Why the Detroit school district is investing in its newest teachers by giving them mentors

Samantha Ciaffone was certain about one thing when she began her first teaching job in Detroit a few months ago: “I don’t know what I don’t know yet as a new teacher.”

But she quickly discovered she had an asset: a mentor who’s been there and done that.

Ciaffone benefits from a program, formally announced Wednesday, that connects veteran Detroit school district teachers as mentors to new teachers.

To do that, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has partnered with the GreenLight Fund Detroit, a philanthropic organization that is providing funding and helped connect the district with the New Teacher Center, which bills itself as one of the largest teacher mentoring programs in the nation. It’s a $5 million effort.

In a district that has hired more than 100 beginning teachers in the past year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said providing them support to become effective educators is important.

That will help retain teachers and position the district to be more attractive to potential candidates who may see a mentorship program as an asset.

“What we don’t want to do is hire someone for the sake of hiring them,” Vitti said. “We want to support them so they not only stay in DPSCD, but stay in the profession.”

The program also boosts the district’s efforts to grow its talent.

“Our most important employees are our teachers,” Vitti said. “They have the greatest impact on our children on a day-to-day basis.”

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, right, speaks during a news conference Wednesday. He’s shown here with Desmond Blackburn, the CEO of The New Teacher Center. (Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat)

As part of the new program, first-grade teacher Ciaffone is being mentored by Karen Pastor, a veteran teacher at Munger Elementary-Middle School. Pastor, who teaches the second grade, is among 115 teachers who received four days of training from the New Teacher Center in order to become mentors. The mentor teachers will each receive $700 stipends and be compensated for the training and for the weekly one-hour sessions they have with their mentors. 

“It’s nice to be able to go to her with questions, and she’ll give me resources,” Ciaffone said about Pastor. 

A 20-year district veteran, Pastor said she wishes she had had a mentor teacher when she stepped into her first classroom 25 years ago.

“I’m not here to make her a mini me. I’m here to let her develop into the teacher that she will become. That’s the most important thing. It’s an extremely delicate dance of giving her advice or guidance, holding her hand when needed, and letting it go because Samantha needs to develop into her own teaching philosophy.”

Rishi Moudgil, executive director of GreenLight, said the organization will initially contribute $650,000 to the New Teacher program. Over $5 million will be raised over five years from fundraising and grants. 

He said GreenLight’s sole focus is to “better outcomes for families here in Detroit.” They do that by asking questions about the greatest needs in the community. And as they talked to parents and families, they heard resoundingly that a key need is better equipping the adults who are working with children.

That led to a search for the best programs in the country that help support teachers. They landed on the New Teacher Center.

“Our vision is that all new teachers who want to come to DPSCD will get a veteran mentor teacher for two years to be able to support their growth,” Moudgil said.

Desmond Blackburn, chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, which is based in Santa Cruz, California, said the program supports teachers in 400 school districts nationwide, including New York, Baltimore, Miami and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina. He said it touches about 1.8 million students.

Blackburn said independent research on the program shows that students taught by teachers who’ve been mentored learned much more in math and English in one school year than their peers whose new teachers weren’t mentored. Retention rates were also stronger for teachers who were mentored, he said.

Blackburn said teaching is hard work, and teachers show up every day to confront that.

“But they want support and ongoing support day in and day out, from peers,” Blackburn said.