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March 10, 2005
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  Teachers Who Stay    

Teaching Teaching (08.03.04) - When it comes to how well your child does in school, a good teacher can make all the difference. Right now, lots of teachers are in summer school, to get better at what they do. What exactly makes a teacher "good"? Here’s what education researchers have found out recently.

Keeping Teachers (05.27.04) - Up to half of all new teachers quit within their first five years on the job. Researchers say what can make all the difference for new teachers is someone to watch over them, literally.

Too Few Teachers (04.22.04) - Some school districts are heavily recruiting new teachers—partly because so many teachers are ready to retire. But there’s new evidence that retirement isn’t the main reason teachers leave the profession.


Recruiting and Retraining a New Type of Teacher

The New Teacher Center, a resource for newcomers to teaching

Next generation of education researchers

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Another school year has started, and many brand new teachers are standing in front of their own classroom for the first time. But right now, one in five newcomers could quit teaching within three years, because they get no support on the job. As this ScienCentral News video reports, one researcher says schools have to organize themselves to make sure new teachers stay—or pay the high cost of replacing them.

Getting Organized Matters

The North Colonie School District in Latham, New York, north of Albany, enjoys a reputation for efficiency. The district can make good use of its budget in part because it loses only about ten percent of new teachers every year—half the national average. Nationally, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, schools must spend $2.6 billion a year to replace teachers who leave the profession.

One reason more teachers stay in North Colonie classrooms may be that for the past fourteen years, veteran teachers have volunteered to help newcomers. Each teacher new to the district attends a week of briefings before school starts, and is assigned a veteran teacher who has been trained to mentor.

Dimitri Vasilakos, a music teacher at Shaker Junior High School, was one of the first new teachers to benefit from North Colonie's support network. "I had heard wonderful things about this district," he says. "I had heard wonderful things about the music program, and then to find out that not only would I have somebody that they would point out to say, 'This person could help you,' but they were looking out for me without my even knowing it sometimes—that really, really makes a difference." In fact, the key difference is that Vasilakos has remained in the classroom.

By looking at programs like North Colonie's, education researchers are learning more about the experiences of today's new teachers, who differ from their predecessors. Unlike the generation hired in the 1960s and early 1970s, who are now on the cusp of retirement, new teachers now can find jobs elsewhere that would bring them higher prestige and more money.

Susan Moore Johnson, professor of teaching and learning at Harvard Graduate School of Education, is director of The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, which has been following 120 new teachers in Massachusetts, and surveying 600 more around the country. She and Sarah Birkeland, a graduate student on the Project's research team, have published Finders and Keepers, which describes the varied experiences of ten new teachers in their ongoing study. Johnson summarizes, "It's not clear that new teachers have the same commitment to schools that the retiring generation did, because they have many other options."

Johnson and Birkeland reported in the American Educational Research Journal that in one group of 50 new teachers, 11—about one in five—quit teaching after only three years.

"People enter teaching because they want to succeed with kids," says Johnson. "That's really what they're there for. We know the pay's not great. People who enter teaching recognize that. But they feel that if they're going to commit themselves to this work, they need certain supports to have it happen. So it's about providing them with what they need in order to do the job of teaching. What we really have to do is be sure that when people enter teaching, they're working in schools where they can achieve a sense of success with their students. And in order to do that, the school has to be really well organized to support them."

Johnson says this support should include a clear idea of what to expect when school starts, along with a veteran to turn to for advice . That seems to be working for North Colonie's schools. "Now, when I talk to student teachers, I encourage them to look for programs that may have a mentoring program," says Vasilakos, who now helps train other veteran teachers at North Colonie to mentor newcomers. "And if they don't, to find someone to fill that role if possible and ask for their help." In Vasilakos' experience, mentoring benefits both newcomer and veteran: "Just like you learn from your students, you can learn from a teacher you're mentoring. It's good to have a fresh pair of eyes, whether somebody's been teaching for 20 years, or one year."

Johnson adds that teachers are happiest in schools where veterans and newcomers can learn from each other, "so that they have a chance to work with their colleagues, observe them teach, get feedback on their teaching, and not be isolated in their room to carry on on their own. If teachers feel that they're alone, and it's all on their shoulders, they're not likely to remain as teachers."

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This story was funded in part by Carnegie Corporation, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.
This research appeared in the fall 2003 issue of American Educational Research Journal and in Johnson and Birkeland's book, Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools (Wiley, 2004). It was funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.

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