Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.

Future of Teaching

Undocumented students face hurdles getting into college. Here’s how Indiana teachers have helped them succeed

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Cinthia, Jessika Osborne, Angela Adams, and Karina Garduño were panelists featured in a discussion moderated by Mike Elsen-Rooney, a reporter with the Teacher Project. The event focused on undocumented students' access to college.

Navigating the college admissions process can be a challenge for any student, but in Indiana, undocumented students can face extra hurdles in pursuing higher learning. That’s because Indiana is one of just six states that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities.

Helping Indiana teachers identify pathways to college — and through college — for their undocumented students was a focus of a panel discussion Wednesday, put on by WFYI Public Media and the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. Educators in the state say that in recent years, they have noticed an increase in undocumented students in their classroom, and many of these students assume that higher education is out of reach for them.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. But access to public colleges in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. While it’s possible for undocumented students to be accepted at and to enroll in colleges, entrance exams and figuring out how to cover the tuition, can be tricky, especially because undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid. They also worry that the application process puts themselves and their families at greater risk of deportation.

Wednesday’s event was held at the WFYI offices in Indianapolis and brought out dozens of educators, students, and community members. The gathering was part of an ongoing series about the intersection of education and immigration.

The panel featured Cinthia, an undocumented student who graduated from Emmerich Manual High School in 2015. Cinthia did not provide her last name because of her immigration status. She spoke passionately about how instrumental her English-as-a-new-language teacher, Jessika Osborne, was in eventually getting her to college and ensuring she felt safe once there.

“She’s always been in my life,” Cinthia said. “I felt like Osborne would protect me no matter what.”

Cinthia, Osborne, and two other panelists answered questions and participated in a moderated discussion about advice for other educators struggling with how best to help their students who are undocumented pursue higher education.

Read more: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

Work to build trust.

Karina Garduño, IUPUI’s assistant director of multicultural planning and another panelist, said one of the biggest hurdles for teachers is determining which of their students might be undocumented, and therefore might need extra help with the college admissions process.

Garduño said the first step is establishing a good rapport. When students trust you and feel comfortable, they are more likely to disclose their immigration status and open up about whether or not they need assistance with the college process.

“A lot of these students will not share this information with just anybody,” Garduño said.

Making the time to do this outreach is no easy feat for many educators in the state. Garduño said she’s known guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students. Such ratios aren’t uncommon in Indiana or across the country.

“As much as you are well-intentioned and really want to help, your human capacity is not necessarily always there because you have so many students to serve and they each have so many individual needs,” she said.

Osborne said she, too, has felt overwhelmed juggling her classroom responsibilities with the intense needs of her students, especially amid changing policies around immigration and undocumented populations. Still, she’s seen how consistent effort to build trust with students can pay off.

“There wasn’t a time where I remember Cinthia saying, ‘I’m undocumented,’” Osborne said. Rather, there were just hints over time that Cinthia needed help applying for college and getting paperwork that proved she was in school.

To help students like Cinthia, Osborne said she sometimes gives up her lunch hour and planning time. She also makes herself available after school and before sports practices begin.

Don’t panic.

Angela Adams, also a panelist and an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney, said she gets a lot of questions about whether teachers need to report students who disclose they are undocumented, or whether helping them is “aiding and abetting” some kind of crime.

“First of all, don’t panic,” Adams said. “You’re not doing anything wrong by not reporting this person or by having this person in your classroom.”

Adams said FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects certain information about students, applies here.

“You can’t disclose to third-parties even if you wanted to — you’d probably be losing your job,” Adams said.

Know your limits.

Adams and Garduño encouraged teachers to be supportive, but not to go beyond their roles as educators. For example, they can reassure their students that they won’t tell anyone about their plight without their permission. But they shouldn’t be giving out legal advice. Rather, they can recommend speaking with an immigration attorney.

“Be careful,” Adams said. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know … you could end up getting someone in a worse situation even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”

And in the meantime, panelists advocated that teachers familiarize themselves with available resources, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, La Plaza, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

In the classroom, Osborne suggested teachers identify when it might be wise to avoid working in large groups on college-related assignments. At Manual, she said, students have been taken in groups to a computer lab to fill out college financial aid forms. But undocumented students might not feel comfortable in that setting — and some just didn’t show up, she said.

Osborne said her department has also held smaller parent nights for information about immigration, the college application process, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Most of all, Cinthia said, she appreciated that Osborne and other teachers never made her feel like her dream to complete her education and become a nurse was out of reach — even if she faced more challenges along the way.

