We Need to Provide Texas Teachers with Effective Mentors

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By Taylor Hawkins

Alexa threw herself into an empty desk and pried open her half-frozen milk. “How was your holiday break?” I asked. “You came back,” she said, raising her eyes to meet mine. “I respect that. Not to be disrespectful or anything. It’s just—normally teachers don’t come back after breaks.” Her words gave me pause. Earlier in the semester, I considered quitting and returning to graduate school. “Well, I’m here to stay,” I said. She nodded, taking a spoonful of Cheerios.

Forty to fifty percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Around nine percent leave midway through their first year. I didn’t tell Alexa that I almost became one of the nine percent. Many mornings, I would wake up in a cold sweat, jaw sore from grinding my teeth. Just call in, I would think. Feign illness. Find another job. I had little hope of success in the classroom, and it is difficult to enjoy your job when you rarely feel successful.

The conversation around teacher attrition often centers on the cost of such turnover to districts—or on the factors that drive teachers out: low pay, poor working conditions, a lack of respect and autonomy. Too often, we ignore the impact of these departures on students. The cycles of teacher turnover not only threaten educational outcomes for kids but also erode their trust in the adults and institutions responsible for fostering their education.

How many teachers are we sending into schools unprepared for the demands of the classroom? How many do we leave unsupported, stumbling their way through? I think far too many. After eight years in the classroom, I believe there are specific actions we can take to ensure that every student has a dedicated and effective teacher in front of them each and every day. The one thing that kept me in the classroom throughout those early years was the consistent presence of a mentor teacher.

My mentor, Jim, had twelve years’ experience teaching math at a Title I high school. “This year you’re going to hear about many strategies and approaches to teaching. Many of them are great in theory, but I’ll tell you which ones work,” he explained. Together, we reworked the behavior-management system I had designed in a master’s course. We threw out the lesson plans I had written with the help of my professors. First-year teachers are inundated with information and suggestions. A great mentor can help distinguish the signal from the noise.

In my early years, I needed help with things like board layout and lesson scaffolding. But experienced teachers know that despite getting better, you never outgrow the need for a mentor. I have since moved on to tackling more nuanced elements of my pedagogy: Are my lessons accessible for English Language Learners? Do I respond to boys differently than girls? Am I harsher on my African American students? None of this would be possible without extra eyes in my classroom and a relationship with a mentor whom I trust has my students’ best interests at heart.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) places a larger emphasis on teacher leadership development by increasing Title II funds to schools for such needs as mentoring. In Texas, the legislature is considering HB 816, a bill by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) that promotes high-quality mentoring for new teachers. The bill is a strong step in the right direction. Without my mentors, I would no longer be in a classroom. Not only did these teachers shape my craft, but they understood the mental, physical, and emotional challenges teaching presents daily.

Had it not been for Jim, I am unsure whether I would have been there to greet Alexa after the holiday break. His expertise and consistent presence in my classroom directly impacted my pedagogy and as a result my students. The following year I returned with better control over my class and content. I saw an increase in academic achievement and improvements in my classroom culture. After Alexa trusted that I would stay, our relationship improved drastically. She left my classroom less suspicious of the adults and institutions around her and more cognizant of the impact of her education on her future. At the conclusion of her 8th grade graduation ceremony she approached me. “I know I was really difficult at times, but thanks putting up with me,” she said. I wished her the best of luck.

Alexa and I lost touch when she went to high school. Recently I asked a former student about her. “I don’t see any pictures of her graduation on Facebook,” he told me. “Maybe she got her GED,” he added anticipating my disappointment. Knowing the schools that surrounded us, it is likely she enrolled in a school that suffered from high turnover, further exacerbating her insecurities. Stories like Alexa’s demonstrate the importance of ensuring that every student has the consistent presence of a great teacher. In order to guarantee that teachers are consistently leading our students to academic gains, we must provide them with continuing development and support. The most effective way to do this is by providing a highly effective mentor. That’s why I support HB 816 and encourage my fellow Texans to do the same.

Taylor Hawkins teaches Algebra 1 and Geometry at Lanier High School in Austin, Texas. He is a Teach Plus Texas State Policy Fellow.

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