Teacher vets, don’t go yet

The Ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about the power of mentorship.  In The Odyssey, Athena took on the role of trusted friend and advisor to Telemachus, son of Odysseus, in the king’s absence.  The name of her guise?  Mentor.  Socrates accepted that role for Aristotle, who in turn, guided Alexander the Great.

I was gnawing on this topic for my first TransformEd blog post, wondering if Socrates ever had to evaluate his pupil’s teaching effectiveness when I happened upon fellow blogger Lana Gundy’s question, “Was there a mentor who helped you become a better teacher?”  Yes, Lana, there is.  But she’s leaving the profession, and what really stings?  Droves of great potential mentors just like her are following suit.

“Irene” is retiring nearly a decade before reaching the 30-year finish line: a full pension.  She defeated cancer multiple times only to succumb to the swinging, slicing pendulum of education initiatives.  Although my heart sank at the news, I wasn’t surprised.

“It’s just not worth the stress anymore,” Irene once said to me.  A decorated former Teacher of the Year, her voice wavered in a quiet hallway.  She crossed her arms and rubbed at a raw surgical scar on one.  “I’m working two jobs, still jumping through hoops.  It’s killing me.”  I knew she didn’t mean the cancer.

I wish her statement were hyperbole, that time and change hadn’t so completely rocked her fortitude, but my friend is not alone.  Weary veterans are fleeing the classrooms before their time, tired of fighting the bureaucratic reforms du jour that extol high-stakes testing, flawed accountability systems, and attacks on teacher unions.

We’re hemorrhaging wisdom and experience as these teachers leave faster than principals can replace them.  Such an exodus frays the threads of wisdom that are critical to not only our students but also to those young teachers joining the profession.  Consider the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) contention that nearly half of all new teachers will leave the profession in their first five years, and we’re left with a frightening prospect: the majority of our students will soon face novice teachers.   If that trend continues, who will be left to pass on the history of what we’ve done right?

In Hillsborough County, Florida, this is Year Two of the Empowering Effective Teachers Initiative, an evaluation and career-ladder system that pairs all teachers with a peer evaluator or mentor, depending on one’s level of experience.  While we’re still building these fledgling relationships, the first reviews are mixed.  Some mentor-mentee connections are superficial; others are fruitful from Day One.  Yet all are contrived rather arbitrarily.

Despite the improved focus on peer relationships in Hillsborough County, it’s not enough to stem the flow of teachers leaving the profession.  Mandated mentorships can’t be called cutting edge.  Teacher preparation is a career-long process.  Why should it stop after the first few years of responsibility to one’s prep program or district?  Why does one have to be assigned an outside mentor when there are people in the same building who have wisdom to lend?  Find some of them.  Help novice teachers protect the wisdom and experience already gained as an educational system.

I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, with their oft-empty idealism and arbitrary self-criticisms, but this year I’ll take a shot.  I will reach out to individual teachers above and below my pay grade to strengthen that thread. I implore others to do the same.

Each of us has something to pass on to a younger teacher.  In my next post I’ll outline some easy tips for bridging the growing generational gap.  The next time you feel exhausted, frustrated, inspired, or enthused, remember there are 3.3 million teachers riding the same waves.  I guarantee there are at least a handful of them in your own school wishing someone would knock on their door.  Go ahead.  Irene did.