To develop teachers, look to other teachers
Having mentors and a supportive principal are the biggest determinants of retention, research finds
Teacher training was one of the areas of the FY2017 budget measure passed by Congress this week that saw significant cuts, precisely at a time during which education advocates agree professional development for teachers is more important than ever.
Researchers from Michigan State University this week presented the findings of a study that indicated half of early career teachers leave their schools by their fifth year, and one in four leave the profession altogether. Part of this can be attributed to a perceived lack of support by their principals, but another part is due to a lack of support and personal development that encourages persistence.
And research out of New York University’s Teacher’s College found that teachers are more satisfied with their jobs if they perceive their principals to clearly communicate expectations and vision, value teacher input, and if they have opportunities to discuss institutional practice.
In fact, having teacher mentors and a supportive principal are the two most critical influences on how a teacher experiences the profession in the first five years, and an emphasis on interpersonal learning and relationships is key to any teacher retention conversation, said American Institutes for Research Center on Great Teachers and Leaders researcher Catherine Jacques at a Wednesday Capitol Hill event detailing the findings of a new report on a teacher learning study.
But it is important that any professional development efforts allow opportunities for teachers to self-select or opt-in to courses that are led by other teachers and job-embedded, focusing on collaboration.
“A lot of teachers will tell you it’s ‘sit and get,’ and there’s no engagement and no follow-up,” said 2016 District of Columbia State Teacher of the Year Topher Kandik, who added most professional development efforts are led by outside consultants, rather than peers who are sharing best practices based on their daily experiences. “That, to me, just seems like a bad investment from a business standpoint."
Let teachers lead their own professional development
There are multi-tiered benefits to teacher-led professional development, experts say. For one, allowing novice teachers access to teacher-leaders helps encourage the new teachers in the things they’re seeing in the classroom and encourages them around sound pedagogy to up the ante on their effectiveness.
Not only that, Jacques said, but the veteran teachers are strengthened along the way, and job satisfaction is boosted because they are allowed ways to make a difference in meaningful ways.
Teacher-led development also increases ownership and engagement among teachers of all levels, thus boosting the effectiveness.
“Teacher [education] enrollment is not in a great place right now — there’s been a 35% drop off in the number of people enrolled in teacher education [programs] right now,” said 2010 Florida State Teacher of the Year and National Board Certified Teacher, Mount Holyoke College, Megan Allen. “We’ve got to think about teacher recruitment and retention differently.”
“If we want to keep more of our great teachers in front of students, teacher leadership is a great way to do that.”
And teachers themselves have to be called to those meetings, she said.
“Too often decisions are made in education without classroom teacher perspective — because we’re in the classroom, and oftentimes it’s hard to get us out of the classroom” to have these conversations, said Kandik. “We spend about $18,000 per teacher, per year on professional development. …We can be more strategic and effective in the way that we’re spending the money we spend, … and maybe an answer to that is ask teachers what they need.”
And it’s less costly than other forms of professional development, meaning districts can achieve more with less — even if public funding for professional development dries up.
“Relying on teacher leaders is, on the whole, less expensive than relying on” outside consultants, said Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt, a senior researcher at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders. “By investing in teacher-led teacher learning, you’re saving on the costs associated with teacher learning and also the cost associated with teacher” attrition.
It also helps with principal retention, added Katherine Bassett, 2000 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, and current President and CEO of NNSTOY.
Identifying advancement pathways
U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) said schools and districts must work together to develop advancement pathways for good teachers that do not pull them out of the classroom.
If teaching is allowed to be “a career where your only opportunity for growth and promotion is to go into administration, you’re not going to have great teachers in the classroom,” he said. Rather, he said, there should be a collaborative effort “to empower great teachers to be leaders.”
Jacques agreed, saying, “Having roles for teachers to move into leadership to help them really make a difference in meaningful ways” boosts job satisfaction and retention efforts.
This doesn’t mean moving effective teachers from one school to the next. It does mean thinking intentionally about “what is the right kind of professional development for teachers across the state,” said Behrstock-Sherratt, and identifying real paths for advancement within schools and districts.
These pathways certainly include serving as mentors for other teachers, but also providing opportunities for teachers to serve on the school or district leadership teams.
Establishing a common set of requirements
“States have a lot of freedom right now to make this a decision about what their own professional development will look like, and that’s great, but some federal guidance is needed,” said Behrstock-Sherratt.
“A lack of coherence in the teaching profession is expensive, ineffective … and leads to having only 3% of teachers board certified, said National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Senior Vice President, Outreach and Engagement Amber Parker, who said there must be an effort made towards “meaningfully connecting board certification to professional development needs” to encourage more teachers to become board certified.
Perhaps, said Allen, national board certification can serve as a conduit to state licensure.
“We need to re-think certification and state reciprocity,” said Allen, who said differences in licensing requirements between states pushed her out of the classroom when she found herself living in a new state and being forced to start from the beginning with the licensing process.
There also should be more formal guidance around which teachers serve as mentors for other teachers, Bassett said.
However, Bassett said, “there should also be training requirements for cooperating teachers” who serve as mentors or trainers for their peers.
It can’t just be “‘you’re an awesome teacher, so now you’re a teacher mentor.’ No. No, that’s not how it works in any profession, except teaching,” Bassett said. Policymakers also need to work on “setting a common bar for entry into the profession — which doesn’t exist right now,” she said. “In most other professions, there is a standard.”
“We need to listen to teachers, we need to trust teachers to make wise decisions that are going to develop is as teachers, we need to think more wisely about the money we spend, and we need to revert back to ‘the sniff test’ of ‘does this make sense’ above all else,” said Kandik.
And genuine efforts need to be put forth to support teachers.
“As long as the system is not designed to support teachers, you’re not going to be attracting teachers,” Parker said.
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