Oct 31 2006

Teacher to Teacher

Teachers are using the Internet to find jobs and then keep them with online support from mentors and peers.

Melissa B. Tamberg

LIKE MANY NEW TEACHERS, Stephanie Wild faced a full curriculum of challenges in her first year on the job. Not the least of those challenges involved reporting physical abuse that one of her fourth-grade students was suffering at the hands of his foster family, which led to the child’s subsequent removal from the home.

“I was so emotionally distraught about what happened,” recalls Wild, now in her second year of teaching at Luther Burbank Elementary School, one of 247 schools within the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). “I care for my students as if they were my own children, and I felt like what I had done made the situation worse.”

Had Wild not received a wealth of support and validation from her professional peers during that very disturbing incident, she might well have become just another disheartening classroom statistic. Studies have shown that about 9 percent of new teachers abandon the profession during their first year on the job, according to Mildred Hudson, CEO of Recruiting New Teachers, a national nonprofit organization located in Belmont, Mass., that promotes teacher recruitment and retention. Even worse, approximately one-fifth of new teachers quit within three years. And as many as 50 percent of teachers seek a different profession after the five-year mark.

Instead of stepping away from the chalkboard, Wild was able to beat the odds, thanks in part to an innovative Web-based program that helps to retain teachers by putting them in touch with mentors and peers. Through an online forum in which groups of new teachers are paired with classroom veterans, who lead Internet units known as cadres, Wild was able to share her experience and obtain what many new teachers fail to receive: encouragement, affirmation and a safe place to exchange information.

“My cadre leaders stepped in and made me feel so much better,” Wild says. “They supported the decision I had made … and reassured me that I was right for the job [of teaching].”

The Milwaukee district’s cadre community evolved out of a three-year partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which was funded with nearly $675,000 from the Joyce Foundation, as well as internal and external district resources. Tasked with researching the value and effectiveness of using technology to induct, support and retain new instructors, the project was implemented in 2001 in the MPS, which employs more than 6,700 teachers and serves in excess of 105,000 students.

At its inception, the program sought to answer two fundamental questions: Will teachers use technology? Can the program meet their needs? The answer, Milwaukee educators discovered, was overwhelmingly yes.

Timely Support

Establishing an epicenter where instructors could acquire timely and accurate resources, as well as access round-the-clock communication and support, was the program’s primary goal, according to Elise Riepenhoff, program manager for the district’s professional support community. To that end, first-year teachers were given notebook computers, granting them unlimited access to the portal’s vast resources, including curriculum tools, classroom management tips, district goals and policies, and—perhaps most important—online cadres, coupled with sounding boards where participants could post questions and concerns.

“It’s a venue for communication, sharing and discussing challenges,” Riepenhoff explains. “In this forum, teachers may feel more comfortable expressing themselves than if they were in the building.”

“It can be awkward or uncomfortable to discuss certain issues face to face, and it is easier to write about them instead,” agrees Wild, who became a cadre leader during her second year. “Technology offers the opportunity to share new ideas and experiences from the comfort and convenience of our homes.”

Karin Hansen, a first-grade instructor at Manitoba Elementary who participated as a new teacher in the district’s pilot group three years ago, says the portal supports instructors through their first years of teaching in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way.

“It offers an outlet to network with other teachers in the district, whereas the classroom can be very isolating,” says Hansen, who is now a cadre leader.

“I had no idea where to turn in my school,” Wild concurs. “One of the greatest fears as a new teacher is feeling alone. The project eliminated that feeling for me.”

Constantly being updated to meet the evolving needs of teachers and address ongoing feedback, the portal also enables teachers to tap into the information they need on a daily basis. From trading tips in classroom management to online mentoring to researching district policies, the forum is easy to use and offers 24 x 7 accessibility, users say.

“Within the portal there is a search mechanism that allows teachers to find virtually anything they would possibly need within [the entire district],” notes Nancy Ulrich, a 10-year veteran of MPS and mentor to cadre leaders.

“This form of technology offers an avenue for teachers to discuss any concerns they have so easily,” adds Wild. “They can post or e-mail questions at any time of the day or night, even in the heat of the moment.”

