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Mentoring program one solution to cutting teacher shortage

BY Jason Embry
by Jason Embry on 4/9/01.

Liz DeLoach kept Lily Dungan from quitting her job.

Dungan, a first-year teacher at Waco's Doris Miller Elementary School, wept just days into the start of school last August. She believed she could not handle the constant talking and frequent skirmishes among her fourth-grade students.

But DeLoach, who has taught 11 years, assured her a little classroom chatter was not the end of the world. She reminded Dungan that teachers themselves are hardly silent during school faculty meetings.

"She basically told me to lighten up," Dungan said. "I was putting too much pressure on myself."

Kindergarten teacher DeLoach shepherds Dungan through her first classroom job as part the Texas Beginning Educator Support System (TxBESS), a statewide pilot program that puts rookie teachers under the guidance of seasoned veterans. State officials report that Texas teachers who work with mentors during their first year have proven more likely to stay around for a second.

And this is no time to let a disillusioned young teacher walk out the schoolhouse door. Beefed-up mentor programs have taken on greater importance as lawmakers, school administrators and education experts attack the shortage of 42,000 certified teachers in Texas. The scramble for a fix reaches from higher pay and better benefits to revamped college programs that give would- be teachers more practical training.

Dungan and DeLoach meet for at least 20 minutes most days. They share ideas for upcoming lessons and swap ways to handle rowdy classrooms.

DeLoach uses her conference period to stop by Dungan's class and check her instructional techniques. Fourth-graders who behave well for Dungan get to tutor DeLoach's kindergarten pupils.

When Dungan's class made volcanoes, she turned to her mentor's stock of supplies instead of spending her own money on paint and brushes. When DeLoach noticed her protege's chalk supply was down to small nubs, she gave her more.

"I guess I'm her neighbor next door that always has that cup of sugar or roll of toilet paper ready," said DeLoach, who will earn $1,000 for serving as a mentor this year.

TxBESS was established two years ago with a three-year, $10 million federal grant. This year's program aims to serve 10 percent of the more than 38,000 new teachers hired by Texas schools.

According to the State Board for Educator Certification, about 19 percent of Texas teachers quit after their first year. That number fell to 12 percent for teachers who went through TxBESS during the program's inaugural semester last spring.

Certification board officials hope state lawmakers will fund the program enough to expand it to one-third of first-year teachers in Texas. The eventual goal, SBEC spokesman Patrick Shaughnessy said, is for all rookie teachers to pair with a mentor.

While support programs such as TxBESS compete for funding, much effort toward easing the teacher shortage focuses on better finances for the teachers themselves.

"I think the main thing we can do that's going to have the most overall effect is to improve overall teacher compensation across the board," said state Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat who sits on the House Public Education Committee.

Texas teacher groups have backed a plan that would cost the state $3 billion a year and give school employees the same insurance coverage as state workers. They say rising premiums and providers unwilling to cover small districts have swallowed up the $3,000 pay raise all Texas teachers received two years ago.

State Rep. Dianne White Delisi, a Republican from Temple and a former teacher, has filed legislation that would create a system of pay incentives for Texas teachers and fund it with state dollars. Her proposal includes extra pay for teachers who earn graduate degrees, work near the Texas-Mexico border and teach in subjects with the greatest teacher shortages.

Delisi's bill would also reward teachers who obtain certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The board awards such certifications to teachers who demonstrate their skills by taking a series of tests and showing samples of their work in a portfolio.

"My program gives additional money to those teachers that want to professionally develop and bring that expertise into the classroom," Delisi said. "Isn't it sad that when a teacher gets their Ph.D. they automatically go over into administration? They leave the classroom."

Delisi also wants to boost financial aid for people who train to teach in the hard-to-fill subject areas. At a time when some companies are downsizing by the thousands, Delisi believes the state should help residents make education a second career.

"I'm looking for quality folks," she said. "I'm looking for people who have had a life experience of expertise that they can bring to the classroom."

But there's no automatic agreement to spend more state money on teacher income and benefits. For example, some contend teacher health insurance is not the state's problem. According to Citizens for a Sound Economy, a group that advocates limited government spending, all but seven of the state's 1, 041 school districts offered their employees health insurance last year.

"This truly is not a crisis," said Peggy Venable, the group's director. " When the state starts picking up health insurance for one group or another that are not state employees, then you and I are paying for that as taxpayers. "

Venable said the school workers who are least able to get affordable coverage should be able to join a pool that does not use state funds but, through its participant volume, lowers the cost for school districts and their employees. And though teachers say they welcome financial incentives to enter and remain in the classroom, it is in fact more than money issues driving them out.

Some who have left the profession say they did so because of pressure to raise scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, as well as a workload that kept them from enjoying their nights and weekends.

Waco school Superintendent Jerry Major said teachers who stick to their curricula should not have to worry about overemphasizing the TAAS test. The skills that TAAS covers can be learned in all subjects, he said.

"The basics are relevant across the curriculum," he said.

Rosanne Stripling, Major's predecessor as Waco superintendent, implemented the district's policy requiring students pass TAAS before moving onto the next grade. The policy brought state and national attention to Waco, and won Stripling praise from then-Gov. George W. Bush.

Stripling said she would implement the standards again "in a heartbeat." But she acknowledges the policy has added pressure on teachers.

Principals can help teachers handle TAAS anxiety by emphasizing the curriculum that will help students on the test, she said, rather than focusing on TAAS itself.

"I think we can soften the reality of what has to happen by using a different vernacular, and that would be to deemphasize the TAAS test to a degree and place more emphasis on teaching the written curriculum in the classroom," she said. "It's just another way to get to a positive outcome."

