How do you create something sustainable within a framework of flux and crisis? I began teaching in Chicago Public Schools in 2005. Since then, CPS has been led by six different CEOs, each with different initiatives and policies. In that time, CPS has been divided into areas, then networks, then clusters, and finally areas once again. While enthusiasm for accountability and standardized testing has remained about the same, we’ve changed both the type and amount of testing. First it was ISAT. Over the years, it’s morphed into some combination of ISAT, SCANTRON, NWEA, REACH, and PARCC. The standards and curriculum change frequently, as does the technology we use to teach them. Even the terms of a one-year contract are not always honored. Today, I read the principal at my daughter’s school is leaving, citing CPS’s lack of continuity or stability. This same lack of continuity or stability makes me nervous about one of my project goals: to create a sustainable mentoring program for new teachers.
Since 1999, CPS has had three mentoring programs: MINT, GOLDEN, and The New Teacher Center. The MINT and GOLDEN programs paired new teachers with an experienced mentor from within the school. CPS trained and compensated mentors and supported new teachers through observation, frequent feedback, and targeted professional development. The main problem was that mentors still had very full schedules and did not have time for mentoring activities. Mentoring was inconsistent, and the programs were abandoned.
In 2006, CPS contracted with the New Teacher Center, a California nonprofit. Although expensive, it solved the mentor workload problem. The New Teacher Center provided full-time coaches with an average nine years’ teaching experience. Although coaches came from outside the school, they had the time and the training to support first- and second-year teachers. The New Teacher Center also used observations, professional development, goal-setting, and conversations with mentors to support teachers. According to a representative from the New Teacher Center, CPS stopped using New Teacher Center at the end of the 2015-2016 school year due to “circumstances beyond our control.”
Why did I travel to New Zealand when three CPS mentoring programs have already come and gone? I’m here to see a mentoring program that works and is sustainable. Mentoring new teachers is still important. Training and supporting a high-quality workforce still matters. Teachers who stay in their schools longer and continually improve their practice still make the biggest difference in student learning. All of this is especially important in districts with high poverty and high student mobility.
The New Zealand model works because it is a priority in New Zealandnew teachers are not certified until they’ve completed two years of teaching under the guidance of a mentor. Mentoring has buy-in from teachers, principals, the teachers union, and the Ministry of Education. Mentors are veteran teachers from inside the school. New teachers and mentors are given release time every week to devote to mentoring activities. Programs are monitored and evaluated by the Ministry and the union.
As I learn how to create and maintain a quality mentoring program, I also learn that it requires more than just a few dedicated teachers and administrators in a single school. CPS tried three different programs, and this gives me hope. They understand that mentoring is important to supporting and retaining good teachers. I hope that they are still interested in doing this. Dedicated and well-supported teachers can bring stability to a system in which change is constant.