Survive to thrive

College of Education program supports new classroom teachers

Solving big problems requires big ideas — and one of the biggest problems facing public education in South Carolina and elsewhere is teacher retention.

Consider: In 2016, South Carolina watched 6,482 teachers abandon the classroom, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. Meanwhile, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, teacher turnover costs South Carolina school districts $23 million a year.

Again, big problem. Or big problems, plural. So, what’s the big idea? Look no further than the College of Education, which last year launched Carolina TIP — short for Carolina Teacher Induction Program — as a way to keep promising new teachers from fleeing the classroom before they’ve hit their stride.

It’s a complicated challenge, but the core idea is simple: Invite new teachers to participate in a three-year post-graduate professional development program to improve their classroom effectiveness and help mitigate the various stresses that come with being a new teacher.

“There is a longstanding belief in the College of Education that support shouldn’t end at graduation,” says Carolina TIP director Nicole Skeen. “There’s a big difference between learning about classroom management in the safety of the university or practicum classroom environment and standing on your own in front of 30 9th graders and actually having to apply the various pedagogical strategies you’ve acquired.”

Rooted in a white paper by associate professors of education Thomas Hodges and George Roy, Carolina TIP was embraced by College of Education assistant dean for accreditation and professional partnerships Cindy Van Buren and dean Jon Pedersen, who began making the case for the new program across the state, even penning a powerful op-ed in The State newspaper last July.

Pedersen also authorized the search for a director, someone with plenty of classroom experience, both as a teacher and as a teaching coach. Skeen was an ideal fit.

A longtime middle school teacher and instructional coach in Richland District One, Skeen received her M.A.T from Carolina in 2005. She had also served as an adjunct methods and materials instructor at the College of Education. Her job now, as she puts it, is to “take this radical idea and figure out how to make it a reality.”

Initially, that meant poring over the data on teacher retention and researching induction programs from around the country. That meant finding a corporate partner — Colonial Life — to cover the cost of daylong Saturday workshops and provide materials. That meant partnering with districts and getting their feedback.

“It’s imperative that we work in conjunction with schools and school districts. This needs to be a collaborative effort at its core,” says Skeen. “This program should enhance induction efforts without competing with what’s already being done.”

Indeed, the state already requires each school district to provide orientation, a trained mentor and an induction program for new classroom teachers. For a host of reasons, though, some districts are able to do a better job easing new teachers into the profession than others. Sometimes it’s a resource problem, sometimes it’s a time problem.

“Time is the enemy of all teachers,” says Skeen. “A mentor could be the most well-trained, well-intentioned mentor that ever existed, but they have to have to have the time to provide in-class support to another teacher. I can go into a school — or someone like me, we call ourselves Carolina Coaches — and be solely dedicated to the needs of those new teachers.”

The first cohort of 15 new teachers, all of them Carolina graduates hired in 2017 by Midlands-area professional development schools (PDS), began the program in October. The goal is to recruit 75 first-year teachers next year, bringing the total number of participants to 90.

“We intentionally chose to work in our PDS schools for now because we already have a sustained partnership with them,” Skeen says. “That gave us this sandbox to get messy in and learn as we go, and provides a safe environment to work out the logistics of support.”

All teachers in the program receive classroom observations and feedback, lesson analysis and personalized mentoring. They also attend Saturday workshops on the USC campus, where they receive targeted support training, according to Skeen.

“Participants aren’t just listening to somebody describe best practices. We’re getting our hands dirty, wrestling with ideas and how to implement them,” she says. “We want teachers to walk away with powerful strategies they can implement on Monday with no additional preparation.”

Participants are likewise encouraged to start thinking long-term and to reflect on their development as educators.

“It’s a holistic approach,” says Skeen. “We’re there to meet the teachers’ needs, whatever those needs may be. For first-year support, classroom management is clearly the biggest focus.”

But as teachers begin to get a handle on the basic day-to-day challenges, the emphasis shifts from mere survival to improved classroom practice. By the second semester, teachers will begin to explore strategies for reaching all students and addressing barriers to learning.

“One of the nice things about this program is that we’re not tied to a particular agenda,” Skeen explains. “If the teacher needs to vent, we provide a safe space for that. If a teacher needs encouragement, we break out the pom-poms. And we aren’t just meeting with them on Saturdays. We’re in their classrooms, we’re calling them, emailing them, meeting after school, on weekends, over winter break.”

In the second year, the keyword is “stabilize,” according to Skeen; in the third year, the keyword is “sharpen.”

“Typically — and research backs this up — year three is when you see teachers have a real impact on student learning,” she says. “By year three, they have better footing. The goal is to create teacher researchers in their own classroom and leaders in the schools.”

The program, too, is a work in progress. Skeen and her partners in the College of Education refer to 2017-18 as an exploratory year, and envision 2018-19 as the pilot year. If all goes well, Skeen hopes to have a replicable model by year five.

“Right now, we’re still defining our model,” she says. “Next, we need to refine that model, see what works, what doesn’t. With each iteration, we’re going to learn new things that we need to change, things we never anticipated. We’re bound to make a million mistakes, but that’s part of the process.”

And if all goes as planned?

“The primary goal is to keep teachers in the classroom,” says Skeen. “But I’m confident this will also be a strong recruiting tool for the university. Teachers receive top-notch preparation in the College of Education, and then if they teach in South Carolina, they get an additional three years of support.”

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