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State Teachers of the Year Offer Advice on Supporting New Teachers

While Baltimore teacher Sean McComb was swept out of a Washington conference Wednesday morning to give interviews after being named the National Teacher of the Year, his fellow State Teachers of the Year tucked in for something almost as exciting: A panel discussion! As the old saying goes, nothing pairs with fresh croissants quite like new survey results.

The report, led by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Center on Great Teachers & Leaders at the American Institutes for Research, surveyed former national and state teachers of the year on their attitudes about many aspects of the profession, including professional development, mentorship, effectiveness, and school administration.

Of the 755 distinguished teachers invited to participate, 311 completed the survey. The survey includes teachers who started back in the 1970s, so there's a fairly broad range of experience represented.

One thing the survey asks is about the most vital supports new teachers can get. New teachers continually draw interest, in no small part because of a statistic with which most everyone in education hears repeatedly: Within five years of entering the teaching profession, 40-50 percent of teachers will leave it.

That statistic derives, by the way, form the University of Pennsylvania professor Richard M. Ingersoll, among others. The number doesn't include the fact that all professions have some level of attrition, and that many teachers return to the fold, and there are other nuances, too.

But nuances or not, that statistic hangs over many new teachers. So what can help them? According to the NNSTOY/CGTL study, among those respondents who had such supports, they prioritized access to a mentor (formally or informally); school placement aligned with talents, training, or certification; common planning time with peers; and working with a supportive principal.

"I'm blessed to have an administrative support, whereas some of us are the opposite," Kathy Assini, the 2014 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, said in an interview after the panel. "Some of us struggle with our administrators and have ground-level support. Mine is more the opposite. The administration we have—teacher-driven professional development in the district. We are ahead of the curve on a lot of things."

On the subject of professional development, younger teachers surveyed emphasized the importance of collaborative activities, but also placed major importance on having agency over their own learning activities—suggesting that they have a better chance of finding helpful PD than a school or district mandate would give them. Here's a chart from the report:

from-good-to-great-teaching-now-professional-development.jpg(Click to enlarge.)

The report also emphasizes the power of mentors, although some experts warn against putting blind faith in mentorship. In a (rather fantastic) webinar about teacher retention that I moderaged on Tuesday with Susan Moore Johnson, director of Harvard University's Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Johnson noted that other teachers may be hesitant to help a new teacher who has an assigned mentor, feeling that it's the mentor's place to help, and not their own. Instead, Johnson said, schools might consider such things as team mentorships.

"Rather than have teachers be dependent on one person, I'm a big proponent of engaging every teacher with a range of colleagues and have it be a real collaborative work," Johnson said. "We have some research to suggest that actually, having a mentor can be good, it can be kind of useless, but working in the context of a supportive, collaborative professional culture is really what you want."

Both Johnson and the panel members yesterday noted one important caveat about teacher retention, though: Schools can't expect to be hiring career teachers anymore; new generations, they say, have greater career restlessness than in the past.

"We're beyond the time when people will enter teaching and stay for 30 years," Johnson said.

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