UCSC Review Fall 1992
Beating the New Teacher Blues by Jennifer McNulty
Novices sing the praises of the Santa Cruz County New Teacher Project
Two days into her first teaching job last fall, Diane Bloch was ready to quit. Overwhelmed by a classroom full of boisterous fourth- graders at Ohlone Elementary School in Watsonville, Bloch was distracted by their behavior and depressed by her inability to gain control. Teaching was nothing like she'd expected. She called Mimi Petritz Appel, her adviser in the Santa Cruz County New Teacher Project, and announced her decision to give notice that Friday.
"Mimi said she wouldn't even talk to me about quitting until March," recalls Bloch. "I said, 'No, that's too long.' She said Christmas. I said 'I can't wait.' Finally, she said 'Thanksgiving,' and I said 'One month.'"
Bloch made it through that first month--and the rest of the year--with Appel's encouragement and the help of the New Teacher Project, a tremendously successful partnership between UCSC and local schools that matches newcomers with experienced teachers who provide individual support and professional guidance. Since 1988, the university's Teacher Education Program has teamed up with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and its seven school districts to provide every new teacher of grades K-8 with a mentor, including 42 first-year teachers last year.
Everyone agrees that no amount of training and student teaching can prepare new teachers for that first year in the classroom, during which long hours and insecurity quickly deplete the idealism and excitement of the most dedicated novice. The challenges begin with "basic classroom survival" issues such as rules and discipline, and continue with grading, parent conferences, curriculum development, and school politics. And the demands on all teachers are increasing as the state's demographics change; more than two-thirds of new teachers in the county teach bilingual classes.
"The hardest thing is the hours," says Bloch, 31, who usually works twelve-hour days during the week and another eight hours on the weekend. "And it's really hard being 'on' all day."
That's where the mentors come in. On loan from local schools, five of the district's finest teachers are "cut free" to work on the project for two years. Each new teacher is assigned a mentor, who observes new teachers in action, meets with them individually to discuss problems and plan lessons, and teaches demonstration lessons to provide guidance--and inspiration.
For Bloch, the project was a careersaver. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1987 with a degree in environmental studies and earned her teaching credential at UCSC in 1991. Despite those first bad months, Bloch now plans to stay in teaching. "I put in a lot of years training for this," she says.
The Santa Cruz County New Teacher Project grew out of a four-year statewide pilot study funded by the California legislature in 1988. All told, 37 programs emerged from that study. A recent report by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing credited the project with reducing the overall attrition of new teachers by more than two-thirds and virtually eliminating the problem of teachers quitting because of isolation, frustration, or burnout.
The Santa Cruz project stands out as one of the best in the state, says Beatrice Ward, a senior researcher with Southwest Regional Educational Laboratory, which evaluated the programs. The amount of training and support varied tremendously among programs, says Ward, but the Santa Cruz model offers "the highest level of everything." Ellen Moir, supervisor of teacher education at UCSC and director of the Santa Cruz County New Teacher Project, says her program is structured to maximize participation: Experienced teachers work full time on the project, new teachers get time off to attend seminars, and an advisory consortium of community educators lends outside support.
Teaching is a tough profession--the nationwide dropout rate for teachers during their first two years is 30 percent, and it climbs to more than 50 percent within their first seven years. Unfortunately, academically talented teachers are the most likely to leave. But the New Teacher Project is stopping the exodus: After four years, only 4 percent of the 200 local teachers who've participated in the project have left the field. Many new teachers are graduates of UCSC's teacher training program, and Moir says it is particularly rewarding to see them get support after their formal training ends.
Constance Fowler, who earned her B.A. in community studies from UCSC in 1989 and her teaching credential in 1991, found out on the first day of school last year that she would be teaching a fifth- grade bilingual class in Watsonville. With no time to prepare, she says she would have been lost without the project. "What's really special is that almost everything they do is supportive; it's positive," she says. "You really need that. As a new teacher, you know how inadequate you are."
Of course, success comes at a price--about $4,500 per new teacher. But Moir says the one-time investment pays off within a few years with reduced attrition. Indeed, the state Department of Education estimates that it costs $5,080 to replace each new teacher who drops out--for a statewide total of $15 million every year.
"It costs a lot to train new teachers, but school districts will tell you it's very expensive to keep losing teachers," says Moir. "The true value of the project can't be counted in dollars and cents. We get better teachers out of it, and it's the kids who really benefit."
Since the pilot-study funding ended in 1991, Moir has kept the project afloat by patching together a grant from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation and some state funding, part of which will keep it going in 1992¯93. State senator Marian Bergeson, a former schoolteacher whose mother and daughter also taught, sponsored the initial legislation and is fighting for permanent funding to support programs for new teachers in California.
Moir, a former teacher who has twenty years of experience in education, is convinced that the New Teacher Project is making a difference. It's opening doors and encouraging teachers to work together, and it provides a valuable feedback loop for UCSC's Teacher Education Program. "It's a new way of looking at becoming a teacher," says Moir. "It doesn't end when you walk out the door with a credential."