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Hands-on Mentoring of Our

First-Year Teachers 

 

BY KAREN S. OWEN

Karen Owen
While many teacher education programs provide practical teaching experiences for individuals entering the profession, the first year as a full-time teacher brings forth multiple challenges.

To address these and ensure new-teacher success, Escambia County School District, an urban district in Florida’s Panhandle with more than 3,000 teachers, started the 2011-12 school year with a new induction program for our 121 new hires. Titled START (Successful Teachers Assisting Rising Teachers), the program consists of multiple observation and evaluation cycles, combined with formal coaching for new teachers during their first year in our schools.

Our new hires are observed, evaluated and coached by selected teachers with solid records of classroom success. Those veterans, called consulting teachers, are released from regular classroom duties for up to three years so they can fully commit to the consulting teacher role.

START’s Beginning
To be eligible for the consulting teacher position, a veteran teacher needed five years of experience and a recommendation from their principal and the local teachers union, Escambia Education Association/Union of Escambia Education Staff Professionals. To encourage applications, we guaranteed that consulting teachers could return to their original positions at their previous schools.

After receiving more than 100 applications, a review committee narrowed the pool to 70. Surveys were sent to the applicants’ colleagues for anonymous ratings of the candidates’ teaching practices and willingness to help others. That step narrowed the pool to 35 teachers who then were divided into two- to three-member teams for sample classroom observations. Next, we had the candidates watch a videotaped lesson and asked them how they would coach the teacher shown in the recording. At the end of the process, we selected 12 veteran teachers to serve as consulting teachers, and each was assigned seven to 12 newly hired teachers.

Although our START program mandated a minimum of five observations per semester with at least two of the observations being recorded on videotape, our consulting teachers conducted formal observations about every two weeks. To facilitate the video reviews, the district provided consulting teachers with training on an online video-sharing platform developed by Teachscape. A panoramic classroom video camera enables a 360-degree video capture of a lesson so that the teacher’s instructional delivery and students’ responses can be captured simultaneously.

All consulting teachers received their own video setup so they could easily view video footage for feedback and evaluation. Also, the district made it possible for new teachers to upload their own recordings of their classroom practices from any recording device they had and then review the footage from any Internet-connected computer via Teachscape’s Reflect platform. This allows the taping of lessons on a regular basis even without the presence of the consulting teachers, enabling the novice teachers to analyze and reflect on their own teaching practices.

Documented Decisions
Because we wanted to ensure the evaluations were centered on professional conversations and new teachers’ growth, consulting teachers performed evaluations using the first three domains of Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—planning and preparation, classroom environment, and instruction.

Along with classroom observations, to evaluate their mentees, consulting teachers examined student work, pacing guides, lesson plans, and formative and summative assessments. The framework’s components also were preloaded in our online video platform so mentor and mentee teachers could better analyze the recordings and choose appropriate components and ratings while watching the video. Principals were responsible for evaluating Domain 4 (professional responsibilities).

Starting at the end of August, consulting teachers met with the first-year teachers a couple of times weekly to set goals and discuss experiences and progress. For the formal observations, consulting teachers conducted the observation live and held a post-observation discussion. Video-captured lessons were used for self-reflection and coaching.

At three points in the school year, the consulting teachers presented a report based on their formal observations of the new teachers’ progress to a nine-member review board, including four district-level and five union-selected members. The board consisted of the district human resources director, union president, curriculum and staff development specialists, principals, and teacher union representatives across all student levels. The board asked questions about the improvement of the novice teachers and could recommend the superintendent terminate the employment of any new hire deemed incapable of meeting the necessary performance standards.

The first board presentation was in November 2011, the second review in winter 2012 and the final at the end of April. After the third review, each new teacher either was recommended for retention or recommended for dismissal from Escambia County schools. Dismissed teachers could appeal the decision in May.

During the program’s first year, 110 of the 121 novice teachers were recommended for retention.

We made several adjustments this year, based on our first-year experiences. We have added non-novice teachers who received unsatisfactory ratings in 2011-12 to the START program to receive coaching and peer evaluation. The annual cost of the program, which is funded by Race to the Top and Title II grants, is approximately $1 million.

Union Collaboration
Our teachers union not only served on the board but also worked closely with us on developing and implementing START. Like all teachers unions, ours has a vested interest in improving teacher support and evaluation, because beyond combating new-teacher attrition, START has made it possible to weed out poorly performing educators.

Traditionally, hectic schedules had prevented most principals from observing teachers more than twice during the school year. Consequently, principals were unsure of the causes for mediocre classroom performance and hesitated to fire underperforming teachers. At the same time, they didn’t want substandard teachers at their schools.

When a questionable teacher anywhere obtains a continuing contract, the union finds itself in the position of fighting for someone who might not be the best fit for the profession. This only reinforces the public’s negative perception of unions blocking quality learning experiences for students. Through the START program, we avoided the repercussions of unsatisfactory teachers falling through the cracks during that first year.

Customizing Support
The START program has provided beginning teachers in Escambia County with ongoing, hands-on guidance. We combined best practices from existing evaluation and coaching programs, notably the Toledo Plan (a joint initiative of the school district in Toledo, Ohio, and its teachers union), with our own ideas for the program.

The combination of coaching and mentoring with video-based observations grounded in a common framework has been vital to our program. We already see progress — new teachers who are more confident and improving their skills at a much faster pace because of the START program.

The key factor to keep in mind in undertaking any teacher evaluation and support initiative is a spirit of partnership and trust among all involved.

Karen Owen is director of staff development in the Escambia County School District in Pensacola, Fla. E-mail: kowen@escambia.k12.fl.us 

 

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