A Recruitment Tool

Districts are increasingly turning to technology not only to help retain teachers, but to recruit them.

“It’s the wave of the future,” says Hudson of Recruiting New Teachers. “From our perspective, recruiting with technology is a tremendous tool with unlimited potential.”

Recruiting New Teachers runs an online job clearinghouse at its Web site, www.rnt.org, which is designed to match candidates with open teaching positions.

From accepting applications online to tracking candidates to enabling teachers to take a virtual tour of a potential school via its Web site, technological aids range from “very simple to very sophisticated,” Hudson says.

Although only 38 percent of the nation’s 50 largest school districts relied on technology in some capacity as a recruitment tool in 2000, that number is expected to increase to 100 percent by this year, according to Hudson.

“Education is really a state activity. Technology has allowed prospective candidates to personally visit various schools in other states [by using the Internet],” Hudson explains. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Alaska or New York; it’s now easy for you to come and see what jobs are available.”

At the New Haven Unified School District in Northern California, where 99 percent of teaching candidates apply online, technology is fundamental to streamlining the recruitment and hiring process, Lisa Metzinger, coordinator of personnel services, reports.

“It makes our life so much easier and efficient,” she says.

The district, which employs more than 700 teachers, not only allows candidates to submit applications online and include various attachments, but also relies on a software program to help sort, screen and score job seekers. When a position opens up, the top candidates can be quickly compiled based on factors such as overall score, subject background and grade-level experience.

Mistee Hightower, a sixth-grade teacher at New Haven’s César Chávez Middle School, used the Internet to research various schools, salary schedules and district visions before applying online and ultimately accepting a job in the New Haven district.

“With this type of background information, I was able to go into the interviews with some knowledge,” notes Hightower. Even more, she points out, “with the technology available, I didn't have to inundate people with basic questions; I could get a lot of my answers online.”

A Crucial Resource

In the Milwaukee school district, budget crunches have prevented the notebook PC program from being extended beyond the project’s initial three years of funding. However, the district’s portal continues to thrive as a crucial resource and support center for beginning and veteran teachers. It has even been expanded to include specific sections for students and parents.

“As times are changing and money becomes scarce, new teachers still need support,” Ulrich points out. “The use of technology can assist in the role of mentor and resource provider.”

Riepenhoff, who admits she was initially skeptical about anything other than face-to-face support for teachers, now acknowledges just how scalable and sustainable the online forum can be.

“There may be a teacher who is ready to walk out of the classroom and not come back,” she says. “When they bring that concern to the cadre, and you see the collaboration and help they are able to get online from other teachers, it’s very heartwarming.”

That support is a benefit Wild can corroborate firsthand. “This project is one of the best things I have ever been a part of,” she enthuses. “[It] has allowed me to grow as a teacher and as a professional, and I have gained a great new sense of confidence. I can personally attest that this support continues to keep me in this district.”

Checklist: Recruiting and Retaining Teachers

Recruiting New Teachers (www.rnt.org), a Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit organization, offers tips on how to attract and keep new teachers:

• Offer recruitment incentives, such as signing bonuses and housing discounts.

• Market your district by investing in high-quality recruitment materials, using the Internet to post job openings and guiding teachers through the application process.

• Offer an induction program to orient, support, assist, mentor, train and assess new teachers in their first three years, which are often the toughest.

What to Include in Your District’s Portal

If you build it, they will come. But exactly what types of information and tools are new teachers seeking? In addition to providing a password-protected section where teachers can participate in online chats, valuable portal sections include:

Message Boards: Teachers can provide and receive feedback to questions and concerns.

Education News: This includes newspaper articles, press releases, research reports and other information about education- or district-related topics.

Quick Links: These specific pages are designated for parents, students and district services, as well as individual Web sites for schools in the district.

District Facts: This includes goals, policies, administrative forms and news from the board or superintendent.

Search Function: Teachers can quickly locate districtwide information.

Project Team: A good Web site requires a good project team to implement, evaluate and coordinate it. Members should include a program manager, project manager, technical support personnel and an online community manager.

Melissa B. Tamberg is a technology-focused freelance writer based in San Diego.