Nearly half of the new teachers in America’s classrooms today will leave the profession within their first five years of teaching, according to a recent report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, with science and mathematics experiencing even higher rates of teacher turnover than the profession as a whole. This new data has shifted the focus of policy discussions about the supply and professionalism of America’s teaching force from strategies for recruiting teachers to strategies for keeping them.
Mentoring ranks high among those programs recommended for retaining new teachers. Pairing novice teachers with their more experienced colleagues over the course of a year or more has shown promise in reducing teacher isolation and fostering a culture of professional support and collaboration in a school building and across a district. But can mentoring relationships also significantly improve the quality of teaching and learning in a classroom?
A new project at EDC’s Center for Science Education has set out to see what happens when you build a mentoring program around academic content—in this case standards-based middle school science. “Generic mentoring programs are not uncommon now, but they don’t go far enough in terms of improving content teaching,” says project co-director Marian Pasquale. “The traditional emphasis in mentoring programs is on nurturing new teachers; our emphasis is on standards-based instruction.”
Funded by the National Science Foundation, this three-year project is developing a model mentoring program with a dual emphasis on retaining new teachers and deepening their knowledge of science. In the first year of the program, 20 seasoned teachers from 9 districts across Massachusetts were nominated by their school principals or department heads to participate in the project. The districts were chosen to represent a range of geographical settings, income levels, and performance results on state-wide tests.
In the first year mentors attended a series of seminars lead by EDC author and scientist Bernie Zubrowski, in which they worked together on actual middle-grades science units. The units are all in line with current Massachusetts state standards, reflecting both the required middle school subject matter and a teaching approach that relies on in-depth student exploration, also known as inquiry. In one session on life sciences, for example, the group developed a pond study; in another session they designed an inquiry approach to teaching the heart and circulatory system. Through these sessions the mentors took a critical look at what’s involved in teaching standards-based science.
“As a next step we chose a sample unit for the mentors to take back to their own classrooms,” explains project co-director Barbara Berns. “When the group came back together a month later the level of conversation was incredible—it was all about the science and the pedagogy. We heard things like, ‘I don’t think I asked the best questions.’ Or ‘I realized I need to rethink how I organize the groups so that every students is engaged in the inquiry process, not just some.’ And nobody was afraid to say, ‘I don’t know the science well enough.’”
Laura Krich agrees that the project’s emphasis on science is “critical.” A 30-year veteran of the Lexington Public Schools, Krich has seen a number of mentoring programs come and go, but says this program’s commitment to content knowledge sets it apart. “These days a number of credentials allow you to be a generalist in middle school, but with increasing pressure to teach standards-based science, you really need to know your stuff. It isn’t good enough to stay the proverbial ‘one day ahead of the students.’ With an inquiry approach, kids need to believe that the teacher knows the science. If you don’t have the confidence of your students, things will come apart pretty quickly—your credibility is on the line.”
Classroom observation is at the heart of the mentoring relationship, so in the first year of the project the mentors also worked with EDC staff to develop a protocol for the process that includes pre- and post-observation sessions. The protocol is designed to guide mentor and mentee toward a focus on deep issues related to the teaching and learning of science, rather than more generic issues of classroom management. “The protocol we’ve developed requires that you rely on data in terms of the feedback you give,” explains Cindy Wrobel, an eighth grade science teacher at the Kuss Middle School in Fall River. “For example, in one pre-conference session my mentee asked me to observe the way he used questions to guide his students. So I sat in on his class and recorded all of the questions he asked. Then in our post-conference we went over them one by one and he reflected on that data. It’s not about my opinion of his teaching—I’m not there as an evaluator. I’m there to investigate a question with him and to help develop some solutions.”
If this peer-review process sounds “scientific” in its emphasis on posing questions and gathering data, that is as it should be, says Pasquale. “Through the work in the institutes the teachers came to see that mentoring is an inquiry process too—an inquiry into their own teaching practice. Teachers started out doing standards-based science lessons together and then moved to the mentoring protocol. In the process they discovered how the stages of formal inquiry work for both the students and the mentees: First you set the context for the work, then you conduct an investigation, and finally you make sense of the data you’ve gathered.”
Now in their second year of the program, the mentors are working closely with their mentees following the observation protocol. Feedback from participants has been enthusiastic, with mentors reporting that both they and their mentees are developing a better handle on inquiry-based teaching and that their practice is more standards-based. “I have a great mentee—energetic, smart, motivated,” says Krich. “But she doesn’t have a strong science background so we’ve established something like a tutorial relationship through this program. I have no doubt that she is taking her students a lot further with the science than she otherwise would have.”
Cindy Wrobel agrees. “Sometimes I think I’m getting as much out of this program as my mentee. We are co-teaching and co-planning a class so we have many opportunities to learn together. But for him the experience has been invaluable. Teaching in the inquiry style doesn’t always come naturally, so the opportunity to work through this with a veteran teacher, getting one-on-one direction, is all-important.”
At the conclusion of the project EDC staff will develop a manual on how to run a successful content-based mentoring program to be shared with districts across the country.
Originally published on April 1, 2003