Rethinking how to teach the new teachers

A new, alternative teacher training institute has skirted the traditional model with a curriculum allowing students to teach first and then ask questions later

By Denise Carus  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Mon, Nov 05, 2007 - Page 9

US school enrollments are increasing year by year, but qualified teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. More than a million veteran teachers are nearing retirement, and more will follow.

More than 2 million new teachers will be needed in the next decade alone, according to the National Education Association, and we should hope that they start lining up soon.

Economic research shows that an educated work force is the foundation of a stable economy. A good education does more than just increase a person's earning potential.

Studies find that regions that produce well-educated high school graduates have a higher rate of business start-ups and more economic activity. Graduates also provide communities with a continuing pool of taxpaying labor.

As teacher rosters shrink, the question is this: How long will such regions be able to hold onto those benefits?

The well-known liabilities of teaching -- low pay, overcrowded classrooms and crippling budget constraints -- have led recent graduates to opt for more lucrative career options.

And those who are called to the profession despite its shortcomings often find themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of the job. According to many education experts, new teachers feel so ill-prepared that a staggering 50 percent of them bolt during their first five years of teaching.

To help stop the exodus, the Reach Institute for School Leadership, a group based in Napa, California, has started an innovative program, designed by and for teachers, that has the potential to transform those first stressful years in the classroom.

Reach's newly accredited, two-year teacher credentialing program has a goal of attracting a new generation of committed teachers, mentors and school administrators -- and keeping them for a lifetime.

In traditional credentialing programs, student teachers spend most of their time taking education courses and seminars. The time they spend in a classroom teaching students is relatively brief -- often just two weeks.

The Reach program flips this traditional model on its ear.

Instead of spending most of their time learning about being a teacher, Reach's students start the program at the front of the classroom from the very first day, with a teacher mentor by their side.

"Most new teachers who fail, fail just because they're new," said Page Tompkins, the founder and director of Reach. "When they're struggling with what to do with a problem, they had no one to say, in real time, `Let me watch you do this.'"

Before starting Reach, Tompkins, 37 and a former principal, was a cofounder of the Bay Area School of Enterprise (BASE), in Alameda, California, a public charter high school.

BASE is now the lead school for Reach, which is a partnership of eight public charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area that provide the teachers, mentors, coaches and administrative support for the program.

Leslie Medine, a cofounder of BASE and Reach, is also the primary sponsor of Reach through her On the Move organization that trains young leaders. Other financial supporters include the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and the Dean Witter Foundation.

Terry Jones, a lecturer and intern coach in the secondary education department at San Francisco State University, finds Reach's model innovative -- and sensible.

"Universities do not do a good job, if they do anything at all, teaching students how to manage a classroom," said Jones, a teacher training expert who is an unpaid adviser to Reach. "With Reach, young teachers go into the classroom, have experiences, then come to a seminar where their coach can add theory to what they're learning first hand. It's exactly the opposite of the way it's done now."

Teachers in the Reach program are part of a "cohort" or team of 10 or 12 students who spend the entire two years of the program together.

Each of the 30 students who are in Reach's inaugural class meet with the cohort for three hours a week.

"Being a new teacher is lonely work," Tompkins said. "There are days when all of us say, `I don't want to do this anymore.' But in a cohort, I know people are counting on me to show up."

Academic research seems to support Reach's approach.

Teachers from six Georgia school districts surveyed for a study published in the May 2005 issue of Educational Leadership said the most effective strategies for helping new teachers were giving them the opportunity to observe other teachers, work with mentors, meet and make plans with other teachers and receive plenty of feedback.

Likewise, a study of existing alternative certification programs (not including Reach), to be published next year in Teachers College Record, suggests that effective programs include a collegial atmosphere and "trained mentors who have the time and resources to plan lessons with candidates."

Another important factor, the report states, is that new teachers are trained "in schools with strong leadership."

According to Tompkins, Reach has "networked" all eight school principals into active program participation, and is developing a "mentor coaching academy" for experienced teachers and a master's degree program.

"I want to be sure that we have a place for them when they want to take more responsibilities and go into administration," said Dennis Chaconas, a 35-year veteran of public education reform who works with the school principals and is helping to develop the mentor and master's programs.

Thus, said Chaconas, training new administrators and coaches is "the next step" for Reach.

"Good principals and good programs make and keep great teachers," he said.

Denise Caruso is executive director of the Hybrid Vigor Institute, a research organization that studies collaborative problem-solving.