Lessons Learned - One by one, the fourth-graders pop out of their chairs and swarm the teacher. Staff writer Colleen McCain Nelson is following teacher Stephanie Kelch through her first year in the classroom to explore the dynamics affecting new teachers. Ms. Kelch graduated in May from Southwest Texas State University. She teaches at Moates Elementary School in the DeSoto Independent School District. The students chime out...
"Ms. Kelch, can you help me with this problem?"
"Ms. Kelch, may I borrow a piece of paper?"
Unmoved, Stephanie Kelch focuses on the worksheets in front of her and continues grading papers. Cheree looks quizzically at the other students and begins bobbing and weaving in front of Ms. Kelch, trying to catch the teacher's eye. Slowly, it dawns on the 9- and 10-year-olds: Ms. Kelch won't answer their questions until they return to their desks, raise their hands and wait to be called on. That is the rule and it is what the students decide they need to do.
The rule has been in effect since school started in August, but the first-year teacher didn't consistently enforce it for months. Now, as Ms. Kelch begins her second semester at Moates Elementary School in the DeSoto Independent School District, the 23-year-old is more poised and more willing to stand firm when her 22 fourth-graders test her limits. Four months of on-the-job experience have helped, but more important, so has the advice of her two mentors, Ms. Kelch said.
Teacher Retention & Support in Texas
More than 30 percent of Texas teachers leave the profession within their first two years, and the state has struggled to stem the exodus. One approach, affirmed by recent research, has been to provide more support for those entering a profession in which fresh-faced college grads shoulder the same responsibilities as teachers with years of experience.
As a first-year teacher, Ms. Kelch has had questions about everything from how to decorate her classroom to the best way to teach subject-verb agreement. Unlike many rookies, she has had the benefit of help from two veterans:
The DeSoto school district, just south of Dallas, has made mentoring new educators a priority, as have many districts in the state and across the country. Last year, the Texas State Board for Educator Certification was awarded a federal Title II Teacher Quality" grant, which has used to launch the three year pilot Texas Beginning Educator Support System (TxBESS), a program that provides mentoring for new teachers. In 1999-2000 eleven of the state's 20 Education Service Centers were funded to coordinate the new TxBESS program Pilot. As a result of the new funding, this year in DeSoto, administrators started Coaches for Success, which pairs retired educators with first-year teachers.
Although it's early, the effect of mentoring appears definitive, said Patrick Shaughnessy, director of communications for the board. "Teaching is a very challenging profession, and if you do not have a support system, you're throwing new teachers in a classroom and telling them to sink or swim," Mr. Shaughnessy said. "This is throwing them a life preserver."
Voices of Experience
When new teachers such as Ms. Kelch begin their classroom careers, they face blank walls and empty bookshelves. They don't have last year's lesson plans or answer keys to guide them, and they are forced to develop classroom rules and grading policies on the fly.
"No matter how much preparation you have, there are so many things you have to learn," said Mrs. Sink, who was paired with Ms. Kelch through DeSoto's Coaches for Success program. As a mentor, Mrs. Sink said she has been a voice of experience, a sounding board and, at times, a shoulder to cry on. "Everybody needs a cheerleader to tell her she's doing a good job and that she will live through the first year," Mrs. Sink said.
Like many new teachers, Ms. Kelch has worried about finding a balance between standing her ground with students and seeming unduly harsh. Structure and rules are essential in the fourth grade, Mrs. Sink has told her. "I think a first-year teacher has more trouble setting boundaries and sticking to them," Mrs. Sink said. "They want everybody to love them and be their friend." With that in mind, Ms. Kelch now enforces rules more consistently - even when students buzz impatiently around her desk. And the change is evident, Mrs. Sink said. "I can see a huge difference in the class - what an improvement," Mrs. Sink wrote in a note to Ms. Kelch last month. "Your interaction with them is very professional, and you are so much more confident and self-assured." Ms. Kelch beams as she reads her mentor's assessment. Without such guidance and reassurance, "I think this year could have been a disaster," she said.
"I don't think I would be accomplishing much."
Mentoring a Retention Tool
Many teachers have expressed similar sentiments. In 1999, a study of induction programs for teachers in urban areas found that mentoring is a useful and needed tool to attract new teachers and retain them. Most districts that offer teacher-induction programs reported retaining between 90 percent and 100 percent of participants, according to the study conducted by the nonprofit group Recruiting New Teachers Inc.
In the DeSoto district, Ms. Kelch said, she has benefited from the Coaches for Success program and from the support system offered by the five other fourth-grade teachers at Moates.
In August, with the start of school approaching and the bulletin boards in Ms. Kelch's classroom bare, the other teachers offered posters and brightly colored wall hangings. In late September, Ms. Kelch faced the end of the first grading period and struggled with a temperamental computerized grade book that brought her to tears. But Mrs. Tacke, Ms. Kelch's assigned mentor at Moates, worked with the young teacher long hours after school to ensure that her grades were turned in on time. "I was so impressed that somebody would do that for me," Ms. Kelch said.
After seeing other new teachers founder and leave the profession during the first year, Mrs. Tacke said she wants to ensure that new hires don't feel isolated. "You don't know what it's like until you get there, and then you're all alone," Mrs. Tacke said. "And when you're just thrown out there, it's too much."