Some former teachers say they left the classroom because of the grading and paperwork that inevitably cut into evening and weekend hours. Jane Conoley, dean of the education school at Texas A&M University, said schools could help teachers by adding more aides to handle attendance forms, medical permission slips and routine notes home to parents.

"You go into any school and it's very frequent that you see only one school secretary," she said. "I think there needs to be an investment in both more teachers and the infrastructure around teachers.

"We don't ask physicians to do the billing in their offices. We want physicians to pay attention to us when we're there. That's the attitude we should have with teachers."

While policy-makers seek ways to keep teachers happy, universities and school districts are trying to make them better prepared before they enter the workforce.

Upcoming changes at Baylor University call for a one-year teaching internship for prospective educators, school of education dean Robert Yinger said. Baylor students who plan to teach now student-teach for about 12 weeks.

Yinger said the current system makes a student-teacher a guest in someone else's classroom. The teaching interns would instruct students, give grades and meet with parents. Yet they would also work under the guidance of faculty from their assigned schools and Baylor.

"It's what other professions have known for years," he said. "You learn to be a doctor in your residencies, and you learn to be a lawyer in your clerkships. What we're trying to do is make that experience more intensive and really a more realistic learning experience."

The internships will likely begin in the fall of 2002 for students in a Baylor program that allows them to seek teaching certificates after earning undergraduate degrees. Next year's Baylor freshmen will be the first full class to work the internships when they are seniors in the fall of 2004.

Yinger said Baylor will send about 300 interns into some of the most challenging schools in McLennan County, as well as some in the Houston and Dallas areas. He believes the program can reduce the number of teachers who quit after torturous rookie years.

"What we're trying to do is create that first year of teaching, but not throw teachers out on their own like they are now," he said.

Baylor students training to teach will also be required to master Spanish at an intermediate level and will work with children with special needs such as learning disabilities or academic gifts. The students will also take classes through the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, an intensive sequence of the school's general education requirements.

"We're trying to make teaching more attractive to academically talented students," he said. "Our goal is that, not only are we going to be producing good teachers from Baylor, but we're going to be producing teacher leaders for the future."

Texas A&M officials are reaching into Texas high schools to bring students into the teaching field.

Last summer, about 65 teen-agers attended a camp put on by the college and the Texas Association of Future Educators. Education dean Conoley said she expects more than 100 high school students to attend this summer to learn about Texas A&M's education major and the teaching profession.

Conoley also said her school is working with community colleges to see that students who come out of two-year schools can make a smooth transition into the university's teacher-training program. Students who arrive at A&M saying they want to major in fields such as biology receive letters that suggest they seek teaching certificates as well.

A&M has also beefed up its scholarship coffers for education majors, raising the fund from about $50,000 to about $400,000 in four years. Conoley said that about 275 freshmen entering A&M in 1996 said they wanted to study education. That number reached 450 by the fall of 2000.

"We feel like we have had some effect on generating a pool of people interested in being in education," she said.

The school also sponsors a program called Learning to Teach in Inner City Schools. Participants student-teach at inner-city schools in the Houston school district and attend weekly seminars that focus on urban-education issues.

According to the New York-based polling firm Public Agenda, urban administrators are more than twice as likely as their suburban counterparts to face severe teacher shortages. But Conoley said that 82 of the 90 students who have gone through the Houston program have gone on to teach in urban schools.

"I know they didn't enter (college) saying, 'I want to work in those inner- city schools, but we gave them a high-level experience in those schools,"' Conoley said. "If we can provide experiences in which students are successful, they're willing to do it."

Brin Graham did not attend an urban school growing up in Granbury, a town near Fort Worth with about 5,000 residents. But she always wanted to work with at-risk children, and last year landed a job student-teaching fourth and fifth grade at Gregory-Lincoln Education Center in Houston's poor Fourth Ward neighborhood.

This year she teaches fifth grade there. She said such continuity is key in a setting where some children had 10 different teachers in five years.

"Once I had those kids in the fourth grade and they knew I was coming with them in the fifth grade, they already knew the boundaries," said Graham, 22. " They already knew the rules and how to live by them."

Texas school districts, on the front lines in the search for teachers, are finding their own ways to attack the problem.

According to the Texas Association of School Boards, 37 percent of Texas school districts now pay extra for teachers in hard-to-find subjects such as foreign languages, special education and science.

Three out of every four districts with enrollments greater than 10,000 pay stipends to teachers in high-need subjects and to those with graduate degrees, TASB reports. The 15,000-student Waco school district pays stipends for high- need areas and for teachers with more than 20 years experience, but not for graduate degrees.

Districts such as Houston and Dallas have taken their searches outside American borders. Multicultural Professionals, a Houston-based company, has recruited about 400 teachers from the Philippines, Mexico and Canada over the last decade. The company finds experienced teachers who can speak English and helps them acquire working visas in the United States.

Although the teacher shortage is far from solved, the myriad proposed fixes indicates it does weigh on the public consciousness. Baylor's Yinger said communities should view an uncertified teacher instructing children the way they would an orderly performing surgery or a flight attendant flying a plane.

Research has shown that the quality of a teacher _ more than any other factor _ can affect how much a student learns. That, he said, is why the shortage matters so much.

"We used to think that as long as you had a good curriculum and a lot of technology and stuff like that in a school, then the teacher didn't make that much difference," he said. "We now know that the teacher makes a huge difference _ five to 10 times more difference than anything else. And that's why everyone is so concerned about the shortages."

Jason Embry can be reached at jembry(at) or at 757-5743.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers