Aspiring teachers deserve time with a mentor before going it alone

Aspiring teachers deserve time with a mentor before going it alone
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Failure is fundamental to improvement in any job. Teaching is no exception: teachers need to be able to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. It is for this reason that, prior to the outset of their careers, most aspiring teachers experience some sort of on-the-job mentorship by an experienced teacher. Ideally, through monitored practice teaching, aspiring teachers can try out techniques, receive immediate feedback and quickly address weaknesses, with a seasoned veteran making sure that all this happens under the supervision of watchful eyes. 

Too often, however, the mentoring that teacher candidates receive prior to full-time teaching is infrequent and inadequate. This week, two House education subcommittees will consider ways that Congress can upgrade educator preparation programs to ensure teacher candidates get a chance to practice their craft alongside successful veterans.

Only Louisiana and South Dakota require that college students who are being trained as teachers spend a full school year as professional interns, alongside a mentor teacher, prior to being certified to teach independently. And in virtually every state, individuals who work in other fields and already hold college degrees can begin to teach in public schools, fully on their own without having experienced an internship of substance.

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Just as troublesome, states’ and school districts’ mentoring processes are often chaotic and decentralized, with decisions about how to judge mentor quality left largely up to individual teacher programs or even teacher candidates themselves. Consequently, internships too often are conducted by mentors with limited evidence of their own effectiveness as teachers. 

We are a researcher and a policymaker who believe this needs to change. Our work on this issue, captured in two recent reports, provides evidence that it can. Our shared view is based on growing evidence showing the import of quality mentoring on the development and performance of aspiring teachers. A host of research studies, including one involving teachers in the state of Washington, back the commonsense notion that the quality of mentorship that teacher candidates receive before becoming full-time professionals influences their later instructional performance and on the achievement of the students they teach as full-time professionals.

So what is stopping states, school districts and colleges of education from creating better internship opportunities for aspiring teachers? For one, a shortsighted understanding of cost has led states to minimize mentoring requirements for aspiring teachers and discouraged school districts from elevating the pay and status of high-quality mentors. Mentoring puts two teachers in one classroom for certain periods of time, so some argue it will save schools money to minimize the amount of time mentoring is required. It will further save money, the argument goes, if mentors are paid paltry stipends rather than the serious compensation that is required to attract enough high-quality mentors. 

However, a more problematic cost is the one school systems bear when teachers leave the profession after short stints — an average of $20,000 by one estimate, and largely preventable when teachers are properly introduced into the profession. 

There are other common complaints about mentored internships. School systems may worry that hosting interns will be harmful to the students interns serve while teaching alongside mentors. But, according to research, that also turns out not to be true, unless ineffective teachers are serving as mentors. 

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Mentorship for aspiring teachers is rightfully garnering more attention. In Louisiana, undergraduate students pursuing teaching certificates must complete a yearlong residency within a public school classroom, akin to residencies in the medical professions. Every resident is supported by a state-certified mentor, who is paid an additional wage for mentoring responsibilities. This requirement does not affect new teachers who already hold college degrees and who come into the profession through faster certification programs with minimal mentoring requirements. 

As detailed in a recent report, Louisiana initiated pilot programs in eight rural school districts to increase mentoring for aspiring teachers coming through these fast-track programs. The report notes that by carefully scrutinizing and adjusting budgets and teacher schedules, the districts increased mentoring by 300 percent for new teachers, who now teach alongside a mentor at least once every day, rather than working fully independently in their first year in the classroom.

Investment in early internships for aspiring teachers also shows more positive effects on student learning than do costly efforts to train and retrain teachers later in their careers through continual professional development. For these reasons and others, all evidence should guide states toward a simple conclusion: Give all teachers the support they deserve, a mentored internship before full-time, independent teaching.

Dr. Dan Goldhaber is director of the Center for Education Data & Research and a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. Follow him on Twitter @CEDR_US.

John C. White is Louisiana state superintendent of education. Follow him on Twitter @LouisianaSupe.