“Don’t make them feel like they’re not going to finish,” Cinthia said. “Just help them and support them through the whole way.”

positive discipline

How this Indiana district is rethinking discipline to keep kids in school

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Warren Township administrators are taking a new approach to discipline — often forgoing traditional punishments, such as suspensions, in favor of interventions that better support the children who have gotten into trouble.

It’s called “positive discipline,” and it takes into account that traumatic events, such as a parent in jail, the loss of a family member, or homelessness, may be at the root of a child’s misbehavior. In those cases, experts say making a home visit or providing mentoring — paired with a consequence such as detention — can be more beneficial than forcing a student, who may need help, out of school.

“Children have problems at school because of things that have happened in their background,” JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. said. “As educators we’ve got to be cognizant of that.”

The result of these more mindful discipline policies: better care for students, and fewer students missing class.

This softer approach to discipline is gaining traction throughout the United States, particularly as schools confront high suspension and expulsion rates that have been found to unfairly target students of color.

Indiana in particular has grappled with such disproportionately harsh discipline for black students. Now, the state is establishing guidelines for educators to use this new approach in their own classrooms.

“Even one detention in the ninth grade can increase the risk of a child going into the juvenile justice system,” Hanger said. “School discipline data suggests that we do have a problem. It’s a statewide problem.”

Through a new state law passed this year, the Indiana Department of Education is developing a best practice model for districts like Warren Township that are interested in implementing “positive discipline,” which seeks to teach rather than to punish.

The model will provide ways to reduce out-of-school suspension and inequities in discipline, to limit referrals to law enforcement or arrests on school grounds, and to draft or strengthen policies that address issues of bullying on school property.

Schools are not required to adopt the best practice model, nor are they required to reduce their suspensions and expulsions, but the state must provide information and support to districts upon request.

“Operating in the mode of punishment without supports is not productive for families or kids,” said James Taylor, Warren Township’s director of student services. “We want to support families as much as we can because we’re the first line of defense before the juvenile system.”

Warren Township is one of seven Indiana districts that participated in specialized training last year to learn how to respond to misbehavior in a way that considers what’s happening in a student’s life outside of the classroom. Children in poverty are more likely than their peers to experience traumatic events.

The training is hosted by the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which is known for its efforts around reforming laws, policies, and practices to keep children in school and out of the criminal justice system. Training comprises a two-day summit and four one-day sessions during the course of a year.

Each session is designed for a different group of school employees, including administrators, teachers, and school resource officers. The final session brings everyone together for cross-disciplinary training, team building, and strategic planning.

Jim Sporleder is a trauma-informed coach who helps lead positive discipline training sessions across the U.S., including Indiana. He has seen how adopting a different mindset on discipline can be difficult: “It’s going against tradition,” Sporleder said. “It’s going against how we were raised.”

That was an early challenge for Warren Township schools. The strategy requires “a paradigm shift,” Taylor said.

“Everybody has to be on board, but everybody’s not always on board,” he said. “It’s tough to get people out of that mindset that this kid really painted a black eye for our school, and how do we move past the pain and the hurt of the situation when it happens?”

At Warren Central High School, 584 out of 3,710 students received out-of-school suspensions before the district began taking this new approach in 2016-17. But last year, when the district started the positive discipline training, the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased by more than 15 percent, according to state data.

Warren Township now outlines its approach to positive discipline in its student handbook, which defines discipline on the cover as, “instruction that corrects, molds, or perfects character and develops self-control.”

At the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, Hanger said she uses schools’ discipline data to identify schools with a high rate of suspensions and where leaders are willing to address the issue. She and her team are still collecting data, but they believe suspensions will go down within the first year of training.

Suspensions have long been a problem in Indiana: During the 2012-13 school year, one in 10 Indiana students were suspended. For black students, the number was even greater — one in five.

However, some groups that represent educators have had concerns about how to roll out this approach effectively. Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he doesn’t want schools to restrict how teachers can discipline students. Teachers still need to have a full range of options when dealing with incidents.

Still, he said he supports keeping students in school.

Sporleder, the trainer, said that in order for a shift toward positive discipline to work, the entire school has to change the way it looks at all students.

“Some people separate out who’s trauma and who’s not,” Sporleder said. “We can’t do that because we don’t know. Your most compliant student in classroom could be most traumatized. Trauma isn’t a checklist. It’s who you are.”