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Retaining beginning teachers in the profession through effective mentoring

According to the most recent State of the Teaching Profession in North Carolina report published in February, the teacher attrition rate in the 2016-2017 school for veteran teachers in North Carolina was 7.66 percent. In the same report, the teacher attrition rate for beginning teachers in their first, second, or third year of teaching was 12.31 percent. After year three, the attrition rate steadily declines and hovers around 5 percent until it spikes during the remaining few years that precede retirement. 

Courtesy of NC DPI

Why do so many teachers leave the profession so shortly after beginning their career? What do these teachers need in order to successfully navigate their first few years in the classroom? How can school districts support beginning teachers in order to help them survive the time as a novice and to develop into a successful career teacher?

In North Carolina, beginning teachers are required to have a mentor to help support them during their first few years. A mentor is defined as someone who is experienced in the field and can be trusted to coach or guide a novice colleague. However, the roles and responsibilities of a mentor can vary widely from district to district.

According to the various research, the components below are critical to a successful mentoring program:

  • Receive emotional support. Beginning teachers experience a roller coaster of emotions throughout their first few years. They not only go through the Phases of First-Year Teachers that are related to the ups and downs of managing all of the responsibilities that accompany the job, but they also are often experiencing life changes related to being an independent adult or starting a family. Beginning teachers need someone who will listen to them, help them process their feelings, and think through the many decisions they are faced with.
  • Receive feedback on their practice. Beginning teachers need to feel comfortable to make mistakes as they learn and grow. They need to be free to try different ideas and approaches in order to determine what works best in their teaching context and within the parameters of their individual teaching style. One way to help these teachers grow is for mentors to provide feedback in a non-evaluative way. The discussion and dialogue that develops from an informal observation is critical to think through why a certain approach worked or what changes could be made to allow it to be more smooth the next time. Additionally, it is important for a mentor and a beginning teacher to observe a successful classroom together. This observation is not for the purposes to emulate what they see, but to gather ideas that can be adapted to suit the unique needs of the beginning teacher.
  • Provide time to talk. Beginning teachers need time during the day to discuss what they are experiencing related to being a teacher. Such topics may include how to handle student behavior issues, how to create differentiated lesson plans, and how to communicate with parents. It is important that these confidential conversations happen in a non-judgmental way so that the beginning teacher can ask questions and seek advice that is grounded in a successful experience. It can be uncomfortable for a beginning teacher to ask an administrator for assistance because they also evaluate the beginning teacher, and those insecurities don’t need to be considered in their evaluation.
  • Realize that they are not alone. It is important for beginning teachers to be part of a network of others who are going through similar experiences. Sometimes these connections are related to attending professional development on common topics that beginning teachers face. Other times, these connections come through the opportunity to meet with other beginning teachers on a regular basis in order to help each other on this exciting journey. The realization that other beginning teachers face similar challenges helps to validate and encourage a beginning teacher to not give-up on their students, their school, or on the teaching profession.

For more resources on effective teacher mentoring programs, click on the links below.

Heather Puhl

Heather graduated from East Carolina University and has been an educator for 21 years. She currently works in Caldwell County as a beginning teacher mentor.