More than a dozen colleges in Minnesota and the Dakotas will gear up in 2010 in an effort to turn out better teachers. The Minneapolis-based Bush Foundation announced earlier this month it would put $40 million into the initiative over the next ten years.
The initiative will help colleges recruit higher quality students, give them more teaching time before they graduate, and track their effectiveness as they begin their careers. A key part of the effort will be to set up new teachers with mentors to help them get through the first few years.
Emily Sonnesyn got her teaching license 10 months ago. Sonnesyn, a 2008 graduate of St. Olaf College, still doesn't have a full-time teaching job. She pieces together a four-day work week by substituting at various Minneapolis schools.
Sonnesyn does not have a mentor, at least not officially. She relies on former professors and former classmates for support. "You have to build that support structure when you get that license and you're on your own, to get that job and keep going," she said.
Part of the Bush Foundation's 10-year initiative intends to connect more beginning teachers with mentors to help them navigate their burgeoning careers.
National studies have shown that 30 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years. Education experts say support from mentors is critical in helping teachers through that stressful time, and they say it makes them better teachers in the long run.
A mentor can be more than an experienced colleague who's willing to sit down for the occasional chat. Some actually work in the classroom with new teachers a few hours a week for several years.
“This program will include our providing three to five years of mentoring and direct support for our graduates.”Earl Potter, St. Cloud State University
The Bush Foundation's Susan Heegard saw such a mentorship in action recently in Chicago.
"I watched in a classroom a mentor teacher, who was fairly young herself, working with a second-year teacher," Heegard said. "It was on the job, it was in real time, seeing this interaction between the two of them while the teacher was in the front of her class."
The Bush Foundation has turned to the New Teacher Center in California to help it develop the mentoring model for its initiative. The center trains teachers across the country to be mentors.
Sharon Nelson is Midwest director for the New Teacher Center. Nelson said they like to see mentors work with new teachers every week.
"The key is having that person in a really supportive structured ... that two hours a week is huge," Nelson said. "And the mentor works with that teacher for two years."
The Bush Foundation will require all 14 colleges participating in its initiative to provide mentors to their teaching graduates.
The president of St. Cloud State University, Earl Potter, sees that as one of the most important parts of the plan. At this point his school does not mentor graduates.
"We don't provide any support after graduation," Potter said. "This program will include our providing three to five years of mentoring and direct support for our graduates."
The concept, as laid out by the Bush Foundation plan, would also require mentors to provide feedback to colleges on how they can better train new teachers.
Mentoring programs for beginning teachers do exist in Minnesota, but they vary from school to school.
Steve Dibb with the Minnesota Department of Education, said currently most schools assign a mentor to work with teachers during their first few months on the job.
"We see a lot of programs where it's that initial beginning of the year program," Dibb said. "And then a mentor may be assigned to check with them a month or two down the road and then maybe there's a full new teacher meeting in October, another one in January."
Dibb said the state wants more robust mentoring for new teachers. Finding money for those programs though is always a challenge.
The state's teachers union, Education Minnesota, also wants more mentoring. Union president Tom Dooher hopes the Bush Foundation's effort spills over to all Minnesota schools.
"I think that's going to help make it a more systematic approach," Dooher said. "One where we can replicate those things that are working well and make sure that all new teachers in Minnesota get the proper mentoring they need in their first years of teaching."
Just how the mentoring programs will come together still isn't known. The Bush Foundation is now working with its partners to find the best way to implement the mentoring programs.