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Mentoring for a changing teacher workforce

Differentiated support for new hires with provisional certification in Fresno USD

“I don’t know where to begin.”

It’s an all-too-common feeling for any new teacher and can be especially acute for those teachers coming to the profession on non-traditional paths. This includes the almost 300,000 American teachers with provisional and emergency licenses already managing classrooms nationwide. Most of these beginning educators haven’t benefited from the pedagogical coursework or pre-service field experiences available to those coming through traditional teacher prep programs. This means they are learning on the job and, in far too many cases, in isolation or with assigned mentors in name only.

In entering a profession famous for its rocky starts, alternatively certified educators face additional challenges. While they chose to become teachers because they love kids and/or love the content, many need to gain essential pedagogical knowledge to succeed in the long term. They might not have had exposure to the technical language, concepts, and methodologies of teaching. They might not have thought about, witnessed firsthand, or had the opportunity to practice all the practicalities and strategies that fall under the umbrella of designing instruction, much less how to create environments for optimal learning. They might have the mindsets (though that usually takes some development too), but not the full skill sets. And all too often, they might not get the support they need in time to stay in the classroom.

With the spike of emergency hires from pandemic-era waivers and new and chronic shortages in certain districts and regions of the country, this group of teachers is filling a critical need in our system and deserves a lot more of our attention.

Though emerging research from Massachusetts and New Jersey indicates that these teachers perform similarly to their traditionally prepared peers and are motivated to stay, they have also long reported feeling underprepared in the first months of teaching and subsequently leave the classroom at higher rates. This loss of talent has negative impacts on schools and student learning with significant equity implications, given that a larger portion of alternatively certified teachers work in schools serving students experiencing poverty and students of color.

We know that these educators represent a wide variety in terms of the pace and depth of their preparation experiences. But we need to learn much more about the specific needs of these aspiring teachers as they come into the profession. Existing research identifies the following as challenges for this group: meeting diverse learning needs, classroom management, engaging students, family and caregiver involvement, collaborating with colleagues, and time and stress management. While many traditionally prepared teachers also struggle in these areas, their alternatively certified peers have to manage the additional pressures of learning on the job and trying to build confidence and self-efficacy while finishing credentialing requirements.

Meeting the needs of alt-certified teachers

Our long-time partners in Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) have been thinking deeply about extending critical aspects of NTC’s mentoring model to meet the specific needs of their alt-certified teachers. Teresa Morales-Young, who heads the district’s teacher development department, emphasized that the goal is to provide a coherent continuum of support for aspiring and new teachers, including those coming through the district’s multiple and expanding pipeline programs. Like NTC, FUSD is especially committed to building a workforce that reflects the values, linguistic skills, and cultural diversity of the community of students it serves.

We caught up briefly with DeAnn Carr, manager of new teacher support in FUSD, which serves approximately 700 new educators annually. This includes alternatively certified new teachers and/or those with provisional licenses working to get their credentials “cleared” by the state of California. (Learn more about provisional licensing in California.)

…the comprehensive support and mentoring focused on assets-based, student-focused teacher development offered through New Teacher Center’s induction model is critical.

DeAnn emphasized that the comprehensive support and mentoring focused on assets-based, student-centered teacher development offered through New Teacher Center’s induction model is critical. In extending and differentiating support for these teachers, however, DeAnn stressed that it’s important not to assume that teachers have the background knowledge or enough exposure to effectively process pedagogical techniques. To meet these teachers where they are, she offered the following additional considerations.

  • Planning can be a big area of need for alternatively certified teachers
    Many alternatively certified teachers don’t know what lesson planning looks and sounds like, DeAnn said, and don’t have enough experience to know that they must plan out all the details. This includes delivery modalities, timing, thinking about where the students are in the classroom and what they are doing at all times, and how to optimize learning time. They have great ideas, she said, but haven’t had the experience structuring a lesson. They also often need to learn to build time into lessons to reiterate expectations and instructions; once is not enough.
  • Observe, observe, observe
    Fresno is currently able to assign substitutes so that teachers can go with their coach to observe other teachers regularly. The opportunity to see good teaching in action, and what specific pedagogical practices goals (e.g., around student engagement) look and sound like are invaluable. Equally critical is the opportunity to be observed by a trusted coach and receive feedback. Following an observation cycle, coaches can provide just-in-time feedback in the moment then debrief and reflect during subsequent coaching conversations building towards a teacher’s development goals.
  • Take advantage of technology, especially video
    Because time is always a constraint, it’s hard to find adequate opportunities for observation and feedback. DeAnn emphasized that video can make a huge difference. “There’s something about watching yourself teaching that really activates that reflective muscle all by itself,” she said, “without the evaluative component of an observer who can only see through their own eyes.” New teachers also just need to see different aspects of teaching in play in the classroom, so building a bank of demonstration videos teachers can watch and coaches can refer to is helpful.
  • Lean on coaches to help teachers choose, process, and apply professional learning
    In addition to induction support, coaches in FUSD help new teachers choose professional learning from the district’s options, helping them to align learning with areas of need and then following up to support application as part of, not separate from, ongoing induction support.
  • Find ways to bring new teachers together for support
    FUSD encourages principals to offer new teacher PLCs, with coaches facilitating or helping principals to facilitate collaborative learning around common problems of practice. Learning in a community of peers and knowing that they aren’t alone in their experiences helps to build novices’ confidence.
  • Help coaches prioritize skills to avoid new teacher overload
    FUSD coaches participated in a group book study to collectively identify a hierarchy of skills aligned with the teaching and coaching cycle to set a trajectory of manageable targets for coaching conversations. This has been especially helpful for new coaches, DeAnn said, and helps to break down what might seem like “lofty” goals of teacher learning plans into smaller bits that are easier for already overwhelmed new teachers to absorb.
  • Provide just-in-time supports
    In FUSD, coaches practice “active coaching” strategies to provide models and discuss and support adjustments during instruction in the moment instead of waiting until after a lesson to debrief and plan for change. To maintain trust, it is important that mentors do not use these strategies without discussing them in advance with the teacher so they know how the interactions will occur. Strategies include:

    • Cueing — During a pre-observation conversation, teachers determine a focus for the observation and co-develop a cue that the mentor or teacher can use to indicate a need for support.
    • Charting — The mentor collects data on a predetermined focus area (e.g., calling on students, teacher movement), enabling the mentor and teacher to quickly review the data during instruction to make adjustments right then and there. The process can be repeated.
    • Teacher time-out — The mentor and teacher decide on a time to confer during a lesson or predetermine a signal that a time-out is warranted so the teacher and mentor can think out loud about a decision point (it’s fine for students to hear the exchange).
    • Huddle/co-teach model — With students in small groups, the mentor and teacher huddle to discuss a strategy for the mentor to model with one small group. The teacher and mentor debrief, and then the teacher tries with another small group.

What FUSD is doing works. Retention rates for alternatively certified teachers in the district have ranged between approximately 80% to 90% over the last three years, compared to a 59% average for similar teachers reported in a 2021 University of Texas at Austin study.

The challenges faced by provisionally and alternatively certified teachers and the districts that employ them are real. We applaud FUSD’s effort to provide comprehensive and differentiated support to this growing sector of the teacher workforce. We will continue to partner and learn from FUSD and plan to share more insights on support for alternatively certified teachers in the coming months.