- Year 2019
- NSF Noyce Award # 1557320
- First Name Susan
- Last Name McKay
- Discipline Biology, Chemistry, Geosciences, Math, Physics
Eric Pandiscio, University of Maine, firstname.lastname@example.org
Heather Rockwell, RSU 67, email@example.com
MacKenzie Stetzer, University of Maine, firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan McKay, University of Maine, email@example.com
Attracting and retaining new teachers for high-need rural Maine districts has proved challenging. Neighboring states pay higher wages and, within Maine, the more urban areas also have higher pay scales. Further, new teachers in small, rural schools often face three intensive types of challenges: 1 In science, new teachers are typically required to teach outside of their primary discipline. For example, of the nine NSF Teaching Fellows in our program currently teaching in high-need districts, five are primarily prepared in the life sciences but are teaching high school Earth sciences or physics as part or all of their responsibilities. 2 New teachers can feel very isolated in these schools, where there are few new teachers, due to changing demographics, and many members of the school workforce have known each other and been part of the community for decades. (Maine is now the second oldest state in the United States, with over 18% of its population over age 65.; https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-us-states-with-the-oldest-population.html) 3 There can also be strong social isolation outside of work. Due to economic challenges, many of these communities have very little influx of young professionals. There are limited jobs available for partners when a teacher chooses to work in a small rural community. It can be a difficult transition for a new teacher to build friendships outside of work in their new home. Thus, for a new teacher to flourish in this type of school and community culture, they might need additional support around new content that they are teaching and a strong network of colleagues and friends to rely upon. Addressing these needs is particularly challenging because the early years of teaching are incredibly busy for any teacher, as they develop lesson plans for the first time for the classes that they will be teaching and learn the policies and practices of their workplace.
1 What kinds of support arrangements do the fellows encounter as they begin working? How do the different kinds of support and lack of support affect the fellows? induction experience? To what extent and in what ways are their pre-service experiences useful in responding to these arrangements? 2 How do the fellows use the community of support from other fellows, created through this program, to respond to opportunities and issues as they enter the profession? What features would make this community more useful to the fellows? 3 How do the fellows use the community of support from experienced teacher leaders, many of whom have developed leadership through prior RiSE Center programs, such as targeted experiential leadership academies, to respond to opportunities and issues as they enter the profession? What features would make these connections more useful to the fellows?
Related to the need and guiding questions above, we have identified several areas of particular value for providing support for our new teachers. These ‘lessons learned’ include, for example, the need for support from mentors for fellows teaching outside their subject area, the value of support in the form of a shared framework for reflection with colleagues, and the need for ongoing work with productive discourse. We have expanded and structured four key elements of our proposed program to address the needs described above: 1 Inquiry work groups within the community. These groups consist of 3-6 fellows and experienced teachers working on improving their teaching practice in very specific ways. For example, two new teachers, required to teach AP physics out of field, have formed an inquiry work group with an experienced AP physics teacher. Similarly, several new teachers seeking to improve discourse in their ninth-grade Earth sciences classrooms have paired with experienced teachers with a similar goal to develop, implement, and refine discussion prompts, reflecting on the outcomes of their work. 2 Individual mentors for all fellows. At the start of our project, all districts in Maine were required to provide individual mentors for new teachers, so we had not included this as part of our project. This requirement has been deleted at the State level, so we are now ensuring that each fellow has a mentor, someone that they connect with on a regular basis and with whom they would feel comfortable discussing issues and challenges. 3 A pool of specialized mentors. We have collected, from the experienced teachers, a listing of areas in which they feel particularly well-equipped to advise and assist new teachers, such as classroom management issues, building strong relationships with parents and community members, or developing syllabi for particular types of courses. This information is available to all fellows as part of the program?s online resources, so they may contact an experienced teacher in the program directly or work through the Program Coordinator, Elizabeth Byerssmall. Often more than one fellow is requesting a particular type of assistance, which has led to the formation of additional inquiry work groups. 4 A guiding framework for improving teaching practice. The NSF Teaching Fellowship community spent the past year learning about and piloting Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU; https://www.map.mathshell.org/trumath.php) as a shared framework to guide the inquiry work groups. Watching and discussing classroom videos through the lenses of this framework was very productive. This framework has provided a common language to use in focusing the work of our community, while keeping instructional practices and the student experience in the foreground. Inquiry work groups were also encouraged to include collection of evidence in their classrooms and reflection to support achieving their professional growth goals.
