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Commentary: Who will help teach the teachers?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2009 - It seemed so right. Leslie Lewin, who since sixth grade had a passion to teach, was confident she could instruct and inspire her middle school charges. After all, she would be working in the very building that hosted her affirming experience as a student teacher. But a year later, Leslie was doing math in a bank, not a classroom.

From day one, she groped for a comfort level. She felt overwhelmed, even panicky, as she struggled with discipline problems and other issues.

The woman who had been an awesome role model and tutor during her student-teaching semester offered advice. So did Leslie's mother, a former teacher and Carbondale school superintendent. But it was not enough, not like having them there, regularly watching her in action.

The passion fizzled, the panic prevailed and Leslie became part of a dropout rate that has stirred significant action in Illinois after long neglect.

Studies by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future indicate nearly half of new teachers depart within five years. "In a vicious cycle, teacher turnover lowers student achievement, and lower student achievement leads to teacher turnover," the commission concluded.

We lose young men and women who choose the profession knowing they likely will not drive BMWs. They expect fulfillment to trump frustration and successes to salve setbacks. Education experts are convinced a substantial majority exit because of scant support.

Instead of preserving this human capital, we squander it. We devalue our investment in undergraduate education by shortchanging professional development. Without proper preparation, we too often place them in classrooms with students from neighborhoods and households unlike those in which they were reared - damaging both teachers and students.

Illinois clearly lacks a comprehensive approach. Among major elements, education experts say, there should be:

  • Teacher mentoring programs in every corner of Illinois that embody the best practices and are consistently assessed for effectiveness.
  • Solid standards for selecting mentors in an open process.
  • Compensation for faculty members or retirees who, among other things, regularly monitor their mentees' classrooms.
  • Sufficient time during the school day for the veteran and the newcomer to interact.
  • Buy-in from principals, other school administrators and school boards based on studies that indicate well-executed mentoring enhances faculty stability, boosts student reading scores and costs less than turnover.
  • State-supported, expanded student-teaching programs that allow future instructors to engage in extensive, diverse experiences.

All of this would require exponentially larger outlays on the front end. But Illinois already is making notable progress with an understandably modest effort shepherded by Linda Tomlinson, assistant state superintendent.
The State Board of Education has allotted about $9 million for 40 pilot projects to develop and test the basics for high-quality teacher induction and mentoring programs - an important precursor to implementing a massive initiative that could cost tens of millions.

Working closely with the state board is the five-year-old Illinois New Teacher Collaborative, which has brought together a cross section of education and business leaders to marshal resources for school administrators, rookie teachers and mentors. The organization, based at the University of Illinois in Champaign, features an informative website and hosts statewide conferences, such as one scheduled Feb. 24 and 25 in Springfield.

"The state board staff and the board members themselves are actively promoting this. It makes a big difference," says Renee Clift, director of the collaborative. She also cites the Illinois Principals' Association and the state's two potent teacher unions as crucial allies.

Their cause is worthy. Just ask a bright, engaging accountant at a bank near Clift's office - Leslie Lewin, whose dream became a nightmare.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.

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