroom. This interest is particularly high around mentorship, whether or not that role comes with additional pay. Our highly skilled educators are eager for ways to lead while remaining classroom teachers.
But teaching adults is different from teaching children, and these new mentors would need support to ensure they are providing mentees with effective guidance. Mentors need both time and training to develop a practice based on mentees’ individual needs. A mentorship manual, coupled with a training program to improve coaching skills, would go a long way in benefitting mentors and mentees. There should also be a means to hold both teachers accountable, to ensure this time is wisely spent. This could be achieved through meeting minutes and a contract signed by both parties, and by giving teachers and districts a review process that provides problem-solving for improving mentor-mentee relationships. New York currently has only mentorship hour requirements; what it doesn’t have are effective structures to help adults meet them.
When I entered my first East Harlem classroom six years ago, I was quickly overwhelmed. I didn’t know what my kids needed as young people or students, and my classes were marked by chaos and resentment, not learning. But, as with many new teachers, the experienced teachers next door had their own challenges to contend with and could not properly help with my chaos. They knew that inadequate support for mentorship at our school meant that helping me would have resulted in less time with their own students. Communication and trust broke down before they could ever be established.
When we fail to tap into the talents and insights already within our schools, teachers struggle in isolation and leave the profession at high rates each year. With mentors in hybrid roles, supported by research-based mentorship training and manuals, we can foster relationships among co-workers, and retain and grow new veteran teachers. We can’t keep hoping for people to come together in good faith and work for a common student good when they don’t have any direction for doing so.
Let’s provide that direction, and prioritize the development of those who develop our children.