Want to retain new teachers? Give them a mentor.
By Megan Whalon
When I first moved to Texas from upstate New York, I was nervous and unsure of how effective I would be as a teacher in my new state. I met Tom, a mentor through the REACH Program in Austin ISD, at my first pre-service workshop at my new school. A Spanish teacher like me, Tom was able to temporarily leave the classroom in order to support new teachers. Over the course of that first year, he was always there to help me navigate a new education system and plan lessons, and to offer resources and emotional support. Often, he would pop in, scribble down observations, and move on to another teacher. Administrators didn’t often come into my classroom and when they did, it was to evaluate me. I found it really helpful to get regular feedback from Tom in a non-evaluative way.
Among the many resources that Tom shared with me one made a big difference: the use of music. He gave me a CD of Spanish class songs, and as the years have gone on I have used more and more music in my classroom. Tom planted that seed; it was one of many. Without the support and collaboration he provided as a full-time mentor, I don’t know if I would have been successful or continued teaching.
Texas ranks 28th among states in student achievement, with large achievement gaps. Research shows that the most important in-school factor in a student’s education is the quality of the teacher. The importance of mentoring new teachers to improve teacher quality cannot be understated. As the REACH mentoring program showed, new teachers who have access to mentors had better student outcomes than new teachers without a mentor: “teachers with more years of REACH mentoring had greater effectiveness index scores (based on observations and SLO performance) than did teachers with fewer years of REACH mentoring.”
The relationship was beneficial to both Tom and me. Being a mentor made Tom much more apt to seek out feedback. He wanted to be observed and coached after seeing how much of a difference it made for the teachers he worked with. It was valuable for him to see what other teachers do, how they interact with students, approach disruptive behaviors, and build rapport. Mentoring gave him the time to plan, collaborate and most importantly, reflect with other teachers to talk about their practice. Being a mentor changed Tom’s teaching. And his mentorship changed mine. I am still teaching Spanish. I have been named Teacher of the Year at CAST Tech High School in San Antonio ISD. I present at workshops and conferences for my school, district, and state.
That’s why Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellows have published a policy brief, Smart Start: Mentoring for New Teachers Benefits Kids, calling on the Texas Legislature to prioritize high-quality mentoring for new teachers during the upcoming legislative session. High-quality mentor programs would ensure that every new teacher has a mentor for their first two years of teaching. These are the first steps in improving teacher quality and retention.
The mentors should have teaching experience in the same content area as the mentee. It made all the difference that my mentor was a Spanish teacher. If my mentor had been a teacher of another content, they would not have been able to understand a lot of what was going in my class. In my teacher preparation program, there was a course offered for every content with the recognition that teaching science and teaching English take different skill sets. Every new teacher deserves a mentor in their content to fully understand the scope of their daily responsibilities.
Every mentor and mentee should have release time together outside of their regular conference period to work together. Tom and I worked together during my regular conference period, but it would have been even better to have mentor time built into my day and week to reflect and get feedback on the observations that had taken place. Every teacher should have time to focus on what they can improve with someone who has been in their room and can tailor their feedback to their specific needs. This is how teachers improve.
I have remained a teacher because I had a great mentor who not only helped me plan lessons and offered resources and collaboration, but also supported me emotionally during my first few years of teaching. Teaching is hard, and if we do not do our best to support teachers in their first few years, they leave. We know this and we know that we must retain effective teachers in the profession. The good news is that we also know how we can fix this. Support them. Mentor them. Coach them. Give them the resources they need. These are the reasons that I am not a statistic. Make my experience the norm.
Megan Whalon teaches Spanish at CAST Tech High School in San Antonio. She is a 2018–19 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.