Teachers are blamed for many of our schools' ills, but data suggest they're just as unhappy with the conditions they face as their critics are.
Up to 30 percent of elementary and secondary school teachers leave the profession after three years, and up to half take off after five years, finds research by the University of Pennsylvania's Richard M. Ingersoll, PhD. The main reasons they leave, he finds, are student misbehavior and teachers' lack of power to make decisions about how their own classrooms are structured and run.
As a result, well-trained teachers too often leave the field, says Jane Conoley, PhD, dean of the University of California, Santa Barbara's Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. "Most teachers tell you they only start to get comfortable with what they're doing at year three," she says. "And research shows you get better outcomes for kids when you have that added experience."
Given these findings, psychologists are devising ways to support and retain good teachers, rather than simply trying to lure new ones. These include developing programs that provide new teachers with academic and social support, master's-level training, community support and hands-on experience in industry.
Research suggests these approaches work. A 2004 study by Thomas M. Smith, PhD, of Vanderbilt University, and Ingersoll in the American Educational Research Journal (Vol. 41, No. 3), for instance, found that new teachers who took part in support or "induction" programs were much more likely to stay for a second year than those who didn't participate in such programs. Likewise, a review of 15 studies on these programs by Ingersoll and Michael Strong, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the June Review of Education Research (Vol. 81, No. 2) found that most studies demonstrate positive effects of the programs on teacher commitment and retention, classroom instructional practices and student achievement.
Support for teachers is important because once they hit the classroom, they often feel lonely and isolated, adds psychologist Isaac Prilleltensky, PhD, dean of education at the University of Miami. In addition, teachers often lack the practical resources and knowledge needed to run a successful classroom, he says.
"Teachers need the same kind of support that doctors receive who are doing their residency training under supervision," Prilleltensky says. "And they usually don't get it."
One source of such support is the University of Miami's Support Network for Novice Teachers, run by Prilleltensky, which provides professional development and mentoring. Since the program began in 2001, only one of the 600 novice teachers who have participated left teaching within three years. Participants can spend up to three years in the program, depending on their interest, time and need.
The emphasis is on the practical, says program director Joyce Corces, EdD. Participants learn how to create lesson plans, reward students for good behavior, organize their days, decide how much homework to assign, even how to decorate the classroom. They also role-play tough situations—dealing with angry parents or preparing students for national exams, for example. (The University of Miami program is featured in a new APA teacher-training module on stress management. Go to the APA Teacher Stress Module.)
The support network also hosts informal activities that build group cohesion, and a mentoring program with experienced teachers. Special education teacher Donna Serrano says she appreciated the support of fellow classmates and mentors. "Had I not been exposed to some of those people, I think I would have felt more overwhelmed," she says. "I know I can call or email anyone in the network any time I need to."
Getting businesses on board
The University of Arizona's dean of education, educational psychologist Ronald Marx, PhD, is taking a different tack on teacher support. He is involving business leaders in an effort called "Tucson Values Teachers," which seeks to improve teachers' low pay, insufficient training and low morale. A key part of the program is providing master's-level training at the University of Arizona to early career science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers. Funded largely by the Science Foundation of Arizona, with matching funds from area technology businesses, the program gives teachers advanced training in STEM disciplines, pedagogy and assessment. The program then places teachers at local science and engineering companies for summer internships, where they earn industry-level pay while gaining hands-on experience that they can share in the classroom.
"I wanted to get teachers into contexts where they're doing real science or math that counts for a purpose," says Marx.
About 25 teachers are completing master's degrees and internships so far, with impressive results. One math teacher who did her internship at the defense contractor Raytheon helped get a state-of-the-art missile to fly. Another participant was named Teacher of the Year in Arizona's Cochise County.
Tucson Values Teachers also addresses an overlooked aspect of teacher support: the public's underappreciation of teachers. A "Teacher's Discount Card," for instance, gives teachers discounts on area goods, services and even mortgages. The program also provides opportunities for the public to buy school supplies for teachers, which teachers otherwise tend to buy with their own money.
Meanwhile, a weekly radio program developed by Tucson Values Teachers—"Teacher's Voices," which airs on Tucson's National Public Radio affiliate, KUAZ—features interviews with local teachers. "It evokes images of competent, caring and intellectually deep professionals who are working on behalf of our children," Marx says.
Support from the top?
Other efforts are under way to help administrators face their own pressures, which in turn can help improve their relationship with teachers. Conoley of the Gevirtz School has been developing a support network for school principals and superintendents in Santa Barbara County that will launch fully in 2012 with a series of summer institutes, to be followed by regular gatherings over the course of the academic year. The institutes will be co-led by a Santa Barbara County principal or supervisor and a Gevirtz faculty member, who will teach participants how to assess and improve classroom instruction and student achievement.
But the real focus is on creating a place where administrators don't have to be their official selves "but can really just learn from one another," Conoley says. Participants will have a chance to share ideas and best practices, and to discuss their schools' data, for example on the link noted in research between dropout rates and a lack of algebra proficiency by the ninth grade, she says.
Supporting school leaders this way can benefit teachers and students alike, Conoley adds. "The key is to build organizations where expectations are high and the support for that success is just as strong."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.