Teachers say training, mentoring could help keep more of them in the classroom

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s teacher panel has pored over data and research on trends in teacher hiring in Indiana and across the country.

Now the question is what can the state do to attract and retain great teachers?

So far, better pay and training are the ideas that have resonated the most.

By the end of the year, the 49-person panel, which met again today, will put together recommendations for changes to state law Ritz hopes the legislature will enact next year.

“Some of the strategies will be strategies that we can put in place without General Assembly action,” Ritz said, “but I think there’s going to also be some suggestions that say, ‘hey we think we should look at this in law, and we think this would help us in recruiting and retaining teachers.”

One idea discussed today was better but mentoring and training, but Ritz said funding for mentoring has dried up. Funds for teacher training come in part from the federal government, but they aren’t always used as effectively or as efficiently as they could be.

Even so, she was looking for ideas to pitch the legislature on a new commitment to helping teachers learn and grow professionally.

“I heard a lot of conversation about mentoring,” she said. “If we went back and did a mentoring program, what would it look like and how would it be different?”

Celeste Allen, a retired educator from Perry Township, said during a small group discussion that she believes teacher training is often too focused on the individual, rather than the group.

“It should be a shift from individual teacher improvement to systemic improvement,” Allen said. “The conversation in my district was how to make individual teachers better rather than how to make our district better with our teachers.”

Ritz said that districts could probably better communicate to teachers about what programs are in place to support them at every stage of their career — no matter if they are student teachers, new teachers or veterans. One idea from the research the group reviewed suggested paid, full-year student teaching.

“Perhaps systemically we haven’t provided intentional supports for each of those,” Ritz said. “How do we go about actually having someone really being mentored through that first year … and actually be paid at the same time?”

Melanie Beaver, who teaches English at West Vigo Middle School near Terre Haute, said Indiana State University has a program for its teaching students that puts them in the classroom full-time the semester before they student teach. That way, they have already had time to observe, interact with the kids and ask questions. When they’re given their own lessons and classes later, they feel more prepared, she said.

“Monday through Friday they are in the classroom, bell to bell,” Beaver said. “They just don’t really get the experience the classroom unless you’re there.”

Allen said there should be a diversity component to teacher training in universities, and Beaver added that in her district, where schools just two miles apart have wildly different rates of poverty, that would make sense.

Oftentimes, Beaver said, teachers are so overwhelmed by having their own class full of kids, they aren’t prepared to deal with challenges common to schools with higher poverty. In those schools, there are typically limited resources and barriers to learning, such as more students with special needs or those learning English as a new language.

Exposure to those realities for teachers in training would help, she said.

“I just think if you want to see the hardest work being done, you have to go where the skin has to be the thickest,” Beaver said.

One way to encourage teachers to go into high-poverty schools already exists, said Ashley Cowger, who works on the staff of the Indiana State Board of Education. The federal government has a teacher loan forgiveness program that helps teachers who commit to five years in a high-poverty school pay off their student loans.

Subject areas in higher demand, such as special education, science and math, allow teachers to write off more debt, she said.

“How do we make sure that our teaching candidates early on … understand the federal write-offs and how that’s differentiated for high-need subjects?” Cowger said. “That could help with decisions.”

Simply getting a real discussion going about how to help teachers stay in the classroom is a step in the right direction, Ritz said.

“The dialog needs to begin,” she said.