We have found, through surveys and interviews with fellows, that the formation of targeted work groups focused on elements of practice that the fellows see as important to their professional growth is highly valued. Doing important, shared work as subgroups has helped to strengthen the community as a whole, as has the adoption of a common framework to support improvement of teaching and learning in fellows? and mentors? classrooms. In early summer, we are holding a retreat, including fellows and mentors, to further define the inquiry work groups and plan community meetings for the coming year. Fellows and mentors have chosen to continue the inquiry work groups to support teaching out of field for another year, recognizing the value that these groups have to their teaching. Both within these inquiry work groups and more informally, fellows report learning from each other and from the mentors. In individual discussions with fellows, we have found that the level of mentoring and support for new teachers is highly variable in the high-need districts in which they are teaching. While about half of the fellows felt that they had one or more experienced teachers in their school that they use effectively as a mentor, most recognized the value of having someone teaching the same kinds of courses that they are teaching and/or from outside of their district. The NSF Teaching Fellowship Program has enabled us to provide this type of additional mentoring. Further, we have connected fellows to one or more specialized mentors as needed, to help them address the challenges that occur for them during the induction phase. Mentors and other fellows have provided tested strategies to help with issues of student absenteeism and improve student engagement. Community meetings provide opportunities for fellows to network informally with the pool of mentors and thus feel more comfortable in connecting with them for advice and support as needed. This two-tiered mentoring has provided a more effective safety net than either tier alone could offer. The community meetings also maintain connections for fellows with their former classmates in the Master of Science in Teaching Program, removing some of the social isolation that often occurs. Even for fellows with a strong network of mentors within their school, the community across schools and districts that this program provides is valuable. So far, as we begin Year IV of the program, all fellows that have accepted teaching positions in high-need districts from our program have been retained. The community has found that choosing a common framework for teaching and learning, in our case the TRU framework, has been particularly helpful in bringing together a shared vision for ongoing improvement in classroom practice. For the coming year, guided by classroom observations and fellow and mentor input, we have chosen to focus on productive talk (https://inquiryproject.terc.edu/shared/pd/TalkScience_Primer.pdf) as a theme across the community. This theme supports all five of the dimensions of powerful classrooms from the TRU framework: the content; cognitive demand; equitable access to content; agency, ownership, and identity; and formative assessment. As part of their work in the past year, community members identified the area of social and emotional learning (SEL) as one that has been particularly important in their classrooms. Based upon their input, we brought in experts in SEL to community meetings, which was very helpful for both the fellows and their mentors. In Maine, there is no mandated SEL curriculum; districts are initiating SEL in various ways across the state, so it was interesting for community members to share the resources and practices that are in place in their district. Based upon this experience, we are placing more emphasis on SEL in our teacher preparation program as well as in the NSF Teaching Fellowship community.
This program is helping to identify effective strategies to address the needs of new teachers in the STEM disciplines in rural Maine high-need districts. It provides insight into how to structure future ongoing supports for all new teachers as a partnership between teacher preparation programs, research centers, and school districts. Further, it suggests common needs across disciplines (STEM and non-STEM) and how they might be addressed through similar strategies. Although this program has been designed specifically to support new teachers, there is also professional growth and leadership capacity developing among the experienced teachers. Uniting the new and experienced teachers as co-designers of evidence-guided change and leaders within their communities is powerful, not just for STEM education but for strengthening of the community itself. It also links generations of leadership to interweave the wisdom of experienced teachers with the new knowledge and additional energy that the fellows bring to their teaching practice. This enhanced teacher leadership capacity can be the basis for a strong, self-governing STEM teacher consultant coalition, that will continue to support new and veteran teachers in their growth, thus providing ongoing STEM education improvement. The teachers in this program reach a population of students traditionally under-represented in STEM fields, those from economically stressed communities and potential first generation college students. Building a strong, stable teacher workforce in these communities is invaluable to the students, their schools, and their communities. Communities with strong educational systems are more attractive to new residents and employers. Thus, strengthening education in these communities has much broader, positive impacts.