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What Do Rookie Teachers Need to Succeed?

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Welcome to Detroit, where the Tigers won 90 ballgames to top their division last season, the art museum’s collection is valued at up to $4.6 billion, and the Motown record label has produced more than 25 No. 1 hits.

In a city just emerging from bankruptcy, numbers like these are useful.

According to Corey Drake of Michigan State University’s College of Education, numbers like these are also useful for teaching math.

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“Think about Detroit: When you first come in as a new teacher, you might notice all the things that are not here, but then look around and think of all the things that are here (that) you can leverage to teach mathematics,” Drake told journalists at EWA’s October seminar on the teaching profession in Detroit.

“Think about the history and the music and the museums and the culture,” Drake added. “Communities that seem the most under resourced have the richest mathematical resources.”

Drake, along with Liam Goldrick of the New Teacher Center and Magdalene Lampert of the Boston Teacher Residency, were part of a panel conversation on the current landscape for mentoring and induction.

Drake said she advocates a “strengths-based perspective” for mentorship programs. “Are students and teachers focusing on strengths? Are they talking about what they are able to do and not what they’re not able to do?” she said.

Preparation is the key for new teachers to become effective regardless of the school in which they are placed. And in the nation’s largest profession, mentoring and induction are crucial tools to making this sort of preparation on a very large scale, according to Drake. Michigan State prepares about 500 teachers per year, she told the Detroit audience.

Michigan State has “really thought hard about how do you prepare the teachers for the reality of the classroom while holding on to what we think are best practices for teachers,” Drake said.

Drake said it’s critical to “make sure you’re asking why every day,” and to focus on small changes.

“It’s irresponsible of us as teacher-educators to tell new teachers, ‘You need to be able to go right out and change the system right away,’ (or) ‘you need to be the rebel,’” Drake said. “New teachers are not in a position to do that with everything else that they are expected to do. What they are in a position to do is make some very small changes that can make a big difference for children’s learning,” she added.

Practice Makes Perfect

To hear Magdalene Lampert of the Boston Teacher Residency tell it, teacher mentoring is like baseball.

“I see this as a kind of pitching and batting practice,” Lampert said at the EWA seminar in Detroit. “I’m the teacher-educator, you’re rehearsing, I’m going to pitch you a certain kind of ball, and I’m going to look for how you respond to it, and I might respond back and look for your next response. But within that context — and we’re doing this within a public group of novice teachers — I can stop the action.”

In the world of education, Lampert, is a major league player whose work for the Boston Teacher Residency comes out of research and development with colleagues at UCLA and the University of Washington as well as the University of Michigan.

Practice and feedback are crucial in teacher mentorship, because “one of the challenges of learning to teach is that teaching requires continuous and public action,” Lampert said. “You do everything that’s important in front of an audience.”

But don’t confuse practice with repetition, she warned. “We all talk about learning from experience, but repeated doing doesn’t always result in improvement,” she said.

An example offered by Lampert: A teacher might try to lead a whole-class discussion over and over again, only to decide in the end that the students aren’t ready for the format.

Effective teacher training programs do a good job of simulating the kind of challenges teachers will actually face on the job, like balancing classroom management with conveying complex subject matter, Lampert said.

One way to do that is to for the novice teacher to rehearse an instructional activity – covering subject matter of a serious nature — with a small group of people playing the students, Lampert said.

“If you’re learning to quiet your class down before you start working in small groups, you need to do that in the context of a lesson,” Lampert said.

The purpose of these kinds of rehearsals isn’t for novice teachers to master the instructional activity. Rather, Lampert said, “the point is the protocol of the instructional activity should be learned in a way that it should be useful no matter what they’re teaching.”

Teacher Induction vs. Mentoring

While mentoring is a component of an induction system, the definitions have become murky, explained Liam Goldrick of the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit organization that designs and operates induction programs for new teachers in 40 states.

“Induction” refers to a cohesive system that begins with pre-service training before a new teacher is put in charge of a classroom, said Goldrick, who also spoke at the EWA seminar. Ideally, the training and support continues throughout the teacher’s professional career.

Given that the most common level of experience among the nation’s teachers is five years (read more about the new research on that data here), induction systems should be put in place for the long haul.

“Just as students are expected to be lifelong learners we also should expect our teachers to be lifelong learners,” Goldrick said. “We need to do a far better job of giving them that contextual support on the job than we do typically in America’s classrooms today.”

Long-term support is crucial to avoiding high teacher turnover rates, Goldrick said.

“We know that new teachers tend to get placed in the toughest assignments, and the toughest classrooms and the toughest schools,” he said. “It really needs to get down to the level of individualizing feedback that educators themselves find helpful.”