In trying times, can mentoring stem the tide of teacher turnover? 

Nothing over the past two years could have prepared educators: distance learning, frontline exposure to COVID-19, and fierce battles over masking. A relentless torrent of stress and trauma, all unfolding amid a racial justice uprising and efforts to suppress the lesson of American history and the legacy of racism. Teachers are understandably burned out and leaving the field in unprecedented numbers.

While the magnitude of the resulting teacher shortage is new, the problem of teacher turnover is endemic. Before COVID-19, almost half of all teachers left the profession within five years. Studies show that the resulting influx of junior teachers disproportionately influenced low-income students and students of colorexacerbating racial and socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement.

An effective solution to stemming the rising tide of teacher turnover must simultaneously help new teachers become good quickly and prioritize diversification of the teaching staff—a strategy that has proven successful improve results among all students, but especially among colored students.

The facts suggest it that mentoring new teachers can help districts do both. However, mentoring programs are very different. Which components of mentoring programs are most effective in promoting employee retention? How can mentoring be used to support new color teachers in particular?

A recently learn from my team at the Regional Education Laboratory-Northeast and Islands at the Education Development Center examined the Boston Public Schools’ New Teacher Development Program and provided insight into both issues.

Boston Public Schools has one of the most robust mentoring programs for new teachers in Massachusetts. The district’s mandatory continuing education program for new teachers pairs each teacher with an experienced mentor teacher in their first year. Experienced teachers receive a 5 percent differential on their base salary to provide new teachers with 10 hours of support per month. Throughout the school year, mentors participate in 25 hours of professional development on best mentoring and coaching practices.

What we learned:

  1. time matters The time new teachers spent with their mentors was significant. Teachers who met with their mentor at least one hour a week were more likely to be retained than those who met less frequently, but two hours a week was no better than one. Time is a scarce commodity in teachers’ schedules; An hour a week is a modest investment that can produce meaningful results.

  1. Common themes should be followed to provide targeted support. Our study found that the topics new teachers discussed with their mentors predicted whether they would stay in their jobs. New teachers who spent a lot of time discussing classroom management or classroom evaluation with their mentors were less likely to stay in their jobs than those who didn’t. Tracking issue and attachment patterns can help districts develop early warning indicators and targeted support to identify and take action on key areas related to attrition.

  1. Be aware of racial differences in new teacher experiences. New color teachers have had different experiences with the mentoring program than white teachers. Black novices were much less likely than white novices to have discussed classroom management with their mentors, and they were much less likely to say that the program influenced their decision to remain in the district. Having a mentor of the same race did not increase the likelihood of teachers of color being retained, but white teachers with white mentors were retained at higher rates than white teachers with mentors of color. Identifying these racial differences is a necessary first step—next, administrators must explore explanations for this discrepancy and design program improvements that improve equity and program impact.

Boston Public Schools and our team presented these findings directly to program participants to solicit their suggestions for program reforms. Valuable input from participants served to highlight key aspects of mentoring that districts should consider when developing programs.

Many have told us that the biggest obstacle to effective mentoring is poorly matched matches between mentors and new teachers. In Boston, construction supervisors pair new teachers with mentors, so selection and pairing varies widely from school to school. Many new teachers were paired with mentors outside of their class or department, compromising the effectiveness of the mentoring received.

In response, the district has been looking for ways to give mentoring program leaders more control over how new teachers are matched with mentors. District and program leadership are working to implement a more centralized program model where full-time mentor teachers are carefully screened and purposefully assigned to provide individual support to a small group of new teachers. These mentors no longer have to balance mentoring with their classroom responsibilities, instead working full-time to support new teachers in their freshman year.

More work and research is needed to understand how mentoring can effectively support new color teachers. Going forward, the district plans to continue to use data and teacher input to tailor the program to the needs of new teachers, particularly new teachers of color in city schools.

The work of Boston Public Schools has had a significant impact on everyone working to fill teaching vacancies, accelerate learning for beginning students, and develop policies and practices to support and retain new educators, especially new educators of color. Districts, local governments, and state departments of education can learn from this recently completed study and BPS’s response to it, as well as from the voices of teachers whose experiences our research sought to understand.

Beyond learning, educators and policy makers need to invest financial and human capital to support the growth of young talent. With strategic planning and actions that include mentoring and induction program administrators and participants, these investments will yield the most important returns: dedicated professional educators delivering high-quality, culturally appealing instruction for students.

Meg Caven, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Education Development Center (EDC). Raifu Durodoye is a senior research associate at WestEd. Kaitlin Torossian is the interim director of new teacher development at Boston Public Schools.

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