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28 August 2007

Evaluating Statewide Teacher Mentoring Program
by Attrition Rates and Retention of New Teachers

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Learning to Teach

By Mo Jackson
Times Staff Writer
The Gadsden Times
Published August 27, 2007

First-year Educators Benefit from Experiences of Mentors

"Odes are real fun," language arts teacher Hollie White said to her class during second block instruction at Gaston School.

The students' response - blank stares.

"You can do an ode to anything," White prompted. "You can do an ode to your dog."

Again, the class of mostly seniors responded with blank stares and silence - an art form perfected by high school students worldwide.

"Ode to your hamburger?" White said, pleading for some response.

Laughs abound around the classroom, and attentiveness makes a return visit.

White, 23, is a first-year teacher at Gaston and, educators know, they come a dime a dozen.

About 4,000 new teachers in Alabama are hired each year, but 50 percent of them leave the teaching profession after four years.

To combat the problem, the Commission on Quality Teaching recommended to Gov. Bob Riley in November the creation of a statewide teacher mentoring program.

The state education budget includes $3.95 million for implementation of the Alabama Teacher Mentoring program.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that attrition rates can be reduced if new teachers are paired with mentors.

Gaston Principal Miria King Garner said she realizes the first years in a teaching career are tenuous and that many leave the profession before they find a true fit.

"I feel they leave before their time," she said. "... Some people have a naturalness where they fit right in; others, it takes a longer period of time. I think it depends on the individual."

Kelly Ryan, director of teacher education services at Jacksonville State University, said JSU churns out about 720 degrees annually at all levels, including bachelor's and master's in education.

He said the level of retention in teaching can be attributed to many factors.

Teacher salaries have played a factor in recruiting efforts, he said, explaining that many graduates found work in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee because the pay is higher.

A class called "School and Society" is a requirement to complete the program at JSU.

"It does address teacher retention, turnover rates, ethics ... allowing aspiring teachers to see the demand before they are so far into the program that they can't change their major," Rayan said.

"We want teachers to know it's a rewarding career but also a demanding career."

He said the teaching program at JSU has a two-year "warranty."

"If a school system has a concern with one of our teachers, we will put together a team of faculty experts to address that concern," Rayan said.

"... In the rare case we see a deficiency, we would offer remediation courses on our campus at no charge to the student.

"Fortunately, we don't have too many takers on the warranty."

He said teaching still is a rewarding and respected profession despite news reports of transgressions.

"I don't think the recent teacher misconduct and things that have been in the news has affected the profession that much," Rayan said. "... I think it's an honorable profession. I don't think that's indicative of the occupation as a whole. That's just a few people."

Pay raises for Alabama teachers and the advent of technological programs such as AMSTI and ARI have made the profession more attractive to students.

"I think the Legislature is doing a good job in trying to address the salary issue, which will help with recruiting," Rayan said. "We're looking for people looking to give back and not satisfied with the average 9 to 5."

He said officials are looking to restart Future Teachers of America clubs in high schools to help steer students to the profession as well.

King-Garner, who's been an administrator for several years and is a first-year principal, said the quality of teachers has improved through the years.

"From what I've seen, they're putting out a better product," she said.

White, who graduated in 2006 from JSU and is among 11 new-to-the-profession teachers in the Etowah County system, said she has benefited from having a mentor - veteran teacher Anita Campbell - to guide her through the first couple of weeks of school.

"I don't know what I would do without her," White said. "You can tell she does it out of the bottom of her heart. I think I can learn a lot from her.

"... She's a role model to the kids and me. I hope to be like her one day."

Campbell has mentored informally for several years but now will be paid a $1,000 stipend by way of the Alabama Mentoring Program.

Recalling her first year as a teacher, Campbell said, "You get a lot of things thrown at you. You start out very idealistic. ... You learn so much. You really learn what you can do, what you can't do."

Campbell said mentorship is a two-way street.

"I think it's great because there's a designated person to ask, `How do you do this?' You have someone to talk to instead of flagging just anyone down. You have someone to talk to," she said. "Sometimes just hearing (ideas) from someone else can just spark things. I can tell her some things I've done in the past (and) she gives me ideas, too."

Other than her purse lying in the corner, White's classroom doesn't really have many of the personal touches common among teachers with more years under their belt.

"I didn't know what I would need," White said.

There's an older-looking green velvet stool positioned near her dry-erase board that adds personality, but when asked about it, she said, "Oh, that's from the teacher before me. It was here when I got here."

White said despite not quite finding her comfort level just yet, she is optimistic about her future as a teacher at Gaston.

"I've actually never done anything like this," said White, who worked as a call center employee before being hired at Gaston.

"I love getting up in the morning and not knowing what my day is going to be like," she said. "The kids are unpredictable. ... I think if you give it four years, you get your knack of how to do things. I haven't found my knack, but I hope to."

See story at the Gadsden Times Web site.

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