Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.

survey says

We asked Indiana teachers why they’re leaving the classroom: ‘Death by a thousand cuts’

PHOTO: Getty Images

In her first classroom at Indianapolis Public School 79 in 1977, art teacher Teresa Kendall had five whole potter’s wheels to herself. Plus clay. And a kiln.

She was under orders from her principal, she remembers, to make sure her students “have all the art they can have.”

Nearly 39 years, five layoffs, and four school districts later, she returned to Indianapolis Public Schools, where she was told there were just a handful of potter’s wheels in the entire district. She managed to get her hands on one, rescuing it from an unused classroom at Arlington High School.

Chalkbeat asks Indiana teachers: Why did you leave the classroom?

“It’s a huge difference,” Kendall said, comparing her situation to other schools she’s seen. “It just puts a knot in my stomach when I think about it … I think about what my kids at [School] 105 have to do without.”

Kendall said she spent hundreds of dollars on supplies, and she was overwhelmed by having to configure her 28-seat classroom to accommodate 62 students. At the end of last year, she decided to leave teaching altogether.

“It was the most solid community school I’ve ever been in, in all of my career,” Kendall said. “I miss it tremendously. But I couldn’t stay there.”

Carrie Black, an Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman, said classes might have been large at one point when the district was working to hire a substitute for a teacher on family leave, but the principal at School 105 said there were enough tables and chairs for the whole class. The principal also said teachers were told they could be reimbursed for supplies.

“Under no circumstances was she required to supply her art room in any way, shape, or form,” Black said. “So if she did, those were decisions she made on her own.”

More than 60 former Indiana teachers responded to a Chalkbeat survey about why they decided to leave teaching, a problem that policymakers and state lawmakers have said is part of the reason behind this year’s efforts to raise teacher salaries — which some educators and advocates say don’t go nearly far enough. Across the country, teachers have gone on strike and protested to demand better pay and working conditions, stirring up national conversation about the challenges they face.

Kendall, who has two master’s degrees, made $48,000 when she left IPS. The most she’d made, she said, was close to $62,000 when she taught in Lebanon. Now, she’s a paralegal.

The former teachers, from schools all over the state, reported a wide range of salaries over the years — from as low as $26,000 to more than $66,000. Now out of the classroom, they have found jobs as nurses, bus drivers, engineers, insurance agents, and seasonal park rangers. Some are unemployed, stay-at-home-parents, or graduate students.

While many former teachers said low pay or stagnant salaries contributed to their decisions to find other careers, more cited increasing responsibilities for reporting and testing, dwindling support and coaching from administrators, and “punitive” teacher evaluations.

Here is a selection of their reasons for leaving, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Too little pay

  • I had a third child and my entire paycheck was going toward insurance and childcare. I couldn’t afford to work.
  • State laws were being introduced that would make it next to impossible to ever increase my salary, or even to bargain to try to keep pace with the cost of living.
  • I was 20 years into teaching and felt undervalued, overworked, and underpaid for my education, training, and role as a teacher. I had reached the top of the pay scale and there was not room to advance. I didn’t want to become an administrator. Our insurance was steadily rising and with no pay raises, we were making less than what I had started with 20 years ago. My wife and I were both teachers and we both had to take part-time jobs to help pay the bills.
  • The level of stress, the constant demand on more and more of my time and energy with no compensation, and the low wages! Also the constant micromanaging!
  • In my 12th year I was making less than I did in year one. Health insurance was too costly, parents were overbearing, and the amount of accommodations needed for students was out of hand.

Too much testing, politics, and red tape

  • I couldn’t take any more of the state legislature’s disrespect of teachers. The loss of school funding, punitive evaluation methods, and absolute lack of willingness to truly listen to educators about our needs and what goes on in a classroom made me realize it wasn’t worth it anymore.
  • The constant change in state testing.
  • I had had it with ISTEP and school accountability practices demanding measurable outcomes and driving learning away from what we all know are best practices.
  • There was constant assessing without allowing kids to be kids and grow socially and mentally. Spent more hours assessing than teaching.
  • The time required to be spent on more red tape and paperwork instead of just doing what I knew was best for kids was too much.
  • I was working 10-12-hour days just to get state-mandated paperwork done AND papers graded. I loved my kids, I loved my school, I loved my principals, but I hated meetings every morning to appease legislators who are clueless, and I hated having to prove what a great teacher I was.
  • The time the job required meant my son and I were at school until 8 or 9 every night. All that time and dedication with no guarantee of a job? No thanks.
  • Teachers were treated as if we were entry level employees who could not make any decisions for themselves.
  • My afternoon classes had 39, 38, and 40 students. The Rise rubric [for teacher evaluations] made everyone feel like they were failures before even being evaluated.
  • I was dealing with burnout, and I was tired of working as many hours as I did and being as undervalued as I was. It felt like I constantly had administrators, parents and community members telling me what was wrong with how I did things.
  • I was expected to assign at least 10 math problems to every student every night. Since I had about 100 students, that’s about 1,000 math problems every night. Bottom line, time with my family is more important.
  • I felt overwhelmed by what the legislators were inflicting on us, the lack of true support from administrators, and just the stress that is teaching even in the best of times. Most of all — I was exhausted, I guess. Death by a thousand cuts, more or less.

negotiations

Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.