As Carnegie Senior Associate Susan Headden writes in her recent report “Beginners in the Classroom,” public education loses a lot of new teachers to attrition, upwards of 750,000 a year, and pays a heavy price in talent and treasure.
They leave for many reasons, Headden reports, but at the top of the list are concerns related to lack of support, such as limited professional development, little helpful feedback on performance that supports improvement, and feeling isolated from colleagues.
Mentoring programs for new teachers may help address these issues. Effective mentoring programs, research suggests, promote new teachers’ sense of professionalism and hence their satisfaction and retention. Such programs can improve teachers’ instructional abilities and thereby increase their students’ achievement.
Of course, not all mentoring programs are created equal. Among the success stories is Iowa’s Grant Wood Area Education Agency (AEA). In 2000, Iowa passed a law requiring that every new teacher have a mentor. Today’s iteration of the program benefits from knowledge gleaned from early mistakes. In the beginning, mentor teachers were given a stipend, but no training or release time from their own classroom duties in order to meet with mentees. The program had no oversight, the mentors were accountable to no outcomes, and no data were collected on implementation or results. Turnover among new teachers remained high.
Currently, however, mentors are released from their classrooms for three years; they are full-time mentors who stay with the same group of mentees for two years. Mentor selection is rigorous. Each applicant is interviewed multiple times, illustrates their ability to create model lessons, provides assessments of student work, and writes essays to show evidence of his or her capacity for reflection, a necessary skill for mentor success. Perhaps the most impressive component of the program is the training provided to Iowa mentors through the New Teacher Center, a non-profit organization that helps train new teachers. Sessions are differentiated for both new and expert mentors, and there are options for administrators as well. During training, mentors complete assignments in conjunction with their beginning teachers as well as reflecting on their own assignments.
Collectively, the Grant Wood AEA’s model includes what beginning teachers need in order to feel supported.
Collectively, the Grant Wood AEA’s model includes what beginning teachers need in order to feel supported: instructional guidance, frequent and actionable feedback, and meaningful relationships within the school. Careful selection of mentors, as well as the ongoing training they receive, sets mentors up to succeed, giving them the instructional and reflective tools they need to meet their mentees wherever they are in their practice. Mentors must periodically submit evidence of their meetings with mentees, ensuring that new teachers are in fact getting individualized and ongoing feedback from their mentors to help improve their practice. Providing full release time to mentors means that they can spend a significant amount of time with each mentee, forming meaningful relationships based on trust and support. This last piece is perhaps the most important, since these relationships help to tie new teachers to their schools, sustain them in the difficult work of beginning teaching, and keep high-performers in the profession.
Though it is too early to determine the long-term effects of the program, feedback from teachers, mentors, and principals has been overwhelmingly positive. Officials are collecting data on the implementation and impact of the program, including information on which skills mentors are helping their mentees develop. They have discovered that, early in the school year, new teachers’ primary concerns are classroom management and instructional planning—valuable insight that can help schools target future professional development efforts. Data collected thus far show that all mentors are spending 60-90 minutes per week with each mentee. And, critically, beginning teacher attrition is low; of the 33 new teachers who mentors worked with in the 2012-2013 school year, only two have left. Time will tell if Grant Wood AEA’s mentoring program has a lasting effect on teacher quality or teacher turnover, but based on initial results and feedback, it seems that it is providing beginning teachers with the support and sense of belonging they need in order to improve and to stay in the profession.
 Richard Ingersoll and Michael Strong, “The Impact of Induction and Mentoring Programs for Beginning Teachers: A Critical Review of the Research,” Review of Education Research. Vol. 81, 2 (2011): 201-233. Retrieved from: http://repository.upenn.edu/gse_pubs/127
 Grant Wood AEA, “Mentoring and Induction Program.” Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.aea10.k12.ia.us/leadership/mentoracademy/